Abstract gold face over legs walking on grass
By Invitation
Hope, Art, and Abolition

In May 2020, the world viewed the image of a policeman, hand in pocket, nonchalantly grind his knee into the neck of George Floyd, and casually kill him. Protests erupted across the world, and public art projects and murals of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless other victims of police brutality proliferated in public spaces, including in the Stanford Oval and in downtown Palo Alto.

The “Black Spring” of 2020 triggered the most widespread social movement we have seen in this country since the 1960s. The murals that proliferated across city streets joined a long history of artworks that protest against police brutality. Creative works intervene imaginatively and affectively into the ways in which Black youth are disproportionately arrested, detained, and killed, often at the hands of police. Public art projects not only protest against state violence and systemic racism, but also look toward an abolitionist horizon and imagine creativity, rather than retaliation, as a response to injustice. Artistic interventions allow us to see abolition not merely as an unrealistic utopian ideal but insists on its promise and possibility now. By discohering the linear teleology of progessivist time that flows from past to present to future, these works insist on the hope that is already inscribed within this particular moment. 

While hope is structurally positioned as futural, as a horizon to strive toward, art makes vivid the presentness of hope. In showing us worlds as they could be, art ruptures the cynicism of the present and reinvigorates our stale and apathetic gestures. Art reminds us that the present is not nearly as homogeneous as we’d like to believe, and hope resides in this heterogeneous “now.” It is that sense of hope that we hear in the sorrow songs, in the theatre of the oppressed, in the protest literature of the working classes across the world. Art makes vivid scenes of social suffering, invites us to inhabit and dwell in these moments, awakens our social receptivity, and renews our sense of ethical responsibility. In so doing, arts oscillate between a clear-eyed view of the world as it is, and a utopic desire to imagine the world as it could be. 

Photos by Jisha Menon, June 27, 2020, Stanford and July 12, 2020, downtown Palo Alto.

 A field of grass with small flags showing photos of Black Americans killed by police brutality.
 A field of grass with small flags of photos of Black Americans killed by police brutality.
 A sign in the grass: "Police brutality / Racial violence"
 A street art on the road: Black woman holding sign, "SAY HER NAME"
Street art: three Black women dressed in white togas
Street mural: Black woman sitting against multicolored stripes
Street mural: faces depicted in the letter "K"
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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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