Hope Speaks: Eagleton, King Lear, and Star Wars
“Can only those hope who can talk?”
(Ludwig Wittgenstein, “Philosophical Investigations”)
“People without hope not only don’t write novels, but what is more to the point, they don’t read them.”
(Flannery O’Connor, “The Nature and Aim of Fiction”)
Is it not naive to speak of hope? Surely, hope is for slogans. Hope is for the deluded and the naive. Hope is for fairy tales.
Perhaps. But what is there left for us if we reject hope? Optimism? Pessimism?
With his usual wry sardonicism, Terry Eagleton makes the case that optimism is in fact a less rigorous commitment than hope: “There may be many good reasons for believing that a situation will turn out well, but to expect that it will do so because you are an optimist is not one of them” (Hope without Optimism, 2015).
(We could say the same of pessimism, a disposition whose inverse relation to optimism Eagleton slyly forces it to admit.)
Optimism(/pessimism) is, for Eagleton, a belief based in the tautological opinion that things tend to work out for good(/ill) more or less “just ‘cuz,” no matter the elaborate (or, indeed, ideological) justifications we may give for that opinion.
By contrast, Eagleton writes, authentic hope must be “underpinned by reasons.”
“It must be able to pick out the features of a situation that render it credible. Otherwise it is just a gut feeling, like being convinced that there is an octopus under your bed. Hope must be fallible, as temperamental cheerfulness [or dourness, we might add] is not” (p. 3).
I would hope not to have to convince the reader why hope appears as a relevant and timely subject of inquiry these days. It doesn’t take much effort to find hope at the ground of most meaningful and future-oriented human action. We can imagine hope as a kind of ethical substrate without which nihilism (not to mention optimism and pessimism) threatens to reduce deliberative human action to the mere resolution of frustrations, and linguistic meaning to ideological myth: the synthesis of which we can observe clearly enough in the precipitous rise of right-wing extremism in many places and neoliberalism quite everywhere. (Which is not to say that one cannot hope for ill as well as good.)
Eagleton’s examination of hope, particularly his analysis of hope under the worst of material conditions, exposes the contours of how hope functions through language. But I think there is a deeper connection. Hope undergirds future-oriented action, but more fundamentally, I think we can find hope at the origin of effective speech, thus constituting the basic potentiality of understanding.
Hope, Speech and Time
Hope and speech share an affinity to diachronic (or unfolding) time that can help us approach an analysis of their interdependence.
In the opening of the book of Genesis, God creates the physical universe with a series of performative speech acts:
“Let there be light.”
“Let there be a vault in the midst of the waters, and let it divide water from water.”
“Let the waters under the heavens be gathered in one place so that the dry land will appear.”
Concerning hope, the apostle Paul calls to mind these moments in his epistle to the Romans: “The creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope” — that is, the hope of a future salvation (8:20). Paul concludes, “Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees?” (v. 24).
As a pious Pharisee and then a Christian, Paul surely would have been thinking of the Genesis account of the creation act: the act of generative speech. Paul interprets this primordial speech act as an act of hope.
Indeed, hope requires futility (the Greek mataiotes from the passage cited above indicates inefficacy and thereby transience), for why would we hope if all were well? Likewise, futility requires time, for we cannot know if an act will be either efficacious or not unless there is time to tell. Narrativity as such requires time in order that event X does not coincide with events Y and Z, in which case there would be no plot. And of course, narrative, as a way of redescribing the human experience of reality as “emplotted” (to follow Aristotle and Ricoeur), is a type of speech. Thus the divine speech act of creation not only performs a command to the as-yet-unformed cosmos, but insofar as speech requires time, this utterance reveals itself to be a commitment to time itself, an unfolding which in its very form constitutes diachronic time and so also constitutes the certainty of death and the possibility of life. Hope can only exist where there is potential, however slight, and we can speak of potentiality — indeed, speak at all — only if there is time.
Eagleton uses this fact to consider the differences between hope and desire:
“Because hope involves a degree of expectation, it is generally speaking more narrationally inflected than desire, which may simply shuttle from one object to the next with no very obvious story line. By contrast, there is the ghost of a plot to hope, which links a present impulse to a future fulfillment. There is a similar plotting about the act of promising. To hope means to project oneself imaginatively into a future that is grasped as possible, and thus as in some shadowy sense already present, rather than simply to languish in the grip of an appetite” (p. 52).
