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Recognising hope: US global development discourse and the promise of despair.


Practices of global development have been critiqued for reproducing a notion of the suffering poor as bare life; passive, despairing and devoid of both hope and potentiality. In contrast, this article treats the experience of hope not as external to the governance of underdeveloped life but as a biopolitical technology central to its formation. Reading US President Obama's call to recognise underdeveloped life as inherently hopeful and potential, this article analyses the biopolitics of development at the moment when the separation between lives on the basis of its capacity for hope is explicitly banished. Emerging from this reading is a troubling paradox, one in which hope and despair enter a zone of indistinction. Encouraged to embody this indistinction, it is argued, is a bare and hopeful form of neoliberal life, a potential yet not sovereign being. Hopeful, but without the capacity to conceive of or to act towards a different future.


Agamben, bare life, biopolitics, potentiality, development, Obama


Known as Obama-mania, the election of Barack Obama in 2008 evoked expectations of an empathie transnational solidarity (Pedwell, 2012: 282), heralding, according to one commentator, a world freed from the legacy of US exceptionalism (Stephanson, 2009). Nowhere was this hope more evident than across Africa (Lyman and Robinette, 2009), where Obama's biography--a personal history employed in his 2009 speech at the Ghanaian parliament to retell the legacy of colonialism and exploitation long suffered by Africa (Hernandez-Guerra, 2012: 99, 102-103)--was taken as evidence of radical change. Many among the global poor perceived Obama as a true representative, as having the 'blood of an African in him' (Zimmerman, 2009). Given these expectations, the real promise represented by the Obama administration's attention to global development was arguably not limited to an operative reformation of USAID, such as that promised by the 2010 US Global Development Policy, but nothing short than the final abandonment of the postcolonial relations and exclusions that has continued to condition the production of underdevelopment (McEwan, 2009). (1) This article takes this promise--and its use of hope (2) --as its object of study, analysing its proclaimed abandonment of a central figure of modernist development discourse and biopolitics, namely a perception of underdeveloped life as suffering in passivity and despair, reduced to what Giorgio Agamben has described as bare life (1998). According to Agamben, this figure, 'known to afford no hope' (2000: 31), now finds as one of its 'most telling' expressions 'the "imploring eyes" of the Rwandan child, whose photograph is shown to make money' (1998: 133-134). An image that Agamben claims that 'humanitarian organizations, in perfect symmetry with state power, need' (1998).

Throughout his presidency, Obama continuously urged the global development community to cease its dependence on this figure and instead recognise the struggle and drive concealed by it; what Obama famously has referred to as the 'audacious capacity to hope' (2006), the vibrant 'talent and energy and hope' (2009a) he claims is inherent in human life, including the global poor. Billions of people now recognised by Obama to embody the potential to change the world 'from the bottom-up' (2009a). As such, hope is arguably removed from the historical hold the concept of the gift has maintained on discourses of development, to a grammar of recognition. Obama's insistence thus echoes a long standing critique formulated against the global development apparatus--according to which underdeveloped life is objectified 'as a passive recipient of the gift [...], unable to make a contribution to visions of the future' (Zehfuss, 2012: 869)--as well as against Agamben's 'nihilistic view of history' (Nielson, 2004: 68), which hold the concept of bare life to be complicit in rendering the agency and political potential of excluded life invisible. (3) For instance, Anthony Burke has argued that Agamben's notion of biopolitics tears from it 'any structure of normative value or possibility of hope' (2011: 101), identifying in contrast a non-extinguishable 'hopeful creativity' (2011: 108) that forever exceeds the figure of bare life. In a similar critique, Antonio Negri has argued that Agamben 'denies the potentiality of being' and that 'bare life is the opposite of Spinozan potential and corporeal joy' (Negri quoted in and translated by Nielson, 2004: 68, emphasis in the original).

While some argue that the passive figure of bare life no longer captures the imagination of the global development community (Reid, 2010), critiquing the modernist framework upon which Agamben is taken to rely, they nonetheless depict the life of underdevelopment as excluded from hope. Proponents of this account claim that practices of development no longer aim to give hope to the poor--to tackle their perceived 'absence of aspiration' (Galbraith, 1979: 61-62, quoted in Pupavac, 2005: 165)--but to contain what is perceived as an inherent potentiality (Duffield, 2005: 152), withholding them from the political and transformative experience taken to characterise hope (Evans and Reid, 2014: 195). In contrast to modernist strands of development, contemporary practices of biopolitics are claimed to produce a resilient and hopeless subject, one that aspires only to survive within and adapt to its milieu. Agential, but ultimately unable to 'conceive of better worlds to come' (Evans and Reid, 2014: 195)--seemingly a stark contrast to the hopeful life addressed by Obama's recognition. Similar to Obama, however, this emerging body of literature identify in hope the potential for a transformative and political excess (Anderson 2006a; Massumi, 2002: 212; Pedwell, 2012; Reid, 2010: 409), the capacity for which has been taken as central to the subversion of underdevelopment (Evans and Reid, 2014: 195).

