radical hope

As I look at solafo and listen to the stories of the ‘Amis women and men who built and lived in them, I am often reminded of Jonathan Lear’s  (2006) concept of “radical hope.”  Lear introduced this concept as part of his examination of the life of Plenty Coups, a Native American leader of the late 19th and early 20th centuries who opposed the Ghost Dance Religion then sweeping the Great Plains. Like other Great Plains Native American societies, the Crow lost their traditional means of subsistence, the American Bison, with the encroachment of settler colonial society on Crow territory. At stake, Lear argues, was not just economy, but an entire set of ethical values. Plenty Coups and his generation had to face cultural devastation. Lear suggests that as the concepts of what constitutes a good life and other ethical postulates disintegrated around him, Plenty Coups might have asked the Kantian question, “For what can we hope?” To Lear, the response of Plenty Coups was a type of radical hope:


What makes this hope radical is that it is directed toward a future goodness that  transcends the current ability to understand what it is. Radical hope anticipates a  good for which those who have the hope as yet lack the appropriate concepts with which to understand it. What would it be for such hope to be justified? (Lear  2006: 103).

 Radical hope is a form of survivance. Although traditional subsistence methods and normative frameworks were fast disappearing, one could still impart some value to the coming generations; one could insist that one’s people could still compose a radical alternative to Western civilization (Lear 2006: 96-97). In other words, without knowing just what form such a life would take, Plenty Coups seems to have been committed to discovering a path toward a future in which the Crow were different, both from their pre-colonial conquest selves and from the surrounding forms and norms of settler colonial society.

What makes radical hope different from neo-traditional approaches is that radical hope honestly approaches cultural devastation. Although a means of survivance, it rejects the possibility that one can ever return to the pre-colonial past.

To return to a Taiwanese example, many indigenous cultural activists have described the arrival of Christian missionaries and the mass conversions that followed in relatively zero-sum terms. “They traded our traditional beliefs,” said one of these young neo-traditionalists in a conversation we had following a concert at a local Taitung venue, “They gave up our traditional beliefs for a few bags of flour. That was too steep a price to pay.” In his remarks, the activist referred to the role of material assistance in mission work during the 1950s. U.S. aid to Taiwan, beginning with the Korean War and continuing through the 1970s, was often mediated through church organizations.

Today, the U.S. – R.O.C. Cooperation flour sack appears as an almost kitschy reminder of those days of material deprivation. Those who attended church services had access to food aid and other assistance, hence the activist’s remarks. Yet, if neo-traditionalism would rather live on ancestral beneficence than on bread, radical hope might suggest that those flour sacks were useful.

The catch phrase of radical hope is that times have changed

Times have changed…