The comparison of hope with promise making, another kind of performative speech act, is apt. Whereas desire does not necessarily entail action (in fact, Eagleton says, desire more often than not results not in movement but frustration), hope is, in a way, the basis of any future-oriented act. This aspect of potentiality or possibility is what ties hope to the diachrony of past-present-future, as Eagleton observes:
“Potentiality is what articulates the present with the future, and thus lays down the material infrastructure of hope. Indeed, it is because there is strictly speaking no present — because every present is radically in excess of itself, apprehended in the act of retaining a trace of the past while passing instantaneously over into a future — that hope is conceivable” (p. 52).
Thomas Aquinas supports such an observation about hope’s ties to the future and past as felt in the present. Because hope is grounded in possibility (the object of hope being “a future good, difficult but impossible to obtain”), it may thus begin with and/or be modified by past experience, “since by experience man acquires the faculty of doing something easily, and the result of this is hope” (Summa Theologica, I-II, 40.5). Herein lies hope’s cognitive or rational element: Experience molds our hope and, in turn, our actions inform our experience.
Speech is also tied to time. It is a basic semiotic fact that an utterance’s meaning arises not simply from each sign’s differential relation to every other within the given sign system; but additionally, meaning arises as signs are strung together in spatiotemporal sequence, each combination both delimiting the signification of each sign and setting it at a surplus of connotation. Understanding meaning requires time as well, and can only be approached by taking in the contiguous string of signs that comprise an utterance. The relation of writing and reading, which is the ground of hermeneutics (the art and theory of interpretation), is implicated in the very act (and fact) of speech.
We’ll come back to that.
First, a stress test showing how hope fares at its extreme limits will help us better grasp the upshot of hope as a rigorous commitment beyond optimism or pessimism.
The movie’s last act begins with an invocation of hope. Armed with little more than the oral report that her father, a conscience-stricken Imperial architect, has secretly built a hidden weakness into the lately active Death Star battle station, the protagonist Jyn Erso answers critics within the Rebel Alliance council with the iconic declaration, “Rebellions are built on hope.” This comes as Jyn tries (unsuccessfully) to persuade the fledgling band into an all-out attack on the planet Scarif — occupied by the Galactic Empire — in order to steal the Death Star plans. Her plea is denied with the phrase, “There is no hope,” and not without reason. Few trust Jyn’s testimony, and it is clear that the mission would be a longshot. Despite the denial, Jyn and her ragtag comrades decide to attempt it themselves, later drawing in the rest of the Alliance fleet as a result.
Things certainly seem hopeless for the Rogue One team by the end of the film. The uphill struggle to finally transmit the Death Star plans to the Rebel fleet is a longshot to begin with, but as the battle goes on, it becomes increasingly clear that there will be no way out for the team, as one by one each fighter is cornered and killed until only Jyn and her comrade Cassian Andor are left.
Rogue One’s climax and ending force us as readers to ask: is it possible to hope when faced with what we might call a hopeless situation? Can hope exist in tragedy? And not just in sad circumstances but, as in this case, in the face of annihilation, a literal or symbolic “bringing to nothing”?
Eagleton ponders this last question by drawing on the work of Jonathan Lear, whose work focuses on the historical case of Native American Chief Plenty Coups and his reaction to the near extinction of his tribe, the Crow, at the turn of the twentieth century. From this case, Eagleton concludes that the most exemplary hope may emerge in the direst of straits. This is a radical or “fundamental” hope that arises when circumstances transcend the ability to understand them. Such a hope is located in the fact that only after the cataclysm will the concepts be available to speak it and to recover.
Thus, Eagleton writes,
“the most authentic kind of hope is whatever can be salvaged, stripped of guarantees, from a general dissolution. It represents an irreducible residue that refuses to give way, plucking its resilience from an openness to the possibility of unmitigated disaster” (p. 114).
Sure, he admits, there are cases of tragedy (Eagleton cites the Holocaust as one clear example) that leave nothing left to console or flourish. Even still, he says, there could be no tragedy in the first place without a sense of value, no matter the fruitfulness of the event: “We would not call tragic the destruction of something we did not prize.”
