[Essay] Tom Whyman and the Philosophy of Hope — Josh Mcloughlin

On the British Left today, ‘hope’ is a dirty word. Critics despair at the spinelessness of the Labour Party, some framing Keir Starmer’s leadership as a form of collaborationism with Tory rule and condemning the ascendancy (or acquiescence) of the ‘Labour Right’ as a political betrayal in the mould of Vichy France.[1] With the advance of right-wing populism across Europe, the fall-out from Brexit and Trump, the climate crisis, Boris Johnson’s mishandling of the pandemic, and the utter demolition of Jeremy Corbyn’s mildly social-democratic alternative, what possible hope is there for the Left? More to the point: what, if anything, is left of the hope itself?

In his new book, Infinitely Full of Hope: Fatherhood and the Future in an Age of Crisis and Disaster (Repeater), Tom Whyman seeks to answer the question: ‘What can I hope for?’ This is the third of three fundamental questions Immanuel Kant says unites ‘all interests of […] reason’, along with ‘What can I know?’ and ‘What ought I do?’[2] According to Whyman, Western philosophers have been overwhelmingly preoccupied with Kant’s first two questions. The mere fact that the question—or, more accurately the problem, the burden—of hope is now being confronted already tells us something about the parlous state of the contemporary world.

In fact, hope has emerged as perhaps the central topic in early twenty-first-century philosophy. Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities was originally published in 2003 in the wake of the Iraq War, and reissued a third time in 2016, the year of Trump and Brexit. ‘This is an extraordinary time full of vital, transformative movements that could not be foreseen’, says Solnit. ‘It’s also a nightmarish time. Full engagement requires the ability to perceive both.’[3] Hope and despair, the dream and the nightmare, she suggests, have never been so closely entwined as they are today.

Lauren Berlant’s Cruel Optimism (2011) reflected on our habit of holding on to dreams and desires that inevitably disappoint us in the end. This state of punishing optimism is a major obstacle to individual flourishing, says Berlant, because ‘our cruel objects don’t feel threatening, just tiring’, leading to a kind of ‘slow death’ or ‘attrition’ in which we are far too busy being ‘productive’ or pursuing a treacherous version of ‘happiness’ to really live.[4] This debased form of hope is ‘cruel’ because it acts as a malevolent carrot, forever dangling out of reach yet offering a dribble of hope, such that we carry on this non-life rather than seeking to alter it.

Revolting against optimism completely, Slavoj Žižek adopted a dark pessimism in The Courage of Hopelessness (2017), combating what he calls the ‘theoretical cowardice’ of leftist hope, a disposition blindly sustained despite the utter failure of left politics to unlock ‘the impasses of global capitalism’. For the contrarian Žižek, hope of this kind is dangerous precisely because it endlessly defers revolutionary action: like the smoker forever telling themselves that ‘one day’ they’ll give up—before dying of lung cancer. Instead, he says, ‘The lesson of twentieth-century communism is that we have to gather the strength to fully assume hopelessness’ because ‘the true courage is to admit that the light at the end of the tunnel is probably the headlight of another train approaching’.[5]

Simon Wortham, in his recent book, Hope: The Politics of Optimism (2020), attempts to ‘take us beyond the false alternatives of optimism or pessimism’ by repoliticising and recomplexifying hope. Critiquing the Žižekian ‘tendency that detects the origins of authentic emancipation only in the very darkest and most extreme circumstances’, Wortham seeks to do ‘justice to the complexly entangled resources’ hope offers to contemporary politics.[6] But in all this thinking, we have not been offered an answer to Kant’s question, which was not ‘What is hope?’ or ‘Should I hope?’ but ‘What can I hope for?’

This is where Whyman comes in, seeking to identify sources of hope in the here and now. What exactly can give us hope today? Where is hope to be found? The short answer is: hope lies in children and the generations to come. For Whyman, the issue is personal as well political: ‘This is not a work of academic philosophy’ he remarks at the outset, and ‘the ideas it discusses are transparently situated in my own, first-person perspective: that of a man in his early thirties who, at the time of writing, was facing the reality of becoming a father’. This ‘philosophical memoir’ consists of two narratives, roughly parallel: the first an account of Whyman and his partner’s attempts to conceive, a pregnancy full of questions and reflections on hope, and a birth of sheer hopeful ecstasy; the second, an unfolding of Whyman’s theory of hope, culminating intellectually and physically in the birth of his first child.

