January 17, 2009

Six Points Towards A Critical Optimism


1. Optimism has less to do with your concrete situation and more to do with your attitude towards that situation.

There is no point in being an optimist only when things are easy or going well.

Therefore there must be possibilities for optimism in any kind of situation, no matter how negative or catastrophic. These possibilities might have something to do with one’s outlook.

The cliché version of this idea is that in rich Western countries, where life is comfortable and we have everything, people are often miserable: on anti-depressants, in psychoanalysis, etc. While in very poor countries, where they have very little, there is often much joy and a great zest for life.

This cliché may or may not be true. Nonetheless, it does illustrate how sometimes optimism has more to do with one’s attitude than with one’s material situation.

2. Focusing on the next small, experimental step instead of the big utopian dream.

Jacob confesses that he is really not an optimist. He of course has an interest in optimism but in reality can’t quite find the way.

This confession is followed by a statement. If he were to say that “the world is not going well’ many people in the audience might disagree but everyone would know what he was talking about.

Reasons Jacob feels ‘the world is not going well:

- Increasing discrepancy between the rich and the poor. More and more millionaires and multi-millionaire and billionaires and multi-billion dollar corporations. And at the same time more and more people who are desperately poor, living off a dollar a day or less, in conditions that few of us would consider humane.

- The appearance of right wings governments popping up in so many different countries. Governments that care more about protecting the wealth than they do about the lives of their own citizens. And that get elected using the techniques of advertising and emotional manipulation.

- Environmental degradation. A fear that in our lifetime clear air and clean water will become increasingly scarce. One statistic that is particularly alarming is that some time in the next twenty years there will no longer be enough clear water to grow all of the rice we currently consume. Rice of course being the major food staple of much of the planet.

Jacob could go on like this all night.

However, a deeper reason for pessimism is that so many of these crisis’s are not ‘problems that can be solved’ but are instead thoroughly integrated into the fundamental structures of our society, inseparable from the very DNA of Western thinking and culture.

The kinds of changes required for substantial improvement, real fundamental shifts in the way we live and think, seem unlikely to say the least. And in comparison, the ethical decisions we are actually capable of enacting feel out of scale with the global breadth and complexity of the situation.

So thinking about all of this Jacob feels astonishingly pessimistic.

However, if we instead concentrate on the ‘next, small experimental step’ it is true that in any given situation there is always something that can be done. It is also interesting to think of it as an experimental step. You try something today. Tomorrow you look back and decide if you want to continue down the same path or instead try something different. There is always some room for possibility.

3. A respect for the facts and for reality.

Much of 20th century art and thought was about tearing away the veil of culture and illusion and seeing what lies underneath. Of course, if ones rips away a veil of cultured, civilized illusion, what lies underneath might well seem ugly in comparison. This 20th century desire to unmask, to reveal the way things really are, is one of the main reasons that ‘facts’ and ‘reality’ have become associated with pessimism.

However, we can’t let the pessimists claim control of the facts. Optimists also need to deal in the hard currency of facts and reality.

Saying something is ‘a fact’ or ‘a reality’ is always connected to power. Stating that something is a fact is also a way of making it into a fact.

If a father tells his son, “You can’t be an artist, instead you have to work a real job, that’s just the way life is, those are the facts,” at the same time the father is promoting a specific way of looking at the world.

To say that life is hard or cruel also serves normalize hardship and cruelty. To say that hardship and cruelty must always be denounced and fought against is clearly a different position. There is really no reason not to state that things do sometimes change and that life is often beautiful.

We are interested in an optimism that looks at the world with open eyes. There is of course constant cruelty in the world, the question is: what is our attitude towards it?

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

An essential point: because if some people are simply born optimists and others are born pessimists then there’s nothing to be done and no point in talking about it.

Perhaps the first step in turning a pessimist into an optimist is for the pessimist to see their own pessimism not as ‘the way things actually are’, but as a bias, a lens or screen through which he or she views the world. Seeing one’s own position as a bias might create a small opening through which other possibilities might begin to flow.

If one’s pessimism if not a fundamental reflection of the world, but is (at least partly) a bias, perhaps in some situations a more optimistic view would be more useful.

5. There is no optimism without imagination.

This point speaks for itself.

6. Resistance.

The most essential point. We have no interest in an optimism that simply says everything is going well and life is full of small, beautiful things and we should enjoy them and be grateful. (Though this is of course true.)

Because when we say ‘critical optimism’ we also mean an optimism of resistance, an optimism that allows us to fight against injustice and to fight against the abuses of power.

In developing this project we have realized that capitalism and the right wing are often extremely optimistic. We therefore need a critical optimism, an optimism of resistance, that has the strength and force to match injustice blow for optimistic blow.

In an interview with Cinemascope magazine, the American experimental filmmaker John Gianvito says:

“As far as one’s thoughts about our present predicaments or about the future, I have no difficulty understanding from whence the pessimism and cynicism springs. However, what’s critical for me is that regardless of one’s thoughts, one’s actions must be those of an optimist. Otherwise one is only further assuring that the status quo remains unchanged.”



a.rawlings said...

Beautifully crafted; thanks for posting. So, would Jacob consider himself a critical optimist?

Lynn HB said...

Today I found myself trying to describe something important to a friend - a new way of seeing, a new approach to the world that I have been working towards for myself because I've been feeling pulled down by the snark & destructive critiques of those around me. I wrote to my friend: "I'm giving up snark for 'critical optimism' in 2010". The phrase just showed up as I typed. Then I decided to google it because it just sounded right to me - and voila, here's your post Jacob - from almost exactly a year ago today. And you say so much that's exactly right on, especially the points about imagination and reality and resistance. Thanks for your clarity. Have you written more about this?