Saturday, October 04, 2014

Slow down, Look, Listen, Breathe: Kvetching about Vexations and Thinking about Seven Generations (or, no wait, have you seen this funny meme?): On Hyperbole, Faking It, Lying, etc.

My tumblr project, Book of Lots, has continued to produce fruitful thinking for me. Producing posts virtually every day has meant paying both more and closer attention to the internet and to the behaviours, ideas, and practices that our virtual world facilitates, makes possible, and, often, exacerbates. As wondrous as is the access to so much information, the feeling grows in me that the internet is making us less smart, less compassionate, less kind, less human. It is also, along with numerous new phenomena, both shrinking our horizons and accelerating our attention-spans (making ADHD a cultural norm).

I wrote most of this article in early June 2014 but found myself overtaken by events in my life and, in addition to having to set aside this piece, also found it impossible to sustain my tumblr project to which i am returning  after four months. I’ve yet to determine if i can maintain good, creative focus. The exigencies of life (including, especially, the care of two young souls) are both constant and, at the moment, severely intensified. Which tends to make me still more cranky about the vexations about which i write below as well as more deeply needful of the ethic of seven generations which i am both contrasting with the velocity of our digital world and advocating for as something we need to take more seriously.

I received, sometime in July, a disturbing promotional email that announced access to thousands of books from a major publisher for a mere $8.99 a month which works out to $108 per year (before tax). Damn! It makes me remember that i have access to 11 million items (Books, eBooks, CDs, DVDs, and more) from the Toronto Public Library. With 99 branches across the city, you’re never far from one of them (in the inner city you’re almost always within easy walking distance of one or more). I’d sooner pay $100 more in taxes if i knew it would go to the library. I recognize the convenience of digitally available books and appreciate the lessening of pressure on paper production. But i also see an intensification of individuals being isolated even amidst neighbours and fellow citizens. There is little to no social interaction in searching, paying for, and downloading a digital book. The library, even though increasingly automated, is a social environment. And i am heartened to see how busy our local branch is at all times.  

Anyway, kvetching about books and libraries aside, my blogging has made more clear to me the host of new-ish practices sweeping through our lives, none of which are doing anything to challenge the ubiquitous injustice, inequity, and violence of the world we have made. Some are seemingly benign, many of them annoying, and a few are outright malignant. But all of them are part of the subtle machineries of oppressive hegemonic common-sense-rule to which we all make ourselves so compliant.

I suppose what i’m trying to figure out is just what constitutes ethical practice in this conjuncture of neoliberal capitalist hegemony, global environmental crisis, and the hyperbolic growth of digital/broadcast media (including, of course, the time and energy we devote to it). Applying Foucault’s notion of technologies of the self, i see connections amongst many practices, ideas, and behaviours that i can’t quite, as yet, resolve into clear focus.  But perhaps in writing about it i can.

Here i am applying two technologies of the self - the immediate one of writing this critical reflection. And also the documentation of my “cultural consumption” through this tumblr blog. This documentation is also a process of cultural production. And it is this “production” practice/disposition that i think is key and that i am wanting to theorize more in terms of being able to propose such production as an essential act of freedom (in the Freirian sense) and a key component of trickster pedagogy.

Vexations and the War for Clicks

Perhaps the most noticeable and pervasive irritant is the use of hyperbole and exaggeration to entice you to click on something. Everything is “the most amazing,” “i’ve never seen anything like this,” “you’ll never believe what…” It’s an endless sea of hyperbolic mediocrity. Given the overwhelming nature of consuming numerous, always escalating data feeds i can see that people have inflated their use of adjectives and splashy headlines - reflecting the worst-learned lessons of tabloid journalism. The effect, of course, of this overuse of click-baiting, exclamatory language is to dilute it all to a meaningless murmur of white noise. It’s a war for clicks. Which is, perhaps, a low-point in the history of our struggle to solicit each others’ attention.

Another vexation is share-pushing. Commercial tactics aside, this ranges from the relatively benign request to “share if you like this” or simply, “please share” to the more malignant, “share this or else...” The benign is easy enough to ignore and if i have to think about it i’m okay with granting the benefit of the doubt that the person doing this is perhaps new to social media and isn’t aware that the main economy of communication with social media is sharing. It’s the default assumption. And to push this is both superfluous and annoying. Still, i prefer simply to ignore all such requests. On the more malignant side of the spectrum is threatening share-pushing. This is almost certainly a continuation of pre-internet chain-mail practices. Common in this mode is the tacit threat - couched as promise - that if you share such-and-such x number of times good things will befall you. Again, the easiest thing to do is simply to ignore these. But then there is the simply loathsome tactic some people use which makes the explicit threat that if you don’t share this you are either a coward or otherwise on the side of the bad guys. This last is a form of bullying plain and simple. And bullies should not be tolerated. Do this to me more than once and i hit "unfriend."

What puzzles me is not that people are naive about (or otherwise fail to grasp) the nature of social media “sharing” but that some people seem to think that being pushy (and, at times to the point of threatening) is a way to persuade others of their point. Hardly a problem unique to the internet, of course. But it is one that is intensified by the thoughtless ease of clicking (emphasis here on “thoughtless”).

Another vexation that is easy enough to ignore but which puzzles me in terms of people’s willingness to submit to the judgment of others is the social media quiz, e.g.: “which [famous show character] are you?”; “where should you live?”; “what career should you have?” I imagine these quizzes being written by virtual teens who play darts to match answers to their questions making most of these quizzes meaningless except as games to tickle one’s vanity. Why do people submit to them? Personality tests are as old as modern sociology and psychology. Myers-Briggs, Birkman test, enneagrams. These, at least, have been crafted and tested by many people and within specific disciplines - whatever we might think of them. I’ve done several of these and i always get some useful information beyond a simple flattering of my ego. But i also treat them as games -  games of meaning - and i think worthwhile playing. Social media quizzes are games as well - but anemic by comparison. Such games of meaning can be important means of critical self-reflection. Which is why i like astrology and tarot. While i am agnostic about the divinatory applications of such things, i find these are systems of metaphorical thinking rich in the naming of countless patterns of human behaviour. And thus they are beautiful games that have the advantage of teaching the user to think metaphorically. This a powerful and worthwhile capacity that has many applications in life. Social media quizzes, by contrast, teach little except vain self-regard and they do this within the uncritical context of using popular culture. They are un-nutritious (albeit stimulating) 'sugar' compared to the rich nourishing meal that such games can be.

Just what does “love” mean in this new “Do What You Love” culture

Great piece by Miya Tokumitsu: In the Name of Love (Jacobin Magazine). I first learned of this from her lengthy CBC Sunday Edition interview (see 4th item at time-code 41:37). Tokumitsu rightly identifies the pernicious piece of pop-ideology called “Do What You Love” (DWYL) and exemplifies this with Steve Jobs’ 2005 Stanford University graduation speech:

"You’ve got to find what you love. And that is as true for your work as it is for your lovers. Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do.”

It doesn’t take much to expose the hegemonically-friendly hypocrisy of this sentiment. Just imagine Jobs giving this speech to the Chinese workers in one of the factories that produces Apple computers. Or, if you want to feel really ill, imagine him giving this speech to the Congolese coltan miners without whom our wired world would be far more anemic. Referring to the ‘invisible” industrial production that Apple relies on, Tokumitsu uses appropriately the phrase “violence of this erasure.” She deepens this point with a great description of the enabling work on which Jobs - and any industrialist (as well as most consumers, for that matter) rely:

"Think of the great variety of work that allowed Jobs to spend even one day as CEO: his food harvested from fields, then transported across great distances. His company’s goods assembled, packaged, shipped. Apple advertisements scripted, cast, filmed. Lawsuits processed. Office wastebaskets emptied and ink cartridges filled. Job creation goes both ways. Yet with the vast majority of workers effectively invisible to elites busy in their lovable occupations, how can it be surprising that the heavy strains faced by today’s workers (abysmal wages, massive child care costs, et cetera) barely register as political issues even among the liberal faction of the ruling class?”

