Sunday, 29 June 2014

All is beautiful

In the 2011 movie, Immortals, John Hurt's Zeus tells the Theseus to mind his rhythm when he fights. The concept of rhythm or periodicity—everything from cadence to static repeating patterns, mutating or regular—is fundamental aesthetics that is hard-wired to the human brain, and most of it is subconscious. It is truly the final arbiter in our acceptance of nature, and the "natural". It is, to me, manna from heaven dividing the insane from the mystical.

Pythagoras is famous for his willingness to kill to try and quell "irrational" numbers where non-repeating, endless expansion of numbers follow a decimal point is the definition, though it is not the psychological "irrationality" but the fact that a given number defies a whole numbers ratio representation. However simply because a number is irrational doesn't mean it has no inner beauty—the analytic and geometric proofs of the square root of 2, the number π, etc. have something of a divinely inspired beauty about them much akin to a landscape that only the mind's eye can perceive.

I personally have spent now literally years exploring the abstract structures of language and am ever on the look out for "new" ways of perceiving—I put quotation marks around the word new because sometimes the old (old English, or reconstructed proto-languages) provide insights not obvious in synchronic analysis alone.

For eg, taking cue from the Gematria (a numerological analysis of Hebrew letters in Jewish mysticism) I came up with a way of numeral coding of morpheme types allowable in Inuit language grammar and I saw beauty never before seen but was always there (a four number sequence, a genetic code of language if you will). -Sounds pretty "far out", doesn't it?

It is nothing less than a pons asinorum of linguistic analysis: impassive, inscrutable without a proper frame of mind, like the monolith in Arthur C Clarke's 2001: a space odyssey.

Having seen and tasted fruit not intended for the vulgar (and I say this in all humility) I join the author of psalm 19:

The heavens declare the glory of God;
    the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech;
    night after night they reveal knowledge.
They have no speech, they use no words;
    no sound is heard from them.
Yet their voice goes out into all the earth,
    their words to the ends of the world.

Jay

Saturday, 28 June 2014

Is the "Christian Right" finally subsiding?

“Nobody is capable of of free speech unless he knows how to use language, and such knowledge is not a gift: it has to learned and worked at.”
-Northrop Frye, The Educated Imagination, p. 93

When I was working as a policy analyst for a Regional Inuit Association I was invited to take part in a series of workshops organized and held by the Curriculum Development Office in Arviat, Nunavut. In one of them I made mention of the need to incorporate the experiences of the students—I think it was after having read Northrop Frye—by way of their favourite music, artists and movies, and was given a book called, Popular Culture: schooling and everyday life (OISE Press, Critical Studies in Education Series, 1989)—an anthology of scholarly essays.

After perceiving a recent series of stunning push-backs against North American right-wing nuttery—in the US and Canada—I went back to the book in hopes of gaining a better understanding of this mass movement that seems to be losing steam rather quickly. A cybernetic interpretation says that it'll resist dying out completely and may mutate into either something resembling vicious Islamic fundamentalism or fracture into cult-like closed communities (a la David Koresh)—we are after all dealing with belief systems of people already prone to and/or inured into conspiracy theories blended with an imperative for ideological "purity".

There is an essay in the book called, Televangelism as Pedagogy and Cultural Politics, by Peter McLaren and Richard Smith (Ch. 8):

The resurgence of the Christian Right in America and Australia and the emergence of of fundamentalist-evangelical television ministers can be seen as a sociohistorical changes in the post-1960s era. Alberoni (1984: 41), in his discussion of social movements, describes the experience which enables people to recognize themselves as having consciousness of kind, and "alternative interpretation of reality" or the "nascent state":

The nascent state is an exploration of the limits of the possible within a given type of social system, in order to maximize the portion of experiences and solidarity which is realizable for oneself and for others at a specific historical moment...[here the authors are quoting Alberoni]

Alberoni argues that the nascent state emerges because of the coincidence of certain structural preconditions and the deliberate intervention of "missionaries, agents, or agitators." The former are those circumstances where single persons and collectivities experience sui generis authentic contradictions between what they desire in everyday and institutional life and what is, so the latter becomes intolerable. (pp. 149-150)

The authors of the essay continue citing Alberoni's contention that the "traditional" middle class ("whose social location lies between the privileged and the exploited") with already "religious" proclivities and disillusioned by the "loss of (positive) traditions"—attributing that "loss" to permissive left-wing progressives—manifests as a(n exclusive) mass social movement. I say it evidences itself as "prosperity" Christianity with branches (within a larger, single "ministry") that cater to different hues of skin colour less denominational affinities. One can see the same stage and back drop behind black-American preachers with black audiences, white-American preachers with white audiences, but under the same corporate logo and uniformity.

