Tuesday, 27 December 2011

String Theory and the demise of Civilization

I have a book written by one of the scientific minds I admire, Lee Smolin, called, The Trouble with Physics (2006). In it, he speaks of the long lull in which particle physics slumbers, that not much novel thought has been advanced since the 1930's. He is critical of string theory in that it has no real experimentally-verifiable claims, nor does it offer any suggestions of its emperical veracity. And yet string theory has been able to assert an unhealthy monopoly over the theoretical discourse (which bases our modern technological advances) - "unhealthy" because it is like that proverbial pied piper which drowns out almost all voices of dissension/reason with its ghostly tune of hidden dimensions and multifarious modes of M.

I've been reading Confidence Men by Ron Suskind (2011) who talks about the rise of "financial engineers" in almost direct proportion to the demise of the manufacturing sector of North America, the demise of the "prudent man". -the "prudent man" is actually a US legal standard from a 1800's landmark decision called Harvard College v. Armory from a case in which a money manager squandered a widow's inheritance. The "prudent man" established that a fiduciary duty applies to investors who must invest assets of a trust as a "prudent man" might his own money (Suskind, p. 539).

Suskind, like Smolin, paints a picture of hyper-abstraction and overly complicated math and logic overtaking and overwhelming hard-won results of knowledge and plunder of its wealth and prudence (ie, not ideological conservatism because neither science nor economics is defined by dogmatic thinking but both are, in fact, fed by the ineffable human spirit of discovery).

Smolin's criticisms of string theories (for there are at least five under the rubric of M-theory (what it is no one really knows)), like Suskind's telling of Capitalism's sad narrative of wandering in the wilderness and losing its way in pursuit of mirages points to something of a collapse of systems of thought under the weight of mindless pursuit of vain-glory (dilettantism, really) and demogoguery, of swine's ears' transmutation into silk purses, of magical thinking trumping rationality and hard work.

The time scales differ but in the nights of book burning Goebbels is said to have made speeches about burning the past and of a "new" culture arising like a phoenix from the ashes, which is much like the greed of Wall Street wanting deregulation and repealing of financial safe-guards; much like the jealousy and mysticism of string theories over "old school" particle physics, that which likes to portray itself as a 24th century framework in the 20th century. At any rate, both views seem very much averse to verification, and, in fact, see such things as hampering their flights of fancy.

Quoting Suskind:

"What was happening was that Volcker was struggling to overlook the demonstrable facts: that by passing over him and his like-minded kindred for top Treasury and White House posts, Obama had shown his preference, one quite different from Volcker's, on almost all these issues. The president's preference, Volker felt, was 'first, do no harm' - a phrase he'd heard often in 1980, when he began to pinch off the money supply. The 'do no harm' school, he said, 'always sounds reasonable' in that it calls for delay, until matters worsen to the point 'where there'll be consensus that we need to act in a forceful way. But you never get that consensus, because many of the actors, the institutions and so forth, will follow their own self-interests right off the cliff.' Every policy of consequence, meanwhile, is going to 'do some harm, short term - something government, mind you, can and should help cushion.' But there's no other way 'to create the larger good, something you look back on with pride.'

That idea of accomplishment, something you could be proud of, reminded him of a breakfast he'd gone to a few months before that had helped him 'see things more clearly, even at my age.' It was a breakfast of 'right-thinking citizens' who were worried about the crumbling infrastructure in the country.

'At the end of the breakfast, this old gray-haired old man says, 'I know something about this. I'm a professor of civil engineering at Princeton. And I was up at Yale the other day and they've given up teaching civil engineering. There are just two old geezers like me up at Harvard, and once they're gone that'll be it. There's hardly an elite university in the United States that pays attention to civil engineering. What's the result? We hardly know how to build bridges; they tend to fall down. It's cost twice as much to build that new bridge across the Potomac as it would cost if it was built in Europe...I assure you, I know...and besides our bridges are ugly and theirs are beautiful.'" (pp. 535-356)

I knew a person who was really into Peter Drucker and the notions of the "new" information age and the shift from manufacturing and real assets to "services industry" and the "knowledge worker". What always struck me as so much "building bridges in the air" about Drucker, and, in fact, the whole ISO Standards movement for that matter, is the cult of the consultant much like the cult of the pop psychologists who sell snake oil and psuedo-Freudian psychology to the gullible and novelty seeker, the unsatisfied with self and reality. I just didn't have the language or framework for my initial impressions, though I've been reading about it in various sources like Hermann Hesse's Magister Ludi and Max Weber's works.

Truly, this is the "age of feuilleton"*, a secular gematria of pop cultural icons by corporatist consent.


*In Hesse's novel, viewed retrospectively from a future scholarly society (Castalia) this age, so called, is generally but not simply portrayed as having an overweening, trivializing, or obfuscating character associated with the arbitrary and primitive nature of social production prior to the historical denouement which resulted in the creation of Castalia. The bourgeois Feuilleton of the Belle Epoque, particularly France of the Dreyfus Affair period, and those of Fascist Germany, characteristic of the genre, served to effect Kulturpolitik and above all to establish norms, tastes, and form effective social identity, in particular expressing a underlying antisemitism. Glasperlenspiel was written during WWII and Hesse would have been reacting in part to these real historical developments. (Wikipedia entry)

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Literacy, Translation and Technical Issues to Consider to promote literacy in Nunavut

I've always been fascinated - nay, mesmerized - by patterns in language and expression of beautiful thoughts and ideas made possible by the human language. I don't remember exactly when and how I learned how to read but everyday of my life involves some reading (whether for work or for pleasure or both) and I feel incomplete without words to read. I love reading, and I love creative and technical writing.

When I taught adult students recently an English Writing Lab, I tried to impart some techniques for reading and writing: to find and imagine a voice when you read (for example, for Plato's Apology, I imagine Anthony Hopkins' voice when reading Socrates' words); when I write I do the same and imagine - lately - Glen Gould's voice when I write for pleasure. Finding and imagining a voice purposefully makes the process of reading and writing much easier (and pleasurable).

The best way to contrast well- and poorly- written and delivered text (for those who watch and listen to CBC) is to analyse and contrast Rex Murphy's blunt force pedantry with Glen Gould's surgical-precision pedantry (I love Gould). Murphy writes overwhelmingly large words for the simple sake of showing-off and he apparently gives no thought to how he sounds to his audience, while Gould crafted his writing like he practiced his piano - with mathematic precision and elegance where every note and cadence is placed deliberately within the context of the architectured whole. -In fact, Gould experimented with the spoken voice as a musical composition (which I found a bit cacophonic, but I digress).

As a translator and thinker on education and language, I've experimented with the notion of translating classical literature into Inuktitut, and actually have made more than a few attempts with Shakespeare, Orwell, St. Exupery, etc. but not only that; I've also experimented with mathematical concepts and physics and chemistry (most scientific concepts are beautiful and their basic principles simple enough for children of 7 years to grasp, if not actually solve).

My aippakuluk, Danielle, brought home recently a book that I'm enjoying immensely. It is called, Will in the World: how Shakespeare became Shakespeare, by Stephen Greenblatt. While reading it I began going back to my contemplations on Inuktitut translation of the classics and the technical issues that one should consider in such an exercise.

Consider freeform verse:

Herein lies the path thru Orchard
A walk that requires no action
A thought that needs no thinker

Herein lies the path to illumine
A path to edify:
Seek ye me
And you’ll see only a simple man

How can I put this:
It’s my never-ending trek thru Hell
I realize I’m walking 'round in circles
And that is my curse:
My awareness and freewill

This type of poetry is the easiest form to write in and the lyrical form of popular music tends to follow this loose, easy-going structure (though I've never been able to master the lyric form, I love and enjoy well-written songs). The music and lyrics of Sume (a Greenlandic rock band from the 1970s) are examples of Inuit masters of the lyric form.

Now consider the Shakespearean sonnet form (that I composed for my aippakuluk, D):

if I were master of space and time between us
I would not change the place nor the second when we met
like notes in measured music on the clef in sequence
I would mark the beat with my heart and bated breath
if I should touch one strand of hair and leave the rest untouched
our lives would change but play their fugue most sad
the snow beneath our feet would then not squish and crunch
and we would be but ghostly memories our love ne’er had
I would not tempt my God nor fate the hour
should He or She or It forget a beat
and I should end my days insane and cower
in darkness with only a candle for warmth and heat
a thousand lifetimes I will endure and live
in hope that my heart your love will give

The English sonnet form (there are other sonnet forms, like Italian) is more rigidly structured than freeform, and requires a bit more thought to compose. It has this basic structure: abab cdcd efef gg. Shakespeare's sonnets are beautiful not only in imagery and notion but in its basic form as well, which provides its structural beauty.