I think Tokumitsu gets things pretty right. But there are three things with which i differ: just how prevalent is this ideology; the actual or hegemonic purpose of this ideology (Brave New World, 1984); and the fetishization of work as something for which love is even relevant.

Just how prevalent is this ideology

As much as i agree with Tokumitsu’s critique of DWYL, when she writes, ““do what you love” (DWYL) is now the unofficial work mantra for our time,” i can’t help but ask for whom, exactly, is this a mantra? And who is the “our” she refers to? Likewise, who is the “us/we/our” in, "Superficially, DWYL is an uplifting piece of advice, urging us to ponder what it is we most enjoy doing and then turn that activity into a wage-generating enterprise. But why should our pleasure be for profit? Who is the audience for this dictum? Who is not?”

Even while she poses the question of “who is the audience” for the DWYL message she is, with her written piece addressing an audience. Aren’t these the same audiences?

Sure, in the first instance, she is addressing readers of Jacobin magazine. But i’m guessing that her audience to whom her thinking is directed is somewhat larger (not least because of social media sharing). Which is typical of such writing. Even while she acknowledges that this ideology denigrates  the vast majority of workers, she exercises the common totalizing tactic of framing a universal “us.” A tricky matter, at best. How do you talk about such things without inadvertently stumbling into these linguistic/ideological traps? Not least of which is the trap of reification. By writing about this phenomenon, addressing an audience who are the participants in this phenomenon, Tokumitsu actually contributes to the production and reproduction of this very idea. Granting it the legitimacy of something worth criticizing gives the phenomenon energy. "No such thing as bad publicity" and all that. The challenge is to ensure that whatever false reification happens, that it is more than made up for by the articulation of the more significant critical frames within which such phenomena exist and grow. Whether this is achieved cannot be determined by one article.

But what’s it really aimed at doing

While Tokumitsu suggests that DWYL “may be the most elegant anti-worker ideology around,” and that, “In masking the very exploitative mechanisms of labor that it fuels, DWYL is, in fact, the most perfect ideological tool of capitalism,” i think there is something yet more insidious going on. Once you stop and think for a moment about this ideology, it’s easy to see it as perhaps the newest “don’t look at the man behind the curtain” tactic to deflect attention from conditions (of the economy, labour, consumption, etc.) that would rouse anxiety (at least) and destabilizing anger (more fearsomely). Also, when i think about for whom this message is intended, i feel that the vast majority of workers and especially the poor, are not that easily duped. I would say that the vast majority of the world’s working population know that DWYL is, at best, a luxury opinion and is probably thought of by most as so much nonsense. The audience for this message is the relatively small middle class - certainly not the reputed 1% - nor even probably the top 20% whom i expect are quite stable. The way i see it, of the 80% of the world’s population who own/survive-on 10% of the world’s wealth, there is a small wedge of the top of that 80% (to which we could add a small wedge of the bottom of the 20%) who are critically precarious, who represent a great deal of wealth capacity but who, themselves, are not that stable. The consent  and docility of this group, i’m guessing, is crucial. (And who, of us, might be included in this group?) And keeping that group both comfortable enough not to want to lose what they have and fearful enough of losing it should they dissent from the reigning common sense is where i see hegemonic ideologies like DWYL coming into play. The insidious nature of this ultimately cynical and violent ideology is that it is a social-psychological (or hegemonic) means of regulating dissent. And my intuitive and likely flawed math aside, it seems fair to hypothesize that the higher you are in the percentage of the world’s wealth distribution the more invested you are in the maintenance of that system. And it’s easier to be invested by believing that such conditions are both normal and natural. That’s how hegemony works.

So What?

All of the above, along with the prevalence of the pop psych meme, the perpetual avalanche of selfies, the hyperbolic exaggeration of click-baiting headlines, the growth of street-level fundraising (uncharitably - though kinda truthfully - dubbed “chugging" for "charity-mugging"), and the oh-so-easy cheat of “faking” knowledge (due to the ease of clicking over to Wikipedia see here and here  and here)  all connect for me in the way that they narrow the event-horizon of our experience to an immediacy that discourages both longer-term thinking (that of a life) and thinking about our the interconnectivity of all things. These two things are, themselves, linked. Reduced to a fetishistic focus on the moment, how can anyone be expected to discern the larger patterns of life, our environment, our social world, our histories, and the politics that determine our collective journey into the future?

This reminds me of yet another vexation which i believe is driven by shortened time-horizons and the ever-accelerating pace of life in our information age: that aspect of environmental and social justice activism that perpetuates a culture of outrage. On the one hand there is an overabundance of things deserving of our anger. On the other, if that anger is not rooted in both our passions for a better world and our critical (if not also radical) sense of ourselves as participants in long histories of struggle (and in which many of us are inheritors of unjust privilege) then our anger risks being merely outrage which, for me, means a reactionary stance (or, at best, what permaculture activist and witch Starhawk might term “rebellion”) rather than the more transformative disposition of resistance. (also see Starhawk: Fierce Love: Resisting the Weapons the Culture Has Devised against the Self in Truth or Dare: Encounters with Power, Authority and Mystery (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1987). Pp. 71-89.) The speed of the internet, the proliferation of distracting vexations (and the pervasive context of both climate change and state’s inaction about it) all contribute to fragmenting our attention, disorganizing us into isolated individuals each trying to get from day to day. We forget to breathe, to taste our food, to enjoy hugs and the company of our children, to enjoy sleep and dreaming, and so much more. But we can resist.

I have reflected a great deal over the years on the variety of ways that various cultures have named the interconnectivity of all things: ubuntu, heshook isn tsawalk, I/Thou, Mitayuke Oyasin, All Our Relations, environmentalism, and more. The one that comes to mind as i ponder the puzzle of these vexatious patterns is the indigenous teaching (also referred to as a prophecy) of “seven generations”. Commonly quoted as something like, “in all decisions consider the consequences unto seven generations”. I can’t recall when i first learned of this but it probably came to me via the Kahnawake Mohawk reserve near the suburban community where i did my primary and secondary schooling. I remember this ethic (which is how i think of it now) as being attributed to the Mohawk, the Iroquois, and the Onondaga. Of course, the Mohawk and Onondaga were both members of the so-called Iroquois Confederacy, also known as the Haudenosaunee. But i am cautious about being too firm about attributions of the origins of such things. Given the violence (ongoing) of colonialism, the disruption to indigenous cultures remains extreme. And claims are often made about this or that piece of indigenous knowledge as if it was as certifiable as the discovery of the atom. Such knowledges are trickier matters than the (apparent) certainties that science is fond of serving up. (i continue to wonder about the origin of the so-called “medicine wheel” which seems to have been taken up by many indigenous nations and yet is a relatively new practice for some). I’ve been told that the prophecy of the seven generations can be found in The Great Law of Peace, articulated perhaps a thousand years ago by Deganawidah (known as The Great Peacemaker) and which is the origin of the Haudenosaunee (Five Nations - which became six in 1772 when the Tuscaroa joined the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca). This Great Law of Peace was an oral ‘document’ for hundreds of years before being written down more recently. At any rate, there is no mention of seven generations in the versions of The Great Law of Peace that i have read. So, for me, the origins of this ethic remain murky. Nonetheless, learning about “considering the welfare of up to seven generations” had immediate appeal for me when i first learned of it. And i’ve always taken such an ethic as an self-evident good.

But i’ve also always been curious about the significance of "seven”. Why seven generations and not five or ten? Assuming a generation is 20 years (the approximate cycle within which humans begin to reproduce), then seven generations works out to 140 years. Given that our contemporary political generation of decision-making can barely manage thinking about five years, 140 years is a pretty awesome timeframe to work with. Still, if 140 years is good, wouldn’t 200 years be better? And easier-to-remember arithmetic? Why seven?

