Andrew Montin Sep 4, 2017

Short prehistory:

On a cool May day in 1758, a 10-year girl with red hair and freckles was caring for her neighbor’s children in rural western Pennsylvania. In a few moments, Mary Campbell’s life changed forever when Delaware Indians kidnapped her and absorbed her into their community for the next six years. She became the first of some 200 known cases of white captives, many of whom became pawns in an ongoing power struggle that included European powers, American colonists and Indigenous peoples straining to maintain their population, their land and way of life.

While Mary was ultimately returned to her white family—and some evidence points to her having lived happily with her adopted Indian tribe—stories such as hers became a cautionary tale among white settlers, stoking fear of “savage” Indians and creating a paranoia that escalated into all-out Indian hating.

From the time Europeans arrived on American shores, the frontier—the edge territory between white man’s civilization and the untamed natural world—became a shared space of vast, clashing differences that led the U.S. government to authorize over 1,500 wars, attacks and raids on Indians, the most of any country in the world against its Indigenous people. By the close of the Indian Wars in the late 19th century, fewer than 238,000 Indigenous people remained, a sharp decline from the estimated 5 million to 15 million living in North America when Columbus arrived in 1492.

The reasons for this racial genocide were multi-layered. Settlers, most of whom had been barred from inheriting property in Europe, arrived on American shores hungry for Indian land—and the abundant natural resources that came with it. Indians’ collusion with the British during the American Revolution and the War of 1812 exacerbated American hostility and suspicion toward them.

Even more fundamentally, Indigenous people were just too different: Their skin was dark. Their languages were foreign. And their world views and spiritual beliefs were beyond most white men’s comprehension. To settlers fearful that a loved one might become the next Mary Campbell, all this stoked racial hatred and paranoia, making it easy to paint Indigenous peoples as pagan savages who must be killed in the name of civilization and Christianity.

History:

Jonathan Lear describes his book Radical Hope (2006) (German translation 2020) as a work of “philosophical anthropology”. Like an anthropologist, he is interested in what happened to the Crow tribe when they were moved onto reservations and their traditional way of life came to an end. Unlike an anthropologist, however, Lear is also concerned with the larger questions entailed by the possibility that a way of life could come to an end. One such question is ethical in nature: how should one live in relation to the prospect that one’s way of life may come to an end? Another such question is ontological, in the sense that it concerns the nature of that being for whom such a thing is possible.

This ontological dimension was intimated by something the last Crow chief, Plenty Coups, said when describing the end of his tribe’s traditional way of life. In recounting his life story, Plenty Coups described the period when his people moved onto the reservation this way: “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.” Lear admits that he cannot know precisely what Plenty Coups meant when he said “nothing happened.” Was Plenty Coups depressed? (Lear notes in passing that the rest of Plenty Coups’ life certainly does not seem to be that of a depressed person.) Does he mean that his tribe could no longer go on living according to the traditional ways? These are plausible interpretations of what Plenty Coup might have meant. But Lear wants to pursue the possibility that something deeper was being communicated by Plenty Coups’ remark. He asks: “What if it gave expression to an insight into the structure of temporality: that at a certain point things stopped happening? What would he have meant if he meant that?” The implication here is that our sense of time, of things happening and our understanding of what happens, are bound up with a particular way of life. When that way of life comes to end, the intelligibility of our world also collapses; for us, it is as if nothing more happens because nothing can make sense outside of that way of life.

For Lear, Plenty Coups’ remark points to “a particular form of human vulnerability”; a vulnerability we all share by virtue of being human. It is an ontological vulnerability because it concerns our particular way of being in relation to the world and to time. In posing the issue in these terms, Lear acknowledges a debt to the German philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889–1976). In his book Being and Time, Heidegger presented human existence as fundamentally concerned with making sense of the world in terms of its meaningful possibilities. Everyday objects, for example, are intelligible to us primarily through the way they express specific possibilities for their use: a hammer for hammering nails, a lectern for placing lecture notes on, etc. These possibilities are not infinite — the range of possibilities is determined by the specific culture and society we grew up in and in which we live of our lives. What is significant about Heidegger’s account in this context is that culture and social life are not things which come after or exist alongside our relation to objects, but instead are the very medium through which objects become intelligible to us at all.