Whyman begins by pushing back against ‘ontological anti-natalists’ such as the philosopher David Benatar, for whom ‘life, or existence is bad just in-itself’. Benatar’s 2006 book, Better to Have Never Been: The Harm of Coming Into Existence, argued that having a child is inherently selfish and coming into the world results in a prolonged state of pain and suffering until death. Not existing would mean not experiencing pain, leading Benatar to his provocative, pessimistic conclusion: ‘it would have been better not to have been born’.[7] If the ontological anti-natalists such as Benatar argue that all life is a bad idea, the ‘ontic antinatalists’, Whyman explains, ‘maintain that, while life or existence is not necessarily bad in-itself, contingent facts about the world right now make it impossible to justify creating it’. A much-cited 2017 study by Seth Wynes and Kimberly Nicholas, published in the journal Environmental Research Letters, found that ‘having one fewer child’ is the greatest impact an individual can have on their climate footprint.[8] The BirthStrikers movement put that conclusion into action, announcing a collective ‘decision not to bear children due to the severity of the ecological crisis’.[9] Whyman responds with a question:

given the state of the world — given how terrible it is, and given the way things are going — how could someone not create new life? Is it really possible to look at the world as it is now and think: well, I’d be perfectly happy if three hundred thousand odd years of the human species fizzled out with this?

He questions the purported ecological reasoning, pointing out that: ‘A child cannot be understood as a token of carbon consumption’. Besides, ‘a critical mass of new children coming into the world could even help improve things’, given the need to counterbalance ‘a demographically disproportionate mass of radicalised pensioners who are quite willing to destroy the future if it means they can have their prejudices catered to in the present’. Writing with sympathy and charity about his opponents, Whyman nevertheless soundly critiques these antinatalist positions.

Whyman does not quite keep his focus strictly on the third of Kant’s questions: ‘What can I hope for?’ As he says near the beginning of the book: ‘I am interested in […] the possibility that there might be such a thing […] as “right living”’. This is a reformulation of Kant’s second question: ‘What ought I do?’—itself a version of Aristotle’s foundational ethical problem: how should I live?[10] But this does not undermine Whyman’s project because, as he demonstrates, hope is always-already bound up in being-in-the-world, whether in terms of political and social agency or in the consciousness and attitude we adopt to others and the world around us. ‘It makes most sense to talk of hope as an attitude’, says Whyman, ‘a general affect which we might adopt […] towards the world as we exist in it, as we experience it’. Here, he misses a chance to engage with affect-oriented accounts of hope such as Berlant’s, but in the end Kant’s second and third questions are rightly conflated: how we live and how we hope, existence and desire, experience and consciousness, are mutually implicated.

Key to this formulation of hope is that it is neither passive nor resigned to ‘external factors’, however optimistic that resignation may be. For Whyman, the work of Ariel Meirav, in which ‘the hopeful person is someone who has resigned their fate to a power they believe to be good’, and that of Béatrice Han-Pile, for whom hopefulness ‘becomes […] almost like grace’, resign hope to faith:

Indeed, an insistence on our powerlessness in the face of hope strikes me as a way of depoliticising it: to make hope, and what is hoped for, part of an immutable, natural order beyond any sort of intentional, human control.[11]

Whyman insists we ‘can reflect not only on but towards hope’ and ‘strive to find reasons to be hopeful in the world’, thus affirming the ‘important link between hope and activity’. A key touchstone for Whyman is Theodor Adorno, in particular the theory of happiness in Adorno’s Minima Moralia (1951):

To happiness the same applies as to truth: one does not have it, but is in it. Indeed, happiness is nothing other than being encompassed, an after-image of the original shelter within the mother. But for this reason no-one who is happy can know that he is so. To see happiness, he would have to pass out of it: to be as if already born. He who says he is happy lies, and in invoking happiness, sins against it. He alone keeps faith who says: I was happy.[12]

At first glance, Adorno seems an odd choice of thinker on which to hang a philosophy of hope. Adorno’s life was marked by tragedy and bitter disappointment and his works are famous for their despairing tone. Surveying at the devastation of the Second World War in general and the Holocaust in particular, the Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944) famously began:

Enlightenment, understood in the widest sense as the advance of thought, has always aimed at liberating human beings from fear and installing them as masters. Yet the wholly enlightened earth is radiant with triumphant calamity.[13]