Amongst my many esoteric interests has been that of sacred geometry including the history of mathematics and archaeoastronomy and from which i’ve learned that numbers in stories are almost never arbitrary. And seven is a very interesting, pervasive, and ancient number. There are seven deadly sins, seven virtues, seven seas, seven days of the week, seven wonders of the world, seven dwarfs, and more. Sevens everywhere. Seven is a prime number (the fourth such) and there are many interesting mathematical aspects to it as a number. Perhaps one of the most ancient instances of the use of seven to encode knowledge is that of the seven planets (something that goes back to Babylon and which persisted in some form until Galileo). The seven planets refers to the seven moving objects in the night sky visible to the naked eye: sun, moon, mercury, venus, mars, jupiter, and saturn. Did this ancient observational knowledge start a trend of inferring sacred meaning to the number seven? Perhaps. Hard, if not impossible, to prove, i expect.

And, of course, there’s the seven in seven generations. Not connected at all, as far as i know, to the examples i cite above. But, having learned that numbers in stories are rarely, if ever, arbitrary i’ve always been bugged by the apparent arbitrariness of seven generations. Until now. J'net AyAy Qwa Yak Sheelth told me of another way of looking at the notion of seven generations. She learned it from Vancouver-based Ojibwe artist Don McIntyre. Rather than think of the seven generations being calculated with our own generation as zero, we can look at the seven generations as going both forward and backward in time. If we consider ourselves the centre of a seven generation cycle (rather than the beginning or ending) then an interesting thing emerges. 70 years is the approximate maximum average human lifespan though, of course, many people live into their 8th and 9th decades. But 70 being half of 140 will suffice to make my point. Born into a 70 year lifespan, it is entirely possible to know someone who is 70 years older than you and, eventually, someone who is 70 years younger than you. And thus, in a very real sense, one life, though 70 years short, can touch both ends of the 140 years that is seven generations. One life can actually touch (and be touched by) seven generations. Perhaps more in some cases and certainly fewer in many cases. But, on average, the math of 70 works. And now, for me, the seven in seven generations starts to feel less arbitrary.

But this challenges what i have understood as the conventional interpretation of seven generations. So what merit might there be in thinking about this differently?

I am reminded of a moment several years ago when i was in Spain visiting a friend. We were in a small village, Hinojosa del Campo, in the province of Soria. It is an ancient village, one of four in a shallow altiplano valley through which runs a Roman road (which is pretty damn cool). The feeling of antiquity is strong. The village, with a population of a few hundred, once farmed a quarter of the valley (the remaining three quarters being farmed by three other small villages) but with the advent of modern farming technology had been reduced to virtual cottage country. Now it was a summer retreat for the urban-dwelling village descendants -  and many of the homes were dilapidated and crumbling while a few dozen were well-maintained. One afternoon i was walking about the village with a feeling of familiarity when i flashed on an image of how my Irish paternal grandmother must have lived prior to immigrating to Scotland. From Donegal, she no doubt lived in a stone cottage similar to the ones i saw around me in Hinojosa. And then i thought of my Acadian maternal great-grandfather who had a farm in Aboujagane, New Brunswick. The feeling that overwhelmed me in that moment was one of connection across decades and with people whom i’d never met. But i marvelled at the feeling as well as the realization that there were only three generations between me and farming life. It is hard for me to describe the feeling of connection as i stood on that dusty village street in rural Spain. It reminded me of a visit to a graveyard near my Acadian great-grandfather’s farm where i read the names on the modest plaques and recognized so many that were familiar. I was startled by the tears that came as i stood amidst the remains of ancestors.

Thinking of seven generations as stretching both into our future and past, strikes me as a far more effective ethic in making decisions. And, while I do like the math of 70 years before and after - which, as i’ve mentioned, is a time period in which our bodies actually participate - why not also think of seven generations as both 140 years into our future and 140 into our past? Both/and seems a wise way to engage this ancient wisdom.


So, i am struggling to return to my (tumblr) project of “tracking cultural consumption” that Emily Pohl-Weary tossed my way as a challenge. I’ve got my thirteen year-old doing the same. I reach for that space of mindfulness within which not only our bodies but also our souls breathe and stretch and dance. And, while i resist vexations, i reach both backward in time (to draw to myself inspiration and memory) and forward into our uncertain future (casting my heart over the hurdles in hope that my body will follow).

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Tumbling and Stumbling along in the writing world

So, i've started a tumblr blog that i call Book of Lots. And i've been posting on it since January 1. It's mostly a project for an audience of 1 - moi meme, as it were. But making it public is a way to expose my ideas to some extent. Exercise a bit of risk taking. My intent was to post all the stuff i read, watch, listen to, etc. and make very brief comments/reviews about things. But i've noticed how some comments seem to grow and grow. And i plan to re-post a few of the more substantive pieces here. The difference between the tumblr site and this blogger site is immediacy. I'm using the tumblr site to post impulsively (albeit linked to what i read, watch, listen to, etc.) while this site has been for more considered thought. So maybe i'll grab some of the tumblr posts and edit/augment them here. I'll see. Meanwhile, this is me, getting this blog rolling once again.

Monday, June 24, 2013

What Is It About the Old & New Testament and Parents Eating Their Young?

How do we create bullies? And how do we create children who can be bullied? For surely we are each born innocent and identically needful of love, comfort and care. We are also each born different - each a unique mix of capacities, limits and potentials. And the contexts into which we are born are myriad. Still, i have been with groups of toddlers through five year-olds and all i see in children at these ages is desire to connect, play, learn. When does malice appear and from where does it come? I know that there is great power - for good and ill - in the choices that parents make: punish, reward, ration or shower love, support or coddle, and so on. As Alice Miler writes in Thou Shalt Not Be Aware: Society's Betrayal of the Child (NY: Meridian, 1984):
Children who are respected learn respect. Children who are cared for learn to care for those weaker than themselves. Children who are loved for what they are cannot learn intolerance. In an environment such as this they will develop their own ideals, which can be nothing other than humane, since they grow out of the experience of love. (p.97)
My mind and heart is filled with concern for how we treat children and how those of us, having once been children and still bearing that experience in our bodies, were once treated. Twenty-five years ago i came across the work of Alice Miller and, as for many people, i was able to free myself from soul-destroying pain and sadness. But it was hardly a total freeing. It was a step and i have continued that journey haltingly over the years. Now, as a father of a four-year-old and stepfather to two others, the urgency of that journey begun over two decades ago quickens my step. I am absorbed once again in understanding the roots of violence in our world. And i am once again discovering the astounding power of Alice Miller's insights into human behaviour and, of course, parenting in particular. And i am anxious about this for while i often embrace the notions of radical scholars and activists, i find myself hesitant in this case. Part of this hesitation has to do with my reluctance to accept the scale and enormity of the implications of Alice Miller's findings - the sheer numbers of humans bound up in violent childrearing. And another part of my reluctance is fear of being judged, if not ostracized, by many people (including my family, of course) who will have one more reason to think me an idealistic lunatic. So i am reminding myself of what i learned twenty-five years ago and what has been one of the most powerful influences on my life.

My continuation (including retracing) of my journey brought me back, once again, to the story of Abraham and Isaac. For this story is compelling evidence of the antiquity of the advocacy for and cultural value placed on parental violence against children. 

Is the story of Abraham's binding and (near) sacrifice of his second son a parable about faith and obedience or could it be about something quite different?  There is, of course, a long tradition of interpretation of this tale amongst all three of the abrahamic religions (mind you, in some muslim traditions the sacrificed is Ishmael). But whether Jewish, Christian or Muslim, it is a story about faith, obedience, surrender, submission to a divine being. This story disturbed me deeply as a child and eventually exposed for me the deep contradictions of the religion for which i was an altar boy for at least seven years. The story, as i'm sure many of you know, has it that Abraham, commanded by his god to bind and slay (or, according to some translations, slaughter) his son Isaac. At the last second Abraham is stopped and is "given" a goat to slay instead. 

