Lessons From History III: Gadamer’s Truth and Method

I have been teaching a graduate seminar (with my colleague Stephen Pender from the Department of English) on Gadamer’s Truth and Method.  How badly do universities (and society at large)  need reminding of its central argument:  thinking is an on-going collective project in which ideas, not individual subjects, (and certainly not provincial education bureaucrats) lead!  To the number lover, the learning outcome checker, the metric man his argument will no doubt sound unintelligible, even irresponsible.  “BUT THERE IS NO OUTCOME,” they will shout!  Precisely.

And truthfully, for there is no final outcome to any real process of thought.  Where does science stop?  Where does literature stop?  Where does philosophy stop?  Art?  Our ordinary conversations?  Friendship?  The law?

“But, but, but, people need to be able to formulate well-formed sentences and draw inferences and analyze natural language expressions into their logical structures.  They need to know how to test an hypothesis and write up a lab report.  Above all they need to be able to prove to EMPLOYERS in the REAL WORLD  that they have JOB READY SKILLS.  Have a conversation on your own time.  In school, prove to the TAX PAYER  that something useful is being accomplished.”

But there are different meanings of useful.  A fork is useful, and who would argue against forks?  But being able to point out to the lover of forks that one can also eat with chop sticks, that is a different type of useful.  And being able to tease out the underlying principle– that what seems normative and unquestionable to an “us” is  questionable to a “them”  who are not necessarily wrong for being different– is also useful.  And being able to go further, to draw the us’s and them’s into conversation (as opposed to war)  so that each can explore in dialogue their differences (and perhaps discover commonalities), is more useful still, but not a mechanical result of applying a technique.  That type of usefulness requires understanding.

Before one can learn anything, even the most mundane task, one has to pay attention and give oneself over to a process that one does not control.  You cannot even tie your shoe just how you would like, but have to follow the sequence that the nature of laces demands.  If you do that, then you will learn to tie your shoes, and then will be able to tie any set of laces you subsequently encounter.

When we leave the realm of shoe tying and the like (simple tasks that can be accomplished by following rules) for the problem of understanding the natural and social world and intervening in it politically, artistically, philosophically, or scientifically, a new problem emerges.  At their highest levels (and it is at that level we should be studying them in university)  these interventions are no longer a matter of following the rules, but either extending their application to new domains, testing their efficacy and legitimacy, or inventing new rules entirely.  Someone please explain to me what the rule is for inventing new rules.

There is none, but only intellectual preparation and the productive spontaneity into which the prepared mind inserts itself.  The analytical and critical skills that everyone gets so fussed about are the ground work, the preparation that students require to start thinking for themselves, but real thinking for oneself is productive spontaneity, and it cannot be measured but only lived.

Gadamer helps us understand what living the productive spontaneity of thought means with his analysis of play, conversation, and the dialectic of question and answer. Drawing on Schiller’s Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man, Gadamer sees play as a form of activity in which, to achieve the desired outcome, the player must give themselves over to the game.  The rules of the game define the parameters of playing, but they do not determine any particular move.  Nor are moves determined imperiously by the players acting instrumentally as individuals.  Play involves creative adaptation to the state of the game:  the best players are not those who try to “force” the play but those who are able to “read it,”  i.e., see what the state of play at that moment in time permits  and encourages as the best move.  Players get caught up in the game; their creativity as players depends upon understanding the state of play at any given moment.

The value of play as a human activity is not measured by winning or losing, or individual statistics, but by the freedom we find in giving ourselves over to the process.  Freedom from what?  From the rule of narrow instrumentalism in our creative activity.  Schiller was interested in play from the standpoint of understanding how art is made.  He argued that the uniqueness of artistic production is that it is not dominated by a specific, determinate goal whose conditions of success can be specified in advance.  A craftsperson making a chair might work from blueprints and knows when the chair is finished.  The painter, by contrast, must struggle with her medium:  she might have an idea in mind when she starts out, but as the painting works itself out the original idea will evolve and develop.  In this way artistic creation depends upon the creative mind and hand allowing themselves to adapt and respond to the work as it “plays out.”

In Gadamer’s view, play not only captures the process of artistic creation, it expresses the nature of thinking.  In all genuine thinking, thinking through a problem or subject, the mind is not in control the way a driver drives a car but must give itself over to the investigation or conversation. The subject matter leads and where it will take people no one can say in advance.  Thinking is inquiry, and inquiry must go where the ideas lead.  “To conduct a conversation means to allow oneself to be conducted by the subject matter to which the partners in the dialogue are oriented.  It requires that one does not try to argue the other person down but that one really considers the weight of the other’s opinion.  Hence it is an art of testing.  But the art of testing is the art of questioning.  For we have seen to question means to lay open, to place in the open.” (Truth and Method, 2nd Revised edition, p. 367).  To lay in the open means to unsettle, and to unsettle is the condition of being receptive to different approaches living problems.

Hence, the problem with demanding a specific outcome as the sign of successful teaching is that it  turns a process of opening the real to questioning into a closed system of technical competence.  Of course, technical competence across a range of abilities is essential to all forms of human action:  there is no question here of ignoring the importance of demonstrating analytical and synthetic and critical abilities.  What Gadamer helps us see, rather, is that at the highest level thinking is not ‘for’ anything else (economic gain, political conviction, etc.,) but is required for there to be any human society at all, i.e., any context in which this or that action, this or that competence, is of any value at all.  If everything is tied down and exhausted by a technical competence whose only value is instrumental to some measurable purpose, then human life as a finite experience of being open, present, and active ceases to self-validating.  In that way it loses not only its spontaneity, but also its essential freedom in relation to its own future, which, in order to really be a future, must unfold and not be progammable in advance.

A related argument can be made in response to the attempt to reduce the value of intellectual work to the quantity of publications and citations.  The attempt to asses value independently of actually studying the work, as a function of an algorithm and not human understanding, is a species of madness only a bureaucrat or administrator could think valuable.  It is a sign of the decadence of the culture that the people who think and create for a living are seduced by this category mistake and trip over themselves to boast about their numbers on some ranking or other as if that somehow validates their work.  Will Noble Prizes now be awarded to the person with most citations each year, or the most sales, in the case of literature?

(If you are an academic and that sounds absurd, ask yourself why, and start defending peer review again).

In reality– if we can still risk the term– the quality of thought, whether scientific, philosophical, or artistic, is not a function of short term responses, but by the extent to which it identifies or overcomes problems that impede further thought and action.  Often times the most penetrating thought and the most revolutionary discoveries and creations take time to break through the barriers of established conventions and hierarchies.  To focus on some league rankings form the recent past cannot tell us anything about the future, which is where the value of creations prove themselves.

Of course, most of us are not unrecognized geniuses and most of us will fall short of ever being world-historical figures.  Nevertheless, the quality of our thought is never a function of how many people read it or cite it, but a function of how perceptive, cogent, lucid, and, yes, useful it proves to be.  In every case, quality thinking must demonstrate some degree of independence from the given.  What distinguishes the derivative and banal from the worthwhile is that however vast or small the influence, worthwhile thought brings something new to light.

To do so, the thinker has to tap into the living spontaneity of thought as that force which frees us from servitude to the given.  It is this spontaneity that Gadamer reminds us of, and it is this spontaneity that is under dire threat today.

Our Town

For my mother, on the occasion of her 70th birthday.


I’m glad to be from someplace that is a real place, not some god-forsaken suburb built on any old former farmer’s field.  I’m glad to be from someplace that’s not a destination (there is no reason to go unless you know someone) but when you’re here you know you’re not just anywhere; a place where streets end in bush that’s not for “trekking”  (whatever that is), or “cottaging,” (even worse), but bush that goes on and on.

A walk will not lead to a celebrity sighting but maybe a shot-up old car, or a bear-scratched tree, a ground-down ancient mountain, or a weedy lake.  It’s a hard place, built on rock: impacted, exploded, stretched, scoured, scarred, burned, blackened, mined, and smelted; a place of hard people: muddy boots, calloused hands sweaty in black leather mitts, thick French beards and toques, talking next to trucks, sleds in the back, getting ready to follow a trail carved from hard weather:

“How she’s goin? Goin’ out today?”

“Ya, goin to the hut on Wanapitei,”


Snow drifts against Inco Town houses.  Inside, away from the clarifying cold, or at hotels, rowdy families and friends, too much cigarette smoke and not-craft-beer in the hands of  the not-beautiful people, workers, foul-mouthed gallows humour, sardonic and cutting, salacious, maybe even cruel (to sucks, who don’t get the joke, so get it, or get lost).

Hard living (the birthday balloons didn’t go past 60), but soft hearts; wrinkles from laughing, not old age:

“Give ‘er till the end, boys, go-fuck-go,”

’til the heart attack or cancer.

In me, a hard trace still left after I shed my skin in the city.

