Sunday, September 26, 2010

Das Leben der Anderen: An emotional response

It's 1986. The East is heavy with coal. The concrete rises story after uniform story. There are rats in the attic of our soot-stained Ahrensfelde home and the cemetery nearby is equally greyed and barren.

I was three years old when we lived on the other side of the iron curtain, but the sights and especially smells of East Berlin still trigger an emotional response elicited by few other phenomena. Our memories of early childhood are, of course, sparse and reconstructed, and the importance I place on that time in my life is largely a result of subsequent developments, like that day in November three years later when my dad sat watching the television and crying. The result is that stories of life in the DDR, particularly when set in the 80s, automatically carry greater emotional resonance.

I was bowled over by Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others). Particularly impressive was the sympathetic portrayal of the committed ideologue even before his aesthetic conversion, who, because of his very commitment, cannot easily watch his beloved system be so abused by those in power. In fact, I wonder if the man's quiet dedication had fostered the sort of attentiveness that allowed him, after all those years, to recognize and be moved by the beauty in the world of the writer Dreyman. Perhaps ideologue and aesthete tread some common ground, ground unfamiliar to those interested only in personal gain and utility.

Of course, our sympathy for the quiet Wiesler increases due to his heroic sabotage of the Stasi system. There was much to appreciate about the DDR. Those who had few material desires, who had little personal ambition, could live quite comfortably and enjoy many of its definite advantages (I think always of the education and health care). But then there was the Stasi. A few years ago I sat in on a conversation between my father and the former pastor of the Mennonite church in East Berlin. They would not look at the records, they decided. What was the point? They were already reasonably certain that three of the members in the congregation had been active informants.

Accompanying the soot and the concrete were watchfulness and fear, strategy and enforced silence. Perhaps it's naïve to think this doesn't take place in our capitalist republic, but I simply do not live in fear of the government, and for that I am increasingly grateful.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Colour and the Canon

My regular perusing on 3 Quarks Daily led me to this article by Lindsay Johns in which he offers a strong opinion on the "sensitivity" of education to the colonial history of thought. Much to highlight and much to explore.
As black people, we cannot change history, and should not try to reject knowledge because of its provenance.
I would find this statement more palatable if it were amended to read "wisdom" instead of "knowlege" for the simple reason that the "provenance" of wisdom is much less determinate than knowledge. As per yesterday's post, new knowledge is gained through a conquest of some kind, whereas wisdom is as likely to dismantle as it is to fortify.

Most welcome insight:
Terence, regarded as one of the founding fathers of western drama, and a seminal influence on Renaissance humanism, was in fact a freed black African slave from Carthage. Saint Augustine, philosopher, theologian and intellectual bedrock of Christianity, was North African, from modern day Algeria. In our consciousness, we have come to see these figures as white. So the way the canon has been refracted through racist lenses does need to be incisively and intelligently critiqued.
The uncomfortable truth that you will never hear me say in an education seminar:
But it is undeniable that man’s inhumanity to man is only one part of the human condition. The dead white men never had to face the evils of slavery or the physical and emotional oppression of racism. Thus their minds were freer to range over the great philosophical questions, metaphysical quandaries and cosmological dilemmas. In short, they have been allowed to address man in relation to the macrocosm, as opposed to just the microcosm.
He concludes that insofar as we want to teach humanity, we should consider the canon of "dead white men" profoundly relevant to every student. Interesting.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Demography and the Imperialist Imagination

The will to know finds only idols.

Idolatry is not a popular topic for Canadian educators, and writer John Willinsky instead describes the will to know as the intellectual interest of imperialism, for “at its root was a desire to take hold of the world”. In Learning to Divide the World: Education at Empire's End Willinsky leaves aside any discussion of global capitalist empire in order to examine the even more direct consequences of European colonial expansion, namely the categorization and classification of the world. Our education system is predicated on this division and naming, and yet we rarely look at the political and economic conquest that accompanied this “new knowledge”. Willinsky proposes an educational accountability that teaches how our system of knowledge developed, thus complicating the divisions we too often consider given. We used geographical examples in my “School and Society” seminar, and I do think these make the point most spectacularly. Why is it more important to know the location of present day Brazil than it is to understand the political history of the region? Why do we learn the name Baffin Island without knowing how it came to have that name?