Alec Gelcer, a friend and fellow-storyteller, shared with me a different interpretation he came across. There is a detail in the story that i suspect escapes most people (as it certainly did me until Alec pointed it out). Abraham is given the command to slay his son by God; but he is stopped by an angel. Why the difference? Some scholars would say that an angel can speak only the word of god so, essentially, there is no difference. But storytellers know, as do talmudic scholars, that details matter and are clues to other paths of meaning. In this case, as Alec explained to me, the interpretation was that, while God had indeed commanded Abraham to slay his son, this was not a test of faith but rather of the degree to which Abraham had internalized ethics (which i define following Albert Schweitzer as that which contributes positively to life). And, in this interpretation, Abraham fails the test. His God, being disappointed, sent a clue about his disappointment by delegating to an angel the mission to halt the infanticide (though in some interpretations Isaac is a young adult). Not a test of faith, but a test of ethics. Not a lesson on blind obedience but of compassionate witnessing. And Abraham failed miserably (though his authoritarian parent of a god did, perhaps, take pity on him by sending the angel which also, pedagogically-speaking, created a new phase of the test - one that we've only taken several thousand years to decode). But this story of child sacrifice sits at the origin of the three religions that now span the globe and include over half the human population of the planet. (Alec passed away suddenly several years ago but his sharing with me of this perspective on the Abraham and Isaac story was a most powerful and lasting gift.)

Now, while this story did create within me, as a child, a tension and a discontent, it would not be until adulthood that I would realize just how profoundly disturbing it was. Lucky for me that we had a visit, when i was about 12 from an aunt who was the fiercest catholic i'd ever met: my father's eldest sister May - a journalist for a Catholic newspaper, she had also been a missionary in West Africa. She came through Montreal on a pilgrimage to the grave of Teilhard de Chardin in New York. Chardin's Phenomenology of Man was lying around our house (i'm not sure if May brought it but she certainly brought it to my attention) and i began reading it, understanding little, i am sure. But one thing i understood very clearly was that faith in a christian and catholic god was a choice. One that i could make differently than the one that had been made for me up to that point. Later i came to appreciate Chardin's controversial (and Holy See-condemned) positions of questioning the doctrine of original sin, of support for evolution and theorizing of the Omega Point (which, no doubt, made me think of him as a science-fiction writer thus predisposing me to like him). I remember May's intense interest in what my faith might be and i only really remember a couple of things from that visit: May told me to read Jane Austin while i was still a teen because "only the very young and the very old get her." (An intriguing position. And i did take her recommendation and read a couple of Austin books.) But my more vivid recall of May was of a fearsome person who scared me with her intensity just this side of sane. At any rate, i know that May hoped that by introducing me to Chardin's work i would be drawn more deeply into catholicism. However, my movement was precisely the other way and Chardin acted as the bridge i needed in order to escape - not as a reactionary maneuver but as a positive step towards a more just and truthful disposition with the world. Nor have i ever really looked back except to examine, critique and appreciate the countless stories of the abrahamic religions.

Though I distanced myself from the Catholic church at that young age, it would still be almost fifteen years before i could dare to look at the patterns of stories on which i had been raised and how these stories corresponded to my own experience of being parented. Much of this recently came back into my thoughts on account of two things: my mother's dying and death last Fall (which provoked revisiting many memories and understandings of her life) and reading Jack Zipes' Why Fairy Tales Stick: The Evolution and Relevance of a Genre (Routledge, NY, 2006) and especially chapter 7: To Be or Not To Be Eaten: The Survival of Traditional Storytelling. Zipes begins this chapter with a quote by Alice Miller which i crib in full:
The tradition of sacrificing children is deeply oriented in most cultures and religions. For this reason it is also tolerated, and indeed commended, in our western civilization.  Naturally, we no longer sacrifice our sons and daughters on the altar of God, as in the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac. But at birth and throughout their later upbringing, we instill in them the necessity to love, honor, and respect us, to do their best for us, to satisfy our ambitions — in short to give us everything our parents denied us. We call this decency and morality. Children rarely have any choice in the matter. All their lives, they will force themselves to offer parents something that they neither possess nor have any knowledge of, quite simply because they have never been given it: genuine, unconditional love that does not merely serve to gratify the needs of the recipient. (The Body Never Lies The Lingering Effects of Cruel Parenting, trans. Andrew Jenkins (New York: W. W. Norton, 2005).)
In this chapter Zipes makes connections between the canon of traditional fairy tales (particularly those of children-eating-monsters) and patterns of childrearing. " How, I asked myself," Zipes writes, "did a man [Abraham], who subscribed to infanticide and may never have even existed, become an exemplary if not the exemplary figure in three world religions?" Zipes recounts listening to a radio interview (pp. 232-235) between a host, Krista Tipett and guest Bruce Feiler author of Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths. Feiler, it seems, is something of a fan of Abraham and the gist of this book is how this progenitor links Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Zipes rightly points out that there is no evidence that the story recounts something that actually happened but that the dominant story that has come down to us is one of many hundreds of versions that emerged out of an oral tradition that no doubt contested and negotiated meaning until finally someone locked it into textual form. That said, the message(s) of the story remain entirely relevant and powerful regardless of the literal truth of an actually existing drama having taken place. Thus Zipes writes," I was puzzled by Feiler’s almost indifferent attitude toward the element of child abuse. How could he praise and treat Abraham with so much reverence and offer him as a symbol of unity and, even worse, of humanity?" (p. 233) This echoed my own teenaged puzzlement. I quite naturally identified with Isaac and wondered how he felt as his father trussed him up and lifted the knife. And, regardless of Abraham being stopped by an angel, could i ever look upon a father with trust and love who was obviously so willing to commit murder on the request of his God? If i was as dumb as a goat, perhaps. But then animals aren't anywhere near as unintelligent as we tend to assume. The goat would have probably tried to escape.

Of this program Zipes shares some powerfully cautionary musings:
It demonstrated vividly how tradition represses (or inadvertently reveals) how we bake and eat our children, or if we keep them alive, how we beat stories into them that will make them willing subjects of forces to whom they grant control over their destinies. No matter how one interprets the story, there are some fundamental threads that hold it together, and they are all tied to patriarchal notions: that there is a male God, that believers in this God are bound to obey his every word, and that they must be ready to kill their own sons and 234 Why Fairy Tales Stick: The Evolution and Relevance of a Genre daughters in his name. Over the centuries, these notions have been used in myriad ways, somewhat like memes, to rationalize thousands of wars, and all the murders and deaths that have resulted from these conflicts stem from people’s belief in these traditional stories that have no verifiable foundation. Such is the power of storytelling, or rather such is the power of traditional storytelling. (p. 233-234)
Finally, Zipes refers to another interview with Feiler during which a caller, "Mimi from Van Nuys, California," challenged him about Abraham's actions and cites Alice Miller's work to do so, saying:
I do think that Abraham unifies all three religions and in a very timely way in that he thought God demanded the sacrifice of his son in order for him to prove his love and loyalty to God above all else. And he did not have to sacrifice his son, and I think that we should remember all three religions need to outgrow this idea that they need to shed blood and sacrifice their sons and daughters in order to prove their loyalty to their god, the god that they imagine is asking this. (p.234)
Feiler and his host clearly do all they can to avoid engaging Mimi's point thus reproducing a characteristic non-response response - an example of Marcuse's "repressive tolerance" perhaps, or of the resilience of Gramsci's notion of hegemonic common sense (or Bourdieu's doxa).

