Pessimism of the will, optimism of the intellect: On receiving the Stuart Hall Award
Fifty years ago, I happened upon the gift of cultural studies, which has shaped much of my life. I describe the discovery of cultural studies as a gift, following Ghassan Hage’s wonderful invitation that we treat all intellectual offerings as gifts, and receive them as such. Cultural studies is a peculiar sort of gift, however, because it has to be shaped, shared and renewed all the time. Let me try to describe this gift, although I hope that I am not telling you anything you do not already know.
First, it is a gift of a commitment, which is expressed beautifully by Stuart Hall (1992):
Cultural studies' message is a message for academics and intellectuals but, fortunately, for many other people as well. In that sense, I have tried to hold together in my own intellectual life, on one hand, the conviction and passion and the devotion to objective interpretation, to analysis, to rigorous analysis and understanding, to the passion to find out, and to the production of knowledge that we did not know before. But, on the other hand, I am convinced that no intellectual worth his or her salt, and no university that wants to hold up its head in the face of the twenty-first century, can afford to turn dispassionate eyes away from the problems … that beset our world.
And he suggests, from the conditions that make the world increasingly inhumane.
Second, it is a gift of a path, often encapsulated in the Gramscian entreaty “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.” But it is also a gift of tools that might help one walk the path while living the commitment. It pushes us to always seek contextuality against the temptations of generality; to seek contingency within the apparent necessities; to seek complexity in lieu of simplicity, and to embrace humility against the seductions of certainty. And finally, it is a gift of questions, or better, of doors that might lead us to the questions that need to be asked: The first door is culture, commonly understood as relations and maps of meaning, representation and subjectification, although cultural studies pushes it further, into realms of everyday life and common sense. But more importantly, culture is a field of struggles which is constitutive of the social totality and hence, inseparable from the political and the economic. The second door is “the popular,” which is not quite reducible to popular culture, for it describes the landscapes on which, and the languages, logics and “calculations” with which people make choices about the actualities and possibilities of their everyday lives.
I have been thinking a lot recently about how to shape and renew my sense of cultural studies in the present conjuncture, and how these gits might be practiced in order to tell and share better stories. Stuart Hall used to tell me that I had to earn my pessimism. On one level, he was addressing my natural inclination toward pessimism, but on another level, I think he was addressing political intellectuals who all too often assume that because they are pessimistic about the state of the world, they do not have to dig much deeper to understand just how bad things really are. But I have to admit that I think the present conjuncture (at least in the U.S.), so powerfully determined by and expressive of various forces and forms of conservatism, revolutionary reactionism, and capitalism gone mad (to use Mighty Sparrow’s felicitous phrase), has done much of the work for me.
I will assume that I do not need to rehearse why these are hard times for many people, and especially hard times for many progressive, political intellectuals. But it may be useful to qualify such feelings, to remind ourselves that these developments have many different histories and geographies, both longer and more dispersed than we can easily capture. Even the contemporary sense of impending doom is certainly not new, although the possibilities of humanity’s demise do seem to have multiplied and to be coming at us from all directions.
On a more personal if perhaps “western-centric” and generational note, it does feel like much of the critical intellectual work of the past fifty years has done little to shift the larger tides of history, and to securely realize the sorts of progressive “dreams” we have had. It can even feel that such work has had more impact on the forces we oppose than on the oppositional forces we seek to support.
In fact, I might say that pessimism of the will has permeated deep into the fabrics of intellectual and activist labors, despite the apparent explosion of both. So where do we find our optimism? I have been reading Hannah Arendt recently, as one of the most profound theorists of totalitarianisms, and a particular line struck me: “Under conditions of tyranny, it is far easier to act than to think.” And that is what I want to suggest: that we need to think—more and better. That we have to find an optimism of the intellect, but this demands that we not abandon the gift of cultural studies, that we find ways to renew it.
There are many ways of abandoning cultural studies, and they are becoming increasingly seductive in the academy, especially in the face of contemporary political changes. You abandon cultural studies when you fall back into one’s certainties, as if you already know what we need to know, as if the right politics will guarantee adequate concepts, as if the right concepts will guarantee effective politics. You abandon cultural studies by substituting theory for a politics (as if theory itself were political) built upon the hard work of empirical engagements. Such theories increasingly return us to various forms of scientific or technological determinisms, ontological and speculative essentialisms, or abstract formalisms, in which it is almost impossible to distinguish the utopian fantasies from the dystopian nightmares.
You abandon cultural studies when you substitute political visions for the need to go on theorizing precisely in order to better engage with the complexities and contradictions of the world. Such political visions can take the form of utopian visions of radical political or economic or technological revolutions, as if they were just waiting around the corner to be called onto the stage of history. Or they can take the form of better policies, which we of course support, not because they define effective responses to the conjunctural crises, but simply because they are, well, better than what we have. Again, improvements, however small, are significant, but it is easy to pose better policies. It is harder to understand why they are not actualized.