Following the above, hope appears to hold a privileged position in global development discourse and in the critique articulated against it. This article seeks to question the relationship between on the one hand hope, underdevelopment and bareness, and on the other hand between hope and the potential for political action that informs this privilege. Through a reading of Obama's urgent call to recognise underdeveloped life as inherently hopeful and potential--arguably the key theme of the administration's strategic narrative on global development (4)--hope is discussed and conceptualised as a biopolitical technology, one that takes as its object the management of a global impoverished population perceived as potentially violent and disruptive. Rather than describing the impoverished, the disempowered and the displaced life of underdevelopment as either full of hope and potential or as excluded from both, I will attempt the formulation of a troubling paradox, one in which hope and bareness, as well as potentiality and passivity, become indistinct--an indistinction this article will argue is exemplary of both present and historical practices of human-centred development (Chandler, 2013) and of its style of communication. What if hopefulness and bareness was not necessarily opposite conditions of life but could emerge as one and the same? Could a particular bareness be produced by the encouragement, experience and recognition of hope? At stake is arguably how to critique and disrupt the figure of life--bare or hopeful, or perhaps bare and hopeful--that is claimed to occupy the imagination of human development; to interrogate what is done to potentiality and human action by the definition of life as purely potential and of the present as a site of constant change and promise. If life is formulated in such terms, is it still viable to conceive of hope as an uncontainable excess of the present, one that is subversive and political by default? In such a mode of governance, what political promise can hope retain?

The Obama administration's strategic narrative is empirically represented by Obama's public addresses on the topic of global development, ranging from his visit to Ghana 2009 to his remarks at the 2016 White House Summit on Global Development. These speeches are selected on the one hand because they have explicitly been presented as moments of hope (Obama, 2015a)--attempting to produce a sense of possibility to those that they address, a production elsewhere defined by Obama as the 'job' of politics (Obama, 2015b)--and on the other hand because they promise to rearrange the global discourse of development explicitly through terms akin to those employed to define bare life. They thus allow me to pose the conceptual relationship between hope, potentiality and bareness as a question. The strategic narrative articulated by Obama is read as an example of contemporary forms of biopolitics, as defined by Agamben (1998); as an attempt to define and form life through the differentiation between forms of life. (5) As such, the ambition of this reading is not to make claims on, or to offer a representable glimpse of the totality of sovereign power as it is expressed today--as Agamben reminds us, the example is not a representative concept, but a performative one. (6) The articulated narrative is rather taken as one out of many biopolitical articulations of what Agamben, borrowing Foucauldian terminology, calls an apparatus or a dispositif, (7) operating through a diverse network of subjects, discourses and practices across multiple levels to form the life of development and underdevelopment. (8) Because of the limitations in empirical scope, I am unable to address the questions of how the strategic narrative articulated by Obama was implemented in actual development policies or as to how the life of the global poor responded, contested and appropriated this particular attempt of subjectification.

The article departs with a theoretisation of potentiality--equated by Obama to hope through Agamben's conceptual discussion (1999). Particular attention is paid to how potentiality has been employed by both Agamben as well as by critical studies of development and humanitarianism to distinguish hopeful developed life from the despairing life of underdevelopment. I then turn to Obama's explicit critique of the global development community, analysing the recognition and inclusion of life promised by Obama as a performative and biopolitical act, one that paradoxically manages both to contain and release, to give and to recognise hope. Emerging from this reading is a conceptualisation of hope as a disruptive, yet stabilising experience, formative not of the future or of a new world, but of the life deemed responsible for the present. Similar to the paradigm of human development--whose history Obama repeats yet does not recognise--the task, it would appear, is the establishment of a particular form of neoliberal life; a resilient, individualised and responsibilised life for whom poverty and despair are not conditions to be overcome, or, for that matter, to resent, but are to be perceived as opportunity. The hope this life is called to experience is arguably stripped of its revolutionary force, articulated without reference to another world, or to another future. It refers not to a force of becoming, but to a paradoxical hopeful ethos, one which, as I will attempt to show, strips the subject of meaning, suspending it in an eternal not-yet. Such a hope, I submit, is best described not as a fundamental rejection of a totalising state of bareness, but as a technique to manage the contingency of what continues to be perceived as bare life. A bare and hopeful life encouraged to perceive the suspension characteristic of the state of exception as a structure of promise, urged to reformulate lack, deprivation and poverty as hope's condition of possibility. To mistake, in Agamben's words, 'the height of pain--omnipotence--for the greatest perfection' (1995: 71).

Potentiality, biopolitics and development

Potentiality holds a central place in Agamben's political philosophy, described once as his principle point of interest: 'I could state that the subject of my work as an attempt to understand the meaning of the verb "can" [potere]. What does it mean when I say "I can, I cannot'" (1999: 177). For Agamben, potentiality signifies the ontology of absence: 'not simply non-being, but the existence of a non-Being" (1999: 179, emphasis in original). If potentiality is to be allowed an independent existence, Agamben maintains, then the traditional idea of potentiality as the 'potential to do or be something' (1999: 250) must be abandoned, seeing as such a definition would subsume potentiality to actuality: 'we would never experience [potentiality] as such; it would only exist in the actuality in which it is realised' (1999: 250). As a separate ontology, potentiality must therefore refer not only to the ability to be or to act, but perhaps more importantly to the capacity to not-be. Following Aristotle, (9) Agamben concludes that 'all potentiality is, at the same time, potentiality for the opposite [...] He who walks has the potential not to walk, and he who does not walk has the potential to walk' (1999: 262). If not, the one who walks would arguably be a 'walking man', rather than a 'man' with the potential to walk.