Now, consider this excerpt from Christopher Marlowe's Tamburlaine:

Nature that framed us of four elements
Warring within our breasts for regiment
Doth teach us all to have aspiring minds
Our souls whose faculties can comprehend
The wondrous architecture of the world
And measure every wand'ring planet's course
Still climbing after knowledge infinite
And always moving as the restless spheres
Wills us to wear ourselves and never rest
Until we reach the ripest fruit of all
That perfect bliss and sole felicity
The sweet fruition of an earthly crown (Tamburlaine: 2.7.18-29)

Here the words do not rhyme but there is still a structure. Spoken, there is something aesthetically pleasing about it even if we do not know what and how the structure is affected. Here I imagine the voice of one of my good friends, Kalman, whose voice I love hearing as he reads poetry for his friends. I've asked him many times to read one of the poems I love the most: "Kubla Khan, or, A Vision in a Dream: A Fragment" by Coleridge.

Anyhoo, here is what Stephen Greenblatt writes of the excerpt above:

"The actor in Shakespeare would have perceived what was powerful in [Edward] Alleyn's interpretation of Tamburlaine, but the poet in him understood something else: the magic that was drawing audiences did not reside entirely in the actor's fine voice, nor even in the hero's daring vision of the blissful object at which he lunges, the earthly crown. The hushed crowd was already tasting Tamburlaine's power in the unprecedented energy and commanding eloquence of the play's blank verse - the dynamic flow of unrhymed five-stress, ten syllable lines - that the author, Christopher Marlowe, had mastered for the stage. This verse, like the dream of what ordinary speech would be like were human beings something greater than they are, was by no means only bombast and bragging. Its appeal lay in its own 'wondrous architecture': its subtle rhythmes, the way in which a succession of monosyllables suddenly flowers into the word 'aspiring,' the pleasure of hearing 'fruit' become 'fruition.'"

As a linguist, translator and connoisseur of well-expressed language, I find and appreciate that tension between form and content when I read, write or translate (interestingly, there is an additional tension in translation not only between form and content but also conceptual meaning). Inuktitut, like all human languages, has this great creativity and flexibility that is not immediately obvious (and, therefore, under-appreciated by most) but whose key to unlock that great creativity and flexibility lies in understanding its underlying form. Marlowe's discoveries in Elizabethan England showed us the possibilities, that vista of infinite possibilities that should not be denied Inuit children for the simple fact of ignorance and prejudice.

Gould appreciated this fact in ways that Rex Murphy apparently does not. Gould's pedantry was simply beautiful the way Murphy's is not. Having and deliberately cultivating this mastery of underlying forms of the human language has unimaginable power and grace, and makes that small but significant difference between Murphy on the one hand and Gould on the other.


Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Some suggested Inuktitut terms for math concepts

I'm a translator/linguist/student of Inuktitut. I was assigned translation work recently on documents that have to do with math curriculum. Below are a list of terms that I started doing up that I wanted to share with my readers and hopefully initiate discussion on what the Inuit Language Authority should be doing to create lexicons and technical glossary of terms that are structured in such a way as to be grammatically productive (ie, phrases that aren't just constructs that try and describe something, but start with noun and verb stems that can attach morphemes, and case/mood endings without losing their grammatical/conceptual integrity such as what proper Inuktitut phrases do naturally).

Fractions = ᐃᓗᐃᑦᑐᒥᑦ ᐊᒡᒍᖅᓯᒪᔪᑦ = divided from a whole

Trigonometry = ᑲᐃᕙᓪᓛᔪᓕᕆᓂᖅ = (measurement/science of) rotation*

hypotenuse = ᐅᕕᖓᓂᖓ (slope)

adjacent = ᑐᓐᖓᕕᖓ (base)

opposite = ᐳᖅᑐᓂᖓ (height)

*I try and make the term as general/analytical as possible – at least, more general than the “science of triangles” – at the first instance because it goes beyond “triangles”, and has deep connections to other math concepts. To quote a Wikipedia entry: “Sumerian astronomers introduced angle measure, using a division of circles into 360 degrees. They and their successors the Babylonians studied the ratios of the sides of similar triangles and discovered some properties of these ratios, but did not turn that into a systematic method for finding sides and angles of triangles. The ancient Nubians used a similar methodology. The ancient Greeks transformed trigonometry into an ordered science. Classical Greek mathematicians (such as Euclid and Archimedes) studied the properties of chords and inscribed angles in circles, and proved theorems that are equivalent to modern trigonometric formulae, although they presented them geometrically rather than algebraically.”

ᐃᓚᒋᐊᕈᑎ = addition

ᐃᓚᓐᖓᐃᔾᔪᑎ = subtraction

ᐱᕈᕆᐊᕈᑎ = multiplication

ᐊᒡᒍᐃᔾᔪᑎ = division

ᓈᓴᐅᑏᑦ ᓈᓴᐃᔾᔪᑏᑦ = integers = counting numbers

ᓈᓴᐅᑏᑦ ᓴᓂᒧᑦ ᐃᓚᒋᐊᕈᑎᓖᑦ = decimals = numbers whose parts are represented horizontally

ᓈᓴᐃᑏᑦ ᖁᕝᕙᕆᐊᕈᑎᖏᑦ = exponents = raising numbers

ᖁᐊᔾᔪᓕᒃ = triangle

ᓈᓴᐃᓂᕐᒧᑦ ᐃᓕᐅᖅᑲᐃᔾᔪᑏ = equations = places to input numbers

ᓴᓂᒧᑦ ᐊᒻᒪ ᑐᑭᒧᑦ ᓈᓴᐅᑎᓕᖅᓯᒪᔪᓂᒃ ᑭᑉᐹᕆᒃᑐᖅ = Cartesian plane

ᐅᕕᖓᓂᖓᑕ ᐳᖅᑐᓂᖓ = sine

ᑐᓐᖓᕕᖓᑕ ᑕᑭᓂᖓ = cosine

ᐅᕕᖓᓂᖓᑕ ᓄᕗᖓ = tangent

ᐅᕕᖓᓂᖓ ᑐᖔᓃᑦᑐᖅ = acute angle = the hypotenuse below the right angle

ᐅᕕᖓᓂᖓ ᑐᑭᒨᖓᓪᓗᐊᖅᑐᖅ = right angle = the hypotenuse at exact right angle

ᐅᕕᖓᓂᖓ ᐅᖓᑖᓃᑦᑐᖅ = obtuse angle = the hypotenuse over the right angle

ᐅᕕᖓᓂᖓ ᑲᐃᕙᓪᓚᐃᓐᖏᑐᐃᓐᓇᖅᑐᖅ = reflex angle = the hypotenuse that doesn’t quite rotate the whole 360º

I hope the Inuktitut syllabics show... The point here is not to create unilaterally but to initiate a starting point for serious discussions on terms/concepts to agree upon (ie, "standardize") and strike conventions for nomenclature in a logically productive way. -you'll notice that most of these terms have to do with "trigonometry"...


Thursday, 1 December 2011

Harper's government sings on the small needle

David Hilbert, one of the original and colourful minds of higher Maths, (1862-1943), is said to have loved music (like most mathematically inclined minds) and would always play his phonographs as loud as possible by choosing the largest needle. Upon hearing Caruso, an Italian tenor, sing live the disappointed Hilbert is said to remark that: "Caruso sings on the small needle."

Since coming into power upon promises of "fixing" government, Harper and his minions when confronted by difficult and controversial issues seem more intent upon pointing out the the previous governments (ie, the Liberals and, more quietly, the Tories) did the exact same thing rather than displaying political acumen and smarts (originality) that Harper's even sometimes dullardly predecessors were known to have flashes of in the most trying of times.

To quote Chretien: "If military action [in Iraq] is launched without a new [UN] resolution, Canada will not participate." and rather than overtly shutting things out on the issue of, again, Iraq and its weapons of mass destruction: "I don't know... A proof is a proof. What kind of a proof? It's a proof. A proof is a proof, and when you have a good proof, it's because it's proven."

John A MacDonald: "Let us be English or let us be French . . . and above all let us be Canadians."

John Diefenbaker: "Freedom is the right to be wrong, not the right to do wrong... Freedom includes the right to say what others may object to and resent... The essence of citizenship is to be tolerant of strong and provocative words."

The underlying stream in all of these disparate sources have something of self-respect and extending the reality of differences and debate as a means of negotiating political living arrangements for people of differing opinions rather than declaring open war. There is a certain level of decorum, an appeal to "tradition" and "conventional wisdom", a certain authenicity and empathy for freedoms and rights of all, a certain level of mature sanity and thoughtful cautious regard for our political traditions. (as an aboriginal, I truly believe in the Westminster model and regard our present circumstances as rather more reflective of Canada's level of evolution than the mechanism's short-coming)

With Harper and the neo-cons there is little or no regard for liberal tolerations that has been Canada's political climate since its inception, imperfect as it is and was, with its suggested and practical promises to become better and more humane, to develop and evolve into higher forms.

