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AfternessFigures of Following in Modern Thought and Aesthetics$

Gerhard Richter

Print publication date: 2011

Print ISBN-13: 9780231157704

Published to Columbia Scholarship Online: November 2015

DOI: 10.7312/columbia/9780231157704.001.0001

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Afterness and Experience (I)

Afterness and Experience (I)

Can Hope Be Disappointed?

(p.154) 8 Afterness and Experience (I)

Gerhard Richter

Columbia University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter explores the relation between afterness and the experience of hope, with particular emphasis on the experiential category of hope that animates Ernst Bloch’s oeuvre. Hope, even when it breaks with the past in the name of a new time to come, remains intimately tied to those patterns of experience that it wishes to overcome and against which it hopes to institute itself. In other words, hope, even when it is experienced as a birth, is always the experience of an anticipated afterness. As a form of afterness, hope is also the hope for hope itself, the hope that in the afterness of that which is, hope still can be hoped for. This chapter considers the extent to which post-Enlightenment artists and scholars are still permitted to harbor, in their works and texts, hope for a future that is yet to come and therefore not foreclosed by dominant discourses of power. It also locates hope in its disappointability, what Bloch calls an inescapable but deeply productive Enttäuschbarkeit.

Keywords:   hope, Ernst Bloch, experience, afterness, disappointability, Enttäuschbarkeit

In a recent conversation about the problem of hope, the American philosopher Alphonso Lingis suggests that “hope is hope against the evidence. Hope arises in a break with the past. There is a kind of cut and the past is let go of.”1 To the extent that hope always runs counter to evidence, something merely other than what would be expected based on past experience and probability, one may speak of “a discontinuity in time,” so that “there is a break, and something starts out of nowhere.”2 The examples given include the hope that the desired other will fall in love with me (though there is no “adequate evidence for that”) and the hope of overcoming a “disastrous illness.” For Lingis, therefore, “hope is a kind of birth … it does not come out of what went before, it comes out tn spite of what went before,” so that “every time hope begins again, however late in life, it is a very childlike moment; it is like being born.”3 Stressing the departure from what is and from what was that every moment of hope performs, this model envisions hope as an interruption of time in which time can start anew, is born or invented, differently, one more time, perhaps not unlike the way in which revolutionaries shot at (p.155) public clocks in Paris during the French Revolution to indicate that in this new moment of historical and personal hope, conventional time had to be suspended and a new time, even a new calendar, instituted.

Yet, one might add that hope, even when it breaks with the past in the name of a new time to come, also remains intimately tied to those patterns of experience that it wishes to overcome and against which it hopes to institute itself. This is to say that hope, even when it is experienced as a birth, is always the experience of an anticipated afterness. Not content with affirming what is, hope, in its contrary-to-factness, points to what cannot be reduced to presence, whether this presence is thought in empirical or in theoretical terms, and thus works to come after that which was—that is, even though it comes after, it comes after something, which is to say that its afterness still is measured in relation to that with which it has parted. Even the remarkable phrase from Nietzsche’s The Will to Power that Lingis quotes (“in impossible times when one does not know how old one is or how young one is yet to be”) to illustrate the idea that “hope is to hope that things can be born in your life” also carries with it the idea of an afterness that is both a beginning and a perpetuation.4 If Nietzsche emphasizes the seemingly paradoxical possibility that one’s youth may still be to come, even late in life, he holds open the possibility of a transformation into something new and young while at the same time considering the ways in which such a belated youth must always be inscribed in the afterness of a life already lived, a lived life that in fact makes the possible experience of one’s possibly belated youth thinkable in the first place. The hope that unfolds here is one of a doubly discontinuous time; it breaks with the past and must return to that past over and over again in order to come to terms with its departure (actual or envisioned) from it. The afterness of hope is neither a programmatic futurity nor exclusively the redemptive localization of a “hope in the past,” a Hoffnung im Vergangenen, to evoke a suggestive phrase that literary critic Peter Szondi once employed with regard to Benjamin.5 Rather, hope is the name for an enigmatic disjunction in time and experience that will not let itself be understood in isolation from an afterness that always is coming and going, at once departing from and perpetuating.