It is this potential to not be or do--which Agamben terms im-potentiality, a pure potentiality independent from its actualisation--that Agamben argues is embodied in sovereign life. Famously defined by its capacity to suspend the law (1998), the sovereign is capable of both installing and suspending an actual order. By commanding its impotentiality, the sovereign is held as being 'capable of the act in not realizing it, [as] sovereignly capable of its own im-potentiality [impotenza]' (1998: 45, emphasis in the original). In this context, im-potentiality does not designate a state beyond the actual, but the actualisation of suspension--of the potential not to--signifying a paradoxical indistinction between actuality and potentiality, as argued by Agamben: 'at the limit, pure potentiality and pure actuality are indistinguishable' (1998: 47). The structure of suspension claimed by Agamben to characterise modern biopolitics (1998: 28), i.e. the state of exception, is thus defined as an im-potential state, described as in 'force without significance' (1998: 51). In force (hence actual), but without the actuality of language, action or law giving content to it (hence absent and potential). If the state of exception is an im-potential state, then its actualisation is taken to install a permanent temporal in-between, a 'duration' (1995: 71), described elsewhere as 'an empty space' (2005: 86). In this void, the actual is included only through its exclusion, a suspension that Agamben previously has referred to as a 'deactivation [...] of possibility' (2004: 67), claimed to allow the state of exception to 'maintain itself indefinitely, without ever passing over into actuality' (1998: 47).

If sovereign life is characterised by its ability to command its im-potentiality--to suspend the law, installing an order that is in force without signification--then the life caught in the state of exception has often been defined as its opposite, a suspended, excluded and bare life subjected to and abandoned by the sovereign's im-potentiality. According to Sergei Prozorov, this condition is best described as a 'tyranny of actuality' (2010: 1067), reducing life, in Massumi's words, to 'the physical minimum' (2010). For Agamben, the exclusion of bare life, an act referred to as the sovereign ban (1998: 28), is a foundational activity of sovereign power, constitutive of the 'city of men' (1998: 7). (10) Similar to the 'inclusive exclusion' (Agamben, 1998: 21, emphasis in the original) of the actual that is constitutive of the state of exception, bare life is equally included in the definition of life only through its exclusion. It refers not only to a life suspended from the law, famously held to be capable of being killed without sacrifice or punishment, (11) but also to that which humanity defines and recognises as its opposite (2004: 25). Through this logic, the seemingly stable dichotomy between human and animal, between bare and politically qualified life, zoe and bios, that the sovereign seeks to establish arguably becomes unsettled, demanding constant affirmation and recognition, transposing im-potentiality from a faculty that the sovereign securely commands to a performative activity.

In the context of development, the performative dimension of bare life's exclusion has convincingly been employed to study how the life deemed in need of development is constituted as a fully present life, a 'passive', 'incapable', 'deficient', 'hopeless' and anonymous mass--descriptions that alludes to 'the total erasure of any form of subjectivity' (Cullen Dunn and Cons, 2014: 97). The life addressed by this framework has been described as living on 'the precipice of potentiality--as living corpse' (Fluri, 2011: 40), reduced to a 'site of potentiality' (Fluri, 2011: 31); a blank slate onto whom developed life can act. Critics have further argued that humanitarianism operates through a logic of victimisation, defining underdeveloped life as a 'bare victim' (Korf, 2007: 370) who while being regarded as pure and innocent (Hutchings, 2011: 31), is ultimately met with either contempt (Douzinas, 2007: 13) or fear (Dillon, 2007: 25). Harmless in the present, yet deemed potentially dangerous in the future. As observed by Jenny Edkins and Pin Fat, bare life is characterised by feelings of 'despair, hopelessness, isolation, rightlessness, invisibility, and voicelessness' (2005: 19, my emphasis).

According to Lilie Chouliaraki, this modernist rationale of development, founded on a 'moral emphasis of pity' (2010: 108), is characteristic of Enlightenment discourse of the public good, one which 'relies heavily on the language of grand emotions about suffering' (2010). As observed by Ben Anderson, this logic has been sustained through a geography and economy of hope; 'a division between the hopeful and hopeless that ties the hopeless into a network of obligation' (2006b: 749). Equally, for Benedikt Korf, the gift-relation he perceives as characteristic of development not only 'invigorate compassion and emotion as the core virtues that should ground ethical action' (Korf, 2007), but more importantly, 'create asymmetric relations' reducing the global poor to a figure of 'pure passivity" (Korf, 2007: 370, emphasis in original). Tomohisa Hattori has made similar claims, arguing that international development's historical devotion to the concept of the gift has transformed 'a relation of domination into one of generosity and gratitude' (2001: 640).

Given the historical weight of this modernist account, which according to Agamben has transformed 'the entire population of the Third World into bare life' (1998: 180), it is not surprising that Obama's promise to recognise the inherent potentiality of the global poor appears as a radical break, disruptive of the formative logic of underdevelopment. The next section will analyse the hope actualised and articulated by and through this act of inclusive recognition, discussing it in relation to analyses of Obama's general conceptualisation of hope. The subsequent analytical sections will seek to read this promise, not as a liberation from the exclusions of biopolitics and underdevelopment, but as an example of biopolitics writ large, operating through what Agamben defines as the principle act of biopolitics--recognition of a common humanity (2004: 25). By analysing the temporal and spatial placement to which the life of global poverty is summoned by Obama, this section argues that the radical break promised by Obama reproduces a structure of repetition, one that iterates the history, concepts--and exclusions--characteristic of the paradigm of human development. A structure in which hope is used to suspend, not release life--to form, not to recognise life.