Harper and his minions are baser forms of consciousness - anti-intellectual, easily made defensive and vitriolic - completely taken in by their own disguises. There is an immaturity and narcissism of Shakespeare's Count Malvolio in Harper: "O peace! Contemplation makes a rare turkey-cock of him: how he jets under his advanced plumes!" (II, 5, 1059) "O peace! Now he's deeply in. Look how imagination blows him." (II, 5, 1070) - Twelfth Night


Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Attawapiskat and the Aboriginal Service Industry

Aside from the despicable display of complete lack of empathy for fellow human beings on the part of the neo-cons as epitomized by Harper's partisan reaction to questions in the House of Commons, much has been made and said about the supposed oodles of money - $7 billion dollars, $90 million dollars, $300+ million from De Beers for the construction of the diamond mine - giving the impression that Aboriginals are swimming in money. This is just perversed and wrong.

Just as we never (or hardly ever) see the $illion dollars of our public health care system (where is that money, Canada?), much is the same truth with the money that is supposedly going to the people of Attawapiskat. Not only that, aboriginal communities usually have no choice but to lapse funding because they simply do not meet the criteria and/or funding arrangements set by bureaucrats in Ottawa, so it was not surprising to hear that the Attawapiskat housing had "surplus" of paltry $50,000 in their accounts when so much is going so wrong there.

The Aboriginal service industry - at $7 billion and change every year - should be made to account for the federal dollars spent on administration and active neglect and abandonment of duty: how much is spent in Ottawa itself; how much of it lapses because of airy-fairy criteria that no reasonable Canadian would ever accept as fair (well, maybe the teaser rates and weaselese fine print used by banks and financial institutions to swindle their money is roughly cognate to our chagrin and frustration with governments). Anyhoo, the money looks and feels real enough on paper, but look at our sad history! What is going here?

Then there are capacity issues (in both management and program design and delivery). Our academic achievement rates are directly commensurate with our participation rates in health, criminal justice and welfare systems - something about the father-knows-best and stultifying mothering instinct of distant power structures and their attendant bureaucracies (who are usually non-aboriginal even here in Nunavut, and, sadly, in Greenland as well - the Inuit Nunaat most Inuit envy) who think our lot of poverty and squalor is natural. Something happens to even the best of missionaries who soon forget when they come up here our humanity and rightful citizenship in this great country of our's and all that it supposedly entails. It's as if the recognition of our humanity would be too much to ask.

Harper's alienated reaction is sadly typical when questions of neglect and sin by omission are raised, but what strikes even us fellow aboriginals is that things got so bad in Attawapiskat even the International Red Cross had to intervene while our nation's leader and leadership continue to play the blame game.

Where is all that money? I would bet there are 1.3 bureaucrats for every single aboriginal at the federal and provincial/territorial levels. Do the math. Aboriginals do not run things let alone decide where money goes and how it's spent - all of this is done at the top where big "P" policies and programs are set. Think a couple of summers ago when Harper's government spent a quarter of a million dollars to tell some aboriginal community they had no money for the construction of a school.


Saturday, 26 November 2011

Weber's "iron cage" and Mill's "tyranny of opinion"

John Stuart Mill, one of the great philosophers of liberalism, warned that democratic societies' Achilles heel was the risk of creating a "tyranny of opinion" in which dessentient voices are quelled by the irresistible need to conform with "majority" views and interests. This "need to conform" is very much reminiscent with Weber's warning of the "iron cage" of rationalized interests and the disenchantment of the world.

In an uncanny moment of prophetic insight, Weber could just as well have written about our times of climate change and the bankruptcy of moral/ethical coffers of the Corporation in the lines below (in talking about the Protestant work ethic, which he viewed as the motive force behind the industrial revolution and expansionism):

"This order is now bound to the technical and economic conditions of machine production which today determine the lives of all the individuals who are born into this mechanism, not only those directly concerned with economic acquistion, with irresistible force. Perhaps it will so determine them until the last ton of fossilized coal is burnt. In Baxter's view the care of external goods should only lie on the shoulders of the 'saint like a light cloak, which can be thrown aside at any moment.' But fate decreed that the cloak should become an iron cage." (page 181, 1953 Scribner's edition)

Though the two commentators on human societies were not contemporaries, and their impulse to write what they wrote were not the same at all, what one saw in the yet "enchanted world" the dangers of an uninformed and disengaged lay-populace's will to conform to majority views, the other saw the exact mechanisms of how this need to conform could and would be used/abused to serve the interests of any state/corporation bent on acquisition of political and economic power.

The "enchanted world" of religiosity which was the Victorian England informed Mill's ideas on economics and sociology. Alan Ryan writes:

"[Mill] thought Britain was socially oppressive in ways European countries mostly were not. He also thought that political tyranny was less of a problem in Britain than elsewhere in Europe; torture and corruption were not a British problem. In Britain, however, it had become clear that the rise of democracy - in this wide sense - was compatible with new forms of oppression, and these were consistent with the rule of law and an absence of political violence. Mill was at pains to remind his readers that he was writing about a new phenomenon, the rise of public opinion...

We should not exaggerate the unpolitical character of these thoughts. Mill's concern was with social conformity, but he saw that a government dominated by public opinion could hardly do other than enact public prejudice into law. If the public were to become agitated about the expression of anti-religious views, for instance, employees might find themselves sacked by employers who disliked their views; they would have a difficult time in court when judges and juries discounted evidence not given under an oath sworn on the Bible... ...All these things in fact happened regularly in Victorian England. The modern reader can substitute sexual, racial or ethnic prejudice in such examples." (xxvi to xxvii, Introductory notes, Ryan, Penguin Classics, 2006)

I would also include "socio-economic class" in our current political/economic climate, which the Occupy Movement is struggling to bring to the fore of our collective conscience. The insidious nature of this form of oppression is that it determines as within the pale "the lives of all the individuals who are born into this mechanism" (ie, the middle-class (the largest sector of society) is economically/ideologically locked into, compelled by the interests of State/Corporation which often has gag orders built into employment contracts in "iron-clad" terms to preclude any hints of dissent from "malcontents" and "misfits"). Sad but true: the Occupy Movement is failing for these very reasons.

It wasn't that long ago when writers like Kurt Vonnegut could say that they (Americans of his generation) grew up believing in the American Constitution and the civil society it promises. Things have gotten so bad in the Western World that our legislatures can now seriously consider the possibility that pizza might be a vegetable; that dangerous and unproven pharmaceuticals can be sold legally to Canadians without regulatory constraints while testing and proving take a back seat to corporate interests (tests are lagging behind up to two years from sales and availability - Health Canada officials suggest, disingenuously, that thousands of drugs come into market every year and they can't keep up!) - in fact, pick any corporate interest and surely you'll find a disconcerting loop-hole to go with it; that war-mongering is diplomacy; that corrupt politicians are normal for our democracies; and, that people who are poor have no one to blame but themselves.

Is this democracy? No. It is more like a backwater tribal land where the rule of law and decorum is determined by the powerful few who quell and oppress the many through ignorance and fear of the "unknown" (ie, rational superstitions).


Monday, 21 November 2011

The Inscrutable Stephen Harper?

I just read a piece in The Globe & Mail by Gerald Caplan entitled, Inscrutable Stephen Harper Baffles the Pundits. Here is the link: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/politics/second-reading/gerald-caplan/inscrutable-stephen-harper-baffles-the-pundits/article2168878/

where it talks about the many baffling, perplexing facts of Harper's tenure and his style of party leadership: fixing things that need no fixing; ignoring issues of importance; snubbing any and all "democratic" processes and accepted conventional wisdom.

I think his agenda is simple: to distract and divert attention from environmental, energy and other national/international policies/treaties that need public discussion in order to keep the policy environment at the federal level amenable to corporate interests. To wit: he has slowly distanced himself and the Government of Canada from international bodies like the UN, the Kyoto Protocol, the Rotterdam Convention, etc. Why?

There was a piece recently on CBC National about the Canadian mining companies in the third world countries where human rights are regularly violated and violent government crackdowns on any opposition to their interests are allowed to happen without any threat of legal action here in Canada. There is also growing criticisms by international and US policing agencies that Canada doesn't investigate let alone prosecute "white collar" crimes in Canada and allegations of corruption of other countries' laws.

The militarization of Canada's foreign policies, some expert warned recently, will only bring grief to Canada, which has always and up-to-now, had peace-making and diplomatic resolution to international crises as its philosophical directive. This militarization opens Canada to threats that never existed before. If Canada continues down this path I'm afraid "the threat of 'Islamicism'" is a self-fulfilling prophesy that only private security companies and the military-industrial complex (which our energy sector belongs) can benefit from.