There is, then, a certain madness to hope: even though that which is cannot vouch for what will be (otherwise hope would not be hope but rather calculation, confident expectation, or even certainty), there is a trajectory within all hope, whether well founded or misguided, reasonable or overly optimistic, that there will have been an after in relation to the state of affairs that now obtains. One may, for instance, hope for political regime change prior (p.156) to an election or a revolution; one may hope for future forgiveness for a transgression against a friend; one may also hope that a prayer will be answered, a blessing spoken or received. In every instance, there is an implied afterness lodged at the core of hope—an abiding commitment, lucid or mad, to the idea that the way things are will be superseded by a time and a situation after that which is, indeed, that there will be an after at all. Seen from this perspective, hope, as something that endures, “is not a projection into the future,” as Andrew Benjamin reminds us: “Such a projection would abandon the present, refusing to grant it any quality except the demand that it be effaced.”6 While hope is unthinkable without an after that will not remain self-identical with what is, it also breaks with forms of projection that are built on expectation, repetition, programming, and sameness.

As a form of afterness, hope is also the hope for hope itself, the hope that in the afterness of that which is, hope still can be hoped for. Hope survives as that which cannot fully be assimilated to the status quo and to the administered world. What would it mean to think afterness along the lines of the negative dialectic of hope and its opposite, discouragement, which always also must be a possibility for hope to exist? After all, we have no hope without the possibility of discouragement, no articulation of hopefulness that has not already faced its possible erasure in discouragement, a discouragement that becomes the condition of possibility for hope.

Hope and Discouragement

As the paradigmatic twentieth-century “committed” scholar, Herbert Marcuse hardly wrote a line that did not, in one way or another, engage theoretical topics such as eros and one-dimensionality while at the same time intervening in the political situation of the day in the United States and in his native Germany. For Marcuse, scholarship was characterized by the dialectical struggle between hope and discouragement, a tension that he envisioned would propel thought into action. Marcuse’s friend and colleague, the writer Reinhard Lettau, records an encounter shortly before Marcuse’s death in 1979. Marcuse’s favorite living author, next to Peter Weiss, was Beckett, who had published a poem on the recent occasion of Marcuse’s eightieth birthday. Lettau writes: “Never, as long as I knew him, had he been so unable to conceal how touched he was as during our last meal in La Jolla. He suddenly stopped eating and told me that Beckett had once been asked by a critic (p.157) what the structure of his writing was. ‘I can explain to you the structure of my writing,’ he answered. ‘I once was hospitalized and in the room next door to a dying woman who screamed all night long. This screaming is the structure of my writing.’”7 The screaming that Beckett claims as the structure of his writing and that Marcuse seems to have adopted as the motto for his own work as a scholar and public intellectual reverberates both in the imperative that writing intervene in unnecessary human suffering and in the acknowledgment of writing’s impotence to transform the world in which this suffering occurs. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, Beckett’s scream is heard, even if only faintly, in those academic quarters in which ethico-political questions are still considered important.

The sense of discouragement currently felt by many scholars in the humanities who concern themselves with ethico-political questions and with larger issues relating to the university as an institution of academic freedom and intellectual independence has been articulated eloquently in a series of recent studies. For instance, the literary scholar Jochen Hörisch examines how the once-leading German university system largely has been converted into an unloved knowledge factory bearing little resemblance to the noble institution once so powerfully envisioned by Wilhelm von Humboldt, and Marc Bousquet offers a chilling, fact-based critique of the merciless corporatization, de-intellectualization, and erosion of the modern American university in recent years.8 The present feeling of despair stands in marked contrast to the optimism that characterized the heady discussions in the 1780s regarding the nature and promise of the Enlightenment. The famous essay question “What Is Enlightenment?,” posed in 1784 by Johann Friedrich Zöllner in his journal Berlinische Monatsschrift, elicited largely hopeful responses from such thinkers as Kant (“An Answer to the Question: What Is Enlightenment?”) and Mendelssohn (“On the Question: What Does to Enlighten Mean?”). A year earlier, the well-respected Berlin physician J. K. W. Moehsen had delivered his own meditation on the question “What Is to Be Done Toward the Enlightenment of the Citizenry?” to a clandestine group of “Friends of the Enlightenment” called the Berlin Wednesday Society, and in April 1789 the writer and political essayist Christoph Martin Wieland furnished his own commentary, “A Couple of Gold Nuggets, from the … Wastepaper, or Six Answers to Six Questions,” in the influential journal that he edited, Der Teutsche Merkur.9 For all their heterogeneous understandings of what “to enlighten” meant, these thinkers were united in the hope and belief that the process of enlightening, when properly carried out, would lead to human (p.158) freedom, to a dignity and autonomy that would break with superannuated superstitions such as religious doctrine, irrationality, myth, and dependency. What Kant, Mendelssohn, Moehsen, Wieland, and others imagined was enlightenment as the “science of freedom.”10

