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Radical Hope and Early Modern Ecologies #mla17 #s598

Out of the ashes of 2016…

Crawling out of the wreckage of 2016 into the New Year, don’t we all need a little hope? Come join us at session 598 on Saturday at the Convention Center (Room 112B at 3:30 pm).

Here are the abstracts and presenter bios. Featuring Lynne Bruckner, Dan Brayton, Jen Munroe, and Tiffany Jo Werth!

Here’s how I’ll open the panel, explaining what we mean by radical hope.

When we proposed this panel last winter, we didn’t know how much we’d need hope in early 2017. We were concerned then and now with environmentalist thinking in our catastrophic present, which seems to oscillate between tragic visions of apocalypse and technology-inspired fantasies of redemption. Either we are all doomed, or electric cars will save us just the way we are. This panel on premodern literature aims to historicize the relationships between humans and the nonhuman environment. Seeking alternatives, we offer the abundance of historical difference.

Our title comes from philosopher Jonathan Lear’s 2006 book, Radical Hope, which unfolds the story of Plenty Coups, the nineteenth-century Native American Crow leader who guided his people to accept the end of their traditional way of life. Plenty Coups’s dilemma – “How ought we to live with this possibility of collapse?” (9) – resonates with the dire pronouncements of environmental doomsayers in the Anthropocene. Plenty Coups shows that it’s possible to reframe breakdown as futurity: “We must do what we can,” Lear ventriloquizes the Crow leader, “to open our imagination up to a radically different set of future possibilities” (93). Plenty Coups’s vision of the Crow people enduring without mobility, wealth, or war may parallel our prospects in the face of climate change.

Facing the unknown kindles fear and stimulates courage. The required stance, as Lear interprets Plenty Coups, is deceptively simple. “Something good will emerge” (94) insists the leader who turns forward into catastrophe. The form and shape of the good remain unknown and unknowable. Preserving optimism when facing a blank constitutes heroism. This stance is also, Lear emphasizes, a “traditional way of going forward” (154) – not because Crow traditions had any experience with a world without buffalo, but because Plenty Coups used traditional cultural resources to generate not-quite-articulable hope.

We early modern ecoscholars use this hope to historicize the Anthropocene. But as 2016 has turned out, it is not only the nonhuman environment that needs a dose of radical futurity. In the rawness of the November 21st issue of the New Yorker, the novelist Junot Diaz reached for Lear’s book in the Age of Trump. “Radical hope,” Diaz writes, “is not so much something you have but something you practice; it demands flexibility, openness, and what Lear describes as ‘imaginative excellence. We academics butter our bread by cherishing imaginative excellence, though like everyone we sometimes shy away from disorienting openness. My hope is that this panel will plant flexible seeds in our thinking and our teaching. In time, they will grow into flowers that we didn’t expect and have never seen before.

Looking forward to seeing everyone in Philly!

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