For the Rogue One team, coupled with the threat of personal annihilation is a teleological concern that premature death may also spell a more general defeat or failure. How does hope function under these conditions?
For one thing, Eagleton points out that even though one’s hopes for oneself must necessarily end at death, one can yet hope for what is possible for others. But acting in hope isn’t just about outcomes. Sometimes, hope enables or demands action for its own sake. Thus it is that “hope can acknowledge loss or destruction to be unavoidable, which is where it differs from some currents of optimism, yet still refuse to capitulate.”
What drives the Rogue One team is neither optimism about their chances of success nor pessimism about the odds of their losing (which are really the same thing); rather it’s a hope that begins first and foremost with the worth of the particular action they take: the possibility rather than the probability of its efficacy. Because hope can result in taking action for its own sake in spite of cataclysm and thus transcend it, Rogue One’s annihilation coincides with the narrative pivot point by which hope is able to bring something out of nothing.
But what is that something? What is it to which Rogue One’s hope attaches itself and how does that hope become realized? The answer to both of those questions is speech.
Both in the face of dire challenges and in their wake, you can’t have hope if you can’t speak it. Eagleton observes,
“Hope would stumble to a halt only when we could no longer identify cruelty and injustice for what they were. To speak of hopelessness must logically presuppose the idea of hope. It is when meaning as such collapses that tragedy is no longer possible” (p. 122).
It is precisely in the possibility of naming tragedy and speaking of it — that is, of bearing witness — that Rogue One’s actions find their ultimate hope. Not only do Jyn and the others act based on the hope that transmitting the Death Star plans will prevent untold deaths to come, but also that it is still possible to communicate the injustices of the Empire and to be understood, without which even successfully transmitting the plans would be pointless. After being turned away by the council, the manifest hope of the Rogue One team is that the council can still be convinced because there is still the capacity to signify, to forge understanding, even if it’s the last thing they can do.
If, as Eagleton writes, authentic hope is that which “survives the general ruin,” the “irreducible residue” left over from catastrophe, then yes: there is hope even in Rogue One’s tragic end. Just in time, Jyn transmits the plans for the very weapon that looms overhead and in short order destroys them.
To even speak of a given cataclysm at all, Eagleton says, “there must be something that survives it, even if it is no more than a distraught messenger or a scrap of paper” (p. 123). The irreducible residue of hope is the capacity to speak, and more basically, to signify. Rogue One’s transmission to the ship in orbit contains the Death Star plans, yes, but it is also itself a kind of speech act, a message, a bridge between cataclysm (past) and solution (future), one which the soldiers and finally Princess Leia literally carry in the form of a data tape, bringing a new (or perhaps returning to a more basic) meaning of the phrase “bearing witness.”
The deaths of Jyn and Cassian and the others represent, for them, “the end of narrativity as such,” as Eagleton puts it. Death is the terminus: the non-event which swallows up the possibility of further events. But their last act is by contrast a speech act which, as an event, continues to constitute the past and the future into an ongoing narrative. As long as history moves forward, there is hope, since that means things can change. (Importantly, then, hope is not based in the idea of progress but process.) The message sent underscores and points to this very fact by virtue of its signification qua event: a “new hope” for the fledgling Rebel Alliance’s struggle against a totalitarian power. Thus there are two levels of witness going on in Rogue One’s climax.
For his part, Eagleton finds in the words of King Lear’s Edgar a reflection on hope-speech in the midst of tragedy when he says:
“the worst is not
So long as we can say ‘This is the worst’.”
(Act IV, scene 1)
Bearing witness seems paradigmatic to tragic hope, or “hope in extremis,” which Eagleton in turn finds to be paradigmatic of hope itself. This is clear when he paraphrases Edgar: “As long as calamity can be given a voice, it ceases to be the final word” (p. 122).
Within Edgar’s proverb, though, lies the germ of an awareness that coming conditions may in fact bring the word to extinction: “Hope is extinguished when language is obliterated,” Eagleton says, adding that, true, language can’t repair one’s condition simply by talking about it, naming it, understanding it; but on the other hand, one cannot begin to repair it without doing so. Interpreting the world, which requires language, is an essential precondition to transforming it.