That Kant’s contribution to this debate became by far the most widely read in the academy hardly is surprising, given the special status that he accords to the scholar in the project of enlightenment. After all, if “Enlightenment is mankind’s exit from its self-incurred immaturity,” or Unmündigkeit (in German, a “mouthlessness” that also resonates with Mündigkeit [to be of legal age], Vormund [legal guardian], and bevormunden [to impose one’s will on another]), then this departure is, in no small part, facilitated by the scholar’s public use of reason, as opposed to the merely private use of reason employed by the layman or the more limited use of reason incorporated by clergy members and civil servants who answer to the demands of the office with which they are entrusted rather than to the idea of freedom itself.11 For Kant, the scholar “has the complete freedom, indeed it is his calling, to communicate to the public all his carefully tested and well-intentioned thoughts on the imperfections” as well as “his proposals for a better arrangement.” If the human being, then, was meant to function as more than the mere material substance of L’Homme machine as imagined by Julien Offray La Mettrie in 1747, then this Kantian Freiheit des Geistes, or “freedom of mind and spirit,” hardly could be achieved without a “scholar” (Gelehrter) to make use of his reason “before the entire public of the reading world.”12

The current state of discouragement among scholars in the humanities cannot be solely attributed to the well-known concerns that Horkheimer and Adorno raised with regard to the threat of an undialectical understanding of enlightenment—in which enlightenment reverts to myth, and the freedom that enlightenment claims to sponsor becomes a new form of enslavement—or to the felt knowledge that, as Horkheimer outlines in an essay, the crucial ethico-political differences between traditional and critical theory have been repressed by an administered world.13 The experience of discouragement also arises out of a more immediately felt tension between, on the one hand, the optimism and ethico-political hope that the Kantian image of the scholar and his work conjure and, on the other, the sense of frustration and despair that attends our seeming inability to intervene through scholarly work in the injustices perpetrated in the world.14 Examples include, but by no means are limited to, the exploitation of the poor, war, ethnic cleansing, ecocide, and the hostile imposition of sovereignty that underlies global empire building. (p.159) On a more experience-near level, these injustices also include the incremental de-intellectualization and corporatization of the university, one of the last refuges of a free thinking that is not a priori subjected to the profit driven motives of a world whose technocratic hegemony coercively manufactures consent. Savage budget reductions in the humanities have had devastating consequences. The imposition of corporatist principles of instrumental exchange-value threaten to turn Humboldt’s ideal of a modern, independently minded research university—one that establishes its own laws and sets its own course in the unencumbered pursuit of intellectual concerns—into a subservient bureaucratic entity. This university-cum-corporation has fully internalized the demand to “function” in a relentlessly administered world and to surrender, especially within the humanities, the Geist of Wilhelm Dilthey’s Geisteswissenschaften to a dulling of the intellect and a reification of human relations. According to this dystopian model of the university, the role of scholars in the humanities is to provide would-be players in the global economy with a cultural suntan and the ability to write at least semigrammatical reports to the boards of their future companies. In this view, researchers and teachers in the humanities are regarded as graeculi, or “little Greeks,” the teachers who could still speak Greek and teach Greek language and culture to the children of an elite Roman class, in a time when such knowledge had all but vanished from Roman culture but was still fetishized as an exotic and almost phantasmagorical ability possessed by a dead “other.” Given the perceived marginality of the humanities today, one might ask whether there can be any hope for future intellectual work to intervene in unnecessary human suffering. Ethically responsible theoretical interventions of this kind most recently have included Samuel Weber’s proposed alternatives to a “targeting” strategy that generates a “militarization of thinking” in response to confrontation with loss and finitude, as well as Judith Butler’s attempt to reenvision “precarious life” in such a way as to offer an alternative to violence as the sole outcome of the process of mourning. The question remains open whether such important initiatives will be met with discouragement or hope.15

