The 2019 Antipode RGS-IBG Lecture – “Blind Pessimism and Worldly Hopes” by Les Back (Goldsmiths, University of London)

Please join us for the 2019 Antipode Royal Geographical Society (with the Institute of British Geographers) Lecture on Wednesday 28th August between 16:50 and 18:30 in the RGS-IBG Ondaatje Theatre.

The Lecture will be followed by a drinks reception in the RGS-IBG Marquee (sponsored by Antipode’s publisher, Wiley) to celebrate 50 years of the journal, 1969-2019.

Abstract 20th century intellectuals had very contrasting views of hope and its political connotations. To live in hope, for Albert Camus, is to surrender to inertia, fatalism and defeat. He pointed out that, for the Greeks, hope is the last, and most dreadful, of the ills left inside Pandora’s box. Camus concluded: “I know no more stirring symbol; for, contrary to the general belief, hope equals resignation. And to live is not to resign oneself.” Also, what if the expectation that hope licenses proves to be empty? This is precisely what Lauren Berlant calls a “cruel optimism”. This kind of optimism manifests as a cluster of promises, which are “attached to compromised conditions of possibility”. The result is an attachment to a problematic object that is unable to deliver on its promise. Famously Antonio Gramsci described his view on the subject in a letter dated 19th December 1929. He described it as one that “never despairs and never falls into those vulgar, banal moods, pessimism and optimism: my mind is pessimistic, but my will is optimistic”. In fact, the phrase so often attributed to Gramsci is a borrowed one. Gramsci was in fact quoting French poet, novelist and dramatist Romain Rolland who Gramsci credited with the expression “pessimism of the intelligence and optimism of the will”. I think this is something close to a kind of hope that is an orientation to the world. Anthropologist Michael Taussig warns that for social critics – including geographers – there is a peculiar kind of consolation in adopting a hopeless position. Here there is a “temptation to link lack of hope with being profound”. A curious comfort resides in the critical certainty of a last instance pessimism. In a way, this blind pessimism is the reverse of the, often repeated, adage about sightless optimism. Pessimists are never surprised because they can be confident that things will inevitably turn our badly. Or, to put it another way as the organisers of this year’s conference warn simply listing troubles is clearly not enough. John Berger once argued we have to take the world in first before we can hope to change it. We have to be able to be train an attentiveness to the world within what Marx called “sober senses”. This is valuable and urgent because we live in times that are drunk politically with certainty. I want to argue, as a result, that hope is an empirical question that is necessarily contextual, geographical and worldly in scale. Developing a hopeful understanding of the world is then concerned with not only what is but also with what might be. This argument will be developed drawing on a range of ethnographic examples taken from researching London life over the course of 30 years, a world city of metropolitan paradoxes in which damage, hate, confinement and division co-exists – sometimes on the very same streets – with freedom, conviviality, escape and hope.

Les Back studied at Goldsmiths, University of London as both an undergraduate and postgraduate in the 1980s. After working as a researcher at Birkbeck College and the Institute of Education, Les joined Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham before returning to Goldsmiths in 1993, where he is now a Professor of Sociology. He became a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences in 2017. Trained in anthropology and based in cultural studies and sociology departments, Les’ research has crossed disciplinary borders to cover – and make connections between – race and racism, multiculturalism, popular culture, urban life, young people, sport, and music. Though wide-ranging, much of this work has focused on and around south London. Beyond academe, Les has made interventions in The Guardian and on openDemocracy, among other places.

His prodigious writing and editing includes: Invisible Europeans? Black People in the “New Europe” (edited with Anoop Nayak; AFFOR, 1993); Race, Politics, and Social Change (with John Solomos; Routledge, 1995); Racism and Society (with John Solomos; Palgrave Macmillan, 1996); New Ethnicities and Urban Culture: Racisms and Multiculture in Young Lives (Routledge, 1996); Theories of Race and Racism: A Reader (edited with John Solomos; Routledge, 2000); The Changing Face of Football: Racism, Identity, and Multiculture in the English Game (with Tim Crabbe and John Solomos; Berg, 2001); Out of Whiteness: Color, Politics, and Culture (with Vron Ware; University of Chicago Press, 2002); The Auditory Culture Reader (edited with Michael Bull; Berg, 2003); and Migrant City (with Shamser Sinha; Routledge, 2018).

