I’ve been thinking a lot recently about what constitutes traditional knowledge, both within and outside the IRS TRC. In part, this was prompted by the controversial book, Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry by Frances Widdowson and Albert Howard. The book itself is unfortunate, and its treatment of issues facing Aboriginal communities, including the legacy of the Indian Residential School system, is irresponsible. I’ve been trying to work through a response to these authors and their critique of traditional knowledge (a concept they do not understand) as a way for people (both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal) to exploit, among other things, funding opportunities, the legal system, and policy-making. I think a recent article in SSHRC’s Dialogue entitled “Altered Perspectives: Inuit Knowledge Provides Scientific Insight into Climate Change” provides an illustration of how traditional knowledge and empirical/scientific knowledge (of course, these two terms are not mutually exclusive) work in tandem. Far from Widdowson and Howard’s claims, traditional knowledge is a valid and valuable concept for both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal communities.

Here’s an excerpt from “Altered Perspectives“:

In a unique, SSHRC-supported, community-based multimedia project, the University of Victoria researcher in environmental studies teamed up with colleagues Peter Kulchyski and Chris Trott from the University of Manitoba and internationally acclaimed Inuk filmmaker Zacharias Kunuk (Atanarjuat The Fast Runner) to record interviews with Inuit elders using digital video, filmmaking and Internet tools. After interviewing 55 elders, hunters and women, four experts, and Canada’s Governor General, the results were greater than anticipated.

“Do you want to know the most mind-blowing thing I’ve heard?” asks Mauro. “Inuit elders from four northern settlements separated by thousands of kilometres have independently concluded that climate change is caused by the earth having tilted on its axis.”

Mauro says elders from Nunavut in Resolute Bay, Iqaluit, Igloolik and Pangnirtung all noticed the stars, moon and sun have shifted in their positions. The sun is now rising higher, staying longer and is warmer than it used to be. When Mauro first heard of these observations in 2009, he went to the scientific literature to see if anything had been published to support the elders’ claims. He found very little.

“Trusting the knowledge of elders, we shared their perspectives with scientists,” says Mauro. “By linking different ways of knowing, we discovered that a warming atmosphere is actually changing the refraction index of the sky, which dramatically alters the visual landscape of the Arctic.”

The phenomenon is caused by low altitude refraction. According to Mauro, the only other researcher actively working on this topic is Wayne Davidson, a meteorological observer in Resolute Bay, who first documented similar observations in the 1990s.

“Understandably, the elders attribute the visual change to a tilting earth, but it’s actually an optical shift caused by a complex interplay between the wind, atmosphere, earth and ice,” says Mauro. “This observational knowledge of objects shifting in the sky is actually proof of a warming world.”

Surprisingly, Inuit are not particularly apprehensive about climate change, says Mauro. Instead, they are prepared to ride the wave of adaptation. He says the message from the communities is that humans and animals can adapt to changing ice conditions, global ocean currents and altered migratory patterns. Having thrived for more than 4,000 years in the Arctic through multiple warming and cooling cycles, Inuit have no doubt about their ability to adjust.

To read the full article, click here.

I won’t say much more about Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry, as it has already received more coverage than it deserves. To read some recent reviews or about the controversy surrounding the book, see The National Post review, or Gerald Taiaiake Alfred’s review, or writing on the topic by Peter Kulchyski.

I’ve just returned to New York from North Bay, Ontario where I attended Nipissing University’s conference on Truth, Reconciliation and the Residential Schools. The organizers put together a great program that involved both the academic community and the Nipissing First Nations community. I presented a short paper entitled: The Limits of Testimony: Contextualizing Truth and Reconciliation in Canada.

Because the IRS TRC is still in its early stages, the paper focused on a comparative analysis. In particular, I focused on one specific, puzzling testimony, given to the South African TRC in 1996 by Mrs. Konile, whose son was killed by apartheid security forces in 1986. A recent book has been published about this testimony, co-authored by Antjie Krog (an Afrikaner poet and journalist), Nosisi Mpolweni (Xhosa lecturer and linguist) and Kopano Ratele (psychologist).  The book is entitled There Was This Goat: Investigating the Truth Commission Testimony of Notrose Nobomvu Konile and the authors spend the bulk of the book discussing one particular testimony, given by Mrs. Konile. This testimony was difficult to understand for many reasons – it did not follow a linear trajectory, it mixed her dream life with her waking life, and made reference to cultural and traditional symbols that would have been difficult for outsiders of her culture to understand. Add to that that her testimony was translated from Xhosa to English and transcribed, and one begins to understand how difficult it may be to comprehend one not-so-simple testimony.  The authors of There Was This Goat, which is a line from Mrs. Konile’s testimony, embark on a journey of understanding as they imagine conversations about this testimony and begin to discuss with Mrs. Konile her experience of losing her son, with the truth commission and its aftermath. In one section of the text, where the authors imagine a conversation between two black South Africans, one says to the other:

To fully understand our words you have to understand a whole history of fear, hiding, running, evading, and still trying to maintain a sense of dignity and a life worth something. To truly hear Mrs. Konile’s truth, and the truth of most of the black people who testified at the Truth Commission hearings, you have to work hard to understand it, you have to gain our trust. It’s not going to be given to you just like that, because you may turn and use it against us, as happened many, many times under apartheid (32).