One particularly interesting difficulty in Kant’s conceptualization of enlightened thinking offers illumination here. If “Enlightenment is mankind’s exit from its self-incurred immaturity,” then this immaturity can be understood as “the inability to make use of one’s own understanding [or reason, ability to think (Verstand)] without the guidance of another.” As Kant explains, this inability is self-incurred “if its cause lies not in the lack of understanding but (p.160) rather in the lack of resolution and the courage to use it without the guidance of another. Sapere aude! Have the courage to use your own Verstand! is thus the motto of enlightenment.” s16 While this well-known passage often has been taken to affirm the status of a self-sufficient and coherent subject that heroically casts aside the shackles of heteronomy, or other-determination, in order to affirm its autonomy, or self-law-giving status, several difficulties arise. First, there seems to be a performative contradiction at work in Kant’s exhortation. To the extent that the purpose of his request is to promote the subject’s autonomy and self-determination, then in following Kant’s exhortation the subject must break with the exhortation’s specific demand. After all, by following Kant’s request to use one’s own Verstand and thus to set one’s own laws, one does the exact opposite—that is, takes one’s law from elsewhere rather than from oneself and as a function of one’s own exercise of reason. The subject can follow Kant’s demand only by not following it, and by not following, it follows it. This impasse situates the subject and its Verstand in an aporia.

Second, and related to the first difficulty, a further reading of this passage may reasonably focus on the word that Kant italicizes, “own,” in “your own Verstand.” What, precisely, is this “own”? Much hinges on this question. On the one hand, the subject’s “own” Verstand is seen to be an expression of sovereignty and autonomy—I am employing the faculties of understanding that structure my Verstand rather than those that structure yours. On the other hand, my “own” Verstand cannot be simply my own; it also must be yours insofar as it is based on logic to which we both have access. In other words, while any particular turn of thought may be a function of my Verstand, to the extent that it is rational, repeatable, challengeable, verifiable, or refutable, it also must be a manifestation of a general Verstand or universal reason that is common to all who participate in rational, logical, and enlightened debate. Thus for the subject to be or become itself, it also must be something else; it becomes itself only when it departs from itself, moves elsewhere. The thinking subject thus is both autonomous and heteronomous, since the use of its “own” Verstand, to the extent that such thought is consistent with enlightened thinking, always constitutes the singular manifestation of a universal law that, by definition, is not founded by the subject.

It could be argued that a reading of Kant’s “own” in which the subject is seen as coming into its own only by departing from itself, by subjecting itself to a nonsubjective structure of reason and understanding, implicitly has been thematized in various ways ever since Kant formulated these lines in (p.161) 1784. One thinks first of all of the anonymous manifesto “Earliest Program for a System of German Idealism” (1796)—assumed to have been jointly authored by the friends and one-time Tübingen roommates Hölderlin, Schelling, and Hegel—and, a few years later, the Jena Romantics and their insistence on a relational, linguistically mediated subject, as in Novalis’s “Soliloquy” (1798) and in Schlegel’s “On Incomprehensibility” (1800) and the Athenäum fragments. The Jena Romantics’ sense of a split in what appears to be the subject’s “ownmost” property of thinking is, in the late nineteenth century, extended and radicalized in the genealogical project of Nietzsche and, in the early twentieth century, by Freud, whose project was to explicate the ways in which the self is not at home with itself, the ways in which it answers to the laws of a psychic structure that remain largely opaque and inaccessible to it. We could say that, in various forms and heterogeneous modulations, much of twentieth-century literary, philosophical, and scholarly writing attempts to rethink the ethico-political and historical challenges posed by the split in the Kantian “own” of Verstand. While such attempts are legion, I wish to recall here three of the most influential modes of response to this split: the stance of critique (as, for instance, in Adorno and Foucault), a reconsideration of Being (as in Heidegger), and a kind of other-directed hope (as in Kafka).

What unites the projects of Adorno and Foucault across their manifold differences is a perpetual return to the canonical formulations of Kritik in Kant (especially, of course, in his three major Critiques) in addressing this split. This strategy also returns them to Schlegel, who traces the notion of critique back to Greek thought in order to forge a relation between critique and modernity in his “Concerning the Essence of Critique” (1804). “We should,” Schlegel argues, “think of critique as a middle term between history and philosophy, one that shall join both, and in which both are to be united to form a new, third term. Without philosophical spirit, such a critique cannot thrive—everyone agrees on this—nor without historical knowledge.” For Schlegel, this “thorough understanding … is the real business and the inner essence of critique. We may bring together the most solid results of a historical mass under a concept, or else we may specify a concept not merely in order to allow distinctions, but rather to construct the concept in its becoming, from its earliest origins to its final completion, giving thus, together with the concept, its own inner history. Both of these are characterizations, the highest task of critique and the most intimate union of history and philosophy.” 17 It is this interpenetration of philosophy and history as (p.162) the moment of an ethico-political critique that Adorno and Foucault share. Adorno, in his essay “Critique,” defends the valorization of negativity that is implicit in the act of critique. Referring to Kant’s three Critiques and his essay “What Is Enlightenment?,” Adorno insists that “the false, once determinately known and precisely expressed, is already an index of what is right and better.”18 This view of critique as absolute negation, as intransigent negativity that will not betray what is to come by triumphantly endorsing what is, remains a central concern from Adorno’s early works through his late magnum opus Negative Dialectics.

