Radical Hope and the Dream of a Future without a Future

Ideas and HistoryMartin Rowe

In considering the question I asked in the previous blog, “What do you take with you and what do you leave behind?” I find myself thinking about a related question, one that is asked in considerable detail and imaginative depth by philosopher Jonathan Lear in his book Radical Hope. That question might be: “What do you take with you and what do you leave behind, when you have no means of knowing what you require?”

Radical Hope is a biography and a story of survival—one fraught with ambiguities and loss. The subject is Plenty Coups (1848–1932), leader of the Crow Nation of what is now southern Montana. The Crow’s mortal enemies before the white man came in the middle of the nineteenth century were the Cheyenne and Sioux, with whom they were frequently at war. According to Lear, the Crow constructed their entire cultural identity around their successful prosecution of these conflicts, based on their defense or acquisition of “coup sticks”—markers of a “kill” within a battle that had to be defended with one’s life. So profound was the enmity between the Crow and the surrounding Native American nations that when the U.S. government arrived, the Crow initially sided with them against the Cheyenne and Sioux. The U.S. government eventually banned the warring and horse stealing among the native nations and moved them onto reservations.

Plenty Coups was persuaded by an outdoorsman named Frank B. Linderman to write an autobiography. The Crow’s historical and cultural recollection was essentially non-literary, with arts and crafts and rituals marking life passages for both males and females. However, Linderman prevailed (in a manner of speaking, as we will discover), and Plenty Coups’ biography was published as American: The Life Story of a Great Indian: Plenty-coups, Chief of the Crows in 1930.

The heart of Radical Hope consists of an extended interpretation of a statement Plenty Coups made to Linderman (as reported by the latter):

“I have not told you half of what happened when I was young,” he said, when urged to go on. “I can think back and tell you much more of war and horse-stealing. But when the buffalo went away the hearts of my people fell to the ground, and they could not lift them up again. After this nothing happened. There was little singing anywhere. Besides,” he added sorrowfully, “you know that part of my life as well as I do. You saw what happened to us when the buffalo went away.”

I will come to Lear’s interpretation of Plenty Coups’ observations in a moment. But what the Crow leader’s statement reminded me of was how fully animal life was embedded within the consciousness of Native American peoples (an aspect that Lear’s book does not explore as fully as one might imagine). The killing off of the buffalo in the United States was not merely a result of an increase in white human populations demanding animal flesh, nor the result of unsustainable hunting practices among Native Americans. It was government policy to use the destruction of the buffalo as a means to cut off the food and clothing supply of the plains nations dependent on the bison and to demoralize and “deculturate” them: to destroy one meant to destroy the other.

Lear’s fundamental interest in Plenty Coups’ observation is not political or cultural so much as philosophical, even metaphysical. For Lear, Plenty Coups’ “After this nothing happened” is not only the Crow leader’s mournful recognition of cultural destruction, or his acknowledgment that, once on the reservations and after the buffalo had been brought to the verge of extinction by the white man, it was no longer possible for the Crow to act like Crow. Instead, Lear believes that Plenty Coups’ statement illuminates something deeper—a question about the meaning of meaning itself: “What is it about a form of life’s coming to an end,” Lear asks, “that makes it such that for the inhabitants of that life things cease to happen? Not just that it would seem to them that things ceased to happen, but what it would be for things to cease happening” (p. 8). What does one look for or draw upon when the entirety of one’s worldview and all that is contained within it, and shapes it in turn, are not only no longer relevant to you but to anyone?

For instance, Lear goes on, if no one is able to play the “game” where the defense or appropriation of “coups” has ultimate significance for one’s identity—and this is true of the women who married the warriors (and their children) as well as the warriors themselves (including their enemies)—then not only is it not possible to play that game, but the rules and end results of that game (the winners and the losers) are no longer relevant. Lear suggests that this loss is a function of an inability to tell a story: “The issue is that the Crow have lost the concepts with which they would construct a narrative. This is a real loss, not just one that is described from a certain point of view. It is the real loss of a point of view” (p. 32). That framing, notes Lear, is not merely his interpretation, but one held by other Crow. He writes that one elder, the grandmother of Alma Hogan Snell, mourned after the nation were moved to the reservation:

“I am trying to live a life that I do not understand.” And Two Leggings, a lesser chief, gave a similar account of life on the reservation: “Nothing happened after that. We just lived. There were no more war parties, no capturing of horses from the Piegan and the Sioux, no buffalo to hunt. There is nothing more to tell.” (p. 56)

In being unable to shape a beginning, middle, and end to their narratives, a people cannot conceptualize themselves into purpose and existence; more poignantly, they lose their place in the plot but there is no plot to tell—or plot (ground) in which the plot (narrative) makes sense. In such a situation, it’s not surprising that Plenty Coups had qualms about talking to Linderman (“Apparently, Plenty Coups did not tell Linderman everything that happened to him” [p. 90]).

 Radical Hope describes how Plenty Coups, as part of his induction into leadership as a young man, is exposed to a dream in which a chickadee offers a vision where a forest has been felled and one tree is left standing—a tree under which sits an old man (taken to be Plenty Coups as an old man). In describing Plenty Coups’ dreams and the interpretation that Plenty Coups and the Crow placed upon them, Lear avoids offering arguments along the lines of “Plenty Coups thought this and so did that”; or “because the Crow followed Plenty Coups’ advice they survived with more cultural homogeneity and with more land than others”—even though such conclusions might be possible.

Instead, Lear claims not to be particularly concerned whether the interpretation that Plenty Coups and the Crow placed upon the dream told through the chickadee was correct or not. Indeed, he emphasizes that his reading of Plenty Coups’ text may be wrong, to the extent that Plenty Coups would himself acknowledge it as such. What Lear is more interested in is that Plenty Coups’ observation opens up the space for a certain way of thinking he calls “radical hope.” He writes: “Radical hope anticipates a good for which those who have the hope as yet lack the appropriate concepts with which to understand it” (p. 103). This hope, he observes, is not naive, because it makes no claims on the past or future. Nor is it nihilistic desperation, because through steadfast concentration on the inner resources of the self one may, indeed, find a way forward or through—even when no way forward or through currently appears conceptually possible. Lear adds: “At a time of cultural devastation, the reality a courageous person has to face up to is that one has to face up to reality in new ways” (pp. 118–119).

For all the suggestiveness of this reading, Lear could be accused of assuming that indigenous or pre-colonialist cultures are static—even though, as he acknowledges in a similar context, “there will always be a question, and thus a possibility for debate, around what counts as traditional” (p. 151). Lear quotes an anthropologist who suggests the Crow may have been agriculturalists before they migrated and reinvented themselves as warriors, which speaks of not merely a fluid cultural identity but an adaptability that pre-existed Plenty Coups’ decision to redefine what it meant to be a Crow. To that extent, Plenty Coups’ observation about history ending with the buffalo could be read as be disingenuous or ironic—or a subversive reflection back on the sympathetic colonial writer of what that writer expected the indigenous native to say.

One could, furthermore, criticize Lear and Linderman for idealizing the manner whereby Plenty Coups came to his understanding about how the Crow were to survive (through a dream). One might observe that Plenty Coups’ decision not to resist may have been wise given the superior firepower of the white man. However, as Sitting Bull himself noted, it was also potentially a supine abnegation unbefitting a warrior nation. In other words, it’s convenient to these white men to consider Plenty Coups prudent and prescient, because both ultimately affirm the assumed correctness and supposed logic of history, which is that white domination is inevitable, and that a “bellicose” people needs to be pacified and civilized (two very loaded terms).

To me, what Plenty Coups means is that his people lost their soul—although he doesn’t use that word, and that word itself may be a function of a Western aestheticization or psychologiziation of a sociopolitical reality—a kind of “noble savage” trope that itself is a cause and consequence of colonialism and imperialism. Of course, “soul” is unquantifiable, resonant in the world of depth psychology but hardly something that social scientists would employ with any credibility. Yet I don’t think it’s wholly misguided to use the notion of loss of soul in this context. I think Lear touches on it when he observes that “[m]any factors contribute to the alcoholism and drug abuse that plague the Indian reservations; no doubt, unemployment and poverty play crucial roles. But there is also the psychological devastation for young teenagers when they cannot find ideals worthy of internalizing and making their own (p. 140).