It is in this light that Lear reflects on the simple act of cooking a meal. Cooking is common to all human societies, but the meaning which the act of cooking a meal has for each of us depends on the culture and society in which the action is embedded. For the Crow, whose traditional way of life revolved around hunting and fighting, the intelligibility of cooking a meal would have depended upon its relation to the possibilities of hunting and fighting. With the collapse of their traditional way of life, cooking a meal could no longer be made sense of in those terms. Of course, the Crow could make sense of it otherwise in relation to the way of life which followed. But to someone bearing witness, as Lear puts it, to the demise of the traditional way of life, it is as if the act of cooking no longer counted as an intelligible act at all. And without the meaningfulness of cultural objects like the coup stick used by the Crow in battle, or of everyday acts like cooking in preparation for a hunt, there is no longer any socially meaningfully way for the Crow to mark time. The Crow “ran out of whens,” as Lear puts it, “all Crow temporality had fitted within these categories — everything that happened could be understood in these terms — and thus it seems fair to say that the Crow ran out of time.” It is this possibility, peculiar to human beings as cultural creatures, that Lear seeks to understand when reflecting on the fate of the Crow people.

In part one, I noted that Lear draws on Heidegger’s Being and Time to make sense of our “ontological vulnerability” to a breakdown in meaning. As creatures whose existence fundamentally consists in making sense of things, we are to a great extent dependent upon the meaningful possibilities which are illuminated through our cultural and social practices. When this cultural foundation collapses, there is a sense in which the intelligibility of our world also collapses. One of the main ideas Lear explores is that even prior to such a collapse, there is a way in which this vulnerability can make itself felt.

In Being and Time, Heidegger discusses the individual’s experience of anxiety (Angst in German) as revealing something of great importance about human existence. Anxiety draws us out of what Heidegger calls our “crowd-self”, that is, the typical roles, worries and tasks with which we preoccupy ourselves in our everyday lives. Anxiety is the feeling or mood that strikes us when our daily preoccupations begin to lose their grip on us; when we begin to wonder about the point of it all and whether there isn’t a deeper meaning to our lives. Through this experience, the world itself becomes unfamiliar or uncanny. Consider, for example, a case in which a deadline that someone has been working towards all of a sudden loses its urgency for that person. Whereas before they had been wrapped up in the need to meet the deadline, and so focused on bringing together all those elements which are needed to make things happen, at that very moment the deadline no longer appears to them as something which has the same organizing and motivating significance for them. The experience is uncanny because a situation which had been familiar now becomes very unfamiliar, even though the person can still understand everything that is going on. What moments like this can reveal is that the intelligibility of our world is very much dependent on us, on our active taking up of possibilities and combining them together in the tasks and projects we choose to pursue, rather than as a meaningful whole which we can simply take for granted. The anxiety arises in distancing ourselves from the possibilities with which we are normally fully engaged, and in the accompanying threat of a breakdown of intelligibility.

In a footnote to chapter two, Lear describes his book as a meditation on Heidegger’s idea of “being-towards-death”. This is more accurately put as “being on the edge of death”, because Heidegger explicitly associates it with the sense of anxiety described above, which can strike us at any moment and isn’t specifically tied to some point in the future when we will cease to exist. It is meant to highlight how our existence is always, at every moment, engaged in an existential struggle to ward off the utter meaninglessness that lies on the other side of existence, even if we rarely relate to our own existence in these terms. It is in the mood of anxiety, by coming face to face with the world in its uncanniness, that this existential struggle is revealed to each individual.

While Heidegger’s focus is on the individual’s experience of anxiety, Lear is interested in how this kind of experience might affect an entire community which is facing the prospect of cultural devastation. He invokes the idea of communal anxiety, explicitly in relation to the accounts of anxiety developed by both Heidegger and Kierkegaard (whom I’ll discuss in a future post). Lear’s argument in chapters two and three is mostly concerned with how such an anxiety, as felt by the Crow, may have been transformed through radical hope into the imaginative resources needed to survive the collapse of their way of life. Having considered some of the background to Lear’s argument, I will consider the argument itself in more detail in part three.

In the previous post in this series, I looked at Heidegger’s account of anxiety and how it is bound up with the finitude of human existence. Anxiety is a mood which exposes the intelligibility of the world as something which is contingent on our own existential struggle to make sense of it. Lear’s account of anxiety in the face of cultural devastation is influenced by Heidegger, but also by the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. It is through the influence of the latter that Lear emphasizes the ironic nature of this experience of anxiety. What is meant by irony here?

Lear introduces the notion of irony in chapter one of Radical Hope by reflecting on the criteria for a vibrant culture:

  1. There must be established social roles that one can embody and interact with.
  2. There must be standards of excellence associated with these roles, that give us a sense of the culture’s ideals.
  3. There must be the possibility of constituting oneself as a certain sort of person — namely, one who embodies those ideals.