Like Adorno, Foucault responds to Kant’s essay “What Is Enlightenment?” and its reception within the Frankfurt School by echoing Schlegel’s reading of critique when, in his 1978 lecture “What Is Critique?,” he emphasizes that a part of his genealogical practice deserves to be called “historicophilosophical, which is nothing like the philosophy of history and the history of philosophy”; rather, the “domain of experience to which this philosophical labor refers does not absolutely exclude any other.”19 In contrast to the Frankfurt School, however, Foucault wishes to stress the relationship of enlightened critique to questions of governmentality, power relations, and the effects of discursively mediated regimes of coercion, including those that govern how mental illness, punishment, sexuality, and delinquency are thought and talked about. It is through these questions of critique that, for Adorno and Foucault, the split in the “own” can be made epistemologically and ethico-politically productive.

For Heidegger’s fundamental ontology, the self that is not at home with itself is to be thought in terms of its Seinsvergessenheit, its “having-forgotten-Being.” For him, the metaphysics of the subject has worked to obscure the essential condition of the self in its relation to Being, time, and the idea of finitude itself. It is in the poetry of Rilke, George, Trakl, and, above all, Hölderlin that we may encounter ourselves in our relation to Being. For instance, in the preliminary remarks to the July 1959 Stuttgart version of his lecture “Hölderlin’s ‘Heaven and Earth,’” Heidegger writes:

In the meantime, the question has been raised as to whether Hölderlin belongs to the philologists or to the philosophers. He belongs neither to one nor to the other, nor even to both. This either-or, however it may be resolved, missed the crucial point. In what way? Inasmuch as the question which needs to be clarified is not to whom among us Hölderlin belongs; rather, the sole question is whether we in the present age are capable of belonging to Hölderlin’s poem.

(p.163) Our reflection is concerned solely with Hölderlin’s poem. It is an attempt to transform our accustomed way of representing things into an unaccustomed, because simple, thinking experience. (The transformation into the thinking experience of the center of the infinite relation—out of the collected framework [Ge-stell] as the self-dissimulating event [Ereignis] of the fourfold.)

There is no one true way into the greatness of Hölderlin’s poem. Each of the various ways is, as a mortal one—an errant way.

If what Paul Valéry says of the poem is true: “The poem—this prolonged lingering between sound and sense,” then the listening to the poem, and even the thinking which prepares such listening, lingers even longer than the poem itself. After all, such lingering has its own lofty resoluteness; it is no mere vacillation.20

For Heidegger, then, it is not a question of ownership of Hölderlin. Rather, Hölderlin’s poetry opens up for its readers the question of their Being and belonging, to the extent that the encounter with his poetry, suspended between literature and philosophy, reopens the question of whether and how we belong to language, not whether and how language belongs to us. For it is in language, Heidegger believes, that the path of an impossible return of the self to itself in relation to Being is traced. We might say that, along the paths of this impossible return, the self implicitly encounters a poeticized version of the Kantian split’s “own” that suspends it between singularity and universality in language itself.

While Heidegger’s path relates the self to itself—that is, relates the self that lives under the condition of having-forgotten-Being to the self that encounters this having-forgotten in its engagement with language itself—Kafka’s writing offers no such encounters or turns. The hope that any such encounter of the self with itself in language may harbor strictly speaking cannot benefit the reading and writing self. There can be no return to an unfragmented self in, say, “The Judgment” any more than there can be a subjectively livable outside to the dehumanizing condition of having been transformed into a vermin in “The Metamorphosis.” Kafka’s friend Max Brod recalls a conversation with Kafka about whether hope exists. Kafka responded: “Oh, plenty of hope, an infinite amount of hope even—but not for us.”21 Kafka’s writing, then, refuses to sponsor an encounter between an authentic self and an inauthentic self in language, an encounter that could be understood as offering hope to that self inasmuch as its newly found wisdom about its condition (p.164) could be regarded as the condition of possibility for change. No, to the extent that there is hope in Kafka, it is always other-directed, a matter addressed to and for the other who is still to come. Certain elements of Kafka’s other-directed hope resurface in Levinas’s ethical philosophy of the tout-autre, the “wholly other” who remains eternally unintelligible to me but who nevertheless makes infinite—and infinitely ethical—demands on me, that is, calls me into responsibility by always eliciting a response that I must deliver with-out quite knowing how.