How Do You Like The End of the Enlightenment Now?

Hoist, Own, Petard.

In his seminal essay, “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History,” Foucault inaugurated– unwittingly, perhaps– a link between radical politics and the critique of truth.  Following Nietzsche, for whom truth is always relative to a perspective (the spider’s truth is not the human being’s truth, the master’s truth is not that of the slave), Foucault argued that what passes as true at any given moment is a function of the exclusion of other possibilities, not correspondence between statement and state of affairs.  “Humanity does not gradually progress from combat to combat until it arrives at universal reciprocity, where the rule of law finally replaces warfare, humanity installs each of its violences in a system of rules and thus proceeds from domination to domination.  The nature of these rules allows violence to be inflicted on violence and the resurgence of new forces that are sufficiently strong to dominate those in power … The successes of history belong to those who are capable of seizing these rules, to replace those who had used them, to disguise themselves so as to pervert them, invert their meaning, and redirect them against those who had initially imposed them.”(p. 151)  There is no doubt that Nietzsche has identified a real historical tendency, and that this tendency calls into question any facile identification of “that which happens”  with “Progress,”  and “Progress” with “Truth.”

The linkage between the train of historical events, progress, and truth was the product of the Enlightenment critique of superstition and prejudice.  As a philosophy of history, it culminates in the work of Hegel.  If we read Marx as a materialist critic of Hegel who sought to make his dialectical understanding consistent with the actual events of history (as opposed to the stylized set-pieces of Hegel’s Phenomenology and Philosophy of History) we can see his work as a development, rather than a repudiation, of the principle that the truth is opposed to the partial, the prejudicial, the perspectival, and that it will (at least help to) set us free. Indeed, because Marx works within this framework (as opposed to a proto-Nietzschean genealogy) that  radical critics and activists were enjoined to reject his work as part of the problem by post-modern and post-structuralist thinkers who dominated critical thought from the 1970’s to the 1990’s.

That period taught that truth was the enemy of freedom, that knowledge was constituted by power for the sole end of disciplining the masses and ensuring compliant behaviour; that scientific objectivity was in reality a normalizing gaze directed against the outsider (the “Other”), and that freedom, to the extent that the term should be used, was to be found in fragments, in momentary bursts of transgression.

No doubt, as a criticism of positivism (the belief that science was the only legitimate means of understanding the world and that only that which can be quantified and measured is true), bureaucratic and administrative power, and techno-science in the service of money and imperialism these arguments opened up a new terrain of insight into the epistemic structure of oppression.  Nevertheless,  many suspected, and rightly, that an ironic fate lay in store for a politics that sought to break the connection between freedom and truth. (See my Critical Humanism and the Politics of Difference).   For if all knowledge is really a power/knowledge complex, then it  follows that critical thought is just another form of power (as indeed Nietzsche says it is) and therefore not legitimate on the grounds that it brings hidden realities to light.  If the problem is objective truth, i.e., if truths are made objective by power but are not objective in themselves, then it follows that opposition movements not only do not have truth on their side, they should not want truth on their side, because truth is the ally of disciplinary power.

We are now reaping the ironic effects of this critique of truth.  While I agree with little else that Jodi Dean has to say about political strategy, she is surely correct in this insight, drawn even before the advent of The Trump Show:  “the prominence of politically active Christian fundamentalists, Fox News, and the orchestrations of Bush advisor Karl Rove all demonstrate the triumph of postmodernism.  These guys take social construction– packaging, marketing, and representation– absolutely seriously.  They put it to work.”(Democracy and Other Neo-Liberal Fantasies, p. 7).  Trump’s universe of ‘alternative facts”  and “fake news” adds the crucial dimensions of playfulness and theatre to the thesis of the social construction of truth and reality.  What Trump et.al., understand, which the postmodern left never fully appreciated, is that if power and knowledge coincide, then those with power can use it to de-legitimate opposition forces, who find their claims:  about poverty, or racism, or climate change– dismissed as the self-interested product of contemptuous elitist expert opinion.  If objective truth is always the product power, and power itself seizes this argument to attack its opponents, what grounds are left for a response?

The Truth Shall Still (Help) Set Us Free

Donald Trump is the very apotheosis of postmodern values.  He transgresses the norms of the American Presidency, he is playful and ironic, he mocks, jokes and is sarcastic; he collapses the distinctions between public and private, paints scientific consensus as an elite formation and its critics as bold (transgressive?) outsiders.  He is openly contemptuous of the ‘establishment’ horrified by his refusal to play by the rules.  At the same, time he is an old school bigot and xenophobe, an opponent of everything the postmodern left stood for:  toleration, the free proliferation of differences, an experimental approach to life, playful rejection of fixed identities and binary oppositions.  That Trump is the logically consistent outcome of the politics implied by the critique of objective truth tells us that the problem was not truth, but power.  That is, the argument that  power and knowledge always formed a complex, that speaking truth depended upon the power to exclude other possibilities that could equally well be true if they had power on their side, was politically naive.  It failed to see how this argument could (and now is)  used to undercut the authority of claims about how reality is oppressive, on a dangerous environmental arc, undemocratic, and so on.

The Enlightenment conception of truth was always broader than natural science and more open to difference than its critics thought. (See my Re-Thinking Enlightenment Universalism in the Age of Right Wing Atavism).  Its essential political claim was that one could discern a trajectory in history towards making political power accountable to demonstrable facts.  Does the king really rule by the grace of god?  Prove it.  Is European civilization superiour to other civilizations?  Prove it.  The truth shall set us free not because it is the ally of power, but rather because it demands that power be made accountable to something that is not just another power, but is impartial between all political possibilities:  the facts of the matter.  The hope was to discover means of peaceful social transformation, or to provide absolute legitimacy for revolution when those in power would not yield to the demonstrated facts (that their regimes were corrupt and collapsing).

We must avoid a naive realism or kowtow to natural science as omni-explanatory, especially as regards what is ethically and politically true.  The goals of history are not to be discovered by reducing action to behaviour and behaviour to our genetic code.  If we want to understand human history we need to understand human history, not Bonobo hordes.  At the same time, there are material foundations to truth claims in history that political struggles must appeal to for their justification.  These facts concern the structures of deprivation that people have faced and face:  in their struggles is the proof that deprivation is real and harmful.  The values worth fighting for are found in the facts of life, but the facts of human life are not abstractly natural, but also social, cultural, and political.

History records the successes of this general understanding of the linkage between political struggle, justice, and demonstrated truth about the harms of deprivation.  Civil, political, and social rights, including the rights of sexual, gendered, racial, and ethnic minorities; the democratization of politics and social life, unions, increasing material equality, anti-imperialism, de-colonization, environmental legislation…  Every one of these victories turned on empirical-historical-political proofs that a given group of people was really suffering; that a given chemical really was destroying animal or human life; that an economic reform that shifted money from profits to public investment really did alleviate poverty; that blacks and women really could do anything white men could do; that the practices of a given society were in logical conflict with its principles…  In comparison, what have been the achievements of the postmodern left?

The response that their criticisms have been taken over and twisted by the right wing is no defense.  Return to the quotation from Foucault above.  Taking things over and twisting them is just what the powerful do.  Trump is unassailable to his supporters just because they do not make the comparison between what he says and what is demonstrably the case in material reality.  They fail to discipline their thoughts against reality.  And:  they love the show.

Here is a final bit of demonstrable historical reality:  the subaltern have fared better when they did not play games but demanded that the powerful justify their wealth and authority against the facts of the matter.  When combined with organized mass movement, disciplined behind a democratically decided program, focused on long-term structural changes rather than spectacle and media attention, they have won.  The achievements of democratic forces, of feminism, the civil rights movement, the union movement, the gay and lesbian liberation movement, First Nations’ movements, the disabled rights movement and global anti-colonial struggles from the American Revolution onward are the facts that prove my point.

Indigenous Knowledge and Intercultural Dialogue

My previous post concerned some qualms I have about the ways in which Canadian universities are advertising positions asking for applicants to demonstrate how they will incorporate “indigenous knowledge”  into their courses.  As I was finishing that post, I received an email from Bruce Ferguson, an Algonquin philosophy student.  He was writing me as part of a an independent project he had undertaken to canvas Canadian philosophers about their understanding of and disposition towards indigenous philosophy.  The serendipity was spooky.  I told him about the post I just happened to have been working on, and he took the time to post a long thoughtful comment.  It can be found in its original form in the comments section of that post.  Since Bruce’s whole point in writing the philosophical community was to start a dialogue, I tried to respond at length to his substantive points.  With Bruce’s permission, I have re-produced his original intervention and my responses (in italics).

