Mitski in director Zia Anger's music video "Working for the Knife".

Hope is an Incomplete Answer — Mitski’s “Working for the Knife”

The thing about Mitski that I don’t get anywhere else is that her music (often with Zia Anger’s videos) feels like a safe place to just…break. To not be OK. To be exhausted. The music feels like a shelter or recognition for places we barely speak about.

We imagine avoiding these places in ourselves denies them power; as if we can’t feel depressed or anxious if we avoid talking about being depressed or anxious. We imagine this because we understand these things through relationships of power. Our culture understands everything primarily through relationships of power.

Depression and anxiety aren’t about a power struggle in ourselves, though. They’re not wresting for power, they can’t be overcome by will. They’re just there. They’re just present, like air or sunshine. Sometimes they’re present for a reason and there’s an identifiable cause. Sometimes they’re present because they’re component to how someone’s brain works and they don’t need a cause.

“Working for the Knife” feels like a scream of exhaustion, for an exhaustion it’s hard to see ever going away. Personally, culturally, globally, that’s the moment and we don’t see an end to it.

So many know that emotional explosion at the end of “Working for the Knife” – manic, joyous, angry, helpless, outsized and diminished, expansive and lonely, breathless, ragingly silent. We fruitlessly give everything we have to no audience because we’re terrified to have one: we imagine avoiding these places in ourselves denies them power, but we know existing with them and giving them some kind of space helps to manage it at all. How many express in silence, alone, and then act as if everything’s fine the minute eyes are on them?

There’s a helplessness to “Working for the Knife” because it’s hard to see each of our acts of emotional expression changing anything. There’s a helpfulness to it because that act of expression means something to us; that meaning is enough to know we might change something.

We live in a hopeless time. Part of our hopelessness is being convinced that it’s an individual shortcoming, a personal fallibility, a failure of imagination. Hopelessness is something we shouldn’t speak of, let alone share with others. Recognizing hopelessness runs directly counter to prosperity gospel, to “The Secret”, to economic materialism. Even when we identify those poisons, there are a thousand others ingrained into our media, our social media, our culture.

We’re taught to be successful, to be whole, we have to deny a major emotional state in ourselves. We’re made to believe that if someone is hopeless, it’s their fault. It must be a shortcoming, a toxin that might spread. We’re taught that someone else’s hopelessness must be disbelieved before we learn why it exists, lest it find a home in us and magically sabotage the success we’re sure we’ll have tomorrow out of…what, hope? We’re a nation and a culture feeling the last minute of this video in raging silence, and then projecting endless hope the minute we hear another voice in the room.

Hopelessness acknowledges that something is wrong in the first place, and if you’re made to avoid ever feeling hopeless, you’ve been made to avoid ever acknowledging that something is wrong.

Rebecca Solnit wrote in “Hope in the Dark” that “Hope is not like a lottery ticket you can sit on the sofa and clutch, feeling lucky. I say this because hope is an ax you break down doors with in an emergency; because hope should shove you out the door, because it will take everything you have to steer the future away from endless war, from the annihilation of the earth’s treasures and the grinding down of the poor and marginal.”

At the World Economic Forum in Davos, climate activist Greta Thunberg chastised the gathered economists: “Adults keep saying, ‘we owe it to young people to give them hope.’ But I don’t want your hope. I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day, and then I want you to act. I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if our house is on fire. Because it is.”

These two ideas don’t disagree. They’re part of the very same whole. It’s the same definition. If hope is an axe and the motivation to use it, hopelessness is the recognition and understanding why. Why would you break down the door with an axe? Because our house is on fire. We’re complex enough to carry both halves of that reality within us, to realize that both are true and needed. Yet culturally, we treat hopelessness as the enemy of hope. Hope is to be spoken about, worshipped, gilded, awarded. Hopelessness is to be chased out by it, quieted, dismissed. So we have a surplus of hope we don’t know how to properly apply. We’re hopeful…and ineffective about it. We’re unguided, slapping hope on everything without the urgency of the work that supports it. How the hell are we supposed to know how to use our hope if we habitually avoid recognizing and feeling in our bones what we’re hopeless about?

We need those safe places where we can simply break. To not be OK. To be exhausted. We have to understand hopelessness is a part of ourselves that’s just as important to sit with as hope. We’re sitting in the house on fire hoping that someone will save us, but without the urgency to realize we’re the ones best situated to do the saving.

If you wonder why people gravitate to Mitski’s music, it’s because very little art in American culture allows a space to feel hopeless. Feeling that isn’t a weakness. Imagine being so afraid of an emotion that you do everything to run away from it – you’re going to tell yourself that’s a strength? If we can’t talk about hopelessness or despair, if we can’t allow a place to process anxiety safely, we become a culture that has zero training in urgency, zero real ability to communicate about it. How’s that going for us? How’s our addiction to hope at all costs working out?

The house is on fire. You’re sitting next to a pile of axes. You have a surplus of hope someone with an axe will show up. That’s the United States of America. Everyone projects hope. Very few are willing to be recognized for having the desperation to apply it. We can reject dozens of versions of prosperity gospel before this one invariably hooks us.

Find a place to accept your hopelessness, because that’s what guides your hope. Mitski and director Zia Anger or whomever it might be. This music is a way I find into it, but who it is or how is ultimately not the point. The point of the song, the music video, of the last several years of Mitski’s career is to recognize the cycles we’re convinced to participate in and that they’re untenable. The point is it’s about something bigger.

That exhaustion will only get worse. We hope it will be solved. We have so much hope. We just lack the desperation to be urgent about it. We culturally reject even feeling our hopelessness, let alone understanding it, or communicating it, and then wonder why we’re so culturally hesitant and ineffective in hopeless situations, why so many people refuse to understand hopeless situations and get angry at the idea of communicating about them. Personally, culturally, globally, who hasn’t spent their life so far working for the knife?

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