But Les doesn’t just do a lot of social science; he also thinks a great deal about the doing of it, reflecting on how and with what consequences we write and edit and research and teach, and on the changing conditions under which academics labour. His “Academic Diary” spans a blog (, Twitter (@AcademicDiary), and now a book (Academic Diary: Or Why Higher Education Still Matters; Goldsmiths Press, 2016). As one reviewer argues, it’s a “much quieter, more gentle, but no less subversive” look at a world – our world of the university – that many commentators see as irredeemably “in ruins”, wracked by marketisation and corporatisation, neoliberalism, new public management, academic capitalism, and the rest (Gill 2018). To be sure, Academic Diary takes the full measure of the pressures to preform, the precariousness and casualisation, the gross inequalities, the losses. But it’s not despairing about the threats, and nor does it wax nostalgic for some lost past from which we have “fallen”. Much is damagingly suppressed in the university today, and while we can’t afford to ignore that, much can be realised there (and realised by people absent in the past). In many ways it’s an oppressive institution to be tirelessly resisted, but it can also be an emancipatory one, and as such is worthy of defence. And not just defence but development – there’s potentiality in actuality, possibilities immanent in the present, much to be salvaged, redeemed for the future.

In Academic Diary, Les argues that the “value of academic writing is in the attention it pays to the arcane or otherwise glossed over aspects of life that would otherwise be lost in the cacophony of contemporary culture” (2016: 211); arguably, this is where the value of his book itself lies. Among other things it carefully signposts “not only what is but also what might be”. In another wonderful book, The Art of Listening, Les urges social scientists analysing worlds other than their own to “pay attention to the fragments, the voices and stories that are otherwise passed over or ignored … admit these voices and pay them the courtesy of serious attention … hear those who are not listened to and challenge the claims placed on the meaning of events in the past and in the present” (2007: 1). His is a “live sociology” that strives to write its world right, that is, in order to “sustain rather than foreclose” its “vitality and ongoing life” (2012: 21). Some realities “should be turned down or cut down to size”; “others, through our sociological imagination, turned up and magnified” (2012: 35).

Whether dealing with the university itself or worlds beyond it, social scientific writing for Les is powerful – whether we acknowledge it as such or not – not simply reflecting the real but, rather, producing it, assembling it for the reader. So “turning up the background or enlarging some small detail of life” (2014: 768) is always already an ethical-political act. Les tells us that “I have come to think that what I am doing with writing is to describe fragments of life and enhancing them through description. This is not simply a kind of facsimile of the ‘real’ but an augmentation of it – turning up the background, enlarging the unremarked upon and making it remarkable” (2014: 769, emphasis added). And this is where the idea of hope comes in. Rather than a universal human attribute, Les argues, hope is situated in time and space: “Radical hope is made and shaped in the here-and-now by … [s/he] who takes in what is happening and interprets its meaning.” Hope is always “an empirical question” (Back 2015). It comes from attentively taking the world in, registering fully “damage, hate, confinement and division” without overlooking “freedom, conviviality, escape and hope” – without overlooking that which is to be turned up and enlarged, enhanced and augmented.

