BY LORRAINE YORK
As I write this, Hamilton queer activists are organizing a day of action to protest the arrest of colleagues who were defending themselves against an alt-right assault at 2019 Hamilton Pride. A bit further up the lake, the city of Toronto has been facing an onslaught of draconian cuts to public health and child care by Doug Ford’s provincial government; resistance has won merely a temporary retraction of this year’s cuts, but in 2020 the full range of cuts will go into effect. Not to mention the strike at the very heart of municipal governance in that city in 2018: the cutting back of the ward system in Toronto, from 44 to 25, which means that each councilor will serve the needs of an average of 105,000 people, rather than the 57,000 they were on track to serve after the 2019 election. Comparisons with other cities are instructive here: Chicago, a city of a similar size, serves 54,000 people per alderperson. When Doug Ford imposed this move, with virtually no consultation with the city, he misleadingly cited the figures for Los Angeles: roughly 266,000 constituents per councilor. Misleading because there are a number of communities within Los Angeles like Santa Monica and Beverly Hills that have their own municipal bodies and councillors. It may not be a statistician’s technical term, but I call that cooking the books. As we zoom out, from the local and municipal to the international, we see the anti-immigration, racist, pro-life, regime of President Donald Trump to the south, the increasingly dictatorial rule of Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, and the cruelly anti-immigration government of Matteo Salvini in Italy.
That opening paragraph is a dispiriting one to write, I expect it is an equally dispiriting one to read, and it reproduces the tone of many an editorial in progressive media outlets. In response to such crushing moves to the right, and the resurgence of right-wing populism, many progressives are left wondering what forms resistance might take. In many such circles, at events, planning sessions, in worried media commentary, and news interviews, the form that question often takes is “Is there hope?” As a scholar who has turned her attention, of late, to public affect, and the way in which public performances of feeling are caught up in the exercise of power, this call to hope intrigues and troubles me.
My scholarly work has to do with celebrity. And while the subject of celebrity sounds like the most fly-by-night, superficial subject on the planet, I vigorously maintain that, in fact, the opposite is true. Celebrity is nothing more or less than the public performance of selves, and what could be more important than that? The way in which we perform selves, and react to and consume others’ performances of self, tells us a great deal about what we, as various publics, value and what we censure. Recently, I wrote a book called Reluctant Celebrity, whose premise is that the public performance of the feeling we call reluctance—a curious, facing-two-ways kind of feeling, wherein we may not want to do what we’re doing, while we nevertheless do that thing—has everything to do with the amount of privilege we own. So, for instance, I found that white, straight, male celebrities are widely praised for performing a reluctant response to their celebrity: the “aw-gosh-gee, I don’t really wanna be famous” line of self-presentation. And, it follows, that women, non-binary, and trans subjects who do not perform this reluctance are frequently accused of the inverse condition: an unseemly hunger for fame. The book I’m writing now, called Unseemly, traces the history of this accusation back to at least the seventeenth century.
So I am used to thinking about how affect figures on the public stage. And when I hear repeated invocations of hope, incitements to hope, questions to public figures about whether they harbor hope, I’m all ears, analytically speaking. But here’s where my previous thinking about public affect plays a part: does hope, like reluctance, come attached to privilege or its lack?