Saturday, 19 November 2011

The meaning of "responsible government"

Do you remember that Canadian Heritage Moment clip on "responsible government"? If you haven't seen the clip here is a link: http://www.histori.ca/minutes/minute.do?id=10141

One of the books I'm reading right now is John Stuart Mill's, On Liberty, that has got me thinking on many different issues but most importantly on how, in my view, the Western public institutions have slowly but surely been hi-jacked by monied lobbyists and corporate interests, to wit: how the deliberate absence of good public policies is being used against the long-term interests and sustainability of our Western democracies.

What I'm referring to here are examples like politicians in the US and insider trading piece that I saw recently in one of American investigative reportage tv shows (I forget which); the lack of a national energy policy in Canada (the oil companies in Alberta have an ideological allergy to the word "policy" and prefer "strategy" instead, but they would like it better if there was no discussion what-so-ever on the issue) and the "crisis" brought about by Obama's decision to hold off on a decision on the Keystone xl pipeline project; the deregulation of air travel safety in the interest of cost-saving initiatives at the federal level; the second- and third- chances for envornmental impact reviews of resource extraction like BC's prosperity mines; the perpetual inaction on the third world conditions in most aboriginal communities (provinces say that it is the federal gov't's responsibility and the fed.s say it is a provincial matter, while both suggest that the aboriginal issue is a fiscal black-hole); etc. etc.

John Stuart Mill talked about "oppression" through [unexamined] public opinion. I put "unexamined" here because I think he also suggested that "public opinion" itself is not an evil but the type that is not open to public debate and challenge. The lack of discourse on a national policy on energy is an example of a creeping in of sleep-walking through public policy by default. NDP sent its representatives to Washington but the neo-cons raised cain saying that NDP has no right to represent Canada on the matter - these "anti-pipeline, eco-socialist-nutcases". The NDP took pains to point out that it is not anti-pipeline but that the discussion should include and be side-by-side with "green energy" policy considerations.

Mill suggests rightly that the tyrannical impulse is best kept in check by active engagement in the political discourse not the silencing of divergent and dissenting voices: "The steady habit of correcting and completing his own opinion by collating it with those of others, so far from causing doubt and hesitation in carrying it into practice, is the only stable foundation for a just reliance on it: for, being cognizant of all that can, at least obviously, be said against him, and having taken his position against all gain-sayers -- knowing that he has sought for objections and difficulties, instead of avoiding them, and has shut out no light which can be thrown upon the subject from any quarter -- he has a right to think his judgement better than that of any person, or any multitude, who have not gone through a similar process."

I think that public policies, especially of a "responsible government" as Canada's, deserve the same considerations as what a "wise person" actively subjects his thoughts and opinions to as above. The Harper government is a dangerous development in Canadian politics, the same as the rise of the Tea Party in the US, not because it is, in its own eyes, "militaristic", and "exceptional" and "privileged" in its place in history but because for the self-same reasons of tyrannical and oppressive opinions that is a corporate bubble of reality, self-justifying and self-reinforcing as it is. Even the catholic church "the most intolerant of churches" has a "devil's advocate" in the canonization of its saints: "The holiest of men, it appears, cannot be admitted to posthumous honours, until all that the devil could say against him is known and weighed."


Thursday, 17 November 2011

The need to revisit perennial questions

I've been thinking a lot about what the Occupy Movement actual means. I mean, not in the sense of ring-wing dismissive attitude, but, clearly, this is part of a historical process (perhaps in the sense of that much-used and abused phraseology: A Decline and Fall of...), and, as such, requires of us some reflection and thoughtful contemplation of what it means to be part of the human community in these (again, much-used phrase) times of trouble and unrest.

As an observer of social and political development here in Nunavut, I've always tried to advocate for thoughtful exploration of open-ended questions like, "Am I my brother's keeper?"; "What does it mean to be a responsible humanist?"; even, "Who's gonna drive you home tonight?" - to quote an old Cars song. As a lover of classical literature, I think there is much that these types of open-ended questions have to offer even if the challenge of answering them is a highly subjective process and their beauty is that there is no one right way of answering them other than involving and engaging others to explore them with you. They do not so much as answer definitively as inform our decisions so that we may account for and justify truthfully these difficult challenges of public policy.

I've also started reading the introductory analysis of John Stuart Mill's essays: On Liberty and The Subjection of Women which brought up some issues that I think are worth discussing: the question of what is "healthy", "informed" public opinion vs "oppressive" and "coercive" public opinion; what is the difference between "happiness" (ie, not the emotional type but as a state of being qua American Constitution) and "just" social responsibility; is the notion and practical consequence of "conformity" same as being a "law-abiding" citizen; is there such a thing as a "progressive" human nature, and, if so, what is the role and responsibility of legitimate government in ensuring that our public policies do not shut out future possibilities of discourse.

To quote the editor of Penguin Classics' John Stuart Mill, Alan Ryan, I think political thought such as what right-wing ideology and corporatist bureaucracies (such as what we have in Nunavut) entail should be made to answer and justify its imperative to "revolutionize" by repeal and deregulation of policies intended to safe-guard our political openness and undue hinderance and manipulation of social development thus:

"...that the mere fact that we do not like what someone else thinks and says is no reason for us to stifle him. This is the familiar liberal view that it is the hearer's business whether or not to take offence at what someone else says or thinks. Mill's aim was to prevent the 'likings and mislikings' of society being made the basis of what we all may say and think; insisting that those who wish to restrict other persons' behaviour should show what damage they will suffer if they do not get their way is of the essence. As Jefferson asked, 'what harm does it do me if my neighbour believes in sixteen gods or none?'"


"We need freedom of speech and thought not just to discover new truths about external reality, but also to discover new truths about what we might do with our lives. Because human beings and human nature itself change over time, we must keep the door open for new insights."

These are things and possibilities not afforded us (aboriginals) here in our own country, and as long as this prevails, it will be a black eye and true shame of Canada. Even more so, when the Westminster model of Canada allows for diversity and depth of political views, the neo-conservatives try and present other political parties as "socialists" of dictatorial/totalitarian persuasion rather than legitimate political parties worthy to partake in the Canadian discourse.


Which came first: the chicken or the egg?

The NDP MP for Winnipeg, Pat Martin, tweeted yesterday about the disdainful act of the Harper government shutting down debate yet again on their budget, using colourful words to show his frustration with Harperism: prorogation to forego democratic process in the interest of asserting arbitrary power, this with a majority in the House.

Going by the comments from readers in the Globe and Mail website, I'd say that Mr. Martin is not the only one who's frustrated with the demise of due process in the exercise of our "democratic" institutions. Almost all of the feedback emphatically empathizes with Martin's frustration. http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/politics/ndp-mp-stands-by-f-bomb-in-face-of-tory-clampdown-on-debate/article2239433/

The neo-cons are trying to paint Pat Martin as an aberration. Though, I'm somewhat dismayed by how far the political discourse has degenerated during Harper's watch, I completely understand where Pat Martin is coming from. He is standing up not only for Winnipeg but for all our rights which are not only theoretical ideals but require vigilance and on-going engagement from all of us to stay real.

Kudos to Pat Martin.


Never explain, never apologize?

Ever heard of this maxim of the powerful: Never explain, never apologize? It is what the people of power (advisors, bureaucrats, whole corporations, etc.) live by in the Inuit-government relations. Most Inuit advocates do not seem to know it, and when it impacts upon their work they start second-guessing themselves and their policy positions rather than hunkering down. It is because Inuit have this other philosophy that is the diametric opposite of "never explain, never apologize": that people in power are there to look after the interests of the community.

Marcus Aurelius said: "If someone can prove me wrong and show me my mistake in any thought or action, I shall gladly change. I seek the truth, which never harmed anyone: the harm is to persist in one's own self-deception and ignorance." This is pretty close to IQ philosophy.

The Occupy Movement is bumping against the unbudging "never explain, never apologize" philosophy. This unyielding position will not change as evidenced in the so-called Arab Spring. I'd say that the Tea Party movement of the right-wing was itself hi-jacked by the "never explain, never apologize" corporatism. Oh bitter-sweet irony. But if you dance with the devil you have to pay the price.

Someone will always find ways to benefit from political unrest and conflict like flies that feed on shit. The multi-national corporations thrive in such environment for their whole outlook tends to be that scarcity is a cash cow whose udders is a gift that keeps on giving. It requires a common enemy, a scape-goat, someone to demonize. This is unnatural for such a gregarious, social beings as humans. The "never explain, never apologize" worms would have us believe this is "social Darwinism" at work and is a natural state of humanity. But I ask you: are the Libyans, the Iraqis, the third world 99% really our enemies, our dehumanized inferiors, our cross to bear? Is China the frenemy? I don't know these individuals, and they have never given me cause to hate them.

When it comes right down to it, the high and noble ideals of the West prove just hollow, empty words - double-speak at worst, usurped and raped by the powerful interests who are by definition without nation-state allegiance. "Never explain, never apologize" is held by the venal in consonant search of conflicts to manage and profit from. Flies never complain about decaying corpses and shit holes. They've never found reasons to apologize for such things.