The promise of recognition

In Ghana 2009, when purposively articulating the promise of development to the global poor for the first time during his presidency, Obama seemingly extended the promise of change centring his presidential campaign--in which the 'fundamental truth' of hope was taken to relate both to life--'while we breathe, we hope'--and to human potentiality--'that timeless creed that sums up the spirit of a people: yes, we can' (Obama, 2008). In Ghana, this capacity was recognised to belong to all of humanity, including the subject of development: 'And here is what you must know: The world will be what you make of it. [You can] make change from the bottom up. You can do that, Yes you can' (Obama, 2008). Despite his Kenyan heritage, which Obama in this context of course was sure to repeat, Obama underlined that he did not belong to this potentiality. No, Obama promised, 'Africa's future is up to Africans', a future that the 'people of Africa' were recognised as 'ready to claim' (Obama, 2008).

Ostensibly, this articulation of hope appears to conform to Obama's general conception of hope, succinctly summarised by Lauren Berlant as an empathie promise, an assuring proclamation that 'I feel your hope' (quoted in Pedwell, 2012: 290). In a similar manner, Daniel E. Rossi Keen has argued that: 'there is [...] no singular or specific telos for Obama's audacious call for hope. That telos, rather, is itself an infinite collection of telof (2008: 210, emphasis in the original). So conceived, Obama's hope arguably extends beyond general definitions of the affect of hope, or of optimism, as an 'attachment' (Berlant, 2011: 23) or a 'wish orientation' (Ahmed, 2010: 181) towards the obtainment of a pre-defined object or future. According to Obama, what unites the plurality of human life is not a universally desired object, a particular vision of the future, onto which people can project their hopes, but an audacious capacity to hope as such (Obama, 2006: 421, 2009b). In Obama's account, hope appears as non-reducible to the object to which it is presented, an ability to reject the objects given by this world, referring instead to a power operating on an ontological level to an ability to create its own object, its own world. Through this logic, the idea of perfection, of a utopie universalism, is explicitly articulated as the antagonist to Obama's political philosophy of hope (Kloppenberg, 2011; Wrangel, 2014). While claims of and to perfection is declared by Obama to arrest life to actuality, to hinder dialogue and to cause conflict (Obama, 2009b), the capacity to hope is described as universal, in form if not in content. As actual, we are all separate and apart--as potential and imperfect, we are all the same, Obama thus argued in his celebrated Nobel lecture (2009b) and more recently at the UN, where Obama stated that perfection belongs to no nation, regardless of its percieved stage of development: 'this next chapter of development cannot fall victim to the old divides between developed nations and developing ones. Poverty, growing inequality exists in all of our nations, and all of our nations have work to do. And that includes here in the United States' (2015b).

To be sure, Obama's recognition of the hopeful spirit of the global poor was a recurrent theme of the administration's strategic narrative on global development and poverty, articulated in every public speech in which Obama addressed this topic. In 2010, speaking to young African leaders, Obama made clear to the attending individuals that they 'represent the Africa that so often is overlooked--the great progress that many Africans have achieved and the unlimited potential that you've got going forward into the 21st century' (2010a, my emphasis). Addressing the topic of global agriculture and food security in 2012, Obama declared that while we see heart breaking images--fields turned to dust, babies with distended bellies--and we say its hopeless [...] I say look at the extraordinary successes in development. [...] We see Africa as an emerging market [...], We see a surge in foreign investment. We see a growing middle class [...] There's hope and some optimism. (2012, my emphasis).

At the 2014 US Africa Business Forum, it was proclaimed that 'we cannot lose sight of the new Africa that's emerging' (Obama, 2014, my emphasis), and as such, Obama promised, 'We don't look to Africa simply for its natural resources; we recognize Africa for its greatest resource, which is its people and its talents and their potential' (Obama, 2014, my emphasis). As noted by The Guardian, the theme of Africa Rising--of being 'on the move' (Obama, 2009a, 2015c), was a recurrent theme of Obama's 2015 trip to Nairobi and Addis Ababa (Smith, 2015). Obama's 2015 speech at the UN General Assembly in 2015, reiterated this point: 'development is threatened if we do not recognize the incredible dynamism and opportunity of today's Africa. [...] I visited Africa recently, and what I saw gave me hope and I know should give you hope' (2015a, my emphasis).

So defined, hope is presented not as a gift to those traditionally perceived as 'underdeveloped' and 'hopeless'--whose geography, if judging by above speeches, continues to be located almost exclusively on the African continent--but as a proclamation that hope does not have to be given, only recognised. If anything, the gift of hope is reversed, inverting the traditional positions of recipient and donor undergirding modernist discourses of development. Echoing important critique of such practices, rehearsed in the previous section, Obama unremittingly maintained that there is an urgent need to change the story of what it means to be poor and to suffer. (12) In Ghana, Obama hence apologised for a world that 'sees only tragedy and the need for charity' (2009a). Although acknowledged to be born from 'genuine compassion towards those in need' (2015a), Obama defines charity as a relation wrought in power, continuously reproductive of the hierarchies of underdevelopment: 'the old model in which we are a donor and they are simply a recipient' (Obama, 2013). For Obama, the moral self-positioning associated with the notion of gift-giving is labelled as a patronising condemnation that 'might make us feel good' (White House, 2010a) in the present but will ultimately fail to deliver sustainable development in the future, as concluded in the 2010 Presidential Policy Directive on Global Development. According to Obama being 'big-hearted' (2010a) is not only insufficient, it may potentially contribute to underdevelopment, offering 'not development, [but] dependence, and it's a cycle we need to break' (2010a). Rather than to continue what Obama defines as a practice of sustained life support, Obama continuously called upon the international community to offer underdeveloped life 'partnership, not patronage' (White House, 2010a), based on 'shared responsibility' (White House, 2010a) and 'mutual respect' (Obama, 2009a). So presented, Obama's recognition claims not only to highlight the potentiality of underdeveloped life but arguably also to make visible the politics of their exclusion, the denial of their proper place not in what Agamben refers to as the traditional figure of politically qualified life (bios), but in a humanity in which the separation between politically qualified life and bare life, between developed and underdeveloped life, no longer has a place. A promise to the global poor of being recognised, not as underdeveloped, not as mere bodies, as inferior and bare, but as humans. As subjects of potentiality: hopeful and becoming.