Let’s rewind a couple of years back to another local moment of political confrontation, this time on the arts scene. At the 2018 Grit Lit festival in Hamilton, the writers Alicia Elliott and Carriann Leung participated in a panel moderated by Jael Richardson, the founder of the Festival of Literary Diversity, entitled “CanLit REALLY is a Raging Dumpster Fire.” The reference here is to Elliott’s influential essay “CanLit is a Raging Dumpster Fire” that dealt with high-profile scandals of representation and power in the Canadian literary field: the UBC Accountable letter written by a number of high-profile Canadian literary people defending UBC creative writing chair Steven Galloway against charges of sexual harassment without considering the validity of the women complainants’ stories; the Joseph Boyden appropriation scandal, and the Hal Niedzviecki “Appropriation Prize” preface to the Writers Union of Canada’s Write magazine’s special issue on emerging Indigenous writers that supported the idea of cultural appropriation. In her essay, Elliott persuasively argued that these were not so much crisis points as signs of an everyday, routinized field of disparity and discrimination for writers of colour. The panel also grew out of a controversy about a lack of diversity, in that GritLit had initially planned a panel on the subject, using the term dumpster fire, that featured two white writers. When Elliott and others protested, the festival took action, and reorganized the panel. But what concerns me at present about this moment is what happened at this reorganized panel. After the panel presentations, a white woman in the audience stood up and asked the panelists whether they didn’t after all, have “hope” for Canada. She took a (long) ten minutes to voice this demand. Twitter erupted, and rightly so. As Elliott wrote about the incident: “an older white woman stood up and proceeded to tell us that we were wrong to not have optimism in the future of CanLit. …An Indigenous woman, a Black woman and a Chinese woman were sitting there in front of an entire room of people being told by a white woman that our opinions on the industry we work in were wrong and that Canada and CanLit were not racist—and no one did anything” (http://open-book.ca/Columnists/On-Literary-Festivals-and-Crossed-Boundaries).
This is a classic instance of white privilege, encased in brittle white fragility, reasserting itself by weaponizing a seemingly neutral, aspirational affect: hope. I began to collect instances, stories, of or about privileged subjects demanding that subjects from equity-seeking communities “find hope” in the status quo. Lee Maracle (Sto:lo), in her brilliant book My Conversations with Canadians, offers a reading of non-Indigenous questioners at her talks and readings who want to be reassured that she has retained Indigenous identity in spite of colonialism, and I think her rationale may also apply to the persistent question of hope: “This question of identity is incredibly important to those who ask me. Some of them seem desperate to know that I have somehow hung on to my identity and get some pride from it. It is as if Canadians want to know that the oppression and domination aimed at us by Canada has not affected me much” (22). When privileged white people ask Indigenous people and people of colour who are asserting their experience and knowledge of structural discrimination and racism whether they feel “hope,” they are, in essence, doing the same thing: asking to be reassured that the harms done are “not that bad.” When speakers refuse to offer that comfort, they become akin to what the feminist theorist Sara Ahmed calls “feminist killjoys”: those who interrupt the comfort of the status quo by pointing out that it rests upon systemic discrimination and exclusions. The feminist killjoy becomes the bearer of bad news (which is, after all, never “new”) and bears the burden of being seen to bring bad affect to the party. Let’s call those who perform a similar emotional labour in relation to hope the killhopes.
For contemporary North Americans, the concept of “hope” resonates with recent history: with the successful 2008 presidential election campaign of Barack Obama in the United States, crystallized in his campaign-statement book The Audacity of Hope and, more memorably, in the iconic Hope poster designed by Shephard Fairey (a collage version of which now resides in the Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery). And while that message was a powerful one for many equity-seeking groups, it was also arguably comforting for privileged groups like white Americans for whom “hope” signified a non-threatening social amelioration. Obama’s “hope” worked to mitigate, for white progressives, American culture’s fear of “angry” black men. For many white North Americans, hope stuck, affectively speaking, to minoritized groups. As a result, privileged subjects seem to think that hope can be leveraged to calm, quiet, and otherwise blunt or delegitimize equity-seeking subjects’ calls for structural change. Like at that panel at GritLit in 2018.
What do we do with this widely-loved and championed “hope”? In my reading, and in my thinking about this question, I see 3 possibilities at least, the 3 R’s, if you will, of declining to push hope upon those who seek justice.