Like much of the easy-going, low-key tradition of Canada—fortunately far from centers of change and flash-points that spawn these vicious and destructive feedback loops—the Christian Right here is decidedly ersatz. This is a good thing; the institutions and the larger society in which these are embedded has been graciously afforded the time to reflect upon and learn from the inevitable fallout. Not that Harper and the reformists haven't given the old college try.

Pathetic, really.

The theatrics Harper and his minions pathetically try and employ here are comical at best for the simple fact that they're already obvious and obsolete by the time they hit our shores. Canada is unintentionally cool that way.

At the time of this writing the Mississippi electorate has chosen sanity over militancy and the inappropriately shrill outrages of Harper in his attempts at attacking the long-standing institutions like the Supreme Court of Canada have only resulted in him being put in his place time and again. Canadians are apparently just plain getting tired of and angry with Harper embarrassing himself in every front he's tried to open his ignorant mouth in. The "Christian Right" has lost its initiative.

Jay

Sunday, 22 June 2014

Mistaking the forest for the trees

I had a very interesting dinner conversation with Amaruq yesterday. She brought up something from my blog entry yesterday and alluded to the image of an old adage of mistaking the forest for the trees which I thought was really insightful and helpful and expansive of what I was trying to say.

Our institutions (including the education system) seem especially prone to mistaking the forest for the trees, she said. People are less people than numbers—molded and overflow filed down and edited out by way of neat boiler-plated language that fit "clients" into an arbitrary taxonomic criteria, come hell or high water. In fact, a bureaucracy is a taxonomic scheme gone haywire, apparently in a double-bind by confusing the act of naming and classifying for purpose; the thing-in-itself confused for a means (...to what end? -it dare not answer).

Going back to Amaruq's insightful comments: to a naive person the forest is a messy, chaotic profusion of brush and bramble in need of domesticating influence of a gardener. Forget for the moment that, in its pristine state, it is an indication of health and vitality of biota (plants and animals together); some plants need to be emphasized and exaggerated and some need to be suppressed and eliminated.

Gardening is no more science than bureaucracy is science. Neither can ever be scientific because both are prescriptive not descriptive, and neither are willing nor even capable of reflecting on what end they serve. Both only know the language of interference/disruption and death.

It is the same kind of difference between Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky. Piaget may be likened to the archetypal Victorian: prudish, hypocritical, stuffy and narrow-minded—as in the image the nouveau riche clumsily aspire to, as if "class" can be purchased. Vygotsky, on the other hand, is a real scientist: faithful to describing what he observes, reflective and authentic to his aha! moments.

At the time of this writing, CBS's Sunday Morning is featuring an essay on doodling, not as a folk art form but rather as a mechanism for memory retention and learning. I think they're on to something. I think you've met the type, the type that insists on being stared at (blankly, if need be) while they talk. Have you ever done that? The human face has many distracting aspects during speech; one can only focus on one eye at a time; the mouth is a sphincter; the nostrils flare and stretch and flex, blissfully unaware of how distracting they are to what is actually being said.

Better the speaker observe and gauge the reactions and receptivity of the listener. The human face is beautifully human and authentic when unforced by cultural "niceties" and allowed to focus solely on the social act of listening. The mark of a great teacher and speaker is their attention to the details of the facial and body language cues, not the other way around.

