Critical, apocalyptic optimism

Kathy Escobar is back from a month-long vacation. I didn't usually get around to responding much before she left, but after a month of silence, I'm not gonna lie: I was waiting for her.

Although I can't directly link to my own response to "cynicism, skepticism, optimism, realism (and the power of hope)," I said as much:
I’m pretty sure that I’d define some of those terms quite differently (“cynicism” and “realism” in particular), so… count me in the “critical, apocalyptic optimist” quadrant.
There's a bit to unpack with this, of course. There always is.

In which "cynicism" is a virtue, not a vice

Dialectic discourse has some important demands. One of those demands is that the participants agree to work within its parameters: that they agree to share one logic, one lexicon, and good faith in the clash of opinions. And therein lies a problem: how do you know when people are arguing in good faith? In a world of ratfucking, bullshitting, and character assassination, good faith is a prisoner's dilemma: if one party assumes it and the other doesn't, the one party gets screwed. Cynicism is for good faith what logic is for reason: a set of assessment tools.

Cynicism, to me, is a relentless study of motives. Logic is the foundational greyscale; logic can let you analyze statements and make judgments like "true," "valid," and "sound." Cynicism takes that greyscale and adds color. With logic and cynicism, you can analyze statements and say "true, but self-serving." Logic can tell you whether something is true or false, but it takes cynicism to call bullshit.

Hell yeah, I'm cynical. I also buckle my seatbelt and watch for police on the road.

In which "realism" leaves me in despair

I hate the Serenity Prayer. I don't even know it past the first line, but I know that I hate it. And the root of that hatred falls squarely at the feet of Kurt Vonnegut. Every time I read the words "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change," before I even get to "...the courage to change the things I can" I've already filled in the sentence with Slaughterhouse-5:
Amongst the things Billy Pilgrim knew he could not change were the past, the present and the future.
Being realistic means factoring reality into my plans. That's why I categorically reject realism, because "realism" forbids my plans. When I sink into despair, "realism" is my pretext for having no plan for the day, the week, or the month, because "goals" involved resources. Involved a way to get there beyond sitting and fucking waiting. For "goals" to be meaningful, they involved hope - and I didn't have much.

Who am I? Nobody special, except to the woman I love and a handful of others. What can I do? Not much; I'm not even a good writer any more. Being realistic, as they say in Paris, involves demanding the impossible. To be realistic is to be broken by the world - and that's why "apocalyptic" is such an important part of the formula.

"Apocalyptic" as a category

The first time I remember taking the New Testament really seriously was I think in March or April, when I started reading through 1 Corinthians and came across the line that God chose the things that are not in order to reduce the things that are. I was stunned. And I've never stopped being stunned since.

I live in a world that breaks me, breaks us all, under its heel without thought or effort. The order of things will destroy me as it stands. And then there's 1 Corinthians. And then there's Revelation 21: mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.

To be apocalyptic is to say that the world is going to lose. That it's losing already, even here, even now. That it is passing away, and the space where it was is opening up for things that I, with Marx, decided not to worry too much about designing the details of.

To the extent that I've become an optimist, it's because I've learned to stop worrying and love the apocalypse. To seek it, to look for where the first things are passing away.

1 comment:

kathyescobar said...

thanks for your honesty. seriously. sometimes realism is just too painful and i think it's so important to acknowledge that. it's why we need some of those 3 other things, they help. your three words are pretty awesome together, btw.