On the train to Bristol the morning of the conference, Richard and I were feeling radical. We had sketched out a brief plan of how the workshop might be but if we were to be true to the nature of life and death decisions at times of crisis, maybe that too was a crutch. Perhaps it is easy to be brave when you are not actually in the crisis, but maybe we could simply trust something bigger than us, inviting us to be fully in, without a life raft.
We noted the scheduled time for the workshop was much too short for the theme. Perhaps that was just right. It offered a parallel process with attempting to understand something of the psychology of a pending crisis. Events around the world, terrorist attacks, violent social upheavals, and natural catastrophes such as tsunamis and species extinctions, have left us with an uncanny sense of menace. We seem to be aware of a shared vulnerability that we cannot quite name. Time is short when we are blind to threats that challenge our cultural precepts. Such invisible assumptions guide our everyday thoughts and actions. We may glimpse them if we return home from a radically different culture. I can remember the shock of coming back from India in the early 1970’s and going into a ‘gents’ whose gleaming white tiled floor was cleaner than anything I had eaten off for several months.
Thoughts on Collapse
Jonathan Lear drew on the Crow chief, Plenty Coups, to imagine the kinds of resources and ethical values that would be needed for the Crow to adapt to a new way of life after their traditional way of life had collapsed. There were many facets of this collapse most pertinently stated by Plenty Coups as, 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.
This is not a literal statement. It reflects the inability to make sense of what is happening while the very vehicles of meaning making become defunct. Courage, so valued traditionally in fighting other tribes now threatened their very existence. Adapting required facing into the collapse despite it going against so much of their values. This facing into the collapse is one thing that our escapist culture is set against. In our case it is not just the literal collapse of no water and no fuel but the collapse of what fuels our consuming thoughts. There is a strong parallel between societies facing collapse after depleting resources, the limits of planetary sinks and the psyche using old maintaining cycles despite its own failure of resourcing. More simply put this is denial and a refusal of cultural vulnerability.
In the workshop we invited participants to remember a time, which had seemed catastrophic, when they had felt unable to think of any helpful solution - a time with no future or an empty future, a potential remembering of a nothing happening. We dropped into the presence of the unspeakable; the dread of the void, the abyss. Strangely the sharing of these horrors touched into poignant intimacy1. We witnessed a falling apart together.
As leaders, how could we honour this without making it better? - without resort to “Hope for the wrong thing” as TS Eliot describes escapist hope. An unforeseen group sculpt emerged that allowed an embodied deepening; a melding of the grief and pain at the losses with a transformational sense of being held; a new possibility of meaning. Although not obviously playful, we were, especially at the start of the sculpt, inviting play. Winnicott explores such transitional phenomena in his account of The Location of Cultural Experience. He writes,
“Psychotic patients who are all the time hovering between living and not living force us to look at this problem, one that really belongs not to psycho-neurotics but to all human beings. I am claiming that these same phenomena that are life and death to our schizoid or borderline patients appear in our cultural experiences. It is these cultural experiences that provide the continuity in the human race that transcends personal existence”.
This implies that we should not pathologise those who suffer failures of functioning in our manic culture, (depression being a paradigm example), but rather regard their symptoms as harbingers of that borderland transition we may be refusing to experience. It is staggering that despite clear evidence that we need to drastically reduce our carbon emissions, we are allowing them to increase. The continuity of the human race may require a surrender of our personal sense of existence – our ego identity, what we know and predict that maintains personal continuity. In this sense, hope becomes radical because it is contingent on surrender.
Plenty Coups’s radical hope had instigated a cultural intervention for his Crow nation. It involved accepting a tragic destruction of their way of life as a means to imagining a new future. This required enormous courage to relinquish the old values and through a traditional reading of his dream vision not just imagine a future but enact it. His story offers us an apposite revisioning of an archetype in our own culture, that of the death and rebirth of the hero, but cast at a cultural level rather than that of the individual.
Lear, J (2006) Radical Hope: ethics in the face of cultural devastation. Harvard
Winnicott, D (1971) Playing and Reality (100) Routledge, London 1991
Radical Hope and Catastrophe Ethics: A response to Chis Robertson
I’m offering a modest alternative rendering of our workshop from a different position than the one embodied by Chris. My view is limited to the experience of approaching and conducting something that we found both enjoyable and moving.
Recognition of vulnerability to apprehensions and fears we can’t quite name certainly informed our invitation to remember a time which was experienced as catastrophic in the sense of feeling blank to everything else for days, weeks, or months: a time when ‘nothing happened’. Each person was given a blank card to remember such a time and was encouraged to write from the sense of what it felt like; to feel free to evoke the experience in words which helped them to re-enter it, rather than merely report it. In other words to feel free not to leave themselves linguistically bereaved in the re-encounter with a life changing experience of bereavement, betrayal, disillusionment or whatever constituted the sense of a catastrophe.
The move from writing to reflective exchanges with others was carefully considered. Participants were invited to reflect on the experience of the writing rather than disclosing directly what the writing had addressed and evoked. Respect for the privacy of self-experience was essential to establishing the conditions of a facilitating environment in which trust could emerge and flourish through shared reflections upon acts of writing from experience. The freedom from intrusion could be used, as it was used, to reflect upon the wider political and cultural context which actively stifles and desensitises us to our potentials for experience through the subversive agency of life threatening banality. Such acts of creative collaboration, otherwise known as conversations, offer refreshment to ordinary speech by claiming a holiday (holy day) from the linguistic banality of our collective political and cultural scene and its undoubted power to anaesthetise us to the ubiquity of its threat. In this sense they can be thought about as counter-cultural acts.
The process of reflection upon both parts of the exercise in the whole group allowed for an acknowledgement of vulnerabilities and apprehensions that are difficult to name or articulate without the welcoming atmosphere of conviviality. A number of people spoke of their surprise in discovering that what had been so difficult to name, let alone articulate, could now be not only remembered, but spoken and spoken in words, phrases and sentences that could bring both speaker and listener to an unexpected sense of their aliveness.
The move from speech to movement in the form of a sculpt was a move which allowed participants to explore and negotiate non-verbally where to place themselves and, at the same time, allowed them to be placed in relation to a changing structure, receptive to the process of being in-formed and re-formed by a changing situation in which they were all players. It felt like a creative answering to the motion in emotion evoked by shared experiences of catastrophe remembered with another and others. One of the participants, a writer, confided that the workshop had enabled her to find an unexpected way into writing her ‘way into climate change’: she could begin to feel her way into it now.
Catastrophe ruptures the cycle of destruction and reparation. If destruction continues without redress, reparation is vulnerable to becoming unimaginable. The notion of radical hope, as embodied by Plenty Coups and reflectively elaborated by Jonathan Lear, is surely predicated upon the possibility of counter-cultural acts of finding new and hopefully shared ways of reclaiming the human. That is where the new shoots might spring from.
Richard Wainwright was a Jungian Analyst (AJA) and Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist (FPC)