White people can’t teach indigenous philosophy! What?
Posted on February 4, 2017 by maqua2017


I recently started a research project that concerned itself with the clear lack of strategies and plans in which philosophy departments across Canada interact with Indigenous Traditional Knowledge, contemporary Indigenous Thought and ideas about how to systematically study the system of Indigenous thought and then the stupid question of whether indigenous though “qualifies” as philosophy.

This “stupid question” is often also asked of eastern philosophy.  If you were to make the comparison, I think you would find, with few exceptions, (Brock in St. Catherines and the University of Hawaii do take “comparative” philosophy seriously) that  Eastern Philosophy is generally treated as religion or spirituality.  Indigenous thought likewise (and also African philosophy).  Since the beliefs are often not expressed in propositional form, but as overarching world views, they are often not taken seriously as philosophy, because not articulated as arguments.  But of course much of the most important Western philosophy also uses allegory, myth, and metaphor to communicate overarching world views: Plato, most importantly, the long complex histories of Christian, Jewish, and Islamic philosophy, many ecological and eco-feminist philosophies (which often derive inspiration and content from indigenous knowledge); Nietzsche and existentialist thought).  

I literally sent emails to every philosopher I could find listed in a philosophy department website of the post-secondary institutions listed by the Canadian Philosophy Association. While receiving encouragement and thoughts, observations and so forth from professors I noticed an emerging set of themes; self-disqualifying statements,lack of time statements, a few guarded statements of disinterest but mostly (and shockingly) a political sensitivity – privileging the idea that only indigenous people can teach indigenous thought – a trend that I do not agree with and will argue as misplaced and unnecessary.

I think there are two issues with the disavowal of ability.  The innocuous one and one that is true, is that most of us have no education in indigenous thought, either as regards its content or its form (the importance and veracity of oral traditions, how to interpret myths, what to make of the integration of what from a scientific perspective are totally distinct realms of material structure—lands and waters—and symbolic-meaningful cultural systems).  If there is such a thing as indigenous knowledges-  and I think there is-  it has a different structure than western philosophy and science which are, in the main, literalist, written, empirical-logical, and falsifiable or refutable.  The second, and more problematic, might be—and I emphasise might-  a polite way of saying:  I know what I know and I do not want to bother learning, or trying to learn, anything fundamentally different.

In addition to misplaced political sensitivity is the problem of workload and priorities. Philosophers engaged in academia are very busy ensuring their responsibilities to the department are met, they are engaged with students at the level of teaching philosophy and forming “next generation philosophers”. Administration, evaluating students, career and academic interests and priorities all work towards philosophers who are too busy to do philosophy because of a demanding education system. We non-academic types “get it”.


Now here’s the emerging paradigm; Non-indigenous teachers cannot teach indigenous knowledge. – a statement I consider to be pure political and academic rhetoric.

I would repeat my two points above.  I think that you are right in one sense, but not in the other.  In principle non-indigenous scholars can learn and teach indigenous knowledges, I agree, but that would require much learning on our part (and maybe learning such a we are not used to—from elders not from books). It is/would be a big challenge.

So, why would I be against this well meaning and emerging paradigm? Simply because it is misleading, it indirectly validates the other side of the intellectual colonization coin. So let me get into explaining my thoughts on this.

I sense that this kind of political statement is influenced by the indigenous struggle for equality in Canada as well as the development and articulation of indigenous scholars in the sciences and social sciences. The territories of the humanities [philosophy] as a discipline versus the emerging territories of Indigenous studies all coming into conflict with one another and making for a politically sensitive environment that distracts from the role of teaching, learning and developing. I think both disciplines are too focused on themselves and ought to consider inter-disciplinary approaches as a balanced way to explore indigenous philosophy not to appropriate the philosophy but to develop some anchor of understanding that is qualified by relational statements such as “to the best of my experiential knowledge, cultural ability and limits within my life” and this is also true for me as an indigenous person. I can only make limited truth claims that relate to my own experience and shared experiences I have with my group in the human species. Beyond that, the possibilities of meta-analysis of emerging knowledge due to approaches such as ethno-philosophy can then reach beyond socio-cultural and experiential limits I sense (but am not certain of).

I think these points are well-made.  In work I did more than a decade ago (Critical Humanism and the Politics of Difference) I was interested in exploring the common values beneath the different cultural systems in which people live and interpret their lives.  I focused on different groups in struggle (both within and outside the Global North) and abstracted the common themes that emerged.  The overwhelming commonality was that all asserted a right to self-determination and focused on some underlying shared conditions of achieving this goal (control over land and resources, economic forces and political institutions).  I claimed that these underlying conditions framed a core set of human needs (which I have explored in more detail in later work) and thus a core humanity, expressed different in different times and places.  Despite the differences, cross-cultural understanding and political solidarity is possible, because we can each interpret the other from the shared perspective of needs and conditions of self-determination.  Nevertheless (and I probably did not emphasise this aspect enough in the early work), cultural differences are real, and globally enriching, to the extent that they do not depend upon the oppression and domination of others.  The condition of realizing this value is intercultural dialogue and mutual learning, from a framework of equality (as I think you are also suggesting).   


The misplaced sensitivity held by non-indigenous philosophers in this regard ( often encouraged by political rhetoric of indigenous academics who are forging out boundaries to protect their discipline(s) which are often an inter-disciplinary approach with all subjects indigenous) is that it puts a strangle hold on gathering and sharing knowledge; it is an indirect silencer of free speech and thinking, it is a dangerous precedent for a nation that values freedom One professor – in response to my emails – wrote back to me indicating a great interest in promoting and supporting indigenous philosophy in the academy; she discussed this with her indigenous colleagues but was told that her areas of study do not intersect in any way with indigenous philosophy and she could not be of help! How do these indigenous professors/teachers know this, how can they make this as a truth claim? The apparent messaging of these indigenous professors does nothing more than to promote the other side of the intellectual colonization picture. (And I am aware that I am responding to what I heard as a secondary source I have not heard this directly, so this statement is in no way judgemental of those indigenous academics – I treat this as a scenario or thought experiment).

This point raises an important underlying philosophical problem about solidarity:  what if the type of solidarity demanded by the historically oppressed group is passive; i.e., letting the oppressed have their space to find and articulate their voice.  I have no problem with this approach in the sense that one of the key aspects of oppression is loss of voice, not being able to peak in your own voice, and one of the things that non-indigenous members of the academy need to do is to make sure that our efforts to create space for indigenous scholars do not substitute for their efforts and voices.  Well-meaning attempts to broaden perspectives can reasonably be seen as appropriating voice if they are not combined with serious institutional efforts to change the composition of the professoriate.  I think that criticisms of solidarity can go too far, as when some members of oppressed groups argue that it is impossible to understand reality from their perspective and that the only solution is separation of some sort or other (some radical feminists in the 1960’s made this argument, the Nations of Islam make similar arguments vis-à-vis relationships between white and black America.  I take it from your position you would reject separatism, but I think the more limited demand for passive solidarity:  (Let us speak our own voice!!) must be respected by non-Indigenous academics, at least until the composition of the academy has changed more fully).

However, if certain academics believe in what I like to refer to as an academic ghetto of inherent rights to a monopoly on certain discipline then what is the danger here? Nothing less than strangling knowledge! How do we know what intersects with what? The apparent statements from the indigenous scholars imply to me that they have either bought into traditional western divisions of knowledge; perhaps they do not see the validity in promoting a holistic and inter-disciplinary approach that much better reflects an indigenous methodology in gathering knowledge. The approach that is inclusion of all in the creation of ways of understanding what everyone is thinking within our limited ability as humans. Whatever the reason is, I would argue that it is wrong to promote the idea that only indigenous professors can teach indigenous philosophy.

Possibly, but might they not also be saying that prior to a productive inter-cultural dialogue, indigenous thinkers need time and space to think and talk amongst themselves.  Is the division permanent, or a precondition that can one day be dropped once conditions of equality (material, institutional, etc.,)  have been achieved?

Saying that though, there is no excuse for the academies to avoid hiring indigenous scholars because it is precisely that socio-cultural and experiential knowledge that helps a teacher delve further into the subject of indigenous thought, bringing it home as it were. It is an indigenous professor that can bring the non-native student deeper into an indigenous experience. I don’t think the majority of professionally trained philosophers would disagree with that.

I think this argument is dead on.  Real equality of voice and inter-cultural learning requires the presence of members of indigenous nations in the academy (just as the transformation of scholarship that feminism has produced and is producing required the presence of women).


The position promoting “indigenous only” professors to teach indigenous philosophy is not just a power grab for resources, it is an inauthentic and unnecessary condition for philosophy departments to be avoiding the taking on “indigenous philosophy. Are indigenous academics prepared to live the consequences of this separatist position? If only indigenous peoples can teach indigenous philosophy, then does it follow that only western people (white) can teach western philosophy? I don’t think so; in fact, the other danger that comes in this statement is one of indoctrination and not education.