‘In the widest sense’, according to Adorno and Horkheimer, modern European history is the story of thwarted hope: the possibility that ‘the wholly enlightened earth’ would ‘liberat[e] human beings from fear’ was dashed on the rocks of ‘calamity’ in the twentieth century. Having fled Nazi persecution, Adorno despaired to discover a far more insidious form of totalitarianism in capitalist America: a slick, self-policing, self-perpetuating complex of ideas as effective at oppressing radical thought and action as the brutal, top-down violence that sustained the Old World’s authoritarian regimes. Written during his exile in the mid-1940s and published in Germany in 1951, Minima Moralia is Adorno’s somewhat dispiriting assessment of the state of Aristotelian ‘good life’ in the post-war West:

What the philosophers once knew as life has become the sphere of private existence and now of mere consumption, dragged along as an appendage of the process of material production, without autonomy or substance of its own.[14]

‘The only philosophy which can be responsibly practised in the face of despair’, Adorno goes on to say, ‘is the attempt to contemplate all things as they would present themselves from the standpoint of redemption’.[15] As Whyman astutely argues, it is here that we find the kernel of hope in Adorno’s ostensibly Weltschmerz philosophy: adopting a perspective from ‘the standpoint of redemption’ allows us to radically critique the present—intellectual work that ultimately paves the way for us to change the future.

In his 2006 book Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation, Jonathan Lear tells the story of Plenty Coups (1848–1932), the last chief of the Native American Crow Nation, who lived through the annihilation of his civilization and way of life, yet continued to advocate for change, fired by ’the bare idea that something good will emerge’ in an as-yet ‘unimaginable future’. Plenty Coups becomes emblematic of Lear’s ‘radical hope’ and a model for ‘ethics at the horizon’ because he sustains hope in the face of total failure.[16] In recounting Coups’ predicament, Lear illustrates a central ‘blind spot of any culture’: ‘The inability to conceive of its own devastation’. Like Adorno, Lear examines:

hope as it might arise at one of the limits of human existence. […] What makes this hope radical is that it is directed toward a future goodness that transcends the current ability to understand what it is. Radical hope anticipates a good for which those who have the hope as yet lack the appropriate concepts with which to understand it.[17] 

However, Whyman is careful to distinguish hope from blind utopianism or irrational optimism: ‘Hope is vital as the spur to action in the world; but any action would be worse than useless unless it was also able to face up to the limits of what it might achieve’. He is keen to stress the importance of thought and philosophy within the political function of hope, and again cites the example of Adorno. The Frankfurt School philosopher was criticised by his students in 1968 for too much thinking, not enough doing, in contrast to Herbert Marcuse, who supported and attended protests and marches. Adorno insisted that it is the ‘uncompromisingly critical thinker who neither signs over his consciousness nor lets himself be terrorized into action’ and who is therefore really ‘the one who does not give in’:

Thinking is not the intellectual reproduction of what exists anyway. As long as it doesn’t break off, thinking has a secure hold on possibility. Its insatiable aspect, its aversion to being quickly and easily satisfied refuses the foolish wisdom of resignation. […] Open thinking points beyond itself. For its part a comportment, a form of praxis, it is more akin to transformative praxis than a comportment that is compliant for the sake of praxis. Prior to all that particular content, thinking is actually the force of resistance, from which it has been alienated only with great effort.[18]

As Whyman explains: ‘the hopeful person is the one who is able to think for themselves’; thus his manifesto for political hope is also a defence of the intellectual life, since it is ‘only critical thought [that] can sketch our realistic possibilities of action’. As Adorno puts it: ‘Whoever does not let [thought] atrophy has not resigned’.[19]

But the major problem here is that critical thought is itself compromised by capitalism, as Adorno says: ‘Our perspective of life has passed into an ideology which conceals the fact that there is life no longer.’[20] This is the basis of what Whyman calls Adorno’s Wrong Life Claim: ‘There is no right life in the wrong one’, otherwise translated as: ‘Wrong life cannot be lived rightly’.[21] Under consumer capitalism and its insidious forms of ideological totalitarianism, everything about society is wrong, meaning that living a good life is all but impossible. In Negative Dialectics (1966), Adorno says that: ‘The chances are that every citizen of the wrong world would find the right one unbearable’.[22] In other words, the wrongness of modern life means that even the possibility of imagining—let alone bringing aboutthe right world, is radically diminished. At first glance, this seems like the ultimate counterargument to any philosophy of hope. If everything is bad—and, as a result, if we are blind to all that is good—how can hope, in imagination or action, possibly endure? The kernel of hope in Adorno’s work, Whyman explains, lies in thought itself:

In the ‘critical theory’ which Adorno developed with Horkheimer, society is supposed to be critiqued as a whole, with a specifically emancipatory purpose—liberating humanity from the badness that exists everywhere on earth.

