Friday, 15 April 2011

Beliefs, semiotics and disjunctures

One of the people I admire is Umberto Eco, who is not only a great writer but whose writings and novels reflect an original mind. Before his claim to fame, he was a semiotician, or a natural philosopher of signs and meaning.

Much of Eco's popular works center around the notion of beliefs in political/ideological terms. The Name of the Rose, Foucault's Pendulum, Misreadings, are all preoccupied with the (mis)use of problems in communication and its consequences. In The Name of the Rose, he talks about the ironies of censure on human nature; in Foucault's Pendulum, he talks about perversion of signs/brand-names in a narrative (belief systems); in Misreadings, he wrote a series of scientific papers as written by Eskimo anthropologists from the future and their musings on the long-dead culture of the Italian Pensula which is now covered by a mile-thick ice.

As a semiotician, he is the one. He has that rare ability to spin a yarn around profound questions of meaning and of being human, to hold a mirror up for us, using his science faithfully. A cigar is sometimes just be a cigar... But, somewhere along the line, a cigar may take on a meaning all its own, something not apparent in the thing itself but nontheless real to the initiate.

Earlier in my career as a thinker on IQ and Inuit rights, I tried to convince people about this reality: that I may not understand the potlatch or the tea ritual or the burka but it's not up to me to decide whether these are somehow dangerous to my sense of being and identity - live and let live, I say. I am an Inuk, but whatever Canada is I identify myself as a Canadian and I accept its laws and mores, and do my best (however small) to make the social vision that is Canada better for all. Canada is not just a static, perfected society but is actually an on-going discourse on what social justice means (to us).

But where the danger lies, as far as I can tell, is when signs/brand-names become perverted by social/ideological conservativism. Hegemony is the lowest common denominator of any society and requires no discussion and visioning, requires no intelligence, really. All it needs is passivity, but passivity bought at the cost of fear and lies (contrasted with "useful fictions" of identity).

John Baird was distressed and consternated by the "fact" that the Liberals and the leftist Canadian media see nothing wrong with picking on "women" Ministers during the Oda affair. The disingenuous manner in which he said that left bile in my mouth because the Oda affair was not about bullying but calling the government to task on (perceived and real) abuse of governance systems. It is a question of trust, and not a personal attack on anyone.

Those that people the conservative party of Canada, or any political party for that matter, may be prone to such gaffes but Canada and the Canadian parliament are above such immaturity. The non-partisan principles are sound; the reasons why I don't mind being a Canadian.


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