Jay

Saturday, 21 June 2014

Gumption: a missing ingredient in Aboriginal Education(?)

nec tibi quid liceat, sed quid fecisse decebit occurrat; mentemque domet respectus honesti
(consider not what you may do, but what you ought; and let your sense of what is right govern your conduct) - Claudian

Years ago, I read Robert Persig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974). Despite its "new agey" title it is considered an American classic. In it, Persig coins a phrase "gumption trap" that sets the whole story of Phaedrus, a teacher of creative and technical writing who loses his mind, suffers through horrific therapies, but eventually finds his way back to sanity.

A gumption trap is complete loss of confidence brought about by outright "failure" in something where all subsequent inaction is further reinforced by fear of failure. It is a feedback loop that smothers any sense of initiative. Many of us are not unfamiliar with it but aboriginal children seem especially prone to its stultifying effects, especially if the child came into school speaking one language and is expected to learn and assume another to "achieve" some level of acceptance.

I remember one episode where I came in midway through a course on graphs (my attendance in school was rather intermittent, and I've only myself to blame), and I had no idea what I should be doing—to plot a pair of numbers onto the graph—so I just drew a curve as best as I could. The teacher was not amused.

I didn't really understand what he said in anger for the whole class to hear but the sting and embarrassment were real enough. I lost interest in numbers and thought for the longest time that when it came to mathematics I was a complete write-off: turns out there is a whole ocean of difference between arithmetic and mathematics, and where I'm almost completely useless in one I more than make up in the other. I'm no mathematician but I do have an intuitive feel for mathematical thinking. To contemplate mathematically-derived structures have a calming effect on my thinking. There is something spiritual in being able to say: It is thus and could not have been otherwise, and now I know (how and) why.

The apparent lack of achievement in Aboriginal Education is not attributable to the teachers nor the students but the blame lies in the system itself. It is in the very epistemology and teleology of the "iron cage" where the mindless (intentionally designed thus) checking off of its obligations in the process matter more than the actual imparting of knowledge and capability upon the students who are left largely to fend for themselves having acquired coping mechanisms that often puts them in direct conflict with the very people who may want to help them but aren't afforded the time and resources to address the short-falls of the system let alone the personal effects in which these young people find themselves.

A system-wide reset is impossible. But some (even short term) funding arrangements may allow for pockets of calm and thriving even for a short time—hopefully enough time for the teachers and students to transcend the "gumption trap" long enough get to the other side of righteousness.

Jay

Thursday, 19 June 2014

True north strong (and free)

"...they must live within a lie. They need not accept the lie. It is enough for them to have accepted their life with it and in it. For by this very fact, individuals confirm the system, fulfill the system, make the system, are the system"—Václav Havel, The Power of the Powerless, 1978

Remember the first "Gulf War"? I do. I remember the merchandising of the war and wore a baseball cap in irony—irony that was largely lost; one side "thumbs up", the other side feeling it their duty to put me in my place. But I myself lacked the understanding and appreciation of the historicity of events as multi-national corporations saw it, as their well-funded lobbyists saw it. Where is Canada today? Where do these lobbyists want Canada to be?

Every few months, right-wing columnists and commentators offer the tar sands to the oil-hungry, conflict-ridden world—and, nary a word about the oil fields off Newfoundland nor about the liquefied natural gas in BC (those that actually make it to the domesticate market). I guess only the tar sands figure into Harper's image of Canada as the energy superpower.

Never seen a "superpower" exploited like a third world country and raw material resources shipped out and "value-added" economic activities and processing done elsewhere (most probably to be sold back to Canadians). Only third world countries have hitherto thus been exploited.

Any opposition to such unmitigated exploitation is portrayed and attacked as "anti-development" though the federal parties like the Liberals, the NDP, even the Green Party try and point out that they're not against resource development but have issues and concerns about the approval process, which has lost credibility and social license a few omnibus bills later that have seen repeal and outright gutting of environmental and treaty "obstacles". The Harper government tries to shout them down when they bring up how an inevitable environmental disaster would be dealt with—the impression the unwary, the uncritical get is the opposition really are closet Luddites, neanderthals really.

As Havel says, "They need not accept the lie. It is enough for them to have accepted their life with it and in it". No truer words.

The completed co-opting of Canadian institutions reaches its crescendo when corporations are allowed to cynically sell their products (no longer manufactured in Canada, mind) by usurping and editing symbols that are implicitly understood to have been bought by Canadian blood and sacrifice: "...true north strong and free..." has become an empty "true north strong".