As Whyman admits, however, this does not quite do away the epistemological problem of the Wrong Life Claim: ‘If everything in our society is wrong […] then from what perspective can we really claim to know anything about it[?]’ As Whyman notes in an essay published in Hegel Bulletin, Adorno supplies an answer:

Consummate negativity, once squarely faced, delineates the mirror-image of its opposite. […] Perspectives must be fashioned that displace and estrange the world, reveal it to be, with its rifts and crevices, and indigent and distorted as it will appear one day in the messianic light.[23]

For Adorno, the Wrong Life must be ‘squarely faced’ if we are to glimpse ‘its opposite’. ‘Redemption’ would signify a world ‘aligned with itself’, and in Whyman’s reading that means a society that fulfils the functions it ought to, based on the right understanding of society. Of course, the invocation of ‘messianic light’ moves the debate towards Walter Benjamin. Whyman zeroes in on Franz Kafka’s famous exchange with Max Brod, which Benjamin quoted in his essay ‘Franz Kafka: On the Tenth Anniversary of His Death’ (1934):

            Kafka: ‘Our world is only a bad mood of God, a bad day of his’.
            Brod: ‘Then there is hope outside this manifestation of the world that we know[?]’
            Kafka: ‘Oh plenty of hope, an infinite amount of hope—but not for us.’[24]

Examining a diary entry from March 1922, in which Kafka ‘rejoices […] at the arrival of fresh young people imbued with confidence and ready to take up to right’, Whyman asks: ‘What if, for Kafka, hope exists not for any individual human being now living—but rather for the members of future generations, who though powerless to redeem us, […] might nevertheless be able to overturn the injustices we have been subject to, to carve out a better existence for themselves?’[25] This leads to the heart of Whyman’s natalist argument: ‘Without children, nothing can ever be different’; a childless future, like that imagined in Alfonso Cuarón’s film adaption of P.D. James’s novel The Children of Men (1992), would be ‘the bleakest dystopia of all’. But how might the natalist hope in children manifest? ‘We must teach our children to be sensitive in the first instance to their own sufferings’, says Whyman, ‘and then to those of others’. In this way, despite Kafka’s grim deferral of hope away from the present, for Whyman ‘we are not hopeless, so long as there exist other human beings, new generations to come, there is hope for us together’. The collective character of Whyman’s hope (‘we’, ‘us’) is crucial because:

Atomised society inclines us towards selfishness and short-termism, towards the cold comforts of a chortling cynicism: this is what must be transcended. Redemption is found in the fact of our children: it is through a community focused on the future, that we can take joy in existence and forge a secular path out of despair.

Whyman anticipates the pessimistic objection to this apology for natalism: ‘But our era is so bad, that we have doomed every future generation in advance’. In response, he invokes Marcuse’s notion of ‘phantasy’,  a sort of mental comportment described in Eros and Civilization (1955) as having ‘a truth value […] namely, the surmounting of the antagonistic human reality’ by enabling a vision of ‘life without repression and anxiety’; or, to frame it in Marcuse’s Freudo-Marxist schema, a rebellious form of the ‘pleasure principle’, that aims to forge a new ‘reality principle’.[26] Just as Mark Fisher called for a new kind of ‘realism’ to counter ‘capitalist realism’,[27] Marcusean phantasy, for Whyman, offer ‘an image of the world transformed’, and the hope it engenders is therefore ‘a way of seeing’ and a ‘sensibility’ which ultimately makes possible the ‘active desire for the better’. Whyman combines this with Fisher’s ‘acid communism’ which, like phantasy, can ‘dissolve […] the rusty scaffolding of all ostensibly necessary toil’ and ‘thus fight to change’ reality.[28] Benjamin famously urged ‘pessimism all along the line’ to combat the complacency and ‘moralizing dilettantism’ of bourgeois idealists on the Weimar Left—although Benjamin fused this pessimism with a firm commitment to the possibility of revolution.[29] Whyman replaces Benjamin’s pessimism with realism whilst adopting Adorno’s ‘standpoint of redemption’ to radically critique the present, situating hope firmly within the bounds of possibility without diminishing its transformative potential.