The biopolitics of recognition: Hope as a state of suspension

While Obama holds hope to be a constant and fundamental part of human nature, in need only of recognition, hope is repeatedly articulated as a fragile experience, ontologically precarious, (13) constantly threatened by the emergence of cynicism and scepticism (Obama, 2008, 2009a, 2010a, 2012, 2015a, 2015b). For example, in Ghana, Obama depicted the unrealised promise of African liberation movements--the 'hope of my father's generation'--as having given 'way to cynicism, even despair' (2009a). At the UN in 2009, Obama proclaimed that 'What happens to the hope of a single child anywhere --can enrich our world, or impoverish it' (2009c), a statement that since was used to frame the US 2010 National Security Strategy (White House, 2010b: 7). In the 2010 Presidential Policy Directive on Global Development, hope is similarly defined as that which gives urgency and primacy to development: 'we cannot defeat the ideologies of violent extremism when hundreds of millions of young people face a future with no jobs, no hope and no meaningful opportunities' (White House, 2010a, my emphasis). According to Obama, it is this fragility that allows hope to turn into despair and despair into resentment, risking to feed a 'sense of injustice upon which extremists prey' (2015d). At the 2015 White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism, Obama further argued that it is 'when people--especially young people--feel entirely trapped in impoverished communities--[... that] makes those communities ripe for extremist recruitment' (2015d, my emphasis).

Given this fragility, Obama's call to recognise the global poor as already hopeful appears counter-intuitive, if not, that is, if the act of recognition is not also a gift--a technique employed to actualise the experience of hope perceived to be withheld from the global poor. As a gift, the object of Obama's calling is arguably inverted, aiming not to subvert a politics of exclusion, but to govern the potentially dangerous life of underdevelopment. Pre-empting, by the use of hope, its process of becoming dangerous. In that sense, Obama's diagnosis arguably inscribes itself in what Pupavac has called 'development's therapeutic turn' (2005: 173), characterised inter alia by a reformulation of poverty in 'social psychological terms' (2005: 172). Indeed, according to Obama, it is not poverty that creates violence--'poverty alone does not cause a person to become a terrorist' (2015d)--but a particular affective relationship between hope and poverty. Not a state of living without relation to hope, as per the traditional definition of bare hopeless life, but a life lived in the shadow of hope --an absence of hope that is intensively felt and acted upon. So conceived, hope is defined both as an object of recognition and of governance, an experience identified as in need of constant actualisation. To that end, the moment of recognition--promised to release life from the constrains of what Obama depicts as cyclical time, to 'break' (2010a, 2010b, 2015a, 2015b) life free from the 'cyclefs] of poverty' (Obama, 2015a, 2015b), 'dependence' (2010a, 2015a), 'conflict and violence' (2010a) and of 'fear and resentment' (2015d)--becomes caught in repeat, actualised time and again. Established by this recurrence is a paradoxical temporal cycle, one that offers a continual experience of change. Not a new moment in time, constitutive of a new future, but an echo of a structure of promise that arguably has become exemplary of contemporary discourses and practices of human development.

Indeed, the theoretical establishment of the human development paradigm during the 1990s was similarly formed through a promise 'to consider individuals as active agents of change instead of passive recipients of benefit' (Alt, 2015: 77)--a 'fundamental point' (Alt, 2015: 77) of Amartya Sen's framework that, as noted by Suvi Alt, was constantly reiterated. Also similar to the logic presented by Obama, vocal proponents of human development advocated for the abandonment of the 'aspirational goal' (Duffield, 2005: 152) of modernism --'that the underdeveloped world would, after passing through various stages, come to resemble the developed' (Duifield, 2005)--as well as of the reference to the figure of bare life (Reid, 2010: 392) and of the emotional economy of pity (Chouliaraki, 2010) associated with it. Presented as a progressive alternative to such paternalism, the paradigm of human development has instead been claimed to govern life through a particular notion of empathie freedom, continuously branding its practices as respectful of local traditions and desires (Abrahamsen, 2004; Murray Li, 2007: 246). Underlined by this paradigm is the importance of partnerships, local ownership and participation (Abrahamsen, 2004; Cooke, 2003; Crawford, 2003; Hansson, 2015; Murray Li, 2007), as well as the empowerment of individual potentiality--or capability, as is this literature's favoured concept: the individual's capacity for choice (Alt, 2015; Shani, 2012), freedom (Chandler, 2013), self-reliance (Duffield, 2007) and resilience (Evans and Reid, 2014)--all of them keywords in the development discourse of the Obama administration. As noted by Bill Cooke, this form of governance finds its historical roots in the practice of indirect rule applied by colonial administration (Cooke, 2003; see also Duffield, 2005; Murray Li, 2007: 267).

