In an essay on Octavia Butler titled “The Only Lasting Truth,” Tananarive Due calls attention to the necessity of utopic thinking, hope, and desire. It is an important reminder in a political present that is charged with an incessant appeal to catastrophism. The dystopian rise of Donald Trump has drawn on people’s fear and offered minority groups as scapegoats to provide a seemingly simple solution to our problems. Catastrophism worked for Trump, but in order to counter darkness, we need not more darkness but hope that the world we desire is still possible.
I could write an article about the world falling apart. It wouldn’t take more than a glance at any popular media outlet. Everyday another powerful man is facing accusations or charges of sexual misconduct. The fear of nuclear war continues to escalate. The U.S. government recently shut down—largely over how we will choose our immigrants.
I could write that the world is going to shit, that we should STOP having children. There won’t be a planet for them anyway. It would be great if we could stop global warming, but without a way to control corporations, what’s the point in trying to do anything as an individual? And don’t get me started on capitalism: THERE IS NO ALTERNATIVE. We just have to deal with what is happening. Eventually it will trickle down and things will get better.
I could write—because only a couple of years ago I truly believed this—that literature is meaningless in a world that is in this state. However, I won’t write that article because I don’t believe it. More than ever, we need hope that our desire for something better can be realized, that we have power to make that happen. In Catastrophism: The Apocalyptic Politics of Collapse and Rebirth, the authors argue that tactics of fear won’t work to initiate the kind of change that the world needs, the kind of change to which we as teachers and scholars of literature and social justice dedicate our lives:
“Catastrophe can be paralyzing, not mobilizing. Revolutionaries should be talking about possibilities of transformation, not spinning tales of great chaos and suffering. That’s not to say that there isn’t plenty of chaos and suffering in life. But looking to epochal quantities of both as the shocks that will awaken the masses out of their somnolence is not promising” (12).
Rather than turn to the devastation, I want to turn instead to moments of hope. In doing so, I don’t mean to ignore the harsh realities of the world, the tragedy and injustice that surround us. Instead, I want to take the hope and ride it, build energy from it, and encourage continued efforts. Because even as it feels more and more like the world is falling to pieces, there are still glimpses of the possibility of a better future.
Scrolling through Facebook, I came across the following post:
Because we in this department spend a lot of time (all of our time, it sometimes seems) in books, we are very likely to find ourselves homesick for a place we’ve never been to. These places are desirable; they are depictions of the kind of world we want to live in. For the most part, they aren’t utopias per se, but I believe that if we find value in them, it is because they contain some element of the world we want to live in. Literature often offers us the kinds of narratives that show humanity’s potential.
Let’s dedicate this semester to finding hope in the work that we do. Instead of focusing on how little hope there is, let’s harness those momentary glimpses and build from them. Women’s voices are finally being heard — let’s make sure they reach beyond the social elite by sustaining the conversation. Instead of assuming we can’t do anything about climate change, look into ways that individuals can make a difference and encourage others to do the same. Embrace the public humanities and find ways to take your learning beyond the walls of the academy. When we foster hope as individuals we are better able to create coalitions engaged in making change.
Let’s acknowledge what needs to be changed while also finding hope in what has changed, not in a move toward complacency, but to remind ourselves that change is possible, social justice is possible— there are hints of it all around us, especially in the literature and scholarship that we read.
This past semester was a hard one for many of us. But watching our community face these challenges, I saw utopian glimpses of community and I continue to see it. People no longer at Lehigh have sent regards. During the worst of times, I saw friends come together in support and entire classrooms taking a moment to let each other know that they understood. These moments offer me the hope that I need to believe that the world — that humanity— is truly good.
Let’s remember that utopia is always on the horizon. Let’s remember that we will always be working toward it. Just as we will always be working toward social justice, always fighting for the world to be better. That doesn’t mean it’s an impossible goal, or that we are headed for catastrophe. It means that, more than anything, we need hope to sustain us.
Let’s create and sustain hope. The future will be better, so long as we keep fighting for it.