painting of sculptures dancing in a circle
By Invitation
Hope as Arrangement in Postconflict Colombia

José Enrique Rodó’s Ariel (1900) is a foundational Latin American work.[1] In the essay, a teacher stages a philosophical dialogue for his “disciples,” using the Shakespearean intertext to warn against growing U.S. imperialism and its materialistic and utilitarian impulses. Standing beside a bronze statue of Shakespeare’s Ariel, the teacher concludes the essay by addressing his students, waxing poetic about an old gold coin engraved with the word Esperanza (hope). Literary scholar Ericka Beckman notes that this “image marks yet a new stage in the creole search to secure value in the face of disaster.”[2] If the U.S. serves as the problem to be overcome, the essay responds with a call to hope. Hope is the foundational narrative of a future choreography structured around the memories elicited by the museum space. The coin along with the disciples’ appreciation of Ariel’s statue in the teacher’s study stand in for the enduring value of the transmission of knowledge in the face of economic and cultural imperialism.

What does Ariel’s story of hope offer a century later? I propose thinking of the inscriptions of hope in one of the Latin American countries most deeply affected by violence and U.S. influence in the aftermath of the Cold War and the (ongoing) War on Drugs. Colombia, after decades of internal armed conflict, has undertaken a transitional-justice approach. As part of its peace process, the country commissioned the artist Doris Salcedo, who produced Fragmentos (Fragments, 2018). This countermonument in downtown Bogotá has a peculiar floor: waves of dark-gray metal ribboned with varying textures. The ground one walks upon is made from guns handed over by the FARC, subsequently melted down and then hammered into shape by women who faced sexual violence amid the internal armed conflict.

Temporal injunctions of the framing of the problem to be overcome—in 1900 and in 21st century Colombia—underwrite the metal floor of Fragmentos. Bearing no inscription, the floor is an inverted prescription of Rodó’s coin and his statue, whose gender-marked masculine teacher provides lessons of enduring value rooted in maintaining one’s shape.[3] In Salcedo’s collectively created piece, being bent out of shape is transformed into ground(s) for hope. Turning instruments of violence into a foundation for communal healing, the uneven texture of the floor mirrors the uneven journey toward peace literally forged by women in the reclamation of agency over their stories and bodies. In Fragmentos, hope is the gendered foundational narrative that choreographs bodies on the attenuated violence of more than 30 tons of “ex” guns in the museum space. As art critic and curator María Belén Sáez de Ibarra puts it, Fragmentos offers “hope in place of pain and absence.”[4] Hope is implicitly structured as presence, responding to a reality of sexual violence, as well as an estimated 210,000 (enforced) disappearances between 1985 and 2016, and millions of displaced persons.

Four years after Fragmentos was opened to the public, Colombia published its truth commission report in 2022, Hay futuro si hay verdad (There Is Future If There Is Truth), yoking the temporality and hope of a postconflict society to the notion of truth, one of the pillars of transitional justice-inspired human rights (truth, memory, justice, non-repetition). The same year saw the release of the award-winning narrative film Los reyes del mundo (The Kings of the World), directed by Laura Mora Ortega. Set in contemporary Colombia, the film uses a classic precipitating device, a letter. This letter from the Colombian government declares the protagonist, Rá, an indirect victim of forced displacement. Citing Ley 1448 de 2011, known as the Victims’ Law, the letter grants Rá the land stolen from his grandmother. Is this letter a symbol of hope as Rá leads four other orphaned boys to the promised land to create their own family structure away from the violence they face as unhoused youth in Medellín? The film’s ending, its many moments of violence, and the depiction of (enforced) disappearance might suggest otherwise.

Yet, I proffer a specific choreographing of bodies in the film as its kernel of hope. Early in their journey, the group stumbles upon a sex workers’ establishment in the Colombian countryside. There, the boys begin to dance slowly, tenderly, with the older sex workers. Filmed in dreamlike tones with David Lynch-esque haunting piano, the dance and the music here are decidedly not “Colombian,” though the tracking shot that leads into the dance, and a hard cut right before the dance flag the nation.[5] The dance scene in Los reyes articulates communal connection through the shared experience of navigating the aftermath of violence. The nonsexual nature of the boys’ interaction with the women further subverts gender roles and expectations, emphasizing the potential for new forms of relationships and community in the postconflict setting. Los reyes’ dance partners hold no promise of (re)producing the national song nor the (heteronormative) national body. The scene plays with this tension, in fact. The morning after the dance, the boys are called “shy,” euphemistically highlighting their nonsexual relationship with the women. This dance arranges elements for telling a story about the imagination of hope in postconflict Colombia: the bad scripts that women face in patriarchal societies (to borrow Diana Taylor’s term)[6] and nation-state interpellation are not about accumulation or (re)production, but about postconflict communities.