Hope, for Les, “should not conceal the limitations on our capacity to act. Rather, it should always seek to explicate these paradoxical limitations so that we can live better with them” (Back 2018). His head is neither in the sands nor in the clouds; he’s neither wilfully “realist” regarding the limitations, nor unquestioningly romantic regarding our capacity to act. This sensibility is all about seeking to “sustain the life of things” (2012: 36), to make them live – indeed, flourish – “to make these muted realities more real” (2012: 37, emphasis added). At its best, radical geography has long sought to do just this. David Harvey’s classic essay from Antipode’s early days, “Revolutionary and Counter Revolutionary Theory in Geography”, railed against only “mapping even more evidence of man’s patent inhumanity to man” (1972: 10), arguing that we ought to also “embrace alternatives creatively … mobilise our powers of thought to formulate concepts and categories, theories and arguments, which we can apply in the process of bringing about a humanising social change” (1972: 11). And more recent work struggling to imagine and enact “community economies” (see here) urges the Left not only to criticise and undo, but also to experiment and develop. Social research for J.K. Gibson-Graham and their fellow travellers is perhaps less about capturing and assessing one sort of reality than about bringing other sorts into existence – it’s intentionally, and radically, performative.

The essays collected below all do this well, engaging with their worlds “with openness and humility” (Back 2007: 4). Their “attention to present circumstances” is also an attention to “the not-yet decided conclusion” (Back 2015). At their best, they take in the limitations on our capacity to act – the “constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation” the Communist Manifesto speaks of – and though “all that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned”, they face, “with sober senses”, the “real conditions of life”, amplifying and expanding the possibilities. As an introduction to Prof. Back’s 2019 Antipode RGS-IBG Lecture, we have made these essays available to readers without a subscription. Together they reflect themes germane to his work, and will, we hope, offer a primer or further reading to his lecture. Many thanks to Les, from everyone at Antipode the journal and the Antipode Foundation, for agreeing to join us in London (and in so doing completing our “Goldsmiths Ensemble” with AbdouMaliq Simone and Paul Gilroy [see Gilroy 2018; Simone 2018]) and to Wiley’s Grace Ong, Charlotte Sandall and Katherine Wheatley for all their help with the lecture and virtual issue. And a special thank you to Sarah Evans at the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) – without her inestimable labours each year, the Annual International Conference simply would not be. She’s great.

Andy Kent (Antipode Editorial Office) August 2019

Works Cited

Back L (2007) The Art of Listening. Oxford: Berg

Back L (2012) Live sociology: Social research and its futures. The Sociological Review 60(S1):18- 39

Back L (2014) Journeying through words. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 20(4):766- 770

Back L (2015) Blind pessimism and the sociology of hope. Discover Society 1 December (last accessed 14 August 2019)

Back L (2016) Academic Diary: Or Why Higher Education Still Matters. London: Goldsmiths Press

Back L (2018) Taking and giving hope. International Journal of Politics, Culture, and Society 31(1):111-125

Gill R (2018) What Would Les Back do? If generosity could save us. International Journal of Politics, Culture, and Society 31(1):95-109

Gilroy P (2018) “Where every breeze speaks of courage and liberty”: Offshore humanism and marine xenology, or, racism and the problem of critique at sea level. Antipode 50(1):3-22

Harvey D (1972) Revolutionary and counter revolutionary theory in geography and the problem of ghetto formation. Antipode 4(2):1-13

Simone A (2018) The urban majority and provisional recompositions in Yangon. Antipode 50(1):23- 40

Virtual Issue

Hungry Translations: The World Through Radical Vulnerability

Richa Nagar (2019)

Perilous Journeys: Visualising the Racialised “Refugee Crisis”

Kathy Burrell and Kathrin Hörschelmann (2019)

Burned, Broke, and Brilliant: Latinx Community Workers’ Experiences Across the Greater Toronto Area’s Non‐Profit Sector

Madelaine Cristina Cahuas (2019)

Enacting Experimental Alternative Spaces

Francesca Fois (2019)

Fannie Lou Hamer’s Freedom Farms and Black Agrarian Geographies

Priscilla McCutcheon (2019)

The Pluralities of Black Geographies

Adam Bledsoe and Willie Jamaal Wright (2019)

From Grenfell Tower to the Home Front: Unsettling Property Norms Using a Genealogical Approach

Samuel Burgum (2019)