A very important point.  Certainly it would undermine the deep value of including other voices if those voices were then limited to speaking only what the existing authorities are prepared to hear:  the indigenous thought in some sort of ‘authentic” expression, but not interventions on his this thought re-contextualises and forces a re-thinking of the authoritative tradition.  It would also rule out—as you note-  indigenous scholars teaching whatever they happen to want or have expertise in, and that would be just another form of suffocating confinement and exclusions.  The Argentinian-Mexican philosophy Enrique Dussel has some important things to say about what the western philosophical canon looks like when viewed from the perspective of the Global South.   

In the 80’s I was asked by my anthropology professor what was it about me that made me “Indian” (the terms we used back in the day). I could not think of anything that “made” me Indian as I thought everyone else thought like me, I was not sensitive to my own reality. When I told the professor that I did not know, he proceeded with a litany of observations he had about me that was particularly native (if one can anthropologically define “nativeness”). Anyways, he said, how I wrote my papers, how I participated in groups, how I treated others, how I respectfully challenge the establishment of the 80s and so forth gave me away as aboriginal. Go figure.

An additional danger to education by the assertion that “only indigenous philosophers can teach indigenous philosophy” is the lack of a third and “objective” party that can look at indigenous knowledge from a non-indigenous perspective. So, as an indigenous person, there are two take away points for us to consider with regards to the separatist position stated above; (1) Am I not qualified to teach western philosophy because I do not come from the cultural and scientific roots of that philosophy and (2) what are the costs tom my intellectual development by not experiencing objective and third party, western and eastern philosophical input into class discussions, thinking and so forth. Indigenous people must avoid intellectual ghetto’s where we only hear our side of the story. Indoctrination via university education has gone on far too long in the academic establishment and the issue of indigenous academia brings an opportunity to deconstruct that bias for academic indoctrination for community based involvement in the development of knowledge.

I think that your idea of knowledge networks helps avoid these dangers.  Networks interconnect different elements each of which, in becoming part of the network, influences the whole, without losing its unique and particular function.  In the case of knowledge networks, since that which is brought into networked connection are reflective individuals, any genuine network would promote learning and change in all the parties.  I suppose that if indigenous thought is to remain living it cannot simply about the past and present, but will also grow and develop, in complex and critical interaction with European and North American traditions and disciplines.  Those traditions too can learn about their own partiality and blind-spots through real dialogue with indigenous thought, but also, learn something new about the world it sometimes claims to have already mastered.   Beyond mutual learning, one can see the possibility of new forms of hybrid thought develop which (perhaps) eventually grow beyond their particularist cultural origins towards a new human comprehensiveness.


Philosophy and indigenous philosophy should no longer be the sphere of the lone western white male academic, the rest of us have arrived, we want to be taken seriously and we want our ideas analyzed and critiqued from all angles and that includes western bodies of knowledge, scientific scrutiny and so forth. The critique forces us as indigenous philospher-thinkers to dig deeper into our arguments, find ways in which we can validate our arguments in the face of western and eastern academia.

I think this point is very well put.  It is the utmost disrespect to not engage with it critically and to respectfully question it:  for the sake of deeper understanding.  We spare children the full force of criticism because if we clip their wings to early they will cease to grow.  But dialogue between mature cultures and people has to involve criticism, just because no perspective or theory is fully adequate or comprehensive.  The key is to make sure that there is institutional equality (which means that indigenous thought is respected as a complex symbolic mediation of the natural and social world and not some feel good new-agey ‘spirituality’  that white people can drape themselves in to feel better about themselves.

Finally, non-indigenous professors should adopt the idea that they can teach indigenous philosophy in the sense of explaining what they understand the key concepts to be, they can adapt indigenous metaphysical claims (like they adapt other claims from western academic sources) to make their arguments, they can facilitate and challenge indigenous students to dig deeper and look harder through introducing native students to non-native thought and that includes eastern philosophy as well.

This is an important challenge to us all.  I think that if we can learn to teach Greek metaphysics (which was articulated in cultural world very different from our own)  we can learn to teach indigenous thought in the way that you suggest.  I would add that pushing ourselves (white academics) to expand our courses to include indigenous philosophy cannot be seen as sufficient, but only one part of a broader struggle to make the academy more reflective of the cultural etc., complexity of the country.  In philosophy that means learning about Eastern and Islamic philosophy as much as it means learning about indigenous thought.  And, to reiterate, it also means allowing indigenous scholars to develop whatever expertise they want to develop as scholars.   I think your final two paragraphs sum matters up in an appropriately philosophical way, so I leave them as the final words (but not absolutely final, of course. 

I have come to the belief that the nature of the societal trend called “political correctness” has no place in philosophy, it is in the nature of political correctness enforced by political pressure and legal mechanism to silence thought in society and therefore is dangerous. No matter who the source (and many of our people are benefiting by the politics of political correctness) we ought to see the danger of the politically correct theme within the emerging paradigm of “only indigenous people can teach indigenous thought”, which is a very dangerous road to travel.

Finally, non-indigenous professors are quite correct in understanding the limits imposed upon them by not being indigenous with regards to teaching indigenous philosophy; they can’t teach it as an indigenous professor can BUT they can offer things the indigenous professor cannot offer, critique, analysis, challenging our people to think deeper and argue better, these are gifts the non-indigenous teacher can bring to us and I say ‘bring it on!” Please let’s replace political correctness with academic integrity, old fashion courteousness and above all respect in it’s full academic expression.

The Wish to be a Red Indian

If one were only an Indian, instantly alert, and on a racing horse, leaning against the wind, kept on quivering jerkily over the quivering ground, until one shed one’s spurs, for there needed no spurs, threw away the reins, for there needed no reins, and hardly saw that the land before one was smoothly shorn heath when horse’s neck and head would be already gone.

(Franz Kafka, “The Wish to be a Red Indian” Meditations, 1904-1912)

Kafka’s meditation is a brilliant evocation of untrammelled natural freedom and a model of poetic brevity.  It is not a documentary record of “Red Indian” life but the expression of a need to occupy open spaces.   The drama plays out not on the Great Plains but in Kafka’s head, in his room in the Jewish Quarter of Prague (which is everything the Great Plains are not:  cramped, twisty streets, confined, bustling).  Kafka’s wish is to be unfettered, to be free from everything constructed and mechanical (the rider needs no reins or spurs; by the end  even the horse itself is dissipating into into pure motion).  The wish is perhaps not to be some particular other, but, to become one with space and time, pure forward motion.

In that respect it goes beyond the typical sort of European fantasy projection that has informed, since Jacques Cartier kidnapped Dom Agaya and Taignoagny from Hochelaga and took them to France, the European construction of the native as “noble savage.”  Kafka’s wish clearly trades on some of this construction, but also dissolves it into the pure freedom of movement.  It is not the ritual, or the dress (there is no description of the rider at all) or the cosmology that elicits the wish, but rather the space  (and thus the freedom to move through it), that summons Kafka’s imagination.

Deadly irony, then that Kafka was writing this “meditation” at time when that very freedom of movement towards the endless horizon of the Plains had been robbed from their original inhabitants.  After the Indian Wars in the United States and the Northwest Rebellion in Canada, after the destruction of bison herds that were the foundation of the Prairie economy, on those plains and in the cities that colonialism created, a more prosaic reality ruled and rules still:  the reality of displacement, marginalization, racist hatred, poverty, and, violence.  But also:  a history of resilience and creativity, political struggle and demands for redress and social transformation, and also calls for solidarity, not separation, and self-change on the part of the descendants of the European colonizers who have (unequally of course) materially benefited so much from colonization.

An important step towards recognition of the reality of Canadian colonial history and a new political relationship with the people of the First Nations was the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.  One of the demands that it made was for a re-thinking of the teaching of Canadian history in particular and educational curricula in general, at all levels, to incorporate indigenous knowledges.  I think this demand is valuable for three reasons:  1) it will present a more comprehensive, and therefore, truer account of how Canada came to be;  2) by presenting a truer account of our history, it will give people the knowledge that they need to overcome the racist stereotypes that still dominate too many white Canadians’ images of people of the First Nations; and 3) it will contest the myth of the ‘noble savage’ naturally at one with nature, and remind people that First Nations’ communities always were and are human cultures with complex symbolic structures and thoughtful relationships to the environment and each other.

Still, as important as the task of re-thinking our history and reforming our curricula is, I worry that it is becoming abstracted from the deeper structural changes a full reconciliation with First Nations communities will require.  Let me give you and example to illustrate my concern.

Recently, I was asked by a former student to write a letter of support for an academic position for which he had he applied.  I noticed an addition to the usual boiler plate about commitment to equity.  The relevant section of the ad reads that the successful candidate will have a  “demonstrated understanding of the ways in which equity, indigenous knowledge, and sustainability are  fundamental to the student experience, to innovative scholarship …”   While there is nothing objectionable in itself about this requirement, I could not shake feeling supremely bothered by it.

