Sunday, 9 February 2014

"a theory of the lie"

There is a Greek word, techne, that is often translated into English as "craftsmanship", "skill" or "artistry". It's where we get our notions of "technical", "technique", etc. I take it to mean something more. In Inuit culture being a person meant something more than being just "someone". A name is not just a name; it is a soul. This soul has the capacity to learn and evolve. Just as a person over a lifetime learns and evolves, the soul (Inuit believe in reincarnation) also has that capacity but there is something that extends further than just one lifetime. People have natural talents but these talents and personality characteristics are usually attributed to a name (my mother was always fond of saying that I'm acting like my name, Kautainnuk - though I never really asked who that was).

There is another term from ancient Roman, genius, or  "the individual instance of a general divine nature that is present in every individual person, place, or thing" ( This is pretty close to my understanding of Inuit notions of the reincarnated soul.

Outsiders find it utterly perplexing this what is now called "suicide by Inuit". Inuit themselves are at a loss what is happening here. I think every family and individual in the Inuit community has felt the pain of losing someone or family member to suicide. This is a serious and highly complex issue. But I highly doubt, and have always remained skeptical that the problem of suicide is cultural and/or psychological.

After all, the words "cultural" and "psychological" are umbrella terms for "things we don't fully understand nor can find rational explanations for". As a long-time advocate for Inuit language and contemporary society, I've resorted recently to claiming that policy and program development intended for Inuit are not just "a job" that one does but is a multi-dimensional process affecting such things as our personal meditations on ethical questions, critically questioning development models, and seeking alternatives to our own understandings of what it is to be a human being.

I blame the uncritical acceptance of Benjamin Spock's and Jean Piaget's theoretical frameworks for child development. The influence of these people is largely unconscious, unconsciously applied and never questioned whether there are better alternatives and/or different possible outcomes and/or worlds. One just needs to watch the news to see that the West and its interventionist and universalizational foreign and military policies (and foreign aid, for that matter). It's Max Weber's nightmare, "the polar night of icy darkness", the natural end to Spock's self-centered philosophy and Piaget's locked-stepped ideas of human development. If you're not "normal" then you have no place in the marketplace. People don't tell you, but "normal is as normal does".

I'd suggest there are alternative interpretations. It begins with the idea that human beings originate from and thrive in family and social structures. Lev Vygotsky, a Russian child psychologist and contemporary of Piaget, held that children learn by way of social interaction and that the younger ones learn from the older, more knowledgeable ones whether these are peers or adults (he called this phenomenon, Zone of Proximal Development) - the point is that there is a sense of guidance and mutual dependence between student to student and teacher.

According to Vygotsky, the classroom is less a clinic or a workplace than a microcosm of the larger society. Society is not the manufacturing floor taking directions from an overseer, but a multi-cellular organism whose currency are memes passing through structures of interdependence and relationships. Therefore society is only as good and viable as the investments we make on its currency.

The title of this entry is taken from Umberto Eco (A Theory of Semiotics). Though he uses the phrase in a somewhat different context than how I'm using it here, it is not that inappropriate. I'm trying to link Eco's insights as a social/cultural critic to the most pressing issue facing the Inuit community today: suicide by Inuit. The "lie", you see, is not just on the Inuit but the service-providing industry which regards by default Inuit as not just outsiders but aliens whose humanity is rendered rather difficult to perceive (through no one's fault, though, at a certain point, we are all responsible for educating ourselves on the ethics of human relations).

Peter Pericles Trifonas (Umberto Eco and Football, 2001) writes at the very beginning of the book:

The culture industry runs sign systems rampant. The projections of its media exact immeasurable influence on minds young and not so young. It does not discriminate between those possessing innocence and those wanting knowledge in the age of consumer-orientated global economies in which the desire for instant gratification is driven by the digital mantra of the day. The culture industry teats the psyche of the neophyte and the mature reader of cultural phenomena equally - with the same amount impersonal discourtesy when it comes to arbitrarily evaluating, sorting and commodifying the signs of culture through the media and its simulations of reality. To yoke ethics with representational concerns is only natural for critical readers of culture. [emphasis added by me] (Umberto Eco and Football, p. 5)

The service-proving industry includes not just teachers, the police, the courts, social services, but also the those that provide psychological/psychiatric treatment. I was told by a therapist that "we attract those whom we attract because of who we are" which he said with a certain amount of glee and pompous self-satisfaction. I thought to myself: if that is the case, I hope he never has to deal with rape victims and victims of physical violence and psychological abuse...what do you think?

Trifonas continues:

A sign is all surface, all projection, all image: complete in itself and for itself...The viewer/consumer cannot alter the form of the sign, but only imbibe and complete its intentionality by aesthetic and cognitive, conscious or unconscious responses in relation to the image. (ibid)

Of course, not all service-providers are like that. I've met and worked with many who've never lost their "beginner mind" especially teachers and education experts I've had the pleasure of interacting with. Some have introduced me to great thinkers in whose thoughts and ideas they saw cognates with Inuit culture and philosophical insights.

On the one hand, the sign in itself is [...] intransitory, both subject and object, and needs no mediative completion by way of a subjective predicate that puts its meaning into action. It suffices as a symbolic representation of meaning itself. On the other hand, the sign is its own pedagogy; it teaches, but needs a viewer/consumer to fulfill the intentional and extentional limits of its communicative potential as a meaning-making tool. (ibid).

Indeed, "normal is as normal does".


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