The loss of an ideal—in a Platonic as well as ethical sense—means the absence not only of a reason for being, or a feeling of one’s continuity within space and time with one’s ancestors or a sense of place, or even the habit of waking up in the morning to a world where more is possible than impossible. What “loss of soul” evokes for me is that to some extent Plenty Coups and the other Crow no longer felt in their gut they fully inhabited the world, or the worlds within and outside their skins: that these worlds’ “depths” were no longer available to them. In the eyes of others, Plenty Coups may have seemed an individual of great courage, conviction, and foresight—committed to the preservation of an identity within a rapidly changing and destructive environment. He may even have been seen as an optimist. But something had died in him, perhaps had to die in him, and it seems to me that that sense of soul (the Latin word is anima) was, for Plenty Coups, found within the buffalo. That soul was, intangibly perhaps, a transpersonal self affixed to nonhuman presences around his people that taught them what it meant to be a Crow, a human, a being-within-the-world.

That Plenty Coups nonetheless persevered in attempting to offer a vision of the future to his people is what, I believe, Lear means when, echoing Kierkegaard, he calls radical hope a “teleological suspension of the ethical” (p. 146). It’s acting with purpose without any expectation that any purpose makes sense, whereby what is “correct” or “right” is impossible to know. It’s cultivating a profound responsibility without holding onto any ethic that has genuine applicability. It’s about being true to yourself without any certainty that either you or that truth is correct. Like Lear, I cannot imagine anything braver or riskier.

In the final paragraphs of his autobiography, Plenty Coups tells Linderman that he trusts him: “I am glad I have told you these things, Sign-talker,” he says. “You have felt my heart, and I have felt yours. I know you will tell only what I have said, that your writing will be straight like your tongue, and I will sign your paper with my thumb, so that your people and mine will know I told you the things you have written down.”

As someone who has ghostwritten an autobiography myself, I know that Linderman must have felt thankful for his subject’s imprimatur. I also know that both biographer and subject may have held back certain presuppositions about the other in order to protect that relationship and safeguard their own hearts from prejudices (their own and the other’s). Plenty Coups may have performed his role as a native person—rich with presumed resentment, forgiveness, anger, and spiritual wisdom—even down to his withholding a bit of himself against the potential betrayal by the white man of that knowledge. Likewise, Linderman may have performed his role as a white man who was predisposed to question his heritage while unconsciously holding on to the privileges and prejudices associated with his sex and skin color. In fact, in Plenty Coups’ final words to his biographer you can detect the caution and, indeed, a tone of admonition in his voice.

* * *

By now, I think the implications of Radical Hope for the Vegan America Project should be obvious. As we move fully into an era marked by largest background extinction of species since the Ice Age, Radical Hope implies that soon enough all of us may be obliged to absorb the cultural losses that afflicted the Crow people, and, like Plenty Coups, reconcile ourselves to making decisions that currently lie beyond our realms of reference or exist in a conceptual and hermeneutic vacuum, with no before that is relevant and no after that is yet imaginable. Are we, too, going through the deculturation and loss of soul that affected the native peoples through our destruction of the natural world and the animals who populate it (and our imaginations)?

If so, will the kinds of experiences that indigenous and colonized peoples underwent (and still experience)—physical dislocation, abandonment of long- or deeply held cultural practices, the wholesale destruction of natural resources, the sudden irrelevance of assumptions that one has made about what constitutes the Good Life—become universal across the planet, even (or especially) in parts of the world that are deeply dependent on access to commodities, sophisticated financial mechanisms, and a globalized economy reliant on cheap labor, international trade, and stable political and economic structures?

If or when large numbers of people are forced to move because of conflicts over those resources, or a series of catastrophic weather events bring to a halt to New York, London, or other cosmopolises, will we be able to absorb the losses and adapt as Plenty Coups could, without any clear indication that our choices will be correct and the future any less dire? Which adaptive strategy might prevail in terms of policy or social behavior in twenty, fifty, or a hundred years time will no doubt mean different things to different groups of people in different parts of the world. Who will be interred and who will run the reservations then—and what will we be able to draw upon to maintain a continuity of soul when even the word American may no longer contain any meaningful association?