Barack Obama’s grandstanding is severely criticised by Whyman, who sees the former president’s invocation of hope as ‘a mere tool of electoralism’, a ‘rhetorical ploy’ and therefore ‘a matter solely of aesthetics’, verging on the illusory territory of the American Dream. In Obama, says Whyman:

The transformative power of hope gives way to a milquetoast centrism bland even in its nihilism. Sane planning, sensible tomorrow: bland hope for a bland future, in which all the old injustices are only mitigated, never eliminated.

The figure of Obama ‘makes a fetish of hope’, urging hope for hope’s sake, as if hoping itself were enough (or even possible) without action. Another cautionary tale is that of Jeremy Corbyn, who in 2017 ‘helped transform the political landscape—admittedly not quite enough’, by the hope he inspired in the grassroots Left. Of course, those hopes were ruthlessly dashed by a sustained character assassination by the UK press aided and abetted by Labour MPs, but the point is that hope is (or in 2017 at least, was) possible.

Benjamin’s Angel of History furnishes a crucial discussion. In Benjamin’s famous formulation, the angel’s:

face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward.[30]

For Whyman, this image offers little comfort, so he turns to another: a photograph of Lenin at his desk, reading Pravda, in which Whyman sees ‘an allegory of hope’:

Lenin is pictured doing the work of hope—which of course is also, if we believe Marcuse, the play of phantasy. In his contemplation of the newspaper, Lenin sees all events massed down below him. But he does not consider them passively: cynically, resignedly, or in despair. His gaze is fixed to the far horizon—so he sees how everything might be, in the future, instead. Sat in his office at the head of his state—positioned firmly, that is, in the material world—Lenin works to bring his transformative vision down to earth.

Lenin here is Whyman’s ‘allegory of hope’ because he is ‘focused, fervently, on the far horizon—his image of the better’ whilst ‘his eyes are simultaneously intent on the newspaper, the material world that the acid of his hope might realistically transform’. This image of Lenin might well be one of Fisher’s ‘lost futures’, an ‘expectation […] which never materialised’, given how the communist revolution in Russia rapidly mutated into dictatorial authoritarianism.[31] Whyman says that this image ‘need not have anything to do with the actual, historical Lenin’, and can instead supply a general formula for active hope: ‘eyes fixed on the ephemeral everyday, yet turned simultaneously to the future’.

Of course, one does not (perhaps should not) easily extract Lenin from history. An alternative visual expression of Whyman’s philosophy of hope, and perhaps a more appropriate counterbalance to Benjamin’s angel of history, can be found in the cover image of Infinitely Full of Hope. It depicts a crayon-like drawing of two people, an adult and a child, holding hands, their eyes wide, their lips turned up in a smile and their hands waving to the viewer. The rough crayon lines and crudely sketched hands and feet mark this out as a child’s drawing: prime fridge material. But the heavy-lidded eyes and curved, concentric oblong faces are unmistakably those of Angelus Novus (‘New Angel’), the 1920 monoprint by the German artist Paul Klee that inspired Benjamin’s concept of the Angel of History. The image adorning Infinitely Full of Hope redeems Benjamin’s tragic angel: no longer swept up helplessly in the stream of history, impotently observing ‘wreckage upon wreckage’ of ‘catastrophe’, these two angels of the future beckon us towards a better world.

However, the frustration of hope—an apparently chronic condition for the Left—cannot be ignored. ‘The question, then, for those who want to bring about a better world, is not if our hopes will be disappointed—but how we ought to respond they are’, says Whyman. Disappointment is not overcome by indulging in utopian thinking, but ‘in what might be accessible to us in the here-and-now, the not-certain but perhaps-likely chance’ of ‘some small, good-enough transformation of reality, an adjustment in our way of seeing’ that, for Whyman at least, is materialised in the birth of his child.