Wednesday, 16 November 2011

A lesson from Fraggle Rock

The problem I see with Traveling Matt (of Fraggle Rock fame) is that he passes judgements on things he has no real experience of: he applies what he knows without really thinking that there might be more to what he sees, that he might not be aware of other possibilities. He is a "wise fool".

The problem with a "wise fool" is that all lessons are lost and precluded from his ken; what he offers is not afforded him. The "wise fool" is a literary device and his lessons are intended for the audience, but not for him.

The "trickster" archetype is a different creature entirely. He may be mischievous, even seen as evil, but his mischief ultimately leads to justice and rightness. He is a transformative force.

In keeping with the Traveling Matt character (as a trickster this time), Gregory Bateson was not only an anthropologist and husband of a famous anthropologist, Margaret Mead, he was a polymath: a social scientist, linguist, semiotician, a systems theorist/cyberneticist, an author and thinker. He was a modern Goethe, that species of human who appreciates and celebrates his sensual humanity and sees beyond the empirical measure and equations and, therefore, sees the proper proportions of science - ie, as a toolkit and not the end in itself.

Directed thinking is more important than applied knowledge; thinking thus is the mother of knowledge.


Tuesday, 15 November 2011

An Education: self-improvement and self-mastery

I bought a book recently, an English translation of Marcus Aurelius' Meditations, which I thought was timely in this my program of sober living and self-improvement. I mean, I used to enjoy drinking alcohol and smoking dope; or, I didn't know better, is a more apt description.

I do not advocate for soberiety per se as I think each and every single one of us should decide for ourselves whether we want alcohol in our lives or not. Like most users, I used to think that change in perception could be equated with change in perspective. But this wrong-headed.

It is the same kind of wrong-headedness as thinking that "education" is a consumer product and that without it people are somehow doomed to be stupid. I know many people of high intelligence but have never step foot in a classroom, and I know many people with university degrees who seem incapable of thinking for themselves: I'm sorry to say that there is no remedy for stupidity the same way that intelligence cannot be bought and sold - stupidity and intelligence are inherent in us, only deliberate cultivation or neglect can realize and manifest them.

Ever since I've been interested in "education" I've always maintained that it is not enough to merely learn how to read and write. Learning how to read and write is only the first step: it is being able to understand and engage in thought at the conceptual level where original insights and (for lack of a better word) pleasure can be gotten. This understanding and engagement further drives one to seek out. Northrop Frye called this blessed state of being "being taken up by the subject rather than 'taking' a subject".

I've tried to talk about the "Great Conversation" but I don't know if many people knew what the hell I was talking about. The Great Conversation is a by-product and reason for the whole of a liberal arts education. To quote Wikipedia:

"According to Hutchins, 'The tradition of the West is embodied in the Great Conversation that began in the dawn of [literary] history and that continues to the present day.' Adler said, 'What binds the authors together in an intellectual community is the great conversation in which they are engaged. In the works that come later in the sequence of years, we find authors listening to what their predecessors have had to say about this idea or that, this topic or that. They not only harken to the thought of their predecessors, they also respond to it by commenting on it in variety of ways."

But, of course, this line of reasoning does not only apply to literary arts but to all of human knowledge and humanist ideals.

Now, the reason why I started out by saying about trying to lead a sober life is that this desire has much in common with our contemporary notions of "education", or an assumption that both can be gotten or prescribed externally as we consume products.

I think that, instead of insisting that a vague and undefined "culturally appropriate" approach is the way to go, we should examine closely how language is taught in the classroom, whether in the school or outside of it. Inuktitut and English are taught and really regarded as if they can be divvied up and prescribed in neat little modules: "Hello"; "Qanuippit"; "I am fine", etc. as if memorization rather than comprehension was actual learning. Or, to carry the sober life analogy: state of well-being is just another form of "altered state of mind"; that to "quiet the mind" rather than critical self-examination is a path to "enlightenment" and an effective way of meditation.

When I instructed a class of adult learners, the curriculum outline stated that its philosophy was that in order to learn how to read and write one has to read and write. I'd have added that words and passages in isolation are not how teaching and learning a language should be approached. The teaching material has to have a deliberate direction and opportunities for analysis and discussion (for the group) of its contents should be built-in to the curriculum. This is to try and engage the student rather than leaving them to fend for themselves, to preclude rote memorization as a "learning" strategy.

Marcus Aurelius in his Meditations talks a lot about the notions of self-improvement and self-mastery as the basis of his philosophy, that human beings, being rational, thinking beings, are capable of greatness and fulfillment of potential but need deliberate direction, commitment and engagement [in the great conversation] for guidance. His Meditations have little to do with "quieting the mind" but are bits of a program for self-improvement through self-examination and ever aspiring for ideals and principles.


Inuit Nunaat amma Isumaat from Fraggle Rock perspective

Do you remember Jim Henson's Fraggle Rock? The "muppet" TV show centered around Gobo Fraggle and his uncle, "Traveling" Matt, who is exploring "outer space" - or, the human world. I used to love the show. It was, as this Wikipedia entry says:

"While the program was accessible to audiences of all ages, it used the fantasy creatures as an allegory to deal with serious issues such as prejudice, spirituality, personal identity, environment, and social conflict."

I'd say in the best tradition of "Western" theatre, the best of liberal arts pedagogy. There was an innocent quality of "Traveling" Matt and his observations on the human world (the world of the "silly creatures") which served the purpose of irony and the "wise fool" - ie, insight of the accidental kind.

This "Traveling" Matt is somewhat a familiar character in Inuit Nunaat amma Isumaat (Inuit world and mind) but without the sense of irony nor even a willingness to admit ignorance in the often wrong-headed observations and prejudiced contempt for the strangers in strange land. I'm not talking about the smallness we human beings are so naturally capable of, but that something about us that is ignorantly at-odds with reality and stays there, it seems, permanently. Even Knud Rasmussen, the great Inuit explorer, was not immune to this "Traveling Matt syndrome" (in talking about the spirituality of Inuit men who spend most of their time in endless, featureless ice):

"This it is which always gives their accounts that delightful originality which is the peculiar property of those whose theories are based on experience of life itself. Their naturalness makes them philosophers and poets unawares, and their simple... orthodoxy gives their presentment of a subject the childlike charm which makes even the mystic element seem credible." (quoted from Kenn Harper's column, Taissumani, in Nunatsiaq News, 2011-11-03)

This "childlike charm" of Inuit is a leitmotif - along with "drunk indian" - in the history written in books where the subject is largely silenced and made ignorant of how it's presented. For instance, whether the Eskimo dog slaughter issue of our recent times happened (or not happened) the way official documents are/were written is made more real than the need for serious reflection on human short-comings that come into play in the exercise of pride and prejudice. The Inuit side is "pure crap" to quote a long-time "northerner"; or as one RCMP officer said: "not fair to have on his record".

This unbreakable resistence to self-examination is what keeps us from seeing ourselves and the silent other for what we both really are: humans being. Whether "childlike" or "drunk", the other is and was never asked what they thought and why they thought so. History, which they say, is written by the "conqueror", though no war ever happened in the Arctic and the "conquerors" tended to perish in the Arctic environment without the help of Inuit themselves. Flags and ceremonies were made much of to ritualize the "conquest" and to document it in far-off courts. Had the Inuit, the original occupants of the Arctic, known of this, it would seem not only silly but utterly insane.

Going by the recent Qikiqtani Truth & Reconciliation Commission on the dog slaughter issue, and the Nunavut experiment in general, this insanity of pride and prejudice still afflicts the Christian West, and it seems not even ready to fill in the shoes of civility and enlightenment it so professes most loudly. It seems content and intent on playing the "Traveling Matt" role while the subjects of its study see it for what it really is: idiotic, powerful and a dangerous threat to the survival of our planet (Traveling Matt's "outer space").

I saw recently in the Discovery Channel an examination of what would likely happen if an alien race invaded Earth. There was a long and detailed segment looking at "guerilla warfare" tactics to spurn and resist the "aliens" using our recent history in the West's military excursions into the Muslim world. The presentation had no hint of irony in its unconscious projection of guilt, shame and displacement (a Wikipedia entry says of "displacement": "Displacement operates in the mind unconsciously and involves emotions, ideas, or wishes being transferred from their original object to a more acceptable substitute. It is most often used to allay anxiety; and can to the displacement of aggressive impulses or to the displacement of sexual impulses.").

If I sound unduly harsh, it is only because I admire and love much of what the West can and should be, and because I want to be treated as a human being, not a caricature of other peoples' making.


Friday, 11 November 2011

In defense of the dialectic method in IQ/Science discourse in Nunavut

I recently bought a book called, Plato: the last days of Socrates - a collection of Plato's works that cover Socrates' life from the accusations against him of heresy and corruption of young minds to his trial and to his death.