Imperial education is the education of the industrial and managerial age. The conquering mind keeps hold of what it conquers by keeping it manageable, by orders and ranks. Our seminar also addressed the poorly-named hidden curriculum (could it be less hidden?), the task schools gave themselves of creating obedient and docile citizens through militant exercises. We were asked to think about how the contemporary school system replicates the status quo, but I soon became convinced that the “scientific” socio-economic model is unequipped to really speak to that question.

To explain I must say a little about my professor, but let it be known that this dissent was already voiced in seminar. The professor has several convictions that quickly became apparent, stemming from his initial claim that one is either racist or anti-racist. He is convinced that all the students entering his class have internalized certain racial and social prejudices and that the only solution to these divisive attitudes is to name them and denounce them with much gusto. Wielding statistics as weapons, he made a simple morality tale out of every historical and contemporary situation and sought to teach all the supposedly white students about their privileged whiteness (regardless of the protests of an Irish and a Portugese woman). Europe (whatever that is) was the unequivocal aggressor and the colonial project was likened to WWII, “except the bad guys won”. Where does this get us?

No study of colonialism can ignore the new manifestations of the imperial imperative, especially the push to classify the world according to monetary value. If our first task is to clearly identify where privilege lies, based on access to particular cultural communties and the wealth they command, we are accepting the dominant definition of privilege and only continuing the imperial project. We read a speech by James Baldwin for the same seminar in which he insists that the white people are the victims of their own oppression. They have deluded themselves; they do not know who they are. If only some of this wisdom could be brought into our pedagogy. If only we could learn that the managers of knowledge destroy themselves in their conceit. Such a claim upsets the neat division between victims and oppressors, but aren't these supposedly fixed divisions exactly what we should be challenging?

There is a certain strand of sociological orthodoxy that desperately needs the arts, or even psychology, to begin to think about the human condition. Sociology (in its crassest form) makes its home in demography, using gender, race and class to “classify” the world, thus extending the imperial imagination it seeks to challenge. The task I give myself is to bring a Yoderian pedagogy into the classroom, one that denies the binary of conquered and conqueror, and to hold a Dostoyevskian picture of humanity, in which human beings are not known according to what they are, but according to their sufferings, desires, and loves.

Warning: This is the first of what may be a barrage of posts in response to the climate of contemporary teacher education.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Promotional Purposes

My friends are embarking on exciting projects. If you're in Winnipeg, you should listen to this radio show. And you should all keep an eye out for this band.

City Livin'

It's been two weeks since I moved, and I can tentatively say that Toronto agrees with me. What the apartment still lacks in furniture and décor (it's a slow process), it makes up for in space. This, along with the very good roommate situation and the nearby organic farmer's market, brings out a domesticity I haven't seen in three years. I've been washing walls and cooking like mad: beet borscht, fennel stir fry and sausages, Moroccan inspired kale, Greek salads. This is a very good development.

Toronto is all about neighbourhoods. While every major street is packed with businesses, you won't find what you're looking for unless you're in the right neighbourhood. For example, don't really bother looking for bubble tea unless you're in Koreatown or Chinatown, and don't expect to find a fabric store unless you're in the Design District. Luckily, I'm within easy walking distance of the bustling nightlife of Little Italy/Portugal (rather indistinct at this point), and the ever more interesting Bloordale strip (Bloor between Dufferin and Lansdowne), home to some fabulous vintage/antique stores.

My proximity to Little Italy (College Street) also places me near one of my favourite TO havens: Soundscapes. The tiny store carries a fantastic selection of new albums and, more importantly, sells tickets to every concert with a fraction of the service charge Ticketmaster tacks on. You have to go elsewhere to dig through the bins, but at Soundscapes you can keep your eye on what's happening around Toronto, and even hear the occasional in-house concert. I already purchased tickets to the Eric Chenaux CD release, which happened tonight at a perfectly wonderful church venue called The Music Gallery, and to a Deerhoof/Xiu Xiu show, two bands I've been dying to see for years!

