This year, Hans-Joachim Roedelius had decided to dedicate the 16th edition of his festival More Ohr Less to the concept of hope (Hoffnung). The following are my reflections inspired by this theme, that Achim allowed me to share with the public at the opening of the festival. A longer version was available on location in pocket-size for festival-goers.
the 28th of July 2019 Austria
Hope as feeling has always existed. Hope for a good harvest or for recovery, hope for love or for freedom. Nowadays, it’s the hope of passing an exam or getting a job. We notice that the idea of hope immediately implies that of good and evil. To hope means to judge. It’s all about moving away from evil and getting closer to a good. Nowadays, we’re accustomed to very different, much more ambitious hopes: the abolition of war, hunger, misery, or oppression. What expectations! They haven’t always been there. They arose within a particular frame of thought. To make them merely conceivable, it was first necessary to move from a cyclical to a linear conception of time. That is, from a conception where all that matters is to survive the next day, and where hope will necessarily be limited to this horizon, to a conception when it’s precisely possible to hope for more, up to the abolition of evil itself.
Cyclical conceptions, like that of the myth of the eternal return, are the oldest. The idea of a cycle is part of the immediate human experience: cycle of day and night, cycle of seasons and harvests, cycle of life, birth, and death. However, the notion of eternal return isn’t a kind of fatalism that discourages action. For the same human experience also teaches that action causes a reaction. We must sow to harvest, we must eat to survive. Therefore, the cycle is no hindrance to action; it is the standard of action. What is consistent with the cycle is right, what isn’t, is wrong. The cycle is the source of morality itself. Certain things have to be done in a certain way in order to make sure that after the night comes back the day, that after winter comes spring. Conversely, any natural disaster will logically be perceived as the consequence of a bad action. To guarantee the stability of the cycle, that’s the purpose of taboos. To punish troublemakers, that’s the function of rites, which are always rites of purification. We recognize here the figure of the scapegoat. The types of hope we just reviewed are very much in line with this conception. But the contemporary idea of hope, not only as a feeling, but as a whole orientation of the world, requires to move away from rites and to overcome the myth of the eternal return. It involves a demystification.
However, when, in the 17th century, Galileo declares that the universe is a “book written in mathematical language”, he makes the distinction between the sublunary and the supralunary spheres obsolete. Stars are not that perfect and earthly things are not that chaotic. Mathematical laws can universally explain both. Under these conditions, claiming to find in heaven, or in nature, any rule of ethics, becomes pointless. The good cosmos becomes the neutral universe we’re used to. But then, what becomes of morality? Since good is no longer a given, it can only be built. “What will become moral is no longer to find one’s place in the world as it is, but to embark on the infinite task of transforming it – nature, society – in order to introduce in it the good which it is a priori lacking” (Olivier Rey). “For the moderns, fighting nature is fighting evil and spreading good” (Rémi Brague). At this point, we recognize the seeds of a very familiar idea: the idea of progress. Not the usual notion of improvement – the progress of a technique, the progress of a student – but the brand new notion of an unlimited, necessary and irreversible movement towards good.
|Lunz am See|
In the idea of progress, the good is no longer a beginning, but a destination. The good is no longer a norm of behaviour, but a program: “the relief of man’s estate”, according to Francis Bacon’s famous saying. Marx doesn’t say anything else: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.” Hope then changes orientation. Although still linear, it’s no longer directed towards the other world, but embedded in this world; no longer put in salvation, but in the future. Strictly speaking, it’s not really hope anymore. Rather optimism, An optimism that depends on action. Blamed for its passivity, hope loses its status of virtue in favor of action. Better act than rely on hope. Contrary to hope, optimism is based on notions of calculation and predictability. Yet progressivism is more than mere optimism. It is a dogmatic optimism; the certainty that things will necessarily turn out well.
The experience of totalitarianism and world wars in the 20th century made the belief in progress untenable. Since then, the notion that technical progress would lead mechanically to moral progress has been constantly disproved. Today we know that progress enslaves as much as it emancipates. We owe Theodor Adorno the most lapidary formulation of this ambiguity of progress, which leads “from the slingshot to the atom bomb”.
Even our ecological concerns don’t escape the logic of progressive nihilism. Really? Preserving nature in order to preserve its resources, isn’t it on the contrary a conservative concern? Not really. Thinking of nature as a resource to preserve is still thinking of it as a resource, that is to say, in the very terms that have led to its exploitation. We are still progressive. That’s why we don’t really want to protect nature, but to “save the planet”. That’s the principle of sustainable development. Development must go on, but at a lower cost, in line with the logic of profit. To do this, we rely on ever more new expedients, ever more new technologies. As if the best way to lower human activity was more human activity.
|MOL Brainstorming Orchester|
True hope is part of a thinking of meaning, which consists in giving a meaning, instead of a solution, to the problem of evil. For evil will never be abolished. It is inherent in the tragedy of life, and therefore irremediable. This is true in nature as in human affairs. For example, the dynamics of life itself, which allows evolution, also allows cancer. And many of the technologies we love, starting with the Internet, were first and foremost military innovations. The moral effects of our actions, good or bad, can’t be predicted scientifically. They reveal themselves. Hope has nothing to do with the belief that things will turn out well provided we remove such social cause, develop such technology, eradicate such enemy of humanity. Hope is you. It is you, who will ensure that even in the most atrocious conditions, life will always be worth living.
|Hans-Joachim Roedelius, Tim Story|