In the introduction by Harold Tarrant, the scholar and translator wrote:

"[Plato's] works have the qualities which allow them to be interpreted, and reasonably interpreted, in many ways and from many points of view. This has much to do with the fact that they take the form of dialogues, rather than treatises addressed to the reader. We are not directly asked to believe anything; we are not required to take anything on trust. We are asked to be spectators at an occasion, whether historical or fictitious, when life-like characters talked on real issues, issues which are sometimes remote from us but which we can feel were pressing ones for them. We are asked to react to human experience and human ideas, for which we, as human beings, have some understanding. We are asked to listen to the arguments critically; we are also asked to respond to the personalities of those participating. We may be encouraged to learn certain lessons and to form certain conclusions as a result; but many of the problems superficially seem left unresolved, and we are not bullied into taking the author's line. Consequently, Plato's dialogues have continued to have appeal over the ages, and have survived numerous changes of intellectual and religious fashion, for somebody has always found something of value within them."

The dialectic method itself (if there is such a thing) changes from one "intellectual and religious fashion" to another but, since it forms the basis of "classical education" (and I don't mean just in the Western sense for IQ pedagogy, I think, appeals likewise), it remains the basis of teaching critical thinking skills and how to be human in the best of times and in the dark hours of tribulation when the moral high road seems such a costly virtue to pursue.

The best of classical literature (which here I also include Inuit legends and myths) has in it heroes and villians that are complex, and messy, and whose acts blur the lines of virtue and vice much like real human beings; these characters suffer the consequences of their mistakes as much as they celebrate the best of the human spirit even if they don't get the girl in the end. In a word: they are nothing like the one-dimensional ideals that double-bind religious and ideological fundamentalists of our times.

St. Exupery's Little Prince, for example, is not only an innocent but a learning character who is able to gauge and revise his judgements and praises on the human condition as he becomes aware that things are not always what they seem: he is open to even the most banal and outrageous characters he meets along the way, and forms opinions about them through experience rather than prejudice and idealized notions of what the real should be.

The great Galileo used the dialectic method to present his ideas in Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, and Two New Sciences. I personally think that we should use this form to introduce not only science but philosophy, politics and notions of "civic duty" to an Inuit audience, to not only educate them but allow them to form their own thoughts and ideas about such things. Not only that, we should create the discourse concerning and integration of IQ and Western Science in such form. This form has in it opportunities to not only introduce but also define new concepts even as it clarifies thoughts and ideas of importance in ways that are lost to the more modern forms of the Treatise method.

Giambattista Vico is also a humanist thinker that I admire much. For some reason I think of him as a contemporary of Galileo, but Vico came quite a bit after him. To quote a Wikipedia entry, Vico, the great humanist also relied upon the dialectic method:

"As Royal Professor of Latin Eloquence, it was Vico’s task to prepare students for higher studies in law and jurisprudence. His lessons thus dealt with the formal aspects of the rhetorical canon, including arrangement and delivery. [...], Vico chose to emphasize the Aristotelian connection of rhetoric with dialectic or logic, thereby reconnecting rhetoric to ends (or topics) as their center. Vico's objection to modern rhetoric is that it cuts itself off from common sense (sensus communis), as the sense common to all men. In his lectures and throughout the body of his work, Vico's rhetoric begins from a central argument or "middle term" (medius terminus) which it then sets out of clarify by following the order of things as they arise in our experience. Probability and circumstance retain their proportionate importance, and discovery – reliant upon topics or loci – supersedes axioms derived through reflective abstraction. In the tradition of classical Roman rhetoric, Vico sets out to educate the orator as the deliverer of the "oratio", a speech having "ratio" or reason/order at its heart. What is essential to the oratory art (as the Greek rhetorike) is the orderly link between common sense and an end commensurate to it—an end that is not imposed upon the imagination from above (in the manner of the moderns and a certain dogmatic form of Christianity), but that is drawn out of common sense itself. In the tradition of Socrates and Cicero, Vico's real orator or rhetorician will serve as midwife in the birth of "the true" (as a form or idea) out of "the certain" (as the confusion or ignorance of the student's particularized mind).

Vico's rediscovery of "the most ancient wisdom" of the senses (a wisdom that is "human foolishness" or humana stultitia), his emphasis on the importance of civic life, and his professional obligations remind us of the humanist tradition."

My point in all this quoting is that I think the marriage and reconnection between Indigenous Knowledges and Western Science should start out by the use of this tried and proven method. There is, I think, much that can and should be done in the advancement of IQ and Western Science discourse. The nay-sayers and poo-pooers should be silenced with reason and well-constructed, mature arguments rather than be allowed to determine what happens and, thereby, rob us of riches that the two forms of knowledge have to offer for the simple want of awareness of other possibilities.


Wednesday, 9 November 2011

The tremendous power of paradigms: as a means of delimiting and transcending process

I recently got an email from one of my readers that made me think about the power of prevailing paradigms of North American scholarship: namely, that of structuralist/phenomonological paradigms in the interpretation of historical processes (especially in eskimology - if there is such a thing, and I happen to think there is such a thing whether it be history, linguistics, anthropology/sociology, administration and health care delivery systems).

This type of scholarship/research approach tends to delimit its discourse without much thought given to other possible alternative views, and proceed as if its arbitrary signifiers and templates were as "real" as Ferdinand de Saussure treated his. FdeS is considered outdated and too literal/concrete in linguistic studies, but he is tremendously influential still in the humanities and the social sciences because of his semiotics. Though I'm a great admirer of Umberto Ecco and Jacob von Uexküll as far as semiotics go, I had a less than pleasant experience with a prof of semantics at MUN who took great offense to my questions and comments on FdeS.


There is an alternative philosphical perspective to what North American scholars/researchers come from: dialectics, Hegelian or otherwise, which I think is better by far in the process of searching and enlightenment. Take for example Hegel's notions of Measure:

"The identity between quantity and quality, which is found in Measure, is at first only implicit, and not yet explicitly realised. In other words, these two categories, which unite in Measure, each claim an independent authority. On the one hand, the quantitative features of existence may be altered, without affecting its quality. On the other hand, this increase and diminution, immaterial though it be, has its limit, by exceeding which the quality suffers change. [...] But if the quantity present in measure exceeds a certain limit, the quality corresponding to it is also put in abeyance. This however is not a negation of quality altogether, but only of this definite quality, the place of which is at once occupied by another." (Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich. 1874. The Logic. Encyclopaedia of the Philosophical Sciences. 2nd Edition. London: Oxford University Press. §§108-109)

-hear, hear. I couldn't have said it better. I mean, something so subtle as the identity between quality and quantity is not really something that would even occur to structuralists and phenomenologists (quantity is the only real factor to them) but certainly is something that grounds the thesis, antithesis, reconciliation/synthesis of a dialectic process.

The dialectic or Socratic method of examination and reflection is an ancient Greek method of teaching and learning that has at its core the diminution of the ego as a deliberate program and that makes no definite claims to the truth of things, but seems to come much closer to it than the sophistic and disingenious approach of structuralism/phenomenology, which seem completely ignorant of its own short-comings but presents its interpretations of facts with great authority and hot-air.

Jessen Williamson's timikkut, tarnikkut, anersaakkullu has similarities with the dialectic method, at least insofar as in considering the veracity of its interpretations. Consider this passage:

"...since cultural paradigms play a significant part in constructing the answer... From one cultural paradigm we understood that that women were secondary to men, with their economic, spiritual, and social contributions evaluated in relation to men and colonial institutions. In that framework women seemed powerless, passive, secondary, compliant, dependent, and even mindless. They had no say, and in many instances their actions were omitted. On the other hand, viewed from a different cultural paradigm, we gained understanding that kalaallit women were at least on an equal footing with their men. They worked hard and delivered goods in trade and contributed greatly in matters dealing with spirituality. These insights were gained through the notion of genderlessness and the application of timikkut, tarnikkut anersaakkullu. Each perspective is obviously dependent on the eyes through which the situation is seen. For the purposes of this study, it is clear that in order to see the true picture, rather than impose a European, Western, or colonial view on Inuit life, examining this life from an Inuit perspective is far more effective." (p. 137, Inherit my heaven)

-and more respectful and fair. As we can see clearly here, ideology creeps in very easily and is often a blinder (in the guise of delimiting process) of North American scholarship/research, especially in the IQ discourse.

Don't get me wrong: I have many friends from academia and I value their friendship very highly for they have been nothing but enrichening to my life; and, I certainly am mistrustful of revisionism and try and avoid romanticization like the plague. But the structuralist/phenomonological interpretation of reality is often proved unable to deal with counter examples and quickly becomes passive-agressive when so confronted, whereas the dialectic method embraces such things in the process of discovery and in the spirit of integrity and honesty (ie, dialectic methods consider such personal and egoistic tendencies as rather too small and immature to determine the discourse).