At its end, Rogue One’s “hope in extremis” is located in precisely this movement, the movement to speak. If hope begins with trust in a potentiality and ends with the constitution of the not yet, what more basic potentiality is there than the potential invoked by language, by which one transmits signs in the hope that they are interpretable?
After Jyn completes the fatal transmission, she and Cassian look up to the sky. Cassian asks, “Do you think, anybody is listening?”
“I do,” Jyn says. “Someone’s out there.”
Narrative, the emplotted redescription of reality, the metonymic stringing together of events (that is, of signs) and thus testimony or witness, is a fundamentally hopeful activity, for it insists in the potentiality of time and event. Narrative is history. And history is speech.
And so we return to hermeneutics.
Hoping to Be Understood
Interpretation hinges upon gaps: the irreducible gap between signifier and signified, between speaker and hearer, between reader and text. As Wolfgang Iser puts it in his essay “Interaction between Text and Reader” (1980):
“Whenever the reader bridges the gaps, communication begins. The gaps function as a kind of pivot on which the whole text-reader relationship revolves” (p. 111).
Because meaning is constituted by gaps, by absence, by differences between signifiers rather than by their independent meanings, by their signification in the context of an utterance rather than their platonic identity, understanding always depends on interpretation. Iser sums up the process of understanding as a movement generated by the necessary absence language implies:
“Communication in literature…is a process set in motion and regulated, not by a given code, but by a mutually restrictive and magnifying interaction between the explicit and the implicit, between revelation and concealment” (p. 111).
We could say the same of any text. As a reader/hearer (really, one is always a reader, always a writer), I move in a sort of spiral between the event of reading/hearing a word, a line, a page, a sign, and the formation of a prejudgment about the meaning of the whole text, and back. Reading/hearing more words, lines and pages causes me to continually revise those judgments. This necessary movement from part to whole to part is called the hermeneutic circle. It is a response to the syntagmatic unfolding and apprehension of meaning through time.
Speaking/writing and interpreting are commitments to potentiality, for they involve the creation and bridging of gaps. In fact, there is no definite line we can draw between speaking and interpreting. Observing Aristotle’s use of the word hermeneia in the Organon, Ricoeur points out that the word etymologically designates not only interpretation but signification as such, so that in a way, “to say something of something is, in the complete and strong sense of the term, to interpret” that thing (Freud and Philosophy, 1970, p. 21).
To speak is to act in the hope that the signs transmitted are interpretable, that in some moment-which-is-not-yet (the written or recorded sign implies a hope in a potentially infinite temporal distance) some Other can and will understand. Hope and hermeneutics embrace the gaps and distances inherent in communication and commit to the risks involved in generating and bridging them. I mean, to speak-write-read is always to defer. I do so every moment in the reading event by always oscillating between an apprehension of the part and an apprehension of the whole. The same dynamic can be transposed to other actions. Recalling Aquinas’ words about hope’s cognitive roots in a person’s experiences and thus their expectations, we see that hope is hermeneutical in its interpretive oscillation between the present, the past and the future.
Actually, the idea of “bridging the gap” may be misleading; for there is ultimately no way to eliminate the gap. Communication is propelled by the gap between speakers, between text and reader, between sign and signifier; but, as Iser puts it, this gap is a “no-thing.” Our “bridge” is always a (re)construction which itself defers meaning even as it builds understanding. As with tragic hope, the work of interpretation is about generating some-thing from this no-thing. But that doesn’t mean that the no-thing is resolved away. Despite this (or perhaps because of it), hope rejoices in the fundamental generativity of language.
Though Eagleton’s outlook by the end of his book is sobered by a reflection on death, I find in hope’s linguistic foundations an analogue of his earlier point that “hope can acknowledge loss or destruction to be unavoidable…yet still refuse to capitulate.”
Nothing as Something
To eschew interpretation, to insist that it is possible to fully grasp meaning, that meaning is self-evident on the face of any utterance, reflects a certain rejection of hope. In its place is a kind of unjustified optimism about language (which is the same as pessimism about language) which must either crumble in the face of ambiguity or else impose a totalitarian regime upon meaning by denying language’s irreducible ungraspability, its indeterminacy, its undecidability (a denial which Ricoeur calls idolatry, a collapse of the infinite horizon into a finite thing). To claim such an immediate, supra-lingual understanding of the supposed unitary or self-evident meaning of a text is to create a new text, a palimpsest, but to deny that one has done so. In any case, those who deride interpretation go on interpreting in spite of themselves, revealing that optimism(/pessimism) is really more naive than hope is sometimes thought to be.
