Cassie Thornton on Hope and Care

What is hope to you?

Maybe this is weird, but I actually had to look up the word in the dictionary. I realised I don’t use it very often. One of my favorite albums from when I was in school at the University of Wisconsin in Madison is I Could Live in Hope by Low. But even back then, in the early 2000s, I could not live in hope or anywhere near it. Who does hoping help?

Maybe hoping doesn’t help?

Reading those dictionary definitions, it struck me that to have hope is to have trust, or confidence, that things will be ok. I also looked up hope’s antonyms: desperation and despair. They both are defined by lacking hope. So we are led to imagine that if you don’t have trust or confidence, then you are desperate and despairing. But I think it is more complicated. As Ursula LeGuin says, “The only thing that makes life possible is permanent, intolerable uncertainty: not knowing what comes next.”

Do you see hope as a trap?

Frankly, I am hopeless, but I wish to be ready and useful when the unknown shows up. I think that having trust and confidence that things will be OK while, at the same time, most people in the world, most animals and plants are closer to death than life, is to live in denial of the actual dire state of things. There is something about declaring this abstract kind of hope that is a cheap moral gesture. It’s a performance of care about our collective future, but if it is combined with the inability or unwillingness to actually do anything that jeopardises your own comfort.

In your opinion, what potential was there in hope before we blew it?

To declare your hope is, in a way, to separate yourself from the web of life. Jason W. Moore, in Capitalism in the Web of Life maps very distinctly the ways that we as humans are a species that produces and is produced by our environment, and how even capitalism is dependent on all the life that it also threatens or kills. The moment you can see and feel your life and liberation bound in someone or something else, you know it. You can’t live in hope while people and other living things are dying all around you. You can’t live in hope when you live in a vastly unequal world. You can’t live in hope when a leaky pipeline is installed in the body of water you drink out of.

The unknown is that insight?

Well, magic happens, bitches. In We Are ‘Nature’ Defending Itself, radical artist-activists Isabelle Fremeaux and Jay Jordan relate how they abandoned the narcissism and doublespeak of the art world to join a powerful grassroots land defence movement in rural France. Their book documents how people from vastly different backgrounds can live together and struggle together alongside land and trees, even to the point of defying the full force of the French state and in contravention of the wishes of capitalism. I love this account of actively working with desire, will and wishes. For me it is a weapon against the disappointment of hope.

I wish to be ready and useful when the unknown shows up.

What is the relationship between hope and wishes?

There is something about the way we use the term hope, as a verb, that is about giving up. When I tell someone that "I hope that things get better", I’m saying that it would be nice if this per - son’s situation improved, but that I am not going to be putting any of my personal energy into it. If I sit on my couch and say "I hope that the COP26 results in a significant shift in world climate policy" it is a wistful, resigned statement that implies that I have no power and no plan to influence the outcome. When a CEO of a toxic and globally influential company goes on and on about hope in the abstract, or tells us about his hopes for the climate, it’s worse: it’s a cynical, emotionally manipulative move because it actually denies the very real power he has.

You use the term wishing also in “The Hologram”, the feminist post-capitalist healthcare system you initiated during the pandemic.

Wishing here is part of the process of peer-to-peer care. At the conclusion of a session, after we ask someone about all the complex aspects of their life, we make a wish for them. What I learned from doing this work is that a wish has power because it is the opposite of hope. A wish is a curse or a blessing for something formerly impossible, coming from a person or people who are willing to make a demand of the universe for something better than is on offer. When I say that I wish that the billionaires went to space, I mean it. When I wished that your greedy Berlin landlord had his property expropriated and redistributed, it once seemed impossible.

What else do you wish for?

There is a simple foundation of my artwork and activism: I wish that I could – and that we, collectively, could – build a bridge to connect two sides of a gap. The gap is between, on the one hand, what we believe in and value and, on the other, what we actually do with our time. We’re all stuck in this gap. We can’t get out of it individually, we have to find a way out together.

What does that mean concretely?

I do not believe in property ownership, or that land should ever be treated as personal property. And yet, I am told I own a house and the land under it. Our whole lives are lived on top of a pile of compromises that we cannot feel proud of but also cannot avoid. I don’t think anyone can change this alone. So I wish to be a part of a network or group of people who shift out of the habits we have been coerced into. I wish to feel like a useful part of a healthy society that doesn’t neglect anyone. By wishing this for myself, I also wish this for you. I wish to feel connected to many other people and ways of doing this.

Was this search for community and compassion the beginning of “The Hologram”?

I wish to see the use of “The Hologram” grow as a tool to support people who want to stop living in a pile of compromises, compromises that are making the world suck for most people. I think that "The Hologram” has the capacity to hold people accountable to themselves and their friends so they can begin to build a bridge between what they believe in and how they live their lives. It’s not just about creating a framework to hold us to acting ethically. It’s also about building the material relationships so that we can exit and refuse having to be complicit.

CASSIE THORNTON is an artist and activist who refers to herself as a feminist economist. Her work aims to redefine healthcare in the context of capitalism. Thornton developed “The Hologram”, a collective peer-to-peer health practice in which three people (a triangle) are invited to listen and ask questions of a fourth person (the hologram). One triangle member asks questions about social health, another about physical health, and the last one about mental/emotional health. “The Hologram” includes a structured protocol for distributing care virally, to ensure that everyone who gives care is cared for.

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