On the one hand, there is the usual institutional hypocrisy of these requirements.  At the same time as all universities insist upon equity and sustainability, they trip over themselves to attract private funding, often from corporations who could care less about either, and all of which, no matter what their internal culture, drive the capitalist system and its exploitative, alienating, and habitat destroying effects on people, other species, and the environment generally.

But there was something especially irksome about the inclusion of “indigenous knowledge.”  It is not that I think, as someone who lives within the self-enclosed world of the academy, that historically oppressed people have no business demanding that curricula change to include their previously excluded realities.  Curricula should always be changing to ensure ever more comprehensive scope of coverage and understanding.  If universities want to be at the forefront of progressive social change (and they should)  then academics have a responsibility to rethink what they are teaching and find ways to include the excluded.  To be sure, academics must be in charge of these developments so that the changes are made in a way that coheres with the disciplinary traditions and methods that students still need to know, but the demand itself is legitimate and in keeping with the vocation of the university to make available to students the totality of human knowledge in its on-going development.

So what bugged me? The first problem is that the very idea of “indigenous knowledge”  as a generic universal seems to me to be the product of a European perspective.  Indigenous people are not “indigenous,”  save in contrast to settlers and their descendants.  In their own communities– which would be the ground and source of their knowledge– they are Cree, or Iroquois, or Dene, or Inuit.  Clearly, no one who is not form those communities is going to understand, from the inside, the details, the nuances, and especially the meaning of their specific worldviews.  The abstraction “indigenous knowledge”  thus negates the nature of indigenous knowledge, which is not generic, but always specific to actual indigenous communities.

(Is this not true also of “Europe?”  In a sense it is, but its scientific-philosophical outlook has always been cosmopolitan and universalizing.  It is true that we can identify general differences between French, English, and German philosophy, for example, but most of these philosophers would also identify with a pan-European philosophical project.  That point would apply with even greater truth to the sciences).

The abstract generality of the requirement leads directly to the second thing about it that bugged me.  I have worked in universities for 20 years and studied in them for 10 before that.  First Nations people and their historical knowledges are underrepresented everywhere.  It is overwhelmingly likely that none of the people who wrote this ad were  members of any First Nation.  Who, then, is fit to adjudicate the extent to which any applicant (most of whom almost certainly will be white), is or is not well enough versed in “indigenous knowledge”  to incorporate it in to their teaching practice?  Is this not a case of the colonizer (even if unwittingly)  defining for the colonized the very knowledges that define them?

But then I think:  surely the implications of my being irked are absurd.  One does not have to be a woman to understand that curricula have to include women’s perspectives.  Thus, by analogy, one does not have to be a member of a First Nation in order to understand the need to include First Nations’ perspectives.  I suppose there is some truth here.  Understanding the value of a perspective is different from sharing or living that perspective.

Still, it seems true that with some forms of understanding, inhabiting the perspective is part of what it really means to understand it.  I could read about the cosmology of the Iroquois, for example, even talk with elders about it, and I am sure I could learn to explain it, but if I did not grow up relating to the universe through that cosmology, I would not say that I understood it.  Is the “indigenous knowledge”  my learning to explain it, or is it the living the life from within the set of beliefs?  I would say the later.

So I suppose that what is bothering me here is the (probably) unintentional presentation of ‘indigenous knowledge’ as something that non-indigenous academics can just “pick up”  and mechanically build into their curriculum and that the mechanical addition makes us white academics satisfied that we have incorporated  “indigenous knowledge.”  That is not enough, of course, any more than it would have been enough for male academics to be satisfied that they had included women’s perspectives had they just grafted a “feminism unit” on to their courses, but otherwise failed to hire women.  If there is to be a genuine incorporation of indigenous knowledge into the academy, then the academy is going to have to invest seriously in First Nations’ scholars.  In the same way that the academy has been transformed (and the project is not yet complete) by feminism, which could not transform disciplines until there was a critical mass of female academics, so too the organic incorporation of the perspectives and knowledges and life-ways of the various First Nations can only be accomplished by similarly transforming the composition of the professoriate and student body.

Just as conservatives prophesied that feminism would destroy academic integrity and rigor, so too will conservatives rail against “indigenization.”  But just as feminism brought new perspectives to bear on traditional subjects, expanding their scope, not destroying them, so too will the knowledge of different indigenous communities expand but not destroy existing disciplines.  But that means having indigenous scholars across disciplines, and not only in Indigenous Studies programs, all of whom can cross traditions in the academy, speaking in their own voice within and against the voice of the disciplines in which they work.

Of course, that too is only a partial step in transforming the colonial history of the country.  The bigger issues concern land claims, honouring the treaties, and working out some means of systematically compensating the peoples of the First Nations for the material losses colonialism imposed upon them.

Against the Politics of the Bogey Man

Fair is Foul, Foul is Fair

According to the Council on Foreign Relations, the United States military, under Commander in Chief Barak Obama, dropped 26 171 bombs on seven countries in 2016:  Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Afghanistan, Somalia, Pakistan.  All of these countries are in the Middle East  or Africa, all have been de-stabilized by direct or indirect American military intervention, all are amongst the poorest in the world, none is capable of defending itself from American military might.  Since World War Two, the CIA has been involved in  57 interventions to destabilize and overthrow other governments.  Yet today, laughingly, embarrasingly, cringingly hypocritically, Democrats invoke the CIA as the protector of democracy and scold the Russians for “destablising the world.”  The blood of the millions of people killed by American interventions cries out in protest from the grave.

The CIA serves the American imperium, not democracy, and if Americans want to blame someone for the election of Donald Trump they should blame:  their own anti-democratic electoral college system, the near total disconnection between the leaders of the Democratic Party and white, middle America, and their own machinations against Bernie Sanders, as revealed by the emails leaked by Wikileaks but written by John Podesta, not Vladimir Putin.

The Democrats felt certain that Sanders could not win, and so worked against the millions of young people and workers mobilized by Sanders to ensure that Clinton won. Well, she did not win, and that is not a bad thing (although Trump winning is a bad thing).  Sometimes in politics there are no good short term alternatives.

People worried about Trump also need to remember what Hilary Clinton actually stood for while Secretary of State.  It certainly was not for educating the poor, huddled masses of the Global South, but violently forcing them into line with American priorities.  There was no war in the Middle East or North Africa in which she (and her fellow travellers like Samantha Power who cloak their imperialism in human right platitudes) did not want to intervene.  Have people already forgotten her psychotic grin as she crowed over the death of Muammar Gaddafi:  “We came, we saw, he died,”  she laughed.  Like Meursault in The Stranger, killing an arab was nothing to be troubled about.  One might think a feminist would be more troubled by the anal rape (with a steel rod) and summary execution of a fellow human being, even if he was a “terrorist.”(Watch the video and see if you think it is funny, and whether you think differently about someone, Clinton, who did).

In the West, Gaddafi was demonized as an oppressor and terrorist.  In Africa there was another side to his rule, the side that was more vexing to Western interests:  Gaddafi’s willingness to put his money where his mouth was to fund an African Central Bank and an African Investment Bank were far more troubling than his authoritarianism.  If either of those two institutions had been successful, African economies would have been able to free themselves from debt-bondage to America and Europe.

One might have thought the first black president would have been more in tune with African socio-economic realities.  Yet, despite the historical importance of the election of the first Black president in a nation founded on slavery, despite his talent for transporting rhetoric, despite the mild reforms he was able to make, (Obamacare was a real victory but it did not end the stranglehold of private insurance companies over the American health care system), the world carried on as before his election.  America conspired with Egyptian generals and Saudi monarchs to destroy the Arab Spring, (isn’t it funny how the Islamist opponents of your enemy (Assad) are your friends (in Syria) while the Islamist opponents of your friends, (the Egyptian generals), are your enemy, who must be toppled after winning a democratic election)? Domestically, Obama did not cause the Great Recession, but inequality continued to  rise.  He commuted the sentence of Chelsea Manning and let 330 people incarcerated for drug offenses free, but left America’s two most prominent political prisoners, Mumia Abu Jamal and Leonard Peltier in prison. In all, more than 2.3 million people are imprisoned in the United States.

These are not just anecdotes, they help establish a political point of general significance. The world under Obama was not at all safe for Arabs, Africans, black and poor Americans.  Prior to Obama, under George Bush II, the world was not safe for Arabs, Africans, or black and poor Americans.  And before that, under Bill Clinton, the same points were true, as they would have been under Hilary Clinton.  Neither Clinton, nor Bush, nor Obama created these problems through acts of sovereign will. They were elected to a lead a system which has, historically, relied upon exploited and alienated labour, super-exploited slave and colonial labour, has been patriarchal, racist, and homophobic, has been colossally crass, ignorant, and violent.