This affirmation of interpretation is not to say that hope can only express itself positively. Hope can also appear as negation, for it must be said at this point that if speaking/writing is the act par excellence of hope, this of course doesn’t mean that all speech is hope-speech.
Eagleton’s analysis of King Lear illuminates how hope can appear negatively. In the play’s opening, the old king rashly imposes on his three daughters a rhetorical contest for the largest share of the kingdom:
“Which of you shall we say doth love us most?
That we our largest bounty may extend
Where nature doth with merit challenge.”
(Act I, scene 1)
Cordelia’s two sisters, Goneril and Regan, respond by stretching language beyond all measure, as Eagleton puts it, reminding me at least of what many have seen to be a crisis in the status of language and meaning under a political hegemony whose “post-fact” romp through the tropological hay of hyperbole and euphemism has worked in the interest of so much damage in the lives of real human beings. Goneril’s speech is emblematic of this inflationary rhetorical character:
“Sir, I love you more than words can wield the matter;
Dearer than eye-sight, space, and liberty;
Beyond what can be valued, rich or rare;
No less than life, with grace, health, beauty, honour;
As much as child e’er loved, or father found;
A love that makes breath poor, and speech unable;
Beyond all manner of so much I love you.”
When their father asks Cordelia “What can you say to draw / A third more opulent than your sisters?”, she merely replies with “Nothing.” In doing so, she calls to light the hypocrisy and meaninglessness of her sisters’ bad-faith speech. Eagleton comments,
“When a genuine nullity (Goneril and Regan’s lack of love for their father) has been inflated to everything, only a deflationary nothing can restore some sense of the real” (p. 116).
Where her sisters’ hyperbolic speech abuses language in order to cause destruction, Cordelia’s speech, though comparatively short and negative, represents an insistence upon meaning and its potential. “Goneril and Regan set the truth at nothing,” Eagleton writes, “while for Cordelia nothing is the truth.”
It seems to me that by enunciating this truth (that her love must necessarily be split between her father and other things important to herself) and thus bearing witness against both the falsity of her sisters and the discursive farce of her father the king, Cordelia has spoken in hope. After her enraged father has disowned her and left, her sisters deride her for not taking advantage as they did. Cordelia’s parting response remains future-oriented, for suddenly that is, in a sense, all that is left to her:
“Time shall unfold what plaited cunning hides:
Who cover faults, at last shame them derides.”
(King Lear, Act I, scene 1).
Hope, then, is the hermeneutical commitment to the not yet, and when all else is removed, its most basic act is signification. In the face of tragedy, where words seem to fail, hope constitutes the possibility of event by bearing witness. In the face of ideological speech which impoverishes the sign and colonizes it for its own ends, hope responds with what Ricoeur frames as a hermeneutics of suspicion which attempts to “purify discourse of its excrescences, liquidate the idols, go from drunkenness to sobriety, realize our state of poverty once and for all” in order to “let speak what once, what each time, was said, when meaning appeared anew, when meaning was at its fullest” (1970, p. 27). Thus hope-speech is a speech which also aims to let speak. Moving beyond the rigidity of dogma, hope-speech is rhetorically oriented, meaning that it understands its speech to be always situated, historical, dynamic, effectual and performative. And, as a hermeneutical process, hope is a rigorous commitment to learning and allowing oneself to be affected by the demands of the present while keeping itself aimed at the future.
If there is no hope, then as the apostle elsewhere says, “We are of all people most to be pitied.” But how could we be so naive to think that there is no hope, as long as we are speaking?
Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologica. Second and Revised Edition. 1920. Web.
Eagleton, Terry. Hope without Optimism. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2015. Print.
Iser, Wolfgang. “Interaction between Text and Reader.” The Reader in the Text: Essays on Audience and Interpretation. Eds. Suleiman, Susan R. and Inge Crosman. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980. 106–119. Print.
Ricoeur, Paul. Freud and Philosophy. Trans. Denis Savage. New Haven: Yale U Press, 1970. Print.