The sense of irony which Lear is concerned with arises historically when the possibility of constituting oneself as a certain sort of person (3) becomes problematic. In the case of the Crow, irony in this sense was impossible in the 1840s because the three criteria listed above cohered in such a way that ensured their culture’s vibrancy. But a hundred years later, when the Crow had been moved onto a reservation, this coherence collapsed. While it was still possible to recognise the traditional social roles, the standards of social excellence associated with most of these roles could no longer be realized. Intertribal warfare had been banned, traditional hunting had become impossible, and mortality rates from disease had almost wiped out a younger generation. Under these conditions, it became possible for the Crow to ask:

Among the warriors, is there a warrior?

One could call oneself a warrior, but it was no longer clear what the pursuing the ideals of being a warrior might entail once intertribal warfare had been banned. With the breakdown of social roles and the patterns of upbringing disrupted, the very possibility of constituting oneself as a Crow subject was thrown in question. It is in this light that one might ask the question:

Among the Crow, is there a Crow?

As outsiders, we seem to have no trouble reformulating this question as: among those who call themselves members of the Crow nation, are there any members who live up to the ideals of being a Crow? But from the perspective of the Crow people themselves, there is a disorientation inherent in the question which is not felt by the observer. In his essay “A Lost Conception of Irony,” Lear explains this difference as follows:

“[F]rom the perspective of my Crow friends, the question has a different aura. It makes them anxious; or rather it names a core anxiety. I mean anxiety in the literal sense of disruptive separation from the world and disorientation. It is easy for us to hear the question as though it were coming from the superego — a question of whether the Crow fail to live up to their ideals. But from the perspective of my Crow friends, the ideal is every bit as much in question as they are.”

It is not merely a theoretical question for the Crow, but a practical matter of how one should live. And it produces anxiety because there is no longer a clear answer to the question of how to go on.

This experience of irony can affect all of us as in coming to terms with our social roles. In such an experience, the question of what counts as excellence in the role is not simply an occasion to reflect upon whether we do in fact live up to such ideals; it leads to a moment of anxious disruption, as the very nature of those ideals is called into question. For Lear, this experience of irony raises the ethical question of how we can live in such a way that remains open to it without leading to despair. For Kierkegaard, the figure of Socrates represented an exemplar of ironic existence. I would suggest that in Radical Hope, Lear offers us the figure of Plenty Coups, the last great chief of the Crow, as another such exemplar. I will consider this further in my next post.

When he was nine years old, Plenty Coups underwent a traditional rite of passage which involved leaving the tribe for a few days and through solitude and fasting experience a dream-vision. On his second night in the wilderness, Plenty Coups dreamt that he met a buffalo bull who turned into a man wearing a buffalo robe, and who showed him a plain in which countless buffalo emerged from a hole in a ground. Suddenly, the plains were empty, and out of the hole in the ground came animals which looked similar to the buffalo but were spotted. Plenty Coups was then shown an old man sitting under a tree, and was told that he was looking at himself. Finally, Plenty Coups witnessed a terrible storm in which the four winds blew down all the trees in the forest except one. He was told that inside the tree was the lodge of the Chickadee, and that the Chickadee-person was one with the least physical strength but strongest mind, who was willing to work for wisdom and never missed a chance to learn from others.

Plenty Coups recounted his dream to the tribal elders who then interpreted it. They said it foretold a time when the white man’s herds would replace the buffalo, and that only by becoming like the Chickadee and learning from the experience of others would the tribe be able to survive and hold onto its lands.

Jonathan Lear believes that Plenty Coups’ prophetic dream was most probably a response to the tribe’s communal sense of anxiety. Plenty Coup would have had this dream in 1855 or ’56, by which time the advance of white settlers had pushed rival tribes into greater proximity with one another, and the escalation in inter-tribal warfare and diseases such as smallpox had reduced the Crow’s population by about half. The dream was part of the process by which the tribe’s anxieties could be metabolized and represented in narrative form. And it gave Plenty Coups, as a future chief of the tribe, the imaginative resources needed to cope with the “storm” or cultural devastation that was coming. In particular, Lear thinks that the values represented in the dream by the Chickadee came to articulate a new form of courage.

