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  • Hope, Fear, and the Politics of Affective Agency
  • Susan McManus (bio)

And then spoke Joy most grievously'Abandon hope and follow me'Responded Grief so joyfully'Abandon hope and follow me'.

Alasdair Roberts, The Flyting of Grief and Joy (Eternal Return).

1. Abandon Hope?

The problematic of political and ethical resistance, of technologies and modes of transformative political agency, is vital to the terrain of radical politics and critical political theory.1 This is, to say the least, a vexed, stymied and troubled endeavor, to which, nevertheless, the cultivation of various modes of affirmative affect - what I will call, as shorthand, the 'hope-project' - has been central.2 Activists and scholars alike gesture to a difficult alchemy at the heart of the hope-project: the endeavor to cultivate or 'courage,' (Badiou, 2008: 73) transformative agency (another world is possible!) from the encounter with the dark horizons of contemporary political experience. As Lisa Duggan recognizes, 'most calls to progressive left organizing stress the importance of finding and sustaining hope,' (Duggan and Muñoz, 2009: 275). While the principle of hope, to echo Ernst Bloch's magnum opus, is something more complicated than Mary Zournazi's description (hope is a 'basic human condition that involves belief and trust in the world,' (2002: 12)), as an exemplary, utopian mode of affirmative affect, hope has nourished oppositional consciousness and political praxis. Against hope's heteroclite keynotes, both low and negative affect are deemed apolitical or reactive: 'dispassion stands in for ... a whole cluster of defensive emotions ... easily misrecognized as apathy but running the whole gamut in registers of political depression ...: hopelessness, helplessness, dread, anxiety, stress, worry, lack of interest, and so on...' (Berlant, 2005: 8; cf. Ngai, 2005). As a more-or-less affirmative, anticipatory orientation toward the future, hope has been conceptualized as that which counters a range of dispositions, including averse anticipatory orientations (such as anxiety and fear) and pathological orientations of despair (hopelessness) that cede or relinquish the horizon of the future.

Contemporary politics, however, is shaped by the amplification of fearful affects, and the multiplication of sites at which fearful agential orientations and futures are produced. The political landscape is scarred by the cultivation, intensification, mobilization and calibration of fear, in response to risks and threats from the economic and ecological, to the amorphous and relentlessly virological, to the persistent and ever more insidious 'security' measures core to the strange war of terror/counterterror, measures that tend toward the erasure of spaces without or beyond fear. This is not to say the demands of hope are wholly silenced or defeated: witness, for instance, the calls for 'A New Hope' by Compass: Direction for a Democratic Left in the UK, or Barack Obama's appeals to 'audacious' and 'unyielding' hope in the US. Such appeals nevertheless appear as something of an ignes fatui, a potentially chimerical, certainly anomalous keynote.3 As the 'currency' (Brown, 2005: 10) of global politics, fear is virtual, porous, contagious, excessive, outstripping its ostensible causes to shape the 'tone' of the age (Ngai, 2005:76).

While the affective allure of the likes of Obama suggested that the tone of the age was not wholly disinclined to a countervailing politics of hope, affective formations of fear, more readily elicited and exploited, continue to predominate in contemporary politics.4 What, then, does this imply for the political and agential possibilities of hope's disruptive forward glance? Is fear, as Corey Robin (2004) has argued, a fundamentally anti-political passion or affect, and should critical theorists seek to counterpoise a politics of hope against the pervasiveness of fear? Is hope, as Negri has proposed, 'something like a methodological principle, an antidote to the fear that surrounds us,' (Brown et al, 2002: 200, my emphasis)? In this essay, I argue that an oppositional understanding of the politics of fear and hope is misconstrued and unhelpful, especially in the present moment. In a fearful and skeptical age, hope (and the hope-project) cannot be unequivocally privileged. On the other hand, it is not enough to reject fear, for while fearful affects are complicitous in a politics of security, securitization and hegemony, the circulation of fears must be mined and harnessed for critical...

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