The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2019

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JUNE 2019 Issue
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Against Hope

Jenny Kendler, Birds Watching, 2018. Printed reflective film mounted on aluminum with steel frame, 120 x 480 x 10 inches. Part of Indicators: Artists on Climate Change, Storm King Art Center. Depicts 100 eyes of bird species threatened or endangered by climate change. Courtesy of the artist.

Too late, mainstream media and a handful of elected leaders are foregrounding rising temperatures and the collapse of our ecosystems under the weight of extractive capitalism. The inevitable accompaniment to these despair-inducing reports are countless think pieces on how we can maintain hope. But while hope may have helped win past battles, it’s losing us this war.

Hope—when generated as a product of the dominant culture, reinforces the status quo.

Hope in its current form serves to maintain faith in the human project without critiquing its basic premise of exceptionalism.

Hope shelters us—keeping difficult truths at bay.

To let go of hope is to face up to the fact that we’re not going to make it through this gauntlet without incurring terrible wounds. These losses will be so grievous that the artists and writers of tomorrow will need to help us conceive of new ways to mourn.

Hope indulges us—letting us think this is someone else’s problem to solve.

Letting go of hope allows us to begin the difficult work of reconciling with the pain of loss. When we focus on hope, we repress this deeply uncomfortable, but necessary, process. We must live within and maintain an active grief which reflects reality, and work to release the crippling fear that comes with avoidance.

Letting go of hope allows us to meet our losses head on. It reminds us that extinction is not just death, but an end to birth. Letting go of hope for some miraculous future better honors those we have lost—and also allows us to really feel the ineffable preciousness of everything still here. There is still so much beauty worth fighting for.

Hope sanctions our inaction—allowing us to feel like signing online petitions, recycling and buying bamboo whatevers is enough.

In the bluntest of terms, we have been substituting hoping for doing. This permission to ‘wait for everything to turn out okay’ is the palliative which allowed so many people—people privileged with education, people who should have known better—to stand on the sidelines for decades while extractive capitalism ate their grandchildren’s futures.

Hope is brittle these days, and if we look through rose-colored glasses at a loss the size of the world—it can shatter us.

The news cycle perpetuates this flux: Despair, then hope, then despair again. The thing with feathers makes these wax wings for us all.

And when we fall—we fall into despair and inaction. Rebounding back and forth, we live double-lives. We don’t have time for this. Like aid workers in the midst of an epidemic, we can’t afford the distraction.

Hope pacifies us—holding back the righteous anger that is needed to hold those responsible accountable for their crimes.

Like hope, corporations are smokescreens, protecting bad actors from culpability. There is a special reckoning due the corporations and governments who built their wealth while knowing and hiding this price.

Hope is a privilege—affording us a mental life lived in the future and protected by locality.

Jenny Kendler, Underground Library, 2017–ongoing. Biocharred books, dimensions variable. Long-term project which biochars and buries five decades of defunct and ignored books on climate change, returning use value through the sequestration of carbon. Courtesy of the artist.

The privilege of hope distracts us both from acting in the present and reconciling with the past; it shields us from the effects of our actions on those elsewhere on the planet. Living in the midst of the slow, dispersed, and often invisible violence of ecocide, it takes active will to root ourselves in the now—and to resist the double-life offered by hoping for a harmonious future. But letting go of hope does not mean inhabiting the inaction of despair. In the wake of hope’s surrender lies not apathy, but new attentiveness.

Hope gets us high—and perpetuates the fantasy that our technology will save us. This hope is dangerous.

Clinging to hope against hope sets us up for a culture of winning by any means necessary. The most abhorrent outcome may not be that we become extinct—but that we just barely won’t—that we’ll cling to human exceptionalism on a wrecked planet through total technological dominion.

The process of letting go of the seductive hope that we can save our world is the process of letting go of the delusion that our current way of life can continue. In releasing this privilege, we can start to conceive of the new worlds which may be built in this world’s composted remains.

Making art in the Anthropocene is, for me, a place to work through models for these new worlds—to create glimpses of these possible futures. Like Beuys, I believe we as artists are tasked to reawaken innate animal aptitudes and disrupt enculturated, habituated states of mind. This requires empathy, intimacy, attempts at radical communication, a fierceness of belief—but it does not require blind hope. Art is a form of enchantment, and therefore the opposite of despair. When successful, art can extend a tenuous thread towards reconciliation, and envision worlds otherwise.

These new worlds won’t be neat or convenient. There will be no room for “disposability,” “financialization,” or “the invisible hand of the market.” There will be no room for exceptionalism.

But there might be room for hope.


Jenny Kendler

Jenny Kendler is artist-in-residence with environmental non-profit NRDC, and for the past 15 years has been creating artwork and activist projects on extinction, climate change and our relationship to the natural world.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2019

All Issues