By looking at Mrs. Konile’s testimony and the work of Krog, Mpolweni, and Ratele, my paper explored how testimony is something that must be actively engaged and understood within a much larger historical and cultural context. (I posted a few weeks ago about another of Antjie Krog’s books, Country of My Skull, and There Was This Goat is another excellent, engaging read about the politics of truth commissions.)

Thanks to the organizers and the Nipissing First Nations, who were so generous with sharing their experiences.

forgetIn preparation for my specialization exams, which are in less than a month (!), I have been reading at a ridiculous rate. Since the semester ended in May, I drew up a schedule for myself in order to make sure I made it through the list, while at the same time taking enough notes to make sure I didn’t simply forget everything – in one eye and out the other.  The list is about 90 books long; granted I had already completed or started a good number of them. Until recently, I have managed to stay relatively on top of the list, but hit a wall last week – reader’s block. I allowed myself to take a few days off, thinking maybe my brain just needed a rest, maybe it was full. But when I tried to get back to it, I would be able to read for a bit, but not with the same attention or speed. So, as a strategy to get back to the reading, I told myself that any kind of reading counted, and it didn’t have to be a lot. I started with the Acknowledgment sections, a section I had generally skipped or skimmed over. And the strategy worked. I would read the Acknowledgments and somehow it would get me motivated to read the book. Here’s an example that I loved from a book called Seeing Like A State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed :

After thanking several people and institutions who aided in the development of the book, James C. Scott ends the “Acknowledgments” section with this paragraph:

“I’d like to kick the habit of writing books, at least for  a while. If there were a detox unit or an analog to the nicotine patch for serial offenders, I think I would sign up for treatment. My habit has already cost me more precious time than I care to admit. The problem with book writing and other addictions is that the resolve to quit is greatest during withdrawal, but as the painful symptoms recede, the craving is apt to return. Louise and our children, Mia, Aaron, and Noah, would, I know, be only too happy to have me committed until I was “clean.” I’m trying. God knows I’m trying” (xiv).

I mean, doesn’t that make you want to read the book? It worked for me.

(The image above is by artist, Filippo Minelli. I stumbled upon his work perusing a friend’s blog (www.thoughtpatterns.ca) – another fun pastime when suffering from reader’s block.)

Magic Weapons cover spread.inddIn Magic Weapons: Aboriginal Writers Remaking Community After Residential School, Sam McKegney makes an important contribution to discourses that explore the role of literature in representing marginalized and/or contested histories. His focus on the work of authors including Basil H. Johnston (who also contributes an excellent foreword), Rita Joe, Louise Halfe, and Anthony Thrasher among others, brings much-needed attention to the ways in which the lens of trauma and psychoanalytic explorations of residential school experiences only tell part of the story. McKegney rightly highlights that calls for more awareness of these experiences should be accompanied by new visions for the future. He cautions against an orientation that privileges the past as the sole site of community-making and defining. 

He elaborates:

“Perceived over the past two decades as the principal vehicle for engaging the residential school issue, historicization (alone) dangerously orients our thinking away from the present and the future, binding us in a reactive manner to the power of the past. And, with compensatory and restructuring funds finally being freed from government coffers by virtue of the Reconciliation and Compensation Agreement (November 2005), imaginative visions for plausible futures of First Nations are essential. This is where the understudied resource of Native literature becomes so valuable” (6)

In exploring the history of the schools and the way in which individuals and communities have dealt with their legacy, McKegney asks, “What does literature do that history doesn’t?” (32) His book is an engaging, well-reasoned response to this question. 

McKegney, Sam. Magic Weapons: Aboriginal Writers Remaking Community after Residential School. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2007.

Also, a friend of mine recently informed me that today is National Aboriginal Day in Canada. For more information on the day, click here.