I am suggesting that we need an optimism of the intellectual that can only come from reaffirming our faith that better knowledge is a necessary condition for better stories and strategic change, and such a project requires doing the difficult work of using theory to engage the world, of putting our own assumptions and certainties—theoretical, empirical and political—at risk. Finding the possibilities of better ways of living (other worlds if you will) requires us to understand the conjuncture—its constraints, its openings, its determinations and contradictions, the many trajectories out of which it has arisen, and the “field of possibles” (to use Sartre’s phrase) it presents to us. This is the intellectual infrastructure, I believe, of Raymond Williams’ “long revolution.” It means thinking our way into and through the conjuncture rather than thinking “beyond” or outside it.
I know that continuing changes in the university make it more and more difficult to do the sort of work that cultural studies as rigorous knowledge production and public pedagogy demands. The university increasingly forces one to individualize one’s career as a “professional;” it normalizes and evaluates work according to quantitative, “universal” metrics; it enforces rigid definitions of “proper” work as defined by disciplines, objects of studies and/or theoretical paradigms; it demands external funding even as it discourages creative institutional and infrastructural efforts.
I have no easy solutions, especially for younger scholars, except to remind you that the university is a constantly changing institution, a field of struggle in which political intellectuals have been fighting, for a long time, for the conditions necessary to do their work. Many of the risks entailed are not new, and if there are no guarantees that you can win, there are also no guarantees that you will lose. And we cannot afford to give up the space of the academy. While it is not the only place for intellectual labor, it is, I am convinced, the only place which demands of us that we constantly assume that we might be wrong.
I want to very quickly point to three places where it has become all too easy to abandon cultural studies, but where cultural studies has a very real contribution to make. Forgive me if they come from my own conjuncture. First, consider the attacks on knowledge and truth, and the arrival of so-called “fake news” and “alternative facts.” Cultural studies might remind us that such struggles over knowledge have long histories, that progressive forces were often on the other side of the debate, attacking both the media (as propagating lies) and science (as political), and even deconstructing the claims of knowledge and truth as socially constructed. Today, progressive intellectuals seem to either retreat back into the abstract defense of the glory of science and Truth, or to fall back into claims of the privileged authority of experience (usually of the oppressed). The result of the latter tactic is that the vital feminist realization that the personal is political is transformed into the rather absurd claim that the political is personal.
Cultural studies sees truth as an ongoing, pragmatic struggle to go on thinking, so that truth is always defined by the possibilities of telling better stories within a particular context. I use “pragmatism” here to point to the twin demands that one wrestle with the complex and contradictory material and discursive realities, but also that one think strategically about possible outcomes. Consider the question of climate change. To be honest, I have not read the “science,” and even if I had, I would not be qualified to evaluate it. Is it a matter then of simply putting one’s faith in science? I hope not. For me, it is a matter of Pascal’s wager. Pascal, a seventeenth century French intellectual, argued that, given the inability to prove or disprove the existence of god, it made more sense to believe in god, because if you were wrong, it would make no difference and if you were right, it could have serious consequences. Similarly, I would argue it makes more sense to believe in climate change because if we act upon that belief and climate science is wrong, the consequences would be a lot less devastating than if we do not act upon it and climate science is right. It is a pragmatic decision about the future consequences of our beliefs and actions.
Second, consider the very common assertion that many societies today are increasingly polarized into two camps whose experiences, beliefs, values, ways of seeing, etc., are so radically different as to be incommensurable. People from both camps are likely to describe the other camp as bizarre, illogical, incomprehensible, etc. And these differences seem to permeate every aspect—even the most intimate—of people’s lives. One might in fact take this vision of social reality as proof of the contemporary political ontology that suggests that other worlds are possible. We seem to be living in a social space in which competing realities co-exist or rather, compete. But this construction is contradictory, for we do not simply live in different world: each camp attempts to force its reality on the other, judging its population to be inadequate, morally reprehensible, stupid, duped, evil (racist or fascist, for example), etc.
The result is that politics is often fought out in practices of cruelty, humiliation and shame. To offer one small example: earlier in 2018, a New York lawyer verbally attacked Spanish-speaking workers in a restaurant for not speaking English, threatening to call immigration authorities. He apparently assumed that “Americans” speak English and anyone who did not must be an illegal immigrant. We should of course condemn such behavior but the most visible responses from progressives sought to shame him, calling him out for being a racist and even, uncivilized. Cultural studies questions the effectiveness of such a politics of shaming: is it likely to move the lawyer, to change him, to educate him, or to drive him deeper into positions that he now knows must remain unspoken and to reinforce others’ beliefs that progressives are “the enemy?” What do such strategies enact? Do we only care about or seek to educate those who already agree with us, those who adhere to our norms of public behavior? Do such tactics evince an understanding of the complexities of race and racisms in the U.S.?
