Conditions of hope: care, creativity and the capability of connection

Gross, Jonathan (2019). 'Conditions of hope: care, creativity and the capability of connection' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA 2019, London, UK.


Depending on your feelings towards Brexit, right-wing populism, and climate science, it may seem that hope is currently in short supply. But hope and optimism are not the same thing (Eagleton 2015). Optimism may be a more-or-less arbitrarily assumed view that things will go well, potentially involving a complacent complicity with the injustices of the present. Hope, by contrast, is the deep sense that our actions matter, even when we can’t be sure when or how they will make a difference (Solnit 2016). This paper, building on the work of Oliver Bennett (2015), argues for the importance of understanding the conditions that enable and constrain hope, and the implications this may have for policy making. In doing so, it argues that hope is a condition of agency, that it needs to taken seriously as a topic within the capabilities approach (Sen 1999; Nusbaum 2011, Robeyns 2017), and, more broadly, within the political work of empowerment.

The first half of the paper provides a critical examination of the literature on hope. Whilst much of the published material on this topic is religious - including a recent monograph, On Hope, by Pope Francis - (2017), or psychological (for example, Seligman 2018), there is a small but growing body of work that discusses hope in relation to questions of political action and change (for example, Solnit 2016, Van Hooft 2011, Lear 2006, Zournazi 2002, Shade 2001). Much of this work is theoretical in nature, and there is only one significant attempt to address hope in relation to policy. That is the work of Oliver Bennett (2015). Bennett addresses the topic in relation to cultural policy, specifically. Notably, however, his work takes a broad view of cultural policy, and deliberately avoids engaging with the role of ‘art’ and expressive meaning-making. This paper takes up the challenge of doing so, and makes the case that conditions conducive to art-making and creative expression can play a distinctive and consequential role in expanding people’s substantive freedoms to ‘do and be what they have reason to value’ (Sen 1999).

This argument is developed via the analysis of empirical material derived from fieldwork conducted with young people in one London borough: Harrow. Examining what enables and constrains the ‘cultural capability’ of young people in this area – the substantive freedom to co-create culture, and to give form and value to their experiences (Gross and Wilson 2018; Wilson and Gross 2017; Wilson, Gross and Bull 2017) – the paper suggests that practices of ‘care’ (Tronto 2013) are crucial to enabling cultural capability, and that cultural capability, in turn, expands people’s sense that their actions matter. In doing so, the paper points towards new possibilities for cultural practice and policy making in the UK and internationally – and indicates the need for scholars working within the capabilities approach to engage more fully with questions of cultural capability.

Drawing on both these theoretical and empirical analyses, the paper argues that conditions of care and creativity have the capacity to support the expansion of hope. In doing so, it suggests that cultural policy-makers, arts organisations, NGOs, activists and others should directly and concertedly address themselves to their potential role in enabling conditions of hope. Such conditions are deeply relational, and the paper indicates that they have the ability to expand human connection. Conditions of hope may enable the capability of connection - the substantive freedom to make and sustain empowering relationships; and as such, cultural capability has the potential to act as a “fertile functioning” (Wolff and De-Shalit 2007). On this basis, the paper concludes by suggesting that understanding hope, and its conditions, is not a peripheral concern. It is an urgent political question, hiding in plain sight.

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