Today, Donald Trump will take the helm, and to hear too many liberals tell the tale, we are leaving utopia for hell.  The Obama years were utopic only for people who live on symbols and half measures: none of the major problems facing America or the world were addressed in a systematic way to the short term advantage of the disadvantaged or the long-term interests of a democratic polity, society, and economy, a pluralistic, creative, and dynamic culture, or peaceful, just international relationships.

Might Trump make things worse?  Indeed.  But that which he will make worse is already bad for a majority of the world’s people, and has been so through many presidencies, some which inspired hope (Kennedy, Clinton, Obama), and some which inspired fear (Nixon, Bush II, Trump).  Somehow, problems were able to survive beneath the changes of administration.  Why?  Because the problems are structural and systematic, and presidents are elected to preserve, not radically transform, the structure.

Fight Dem Back

But what about the “alt-right”  that has helped propel Trump to victory? What about them?  Are they racists, vile, and violent?  Indeed they are.  But there is an unnoticed irony in their  name.  “Alt-right” is supposed to make us think that there is something new, something trendy or avant-garde about them.  If, however, we read “alt”  as the German word “alt,” it translates as “old.”  And really, that is a more appropriate term, for there is absolutely nothing new or avant garde about the ideas of so called “white-nationalists.”  They are nothing more than white supremacists that have always formed a troublingly large segment of the American population.  They may dress differently from the cliche image of the southern racist with his car oil stained t-shirt and confederate flag baseball hat, but the politics, at a deep level, are the same.  Has the Tea Party already been forgotten?

My point is not to dismiss the threat of the white nationalist elements amongst Trump’s supporters, but rather to note that those politics have been around in different forms since the American Civil War.  They are no more or less frightening now than they ever were.  Let us not forget that the legal racial violence of Jim Crow laws were administered mostly by democrats (the so-called Dixiecrats).  Donald Trump has skillfully played the racial card available to every white American politician, but he did not invent that trick (remember Willie Horton, whose demonization allowed George Bush I to beat Michael Dukakis)?

The sad lesson of the history of political struggle is that it rarely advances through rational debate between two sides one of which is willing to cede to the force of the better argument.  Rather, the struggle for an egalitarian and positively free society will bring you into contact with people who think that only a select few should have power, and they will violently resist anyone’s attempt to democratize the system.  They will demonize, mock, slander, shame, insult, beat up, imprison and even kill opponents.

This history cannot be avoided and it cannot be defeated by asking the authorities to silence the slanderers and bigots.  As Linton Kwesi Johnson said in his powerful dub poem written in defiance of the racist violence of the National Front in England:  “Fascists on the attack we not gonna worry ’bout dat, fascists on de attack we gonna fight dem back.”  All the movements that have made for a more democratic, egalitarian, and culturally diverse and dynamic world have been movements of self-emancipation in the service of self-determination.  The level of protest activity has picked up significantly since Trump’s election and will culminate with the Women’s March the day after Trump takes office.  But structural change will take more than marches, which are powerful testimony, but their effects are ephemeral.

Credit Where Due

In a recent book Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams argue that the left has retreated to books and slogans and sniping at each other over language and micro-aggressions while the right has seized control of almost every major institution in the Western world and used that social power to inflict macro damage (see above).   While I disagree with some elements of their program and some of the principles on which it rests, they are absolutely correct to argue that if the left is serious about solving fundamental social problems then we need to re-define and re-build our organizations.    “Any strategy requires an active social force, mobilised into a collective formation, acting upon the world.  But while putting a counter-hegemonic staregy into practice will require the use of power, the left has been both overwhelmed by and systematically averse to the use of power.”(Inventing the Future, p. 155).  The left has been reduced to a series of protests without a unifying program.  Facebook postings and trying to censor opponents’ views on university campuses is not enough.

Our weakness is in stark contrast to the Right.  In the 1960s, the Right seemed to have been completely defeated by the new social movements.  They retreated, for a time, built think tanks and strategized about how to build a counter-movement, and– most importantly– they did it.  The neo-liberal counter-revolution was the result.

But neoliberalism is just one way of managing capitalism.  One part of that strategy– free trade– has engendered resistance amongst one section of the ruling class, represented by Trump in the United States and the Brexit faction in the UK.  Their critiques of free trade are not the same as critiques of capitalism (which was still exploitative and alienating and oppressive in nationalist-Keynesian times).  Nevertheless,  if there is going to be an official movement against existing trade agreements, that is one opening that the left could exploit as a space in which to begin the long task of re-building.  If Trump opens the door to renegotiate NAFTA, for example, the Canadian and American and Mexican working classes need to step in, together, and articulate a trade policy that actually works for working people.

Except:  we know that is not going to happen.  Mexican workers were the primary target of Trump’s racist demagoguery and his promises to repatriate American manufacturing jobs will, at least in the short term, bind a large section of private sector union leaders and their members to that aspect of his agenda.  Yet, already the betrayal is setting in.  The Trump boast that he saved 1000 American jobs at Carierre air conditioning is already being undermined by the usual reality (for workers) of layoffs.

Trump will be inaugurated today and the world will keep turning, but the task of the left will press upon us with more insistence. The task is long term, and involves ideological and political work towards building new types of socialist parties.  Ideologically, we need to develop a program that resonates with workers and oppressed groups, that, at a minimum:  a) coherently articulates how problems of class, race, gender, sexuality, can be addressed by a unified left; b) spells out a credible economic alternative to free market capitalism, which begins with; c) mundane issues like progressive taxation and re-funding public institutions and works up to; d)more fundamental changes like democratizing work and radically shortening the working day; and e) brings Greens into the fold by explicating a new vision of the relationship between human beings and the biosphere and a new set of life-affirmative values to replace the values of world-destructive ego-centric greed.

Politically, the task involves coming up with a coherent account of a) how a new socialist party can work within, in order to b) transform the existing institutions of liberal-democracy; that c) spells out a coherent socialist interpretation of the values and limitations of civil and human rights; that d) re-thinks the historical antipathy for the left to political pluralism, and which; e) exorcises the romantic ghost of insurrectionary politics and revolution as a one off cataclysmic overthrow of power.  These tasks will require patience, long-term, deep-organizing in unions and social movements, a willingness to re-think politics in light of fundamental values, but above all, an end to in-fighting and sloganeering in favour of working together in solidarity.

True Ice: A Memoir

I have never skated on such perfect ice, as pure as lead crystal and as hard, but receptive to my skate, my stride, as if friction had been eliminated and there is no loss of energy between leg thrust and forward motion, the turns easy, (except the first, when my imagining the breakaway got ahead of my feet and I tripped over myself and landed an embarrassed heap).

It is as if, as if 30 years had disappeared and I was a lithe, lean boy, all body and no mind, and not a round middle aged man squinting without his glasses to see the other end of the ice; just limbs harmonized and agile; as if there there were no wobble to my left crosscuts, just a perfect arc you could trace with a compass, no ache in my knees, no worry that the pain in my left arm is a heart attack and not a bruise from falling, that energy doesn’t run out and late does not keep getting earlier; that I am and we are just flesh and no responsibilities in pure playful motion, all of us together, for no one and nothing, just to feel the wind of the sprint as we skate, with nothing pressing after this hour away, just pure playing bodies, smiling, laughing at the bottom of the bowl of 6000 empty seats; just the ice, the puck, the back and forth and up and down of the play, the adrenaline and sweat, the jerseys still mismatched and uncoordinated, but the passes a bit crisper, the back checking more determined, the desire for one more rush stronger.

I have never wanted to beat the defenceman to the puck as badly as on that last rush, to hang on to it rather than pass, to drive just a bit harder to the net, head fake, to score, not for the fun of scoring but for the fun of making the maximum effort, to feel my lungs and legs at the limit.

There was a collective fantasy of moving faster, of being at full speed with just one stride, of being able to play on and on and on; as if each rush left me just as strong as before, but by 12:45 lactic acid reality is back, and my arm does hurt from the fall, and my feet feel cramped, and my knees burn, and I am not a lithe lean boy, and I have to teach in the morning.

Second Last of the East End Bars (A Found Story)

A night that began in billowing, silver mists in Richmond Hill has led here: an improbable bar toughing it out between Greektown to the west and the Afghani and Pakistani neighbourhood to the east.

He looks like someone I know, but isn’t.

“Hey how are ya man, ya wanna shot?” he asks, before I even have my coat off.

You need people skills to drink in a place like this.

“No thanks man. I’m good with beer, but thanks, eh.”

He does a shot of whiskey.  “All ya got is friends, eh, that’s this place. Friends, ya. I’m Hal.”

Well, I have to shake his hand, no matter where it’s been.  “Hey Hal, I’m Jeff.” I nod and try to disengage so I can watch the hockey game.

