Friday, March 18, 2005

open space, colonization, the written word and freedom

My mind has been singing with all the wonderful ideas and words I have encountered this week. It began with a friend sending along a link to Chris Corrigan's site, Parking Lot. I was immediately taken by the content--seeing links to my own work with Angeles Arrien's four-fold way and so I eagerly began reading back until I came to this, which if you follow all the links at the end will begin to give you an idea of why I haven't slept much since encountering it. There are so many deep and rich practices here I won't even try to talk about them now. As they unfold more specifically in my work and life they will find their way into words. I took Chris up on his invitation to contribute to a conversation on designing an Appreciative Inquiry Summit for Aboriginal Youth suicide prevention and was honoured to have a wonderful conversation last night that will lead to many more I'm sure. Thanks Chris!

The thoughts I want to capture at the moment came from a website posted as a comment to Chris's blog . This article is an excerpt from Taiaiake Alfred's, Wasáse: indigenous pathways of action and freedom, to be published later this year. This is a provocative and brilliant paper that I found connected to my current thinking on the deep influence of colonialism on our individual and communal capacity for freedom and effective action.

I found the comparison of our languages particularly sparking. The idea that English is a language of nouns--the concept of naming a thing as static--versus languages that use verbs for naming--preserving the idea of a manifesting process. (I have always maintained that I am not a manifestation that has processes, but rather that I am a process that has manifested.) This has led my thinking in a radical the potential roots of the colonial mindset...the advent of written language...Let me build the thought bridges...

The British, and their successors the Americans, have been only the most recent purveyors of global colonization. The Brits were themselves colonized by the Normans and before them the Romans. We could look at the Romans as the inventors of colonization, but they inherited much of their thought, culture and practice from the Greeks. The Greeks, who are credited with the invention of democracy--a form of government that is currently upheld as superior and most protective of individual freedom--based their democracy on the concept of citizenship which was most often defined as ownership of land (which can, I suggest, be seen as the colonization of the natural world). The Greeks were inheritors of the traditions of the ancient near eastern cultures...(the ancient Egyptians being particularly xenophobic). This leads me back to the edges of recorded human history. To the cradle of the Near East, where scholarship points to as the birthplace of Western writing. Writing in the ancient world was a mysterious practice, often imbued with magical properties. To name a thing, was to conjure it, to control it, to own it. This concept lives on still in our collective unconscious.

One of the theories advanced for the initial development of writing, ties it to the concurrent 'discovery' of agriculture and the need to track trade in agricultural products. Let's look at agriculture for a minute--the domestication of animals could be seen as the colonization of the animal kingdom--some of the earliest extant texts describe humanity's god-given right to dominate the other species. The domestication of grain could be seen as the colonization of the plant world. I have not studied the evolution of Asian cultures, so I cannot speak to the differences or similarities that may be found there.

I am tracing this back, because I think it is important to get a sense of how deep this practice and process is rooted in the indo-european cultural traditions. This is at least a ten-thousand year legacy and if I am on track, it is buried and entwined in our language and self-concept at the deepest levels. It is no wonder we white folks can't seem to stop ourselves splattering all over everybody else. Our very language connects our individual egos to everything we see and do. I am hungry. I am here. I am Canadian. We are unconsciously attaching ourselves to everything around us. Unwitting mental colonization of all we survey. In my exposure to Gaelic, one of the first differences I noticed was that the verb 'to be' was used in a very different way--to truly denote being. A Gaelic speaker says "I stand here," not "I am here." Subtle, but I will argue, profound.

Our language shapes our world. It is the filter through which we encounter life. To truly uproot colonialism and begin to find a way to truth and freedom and positive action, those of us who would act as allies and workers for equality and justice must examine our words closely, keeping in mind McLuhan's mantra, that the medium IS the message. It may even be that humanity's 'success' as a species is directly tied to the concept of colonization and the beliefs that underlie it (which could push this heritage back hundreds of thousands of years).

I guess I really want to hang on to the concept that even though I love words and the crafting of them, they may not always be my friends. They may betray me, blind me, and mislead me in places that matter to me. There is a Buddhist concept that once you have named a thing you no longer can experience its see only the mental construct. Proper nouns as signifiers lead us away from reality; they reduce the chaos in the system, lowering the quality of the information and prevent us from engaging in a rich self-organizing system of connection. They also promote the illusion of solidity. It's been nearly 100 years since Einstein presented his theory of relativity and mass culture is still resisting integrating it into our worldview. Things are verbs--processes, ever-changing, context-rich, relative...Let's try some thought-experiments on what a relativistic, non-colonial, chaordic language might look our spare time....

I apologize for the rough nature of the thinking here. These are emergent thoughts and many strands are pulling and weaving together.

1 comment:

Chris said...

Amazing post Wendy...somehow you've managed to get into my head and swirl around stuff I've been thinking about over the past few years. I too look forward to more and more conversations.