Elzbieta Matynia

The author contemplates our future—and what the next move might be that could stave off defeat.

The text is based on a talk given on the occasion of my receiving the Courage in Public Scholarship Award, established in 2014 by the New School for Social Research/Europe Collective. The event took place on July 23, 2023, at the Museum of Architecture in Wrocław.

Consider Endgame, one of Samuel Beckett’s most celebrated works of post-war theater. It’s a slow-paced play with minimal decor: an armchair on wheels, two ashbins, two small windows with curtains, and a picture hung facing the wall. 

And just as the reality on stage is reduced to a minimum, so are the bodies and the bodily capacities of the four characters. 

Hamm can’t see and can’t walk, hence the wheelchair; Clov, his servant, can’t sit down; and Hamm’s parents, Nagg and Nell, have no legs, in that we only see their heads and hands sticking out of the two ashbins. And we know from Clov, as he looks through the window, that there is absolutely nothing beyond the window. Nothing. 

But such radical reductions decreed by Beckett for the stage do free up some space for the imagination. In fact, the only fully free and unrestrained element in Endgame is imagination: the imagination of the characters, and our imagination, the imagination of the audience. 

The characters, especially Hamm and Clov, can use their imagination to recreate a world they once knew. But even this is difficult, as they are getting old and their capacity to remember is reduced. Hamm and his parents only manage to come up with a few traces of the past, none of much importance. 

Meanwhile, there is us in the audience. We must try to make something of all this. 

In one of his short poems, the brilliant Polish poet Tadeusz Różewicz, who lived most of his life here in Wrocław, writes that one can only describe food by describing hunger. 

Beckett uses a similar approach—he is trying to capture something by describing its loss. And that is what moves the plot. Lost time is a paradise lost. But when it did exist, it was not such a paradise, it was just normal life, a sequence of events like many others, perhaps even “happy.” But it exists no more, except in our minds, lingering on in a very faint form—and this is the only topic of conversation for those on the stage.  

A standard interpretation of the phrase “endgame” is that it is alluding to the final part of a chess game, when a few pieces remain on the board. If that is so, then the play is oriented toward the future, toward what the next move might be that could stave off defeat. Yet there is no doubt that Endgame is an ultimate account of despair. 

As we watch it, we see a humanity on stage that is bleak and desolate. Adorno suggested that the play takes place in a zone of indifference, not unlike the world Adorno imagined he was fated to inhabit after World War II, a world devoid of metaphysical hope. 

I’d like us to keep this in mind, though I don’t think today we’re exactly in a zone of indifference …. At least, not yet. 

Rather, we are living in the midst of a worldwide populist uprising aimed more or less explicitly at dismantling democracy and the secular rule of law in a nation-state committed to upholding liberal principles of tolerance and universal human rights. Even worse, this struggle against Enlightenment values is occurring simultaneously with cataclysmic climate change and a renascent xenophobia that frames people fleeing for their lives as a poisonous alien force—all in the midst of an old-fashioned trench war raging in Ukraine as I write. 

Still. Though surrounded by these largely man-made fires, we’ve at least been trying to put them out. It would be so much easier, though, to fight these fires if they were not fueled by massive efforts to dismantle the democratic order by increasing voter suppression and rolling back hitherto existing rights, all of which leaves us in a state of reduced democracy, which brings us back to the desolate world evoked in Beckett’s play.  

But instead of just contemplating in despair—that is, an Endgame that augurs the defeat of Enlightenment hopes—perhaps we could try to think of how we might achieve a different outcome. 

Let me start with one such new beginning that might endow us with the power to make things happen, to create, to enact, to constitute a new social reality: the exercise of a kind of creative imagination, capable not just of passively beholding a bleak work of art, but in a paradoxical response, to react by doing, by acting, not just contemplating.

I experienced it personally, as an aspiring sociologist in Warsaw studying the politics of the underground dissident theater movement in Communist Poland in the wake of the Solidarity trade union uprising of 1980. 

It becomes increasingly difficult for me to talk about it afresh, as the story’s been told so many times that whatever is left feels stodgy and dull. But it was not! We—and many, many others—felt so enormously alive and happy in experiencing daily the meaning of solidarity (with a small s) and being able to act upon it. 