Now, for sure, much of my thinking is inspired by being the father of a four-year old (soon five) and step-father to two more (12 and 19) and anticipating all the many decisions about schooling and life that lie before us. And i wonder how it is that the old can send the young to die in war as we do. Less dramatically, but no less importantly, we send our young into mass education and typically large schools where they are subject to the vagaries of bullying peers, class differences played out through dress and personal grooming, racialization of various populations, overstressed and underpaid teachers and more hazards that lead too many to depression, despair and varying degrees of self-inflicted harm. My schooling was one of relentless humiliations from students and teachers alike. Picked on, beat, targeted with applecores - i survived primary and secondary school by creating a geek-nerd bubble within which i read the canon of 19th and 20th Century science-fiction and fantasy (not to mention the many comics that i cherish still). For surely my parents, perhaps with the best intentions, set me in the world to be eaten. Each day i would descend into a "mythic" hell, i would wander about trying to be unnoticed by the ogres and goblins and trolls that slunk along corridors and lazed in classes. The benign keepers, themselves afflicted, bore postures of weary resignation. The drugs, the alcohol ran freely. But the drugged and the drunk were, generally, harmless and not to be feared. It was the sober and the angry that were to be avoided. Not to mention the dealers. If i kept company it was with the fools who giggled their days away. And i returned home to a different kind of imprisonment where, i'm guessing, i was considered well-adjusted, if a bit of a recluse, but where i was more alone than when at school with my 4,500 peers (nor is this number an exaggeration). It is little wonder that of the five boys i counted as friends three of them enlisted. And, though i was disappointed in their choice, it seemed normal enough then. Though now i find myself deeply saddened to think of those children opting for a life of military service for i know they did not do it for some great altruistic desire to defend their nation but from need (for being poor), from despair (what else was there to do), or from fear (and therefore a choice for the known comforts of an authoritarian hierarchy).

I look back on all this, including my upbringing, with the knowledge and ethics that i have gained from Alice Miller, Janusz Korczak, Albert Schweitzer and all the many people with whom i worked and with whom i risked my life in Nicaragua in the 80s. I understand from Alice Miller how the Fourth Commandment acts as a diabolical silencing device preventing so many people from being able to name the "benign" violence of common sense childrearing. From Korczak and Schweitzer i have accepted challenges to live ethically and lovingly - though i continue to fall so terribly short of my goals.

And i can see now, looking back at the story of Abraham that it is merely the first of many stories of child sacrifice: from Pharaoh's command to slay the first-born males to Moses' god's symmetrical punishment; to Herod's slaying of the "Innocents"; to, of course, the most famous sacrifice of all: the carpenter's son. Not to mention the countless nameless children sent to war, killed in war then and now. I remain haunted by the heartbreaking images in James Orbinski's account of his time with MSF in Rwanda during the genocide (An Imperfect Offering: Humanitarian Action in the Twenty-First Century, Doubleday, 2008; pp. 200-201). How can loving parents let this happen? When does our fear, our obedience, our conformity to the dominant norms overwhelm our love for the incredibly vulnerable beings we bring into the world? Alice Miller's answer is that people practicing dominant childbearing raise children not for their sakes (to become loving, compassionate, connected, autonomous and self-possessed beings) but for their own sakes (to redress forgotten hurts, to act out dramas that might fulfill unrealized longings, to revenge ourselves on people beyond our reach). Miller's findings are stark and they should horrify us. But they are also powerfully explanatory apropos of Occam's Razor 'the simplest explanation usually being the correct one.' This is searing truth. But, as Miller concludes in her second book For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelty in Child-rearing and the Roots of Violence (NY: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1984; p.279):
Children who become too aware of things are punished for it and internalise the coercion to such an extent that as adults they give up the search for awareness. But because some people cannot renounce this search in spite of coercion, there is justifiable hope that regardless of the ever-increasing application of technology to the field of psychological knowledge, Kafka's vision of the penal colony with its efficient, scientifically minded persecutors and their passive victims is valid only for certain areas of our life and perhaps not forever. For the human soul is virtually indestructible, and its ability to rise from the ashes remains as long as the body draws breath.
I believe in unconditional love. Though i am unsure if i have ever experienced it; and thus must always be suspect about what i think my own capacity to practice it might be. But i have met people, children and parents alike, who i have felt were truly loved unconditionally and were able to love unconditionally. So i know it is possible.

It is hard for me not to hear the words of Kahlil Gibran's poem On Children from The Prophet (NY: Knopf, 1973, pp.17-18). The first ten lines were set to music - performed a cappella - by Sweet Honey in the Rock; and i sang this at Taliesen's naming ceremony ((the last four lines about a divine archer don't do much for me though i love the metaphor of the archer). This piece stands in stark contrast to the story of Abraham's Binding of Isaac 
Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,  which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,  and He bends you with His might  that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer's hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies,  so He loves also the bow that is stable.
And so my thoughts lead me back to story. Jack Zipes refers to numerous traditional fairy tales of child-eating-monsters. But in virtually all the stories i know, the child - girl or boy (and sometimes both simultaneously) - defeat the monster and win their freedom or are rescued by a culture hero - often an incarnated god. As in my wife's Nuu-chah-nulth culture with the story of Pitch Woman (described in E. Richard Atleo's Tsawalk: A Nuu-chah-nulth Worldview, UBC Press, 2004, pp. 23-27) who steals children and blinds them by putting pitch on their eyes but who is defeated by the Son of Mucus (similar to the Kwakiutl Dzunuḵ̓wa, a monster woman who possesses the water of life but also kidnaps unwary children to eat, though the children usually outwit her and escape; in one story Dzunuḵ̓wa is defeated, burned and transformed into mosquitos). These stories encode ethics of care, love and struggle against binding, blinding and silencing. But stories are hardly innocent things and we likewise have stories such as those typified by Abraham and the Binding of Isaac which are about precisely the opposite:  voicelessness, blindness and submission.

It saddens me but does not surprise me that the results of dominant "poisonous pedagogical" childrearing are a world of countless troubled people. The evidence of my own experience (reflecting  critically on my life, witnessing the lives of children around me, journeying through the world's literature and more) bears out Alice Miller's findings. I am still constructing my own understanding of all this including what those of us committed to social and environmental justice must do. The tremendous potential for positive social change that remains locked in the patterns of generational violence makes me quail. But i believe deeply that the most sensible way to confront the seemingly overwhelming challenges we face is with truth and love.

Monday, June 17, 2013

The Urgency for a Praxis of Radical Environmental Storytelling

Reflections on Reading and Discussing Rob Nixon's Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor.

Learning rather late of an Osgoode Hall (York Univ.) workshop with Rob Nixon focusing on his recent book Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor I seized the ironic moment and read the book (very un-slowly) in three days. I long for the days (pre-family, pre-parenthood) when i could savour the text. And Rob's text deserves savoring on several levels - starting with the deftness and elegance of his prose. I respect most writing and have an infamous (amongst some friends) tolerance for poor writing (assuming the storytelling - or special effects if we're talking about cheesy sci-fi films - has merit; i blame Kirby comics) but i greet fine writing with a feeling of astonished joy. And Nixon is a fine writer who draws on and refers to many other fine writers many of whom have long been cherished favourites (John Berger, Edward Said, June Jordan, Eduardo Galeano, Arundhati Roy to name only a few) and many whom i am now determined to read (Ramachandra Guha, Anna Tsing, Abdelrahman Munif, Indra Sinha whose Animal's People awaits my completion of another book and writer Rob recommended over lunch: Robert Macfarlane's The Old Ways: A Journey On Foot - it's giving me itchy feet that only an impossibly-cute-four-year-old - and his mother and sister -  can keep rooted).