For Lear this is a crucial point, because the primary virtue around which Crow life had revolved was courage in battle. The ultimate act of courage was symbolically represented by the planting of a coup-stick, which expressed a Crow warrior’s resolve to die rather than retreat. Lear analyses this and other acts of courage as marking a boundary around Crow life which demanded recognition even from the Crow’s enemies. This is what Lear calls the Crow’s “thick” conception of courage, by which he means a concept rooted in a particular culture and historical circumstances. What happened to the Crow, however, was that the possibilities for practicing their traditional way of life would become restricted to such an extent that such thick concepts eventually became unintelligible. A virtue like courage simply could not be realized as it had been in the past. How does one retain a sense of virtue or ethics when the very concepts which had informed one’s cultural understanding of what is good collapse?

According to Lear, the values expressed in the dream through the figure of the Chickadee represented a kind of radical hope. It is radical in the sense that the values transcend the finite ethical forms manifested by thick ethical concepts. Plenty Coups’ vision was not of a future form of life, but of a commitment to the possibility of ethics even after the concepts with which one had understood the ethical ceased to make sense. Lear explains this point as follows:

“It is difficult to grasp the radical and strange nature of this commitment. For, on the one hand, Plenty Coups is witnessing the death of a traditional way of life. It is the death of the possibility of forming oneself as a Crow subject — at least, as traditionally understood. On the other hand, he is committed to the idea that by “listening as the Chickadee listens” he and the Crow will somehow survive. What could this mean? We would have to understand the Crow as somehow transcending their own subjectivity. That is, we would have to understand them as surviving the demise of the established ways of constituting oneself as a Crow subject. In that sense, it is no longer possible to be a Crow…. Still, on the basis of his dream, he commits himself to the idea that — on the other side of the abyss — the Crow shall survive, perhaps flourish again. The Crow is dead, long live the Crow! This is a form of hope that seems to survive the destruction of a way of life. Though it must be incredibly bly difficult to hold onto this commitment in the midst of subjective catastrophe, it is not impossible. And it is at least conceivable that this is just what Plenty Coups did.”

This kind of commitment, Lear argues, is ironic in Kierkegaard’s sense of the term. It is a recognition or more precisely a hope, that by giving up a traditional way of life new possibilities will open up and another way of flourishing will become possible. It is a commitment undertaken despite the fact that these future possibilities cannot be comprehended in advance.

Lear draws on many biographical facts about Plenty Coups’ life to suggest the ways in which he followed the wisdom of the Chickadee in the face of cultural devastation. One episode Lear places great emphasis on is Plenty Coups’ participation in a ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in 1921, when he laid down his coup-stick and headdress. By this act, Lear believes, Plenty Coups acknowledged that the traditional forms of fitting or virtuous behaviour were no longer appropriate. But he did so in a way which was itself fitting, that demonstrated “in these radically altered circumstances” that it was still possible “to think about what it was appropriate to do.” Plenty Coups’ actions did not just mark an end to a way of life, but sought to creatively reinterpret traditional ideals from within a radically new context.

My comment: This reminds me automatically to James Baldwin’s legendary speech at Cambridge University 1965: „…It comes as a great shock to discover that Gary Cooper killing off the Indians—when you were rooting for Gary Cooper—the Indians were you. It comes as a great shock to discover the country which is your birth place and to which you owe your life and your identity has not in its whole system of reality evolved any place for you….“ Here the Link for the post of this speech on my website: https://www.pottbayer.de/wp-admin/post.php?post=3404&action=edit

My recommendation for an exhibition 2020-2021 at the Field Museum in Chicago: “I hope this exhibition helps people to honor their own cultural experiences in new ways and to identify with Indigenous people—to realign ourselves as Americans and understand that this is a very diverse country.”

Nina Sanders (Apsáalooke), guest curator of Apsáalooke Women and Warriors, at the Field Museum in Chicago until April 4, 2021. Here two links: https://www.fieldmuseum.org/exhibitions/apsaalooke-women-and-warriors

https://culturalpropertynews.org/apsaalooke-women-and-warriors-in-chicago/

“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.”