These years were the formative experience of my life as a citizen—a magnificent gift that I still carry with me. I remember distinctly feeling, with a twinge of regret as I left Poland in 1988 for a scholarship in New York, that I had just left a place of tangible hope

Many years later, in my book on democratic performativity, I marveled at the societal capacity to maintain the peaceful character of that movement even when it was delegalized and forced underground, only to re-enter—some eight years later—into a public dialogue with the authoritarian regime, through which a consensus on a transition to democracy could be reached. Revolutions could be negotiated, I argued. 

The revolution of 1989 was a whole new kind of revolution, one that delivered hope without bloodshed. People could replace violence with speech action and realize its agency through other instruments than weapons. 

And it seems the world noticed. That exhilarating experience opened up a path for nonviolent rights revolutions that followed over more than three decades (Orange, Green, Revolution of the Roses, Arab Spring) with people assembling in public squares to peacefully defy oppressive regimes in various corners of the world. 

But today there looms another experience we all share, that of a return to protracted conventional wars—and even the possibility of using nuclear weapons—as the only apparent means of defending liberal democratic institutions.

For people like me, these two kinds of experience are locked, as it were, in a mounting battle between social hope and despair. Knowledge, scholars, books, and curricula are under attack—and processes of silencing are set up to serve the closing down of minds. And I am talking here not only about my country of origin but also about my adopted homeland. 

As I try to think about what went wrong—known as I am for being a notorious sucker for hope—I wonder what conditions today might generate trust rather than suspicion? 

I’m not looking for optimism or a positive outlook, as I believe that Vaclav Havel was right when he argued that hope, properly understood, is not an optimism that things will turn out well, but the certainty that something is meaningful, regardless of how it turns out. 

That kind of hope must have been shared by the almost 40,000 foreign volunteers who in the late 1930s went to Spain, then a battleground for the soul of Europe, to fight to defend a democratic republic against the dictatorial ambitions of Francisco Franco, with outside support from the Soviet Union. With help from Hitler and Mussolini, Franco won that battle, but the lessons many volunteers learned from the experience of dealing with Communist treachery were chastening. 

“In Barcelona,” wrote George Orwell, in the spring of 1937, straight from the Aragon Front: 

there was a peculiar evil feeling in the air–an atmosphere of suspicion, fear, uncertainty, and veiled hatred. … However little you were conspiring, the atmosphere forced you to feel like a conspirator. You seemed to spend all your time holding whispered conversations in corners of cafes and wondering whether the person at the next table was a police spy. Sinister rumors of all kinds were flying around, thanks to the press censorship. … You have all the time a hateful feeling that someone hitherto your friend might be denouncing you to the secret police.

How does one maintain hope against hope in the midst of such perfidious behavior by avowed progressive militants?

Closer to home, I knew about this challenge from my parents, who had felt hope on the heels of a workers’ armed uprising against communist rule known as the 1956 Poznań June. Though the uprising was brutally suppressed, its aftermath seemed to open up a possibility for more freedom. Even though the Hungarian Revolution, which erupted a few months later, was even more brutally suppressed by Soviet tanks, Poland appeared to be on its way to becoming a more peaceful, hopeful, and autonomous place within the Soviet Bloc. The state censorship office even ceased to function for a year or so! 

But two years later, in 1958, when a young PhD candidate who taught psychology at the University of Lille arrived to work at the French Cultural Center in Warsaw, he found himself caught in a palpably Orwellian experience. His name was Michel Foucault, and his own account captures vividly the resurgence of fear in the country:

In the silences of the everyday gestures of a Pole who knew he was being watched, who waited to be out on the street before telling you something, because he knew very well there were microphones everywhere in the foreigner’s apartment. In the way the voices were lowered when you were in the restaurants; in the way, letters were burned …

As a result of “all these suffocating gestures,” Foucault revised his previously sympathetic view of Communism: what he witnessed in Poland “balanced my own political experience, and also referred me on to things that basically I had not sufficiently suspected in my pure speculations: the importance of the exercise of power; the lines of contact between body, life, discourse, and political power.”

Foucault reminds us how much of our work, of what we stand for, is indeed grounded in our personal experiences and motivation. And this takes me back to Havel, a longtime political prisoner, for whom hope was a mindset based on making our lives meaningful and relevant. I’ve always wondered whether his notion of hope—that is, the certainty that something we do is meaningful—will necessarily make us share similar noble objectives. 

