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Reclaiming Hope: Interview with Vincent Crapanzano

This post is associated with the Curated Collection "Reclaiming Hope," and reflects specifically on the author's 2003 article "Reflections on Hope as a Category of Social and Psychological Analysis."

Eben Kirksey: It seems like the figures of hope that you describe produce cycles of expectation and arrival. Perhaps these cycles inevitably involve a sense of disappointment, when the thing that is anticipated either arrives or fails to arrive.

Vincent Crapanzano: Right!

EK: It is in those moments of disappointment that new questions open up: Do you give up on hope or do you refigure hope? Do you attach it to new figures?

VC: There is another dimension to hope that interests me, and it has got to do with the way hope is related to the past, in the sense of nostalgia, for example. Svetlana Boym (2001) talks about the future of nostalgia, which is an interesting concept in its own right. Whatever we hope for, in a way, already relates to a past. In a way, it is over. We have nostalgia for it, we would love it to come back and that helps formulate hope. Hope can’t be eliminated, or separated, from realism.

I was in a conference in Denmark a few years ago, on cargo cults. I had no personal experience of cargo cults whatsoever. I was invited to the conference by someone who had read my article on hope or who had heard me speak about hope in the lectures I gave in Frankfurt. And what I found interesting was that in the conference papers, there was no mention of hope. And when I brought it up, there was a surprise on the part of most of the participants—some of them, as I recall, immediately related hope to a kind of easy Christianity that they thought prevalent in Papua—but others said: “Oh no, the Papuans are too realistic, too down to earth [to have hope].” And I thought to myself: “What is being projected here?” Here you are dealing with something that concerns the future. There has to be an attitude towards that—whatever it is, cargo—in terms of the future, whether we talk about it as arrival or what Derrida would refer to as à venir, to come. And then the idea that somehow the New Guineans were far too pragmatic, emerged, far too down to earth, to hope—ignore the generalization—struck me as just simply a projection of an image, a stereotype on them that I found really quite upsetting. It seemed to me there was a kind of insensitivity there. I couldn’t help but relate it to a kind of machismo on the part of the anthropologists. I have no idea personally whether or not there is something that had some meaning in what those anthropologists were saying. But it was more the shock of their not even thinking about hope that I found interesting. That raises another question. Aside from the value orientation one takes towards the future, an implicit stoicism might be there, or an implicit resignation that might be there.

EK: One issue that you bring up in your “Reflections on Hope” article is the way that Kenelm Burridge (1969) grapples for language to talk about what you call “effective desire.” Burridge talks about dreams, he talks about other sorts of things, and I think you sum it up really nicely with that phrase. Could you talk a bit more about effective desire? It seems like it is a result of that mismatch between expectations that seem utterly unrealistic and the desire to do something here and now. How do you bring something about, something hopeful in the now, when it seems that everything you do is not working?

VC: It is difficult because I would have to situate it more in terms of the way in which one conceptualizes one’s existential situation. It seems to me that we have to move beyond an immediate sense of hope, situated not only linguistically, culturally, and so on, but also in terms of certain kinds of value orientations that are often very highly moralized. Attitudes like stoicism become very, very important. If you have a very stoic attitude, hope is going to be configured, I would imagine, in a very different way than it would be if there wasn’t a great deal of value placed on stoicism itself. There is also a question of the ways in which desires are mediated. Obviously the Stoics themselves had extraordinary discipline, in which there was really a governance of desire—a discipline of desire, if you will. So the orientation of hope would be quite different for Stoics than in a group of people who were not particularly subject to that kind of discipline. In the case of somebody who is very wishy-washy—undisciplined—hope, I am sure, would be a very different thing from that of the Stoics.

The area that I find most interesting still is the relationship between hope and the process of creating possibility—or a certain stance toward possibility. Hope is reconstituting the present and, even more interestingly, the past.

EK: It seems that the really interesting dynamics start to happen when action in historical time both produces concrete possibilities—here and now—but also reconfigures the broader situation of possibility. Power usually functions predictably and usually the order of things seems fixed. But piecemeal, molecular changes in the time of the now can open up broader possibilities.

VC: Or limit them! I think that is the other side of it. At some point I said: “Hope is realism’s worst enemy.” Somebody retorted: “Realism is hope’s destruction.” There is this kind of balance between the two that has to be seen. We have to deconstruct hope more. The deconstruction would involve, for example, exploring the differences between hope and expectation. It would be interesting to look at other languages, particularly I suspect in India, where there are probably several different terms for these kinds of forward-looking positive approaches to the future. I am also concerned about the manipulation of hope. I do not mean that necessarily some evil demon is out there, doing this. But I think, in certain ways, we are always doing this kind of manipulation. Think of a simple seduction: I mean, there is hope at some level, but would we really call that a hope? The hope of conquest, yes. But it is not the same. I worry a little bit about being too quick to relate hope to a particular economic formation. Most particularly neoliberalism, because, I think, no doubt there is an idiom there that is important. But, as an influence, it is certainly important. With these manipulative hopes—of seductive conquest or neoliberal economics—we don’t even like to use the word hope, because it seems almost blasphemous.


Boym, Svetlana. 2001. The Future of Nostalgia. New York: Basic Books.

Burridge, Kenelm. 1969. New Heaven, New Earth: A Study of Millenarian Activities. Oxford: Blackwell.