"Slow violence" is one of those namings of true things that are elusive if not invisible until named. Nixon, the Rachel Carson Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin, proposes that disasters that take decades (if not generations) to unfold are a form of violence which is best called "slow" and which primarily affect the poor. Examples of slow violence include polar ice cap melting, deforestation, topsoil degradation and loss, the spread of toxins following their use in war or their application in agriculture and manufacturing and, of course, climate change, to name only a few. Nixon examines some key struggles each of which includes the participation of "writer-activists" each of whom garnered (with some continuing to do so) worldwide attention: Ken Saro-Wiwa and the Ogoni struggle against the Nigerian government's and Shell Oil's exploitation of oil in the Niger Delta; Kenyan environmentalist and political activist Wangari Maathai, founder of the Green Belt Movement and recipient of the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize; Arundhati Roy and the struggle against the Narmada Dam development in India, and others. Nixon creates appropriately complex (and multivalent if not polyvocal, for the Bakhtin-nerd in me) pictures of these struggles and the writer-activists who play crucial roles in communicating the meaning of these struggles to the wider world.

What grabbed me immediately about Nixon's work is the central challenge he places before environmental activists: what he terms the "representational challenges posed by slow violence as it impacts the environments—and the environmentalism— of the poor." (p.2). Posed more specifically in the context of media attention (though equally true for other domains of education, public dialogue, policy formation), Nixon writes
Maintaining a media focus on slow violence poses acute challenges, not only because it is spectacle deficient, but also because the fallout’s impact may range from the cellular to the transnational and (depending on the specific character of the chemical or radiological hazard) may stretch beyond the horizon of imaginable time. (p.47)
Nixon poses equally daunting practical and theoretical/conceptual challenges. On the practical side of things i immediately thought about the stories we need to tell. Nixon summarizes this nicely in this short article which begins with
How can environmental writers craft emotionally involving stories from disasters that are slow-moving and attritional, rather than explosive and spectacular? This is a particularly pressing question for our age, as the news cycle spins ever faster, as the media venerates spectacle, and as public policy is increasingly shaped around what are perceived as immediate needs.
In the theoretical/conceptual domain, Nixon poses numerous and diverse (sometimes implicit) challenges two of which became clear to me only at the end of a the day-long workshop. It began with a crucial challenge with which event-organizer Dayna Scott (Joint Appointed with York University's Osgoode Hall Law School and the Faculty of Environmental Studies - the latter being where i am contract faculty) concluded her opening comments following Rob's keynote talk. Dayna has written an excellent review of the book which, in addition to discussing the main gist(s) of the book, draws out some of the implications for the involvement of law in the environmentalism of the poor and the global resistance to slow violence. The challenge that Dayna laid out was a problematizing of the types of stories of slow violence that need to be told. Are the stories necessarily of the catastrophic cautionary what's-happening-to-the-poor-of-the-world-is-coming-your-way variety? (i'm wickedly paraphrasing here and am risking misrepresentation for which i proffer pre-emptive apology). Dayna's question established a fugue in my mind for the day - something like "just what stories do we need to be telling?" And this fugue was added to rather polyphonically by several (if not all) of the other contributions during the day.

Usha Natarajan, an assistant professor in the Department of Law and the Center for Migration and Refugee Studies, on the panel "The Environmentalism of the Poor: South and North" addressing the complicity of law in slow violence described a moment of deep concern in which she (as a lawyer, i presume) wondered if she was part of the problem. She concluded her talk by referring to lawyers and environmentalists working together much more in the last five years. This provoked me to think not only about what stories to tell a public we wish to mobilize but also about the stories we need to tell various constellations of activists and other actors resisting slow violence. Additionally i now looked at this gathering of lawyers, legal scholars, environmental scholars and others as an example of the very diversity of actors that we needed forged into a collective subject. And i realized that it was wise not to assume a consensual understanding of slow violence  even amongst this group of sympathetic scholars but rather to remember we were in a dynamic (Arendtian?) dialogue in which we were persuading each other of the world we fancied we shared. And, to reiterate, what stories did we need to tell in order to do this well?
 
Amar Bhatia, completing his S.J.D. in the Faculty of Law at the University of Toronto, spoke next and began his talk with one of my favourite questions: what makes a good story? To this he added "what is the potential for solidarity?" (which, he also wondered, might be comparable to "interdisciplinarity" - a keyword when it comes to FES where i teach). Amar's questions and thoughts made me ask, "just who is telling the story?" and "who can tell the necessary stories?" This reminded me of something i've known for a long time and about which i have recently deepened my thinking with Foucault's genealogical treatment of parrhesia (or "fearless speech" - see my recent blogpost about this). Finally, Amar's contributions pushed me to let go of something i hadn't realized  i was holding onto so strongly: the idea of the individual storyteller. When Nixon lays out his challenge to "environmental writers [to] craft emotionally involving stories" i naturally (more likely narcissistically) put myself in this picture. And, despite some compelling critique of Wangari Maathai's "celebrity" memoir (pp. 142-144) as well as reference to Nelson Mandela's experience of pressure to conform to the use of the singular "I" rather than his more troubling use of "we" to describe his participation in the anti-apartheid struggle, one of Nixon's focuses is on the "activist-writer" (several of whom i have mentioned above). What writer wouldn't want to be counted amongst this community of courage and talent? Conceit aside, my point is that Nixon's work left me predisposed to think of what various individual writer-activists could do - albeit in relation with (if not accountable to) social movements. But Amar's thoughts provoked me to wonder if we weren't unwittingly buying into the hegemonic notion of the individual subject as the actor that we are seeking both to understand and influence. What if the stories that need to be told simply "cannot" be told by an individual subject but rather should be and must be told by a collective subject. In which case, what does that collective subject look like, how do we create such a thing and just what would the stories look and sound like coming from such? Again to refer to my thoughts on parrhesia: i am persuaded that the kind of truth-act that parrhesia names (the Quaker saying "speaking truth to power" is useful, if not quite accurate, shorthand) is a huge part of what we are trying to enact. But the complexity and often invisibility of power (about which legal historian Douglas Hay said, later in the day, law does a great deal to make so) is such that perhaps only a collective subject can perform parrhesia in our modern, post-colonial world.

Finally, and with due respect to how great it was to meet and listen to Rob Nixon and esteemed others, Pooja Parmar, the inaugural Catalyst Fellow and visiting professor at the Osgoode Hall Law School, gave a talk as part of the second panel "Making Slow Violence Visible" that was "worth the price of admission" (mind you,  the day was free so let's just pretend for a moment that it cost a few thousand bucks). I can't do justice to Pooja's comments but suffice to say that she brought me to tears. She shared an account from her doctoral field research in which she was documenting some of the struggle against Coca-Cola's exploitation of water in Kerala and the consequent oppression of Adivasi and other poor populations. After a hearing in which several Adivasi folk spoke about their lives (and i'm being very general here because i can't recall Pooja's precise description of events) Pooja had an epiphany (I'm not sure she used that word) about the virtual impossibility of these oppressed and disenfranchised people being able to tell their story in a way most meaningful to them. Pooja's description of this was devastating (thus my tears) and i immediately connected her story with Canadian writer-artist Shani Mootoo's words: "It is a crime that I should have to use your language to tell you how I feel that you have taken mine from me." This illuminated yet another form, brutal and insidious and mostly invisible, of slow violence: a form of totalizing erasure. Pooja concluded with perhaps the day's most challenging caution which i pose here as a question: does the translating of people's stories (e.g. into the language of law) require making invisible certain kinds of violence in order to make other violence visible?

This reminded me, as someone who has a disproportionate amount of this world's privileges (white, male, able-bodied, and-lots-of-etc.) that i may never be able to hear the very truths that are most necessary for resisting and stopping the many violences of our world ("slow" or otherwise). I certainly can't imagine that i could be the storyteller of the stories to which Pooja was referring not to mention many others about which Nixon writes and that were referred to during the workshop. But i can imagine participating in a collective subjectivity whose "voice" can tell those stories. Indeed, since a teen i have lived a life devoted to doing this justly (through anti-apartheid work and Nicaragua solidarity work and aboriginal sovereignty struggles and more). Nor am i making a claim that i have done it well. Only that i have striven to do so and strive still.