Through this reading, it seems that what is caught in repeat is not a cycle of non-recognition and dependence--as per Obama's historical account--but its opposite: a paradoxical cycle of disruptive recognition. Demanded by this cycle is arguably the continuous production of a subject that is perceived as--and ideally perceives itself to be --excluded from recognition. A subject arrested in a continuous experience of rupture, a paradoxical union of what Obama defines as the dual temporality of hope, instantaneous and eternal: an eternal instant. For the actualisation of this instant, and the hope experienced in it, despair is not an enemy, but a condition of possibility. One that has to be constantly summoned if only to be banished time and again. As such, the traditional figure of bare life passive, helpless, non-political--remains active in this discourse, included in the act of its exclusion. Caught in this instant is not a life released, but a disrupted life, one that is suspended in the moment of suspense; in anticipation rather than realisation, in potentiality rather than actuality. If potentiality is what defines this suspended form of life, then, following Agamben's definition of potentiality as the ontology of absence (1999), this life emerges as a purely absent life, lacking the possibility of actuality. Suspended not in actuality, but in potentiality, caught in between two modes of existence, between zoe and bios--not fully excluded, yet not fully welcomed. An experience of being welcomed that arguably demands the continual exclusion of the life that is being welcomed. Else there would be no one left to welcome, no hope of being welcomed possible to produce, no promise of recognition possible to repeat. This is arguably not a hope propelling life towards the future, but rather a passive and amnesiac hope whose target is the erasure and revision of the past--of the cycle which it repeats and of the formative history of underdevelopment--a stark reminder of Ernst Bloch's conceptualisation of hope as the temporal opposite not of 'fear, but memory' (1986: 12). According to Duffield, this temporal structure has been central to the perseverance of the global development apparatus, defined as embodying 'a viral ability to reinvent itself (Duffield, 2010: 31); a capacity 'to insist on being judged by a yet distant future, rather than a past that has been lived and experienced' (Duffield, 2010: 27).

The biopolitics of recognition: Hope as a form of life

Importantly, biopolitics operate not only to suspend life and to differentiate between lives, it also seeks to form life. As do the hope articulated by Obama, whose ambition appears to be the fostering a form of life for whom hope becomes the productive capability of a free individual, rather than a call for political mobilisation. Despite the focus on capability and choice in the discourse of Obama, its concern, as will be argued below, is not the governance of action but of life. (14) To that end, several temporal dichotomies emerge in the moment of recognition, through which both the past and future are instilled with meaning. First, if dependence is claimed to belong to the cyclical structure of the gift, the future belongs, according to Obama, to the naturally progressive movement of economy. The historical relationship between development and capitalism, as defined by discourses of modernity and as observed by both Duffield (2007) and Pupavac (2005: 167), is here radically reversed. In Obama's account, it is not development that will secure the potentially dangerous 'surplus population' (Duffield, 2007: 9, see also Murray Li, 2007: 21) created by the globalisation of capital, but the globalisation of capitalism--to 'foster the next generation of emerging markets' (White House, 2010a, my emphasis)--that will pacify a population rendered redundant and dangerous by development. Similar to Obama's negligence of the history of human development, the history of dispossession and impoverishment arguably accompanying the diffusion of capitalism remains untold by Obama, according to whom neoliberal capitalism is presented as the future, one which the life of underdevelopment has continuously been withheld from: 'Africans--especially young Africans--tell me they don't just want aid, they want trade' (2015a). (15)

Second, if the past, according to Obama, belonged to group identities--be it 'identities of tribe and ethnicity; of religion and nationality' (2009a), the popular 'liberation struggles' (2009a) of the decolonial movements or from having been reduced to a status likened to that of bare life: anonymous, passive, dependent and potentially violent recipients of the gift then the future is claimed to belong to the potential and responsible individual. Not to the individual human as such, but to a particular entrepreneurial and opportunistic individual a neoliberal form of life that is primed to embrace and experience uncertainty, risk and ultimately poverty as opportunity (Miller and Rose, 1990; O'Malley, 2010; Pedwell 2012; Shamir, 2008). In Ghana, this life was hailed as ready 'to claim the future' (Obama, 2009a). To this life, neoliberalism appears not as a rule, a demand issued from the sovereign, but as freedom. As such, neoliberalism is not articulated as one possibility out of many that the potential life of global poverty is deemed capable of acting upon. Neoliberalism is not referred to as a choice, but as that which gives choice, inserting a particular benevolent uncertainty to life, referred to by Obama as an 'environment in which young people can succeed despite great odds' (Obama, 2015b, my emphasis). This is the form of life recognition performs, an objective made explicit across US global development discourse, articulating the necessity to 'invest in' (2015a), to 'encourage' (2010a, 2014), to 'empower' (2014) and to 'build' (2010a) 'the next generation of entrepreneurs' (2010a, 2014), recognised by Obama as inhabiting--and indeed encouraged to remain in--the 'emerging markets' (2010b) of the global South, 'where the greatest opportunities are' (2010b). For this life, Obama informs, opportunity is a responsibility: 'opportunity won't come from any other place. It must come from the decisions that all of you make, the things that you do, the hope that you hold in your heart' (Obama, 2009a, my emphasis).

