02 February 2008

Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation, by Jonathan Lear

This is an interesting book, a kind of philosophy underpinned by anthropology. The devastation referred to in the title is that of the Crow Nation, as voiced by Chief Plenty Coups. It takes as a starting point Plenty Coups words, describing his history to his biographer, that after the buffalo were gone and the Crow moved to the reservation, "nothing happened". Lear doesn't presume to attempt understand what these words meant to Plenty Coups, or to describe the truth of the Crow culture, but rather, he reflects on what it could mean for nothing to happen after a certain event in a philosophical sense, what happens when a group of people has basically been robbed of their ability to make sense of the world. This is the first third of the book, and its as terrifying as it is compelling.

He goes on to describe how the Crow coped with this apocalypse under the guidance of Plenty Coups. This is incredibly fascinating, and part of what makes it so incredible is the methodology. Lear doesn't presume to be an authority on Crow culture, and is very careful about the kind of claims he makes. He's mainly interested in the kind of formal structure of things within a given system. He tells you what he can about Crow culture in order to situate things in their proper context, but he's very careful to avoid anthropologizing, which I really appreciated. It's hard to explain, but it's a very individual kind of account - in fact, in a way, the last 2/3 of the book are basically dream interpretation. Plenty Coup had two major dreams in his life that warned him of the impending disaster and gave him advice on how to cope with it. Again, Lear does not claim that these dreams were in fact sent by the gods, as Plenty Coups believes, but rather, looks at how the symbolism of the dreams was translated into real world action, and thus, how Plenty Coups found a way to adapt to White culture in a manner that was in keeping with his Crow customs. This leads one to think about assimilation and cultural integration in really interesting ways. For instance, we learn that Plenty Coups basically encouraged people to stop practicing certain rituals that no longer had any utility, because doing so would actually vacate them of meaning and make them nothing more than tributes to nostalgia. So the question becomes, if a people are deprived of the opportunity for meaningful cultural expression, how can their culture survive?

A fascinating work.

Edit: Lear has an essay about the book online that is quite nice, albeit very short.

1 comment:

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