Cultural studies would further argue that the constant reiteration of a polarized society actually helps to produce the very conditions of political impossibility. U.S. society (perhaps any society for that matter) is not comprised of two camps; it is a complex field of cultural and political positions and formations, where each position is defined by multiple issues, differences and commitments. That is to say, each position is impure, hybridized, connected to others by many lines of affiliation and rejection. These two constructions of the social formation define the distinction between a populist politics, which homogenizes and negates the other, and a popular politics, which attempts to organize differences and multiplicities. In my opinion, in the U.S. the conservative forces are waging a populist battle, and the oppositional forces would be well-advised to seek a more popular politics.
These issues are closely connected to the third example I want to offer: the problem of consent. This is an old problem: why do people “consent” to their own subordination and subjugation? It is what led Marx and subsequent Marxists to theorize the notion of ideology. There is an empirical side to this question: do we know who consented to what? Consider that the dominant story about the election of Donald Trump was (and continues to be) that he won based largely on the support of angry white working-class men. As it turns out, this is simply false, but the story continues to be told over and over. But I am less interested in demographics than in the articulation of the politics of culture to the politics of politics. Do we know what people are consenting to? Do we know how they are consenting, for there are many ways of consenting (angrily, exuberantly, hopelessly, cynically, etc.)? Do we know how such consent is produced?
Consent is neither simple nor necessary; it is always produced in struggles. Changing political allegiances do not just happen; new relations do not just appear and old relations do not just disappear. The ground has to be prepared and the work done to reshape the old relations and give shape to the new ones. Specific contradictions and differences have to be made livable while others are not. And these struggles take place on the fields of culture and in the contemporary world, on the terrain of the popular. It is in the popular, I believe, that consent is struggled over, where the multiple forms of consent are forced, challenged, deployed and won.
In my own work over the past forty years, I have argued two points—somewhat presciently I think. First, that the popular significantly operates on the plane of affect. By affect, I mean all the dimensions of embodied, lived intensities, which are structured and expressed in many forms, including will and attention, feelings, emotions, moods, pleasures, desires, and carings. In this sense, affect is an old concept (one thinks of Freud, Nietzsche, Benjamin, and Williams) but it has been significantly advanced by feminist and cultural studies scholars long before the so-called “affective turn.” It is too often assumed that such affects are purely spontaneous and unstructured, or that they are ideologically, or biologically, or biopolitically manufactured. But again, cultural studies sees them as sites of cultural work and political struggle. While progressive forces keep asking, “where’s the outrage,” the forces of conservatism have been mobilizing and shaping people’s affect and the result, perhaps, is Donald Trump. It did not just happen by accident, or simply because of feelings produced elsewhere (e.g., in the economy).
Second, I have argued that politics (at least in the U.S.) since the 1950s has become increasingly pre-occupied with affect, so much so that we must begin to talk about an affective politics, which is operating on all sides of the political spectrum as it were. Eve Sedgewick, a founding figure in queer theory, once suggested that “the left” has to stop telling people what they should feel and start figuring out what they do feel. Only then can we try to change their "structures of feeling.” I have tried to approach this task with a concept of “mattering maps” as political-cultural constructions. The question is not whether people cannot tell the difference between truth and lies, but whether and where such differences matter to particular groups. The question is not whether people are too ignorant to recognize the contradictions in their positions, but whether and which contradictions are made to matter. The question is not whether people refuse to accept social differences (e.g., of race, gender, sexuality, etc.) but which differences matter and how they matter.
Political possibility lies somewhere in the space between where people are (materially, ideologically AND affectively in the popular and the willingness to put our own feelings and certainties at risk. This project—the need to engage the popular—is what called cultural studies into existence. If we do not take it up in all its complexity, contingency, contextuality and contradictions, who will? Who will negotiate the constant tension between the pedagogies of knowledge production and those of a popular politics. This is a task that matters now more than ever; it is a task that I hope we cultural studies scholars will, enthusiastically and with due seriousness, carry on together.
And that leads me to my final point: the humility of cultural studies demands that intellectual work be a conversation—a passionate, convivial yet agonistic conversation. Such a conversation will have to find new ways of arguing and disagreeing. We do not need more conversations in which everyone merely asserts their own positions and differences; we need to advance the conversation; we need conversations that move us toward better knowledge, that enable us ourselves with others to go on thinking. Such conversations will demand new practices of labor and collaboration, new forms and media of communication, new infrastructures that can create new configurations, new unities-in-difference.
I am deeply honored to be receiving the Stuart Hall Award from the Association for Cultural Studies. It has both professional and deeply personal meaning for me. A life in cultural studies is never a solitary life. It is a life of relations, of teaching and learning, sometimes joyful and exuberant and sometimes frustrating and disturbing. If I may paraphrase Confucius (with thanks to Stephen Chan), out walking with two companions, I am sure to be in the company of my teachers. For me this award is about the paths I have walked and the companions who have walked with me and taught me: my friends and teachers, including James Carey and Stuart Hall, Meaghan Morris and John Clarke, and my students over the decades, who have become friends and who have always allowed me the illusion that I was teaching them when they were really teaching me.
I hope that we will find the inspiration to embrace the gift and to continue to walk the paths of cultural studies together. Optimism of the intellect! Thank you.