The Radical Disappointability of Hope

Beyond these three responses to the ethico-political question of the split in the Kantian “own”—critique, relatedness to Being, and the other-directedness of hope—what interests me most apropos of discouragement and hope is a fourth analysis of responding in Bloch: the question of hope itself and its disappointability. Having written the twentieth century’s major philosophical treatment of hope, the three-volume Principle of Hope (1949) in American exile, Bloch returned to Europe in 1948 to assume a professorship at Karl-Marx-Universität Leipzig in the German Democratic Republic. Because of his disenchantment with the authoritarian GDR regime, which attempted to place various humiliating constraints on his unorthodox way of thinking, he decided, during a visit to West Germany in 1961, to continue his ethico-political philosophical project in the West just months before the Berlin Wall was erected. In West Germany, he quickly was granted a professorship at the University of Tübingen.

Returning to the leitmotif—the question of hope—that traverses his oeuvre from the influential Sprit of Utopia (1918) onward, his 1961 inaugural lecture at the University of Tübingen carried the title “Can Hope Be Disappointed?”22 Formulating a “question of particular relevance,” Bloch asks, “can hope, or more precisely, can every kind and every degree of hope be disappointed?” Because people too often have been seduced “by the pied piper” when they “run blindly after conformist and escapist hopes,” the unequivocal answer must be yes (339). Myriad false hopes such as the political delusions perpetrated by the so-called Third Reich, a period that Bloch refers to as “the most terrible episode in the history of squandered faith” and a “betrayal by criminals of Shakespearean size, accompanied by the odor of urine from petitbourgeois (p.165) chamber pots,” must be resisted. The same holds true for mere wishful thinking of the kind that is “the vilest caricature of Adventism, of the false Messiah,” that once started a “utopian psychosis” in Chicago: “God arrives next Tuesday at 11:25 a.m. at the Illinois Central, hurry to welcome him!” (340). (Bloch, were he alive today, no doubt would be interested in knowing that the pertinence of his example persists to the present, down to its geographical specificity: in April 2005, crowds of people had been gathered for days under a Chicago freeway underpass because they believed that a stain on the wall represented the Virgin Mary. According to the Illinois Department of Transportation, the stain most likely resulted from a salt run-off. The underpass festivities continued until a spray painter eventually defaced the stain, a misdemeanor for which the city has pressed charges.)

Bloch therefore arrives at the following conclusion: hope must be disappointable “or else it would not be hope.” Hope is inseparable from a “specific disappointability [Enttäuschbarkeit] of informed, and therefore self-informed docto spes (educated hope)” (340). He continues:

Pertaining not only to the need for mediation with respect to the course of things, but also—after this indispensable precondition—most importantly to the question of hope itself, as something that does not, in spite of all, make peace with the existing world. Therefore hope must be unconditionally disappointable, first, because it is open in a forward direction, in a future-oriented direction; it does not address itself to what already exists. For this reason, hope—while actually in a state of suspension—is committed to change rather than repetition, and what is more, incorporates the element of chance, without which there can be nothing new. Through this portion of chance, however sufficiently limited it may be, openness is at the same time also kept open. At least to the extent that hope, whose field of action this is, pays in the coin of hazard so as not to be indebted to the past. Second … hope must be disappointable because, even when concretely mediated, it can never be mediated by solid facts. For these are always, in the face of what informs hope, merely subjectively reified moments or objectively reified stoppages within a historical course of events. … In other words, referring directly to disappointability: hope holds eo ipso the condition of defeat precariously within itself: it is not confidence. It stands too close to the indeterminacy of the historical process, of the world-process (p.166) that, indeed, has not yet been defeated, but likewise has not yet won. (340–341)

Understood in this way, hope can be what it is only because it is perpetually exposed to the radical danger of disappointment. Without the real possibility of disappointment, there could be no hope—only the certainty that this or that phenomenon will be achieved and implemented. Hope is the name of the disappointable as such. Hope cannot be thought undialectically, without an eye to that which, within it, already threatens to undo it, even in the moment of its articulation. Hope is processual, dependent for its existence on the danger of its own undoing even while striving to overcome that danger. The dream of hope, for Bloch, is lodged in the ways in which the world is at odds with itself and deserves to be rethought and reorganized—not with the purpose of erasing its non-self-identity in the name of some rectificatory program of self-identity, but to radicalize that non-self-identity to such a degree that the potentially liberating contours of its opposite become visible.