“An opportunity to hope and dream”: Disaster Politics and the Emergence of Possibility through Community‐Led Recovery

Raven Cretney (2019)

“Our life is a struggle”: Respectable Gender Norms and Black Resistance to Policing

Adam Elliott‐Cooper (2019)

Disability Consciousness on the Frontlines of Urban Struggle

Mary Jean Hande (2019)

Ripping the Heart out of Ancoats: Collective Action to Defend Infrastructures of Social Reproduction against Gentrification

Nikki Luke and Maria Kaika (2019)

“Solidarity is our weapon”: Social Mobilisation in Scotland in the Contest of the Post‐Political Condition

Elisabetta Mocca and Stephen Osborne (2019)

Housing Squats as “Educational Sites of Resistance”: The Process of Movement Social Base Formation in the Struggle for the House

Carlotta Caciagli (2019)

On the Transformative Potential of Community Land Trusts in the United States

James DeFilippis et al. (2019)

Beyond the Local Trap: New Municipalism and the Rise of the Fearless Cities

Bertie Russell (2019)

Playing with Infrastructure like a Carishina: Feminist Cycling in an Era of Democratic Politics

Julie Gamble (2019)

“Our Journey, Our Choice, Our Future”: Huu‐ay‐aht First Nations’ Self‐Government enacted through the Maa‐nulth Treaty with British Columbia and Canada

Vanessa Sloan Morgan, Heather Castleden and Huu‐ay‐aht First Nations (2019)

Victories from Insurgency: Re‐Negotiating Housing, Community Control, and Citizenship at the Margins

Claire Cahen Jakob Schneider Susan Saegert (2019)

From Urban Resilience to Abolitionist Climate Justice in Washington, DC

Malini Ranganathan Eve Bratman (2019)

Urban Political Ecology from Below: Producing a “Peoples’ History” of the Portland Harbor

Erin Goodling (2019)

Contesting Digital Futures: Urban Politics, Alternative Economies, and the Movement for Technological Sovereignty in Barcelona

Casey R. Lynch (2019)

Keywords in Radical Geography – Community Economy

Community Economies Collective (2019)

Keywords in Radical Geography – Doom

Geoff Mann (2019)

Keywords in Radical Geography – Enough

Natalie Oswin (2019)

Keywords in Radical Geography – Experimentations

Jenny Pickerill (2019)

Keywords in Radical Geography – Wiggle Room

Jessica Dempsey Geraldine Pratt (2019)

The Antipode Lecture Series

Since 2005, Antipode has run sponsored sessions at the annual meetings of the American Association of Geographers and Royal Geographical Society (with the Institute of British Geographers). We invite presenters who represent both the political commitment and intellectual integrity that characterise the sort of work that appears in the journal. Their lectures are filmed by our publisher, Wiley, and made freely available online; Wiley also arrange a reception. Speakers often submit essays to be peer-reviewed and, if successful, published in Antipode. Our archive of inspiring and provocative presentations can be viewed here.

The AAG’s and RGS-IBG’s annual international conferences are widely seen as vital venues for the exchange of cutting-edge ideas – but they’re not, of course, the only ones. From 2018, the Lecture Series has been going on the road, reaching out beyond the US and UK to maximise the diversity of those contributing to our community, and facilitating engagement with scholarship from hitherto under-represented groups, regions, countries and institutions to enrich conversations and debates in Antipode. Our first stop was the joint conference of the New Zealand Geographical Society and Institute of Australian Geographers ( at the University of Auckland in July.

In September 2019 we’ll be at the Research Committee 21 conference in Delhi: Our speaker will be Priti Ramamurthy, Professor of Gender, Women and Sexuality Studies at the University of Washington. Prof. Ramamurthy will be engaging with the conference theme, “In and Beyond the City: Emerging Ontologies, Persistent Challenges and Hopeful Futures”. If you’ll be in Delhi, please join us; if not, watch this space for a film of the lecture coming soon…