I was very nervous to cycle in the big city, but most of my fears were way off base. The vehicle traffic moves slowly, and bike lanes run on several major thoroughfares. I'm still terrified of getting too near the streetcar tracks. Getting stuck in one of those would be disastrous. It will also take some time to get used to the bicycle traffic! I'm not a great cyclist, but I have the right bike for city riding – a ten speed with cruiser handlebars (I feel very European) – and find myself constantly needing to pass slower bikes. This does not always work. Yesterday I was stuck behind a guy who was listening to an iPod and drinking a coffee while perched on a bike far too small for him (seriously, his knees stuck out at odd angles on either side) and tottering precariously back and forth across the bicycle lane. At least being trapped behind him for five minutes made for a good laugh!

Another surprise: Toronto is friendly! I get the sense that, once you get out of downtown, people actually like conversing with strangers!

I have some ambivalence about what I'm actually doing here. I have taken a scholastic step back and am enrolled in a Bachelor of Education program. Teaching is right on, but I already miss being a graduate student. However, the very different nature of the work means I will have time/mental energy for more discretionary reading, and without another forum for discussion, I imagine the blog posts will become more frequent.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Albums that changed the way I listen to music - Part IV of IV

Part IV of IV: New Trends

Welcome to the final installment of this patchy attempt to analyze my own musical taste.

Since 2005, one or two Canadian artists have dominated my musical landscape each year, due mostly to the excitement that builds with repeated live shows. Final Fantasy owned 2005, Elliott Brood was the sound of 2006, and Jon-Rae & the River dominated the summer of 2007. The Acorn and Rock Plaza Central filled 2007 and 2008, each fueled by the release of a brilliant concept album, and the raucous bluesy gospel of Bruce Peninsula marked 2009. I think I may have finally tired of Ontario death-country/folk-rock collectives. A very different strain of recent releases has done more to alter my overall experience of music in the last several years.

Panda Bear – Person Pitch
Also dating back to my summer of post-punk and gin, Person Pitch is the perfect hot weather album. It sounds like The Beach Boys, if they had turned electronic and done even more drugs. This album was my introduction to that whole swath of recent music that takes elements of pop and combines it with the repetitive, mood-altering qualities of electronic. Prior to Person Pitch, I couldn't really get behind music that eschewed typical melodies in favour of repetition; after Person Pitch I began listening to Animal Collective and even found myself appreciating Philip Glass (I attended a ballet set to his music and had something of an “a-ha!” moment). Noah Lennox (aka Panda Bear) seems to have his fingers in a lot of great stuff these days, collaborating with Atlas Sound (the solo project of Deerhunter's Bradford Cox) and with German ambient electro musician Pantha du Prince (see below).

Zomby – Where Were You in ‘92

It took this great throwback house/dub-step album to make me realize that club music needn't be bad just because I don't want to dance to it. Only one or two of the tracks on this album actually makes me want to get up and groove (and that's only because I recently learned what house dance looks like), yet all of the tracks rock. Once the album began to make sense to me, I could hardly listen to anything else.

Pantha Du Prince – Black Noise

Again, once I really started listening to this album, I could hardly listen to anything else. Never thought I would become a fan of ambient electronic, but here it is, my favourite album of 2010 thus far. The songs emerge gradually, taking on many textures and rhythms, and then changing altogether in one moment. This album will never be boring. Incidentally, the cover art has been my desktop background for about seven month. It shows a tiny church accessible only by boat on the edge of the Koenigsee in Bavaria, a perfectly gorgeous spot.

Dirty Projectors – Rise Above
Dave Longstreth et al have really made waves in the Brooklyn music scene in the last few years, and hence, in the North American music scene. Their latest full-length, Bitte Orca, is the critical darling and crowd favourite, and they have since had relatively high-profile collaborations with David Byrne and, most recently, Bjork. This output has all been fantastic, but, as I mentioned in a post from last year, I'm still partial to the earlier “cover” album. Rise Above is Longstreth's rewritten version of Black Flag's 1981 album of the same title, and the combination of the simple punk lyrics and the sparse instrumentals makes this a painfully vulnerable listen. Like a Xiu Xiu album. The alternating minimalism and crashing noise seems characteristic of a lot of “avant garde” pop rock these days, and I like it. Frankly, they're not that great live, so here's the album version of my favourite track.

Thus endeth the series.

Friday, September 3, 2010

What for privacy?

Justin EH Smith is awesome again:
To the oft-expressed concern that too much of our life is finding its way online, to be mined and held against us by future Orwellian governments and humorless employers, I always reply, what life? I have no life left other than what leaves a digital trace. Do you? Are you sure?