He looks at me, glassy-eyed, smiling, head orbiting its drunken axis, wobbly: “We’ve all been there, eh brother?”

“Fer sher,” I reply, and turn to the television.

My shot goes instead to Tommy, the brother of Susie, the Vietnamese bartender and owner, cute in her grey tights and short-for-December skirt.

“Hey Hal,” she kids, “you owe me 200 dollar.”

Laughter.  An ugly man, soon to pull out a harmonica, tells Susie that she owes Hal the 200 dollars.


Susie skiffles off,  leaving Tommy and his iPhone to hold the fort.

There is a freezing rain warning, but I’m on foot.  “Tower of Song” comes on.  It reminds me of when I used to smoke.

“We invented NASA, all those guys who built the Avro Arrow, they went and built it. Hey Tommy, that’s good turkey, and I’ve been eatin’ turkey for thirty fuckin’ years.”

The time for more shots has arrived.  The ugly harmonica player is standing the round this time.  The play is clearly to get a woman (whose lower face seems to have shrunk to half the size of the top) even more drunk than she is.

All ya got is friends, eh?

“I’ll have the gold, the gold, ya know, gold, uh, cinnamon…”

“Goldschlager,”  Tommy helps out.

“Ya, Goldschlager,” she repeats, then downs the shot.

“Pay back, baby, pay back!” she cackles, hugging the ugly man, smiling, hanging off his neck.

All ya got is friends, eh?

At the back, a table of Ethiopians with the drained-of-hope look of seasoned Northern Ontario alcoholics works through another round of Ex and OV.  They chime in with half-hearted “Woy yoy yos!”  during “Buffalo Soldier,” but leave after the third in a row AC/DC song.  I wonder what dreams they packed when they emigrated.  I am betting that being piss drunk in a place like this was not one of them.

All ya got is friends, eh?

“Toronto and Chicago are almost the same size, man.  There were 60 murders in Toronto and 6000 in Chicago, 6000 that’s uh,10, 100, no, fuck, 1000 times more. Holy fuck, eh.”

I notice:  I am the only one here not wearing a baseball cap.

The harmonica has now been pulled from the pocket and brought to the ugly man’s lips.  He is trying to play along, (appropriately), with “Have a Drink on Me.”  He’s the closest thing to a rock star in here tonight so the woman with the shrunken lower face leers at him the best she can.  I don’t imagine them fucking.

“Wait, shit, maybe it was only, like 600.  Still, fuck.”

“We’re playin’ ball in hand, but we’re not playin it,” Hal announces in the general direction of the ugly man and the woman with the ill-sized face.

“There was an 18 year old running for parliament, did ya hear that?  What the fuck does an eighteen year old know?  What fuckin’ life experience he’s got?”

“We’re playin’ ball in hand, but we ain’t playin’ it.”


“Those are our fucking diamonds!!”

All ya got.

The Importance of Being Less Earnest

Of a Humourless Tone Adopted Recently in Politics

Iconic anarchist Emma Goldman is reputed to have said that if she could not dance in the revolution, she wanted no part of it.  In fact, she never uttered that precise phrase.  Here is her explanation:                                 

At the dances I was one of the most untiring and gayest. One evening a cousin of Sasha [Alexander Berkman], a young boy, took me aside. With a grave face, as if he were about to announce the death of a dear comrade, he whispered to me that it did not behoove an agitator to dance. Certainly not with such reckless abandon, anyway. It was undignified for one who was on the way to become a force in the anarchist movement. My frivolity would only hurt the Cause.


I grew furious at the impudent interference of the boy. I told him to mind his own business, I was tired of having the Cause constantly thrown into my face. I did not believe that a Cause which stood for a beautiful ideal, for anarchism, for release and freedom from conventions and prejudice, should demand the denial of life and joy. I insisted that our Cause could not expect me to become a nun and that the movement should not be turned into a cloister. If it meant that, I did not want it. “I want freedom, the right to self-expression, everybody’s right to beautiful, radiant things.” Anarchism meant that to me, and I would live it in spite of the whole world–prisons, persecution, everything. Yes, even in spite of the condemnation of my own comrades I would live my beautiful ideal.
[Living My Life (New York: Knopf, 1934), p. 56]

Goldman’s point, I think, is that exuberance and joy cannot be postponed until after the revolution, but on the contrary are signs, even in the midst of oppression and exploitation, that life is worth living.  If it is worth living, it is worth fighting for:  the real motivation for revolutionary struggle is not some abstract intellectual desire to see programmatic change, but to create the social conditions in which the exuberance and joy of self-conscious presence, friendly and loving interaction and relationship, and creative activity are constant and not fleeting features of life.  Like Democritus, revolutionaries should be laughing philosophers who fight because they love life and not because they hate an enemy.

I think political activists rightly anxious at the growth of right-wing populism in the United States and openly Nazi formations in Europe would do well to remember Goldman’s lesson today.  We are quite possibly present for the end of the liberal-democratic era.  If that is too alarmist, then we are at least in the midst of a serious crisis.   This crisis will not be resolved in favour of protecting the valuable gains of the past, necessary as a social plateau from which to build higher, without revivified and unified social movements and progressive parties.  To build those movements and parties, we have to be the sort of people who not only espouse good ideas, but who live life in ways that prefigure the joyful values that we think should organize a future society.

Building the movements and parties that need to be built means understanding what the real causes of the present crisis are.  Those causes are structural and rooted in private and exclusive control over the resources that we all require in order to live.  Progressive struggle needs to focus on reclaiming those resources:  as the Sioux of Standing Rock have just demonstrated, victory means taking back the land from capital.  And that means:  understanding who it is we should be fighting against:  the ruling class, not each other.

I understand that critical politics requires self-criticism, that many people, especially white men, who want to change the world bear the marks of having grown up privileged in the world as it is, and need to be reminded about the ways in which this privilege can shape their character, their assumptions about what is funny or sexy, in all sorts of problematic ways.  I understand that everyone needs to be reflective about the language they use and the hurtful implications it sometimes has.  Since speakers are sometimes ignorant of these implications, everyone needs to be open to listening to the voice of others when they try to explain why something the speaker thinks is funny is actually offensive.

At the same time, everyone also has to keep in mind that revolutionary change is about collective and individual self-transformation, not more repressive regulation by the authorities, and that individuals also have to be free to laugh and desire and relate to each other based upon their own tastes and interests, to the extent that those tastes and interests do not actively exclude, dominate, or impede others from doing the same.

There is such a thing as white male privilege, there are offensive jokes, and we do need to pay attention to what marginalized others want to be called.  But regulating jokes and relationships and pronouns are not the sole and ultimate ends of progressive political struggle.  While it may be true that all white men are privileged vis-a-vis historically oppressed groups, there are class differences that mean that some white men– a very small minority– rule the world, while most other white men are exploited and alienated.  Punctuating any intervention a white man might make into a political argument with the reminder that he speaks from a position of privilege might be true, but in itself does nothing to help understand this class difference.  It becomes a predictable refrain, and thus leaves everything as it is, including the problematic white male privilege. At the same time such mechanical repetitions can alienate a subset of white men who need to be allies in the struggle.  To overcome the very real problem of white male privilege requires changing the structures of liberal-capitalist patriarchal society.  That requires unified political movements and not lectures-  generally delivered by the highly educated (itself a site of privilege)- about privilege.

We can say the same thing about humour.  Of course jokes can be sexist and racist and homophobic.  But in humour, context and intention counts.  Some jokes are racist and are intended to mock and harm.  Other jokes play on racial stereotypes in order to expose their absurdity.  Laughter can be harmful but it can also be liberating, a means of establishing connection across racial or ethnic divides, and we need to be able to tell the difference (and to laugh at ourselves, whomever we are).  If we are afraid to laugh because, as the character Richard Splett on Veep (a very funny stereotype of the sexually ambiguous male low-level Washington insider, brilliantly played by Sam Richardson) says “It’s not funny unless everyone can laugh” we are in effect abolishing humour from our lives.  Work out his principle as an argument:

It is not funny unless everyone can laugh. The ability to laugh depends upon one’s sense of humour.  But people have different senses of humour. Therefore, not everyone can laugh at the same jokes.  Therefore, no joke is funny.

But the argument, if true, is a reductio ad absurdum of the principle.

The real issue is not whether everyone can laugh, but whether the joke at which some laugh and others groan is spoken with hateful or loving intentions.  When jokes that play on stereotypes are told by people we love and trust they are funny; when structurally similar jokes are told by bigots, they are not.  We need to learn to better distinguish bigotry from humour.  Not only is life without laughter hardly worth living (perhaps not worth living at all), it also makes the left too easy a target for the right, who are happy to protect their bigotry by portraying us as dour prigs allergic to fun and prone to call the police every time we take offense.