„Wir leben in einer Zeit des sich verstärkenden Gefühls, dass Zivilisationen verletzlich sind. Ereignisse überall auf der Welt – Terrorangriffe, gewaltsame soziale Umwälzungen und auch Naturkatastrophen (Pandemien wie Covid 19) – hinterlassen in uns ein unheimliches Gefühl der Bedrohung. Wir scheinen uns einer geteilten Verletzlichkeit bewusst zu sein, die wir nicht ganz benennen können. Ich vermute, dass dieses Gefühl auch die weitverbreitete Intoleranz hervorgerufen hat. Es ist so, als ob ohne unser Beharren auf die Richtigkeit unserer Perspektive auch diese Perspektive selbst zusammenbrechen könnte. Wemm wir unserem geteilten Gefühl der Verletzlichkeit einen Namen (Begriff, Wort) geben könnten, wäre es uns vielleicht auch möglich, besser mit ihm zu leben.“ (aus der deutschen Übersetzung von Jonathan Lears „Radical Hope“ von 2020)

How Naming Confers Dignity Upon Life and Gives Meaning to Existence

To name a thing is to acknowledge its existence as separate from everything else that has a name; to confer upon it the dignity of autonomy while at the same time affirming its belonging with the rest of the namable world; to transform its strangeness into familiarity, which is the root of empathy. To name is to pay attention; to name is to love. Parents name their babies as a first nonbiological marker of individuality amid the human lot; lovers give each other private nicknames that sanctify their intimacy; it is only when we began naming domesticated animals that they stopped being animals and became pets. (T.S. Eliot made a playful case for the profound potency of this act in “The Naming of Cats.”)

And yet names are words, and words have a way of obscuring or warping the true meanings of their objects. “Words belong to each other,” Virginia Woolf observed in the only surviving recording of her voice, and so they are more accountable to other words than to the often unnamable essences of the things they signify.

Illustration by Ben Shahn from Ounce Dice Trice by poet Alastair Reid, an unusual children’s book of imaginative names for ordinary things

That duality of naming is what Robin Wall Kimmerer, a Thoreau of botany, explores with extraordinary elegance in Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses (public library) — her beautiful meditation on the art of attentiveness to life at all scales.

As a scientist who studies the 22,000 known species of moss — so diverse yet so unfamiliar to the general public that most are known solely by their Latin names rather than the colloquial names we have for trees and flowers — Kimmerer sees the power of naming as an intimate mode of knowing. As the progeny of a long lineage of Native American storytellers, she sees the power of naming as a mode of sacramental communion with the world.

Reflecting on a peculiarity of the Adirondack mountains she calls home, where most rocks have been named — “Chair Rock,” “Elephant Rock,” “Burnt Rock” — and people use them as reference points in navigating the land around the lake, Kimmerer writes:

The names we use for rocks and other beings depends on our perspective, whether we are speaking form the inside or the outside of the circle. The name on our lips reveals the knowledge we have of each other, hence the sweet secret names we have for the ones we love. The names we give ourselves are a powerful form of self-determination, of declaring ourselves sovereign territory. Outside the circle, scientific names for mosses may suffice, but inside the circle, what do they call themselves?

[…]

I find strength and comfort in this physical intimacy with the land, a sense of knowing the names of the rocks and knowing my place in the world.

And yet, echoing Aldous Huxley’s admonition that the trap of language leads us to confuse the words for things with their essences, Kimmerer considers the limiting nature of names from her dual perspective as a scientist and a storyteller:

A gift comes with responsibility. I had no will at all to name the mosses in this place, to assign their Linnean epithets. I think the task given to me is to carry out the message that mosses have their own names. Their way of being in the world cannot be told by data alone. They remind me to remember that there are mysteries for which a measuring tape has no meaning, questions and answers that have no place in the truth about rocks and mosses.

Still, Susan Sontag wrote in contemplating the aesthetics of silence, “human beings are so ‘fallen’ that they must start with the simplest linguistic act: the naming of things.” Naming is an act of redemption and a special form of paying attention, which Kimmerer captures beautifully:

Having words for these forms makes the differences between them so much more obvious. With words at your disposal, you can see more clearly. Finding the words is another step in learning to see.

[…]

Having words also creates an intimacy with the plant that speaks of careful observation.

Moss and air plant sculpture by Art We Heart

What is true of mosses is also true of every element of the world upon which we choose to confer the dignity of recognition. Drawing on her heritage — her family comes from the Bear Clan of the Potawatomi — Kimmerer adds:

In indigenous ways of knowing, all beings are recognized as non-human persons, and all have their own names. It is a sign of respect to call a being by its name, and a sign of disrespect to ignore it. Words and names are the ways we humans build relationships, not only with each other, but also with plants.

[…]

Intimate connection allows recognition in an all-too-often anonymous world… Intimacy gives us a different way of seeing.

Gathering Moss is one of the most beautifully written books I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. See more of it here, then complement this particular passage with poet and philosopher David Whyte on the deeper meanings of everyday words and a wonderful illustrated catalog of untranslatable words from around the world.