Sunday, 10 February 2013

"polar night of icy darkness"

The title of this entry is taken from Max Weber, whom I consider one of the greatest thinkers on the "postmodern" society - if we can call our contemporary society "postmodern" (I must admit that I sometimes find the term confusing). The phrase is in reference to the mass alienation from an unmitigated rationalization of human life (at least in the westernized world in a sense of its "postmodernity", if I may).

The thing that I find fascinating about Weber's work is its deeply psychological insightfulness. He seems to have had that rare ability to be humbly honest about life and the nature of human knowledge:

[Sociology is] ...a science which attempts the interpretive understanding of social action in order thereby to arrive at a causal explanation of its course and effects.
 
Given this, he writes elsewhere that

There is no absolutely "objective" scientific analysis of culture... All knowledge of cultural reality... is always knowledge from particular points of view. ... an "objective" analysis of cultural events, which proceeds according to the thesis that the ideal of science is the reduction of empirical reality to "laws," is meaningless... [because]... the knowledge of social laws is not knowledge of social reality but is rather one of the various aids used by our minds for attaining this end.

Edward T Hall is another of those analysts that I'd put on par with Weber. Along the same theme as Weber's starting point of discourse, he said that "Life is a continuous process of consolidation and detachment" (Beyond Culture, p. 223), which I take to mean that life - all of human life: the personal, the social and the professional - does not come with a set of instructions but is rather more like a dialectical process (in the Hegelian sense) of "thesis-antithesis-synthesis" - the key notion being, in my interpretation, that "synthesis" is interchangable to with "transcendence".

In Hall's Beyond Culture, he ends the book with a chapter called, Culture as Identification. He writes:

From birth to death, life is punctuated by separations, many of them painful. Paradoxically, each separation forms a foundation for new stages of integration, identity and psychic growth. This introduces a subject in which everyone is involved, in which one finds a meeting ground, a point of synthesis of the intrapsychic and cultural processes. None of us asks to be born or to die. Yet both are natural and inevitable separations of the person from an all-encompassing environment. Between the two lie many separations, each accompanied by new awareness...Yet, the experience of separation is frequently not clear-cut; it is much more indefinite and obscure than many of us once believed. (Beyond Culture, p. 223-224)

In the Inuit society across the circumpolar world (a society to which I belong) this process of "integration, identity and psychic growth" has been disrupted in a big way. In a completely serious and deadpan tone, I'd say that Inuit are, like many indigenous peoples, experiencing the "polar night of icy darkness" of existential alienation from a rationalistic world that is at once a "disenchantment" of the Inuit cosmogony and personal value and belief systems and, at a deeper, this disenchantment results from a complete dissolution of the

relationship[s] between psychological motivations, cultural values and beliefs (primarily, religion) and the structure of the society (usually determined by the economy). (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Max_Weber)

in more ways than one. All traditional and modern means of coping and compensation have been utterly rendered ineffectual by this disenchantment: I surmise that every single individual in the Inuit world has been personally affected by suicide and self-destruction (ie, physical and psychic violence upon the self and others); every single individual has sought out religion in its various forms (addictions, withdrawl from society at large, taking up of unrealistic goals in reaction to present circumstances, etc.) to no avail nor relief; every single individual is or personally knows of people in abject poverty (in both senses of material and intellectual impoverishment).

I'm not one to look back to the past insofar as a means of romanticizing and dreaming of and mourning a world that never was (or can never be again). But I take lessons from the human experience and knowledge (ie, in the liberal arts par excellence). I've always been a strong advocate for a liberal arts education, of historical development-based pedagogy.

Like Socrates, I believe that though all things human and social circumstances are in a constant state of flux, human nature itself is constant and so are the ethical questions that confront us all at some point in our lives. This is liberal arts education itself.

I have a rather selfish motive for writing this blog entry. I try and live by certain principles that is founded upon the Sophoclean notion that "There are many strange and wonderful things, but nothing more strangely wonderful than man." (Antigone, a Greek Tragedy written by Sophocles). -I would encourage my readers to check out https://records.viu.ca/~johnstoi/sophocles/antigone.htm for the complete text of the play.

But I digress: my selfish reason for writing about Inuit society in terms of "polar night of icy darkness" has to do with where I live and work. Iqaluit is the largest community in Nunavut, and, in fact, Iqaluit is the capital of Nunavut. Here we have the dredges, misfits and rejects from the other communities who've been kicked out for whatever reasons who are nonetheless struggling to survive in the most cruel and unkind community in Nunavut in terms of psychological and material support. I'm not saying that people of Iqaluit are themselves "cruel and unkind": far from it; I admire and respect great many people here, and I count myself fortunate to know and be friends of a great many Iqalungmiut.

What I'm talking about here is lack of programming and support services that should go naturally with the people who are struggling in abject poverty and lack of life prospects that are compounded by homelessness or housing inadequacies of the system (ie, the cruel and unkind part). I try and help some of these people in my own way, giving change and more when and where I can. Some of these people claim to not have eaten for a couple of days, and I believe them because I myself have been where they are.

But some people (like everywhere else) can be quite aggressive and intimidating. That they would feel desparate, ashamed and depressed about their situation is something I can totally understand, but I think part of their threatening postures come from a realization long ago that they cannot blame and single out an "enemy" because the whole society is in one form or another responsible for the injustice.

Given the poor (being generous here) performance of aboriginal education systems and the dehumanizing institutions of the aboriginal experience in general, the only recourse I find where we can reasonably expect relief from a life of poverty and grief for these unfortunate souls is a deliberate reformation of the education system. I'm not saying that we need to throw more money and resources but that we have to start re-thinking of education in a new way.

I think why most aboriginal students get lost in the system is that it's set up more like an institutional baby-sitting service than a school. There are scant if any opportunities for creativity and self-expression. Same goes for opportunities for sustainable engagement with the world in a dialectical fashion where one learns that knowledge is not bestowed upon us by the gods fully formed and impervious to human input but built brick-by-brick (though in a non-linear fashion) through hard-won efforts of our fellow human beings; ergo, that every single one of us have that promise of an opportunity to add to that great body of human knowledge through inspiration and awareness of a given discourse.

We have to get rid of the notion of prescribed, passive reception of knowledge through rote memorization of pedagogical dogma, and actually recognize that teaching and learning is a human relationship issue and a challenge to be embraced as a community-development exercise. We need more Vygotsky and less Piaget.

Jay

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