1. Reconfiguring Hope
In her writing, the feminist theorist Sara Ahmed has, in effect, argued for a reconceptualized hope: one that runs towards, rather than away from, productive, change-making trouble. In her brilliant book Living a Feminist Life, she reconnects hope to difficulty:
Where there is hope, there is difficulty. Feminist histories are histories of the difficulty of that we, a history of those who have had to fight to be part of a feminist collective, or even had to fight against a feminist collective in order to take up a feminist cause. Hope is not at the expense of struggle; hope gives us a sense that there is a point to working things through. Hope does not only or always point toward the future, but carries us through when the terrain is difficult, when the path we follow makes it harder to proceed. Hope is behind us when we have to work for something to be possible. (2)
2. Refusing Hope
The prominent American feminist critical race theorist Roxane Gay, author of the blockbuster memoir Hunger, recently penned a New York Times column “The Case Against Hope.” In it, she recalls a commencement address that she recently gave to new college graduates, in which she asked them how hope relates to the question that is often posed amidst ongoing attacks upon equity, justice, and autonomy that disproportionately affect people of colour, women, and the working class: “What now?” Like Lee Maracle, she noted that she’s often asked, in public settings, whether she has hope, and like Maracle, she feels the pressure to assure others that things aren’t that bad:
Because I write about difficult subjects — gender, sexual violence, sexuality, race — people wondering “Now what?” often ask me about hope. They want me to offer assurances that though we are facing many challenges, everything will be O.K., the world will keep on turning. It is very seductive, this hope people yearn for.
But Gay asks us to refuse hope and its blandishments, and to focus, instead, upon “possibility”:
When we hope, we have no control over what may come to pass. We put all our trust and energy into the whims of fate. We abdicate responsibility. We allow ourselves to be complacent. We are all just people living our lives as best we can, aren’t we? It is easy to feel helpless. It is much harder to make ourselves uncomfortable by imagining the impossible to be possible. But we can do that.
Like Ahmed, Gay proposes running towards rather than away from difficulty, but for her, that means abandoning rather than reconceptualizing hope. Citing the way in which the commencement announcement by billionaire Robert F. Smith that he would pay the student debt of all of Morehouse College’s graduates this year was framed as a gesture of hope, Gay reflected that it is a sad situation when graduates need to “hope” that a random billionaire will rescue them from a precarity that has become the status quo.
3. Reluctantly Harbouring Hope
Both Ahmed and Gay consider the viability of the concept of hope for justice-seeking constituencies. My own concern with hope has to do with its being wielded by people who are not in a situation of precarity, who use “hope” as a liberal club with which to beat down and shame historically discriminated-against people who seek justice. In this situation, I suggest a type of hope that returns us to my old obsession, reluctance. Like reluctance, might hope among privileged folks become a mixed state, in which what we’re feeling may not align with what we’re saying or what we’re doing? Could privileged subjects harbor a hope within themselves for social change but not enforce that hope upon others? I’ve described reluctance as the playground of the privileged, but there may be forms of reluctance that can also serve to sideline and decentre privilege. Privileged subjects need to become truly reluctant when it comes to handing out hope like a prescription. Desire hope, think about it, but when it comes to action, decline explicit calls for hope and opt for justice-seeking instead. And do not, please, ever respond to calls for systemic change, even or particularly those that may make you personally uncomfortable, with a demand that the people doing the calling find “hope” and deliver it at your feet. Trust that, for justice-seeking people, as Ahmed says, “Hope is behind us when we have to work for something to be possible”—for that “possibility” that Gay so prefers to foreground—but they don’t need to produce hope just to make you feel better. When it comes to hope, if you are holding reserves of privilege, keep that shit inside.
Lorraine York is Distinguished University Professor and Senator William McMaster Chair in Canadian Literature and Culture in the Department of English and Cultural Studies at McMaster University. She is the author of Literary Celebrity in Canada (University of Toronto Press 2007), Margaret Atwood and the Labour of Literary Celebrity (University of Toronto 2013), and Celebrity Cultures in Canada, co-edited with Katja Lee (Wilfrid Laurier University Press 2016). Her most recent book, Reluctant Celebrity, which examines public displays of celebrity reluctance as forms of privilege intertwined with race, gender, and sexuality, appeared with Palgrave Macmillan in 2018. She has wanted for some time to write a book entitled Unseemly, and that’s what she’s doing now.