Is it hopepunk to have a baby?

Maybe a very cozy-looking baby. If we read it ‘Harry Potter.’

Is it hopepunk to have a baby?

Maybe a very cozy-looking baby. If we read it ‘Harry Potter.’

Last Tuesday, I saw my unborn child for the first time, on ultrasound direct from my partner's belly. I’d seen ultrasounds before, obviously, but nothing can prepare you for the sensation when it's yours. Something about both myself and my partner’s upbringings had left us convinced, on some deep psychological level, that we're not really ‘real people,’ that there is something about us that is less than legitimate — that our thoughts, desires and biologies are not quite on the same level as the thoughts, desires and biologies of other people (some perfect combination, I think, of bullying, difficult puberty, and never having had a proper secure job). I know what Edie was worried about, because I was worried about it too: that they would try and do the scan and say that they were very sorry but we'd made a mistake, there wasn't really a baby there, we'd just been imagining it the whole time.

But then I saw it, this weird collection of shapes and shadows that our friends’ toddler, the following day, would identify as “owl” — wriggling around Edie's womb bony and gray, never sitting still long enough for the technician to get the measurements they needed (an involuntary mischief which nevertheless made me feel weirdly proud). It's something the technician will I'm sure see maybe eight, ten times a day. But to us, it felt like a miracle.

And for me, I saw manifested in these shapes on the screen not only a certain sort of proof — proof that I was definitely, despite what I had always feared, a real person, a living creature capable of producing, or at least fathering, life — but also a certain demand. The weight, I guess, of what I had always known, although abstractly, parenthood to be: that this creature would rely on me, more than anyone else along with its mother, to form it as a person, to help it live a good life. And so, in the exact moment when I finally felt that I could really say I was myself, I was also taken completely beyond myself. I don't really matter anymore: this thing that's only 13 weeks old and hasn't been born yet, this is what matters. And so I responded by doing what anybody would in this situation, I suppose: started laughing hysterically, then had a beer and started crying.

I’m really looking forward (I don’t know if you can tell) to being a parent. But of course, the decision to have a child is not one that comes without a certain cognitive dissonance. If the world's so terrible — and it is terrible, I mean just look out the window: an unrelenting parade of shit and horror that is very likely to spend most of the near/medium future getting much, much worse — how can you possibly justify bringing anyone new into it?

Thinking the world is really bad would seem more readily associated with anti-natalism. The Medieval Cathars, for instance, a heretic sect that flourished in the 12th and 13th centuries across southern France, believed that the material world was created by Satan, and so denounced reproduction as a sin. Anti-natalist philosophers such as David Benatar believe that reproduction is a selfish act that is always harmful to new individuals because it gives them the capacity to feel pain. This might seem like a pretty wild argument, but maybe less so when you consider how society tends to look on most of the people who comprise it. What if the only point anyone sees in my child's life is that it animates a body which might, if educated properly, be usefully worked to death on behalf of some other body that is (probably by accident of birth) much richer, as the seas rise and the hot air starts to boil us in our skins? Who would inflict this on anyone, least of all someone they love? (immediately, helplessly, intuitively).

This is where hope must make its entrance. Recently, Vox published an essay on the concept of “hopepunk”. Hopepunk is an aesthetic which has its origins in communities of, well, nerds — specifically, fantasy and science fiction enthusiasts on Tumblr. It was first conceived by a writer named Alexandra Rowland as the opposite of a different — gritty, Hobbesian — aesthetic known as “grimdark” (think Warhammer 40,000 or Game of Thrones). Ostensibly, hopepunk combines a narrative message of “keep fighting, no matter what” with virtues such as “love, kindness, and faith in humanity.” It places an emphasis on community-building through “cooperation rather than conflict,” and seeks to “weaponize” softness, wholesomeness, and cuteness.

Examples of hopepunks, apparently, include Jesus, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Robin Hood, and John Lennon.

According to Rowland: “Hopepunk says that genuinely and sincerely caring about something, anything, requires bravery and strength. Hopepunk isn’t ever about submission or acceptance: It’s about standing up and fighting for what you believe in. It’s about standing up for other people. It’s about DEMANDING a better, kinder world, and truly believing that we can get there if we care about each other as hard as we possibly can, with every drop of power in our little hearts.”