‘Natality is a necessary condition on hoping at all’, but ‘it is not, for all that, a sufficient condition’. The most obvious obstacle to hope, the greatest and most intractable threat to posterity in every sense, is climate change: ‘Nowadays, more than anything else, the threat of inevitably of defeat is felt through the brute, brutal fact of climate change’, especially given that ‘Everything, we are told, is worse than the old predictions of the “worst” ever said they even could be’. In 2019, Greta Thunberg famously told world leaders assembled at Davos: ‘I don’t want you to hope. I want you to panic’. She was taking aim at the complacent optimism of the liberal West, whose politicians blithely assume that technology or the market will ‘find a way’. But as Whyman says, this kind of hope is fatal. ‘Right now, in a very bad world, our hope must be tinged with the assumption of pessimism—such that we are able to take on the world as it is’. This strange admixture of hope and pessimism is needed in order to see the problem we face in its true light: ‘The realisation that the true threat to our existence is not civilizational collapse, but rather the possibility of our present civilization continuing to proceed unopposed.’ Here the battle lines are drawn between us and those ‘who benefit from the existing order of things in such disproportionate magnitude that they might realistically expect to survive a massive crisis in the provision of basic resources’.

We must harness our suffering ‘as a sort of guide’ for this nascent politics of hope, Whyman argues, ‘to discern, in the present moment, what our interest in fact are; to figure out—by analogy with our own pain—what the real interests of our descendants might be.’ Whyman calls this an ‘ethics of bodily suffering’, which he combines with another ‘strategy’ of hope: ‘applied hauntology’. Drawing on Fisher’s application of the Derridean concept to describe contemporary ‘cultural time’, Whyman urges us to recover ‘lost futures’, those could-have-beens whose spectral shadows belie how contemporary time is ‘out of joint’.[32] These ‘ethical demands, from the past or from the future (what is no longer; what is not yet) precisely call on us to change things’. The result is a form of politicised ‘imagination’ distinct from the destructive, quiescent brand of ‘formal nostalgia’ that buttresses capitalist realism by killing innovative thinking and obscuring what-could-be, resulting, as Franco Berardi put it, in ‘the slow cancellation of the future’.[33]  Hauntology for Whyman is about paying attention to the past and the future in ways that enhance ‘our ability to imagine a world better than the one we exist in at present’.

As Whyman begins to circle back to Kant’s second question (‘What ought I do?’) he offers three ‘virtues we might need to foster’ to cultivate a politically active source of hope. ‘Charity’ he prescribes ‘because we need to learn to judge the intentions of others fairly’. This is no unbounded agape but a form of critical thinking, one that attempts to see the ‘real interests’ that motivate discourses and actions in the public sphere. The second virtue Whyman offers is ‘solidarity’, for it is only as a collective that political imagination can change reality: ‘If the intellectual virtue of charity can help us give the world its due, then the moral virtue of solidarity can help us act together’. Finally, Whyman urges ‘modesty’, that is, ‘to focus more on what we actually can achieve, in the moment’:

Left-wing political parties and other organised factions, for example, might be advised to focus less on the all-or-nothing of winning elections […] and think instead about how they might help improve people’s lives on the ground […]. This, over time, might help erode the right-wing state’s power—opening the way to systematic change.

The Labour party would do well to heed Whyman’s message here. The absurd panic surrounding Corbyn’s ‘electability’, which distracted from a focus on his policies, caused the party to implode in 2019. What if Labour stopped trying to be the Low Fat Tory Party, and started trying to win back hearts and minds by actually helping people ‘on the ground’?

I would have liked to see Whyman engage with more of the scholarship around hope, optimism and the future, including Berlant, Žižek and those mentioned earlier, but also other approaches to natalism, especially from within queer theory.

As J. Halberstam has pointed out, ‘queer uses of time and space develop, at least in part, in opposition to the institutions of family, heterosexuality, and reproduction’.[34] E.L. McCallum and Mikko Tuhkanen, theorising queer temporality, critique ‘the designated schedule of reproductive heterosexuality’.[35]  For Halberstam:

queer subcultures produce alternative temporalities by allowing their participants to believe that their futures can be imagined according to logics that lie outside of those paradigmatic markers of life experience – namely birth, marriage, reproduction and death.[36]

Halberstam’s ‘paradigmatic markers’ are the punctuations along McCallum and Tuhkanen’s ‘designated schedule’, indicating proper passage from one productive phase of life to the next under capitalism, with natality key to what Elizabeth Freeman has called ‘chrononormativity’.[37] Lee Edelman has also shown how normative temporality is governed by ‘reproductive futurism’, which he posits as the ‘organising principle of communal relations’.[38] This futurism sustains ‘the absolute privilege of heteronormativity by rendering unthinkable […] the possibility of a queer resistance’.[39] For Edelman, ‘queerness names the side of those not ‘fighting for the children’, the side outside of the consensus by which all politics confirms the absolute value of reproductive futurism’.[40] These approaches, whilst not without their own problems—Edelman has been heavily critiqued by critics working both within and outside queer theory—might have afforded Whyman a wider perspective. I personally found the absence of a list of citations, bilbiography or index frustrating. But these are merely quibbles. Most readers do not linger over endnotes and, after all, Whyman makes clear that this is part-memoir, and is thus based on his own experience and family.