Not only does Obama's emphasis on individual opportunity--'development that provides opportunity for more people' (2009a)--dematerialises the world of poverty, stripping it of the possibility to identify relations and structures of dominance and exploitation, (16) it also echoes the conceptualisation of poverty claimed to emerge within the framework of resilience, which highlight the need to cope with poverty rather than to strive to eradicate it (Aradau, 2014: 81; Chandler, 2015: 13; Pupavac, 2005: 173), as well as with efforts within the World Bank to govern poverty by constituting a 'new kind of low-income individual more capable of managing risk' (Best, 2013: 123). So conceived, it seems that the experience of hope, the production of which is the explicit aim of US strategic narrative on development, aims not to disrupt despair, but to dislodge despair from its relation to actuality, and consequently to resentment and to violence. To produce a resilient form of life that accepts 'suffering and setbacks' (Obama, 2009a), that does not resent a despairing past, but uses it, a tactic claimed by Obama to have been successfully employed by himself, and others likened to him: 'And in my country, African Americans--including so many recent immigrants--have thrived in every sector of society. We've done so despite a difficult past, and we've drawn strength from our African heritage' (Obama, 2009a). For this form of life despair appears to be supportive of hopeful neoliberal life, rather than its threat. Unlike the potentially dangerous hope identified by Obama to embody both violent extremism and the popular decolonial movements of the past (2009a), there is no promised telos that it can be withheld from, nor any identifiable antagonist that stands in its way. (17) An empty, depoliticised--if not privatised (Aronson, 2016)--hope, for which the dangerous relationship between hope and despair is reversed; conceptualising despair not as hope's ontological opposite, but as its condition of possibility.

Concluding remarks: A bare hope?

In contrast to a modernist economy and geography distinguishing between the hopeful and the despairing as embedded in traditional accounts of development, what emanates from this politics, I would argue, is an economy and geography distinguishing between those who are deemed capable of both hope and despair, yet not of violence, and those whose hope demand constant actualisation, lest it is feared that they become violent. Emerging in this discourse is thus a figure of underdeveloped life governed neither by the hopeless nihilism claimed by Evans and Reid (2014: 148) to embody the life of resilience--described as being 'exhausted by the discourse and aesthetic practice of suffering' (2014: 177)--nor the modest hopes that both Pupavac and Duffield argues characterises the contemporary human development discourse of containment--discourses that because of an omnipresent fear of 'rising expectations backfiring' (Pupavac, 2005: 167) have been claimed to promote 'a portfolio of sustainable aspirations, feasible hopes and affordable dreams' (Duffield, 2005: 155). In contrast to such logics of governance, Obama's act of recognition governs life through the experience of hope released. One that simultaneously succeeds to present itself as a promise of infinite possibility and as a defeatist acknowledgment of the impossibility of changing and addressing the conditions that engender global poverty. (18) One that remains true to both the logic of gift and that of containment, a feat paradoxically achieved through negating the grammar of both discourses. Replacing the 'hollow promises' (Obama, 2010a) of development, the act of recognition promises nothing. In fact, this appears to be its paradoxical promise. For the life caught in this promise, hope is arguably not unfamiliar, but rather part and parcel of what constitutes the resilient subject of human development, one more condition of life that this subject is told is impossible to change.

To subvert such a nihilistic hope, it may well be that the potential to act politically is not necessarily found in the hope of change, in an experience of excess, as is often advocated for in critical theory, seeing as such an experience now appears as part of the global biopolitical apparatus. Could it rather be, as argued by Agamben, that devotion to the future 'is not a question of thinking a better or more authentic form of life, a superior principle or an elsewhere' (2014: 74)? That the future's coming into presence is not a matter of exceeding the present, but of decreating it, rendering the world 'inoperative' (2014: 69), available for new use? Indeed, could one think of today--when calls for critical and radical imaginaries beyond the horizon of neoliberalism abound--of a more radical imaginary than to prefer not to hope? Than to proclaim that the emergence of the future must await the destitution of it being imagined? Because is it not, as argued by Terry Eagleton, that a 'future that could be adequately captured in the language of the present would be too complicit with the status quo, and so would scarcely count as a genuine future at all' (2015: 38).

While recognised as potential life, capable of turning despair into hope, it is ultimately this capacity to not hope--to destitute the equivalence between hope and potentiality, to separate potentiality, hope and despair from its instrumental use--that is denied the neoliberal form of life addressed by Obama. Without the ability to sovereignly command its hope, sovereign decision is reduced to an experience of individual choice. (19) Unlike the nihilistic figure of Bartleby--an embodiment of pure potentiality claimed by Agamben to be sovereignly capable of decreating the state of exception (1998: 48; 1999: 243-271), the hopeful yet impoverished life addressed by Obama has no command of its im-potentiality. Actualised in the discourse of the Obama administrations is arguably not the capacity to hope and not to hope, but an inherently fragile experience of hope, demanding continuous reactivation and support, lest it is deemed at risk of turning dangerous. From this perspective, we can conceive of hope as a state of suspension, as an experience of momentary disruption caught in repeat. An experience that is, following Agamben, the opposite of im-potentiality: 'The infinite repetition of what was abandons all its potential not to be. In its obstinate copying, as in Aristotle's contingency, there is no potential not to be' (1999: 268)

Governed not by actual content, but by form, it is arguably not potentiality that the subject of development is perceived to lack, but sovereignty: a life experienced as pure absence, unable to come into presence. As such, what is banned in the strategic narrative presented by Obama is arguably not underdeveloped life's bareness. On the contrary, the constitutive role the appearance of such a ban is afforded arguably masks the real ban at play, namely the exclusion of the capacity to actualise the potential for world-making, removing ontological suspension--and hence transformation--from the reach of human potentiality. For this potential life, actuality and potentiality appears to have entered a zone of indistinction, a paradoxical state in which that which is potential arguably does not transcend the actuality of the present, but has become constitutive of the actual--a suspension of the actual, in which the reference to actuality is included only to be excluded. In force, but empty of meaning. In this extended moment of potentiality, we find all the traits defined by Agamben as characteristic of the state of exception: suspension, exclusion and a despairing passivity, yet without the sense of nihilism and captivity traditionally associated with this state of living. Caught in an indefinite not-yet, the figure of life summoned by Obama is encouraged to desire absence as an end in itself. A potential life, paradoxically lived without the potential to act. As such, this particular experience of hope appears not as a rejection of the bareness enforced upon life, but that through which life becomes bare. If we could call such an absent life a state of bareness, it would perhaps not be bare life, but a bareness full-of-life--a minimum condition of life, reduced to pure negativity, defined not by what it is, nor what it has, but solely by what is absent from it. To this form of life, Agamben's disheartening conclusion may sound tragically familiar: 'potentiality is the contrary to pleasure. It is what is never enacted, what never achieves its end. It is, in a word, pain' (1995: 71).