The issue here is that if in our struggles against oppression we start to fear the spontaneity of desire and wit as the enemy we run the risk of seeing suffocating bureaucratic-legal regulation of every aspect of individual life and relationships as the solution to social problems.  In fact, the very need for bureaucratic-legal regulation is the sign of, not the solution to, those problems.  For example:  rape is not caused by too few legal regulations on sexual relationships, rather, the need for legal regulation of sexual relationships is a function of patriarchy and male sexual violence.  Hence  the ultimate goal should not be more and more detailed regulation of sexual lives and connections, but (as radical feminists and gay and lesbian activists in the 1960’s argued) a liberation of sexuality from its deformations under patriarchal capitalist relationships so that the very idea of sexual violence becomes oxymoronic.

Of course, this point does not mean that we should not be scrupulous about consent or responsive to the names by which marginalized identities want to be called, but rather that we understand that the deeper political project is to build a world in which we all treat each other as ends-in-ourselves, whatever our identity and in all relationships, so that there is never a question of coercion or violence, physical or emotional.  I know that this goal is a utopian horizon, but it is nevertheless the one towards which we need to be working.

The joyous essence of the emancipatory vision of radical politics that Goldman insists upon has animated the best of socialism, feminism, anarchism, black, and gay liberation movements (we can set aside the differences and difficult relationships between them for the time being).  We are not fighting to be tokens of types but individuals who fully enjoy our brief time on this mortal coil and contribute something of value to others who will take our place.  Let the light of Goldman’s defense of the “right to beautiful, radiant things”  shine in the darkness of the current political moment.



From a reductionist standpoint, humans are just organisms that occupy space for a very brief moment of cosmic time;  our life-activity mere survival and reproduction; our sensory relationships with the world focused only threat avoidance, mate finding, and energy consumption.  While there is nothing in this account which is, strictly speaking, untrue, it could apply to any organism in nature, and thus fails to capture that which is distinctively human about our embodied being.

Essential and definitive of human embodied being is an affective-interpretive-aesthetic relationship with the spaces we inhabit.  Human beings do of course depend on nature like all other life, and thus, we, like all living things, live in environments.  But we do not just subsist, we create worlds of meaning through the aesthetic and emotional work of interpreting the places in which we live.  Human beings not only occupy spaces in so far as we are bodies, we form emotional-aesthetic attachments to places of significance.

One might be tempted to posit some sort of “spirit” to places, an excess beyond the material features of environments, to explain their significance, but I think that this move is unnecessary.  Human beings have brains that, in social relationships with each other, develop languages, and languages, over millennia, have developed beyond instrumental signalling devices, through metaphor, symbolization, and allegory, to create a reality of meaning that is fully of this world, although not explicable in terms of the elements and forces of physics.  The meaning-world is still material, in so far as its emergence can be explained in terms of the practices and capacities of embodied beings, but not understandable in reductionist terms.  The “poetics of space”  (Gaston Bachelard) emerge from our felt attachments to places as differentially important to us as individuals because they are the contexts in which we form our identity.  My home does not feel the same to me as your home, one lake is just a body of water, the other where I learned to swim; one streetscape I can walk down with indifference, the other contains a bookshop in which, as a student, I first started to feel a true intellectual calling.  The geographer Edward Casey calls these spaces in which our identity is formed “place-worlds.”  “Places come into us lastingly” he writes, “once having been in a particular place for any considerable time– or even briefly, if our experience there has been intense– we are forever marked by that place, which lingers in us indefinitely.” (“Between Geography and Philosophy:  What Does it Mean to be in the Place-World, p.688.”)

Talk of the relationship between places of significance and identity raises very serious political dangers- the “blood and soil”  atavism that I discussed in my last post and the pernicious, racist doctrine of “ethnic pluralism”  (which says that every culture is valid in itself but that they should all stay in their traditional homelands and not “mix”).  Now, this sort of racist appropriation of place would not be possible if we did not have an affective-interpretive relationship with places.  People can be whipped up into a frenzy to defend “their place”  from others because they do in fact feel powerful attachments to it.  The way to combat this problem is not to appeal to a rootless cosmopolitanism that is indifferent to the differential significance of places for people, but to disconnect what in the racist and ethno-pluralist discourse is essentially connected: meaningful space to nation and nation to exclusive ownership and control over places. 

In order to disrupt the pathological implications of these connections, the first thing we need to  understand is that nations are not places.  Modern (post-French Revolution) nations are ideas, “imagined communities”  in Benedict Anderson’s phrase, identities produced by abstraction from differences, not natural kinds; slogans that can be used to mobilize some subset of the total number of people in a geographic-legal construction against enemy-formations that purportedly threaten the integrity of the in-group by violating borders or occupying space not rightly theirs.

Of course, history does know of the violent displacement of people-  not every threat is constructed or ideological.  At the same time, not every important aspect of human identity is political.  The personal is political, yes, but not every single aspect of the person.  We become concrete individuals through our actions in concrete, discrete, and specific places.  As opposed to an abstraction like “nation,” always constructed in relation to a history that exceeds the individual, places are always bound by the individual’s experiential field and linked to a personal history.  A meaningful place never exceeds what can be comprised by a singular and individual experience: “Joe Lake seen from my uncle’s dock,”  not “Northern Ontario.”

It is true that the people that occupy and relate to these places can be captured under higher level abstractions.  Today, almost every place, as a matter of geo-legal fact, is included in some national political space.  But what makes the place significant is one’s own connection to it, a connection which does not exclude anyone else from having similar or different identity-shaping experiences.  Nationalist discourse works in large part by saying:  “we have something special that no one else has.”  It becomes dangerous when it constructs non-nationals as threats to this special in-group possession.  But the places in which identity-shaping experiences develop are personal, not exclusive.  You can stand beside me and look at Joe Lake from my uncle’s dock, and it does not matter what your national identity is.  Maybe you do not feel about the view as I do:  it does not matter, you are free to interpret it as you like.  Maybe you prefer a different landscape:  all to the good, it is no threat to my feeling deeply at home in this one.

The meaningful texture of identity-forming experience occurs at a different scale than nationalist abstraction:  concrete felt presence, not abstract thought.  Through on-going acts of self-interpretation, multiple, innumerable place-worlds are built up out of the material geography of the planet.  These are not idealizations but concrete doublings of the physical space:  what an embodied, thinking, feeling, language-using bio-social being creates as it builds an identity for itself.  Without these place-worlds human life would revert towards the animal:  habitat distinguished by raw physical differences (climate, food supply, etc), but lacking meaning.  Cities would be like ant colonies without the “storied streets” that draw people to them and make them feel part of some grander creation.

Now, it might seem as though the personal connection between place and meaning turns the public private and in effect establishes a property relation over the meaning of places.  This conclusion would be wrong. Property relations depend upon legal-political constructions; the meaning of places depend upon our creative-interpretive powers and our need to find or create meaning in our natural and social environments.  Meaning is not my property even if I create it since the whole point of creating it is to share it, not to own it.  My identity, constructed through self-interpretations, interactions, and feelings in diverse place-worlds does not exclude anyone else’s identity as illegitimate.  One’s own interpretations of a place are never normative for everyone else.  There are an open and unlimited number of interpretations of place-world’s possible:  their accumulation obeys the law of abundance (more for everyone)  and not scarcity (I take mine and you fend for yourself).

What matters to the production of meaning in place-worlds is attention to the material details of the place and the feelings that they arouse.  The places can be anywhere:  the production of meaning is not parochial and the sense of our individual identity is not nostalgic:  where there is life and attention there is development of identity.  It is not a static and abstract self-consciousness opposed to a chaos of empirical details.  The empirical is not chaotic, it is made sense of by attending to the real contours of places.

Since identities are formed to be shared, we can say that places-  which are the contexts in which identities are created in an on-going fashion- are one crucial material condition of friendship.  In an on-line world we are apt to forget about the importance of shared place-worlds for the formation of friendships.  Here, two points are significant.  Friends share over-lapping place worlds, the place-worlds which they experienced together and on that basis forged the friendship.  But they are also the occasions for sharing the differences that friendship also depends upon:  no one’s experience of a place world is exactly like that of any other.  Friendship is non-instrumental sharing of the self as a materially particular person with another materially particular person.  The physical distinction and difference between the friends is crossed by the stories of shared-place worlds that link their distinct life-histories.

Whereas private property depends upon you not having what I have, (which means, in conditions of unequal distribution, poverty for some as a direct consequence of wealth for others)  the sharing of the experiences that we create through our interpretations of meaningful places enrich us all as meaning-needing beings.  The interpretation of  a place-world is not the same as the domination of space.  The construction of  a concrete, particular identity is no threat to the construction of other concrete identities.  Rather, the differences between our personal identities, forged in the place-worlds we have inhabited, is a condition of there being anything important to share with others, and thus one foundation for the construction of a world of human wealth in which it is worth living.