Saturday, 5 November 2011

IQ from the perspective of Timikkut, Tarnikkut Anersaakkullu

My aippakuluk (ma femme) recently bought me a book called, Inherit my heaven: kalaallit gender relations, by Karla Jessen Williamson an Inuit (Kalaaleq) scholar par excellence. The "timikkut, tarnikkut anersaakkullu" part of this entry's title is taken from her book. This book is a must-read for anyone who's interested in Inuit Knowledge and circumpolar issues, and one I highly recommend.

I first met Karla when she worked at Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami in Ottawa. And I've always enjoyed our rather rare exchanges and conversations. I'm somewhat of a recluse but when she asked me to call her I did. I'm glad to have called her because she made me and Danielle aware of her book, which D bought for me the last one on the Arctic Ventures book section.

Much of what she says in the introductory section about the recently history of Greenland is familiar and applicable also to the Canadian Arctic, from the relocation to centralized "settlements" right down to the ubiquitous qallunaat bureaucrats who yet hold all the important positions of legislative and regulatory power (ie, power that matters).

Her experience of the resettlement policies, for example, differ only in place:

"I was born in a small settlement called Appamiut, north of Maniitsoq, in 1954. In Danish these places are called udsted - 'out-place' - in Canada such a settlement might be decribed as an 'outpost camp'. During the 1950s and 1960s Greenland underwent enormous economic, cultural, and social changes. As colonial status was officially curtailed, Danes and the local Greenlandic politicians agreed to a concentration policy (koncentrations-politik[...]). The plan entailed the closure of essential services (schools, churches, trading and transportation services) in those 'outpost camp villages'. Many of the families were forced to contemplate moving. Enticed by promises of new, modern houses and better economic chances, my parents decided to move to Maniitsoq, and the rest of my paternal family joined us later.

The move may have been convenient for economic and administrative purposes, but socially and culturally such moves had terrible effects; socio-cultural disintegration in various forms created a number of abusive behaviours."

These effects still resonate throughout our respective societies as every generation of bureaucrats come up to the Arctic to inflict themselves upon us "poor Inuit" running the whole gamut of good intentions of the missionary zeal persuasion, dangerous indifference, and unvoiced assumptions/prejudices informed by preceding ones.

The only way to address this long-standing problem, I believe most strongly, is to try and engage the gentiles with reason and dialogue, to build up some semblance of inter-cultural understanding (if not empathy). Though my hot-headedness in Nunavut policy discourse would seem to suggest otherwise, this is rather more indicative of my personal frustrations with the intransigent autism of all forms of bureaucrats. My blog icon is not there by accident at any rate (taken from a Pink Floyd album, the division bell).

But having seen the cold-trukey decolonialization of some African countries and the internecine ideological strife in some Latin American countries, I highly doubt that anyone really wants a repeat of those types of ugliness here as well. And this is the major reason why I've tried to educate myself and those who'd listen of our humanity and everything that this humanity entails.

Anyhoo, going back to the Jessen Williamson model of Timikkut, Tarnikkut Anersaakkullu that I find so insighful and familiar as an Inuk, I'd like to say that I think this is one of the important books to have been written on Inuit by our own, not only because it's a sociological study/analysis of the first order, but also because it offers profound insights as to why there has been this disconnect between Western rationalism and indigenous knowledges.

Breaking down the Timikkut, Tarnikkut Anersaakkullu: timikkut means 'through or by way of the physical body' (or the empirical); tarnikkut means 'through or by way of the spiritual' (or the umwelten); and, anersaakkut means 'through or by way of life essence' (or the psychological/physiological). These are all aspects of being in which Inuit knowledge is encapsulated, and where wisdom or phronesis intersects with knowledge or sophia a la pre-the age of scientistic materialism.

Jessen Williamson writes a very cogent and beautiful passage about her enlightenment process in realizing her Western-trained mind impinging upon her understanding and actual hearing one of her informants' discourse, which came out as jibberish to her at first.

The phrase, Timikkut, Tarnikkut Anersaakkullu is part of an ancient Inuit maxim to encourage understanding and reconciliation in being confronted with something perplexing (sort of like a rough-and-ready Hegelian dialectic for Inuit children - so as to not act rashly and out of fear and prejudice): Timikkut, tarnikkut anersaakkullu silattorsarit, which means: "try and attain wisdom/understanding through your body, soul and life essence".

Much of the Western scientific/economic discourse has an incompleteness about it (and I don't mean Godelian 'incompleteness') in that it has arrested itself in the Timikkut aspect of being, having been frightfully horrified by existential/phenomenological philosophy in extremis without really thinking about the consequences of its crippling fright.

This is where Western scientific/policy discourse and such a thing as Inuit Qaujimaningit must initiate mutually respectful dialogue and where each can productively inform and learn from the other in a Hegelian dialectic and pragmaticist exploration, to try and transcend all these self-imposed obstacles to understanding (of what it is to be human).


Wednesday, 2 November 2011

The nature of Inuit Knowledge

I sometimes get emails from friends who talk about or ask questions of Inuit Knowledge (IQ) that make me really think - in ways that make me go: aha!

One of the biggest obstacles to understanding, I think, is the apparent differences between scientific knowledge and IQ (one is "reductionist" (so they say) and the other is "anecdotal" (so they say) - whoever "they" are). But that is a wrong-headed argument.

The epistemological differences are closer than what is apparent: IQ (or any indigenous knowledge) treats knowledge in the gestalt, and significant factors (the environment/flora&fauna, its integrity) are regarded as a whole (that each is part and partial of everything that affects and sustains it); whereas, scientific reductionism derives its knowledge by deconstruction and how the whole is affected by deletion/absence of particular elements - usually until the thing dies or loses its integrity and can no longer be considered as such.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines "gestalt" as:

"a structure, configuration, or pattern of physical, biological, or psychological phenomena so integrated as to constitute a functional unit with properties not derivable by summation of its parts".

- I would say "with [its particular] properties comprising its treatment as a whole" instead of "with properties not derivable by summation of its parts" for the simple reason that the M-W definition (as it stands) carries a heavy unvoiced ideological assumption rather than being a productive logical element of an argument.

Gestalt, seen in this way (ie, mathematically), is no longer an ideological/phenomenological stance but an actual working postulate of epistemology proper more amenable to testing and constructing and sustaining a discourse. It also comes closer to the sense in which IQ regards its knowledge of flora/fauna and ecology/environment, social/spiritual relations (with people, with environment), etc.

Reductionism, for all its inestimable power, is the science of pathologies and in extremis (which I distinguish from mathematical knowledge which is the science of abstraction rather than reductionism, per se). Hence, reductionism tends to be Malthusian and prescriptive in outlook, and inherently mistrustful of that which it cannot control (ie, is neurotic). It is ideological rather than scientific.

Gestalt outlook is not anti-scientific. Far from it: it is the science of Bateson, Darwin, of Whitehead and cybernetics, of Jung for that matter. And, of IQ. It has pragmaticism (in the Piercesque sense) at its core, being informed by (from a Wikipedia entry): its commitments to the spirit of strict logic, the immutability of truth, the reality of infinity, and the difference between (1) actively willing to control thought, to doubt, to weigh reasons, and (2) willing not to exert the will, willing to believe.

In IQ, this "willing to believe" is based upon an organic network of knowledgable individuals which make up the community of its users and generators of its contents (and continuously spans thousands of years). It has in it also that unwillingness to talk about things that Inuit themselves have not seen or experienced themselves or vouch-safe from people they can trust. "The immutability of [its] truth[s]" is rather more a moral than ideological notion that drives social and ecological relations as opposed to purely economic/egoistic interests. The "reality of infinity" bespeaks of humility and recognition that our knowledge is limited and contingent upon factors necessarily outside of anyone's control and purview.

Given that the Arctic environment makes for scarce and little margins for error, again in the Piercesean sense, IQ operates on "the idea that belief is that upon which one is prepared to act" - an act not something so much based on superstition per se, but that whose proven efficacy bases that superstition or taboo originally: human beings, being reasoning beings, have their reasons for everything.

A true scientific spirit would seek out how and why things are the way they are, or the reasons why such beliefs exist rather than poo-pooing things which stodgy, old men (and their timid sycophants) cannot or are unwilling to countenance amenable to human reason and understanding.


Saturday, 29 October 2011

Science and Indigenous Knowledge (yet again revisited)

I just read an article in the Nunatsiaq News, titled, "Greens change stance on Inuit bowhead hunt" talking about the embarrassing display of neo-con behaviour by Nunavut MP, Leona Aglukkaq, who heckled an NDP member calling for an inquiry into the collapse of the cod fishery in Newfoundland on Oct. 21 by shouting: "seals!". This prompted Elizabeth May to tweet:

"Since no one was attacking sealers, or sealing, there was no provocation for her rude outbursts. It was an ignorant display [from] a woman I usually respect."