For Bloch, the concept that “hope must be unconditionally disappointable” means that it is “open in a forward direction, in a future-oriented direction; it does not address itself to that which already exists.” In this regard, the disappointability of hope ties hope to a commitment to change and transformation “rather than repetition and, what is more, incorporates the element of chance, without which there can be nothing new.” According to this logic, “openness is at the same time also kept open” Bloch here implies that there is a kind of openness that is not fully open—that is, foreclosed in advance by predictability, programmability, or even confidence itself. To the extent that hope is not confident—that is, keeps the openness of openness open as the concept of openness itself—it belongs to the realm of the “not yet,” a realm in which “not only hope’s affect (with its pendant, fear) but, even more so, hope’s methodology (with its pendant, memory) dwells” (341).

What is further decisive for Bloch is that within this disappointable hope “nothing has been settled yet as irrevocable fact, completed in its becoming” (341). It is here, in the refusal of hope to be dictated by a set of putative facts—facts that have not yet become what they are—that its unpredictable otherness, its future-directedness, makes itself felt. This is so, Bloch explains,

because concrete hope does not surrender when setbacks occur; with a renegade spirit, it even gambles on whatever has been negated up to now (thereby becoming abstract once again). True disappointment, in a way (p.167) that is equally immanent, becomes wiser through injury. Not, however, through an encounter with crude facts, for these always are taken into account by well-founded hope: so much the worse for the obstructing facts. Well-founded hope, on the contrary, becomes wiser through faithful attention to the tendency in which the so-called facts are not standing still, but are circulating and developing. (342–343)

The relation between the factual and hope is constantly in flux because it is in hope that what could in the future be considered a fact has not yet shucked the traces of its own contingency, the various labors and discourses of interpretation and reinterpretation that will have made it what it is. Hope, then, will have been the name for the centrifugal movement of forces that will not let a “fact” simply come into its own as a form of self-identity.

The hope that is disappointable is the hope that cannot be fully annihilated. By the same token, hope as confidence or calculating certainty is the hope that can. As Bloch argues:

For if hope could be annihilated, that is, if it could literally be made nihilistic, it would never have proved so intractable to those despots who represent its opposite. A Ninth Symphony cannot be revoked, and the truth of its hope can never be undone: it points out, and holds open, the pathways that cannot be discredited. The same goes for genius, and for what humanity shares in genius; if it could be suppressed, Jean Paul said, it never would have existed. The history of our culture is, after all, filled with figures other than Nero and Moloch—indeed, even the death of Christ was only his beginning. (344)

The kind of hope that Bloch imagines, the kind that is radically disappointable, is a form of “transgressing” (überschreiten) of that which merely is or claims to be. Taking up the trope of transgression that permeates so much of his oeuvre, Bloch enlists Heraclitus, who says, “‘Whoever does not hope for the unexpected will not find it.’ This should be enough to invoke the call to action, according to which human existence—in the transcendental sense upon which this existence is founded—means that which transgresses or goes beyond” (345). We could say, then, that disappointable hope, for Bloch, is the condition of possibility for the act of transgression, not only the engagement with the border between two realms but also, in the very gesture of departing without fully knowing where one will arrive, the performance of a thinking (p.168) that is always already under way and that will not take its programmed delimitation and transparent self-identity for granted.

I wish to suggest, then, that the various forms of discouragement that haunt the humanistic disciplines today deserve to be rethought in terms of the forms of hope that they harbor as their ownmost inner other. The hope with which this discouragement could be confronted, however, neither would exhaust itself in a renewed appeal to the optimism of certain enlightenment discourses nor merely would seek refuge in the view that the hope that remains is to be understood as a function of an unshakable belief in perfectibility and progress, a view, in short, that regards modernity merely as an unfinished—but in principle finishable and perfectible—project. On the contrary, the discouragement that many writers and thinkers feel today when faced with the seeming inability of their intellectual and artistic projects to effect meaningful change in the public sphere begs to be rethought from the perspective of a radical hope—that is, from the perspective of that permanent threat and perpetual promise that hover undecidably within the figure of disappointability itself. The negative knowledge that is unpredictably interjected by an undecidable disappointability into any discourse of closure and abjection prevents even the deep mourning that is born of political and personal discouragement from simply remaining itself. It has an afterlife, and it affirms the idea of a radical afterness.