This "trapped in a nightmare" -like quality that Havel speaks of in his 1978 monograph is also spoken of by CS Lewis in his Screwtape Letters, in the confusion created by way of a false dichotomy between "real" and "subjective" experiences (letter xxx):

The general rule which we have now pretty well established among them is that in all experiences which can make them happier or better only the physical facts are "Real" while the spiritual elements are "subjective"; in all experiences which can discourage or corrupt them the spiritual elements are the main reality and to ignore them is to be an escapist. Thus in birth the blood and pain are "real", the rejoicing a mere subjective point of view; in death, the terror and ugliness reveal what death "really means". The hatefulness of a hated person is "real"—in hatred you see men as they are, you are disillusioned; but the loveliness of a loved person is merely a subjective haze concealing a "real" core of sexual appetite or economic association.

As a "wanna-be" Christian, (to me, personally) it often comes down to meditating on the "subjective" and the "real". The two are interrelated concepts (indeed, comprise the whole of experience) informed and easily over-ridden by emotional states of being (the negative aspects which Uncle Screwtape wants magnified).

I often do not "feel" I have been saved, often struggle with faith and accepting that the Gospel tells me that Christ our Lord Saviour died on the cross as an atonement and reconciliation. I am here presented with a choice: either I'm informed by my emotional state and cynicism and remain in my naive condition (ie, forever trapped in arrested development); or, I respond and act just as if I were saved by grace, and, therefore, have a certain responsibility to behave in a Christian-like conduct (even if, at that moment, I just wanted to crawl into a hole).

It turns out that spiritual evolution, like political freedom, is an acquired perspective, a maturing process. Truly frightening and soul-wrenching challenges will and do come up. Failures can and do happen, spectacularly sometimes. This is life, writ large after all. Fortunately, these failures (of character and constitution, Screwtape and Big Brother would have us believe) are rarely fatal. And the true measure of our character then becomes whether we give up or not.

What we value or thought we did has to be tested by experience to become "real"—ie, the false dichotomy revealed. Enlightenment is not some drugged-like state of ecstasy but a willingness (a mutable degree of commitment) to work and actualize a perspective.

Jay

Saturday, 14 June 2014

Harpering the rules of a game

When you google "harper as a master strategist" a list of rather unflattering links appear—"unflattering" insofar as mercilessly ridiculing a man who has squandered away the assumed crediblity of a majority government, a man who, it turned out, was just a Wizard of Oz vulnerable to an undoing by a Toto, a man who attained the title "master strategist" by the simple virtue he really was handed the rules of the game for him to re-write rather than earning the epithet through skill and hard work.

Andrew Coyne of Postmedia News (http://o.canada.com/news/harpers-reputation-as-strategist-obscures-his-screwups) provides the most credible overview because many of the search results link to heavily sarcastic websites.

In politics, it is often said that governments aren't brought down by opponents as much as by their own track records, so it was astounding to political junkies in the last Ontario elections when Hudak managed to "snatch defeat out of the jaws of victory". Though it is kind of a stretch to equate federal politics with provincial election results it is rather telling of an electorate to hand over ten seats from an unapologetic Harperite, Hudak, to his opponents, especially in light of the fact that Wynne ran on a platform to spend Ontario out of its economic woes.

One conservative talking head wondered aloud, when a majority Liberal government was projected, whether people are tired of ultra-partisan politics. Very insightful.

Hudak (besides his "honesty") blundered his way through a campaign that promised so much (for his ilk, that is) and what should have been his to win. But I would contend that the truism in politics on how governments are brought down still holds. Hudak made one of his austerity announcements in a factory he tried to deny financial help as the leader of the Ontario opposition (just one of the many blunders).

He took the very playbook perfected by Harper (again, taken from Andrew Coyne's column):

Step one: Fail to gather consensus or anticipate opposition. Step two: Make no effort to disarm or co-opt critics, but antagonize them at every turn. Step three: Attempt to bluster or bully them into submission. Step four: Ignore warnings of imminent collision with reality. Step five: crash and burn. (ibid, Coyne, April 28, 2014)

Jay

Saturday, 7 June 2014

A dialectic of "the savage mind"

Roland Barthes maintained that literary criticism that bases its assessment of text on the biography and political leanings of the author is just plain wrong, that we necessarily bring our own experiences, prejudices and expectations into the interpretation of the text, that the work of literature "mutates" to accommodate the reader rather than the author.

