February 4, 2007

Towards A Critical Optimism: Preliminary Notes


Introduction: excerpt from an email dated June 22, 2006

I was drinking with Pieter de Buyser. It looks like I will also be doing a project here in Brussels with him. Don't think I ever told you about him but I met him in London about six years ago and he's been a fan of the work ever since. I've always thought of him as one of the happiest people I know. I am so fascinated by happy people. I always wonder: are they really happy or is their happiness just a cover for some even deeper pain. But in this it is likely I am only projecting.

Pieter was very attracted to this title "An Anthology of Optimism" that I've had kicking around for the past couple of years and he wants to find money to do something with it next year. Pieter is also one of the most optimistic people I have ever met so it seems somehow appropriate that this title, this project that is not really a project but so far only a title, has finally landed here in Brussels with him.

Towards this end, we have spent the past two days speaking about optimism and what it means. Pieter says we try to experience the world directly but this is impossible so we need optimism or pessimism as a gate through which we can view reality. [Note added later: Pieter doesn’t remember saying this and in fact completely disagrees with it. He says he does in fact want to try to experience reality directly and that it is actually possible.] Pieter then denied he was an optimist; he said an optimist believes he will win and a pessemist believes he will loose but he (Pieter) doesn't know whether he will win or loose, he simply goes forward and whatever happens will happen.

But I said I thought he was wrong, if you think you will win that doesn't neccessarily mean you are an optimist, it might only mean you are a winner. Winning and losing have nothing to do with optimism. Optimism is about making decisions about how one is going to act.

Richard (who is here with Sylvie) then said that if you don't take pleasure from life there is no reason to be an optimist, optimism has its foundation in an enjoyment of life, and when he said that I thought it really got to the heart of my problems with living. A dissatisfaction with pleasure, or how for me pleasure is always so deeply mixed with doubt.

Part One: Notes from our preliminary meetings dated January 12 – 26, 2007

Optimism is an attitude towards reality that affects ones actions.

We are talking about, searching for, an optimism that is also critical.

Is optimism also connected to desire?

A critical optimist has respect for the facts: both in knowing them and in the attempt to change things.

Optimism is predicated on the fact that things have to change.


Can you be optimistic without being naïve?

You can’t have criticism without doubt.

Q: Is there such a thing as a sad optimist?
A: Yes. Optimism has nothing to do with mood.

Q: Do optimists have a natural advantage in competition? How do they feel about strategy?
A: A critical optimist doesn’t over-emphasize strategy but certainly doesn’t want to be stupid about things either.

What would it take to turn a pessimist into an optimist?

What angers me most about the current situation is that the first world takes its wealth directly off the backs of the third world and yet in general we pretend this is not the case. Or to put it another way: we still have slaves, we’ve just moved them overseas. But whereas before, when the slaves lived in our homes, there was at least a chance that one might treat them decently (if only because one wished to take care of one’s property and protect one’s financial investment), now, with the slaves safely out of sight and out of mind, we basically treat them like complete shit.

A pessimist says the glass is half empty. An optimist says the glass is half full. But a critical optimist says that of course the glass is simultaneously both half empty and half full and the most important thing is that we keep going and keep doing things.

Identity is the enemy of optimism.

An optimist is open to possibilities.

The kind of optimism we are talking about, searching for, arises from a need for optimism, from seeing that without some sort of optimism nothing is in fact possible.

Does an optimist want to take risks for the sake of taking risks?

The fact that air and water are still sometimes free is a deep pain in the hearts of capitalists everywhere.

Critical optimism is about resistance.

Perhaps instead of “critical optimism” we might try “dirty optimism.” Somehow more evocative.

We agree that the biggest problem facing the 21st century is capitalism, that capitalism is the source of most of the worlds problems. And the thing about capitalism is that it in fact contains a great deal of optimism. So maybe one way to fight optimism/capitalism is with some other paradigm of optimism.

How about “Anti-capitalist optimism.”

Critical optimism is an optimism that understands the extent to which we are all actually part of the problem.

Marcel Duchamp’s epitaph reads: « D’ailleurs c’est toujours les autres qui meurent. » (“By the way, it’s always the others who die.”) Which I suppose is in some ways strangely optimistic. Though, thinking about it further, it is probably more ironic than optimistic.

Today Pieter and I had kind of a funny idea. Since capitalism is also in many ways very optimistic, and we want to explore what kind of optimism might be able to work against capitalism, we were thinking about what we could do in the show that would actually feel like it pushed against capitalism. And we thought, very simply, that we could give the audience their money back. Then we thought maybe we could pool all the ticket money together and give it to the person in the audience who deserved it most. Maybe the entire audience could decide together who gets the money. Somehow this idea really feels like something to me, somehow crossing a line that you're not supposed to cross.

I think the three phrases I've been thinking of most in relation to the project are “Critical Optimism”, “Dirty Optimism” and “Anti-Capitalist Optimism.” And more and more I think I like the dirty one best.