For those among us who, living in the afterness of the struggle between hope and discouragement, are content neither to be confined to the role of highly educated bureaucrats nor to play the part of institutional Wissensverwalter, administrators of knowledge who file their reports away in creaky cabinets after each dutiful performance as an information-delivery device, this eminently disappointable hope is, for once, good news indeed. It’s a scream.


(1.) Alphonso Lingis and Mary Zournazi, “Murmurs of Life: A Conversation with Alphonso Lingis,” in Hope: New Philosophies for Change, ed. Mary Zournazi (New York: Routledge, 2002), 22–41, here 23.

(2.) Ibid.

(3.) Ibid., 23–24.

(4.) Ibid., 41.

(5.) Peter Szondi, “Hoffnung im Vergangenen: Über Walter Benjamin,” in Schriften (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1978), 2:278–294.

(6.) Andrew Benjamin, Present Hope: Philosophy, Architecture, Judaism (London: Routledge, 1997), 153.

(7.) Reinhard Lettau, “Zu Herbert Marcuses Tod,” in Zerstreutes Hinausschaun: Vom Schreiben über Vorgänge in direkter Nähe oder in der Entfernung von Schreibtischen (Frankfurt am Main: Fischer, 1982), 203–205, here 204–205.

(8.) Jochen Hörisch, Die ungeliebte Universität: Rettet die Alma Mater! (Munich: Hanser, 2006); Marc Bousquet, How the University Works: Higher Education and the Low-Wage Nation (New York: New York University Press, 2008).

(9.) Many of these documents are conveniently collected in Ehrhard Bahr, ed., Was ist Aufklärung? (Stuttgart: Reclam, 1974); and James Schmidt, ed., What Is Enlightenment? Eighteenth-Century Answers and Twentieth-Century Questions (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996).

(10.) This is the term proposed by the historian Peter Gay in The Enlightenment: The Science of Freedom (New York: Norton, 1996).

(11.) (p.239) Immanuel Kant, “An Answer to the Question: What Is Enlightenment?,” trans. James Schmidt, in What Is Enlightenment?, ed. Schmidt, 58–64, here 58.

(12.) Ibid., 60.

(13.) See Max Horkeimer’s foundational essay, “Traditional and Critical Theory,” in Critical Theory: Selected Essays, trans. Matthew J. O’Connell et al. (New York: Continuum, 1999), 188–243.

(14.) For recent assessments of some of the dilemmas encountered by serious writing that aims to be public and transformative, see the nuanced accounts by John McCumber, “The Metaphysics of Clarity and the Freedom of Meaning,” and Michael Warner, “Styles of Intellectual Publics,” both in Just Being Difficult? Academic Writing in the Public Arena, ed. Jonathan Culler and Kevin Lamb (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2003), 58–71, 106–125.

(15.) Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (London: Verso, 2004); Samuel Weber, Targets of Opportunity: On the Militarization of Thinking (New York: Fordham University Press, 2005).

(17.) Friedrich Schlegel, “Concerning the Essence of Critique,” in Theory as Practice: A Critical Anthology of Early German Romantic Writings, ed. and trans. Jochen Schulte-Sasse, Haynes Horne, Elizabeth Mittman, and Lisa C. Roetzel (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), 268–277, here 276–277.

(18.) Theodor W. Adorno, “Critique,” in Critical Models: Interventions and Catchwords, trans. Henry W. Pickford (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), 281–288, here 288.

(19.) Michel Foucault, “What Is Critique?,” trans. Kevin Paul Geiman, in What Is Enlightenment?, ed. Schmidt, 382–398, here 391.

(20.) Martin Heidegger, “Hölderlin’s Earth and Heaven,” in Elucidations of Hölderlin’s Poetry, trans. Keith Hoeller (Amherst, N.Y.: Humanity Books, 2000), 175–207, here 176.

(21.) Brod’s recollection, from his 1921 article on Kafka in Die neue Rundschau, is cited in Walter Benjamin, “Franz Kafka: On the Tenth Anniversary of His Death” (1934), trans. Harry Zohn, in Selected Writings, vol. 2, 1927–1934, ed. Michael Jennings, Howard Eiland, and Gary Smith (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999), 794–818, here 789.

(22.) Ernst Bloch, “Can Hope Be Disappointed?,” in Literary Essays, trans. Andrew Joron et al. (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1998), 339–45 (hereafter cited by page number in the text).