Sunday, May 1, 2011

Radical Hope

How do you re-imagine the possibilities of flourishing in the face of cultural collapse?

This is the question that Jonathan Lear sets out to address in his 'Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation'.

He does so through picking a particular case study (with universal implications) that of the Crow Indians as they moved from a life bounded by hunting and warfare to life on the reservation where the deep structures of their conception of a honourable life could no longer be lived. What does courage and honour look like  if the world you inhabit no longer allows you to hunt, no longer allows you to test yourself in battle, define the boundaries of your identity as a tribe through conflict? No longer helps you configure courage after traditionally accepted rules?

The narrative focuses on a Crow chief, Plenty Coups, who when still a child, learning the traditional ways, and excelling in them, has a dream that captures what everyone sensed: that the old ways are to be swept aside. Yet the dream offers a way of responding to this in the form of a traditional symbol in the form of a bird, the chickadee, that is a bird that listens and learns from the world around it. A symbol that urges a new flexibility towards the world, the practical application of which helps the Crow survive, adapt to, and eventually flourish in their new circumstances.

The book is a beautifully subtle and intelligent account of how one thick description of identity might be thinned and transformed to new circumstances - and what is the nature of the courage it requires of us to do this? It is a study in the practical application of virtues.

I was struck reading this slim volume of many things from how do we understand cultures different from our own that constitute themselves so differently we have difficulty truly understanding them?

In this context I was thinking of youth cultures: the fragile identity, concern with honour, and proneness to violence that characterizes the fascination with gangs. Here is a culture where shame and the avoidance of shame in the look of 'admired' others appears critical. Here is a culture prone to a sense of collapse, besieged by a world that cannot apparently be participated in on its own terms, that fails to find the courage to promote human flourishing and retreats into illusion yet it attracts people powerfully.

I, also, found myself asking: where do we have a place to dream our culture, and to honour that dreaming. The Crow did and found it deeply helpful as they managed new possibilities. Can we even ask the question of ourselves? Do we dream our stories forward? If so when? I was reminded of the 'Dark Mountain' project of Paul Kingsnorth that is a conscious attempt to fashion new cultural narratives in the face of perceived imminent environmentally imposed culturally (and physical) change?

The book makes a powerful case for the threat we face from conceptual change. What happens to us when we can no longer think in old categories? When for example with Dark Mountain, we can no longer see ourselves addressed by wilderness because there is nowehere our human hand has not touched and (in ironic use of the word) soiled? What Bill McKibben described as the 'End of Nature'?

At one level the book might be seen as working with a tangential question to our lives: we are not Crow (or a member of any indigenous group currently under threat).

But I felt the questions urgent - we find it hard to answer, positively, in what does a flourishing life consist? We are anxious that our answers (if any) tend to the obsolete. We do not know what kind of answers we may need in a new world.

We need the 'radical hope' that Plenty Coup exhibited to navigate the challenges. The courage to imagine new possibilities without the certainty of their adoption.



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