Writing about the French Revolution, Alexis de Tocqueville said that the most interesting and counter-intuitive aspect was that the revolution happened not when oppression was at it’s greatest, but when the aristocracy was starting to relax it’s strictures and freedom was in fact on the rise. Give them an inch and they’ll take a mile. The same thing happened in Russia leading up to the fall of the Berlin wall. Therefore, we must ask ourselves what might the signs be that capitalism is loosening it’s strictures on humanity. Such signs are exceedingly difficult to detect since capitalism thrives on constant change and it’s remarkable ability to absorb almost any innovation or shift. But what might it feel like if humanity were able to produce a series of innovations that capitalism could not absorb, a number of innovations that were essential but which it was impossible to profit from economically. What might such innovations actually be?

The ethical decisions we are capable of making are out of scale with the global breadth of the problem.

But optimism has little to do with your concrete situation and more to do with your attitude towards that situation.

Western depression has less to do with our comfort and guilt, and more to do with the way consumer culture robs us of the emotional requirements we most need.

If two police officers were to walk in here right now and arrest me and drag me off to jail, it would be very clear what we had to fight against. We have to get Jacob out of jail, artists should have to right to speak, etc. But what we have to fight against is so amorphous and ever-changing and undefined. And yet one of the reasons it’s so amorphous is because it’s so deeply intertwined with our own behavior and actions. So we have to fight ourselves but we don’t want to. And another way of saying we have to fight ourselves is that we have to change.

At the same time there are very concrete injustices that we can see very clearly. But the concrete injustices often don’t affect us directly.

Without the abstraction of money none of the problems we are talking about could exist.

Being optimistic enough to see the value of small changes.

It is important to differentiate between optimism and necessity.

Are there certain conditions that are particularly conducive for being an optimist. Specifically, a feeling that you are part of a community in which you feel a shared sense of values?

It is incredibly easy to confuse symptoms and causes.

In the long run, critical optimism will always lead you into connection with others. But critical optimism will also often place you in opposition.

Critical optimism leaves the vocabulary of friend and foe behind and prefers to speak of barricades, obstacles, problems and solutions.

A critical optimist accepts that barricades, obstacles and problems are also part of the community.

A box filled with glitter with a rope. And Jacob will say: for every pessimistic thought I have I will pull the rope and let the optimism, represented by glitter, rain down on my head.

First draft of the ‘Anthology of Optimism’ letter dated January 15, 2007

To be taken seriously today it often seems that one is supposed to be a pessimist and we contest this premise. (And not only because we want to be taken seriously.)

Most likely one of the reasons that such a generalized pessimism currently exists is because there are so many misunderstandings about optimism: that it is only naiveté or being in a good mood.

To correct such misunderstandings we propose the phrase “critical optimism” because it seems to us evident that no matter how bad things get we still require optimism in order to keep going.

Critical optimism is willing to look at the current situation with open eyes and rigorous analysis but is never willing to let such analysis fall into cynicism or be used as a pretext to give up trying.

Our anthology will collect a series of proposals as to what optimism might mean in the 21st century. We are requesting from you a proposal along these lines. This proposal can be anything: a photograph, a piece of music, an object, a short text, a drawing or painting, a film or video, or perhaps something we hadn’t even thought of yet.

[NOTE: Sent this short, rough text to my friend K.G. and she wrote back: who are you and what have you done with Jacob the dark, brooding, defeatist man that I know and love?!]

Third draft of the ‘Anthology of Optimism’ letter dated January 24, 2007

A request for your personal contribution to our Anthology of Optimism.

An Anthology of Optimism is a pre-emptive celebration of a critical optimism we tentatively hope will increase in the twenty-first century. If it exists already, such critical optimism has so far remained relatively marginal. With our anthology we hope to spur its further development and acceptance.

If we look around today, we might notice that pessimism is frequently the unspoken assumption: if you are a pessimist you seem consequent, if you are an optimist you seem naive. Of course the main reason for this generalized pessimism is because reality seems almost to demand it, because it speaks to the facts so directly. However, we believe a secondary reason is because there are so many misunderstandings about what optimism might mean: that it represents only naiveté or being in a good mood.

Critical optimism attempts to correct such misunderstandings because it seems evident to us that, no matter how bad things get, we still require some sort of optimism in order to keep going. The critical optimist doesn’t ask why we should keep going. For the time being, life remains an ongoing concern. The most immediate possibility is to develop the attitude with which we want to live and use this attitude to fuel our resistance.

Critical optimism is willing to look at the current situation with open eyes and rigorous analysis but is never willing to let this analysis fall into cynicism or be used as a pre-text to give up trying. It is an optimism that understands the degree to which we are all part of the problem, but nonetheless believes there is always something that can be done. No system is omnipotent or absolute and therefore there is always some room for improvement.

Critical optimism is never just hoping that you get what you want because, though the extent of the involvement of love in optimism cannot be measured, it is certain that one is never an optimist purely out of egoism. With our anthology we intend to explore the full spectrum of possibilities for optimism: from our intimate personal relationships all the way to global political realities.

The purpose of this letter is to request a proposal from you. We would very much appreciate it if your proposal reflected a consequent, considered and personal contribution to the question of what optimism might mean in the twenty-first century. This proposal can be absolutely anything: a photograph, a piece of music, an object, a short text, a drawing or painting, a film or video, or perhaps something we haven’t even thought of yet.

We are sending this request to people we think can give a valuable contribution to this question from a variety of fields and points of view. We will use these proposals in a performance entitled An Anthology of Optimism.

We kindly thank you for taking the time to read this letter and very much hope you will lend a small amount of your time and wisdom to our undertaking.