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Between Hope and Cynicism: A Dogged Call to Action

From: ESC: English Studies in Canada
Volume 38, Issue 2, June 2012
pp. 17-20 | 10.1353/esc.2012.0028

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

“Quiet dog bites hard.”

Mos Def

In the spring of 2010, I used an esc Readers’ Forum to publicly come out as a hopeful precariat.

Noam Chomsky has described the precariat as one of “those people who live a precarious existence at the periphery of society,” although he is quick to point out that the periphery is a myth. Many of us are members of the precariat. We are the necessary abject: needed to provide a powerful state that will “bail out the plutonomy when it gets into trouble, but other than that [the members of the precariat] have no function” (np). Here in the academy this means, among other things, that courses are increasingly taught by sessional workers and tenure-track jobs are being replaced by limited term appointments. My 2010 paper, was, among other things, about hope: how it is important, how it is naïve, how it is necessary. Now, though, I’m not so sure.

Recently, I saw a mural by contemporary Australian artist Brad Buckley. The piece is from Buckley’s larger Slaughterhouse Project, which curator Brett Levine describes as a suite of works “which calls into question the roles and responsibilities of cultures to consider and address diverse concerns” (np). The piece was comprised of the word “hope” hovering over a group of human silhouettes. Never mind that Levine is talking about contemporary art and I am talking about the academic institution: hope gets harnessed in service of something. “Doing something,” in Sara Ahmed’s estimation, is as an impossible demand often framed as a question (“What can I do?”). Impossible, but imperative. We need to ask impossible questions, she claims, because impossible questions are future-oriented ones (183). “The future is both a question mark and a mark of questioning,” writes Ahmed. “The question of the future is an affective one; it is a question of hope for what we might yet be, as well as fear for what we could become” (184). Indeed, this forum considering cynicism as one of the affective by-products of contemporary academic work is itself a call to do something. But what can we do? What can I do? In 2010 my answer would have been cautiously hopeful.

As a member of the growing precariat I am no stranger to hope as a politically affective tool. Hope is what propels me forward into each graduate and undergraduate supervision I take on, each late night or weekend I spend working on my own research rather than whatever else it is that people do when they are not teaching or prepping or marking. I tell myself that it is hope that fuels the conference papers I submit, the service work I do that is beyond the job description in my contract, and the innumerable hours of emotional labour I (mostly) happily take on because I believe in the profession and, more so, I believe there will be a place for me in it. I hope, in other words, that the work I do is visible not just in the lines of my cv, but in its gaps as well. Hope is what sustains me through each blog post I write for Hook & Eye: Fast Feminism, Slow Academe. Hope plugs its fingers in my ears when I am sitting in a Council of Chairs meeting as the Program Director for Canadian Studies and hear that my institution is in an unofficial hiring freeze until 2015. Hope tells me not to worry. I have been compelled in my academic and public work by the outward-reaching characteristics of hope, what Ernst Bloch describes as a broadening out of the self (3). As I turned to Buckley’s large-scale mural last fall, these senses of hope turned with me.

But guess what? Buckley’s mural has a subtitle. “hope” I read, “is still a four-letter word.” Cynicism, by contrast, is not a four-letter word, but it, too, is about the future. For the classical Cynics theirs was a path to “the life worth living”; walking that path meant embodying rather than extolling ethics. They were doers, the Cynics. They practised askesis—a root of asceticism—that prepared them...

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