Idle No More

First there was the Arab Spring, then there was Occupy, now the indigenous peoples of the world are the latest to join the struggle with Idle No More.  The movement started as a protest against budget concerns among Canada’s indigenous populations – protesting the apathy of the Canadian government towards its First Peoples.  However, the movement has grown and spread across Canada, and spilled over into solidarity movements among indigenous groups around the world.  This is a movement in support of the most oppressed populations of the world, and a movement which has close ties to protecting and preserving the environment – as such, it deserves our full support as part of the struggle to make the world better for all beings.

Langue and Parole, Structure and Agency

The structuralist dialectic between langue – the structure of language or “ideal” language – and parole – language as it is used in day-to-day life – is a key point of contention for me.  This is especially the case given its relationship to both structuralist and post-structuralist concepts of social organization, and the debate over structure vs. agency.  In my linguistics classes in both anthropology and traditional linguistics as an undergrad, I was often confused about the relationship between these two aspects of language.  The question that always came to my mind was, where and how does langue exist?  Discussions and readings in class often seem to treat it as an almost ethereal thing that shapes language from afar.  There are those, of course, who treat langue as a function of neurology – the structure of our brains dictates the structure of language.  However, this doesn’t seem to me to account for the diversity of languages and the various ways that language is used in day-to-day life (parole).  It is possible – I would grant even probable – that the structure of the human brain has some effect upon the structure of language, but it is not sufficient to explain it.

So if langue doesn’t exist in the brain, and it is not an ethereal thing, then where does it exist?  The answer, of course, is that it doesn’t exist apart from all of the instances of language use – in our daily conversations, in our writings, on the media, and so on.  It exists also in books of grammar and vocabulary that we use to teach children proper english.  In other words, to the extent that langue exists, it is an emergent property of all of those verbalized interactions that happen in parole.  Furthermore, it exists in the nature of words themselves – words resist our attempts to transform them or place them in an improper context, and at the same time they facilitate certain transformations and alternate contexts.  In other words, the structure of language is the assemblage of agencies (human and non-human) that contribute to its construction.

However, it is important for me to recognize that, although the structure is composed by and of these agencies, it does not encompass them (this is what Levi refers to as the strange mereology).  Instead, the structure stands alongside all of these other agencies as an agency itself – one among many.  There is, therefore, no point at which we can grasp langue – no singular piece of the structure that we can identify as its core. Rather, it is a complex assemblage that is also itself a part of that assemblage.  Emergent properties don’t encompass or totalize their parts, they stand alongside of them.  This is true, too, of social structures.  They only exist in the myriad interactions between agencies (both human and non-human) that compose them, and, once they are composed, they do not totalize the other beings, they stand beside them as a new agency that in some ways influences and shapes the others.  As a result, the question is not one of structure vs. agency, but of the complex arrangement of agencies and how they alter and affect one another.

The Central Thesis

If there is a central thesis to Struggle Forever!, it is this:

1) That we create the world(s) we live in through the work that we do. That this work is always and inevitably collaborative because we cannot help but engage (alter and affect) others through our work.

2) Struggle is the (collaborative) work of making our world(s) better – more just and sustainable – for all beings.  The struggle is forever because the goal is always moving, changing, and being redefined, and because worlds – even the most just and sustainable – are fragile and prone to failure.

To expand on this a bit, I would emphasize that the “we” that I refer to is not exclusively humans.  We cannot account for the composition of a world without accounting for the work of non-humans.  Even inanimate materials or objects do work in some sense – in that, when we work with them, we are altered and affected by them.  The clay shapes me as I shape the clay. As a result, this philosophy demands a radically symmetrical approach – one which treats humans and non-humans, living and non-living, material and semiotic beings as equal.  This is not to say, of course, that they are the same in capacities, but that we recognize the reciprocal nature of any relationship.

“Struggle forever” is the definition of utopia because utopia is not a place we can go (it is “no place”), it is a goal towards which we can work.  But that goal is always moving because the conditions of existence are always changing.  New beings are brought into existence, old beings fall out of existence, relationships change, form, solidify, and decay.  As this happens, the idea of what constitutes a “better world” becomes different.  Even if we were to create a perfect society, these relations are fragile and may, over time, ossify and decay.  The struggle must, therefore, continue forever because only by working constantly to make the world better can we hope to “crab sideways towards the good.”

Empathy, Outrospection, and Vulnerability

A while ago, my friend Andre at Intra-Being shared this video on twitter.  At about the same time, my dad shared a couple of episodes of The Takeaway on Empathy.  This was right before the Newtown massacre on Friday, and I’ve been thinking a lot about this topic in general lately.  I believe that we are defined or created, at least in large part, by the connections we make with others (humans and non-humans, of course, but that’s not the point right now). With this in mind, the idea of outrospection is very powerful.  Rather than looking inward and constantly encountering ourselves, perhaps the best way to ease our own and others’ sufferings is to look outward, connect with those others and work together to make things better all around.  Through this process we can gain a sense of higher purpose, and also put our own sufferings into a broader perspective.  I wouldn’t argue that, if only the Newtown shooter had had more empathy, this wouldn’t have happened.  That is no doubt true, but misses the point.  There will always be those without empathy, but maybe in a world where more people practice empathy on a regular basis – as a course of habit or education – there would be more resources for those who cannot experience it to address their problems in ways that don’t involve killing children or anyone else.

The video also mentions vulnerability, which is another important concept to me.  I think that vulnerability and the fear of becoming vulnerable is what keeps people from connecting and is at least part of what creates the social and individual problems that we face.  Everyone hides behind a shield – scientists behind objectivity, politicians behind rhetoric, CEOs behind veils of money and power, etc.  These shields are necessary in some cases, because without some kind of guard, one becomes simply nothing by becoming completely vulnerable to everything else.  I don’t want a world without shields, but I think people need to learn when to lower their shields and when to keep them up.  It’s a balancing act, and I think we live in a world where the only thing to do is keep up the shield as much and as long as possible.