Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Crow life

These are some of my thoughts after reading chapter 6 of Robert Pippin's Hegel's Practical Philosophy, chapter 1 of Jonathan Lear's Radical Hope, and chapter 5 of Hannah Arendt's The Human Condition. Lear discusses the Crow practice of counting coups (specific kinds of acts of bravery that they valued highly) and the question of what happens when a way of life, and the concepts that go with it, dies out. 

Studio portrait of Crow delegation. Front row, left to right: King Crow; Medicine Crow; Long Elk; Chief Yshidiapas or Aleck-Shea-Ahoos, called Plenty Coups (Many Valorous Achievements in Battle with the Coup Stick) ; Pretty Eagle. Back row, left to right: A. M. Quivey (interpreter); Two Belly; Augustus R. Keller (agent); Thomas Stewart (interpreter). 1880. Attributed to Charles Milton Bell. 1880. Albumen print. National Museum of the American Indian. Catalog number: P03423.

On p. 153, Pippin writes that, "The proper act-description partly depends on the established context of deliberation and action (what having this or that practical reason for doing this or that could mean in such a context) and partly on what intention and what act-description are attributed to you by others." This sounds a little too third-person to me, although much depends on how we take the word 'proper,' I suppose (as well as 'established context'). Imagine the Crow nation being wiped out by people who understand little of their culture. One of the Crow is seen to plant his coup-stick during the battle, but the only people who live to describe this event have no understanding of what a coup-stick is, nor of what it means to plant it in the ground in a fight. Does it then follow that "planting his coup-stick" is not the proper description of what he did? I suppose it won't be a meaningful description of the act unless and until enough is discovered by those to whom such a description might be given to allow them to make sense of talk of coup-sticks. But I would want to say that if they do learn enough to make sense of the action, then we should say that now they can describe the act properly and before they could not. There is a truth to be known, that is to say, and not only warranted assertibility.

In relation to my first comment, this passage from Lear (p. 32) seems relevant: "We do not grasp the devastation that the Crow endured so long as we think that the issue is who gets to tell the story. For the problem goes deeper than competing narratives. 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. This is the confusion of the young man who takes the horse: he has not yet recognized this loss. For an act is not constituted merely by the physical movements of the actor: it gains its identity via its location in a conceptual world." This is (or at least might well seem) close to what Pippin is saying. But it seems to me that if we are to recognize that such a loss is possible, then we have to recognize the reality of what is lost. And then no description will be proper that does not recognize this reality and/or loss. No matter the context and attributions made by others.

This is why I would question Arendt's assertion (p. 192) that, "Action reveals itself fully only to the storyteller, that is, to the backward glance of the historian, who indeed always knows better what it was all about than the participants." It's the word 'always' that bothers me. Perhaps Lear understands better than the Crow what they were up to (I don't mean this ironically, but I emphasize 'perhaps'), but must this always be the case? It's not hard to imagine all Native American culture having been wiped out and history books agreeing that nothing happened in America before 1492. There were natives there, people might say, but they did nothing of any significance: American history began in 1492. This is not the kind of thing that I would want to say, nor to acknowledge as proper in those circumstances (although I'm starting to feel unfair to Pippin at this point).

On the other hand, on p. 199 Arendt writes that: "To men the reality of the world is guaranteed by the presence of others, by its appearing to all; "for what appears to all, this we call Being," and whatever lacks this appearance comes and passes away like a dream, intimately and exclusively our own but without reality." Perhaps one might say that acts, words, people, and peoples whose intelligibility is lost have passed away like dreams. This might be overly sentimental, but I mean that (perhaps) one might say just what the racist or cultural imperialist historian says, only in a very different mood: "Before us nothing happened." Something like this might be said with thoughtless indifference, with a sense of triumph, or with a sense of incomprehensible loss. But I think there would be a risk both of sentimentality and of giving comfort to the culturally arrogant in saying it at all. So I think I prefer to say that I disagree with Pippin and Arendt here.    

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