Though I know his hope is not optimism about the best possible outcomes, I’d like to be a bit more pragmatic here. Hope is where violence is not. Hope, powered by a sense of caring responsibility, is to face reality as it is and wrestle with it because it matters. To do it, we need an infrastructure, anchored in the present, keeping in mind the past, and not bound exclusively to the future. 

I’ve recently been working on a project prompted by personal motivations: a sense of bewilderment, loss, and shame when I learned that a fellow Pole of my generation—for whom the formative experience was dialogue as a tool of political change—had committed a political murder in 1993 to stop peaceful negotiations to end the apartheid in South Africa. 

How could a Pole of my generation be recruited to conspire against democracy, against the very principles of emancipatory politics that—I presumed—he must have stood up for in his homeland? 

The political murder I am talking about was the assassination of Chris Hani, the beloved Black anti-apartheid leader considered Mandela’s most likely successor, who, at the time of his death, was the First Secretary of the South African Communist Party. 

The assassin, nicknamed “Kuba” by his family and friends, was a self-proclaimed anti-communist émigré from Poland. The South African police quickly caught him, and a court found him guilty of murder. His sentence was life imprisonment, and 30 years later he is still locked up in a high-security prison in Pretoria, where I have met with him twice.

The assassination was one of those shocking events that became central to the collective memory of South Africans of all colors and political affiliations, who remember the exact circumstances in which they learned about Hani’s killing. 

Despite a court trial, the Truth and Reconciliation hearings, and efforts to reveal a larger plot, mystery still surrounds this murder. What in the world drew the assassin from distant Poland into a mission designed to kill both a man and the hope of remaking South Africa into a democracy—the very ideal that I thought the perpetrator himself might have fought for? 

Was I naïve to insist that my generation had experienced a deeply ethical experience that had left all of us transformed? At that time, we had a clear sense that each of us had invested completely in challenging the cruelty of Poland’s Communist regime, in reclaiming our right to have rights, by audaciously building alternative institutions—a project that gradually made the state almost irrelevant. 

We had been shaped by a new hope of our own making: we discovered each other, we discovered a life with dignity, and we all got a taste of public freedom. I vividly remember how we had that uncanny sense that, day by day, we were becoming better human beings.

Kuba, the anti-communist assassin, had grown up just 50 kilometers from the place I grew up in, and found himself abroad—albeit for different reasons—at the same time as I did. He must have had a somewhat similar experience I presumed—yes, naïvely, as it turns out. 

Needless to say, I understand the power of the anti-communist resentments presumably brought along from Poland by the assassin, ostensibly a political refugee

Still, as somebody who’d become intrigued and familiar with South Africa’s present and its recent past, I was always perplexed by the strikingly different roles played by the Communist parties in those two very different contexts. What, if anything, did the Polish assassin understand about the apartheid system or the South African Communist Party? Did Kuba even know any Black Africans? Had he ever visited a Black township? 

While trying to figure out the assassin’s motivations, I realized that my concerns were not just about him, but also about myself. Despite years of organizing annual conferences in Cape Town, and developing a real attachment to the place, I encountered my limitations in making sense of—and being open to accepting—an experience that was not mine.

The great South African novelist and political activist Nadine Gordimer had a similar experience when she came to the United States on a book tour. Her 1979 novel, Burger’s Daughter, is the story of Lionel Burger, a white Afrikaner who joined the South African Communist Party and devoted his life to the liberation of South Africa from apartheid. 

While in the United States, Gordimer noticed that her interlocutors repeatedly referred to Burger as a “liberal.” On one TV appearance, she interrupted the host: “No he’s not a liberal, he’s a Communist.” But it was useless. “None of these people ‘read’ me,” she observed, “because, in the ethos of mainstream American society, a Communist could never be, no matter in what country or social circumstances, a good man. … This is not a matter of misreading or misunderstanding. It is a substitution of one set of values for another because the reader cannot conceive of these otherwise.” 

When I read Gordimer’s reflections from her American tour, I found in them a confirmation of my sense of something that had been bugging me for some time already, which I struggled to name. Not a misreading or misunderstanding, but something different—a mis-knowing. Mis-knowing—that is, knowing without questioning that knowing, knowing uncritically and thus erroneously. 