I think the best of political satire tends bears this out (especially This Hour has 22 Minutes in English Canada and Et Dieu créa... Laflaque in Quebec—as per a reliable source, of course, because I myself do not speak French). And so with any good reading and exegeses of the holy text relies on this Barthesian insight where the "author" is deliberately diminished and downplayed in favour of the text itself.

Much of the social theoretic/critical discourse (of all stripes)—or any derivative scholarly work, for that matter—suffers unduly from "giving" the text to the author where ultra-fine distinctions and "original" argumentation rely quite heavily on the pedigree of a given stratagem. Arbitrary gradations of social evolution (pre-; now; post-) are treated as if they were real.

Don't get me wrong; many, if not most, of the thinkers I admire and cite regularly suffer from this Barthesian ailment. It is, after all, very Western to attribute ideas and discoveries to people. Immortality is very important: "long will such and such live on even as so and so is long forgotten..."

I recently went back to Barthes and people he influenced—Jean Baudrillard, in particular—because of a request for technical advice that seemed, on the surface of it, entirely unrelated to what got me thinking of these giants of social criticism.

On the surface of it...unrelated...but the insights of Baudrillard bear heavily on the responses I gave, especially the distinctions he begins to make in his justification for the need to transcend the Marxist criticism of the capitalist productivism (for which he was famous for) by shifting his attention over to Georges Bataille's notion of "symbolic exchange":

The term “symbolic exchange” was derived from Georges Bataille's notion of a “general economy” where expenditure, waste, sacrifice, and destruction were claimed to be more fundamental to human life than economies of production and utility (1988 [1967]). Bataille's model was the sun that freely expended its energy without asking anything in return. He argued that if individuals wanted to be truly sovereign (e.g., free from the imperatives of capitalism) they should pursue a “general economy” of expenditure, giving, sacrifice, and destruction to escape determination by existing imperatives of utility. (http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/baudrillard/)

This fundamental need for freedom as affected by way of symbolic exchange is further justified:

Bataille and Baudrillard presuppose here a contradiction between human nature and capitalism. They maintain that humans “by nature” gain pleasure from such things as expenditure, waste, festivities, sacrifices, and so on, in which they are sovereign and free to expend the excesses of their energy (and thus to follow their “real nature”). The capitalist imperatives of labor, utility, and savings by implication are “unnatural,” and go against human nature.

Baudrillard argues that the Marxian critique of capitalism, by contrast, merely attacks exchange value while exalting use value and thus utility and instrumental rationality, thereby “seeking a good use of the economy.” For Baudrillard:
Marxism is therefore only a limited petit bourgeois critique, one more step in the banalization of life toward the ‘good use’ of the social! Bataille, to the contrary, sweeps away all this slave dialectic from an aristocratic point of view, that of the master struggling with his death. One can accuse this perspective of being pre- or post-Marxist. At any rate, Marxism is only the disenchanted horizon of capital — all that precedes or follows it is more radical than it is (1987: 60).
(ibid, Douglas Kellner, 2007)

My take on this insight is that we need not go so far as invoking "expenditure, giving, sacrifice, and destruction to escape determination by existing imperatives of utility"; or, "the master struggling with his death"—for these are rather too abstract and heroic for practical application in the here and now. The differences between "pre-" and "post-industrial" societies (ie, the "savage" and the "civilized") is really not a difference in kind but degree—one is totally inculcated and resigned to Weber's "iron cage" while the other yet struggles with and resists the alienation and the dehumanizing effects of a rational-legalistic structures and institutions of the modern world, and to whom society comprises still of individuals and human relations (ie, of symbolic exchange). Where grief and "cultural" clashes occur is this difference of frames of reference.

This, I think, is what Baudrillard and Bataille are intimating though I doubt they've made explicit enough and clearly prescribe for their thoughtful diagnosis.

Jay