Claes Tangh Wrangel

University of Gothenburg, Sweden

DOI: 10.1177/0263775817695814


The author would like to thank the three anonymous reviewers for their thorough, insightful and helpful comments as well as to Maria Stern and Jan Aart Scholte for their tireless feedback on the long process leading up to this article. Also thanks to Simon Larsson, Jan Bachmann, Sofie Hellberg, Anja Franck, Wayne Coetzee and Joe Anderson for their helpful comments on earlier versions.

Declaration of conflicting interests

The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.


The author(s) received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.


(1.) I will use the terms underdevelopment and underdeveloped life consistently throughout this article, seeing as it is commonly employed within biopolitical analyses of development to signify, in Mark Duffield's words, 'a surplus population [...] whose skills, status or even existence are in excess of prevailing conditions and requirements' (2007: 9) established by the globalisation of capitalism. In this context, Duffield claims, development emerges as an 'external and educative tutelage over an otherwise superfluous and possibly dangerous population' (2007).

(2.) For a detailed discussion of the relation between use and biopolitics, see Agamben (2015).

(3.) For critique of Agamben's lack of conceptual differentiation, see Butler and Spivak (2007: 42), Cullen Dunn and Cons (2014), Kalyvas (2005) and Lemke (2005).

(4.) Miskimmon et al. define strategic narrative as 'a communicative tool through which political actors --usually elites--attempt to give determined meaning to past, present, and future in order to achieve political objectives' (2013: 5). For Miskimmon et al., one of the key distinguishing features that render narrative into a distinct form of discourse is its 'temporal dimension and sense of movement' (2013: 7). The target of these practices often includes foreign publics, as is the case of the Obama administration's strategic narrative on global development.

(5.) There are of course many different definitions of biopolitics, for a discussion on the difference between Agamben, Foucault and Hardt and Negri, see Coleman and Grove (2009).

(6.) The example is likened by Agamben to Thomas Kuhn's notion of the paradigm, seeing as both are singular, yet common. At the same time as the example is employed to represent the normal case (or the whole to which it is claimed belong), its exemplarity necessarily excludes it from the normality it claims to belong to. It is, Agamben argues, 'impossible to clearly separate an example's paradigmatic character--its standing for all cases--from the fact that it is one case among others' (2009: 20). In that sense, the example is not representative but performative of the whole, whose appearance the example engenders. The whole 'is not a generality preexisting the singular cases and applicable to them, nor is it something resulting from the exhaustive enumeration of specific cases. Instead it is the exhibition alone of the paradigmatic case that constitutes a [whole]' (2009: 21).

(7.) Agamben defines an apparatus as
   literally anything that has in some way the capacity to capture,
   orient, determine, intercept, model, control, or secure the
   gestures, behaviors, opinions, or discourses of living beings. Not
   only, therefore, prisons, madhouses, the panopticon, schools,
   confession, factories, disciplines, juridical measures and so forth
   (whose connection with power is in a certain sense evident), but
   also the pen, writing, literature, philosophy, agriculture,
   cigarettes, navigation, computers, cellular telephones and--why
   not--language itself. (2011: 14)

(8.) For a discussion on the multiple, and often conflicting, forms and levels sovereign power operates through, see Cullen Dunn and Cons (2014) and Lemke (2005).

(9.) For further discussions on Agamben's reading of Aristotle's concept of dynamis, see Attell (2014), Balskus (2010) and Nielson (2004).

(10.) For a study employing the constitutive nature of the ban as an analytical lens, see de Goede (2011).

(11.) See Sylvester (2006) and Parfitt (2009) for studies of development employing the language of bare life to highlight how development practices has displaced and rendered vulnerable populations in various contexts.

(12.) For an explicit example of this line of reasoning, see Obama (2015b).

(13.) For a conceptual discussion of the inherent precariousness of hope, see Anderson (2006b).

(14.) For a historical analysis of the shift in governance from action to life, see Agamben (2013: 61).

(15.) For a repetition of this argument, see Obama (2016).

(16.) For a discussion of how practices of human-centred development similarly dematerialise poverty, see Chandler (2013).

(17.) According to Berlant, this is indicative of Obama's general affective strategy: to 'dissolve affectively what's antagonistic structurally' (Berlant and Greenwald, 2012: 80).

(18.) As argued by Kevin Grove, the vulnerable subject of resilience is affectively constituted through both hope and fear (2014: 248). See also Wrangel (2014) for a discussion of the indistinction between fear and hope actualised in the constitution of resilient life.

(19.) For an analysis of how discourses of human development entail a similar reduction of decision to choice, see Alt (2015).


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Claes Tangh Wrangel is a PhD candidate in Peace and Development Research at the School of Global Studies, University of Gothenburg. His current research interrogates the biopolitics of hope as it appears in the discourse and governance of global security.

Corresponding author:

Claes Tangh Wrangel, School of Global Studies, University of Gothenburg, Konstepidemins Vag 2, 40530 Goteborg, Sweden. Email:
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Date:Oct 1, 2017
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