Examples of hopepunks, apparently, include Jesus, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Robin Hood, and John Lennon. Hopepunk art includes the Harry Potter books, The Lord of the Rings (especially the bits with the hobbits), the Netflix series Sense8, and the music of Frank Turner (for some reason, the work of Chuck Tingle, author of books such as Pounded in the Butt by My Own Butt is also included in the canonical list of hopepunk works given at the end of the Vox article. I feel it may be best not to inquire). Hopepunk is also associated with the trendy practice of hygge (a sort of Scandinavian-derived compulsory coziness, think being wrapped up all together by the fire), as well as “the high-end sleep industry” (best known for providing the dirty money behind every podcast) and “wholesome memes.”

Hopepunk, in short, sounds like an absolutely fantastic term for a bunch of things I find aesthetically repulsive. But it is also horribly misnamed. The “punk” part I'll let go since as far as I can tell that's just become a generic suffix you can slap onto whatever aesthetic you choose (the etymological development from cyberpunk to steampunk to seapunk). But where, more importantly, is the hope? What is it, after all, to comport oneself towards the world in a “hopeful” way? As far as I can tell, hope requires at least two moments. First, the realization that the world is not as good as it could be. Second, the faith that it could be better. Hope, then, to be hope, must not only recognize that the world is bad — it must hold fast to the idea that it can be transformed.

But hopepunk, as far as I can tell, only does the first of these things, and hardly seems to bother with the second at all. Consider the virtue of “faith in humanity,” for example. Sounds hopeful enough, but the insistence that one have faith in one’s fellow human beings can all too easily turn into an apology for the many wretched things other people are, and do. Approaching them with “love and kindness” could just mean we end up obliged — like when we're told we need to be “civil” to right-wing commentators — to acknowledge the maybe-good intentions of the actively bad. Is it hopepunk when the superhero refuses to kill the villain because that would only bring them down to their level, allowing them to escape and torment the city another day?

Hopepunk glorifies struggle within the insurmountable confines of an unjust world. For it, hope looks, if anything, like the energy to keep on going in spite of it all. But this, to my mind, looks more like being resigned — in the sense of being resigned to one's fate. Hopepunk is only hopeful insofar as it represses active, open despair.

Towards the end of his life, the Frankfurt School critical theorist Theodor Adorno was also accused of resignation. In the eyes of the West German student movement, Adorno was a coddled bourgeois — only willing to develop a theory as to why society is bad, never daring to “draw the practical consequences” from it. There were, if we're being honest, elements of truth to that accusation. (In one notorious incident, Adorno called the literal police on student activists who occupied some of his department’s offices. But that shouldn’t mean we ought to discount his rebuttal.)

Hopepunk is only hopeful insofar as it represses active, open despair.

In fact — as Adorno argued in a short essay on the topic of “resignation” — the student activists were the truly hopeless ones. Despite the fact their activism stood no chance of actually changing anything, the students were determined — in true hopepunk style — to feel like they were doing something. This smacked, quipped Adorno, of the comforts of DIY: “activities that do what has long been done better by the means of industrial production only in order to inspire in the unfree individuals... the assurance that everything depends on them.” Through “pseudo-activities” such as marches and occupations, activists were “spared from recognizing” the true extent of their powerlessness.

True hopefulness, by contrast, requires what Adorno calls “uncompromisingly critical” thought. One must be willing precisely to reflect on the wretchedness of one’s situation, for however long and as grimly as one needs to, in the hopes of discerning something which might “point beyond” society as it presently exists; which might somehow manage to escape its otherwise interminable logic. “Thinking” — true thinking — “is not the intellectual reproduction of what already exists anyway.” And, “as long as it doesn't break off” — give up and retreat into a cozy fantasy of new mattresses and Nordic log fires, refuse to acknowledge some injustice because it's worried about upsetting the perpetrators — this thinking will “have a secure hold on possibility.”

There is something of the same hopefulness, I think, in having a child. Not that the act of conception required all that much thought. But when it is born, our child will — like Adorno's ideal of thought — point beyond us both. Our child will not be something that already existed, before we had it: they will be a new individual, all of their own. In this small sense at least, they will transform the world into which they have emerged.

My child could well grow up to be worse than me — crueler, more selfish. They could grow up to have a worse life, and be hardened by it. But equally, there is a chance that they could be better than me, that they might grow up and participate in making the world better themselves. It is that second possibility into which Edie and I have thrown ourselves. From this perspective, it makes no sense to ask how you could bring a child into such a bad world. It makes far more sense to ask how could you not.

Perhaps, given everything, hope is absurd — in the formal, Kierkegaardian sense. But if so, it’s exactly as ridiculous as the idea that the most important person I will ever meet is currently gestating in my partner’s womb. That baby is, I suppose, our leap of faith.

Tom Whyman is a writer and philosopher from the UK.