David Scott writes that “historicizing past hopes (such as anticolonial ones) ought to entail an analysis less of the transformative projects themselves than of the way those hopes reflect a certain understanding of the problem to be overcome.”[7] Historicizing hope encourages a nuanced exploration of how historical contexts shape present efforts to address pressing issues such as (enforced) disappearances, (neo)imperial legacies, sexual violence, and forced displacement. Historicizing hope in the context of Colombia’s transitional-justice process redounds to appreciating the arrangement of elements of community, identity, and memory. In a film where one member of the group is disappeared, the dance scene in Los reyes transcends normative narratives of nation-building and conflict resolution, positing hope as a dynamic background condition that is not coextensive with the transitional-justice process, an aesthetic arrangement of patterns and possibilities.

In Los reyes, the dance scene offers an opportunity for restructuring the discourse on justice and communal healing. This process entails acknowledgment of violence’s “descent into the ordinary,” to use Veena Das’s words;[8] the dance is part of the profound, yet subtle shifts in societal engagement with the past and present and the future emplotments that dialogue with and beyond Fragmentos and the truth commission report. In interweaving the arrangements of past and present hopes, the reality of postconflict Colombia situates hope as reimagining against the backdrop of (enforced) disappearances and the creation of new kinship structures.



[1] The essay fits within the racialized legacy of Shakespeare’s Tempest and the trope of civilización y barberie, this time with Caliban as the barberie of the U.S.  

[2] Ericka Beckman, Capital Fictions: The Literature of Latin America’s Export Age, University of Minnesota Press, 2012, p. 153. 

[3] Does Fragmentos challenge the gendered structure of Ariel? In the latter, the teacher’s lessons are imparted to the “youth” of Latin America, the “disciples” who are gender-marked masculine in line with the conventional mode of Spanish grammar (at the time as well as today in many contexts). 

[4] In the original Spanish, “la esperanza en el lugar del duelo y de la ausencia.” In “Fragmentos: Un lugar común,” Revista Arcadia,

[5] A hard cut brings viewers to a handsewn blanket bearing the Colombian national motto—libertad y orden (liberty and order)—before the camera then pans across the room with closeups of the boys. 

[6] I am referring here to Taylor’s powerful 1997 work, Disappearing Acts: Spectacles of Gender and Nationalism in Argentina’s "Dirty War.” 

[7] David Scott, Conscripts of Modernity: The Tragedy of Colonial Enlightenment, Duke University Press, 2004, pp. 5–6.

[8] Veena Das, Life and Words: Violence and the Descent into the Ordinary, University of California Press, 2006. 

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Hope: The Future of an Idea

In a troubled age, hope may seem an elusive feeling. Alongside its history as a virtue, a political concept, and a psychological state, it enjoys a vivid presence as a necessary but poorly understood experience in everyday life. To reframe it in the context of this Colloquy, we might ask: how has hope been defined and critiqued? Where does it lie latent or unacknowledged? And how does the work of the humanities depend on hope, and perhaps arouse it? 


This year at the Stanford Humanities Center, we asked our fellows to reflect on questions of this kind. Their work ranges from the esoteric to the immediate, from the deep past to the present moment, and across the disciplines from music and art history to philosophy and education. Our aim here is to create a repository of informal thinking about the presence of hope in what we do, not only as scholars, artists, and practitioners but as people living in the twenty-first century. 

It is natural to say we live in a hopeless time, as climate change, war, authoritarianism, and other dangers loom over us. Without dismissing the force of despair, this Colloquy proposes to recover the grain of hope, not as a two-dimensional response to three-dimensional problems but as a complex problem on its own. The title of the Colloquy, in which we call hope an idea, is meant to signal this approach. 

The contributions collected here, while conceived from many distinctive intellectual and personal positions, are best discovered in twos and threes. Read or watch one, then another and another, at random. Imagine these items as belonging to a virtual conversation, which stands in for the exchange of ideas that takes place every day at the Center. Some of the contributors are professionally connected to the problem of hope—for instance, the historian of philosophy Pavlos Kontos is now writing authoritatively about hope in Aristotle’s thought—while others accept our invitation to fold the topic into their projects or their lives as scholars. Some simply register the place of hope in their lives. 

Finally, we bear in mind that, even when it is concerned with historically remote cultures or recondite questions, research in the humanities is always about the present and the future. It is through the lens of the present that we address every question, which means that, except for the most circumscribed topics, we seldom produce definitive answers; instead we tend to offer arguments and interpretations that work for our moment, to be improved by the knowledge and perspectives of our successors. Anticipating that conversation with the scholars of the future, we send off the fruits of our research hopefully to posterity. This Colloquy aims to render hope where the present meets the future.

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