This apparently started an online conversation between Iqaluit twitter users and May, that can only add esteem to her image here in Inuit Nunaat as far as I'm concerned - and I'm no Green Party or bowhead whale hunts apologist. This is because for the first time in our history a public official with a significant but largely invisible following has demonstrated a willing to listen rather than prejudge or remain silent on our culture by admitting that her party's policy stance on bowhead whales status is a work in progress.

But, what I wanted to highlight here was what came after in the Nunatsiaq News article, and something I mentioned earlier in my blog on Science and indigenous knowledge (part ii):

"The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada identifies the bowhead whale as threatened, but it's now reviewing that status.

That's because bowhead whale populations look much healthier than scientists once determined.

The [federal] Department of Fisheries and Oceans estimates of the bowhead whale population jumped from 345 in 2000 to 3,000 in 2003, after aeriel survuys, then to 7,309 in 2007 and, then, in 2008, to 14,400.

The DFO's most recent stock assessment from three years ago says this latest number of 14,400 is only a 'partial estimate' and that there could actually be as many as 43,105 bowhead whales." (Nunatsiaq News, October 28, 2011, p 19)

Isn't that something! Inuit hunters, who are out there 365 days a year, have been saying for years and years that DFO's estimates seemed way off. I mean, I can understand the need for scientific skeptism and the need for conservative stance on things unproved but scientific research should never be unduly influenced and corrupted by short-sighted ideological/political agendas. Ever!

There have been a couple of government-employed scientists/researchers who come here, who've had the great arrogance and bigotry to try and assume "ownership" and "right to manage" the animals they study as they saw fit, and tried to belittle Inuit Knowledge with their father-knows-best attitude. I won't mention names but I think a comprehensive review of all scientific papers regarding arctic animals (and their management agendas) is in order. The good name of Science demands it.

To most Inuit, the image of "science" and logical positivism is unkind, oppressive and little-minded; a miser and bigot whose only power is the wilfullness to say NO! The Church, the Police... these have been used as tools of oppression; will Science be just another one?


Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Use of Inuktitut in Nunavut

I've been reading on the news recently regarding the Nunavut Tunngavik's Annual Report on the State of Inuit Culture and Society where the President highlighted some long-standing issues of federal funding disparities between the 600 or so francophone Nunavummiut and Inuit of Nunavut ($4,460 vs $53.71) for minority languages promotion.

Things haven't changed much since the first annual report after Nunavut Social Development Council was absorbed by NTI. In fact, the figures have stayed exactly the same over the years that it was first mentioned in the annual report when I worked there.

Though this funding is very important for both Inuit and French language translation services of the Government of Nunavut, the monies are not slated for anything that the Inuit themselves could use for Inuit Language promotion initiatives - such as what Qikiqtani, Kivalliq and Kitikmeot Inuit Associations access through Aboriginal Languages Initiative (federal funding) which provides funding for publications and other Inuit language related activities. The other Inuit regions, like Inuvialuit, Labrador and Nunavik get part of this funding pot to do very important work with their partners, such as Nunavut Bilingual Education Society and Inhabit Media for the Qikiqtani region.

Qikiqtani Inuit Association gets about $100,000 a year to produce Inuktitut language material, all of it very professional quality thanks to NBES and Inhabit Media (which was recognised recently by a major national literacy award). Kudos to Neil Christopher and Louise Flaherty!

But the money that NTI's Annual Report on the State of Inuit Culture and Society talks about is only meant for the Government of Nunavut ostensibly for translation and Inuit language services, but because it's not really accountable to the Inuit of Nunavut, Inuit do not really have a say on how that money is spent. It's strictly a government-to-government contribution agreement.

The issues that Inuit language face here in Nunavut have little to do with funding but come down to the Inuit themselves and only Inuit can initiate the meaningful changes and change-of-heart so necessary for the betterment of our language's lot. Well, the schools have a role to play and so does Nunavut Teachers' Education Program. But no amount of high-tech gizmos and gadgets will change the situation any.

We, as Inuit, need to start talking about Inuit education in a serious manner. Though I believe Inuit elders have a role to play, we shouldn't foist the whole responsibility on them but start examining the more technical aspects of pedagogy, or the nature of learning and teaching, and ourselves and what we value (in the Socratic sense).

Socrates said that an unexamined life is not worth living. We make a big deal about the syllabic writing system but in all my years of being a linguist, a translator and as a policy analyst, I've found that someone who actually reads Inuktitut briefing materials in countless meetings (on very important issues) a rare bird indeed. Most Inuit delegates say that they can't be bothered to read the material "because it's written in a different dialect" when it invariably becomes perfectly clear people from different communities have no problems communicating with each other in the meetings and conferences.

It has to do with comfort and competency in operating in the syllabic writing system (both reading and writing, and translation quality for that matter). Some of the Inuktitut translated material obey no rhyme or reason of the Inuktitut grammar because some translators assume that English and Inuktitut (or any other language) should have a one-to-one correspondence and literal (rather than meaning-based) translation is how things should be done. Some of the problems arise from poorly-written/highly technical English material that translators are forced to translate into Inuktitut.

Research skills are often lacking and there is a heavy reliance on off-the-shelf dictionaries which may not be the most appropriate resource, so the first entry in the dictionary (whether it be a noun, verb, adjective, or adverb) gets put into the Inuktitut without much regard for the grammatical structure such that the Inuktitut version looks kind of like a cut-and-paste job.

The problem is compounded exponentially given the quality of education in Nunavut schools, which does not teach Inuktitut as a social phenomenon but rather as a purely academic subject (the same way English used to be taught in Japan not too long ago with no end goal in mind but so as to get marks for taking the subject). The whole language approach regards isolated words and labels as "teaching" a language when words in isolation and labels have little or no communicative value.

Language is a social phenomenon, where the narrative is key to capturing and engaging the student. But the last time I heard Dept of Education HQ regards as unspoken policy Inuit myths and legends as religious material so something that uses the Inuit language in the most natural and grammatical way is precluded right from the start.

With little or no available literature and no meaningful Inuit elder employment in the schools to verbally tell stories and expose Inuktitut grammar to Inuit children (Inuit are often just employed for vague "cultural programming" without orientation or training) the Inuktitut instruction proper falls to how to write syllabics and concrete words like "door", "light switch", "atausiq, marruk, pingasut...", etc. which passes for Inuktitut instruction.

I think I've also said more than once in this blog that I think Inuit Language instruction should seriously consider using ICI standard roman orthography where morphemes and grammatical elements are easier to discern and spelling can become more consistent, and sight-reading is possible. The non-standard and inconsistent use of syllabics is killing our language and our visceral impulses and defensiveness regarding a writing system that so few can even read are helping the death and morbidity along.

Developing linguistic competence and language acquisition do not require high-tech gizmos and gadgets nor even money and funding that will never be given in sufficient amounts; only our engagement and participation in the social phenomenon called language as human to human can we make the difference. The Inuit narrative has so much to offer, especially when we reflect upon not just our long-long history as an Arctic people but also as contemporary society working it out through recent colonialist past and all the teachable moments inherent in that experience. In telling our story do possibilities become real objects of contemplation and imagination.


Tuesday, 25 October 2011

"talking eskimo"

I may have given the wrong impression that I'm visceral about the term "Eskimo" in my last blog entry. Well, I'm not really offended by the term because I happen to think that revisionism is not only ideological stupidity but a highly suspect practice of denying historical facts in favour of egoism (not only in terms of morality but also because it is blatantly arrogant and pretentious, insane). It is no better than evolution- and Shoah- deniers, and right-wing nuttery.

I love the term "Eskimo". Not only does the term have a look and feel of a traditional hooded parka about it, but it also has serious historical/political/philosophical/cultural value that is not immediately obvious to the layperson. If scholarship and history were determined by ignorant populist sentiments we would be doomed to repeat historical monstrosities over and over again. At the least, we'd deny that Canada was ever tainted by colonialism. Corporatism and its irresistible imperative to sanitize, censor and prepackage everything would win; ignorance and intellectual immaturity would win.

As a linguist, I appreciate Eskimo's historical/etymological and political value. It is a badge I wear most proudly, and in honour of my forebears who knew nothing of it and never felt diminished by it. "never felt diminished by it" - what a great phrase.

The vulgar use of the term is nothing like the scientific nomenclature: Eskimo-Aleut Language Family, which I feel a close connection to. When it is used to denigrate my culture and language, it merely degrades and disabuses the user of their mistaken ideas of who we are. I dare neo-con non-Inuit to use it in our face so we may see clearly how ignorant and infantile they really are to try and lump us as ignorant and stupid.

People use "it's all Greek to me" to imply their own ignorance and lack of education; "talking eskimo" is it's opposite. This is my only issue on the matter. I think ITK (the Canadian national Inuit org) should have taken the time to explain these subtleties.