Indeed, mis-knowing starts with the absence of questioning one’s own self-knowledge and one’s own certainty. To go through the layers of something that appears to be similar and then discover that it really isn’t requires effort and takes time. The very process of trying to find out, to process what appear to be facts, to interrogate and penetrate them, to make temporal and spatial connections, to recognize idioms and symbols, to grasp metaphors, to start figuring out what others’ worlds are about, is not always fully successful, since knowing and mis-knowing are close cousins. 

I often wonder what Arendt, my own guiding spirit, would say about all this? 

I have talked to her own students, and learned that she steered them away from theories, and instead had them read memoirs, poetry, and fiction. Would she laugh at my self-conscious, uneasy perplexity over the case of an assassination, and my clumsy efforts to work out a distinction that might help me to understand what I think is not yet sufficiently understood? 

The trouble is that Arendt was not particularly interested in the phenomenon of knowing; it was thinking that fascinated her—the realm of unanswerable questions, of elusive meanings, and therefore a realm of unlimited freedom. Knowing is a more finite process, with a beginning and an end, with no room for a sustained dialogue that might result in an unpredictable disclosure. Still, I believe that the quest for knowing drives away ignorance, and I think Arendt must have appreciated its interim appeal—as in her early essay where she refers to knowing as an inarticulate, preliminary understanding. 

And perhaps what’s most important for us today is that knowing—or rather the ways we get to know is not a private affair, unlike thinking. Instead, it is socially produced and is tightly connected to the reality we live in (most recently the living in a bubble phenomenon). I would like to argue that reflection on the circumstances that facilitate mis-knowing might help to illuminate some of the grounds of acute conflicts in today’s world. 

While in the assassination of Chris Hani there were, of course, other forces at work besides “not knowing enough”: not wanting to know, or “knowing erroneously.” To explore these is to explore forces of violence—working towards a distortion of reality, such as the production of the “big lie”— and these forces are not necessarily inevitable. I’d like to think that the condition of mis-knowing, potentially calamitous, is avoidable and perhaps even preventable. It is a condition that corrupts—or better, prevents—knowing that can inform acting and that therefore invites urgent reflection. 

So, what is the infrastructure of hope?

Consider a fourteenth-century bridge, a picturesque overpass connecting the Bosnian and Serbian banks of the Drina River. As envisioned by its architect, this bridge doubles in width at its highpoint, to allow for something more than just crossing it on foot or horseback. I am attracted to it in part because of the physicality of the middle section, the stone “sofas” on the side for people to rest, a stand with a brass coffee maker, and the presence of others, but also because of its visceral qualities: we all smell the water, the coffee, the horses, and we hear the sound of shoes, the wheels of the vehicles, and pedestrians, as they look at each other, especially at each other’s aching feet, as they sit down on the stone “sofas,” and gradually begin talking to each other. Well, here we are, in an organic kind of theater where the public and actors are the same—an immersive bridging experience, the experience of encountering others, whom we otherwise would not have met. 

The experience I imagine is the opposite of the one offered to us by Beckett’s characters and their space in the Endgame. The world does not end here; the utter loneliness is gone. This plaza in the middle of the bridge makes it possible for people to get to feel somewhat at home with each other, learning to look through each other’s eyes, asking where they come from, asking about their homes. And that is how seeds of trust are planted. 

We know that conversation is always voluntary, not necessary. First, we have to agree to talk, to listen to each other’s stories, and through this to get to know each other. 

The French philosopher Paul Ricoeur once suggested that everybody could share a narrative and that together we could clear a path that advances us in our conversation. And that with this ability to narrate, one is able to give an account, and therefore feel accountable. 

Well, don’t get me wrong: I am not going so far as to say that the properly situated conversation brings about apokatastasis, the restoration of all things. Still, I fervently believe in the power of exchanged stories, as they set in motion a gradual abstraction from personal desires, aims, lenses, and filters, and lead the people exchanging the stories to recognize interests that we share, matters that we have in common. 

When we think about infrastructure, we often think about roads and bridges; when we think about an infrastructure of hope, we should think about a vital space for meeting, exchanging narratives, and chipping away at mis-knowing. 

We all know spaces like that bridge connecting Bosnia to Serbia, don’t we? 

Nadine Gordimer said wisely: Men are not born brothers and sisters, they have to discover each other. 

Elzbieta Matynia is Professor of Sociology at the New School for Social Research and Director of the Transregional Center for Democratic Studies.