Whyman’s conclusion is that ‘we need to overcome the sort of atomised individualism which has become the norm across western society’. In this way, he forces us to rethink the very terms of Kant’s third question: ask not ‘What can I’ but ‘What can we hope for?’ Alone, I cannot hope for much, but together ‘we, can hope for almost anything at all’:

When faced with great adversity, we can always respond in one of two ways: the hopeful, helpful acknowledgement of our collective dependance, and the possibility of the collective good; or the paranoid Hobbesianism of indefinitely competing social atoms […]

Despite everything the world remains full of hope, infinitely so — just maybe not for us. It is in those who might someday be strong enough to exist within it that our hope—for now—resides.

Karl Marx, in a letter to Arnold Ruge written in September 1843, remarked: ‘You will hardly suggest that my opinion of the present is too exalted and if I do not despair about it this is only because its desperate position fills me with hope’. Marx saw hope in ‘the system of industry and commerce, of property and the exploitation of man’ because he assumed this would ‘lead much faster than the increase in the population to a rupture within existing society which the old system cannot heal.’ He goes on to tell the despairing Ruge that ‘The existence of suffering human beings, who think, and thinking human beings, who are oppressed must inevitably become unpalatable and indigestible’, and would therefore hasten systemic change. Of course, Marx did not foresee capitalism’s capacity to sustain these antagonisms and to redirect its inner conflicts and social energies away from revolution and towards quiescence and quietism – as Adorno’s work elaborates. Whyman retains Marx’s insistence that we must face up to our sufferings in the present through ‘the ruthless criticism of the existing order’ and a ‘reform of consciousness’ but goes beyond Marx by placing his hope in ‘the increase in the population’ and in future generations to bring about ‘a rupture which the old system is not able to heal’.[41]


Josh Mcloughlin is a writer from Merseyside, UK. He is the editor-in-chief of New Critique, a Wolfson Scholar in the Humanities at University College London, and he was shortlisted for the Jane Martin Poetry Prize (2019) and the International Awards for Art Criticism (2020). His work is published in The TimesThe Spectator, The London MagazineThe FenceReview 31, and elsewhere.

Image credit: Repeater.

[1] Paul Mason, ‘Labour isn’t working – how Keir Starmer is allowing the Tories to get away with failure’, New Statesman, 3 February 2021 <https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/uk/2021/02/labour-isn-t-working-how-keir-starmer-allowing-tories-get-away-failure> [accessed 26 March 2021]; Tom William, ‘A Plea to Wavering Comrades: Beware the Labour Right’, New Socialist, February 26 2021<http://newsocialist.org.uk/plea-wavering-comrades-beware-labour-right/> [accessed Friday 26 March 2021]

[2] Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Pure Reason, ed. and trans. Paul Guyer and Allen W. Wood (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 677, A805/B833

[3] Rebecca Solnit, ‘Foreword to the Third Edition’, Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities (Edinburgh: Canongate, 2016).

[4] Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011), 31, 38.

[5] Slavoj Žižek, The Courage of Hopelessness: Chronicles of a Year of Acting Dangerously (London: Allen Lane, 2017), xxi, xi, 4. Žižek takes his title from an interview in 2014 in which Giogrio Agambem reflected that ‘Thought, for me’ is […] ‘the courage of hopelessness. And is that not the height of optimism?’ See: Jordan Skinner, ‘Thought is the courage of hopelessness: an interview with philosopher Giorgio Agamben’, Verso Blog, 17 June 2014 <https://www.versobooks.com/blogs/1612-thought-is-the-courage-of-hopelessness-an-interview-with-philosopher-giorgio-agamben> [accessed 26 March 2020]

[6] Simon Wortham, Hope: The Politics of Optimism (London: Bloomsbury, 2020), 1–12.

[7] David Benatar, Better to Have Never Been: The Harm of Coming Into Existence (Oxford: Clarendon, 2008), 1, 3.