It’s true that extensive adaptation may be reduced by technological advances heretofore unimagined or currently too expensive to implement. Yet, 250 years of carbon-based industrialization is likely to lead to worsening scenarios over the next century and a half before the situation stabilizes no matter what we do—an existentialist dilemma that Plenty Coups would recognize all too well. Will we fight change, as Sitting Bull felt was appropriate for the heroic and defeated warrior who still plays the game appropriate to their self-definition of what it means to be (a) brave? Or will we dare to imagine something different, and jettison the past in favor of a compromised, but not wholly impossible future, as Lear argues was the choice of Plenty Coups? And what will remain of, and to, us then?

Here, too, the immediate signs don’t bode well. The new U.S. administration has all the fervor of Sitting Bull: a proud nation with a particular view of its heritage looks back to a past when its worldview made sense, when everyone knew their roles in the “game” and what it meant to win and what it meant to lose. Now that that world is under threat, from outside forces that appear incomprehensible and have arrived on their territory, the contemporary followers of Sitting Bull are doing what they know best: they are fighting. I wonder whether, deep in their hearts, they (like Sitting Bull) fight not with the expectation of winning, but with the understanding that one must lose with dignity and honor, because it is better to remain in the game you have always played and which you understand than place your faith in a game that has neither rules nor outcome you have any means of understanding.

It’s important to add here that those of us drawn to the wisdom of Plenty Coups are in no less precarious a position, for we are no more certain of the rules and outcome of the new game than Sitting Bull. After all, the old ways of life (embodied by Sitting Bull) contain much that’s attractive—as long as you’re comfortable within a culture entirely oriented to one way of being (in this case, a warrior), and when cultural, racial, and national homogeneity allow clear differentiations between who is “us” and who is “them.” So, the point of the comparison is not reductively to contrast “conservativeness/backwardness” with “liberalism/progressiveness”—since one could apply the Sitting Bull label to neoliberal materialistic capitalism as much as populist, ethno-chauvinistic, masculinist nationalism. The point is to amplify reactions to conceptual paradigms shifting to such an extent that everyone’s internal resources as well as metaphysical constructs are called into question. Under those terms, we who fancy ourselves in agreement with Plenty Coups are called upon to do something much more challenging, abstract, and tenuous than the logical and coherent choices made by Sitting Bull: we are called upon to dream.

* * *

For all its presuppositions and occasional grandiosities, Radical Hope does at least recognize the existential force latent in the question: What does it mean to live? And not simply in the sense of marking out days and surviving, but a life that is comprehensible, purposeful, and able to be given a narrative shape—even if that life isn’t entirely encompassable, the purpose seems vague or contradictory, the story has no clear ending, and the ground upon which that story unfolds is entirely unfamiliar.

In his conclusion to Radical Hope, Lear observes that one could argue that not only did Plenty Coups’ decisions following his dream interpretations prove correct, but they were prophetic:

The planting of a coup-stick in battle was symbolic of a tree that cannot be felled. Yet there Plenty Coups is, at the end of his life, sitting under an actual tree that history has proved cannot be felled. In giving up the symbol of protecting Crow territory he actually succeeded in protecting it. He used the dream to reach down to the imaginative strategies that might save Crow land; and in so doing he substituted the symbol of the tree that cannot be felled for the tree that cannot be felled. An actual tree became its own symbol. (pp. 147–148)

So, here is another way in which veganism (and the Vegan America Project) is “good to think (with)”: as a dream that foretells an impossibility, and which, through its very impossibility, makes the impossible possible; as a substitute symbol that is actualized; as an emblem of life that effloresces into Life itself. In suggesting that omnivorous human societies might dream themselves into a possible future in which they are no longer omnivorous, we might, in fact, develop the means by which we can, if not survive the Anthropocene, then at least shape some kind of future. Plenty Coups had no means to be able to imagine his future; all that he had been and knew could not be applied to all that he would need to be and know in the future. It was because he trusted the dream (imagination), that it became interpretable. In other words, it fell into meaning through Plenty Coups’ openness to the possibility that nothing could be known and might never be known. We might say the same about the vegan dream.