So, having teased you above about the two "challenges ... which became clear to me only at the end of a the day-long workshop" these are:
  1. In addition to the stories of slow violence that we need to tell to mobilize a vast public (as proposed by Nixon and with a reminder of Dayna's challenge), what are the stories we need to tell to forge coalitions of actors who can work better together to resist, reverse and, finally, stop slow violence?
  2. Given the complexity of the stories that must be told and especially considering the dangers of "translation" as highlighted by Pooja, is the storyteller of slow violence better conceptualized as a collective subject rather than an individual writer-activist?
Regarding the first question i propose that Pooja's story (which i have communicated inadequately) is an example of the very kind of story that we are looking for. One that has the power to facilitate powerful alliances and shared understandings of resistance. And, apropos of the second question, the collective subject (unruly, heterogenous, situated and highly contingent) of Friday's workshop participants serves as a modest example of the kind of "storyteller" that is evoked in this interesting conjuncture.

This is just some of the stuff that troubled and jazzed me about Friday's workshops and Rob Nixon's wonderful book. And i'm still mulling over many thoughts about time and violence.

(A big thank-you to Leesa Fawcett for inviting me to attend.)

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Parrhesia: My New Favourite Word

A Nazi soldier knocks down a young boy entering the Warsaw Ghetto causing him to spill, from his coat, potatoes and other vegetables he had been carrying. The soldier kicks the boy but is interrupted by a man carrying a doctor’s satchel and a wrapped parcel. The man, looking as if he can’t believe what he is seeing, yells at the soldier, “Stop! Have you no shame beating a child?” The soldier is stunned into stillness and looks away (in shame? Or to look for further orders from a superior? It is hard to tell exactly). The boy makes his escape and runs away into the Ghetto. The man with the satchel and parcel turns abruptly and walks away quickly.

This scene, in Polish director Andrzej Wajda’s film Korczak, hit me with the force of a bus when I saw it in 1990. The film is the story of Janusz Korczak (aka Henryk Goldszmit) a Polish-Jewish pediatrician and educator who ran an orphanage (with Stefania Wilczyńska) in Warsaw for 30 years. The Nazi’s, in 1940, forced Korczak to move his orphanage into the Warsaw Ghetto where, after two years, the 196 orphans along with Korczak and Stefania were deported to the Treblinka extermination camp. Despite repeated offers of rescue and sanctuary Korczak refused to leave the children choosing to share their doom.

For most of my life I have wondered about this kind of confrontation – speaking truth to power, as the Quaker's say. The ethic and politics of this statement is one that has guided me my entire adult life. It is also something rooted in my own experience of voicelessness – something I learned through the work of Alice Miller and whose books I am avidly re-reading after a many years hiatus. Nor can I claim that I have “found” my voice. I am still searching (or constructing, if you prefer a building metaphor).

My search has led me to French philosopher Michel Foucault’s final lectures in which he applied his genealogical method to the greek term parrhesia, variously translated as “free speech”, “to speak everything”, “to speak boldy” or, as was used in the title of the book of these lectures, “fearless speech.” Foucault’s work on this term’s diverse uses over several hundred years and several cultures is, as usual, brilliant if, tantalizingly, incomplete. But he shared enough to make the case that this term defined a particular relation between people and truth that changed over time, beginning, perhaps, in a context in which truth, speech and power corresponded in a naïve political manner and evolving (genealogically) to name the more complex inter-relation of truth, education, philosophy, power and speech and, of course, forming the roots of our contemporary notions of free speech and human rights. Suffice to say, by the time Foucault is done, we’ve traveled over half a millennium from Socrates, Plato and Euripides to Plutarch and Seneca, et al.

There is one particular sense of parrhesia that hit me with the power of the revelation of finding a word that names something that you have experienced but for which, until that moment, you had no name. Patterns for which we lack names are like fish that flit away out of sight just before we catch them in our focus. Without a name it is hard to be certain if what we are noticing is, in fact, a pattern – or at least a meaningful one. (Nor do I want to imply that my choice of focus here represents any essential definition of parrhesia – the nature of Foucault’s work is precisely to show that it is a process – an on-going dialogue – not a thing set in stone). Nonetheless, this word now serves to allow me to see more clearly a pattern of resistant communication (i.e. resisting oppressive power) that I have witnessed, watched, heard and experienced.

What parrhesia makes clear to me is that merely speaking truth, however dissident from dominant common sense, is  not enough. It matters who is speaking to whom and in what context. As Foucault says:
 "Someone is said to use parrhesia and merits consideration as a parresiastes only if there is a risk or danger for him in telling the truth. For instance, from the ancient Greek perspective, a grammar teacher may tell the truth to the children that he teaches, and indeed may have no doubt that what he teaches is true. But in spite of this coincidence between belief and truth, he is not a parrhesiastes. However, when a philosopher addresses himself to a sovereign, to a tyrant, and tells him that his tyranny is disturbing and unpleasant because tyranny is incompatible with justice, then the philosopher speaks the truth, believes he is speaking the truth, and, more than that, also takes a risk (since the tyrant may become angry, may punish him, may exile him, may kill him). ...
"So you see, the parrhesiastes is someone who takes a risk. Of course, this risk is not always a risk of life. When, for example, you see a friend doing something wrong and you risk incurring his anger by telling him he is wrong, you are acting as a parrhesiastes. In such a case, you do not risk your life, but you may hurt him by your remarks, and your friendship may consequently suffer for it. If, in a political debate, an orator risks losing his popularity because his opinions are contrary to the majority's opinion, or his opinions may usher in a political scandal, he uses parrhesia. Parrhesia, then, is linked to courage in the face of danger: it demands the courage to speak the truth in spite of some danger. And in its extreme form, telling the truth takes place in the "game" of life or death." Foucault, Michel (1983) Fearless Speech (Joseph Pearson, ed.), LA: Semiotext(e), pp. 15-16. [You can read the entire text of this book here: http://foucault.info/documents/parrhesia/]
Understanding that a risk of harm is part of the process now makes clear to me many experiences i have had in which i have faced oppressive power and have either chosen to speak or not, according to my willingness to risk. Sometimes i have been too afraid (intimidated by someone i feared would get physically violent). Other times, simply foolish (standing at gunpoint in Honduras and explaining to some soldiers that shooting me would cause them no end of trouble). And, more rarely, considered and intentional (refusing to obey a boss's ridiculous request and being fired as a result). I know that my capacity to face power and see its oppressive dimensions has everything to do with what and how i learned to see as a child - something i continue to struggle with. Alice Miller's work on "emotional blindness" is, sadly (if also healingly), an accurate naming of what i suffered. But though afflicted with emotional blindness for my own sake i was, nonetheless (and perhaps as a compensatory strategy, of course), able to see the suffering of others. I educated this "seeing" and learned that popular education was the best praxis in the world for creating environments, relationships (including sharing resources) that enabled participants to seize the opportunity to resist oppression - including that which i inevitably represented despite my commitment to being in solidarity with the oppressed. In this work i have struggled to resist the fatal flaw of exceptionalism which, for me, is that conceit that, being special (i.e. having supposedly learned the lessons of privilege and oppression), the normal rules no longer apply. This is a caution to all activists who, abundant with the unearned privileges of a classist, racist, sexist world choose to work in alliance with people who are oppressed, but who must exercise a solidarity that includes a good deal of humility.

What parrhesia does for me now is to clarify a dilemma in this work - how do i apply a necessary humility (as someone with a lot of privilege) in so-called anti-oppression work? On the one hand, this is what appeals to me in popular education - the creating of conditions within which just communication and encounter can happen. On the other hand, privilege and oppression are tricky matters and confronting and overcoming them is fraught with contradiction and risk. Part of this struggle is developing (if, at times, an act of recovering) and practicing new vocabulary. Parrhesia, a perhaps awkward ancient Greek word for our modern tongue, is a crucial piece of this vocabulary. "Fearless speech" is a good translation of a key aspect of parrhesia though the word encodes much more that is important to attend to.