[8] Seth Wynes and Kimberly Nicholas, ‘The climate mitigation gap: education and government recommendations miss the most effective individual actions, Environmental Research Letters, 12 (2017), 1–9, 2.

[9] Elle Hunt, ‘BirthStrikers: meet the women who refuse to have children until climate change ends’, Guardian, 12 March 2019 <https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2019/mar/12/birthstrikers-meet-the-women-who-refuse-to-have-children-until-climate-change-ends> [accessed 26 March 2021]

[10] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, trans. H. Rackham, Loeb Classical Library 73 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1926), 1.5–6.

[11] Ariel Meirav, ‘The Nature of Hope’, Ratio, New series, 12:2 (2009), 216–233; Béatrice Han-Pile, ‘Hope, Powerlessness, and Agency’, Midwest Studies in Philosophy, 41 (2017), 175–201

[12] Theodor W. Adorno, Minima Moralia: Reflections on a Damaged Life, trans. Edmund Jephcott (London: Verso, 2005), 112, emphasis added for clarity.

[13] Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, ed. Gunzelin Schmid Noerr, trans. Edmund Jephcott (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002), 1.

[14] Adorno, Minima Moralia, 15.

[15] Adorno, Minima Moralia, 247

[16] Jonathan Lear, Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006), 94, 100, 68.

[17] Lear, Radical Hope, 83, 103

[18] Theodor W. Adorno, ‘Resignation’, Critical Models: Interventions and Catchwords, trans. H.W. Pickford (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), 289–293.

[19] Adorno, ‘Resignation’, 293.

[20] Adorno, Minima Moralia, 15.

[21] Adorno, Minima Moralia, 39.

[22] Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectic, trans. E.B. Ashton (London: Continuum, 1973),352.

[23] Tom Whyman, ‘Adorno’s Wrong Life Claim and the Concept of Despair’, Hegel Bulletin, 40:2 (2019), 237–256; Adorno, Minima Moralia, 247.

[24] Walter Benjamin, ‘Franz Kafka: On the Tenth Anniversary of His Death’, Illuminations, trans. Harry Zorn, ed. Hannah Arendt (London: Bodley Head, 2015), 108–135, 113.

[25] Franz Kafka, ‘13 March 1922’, The Diaries of Franz Kafka, ed. Max Brod, trans. Martin Greenberg with Hannah Arendt (London: Martin Secker & Warburg, 1949), 211.

[26] Herbert Marcuse, Eros and Civilization: A Philosophical Inquiry into Freud (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1966), 143, ix

[27] Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? (London: Zero Books, 2009), passim.

[28] Mark Fisher, ‘Acid Communism: Unfinished Introduction’ in, k-punk: The Collected and Unpublished Writings of Mark Fisher (2004-2016), ed. Darren Ambrose (London: Repeater, 2018).

[29] Walter Benjamin, ‘“Surrealism: The Last Snapshot of the European Intelligentsia”’, trans. Edmond Jephcott, New Left Review 108 (1978), 47–56, 55.

[30] Walter Benjamin, ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History: IX’, Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, trans. Harry Zohn, ed. Hannah Arendt (New York: Schocken Books, 2007), 253–264, 257–258.

[31] Mark Fisher, Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures (London: Zero Books, 2014), 41.

[32] Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx: The State of Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International, trans. Peggy Kamuf (New York: Routledge, 2006), 10.

[33] Fisher, Ghost of My Life, 8; Franco Berardi, After the Future, eds. Gary Genosko and Nicholas Thoburn(California, AK Press, 2011), 18–19.

[34] Judith Halberstam, In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives (New York: NYU Press, 2005), p.1

[35] E.L. McCallum and Mikko Tuhkanen, ‘Becoming Unbecoming: Untimely Meditations’, in E.L. McCallum and Mikko Tuhkanen (ed.) Queer Times, Queer Becomings (New York: State University of New York Press, 2011), pp.1-25, p.5

[36] Halberstam, In a Queer Time and Place, p.2

[37] Elizabeth Freeman, Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010), passim.

[38] Lee Edelman, No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004), p.2

[39] Edelman, No Future, p.2

[40] Edelman, No Future, p.3

[41] Karl Marx, ‘Letter to Arnold Ruge at Kreuznach, September 1843’, Karl Marx: Early Writings, trans. Rodney Livingstone and Gregor Benton (London: Penguin in association with New Left Review, 1992), 206–209.