So, is parrhesia something that can be learned? Is it a skill or tool for which training can equip people to apply in appropriate contexts? I tend to think that such an approach would be quite futile. Rather, if parrhesia is about a relationship/encounter with power, then its performance is something that grows out of one's subjectivity (who you are, as it were. Which is also where it connects with Foucault's notions of the "care of the self".) Parrhesia is something that can only happen if we create ourselves as people who can see power clearly, who can look power in the eye and act with courage (i.e. the awareness that there is risk of harm but that, despite this risk, we must act anyway). Doesn't this make it something that is a measure of our humanity - where "humanity" means our interconnectedness with everything (i.e. the human and non-human world)? Not that i think everyone should go out there and look for a chance to practice parrhesia. But it is something that i think of for my own sake (how can i exercise parrhesia as a reclaiming of a voice that was taken from - or denied - me?); as a parent, for my children's' sake (what must i do so that my children will be able to practice parrhesia when the need arises?); as a teacher (who can facilitate spaces in which people can learn that about themselves that will allow them to practice parrhesia?); as a citizen and activist (who can, with others, speak truth to power?).

I am only scratching the surface of this term. But already i can see parrhesia everywhere: the example of Korczak with which i began this musing; Frances Hodgson Burnett's protagonist Sara Crewe confronting the oppressive headmistress of the school in which she is trapped; the somewhat more complicated example of George Clooney's character in Michael Clayton confronting a corrupt corporate executive; and, from last week, Medea Benjamin, co-founder of the peace group CodePink, confronting President Obama during his May 23rd, 2013 speech on counterterrorism.

I don't adopt challenging terms easily. "Hegemony" is one that i believe worth using despite the common sense (mostly bad sense) that shuns highfalutin-sounding words. And now i also include "parrhesia" in my vocabulary.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

"Life Lived Like a Story" - 1

"I've tried to live my life right, just like a story," are the words of Tagish elder and storyteller Angela Sidney to anthropologist Julie Cruikshank and from which the title of one of the best books i've ever read on storytelling comes: Life Lived Like a Story. This book makes a powerful and persuasive case that our life stories - what many would think of as biography - is not nearly as separate as we think from other stories we know (folk tale, myth, even fiction). Since reading this book over 20 years ago i have certainly done what i can to take Angela's advice. Including seeing the remarkable stories in the lives all around me. Watching Taliesen grow i can see that all childhood is lived in a world where myth and story have a power that, sadly, many of us forget (and ignore) as we grow older. Though this power always lies before us (hiding in plain sight) and ready to be reclaimed. Often i've felt a unique flush of feeling that is an echo from long ago - my mind and body remembering how i once inhabited the world of superheroes and Greek myth and science-fiction and fantasy stories. They were real then, in a way that they are not now. Though i have managed to keep alive some of that childhood capacity for credulity (something we consider a pejorative as adults) and wonder.

So, when i read of remarkable lives such as that of Albin Trowski i am amazed and heartened about the power of stories as well as encouraged once again to see the stories in our lives - from the amazing way a child moves through a world of story and myth to the story (as powerful as any myth) of my partner J'net's survival through a harrowing world to achieve wonders and to the heartbreaking struggles of an eleven-year-old girl who must navigate the mundanities and inadequacies of an overtaxed education system that treat bullying as a disease that can be rooted out rather than the endemic expression of a system of structured inequality. I learned of Albin Trowski in an essay by Alan Garner (one of favourite writers since reading his Weirdstone of Brisingamen when i was 11). In In his essay The Voice in the Shadow (in The Voice That Thunders: Essays and Lectures. London: The Harvill Press, 1997. PP. 146-148. ) he tells the story of his friend Albin.

In 1939 Albin returned to Poland from an arts students' tour of Eastern Europe intending to enlist, fight for Poland and probably die. Instead he was found by a German patrol and, being bilingual, quickly decided not to die by posing as a German. Thus he  became an unwilling participant in the Nazi's Russian Campaign which included two winters living through the siege of Stalingrad. As Garner writes:

[Albin] was part of a small contingent of artillery, and their method of advancing, and of finding food, was simple. They attacked any farm or cottage that they came across, killed the inhabitants and took the food. Albin volunteered to be the executioner. He would ride ahead, in his leather coat and steel helmet, on his motorcycle, machine-gun slung across his back, roar into the farmyard, loose off a few rounds into the air, throw his helmet and gun onto the ground, and shout, in Russian, “Don’t shoot!” The genius of the plan lay in his getting rid of the helmet. He was no longer an icon of the Reich, but a teenager and a human being.

He would then make social contact with the peasant or farmer, occasionally firing into the air, for the benefit of the approaching Germans, tell the Russians what was happening, that he had to have some food to show for his efforts, and that they must hide. He would then go to every one of the family and say, “My name is Albin. Look at my face. Remember it. I shall be back.” Then he would empty his magazine, put on his helmet, and roar off back to the troop of artillery, a slaughterer of inferior beings and a member of the master race.
Finally choosing to flee the doomed Battle of Stalingrad, Albin made his way home being aided by the peasants who, indeed, remembered him. But, captured by the Gestapo (and, remarkably, not shot as a deserter on account of how poorly the war was going for the Germans at that moment) he found himself in charge of a group of gunners retreating up Italy. Being of like mind with his troop, they negotiated a surrender to the Americans. And Albin found himself serving in the American army as a translator and "identifier of members of the SS." This latter task discouraged Albin and he was allowed to leave to join the Free Polish Army in Scotland.
Albin took part in the D-Day landing and fought all the way into Germany until the end of the war. He was then told that he could go home. “But it is not now the Poland I would have died for,” said Albin. So they asked him what he wanted to do. “Well,” said Albin, “the only place where I’ve been happy since this started is Manchester, England.” No problem, said the Poles. But you’ll have to be discharged from the British army. So Albin joined the British army. And ever since has lived in Manchester, painting, the holder of the Iron Cross, two Eastern Front Oak Wreaths, the American Africa medal, the Free Polish Army medal and the British Defence medal.
One of the most remarkable lives of the 20th Century, for sure. But then this is merely one we have learned of. How many go unsung, untold? At least publicly - for surely within families are to be found wondrous accounts (see my next post on Searching for Sugarman). Garner tells Albin's story as part of a discussion of myth and story and he concludes Albin's tale with this:
... Albin [during the Russian winters] was always in demand among his fellows, because of his drawing skills. At first he supplied the barracks with pin-ups. Then came the first winter, when the Germans were eating dogs, cats, rats and horses. Only one thing was required of Albin: explicit and detailed pornography. By the second winter, the Germans were reduced to boot leather and cannibalism. Yet Albin was still commanded to draw. He had to draw witches, trolls, tree-spirits, dwarfs, ogres, warlocks, goblins: all the creatures of folk-memory. The dying men were crying out for contact with the collective unconscious. They craved myth: the images of everlasting life. At the end, they wanted spiritual truth.
My memory of having read this many years ago was that Albin had drawn "comics" which is not exactly what Garner writes. But close enough. And i find in Albin's experience something powerfully explanatory about my love of comics (and, by extension, all art - though comics hold a unique place in my mind and heart). Did the dying men, in their moment of doom, reach out for what Angela advises us: to see their lives as being lived like a story? Garner plops in the Jungian notion of collective unconscious and that's a fine explanation for things - one i credit with a great deal of meaning. But there is yet something simpler going on - something with which we are all connected as children and which we leave behind in childhood at our peril. The connection to story. For isn't that, for all of us, our first technology of meaning-making? And one that becomes as fundamental to our being as language. Which is to say it is something we can never lose - not as long as we still have the capacity to communicate.

I admit that when i first read Garner's account of Albin, my desire to believe it a true tale was stronger than my actual belief. But then that's kind of how i treat all stories. However, i did come across this obit about Albin Trowsky that apparently confirms what Garner shares. A life lived with story and like a story, indeed.