More reading highlights from the semester:

taussing-nervous1) Michael Taussig’s The Nervous System

Michael Taussig explores the ways in which the combination of state-sanctioned violence and a climate of silence engender a perpetual “state of emergency,” where the chaotic is the norm. His metaphor of the nervous system works well on several levels. In terms of memory work, it evokes the non-linear way in which an individual or community remembers. It also suggests an embodiment that, as we have seen in previous readings, is an important component when theorizing trauma. In addition, he explores the concept of “writing the nervous system” and explains that it “calls for an understanding of the representation as contiguous with that being represented and not as suspended above and distant from the represented” (10).  He inserts himself into this text, realizing that his own representations cannot be distanced from the represented; he blends the subject and object of study. At times, he addresses the reader explicitly, asking, “But what about people like yourself caught up in such matters? What sort of talk have you got?” and then, “What about myself, for that matter?” (29). This rhetorical technique helps to illuminate the “nervousness” in both Taussig’s content and style. 

In chapter 3, he raises some interesting questions about the academic process of contextualization, positing that it has become a sort of talisman, mystified in a way that suggests its knowledge translates into a guaranteed understanding of social relations and history. Instead, Taussig proposes that social relations and history themselves are “fragile intellectual constructs posing as robust realities” (45). And that our “contextualizing gaze” (45) creates a view that is too narrow, not allowing for creative blending within and between disparate spaces and times.

 2) John Jackson’s Real Black: Adventures in Racial Sincerityjackson-realblack

By using a diverse range of examples in the New York area, including the gentrification of Harlem, Black Jewish identity in Brooklyn and the politics of naming in hip hop, Jackson challenges ideas of racial authenticity and explores the potentials of sincerity.   Jackson’s book is a foray into “autoethnographic” work. He focuses on complications and intersections, practicing a “dark reading,” where he attempts to “feel, grope, invent, even pretend the real” (67). He is offering another way of meaning-making, an interpretive strategy that recognizes the role of the interpreter in relation to the messages that are received.  Anthropology, in other words, can have a dual nature, representing a complicated interaction between observed and observer.

As much as his book is about the difficulties involved in theorizing race, Jackson’s project is also a “rumination on the ethnographic project, itself a response to challenges arising from the alleged crises in representation and analysis of the late 1980s, crises that still haunt the discipline to this day” (9-10).  In response to this haunting, Jackson proposes the novel methodological technique of “channeling.” To deal with his own feelings of nervousness in asking subjects difficult or personal questions, Jackson channels the presence of more famous and accomplished ethnographers. He asks himself, WWZNHD? What would Zora Neal Hurston do? (24-25) Eventually, he finds that he needs to conjure up a whole new identity altogether, which leads to the rise of Anthroman.

The fears he believes accompanies ethnographic writing, what he refers to an “ethnographobia” are brought fully to the surface of his text (24). Anthroman is one of his coping strategies, an alter ego whose “Anthrosenses” won’t fail under pressure. In referring to himself in the third person, he disrupts the flow in his text, and highlights the constructed nature of his work. It is a methodological tool that illustrates his theoretical arguments. Jackson’s work recognizes the difficulty in reading his subjects, and explains that this is what sincerity demands: an acceptance of our “mutual impermeability” (87).  

I found Jackson’ work particularly interesting in his recognition of the ways in with ethnography is implicgated in the production of knowledge. For Jackson, ethnographic knowledge is produced through an acknowledgement of this “mutual impermeability” while simultaneously engaging with it.

At times, his own presence in his work is a little overwhelming. Still, the book is definitely worth-reading, providing an interesting example of creative and engaging ethnography.

The semester is finally winding down and although I have a few loose ends to tie-up, summer is on the horizon. So I thought I’d take a little time and post some reflections on my coursework and research from this past semester. 

A few books that I loved:


1) Human Rights, Inc. by Joseph Slaughter.

Slaughter begins his Preamble to the book with a quote from John Humphrey, principle drafter of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “Everyone knows, or should know, why human rights are important.” (2) Slaughter goes on to discuss how the gap between what everyone knows and what everyone should know is relevant to discourses of both literature and law. He focuses on the connections between human rights and the novel, particularly the coming-of-age genre, Bildungsroman.

He writes:

“The novel genre and liberal human rights discourse are more than coincidentally, or casually, interconnected. Seen through the figure and formula of human personality development central to both the Bildungsroman and human rights, their shared assumptions and imbrications emerge to show clearly their historical, formal, and ideological interdependencies. They are mutually enabling fictions: each projects an image of the human personality that ratifies the other’s idealistic visions of the proper relations between the individual and society and the normative career of free and full human personality development” (4). 

It’s a fascinating read that ties together seemingly distinct discourses in interesting and unexpected ways. Chapter three, “Normalizing Narrative Forms of Human Rights: The (Dys)Function of the Public Sphere,” focuses on the ways in which reciting one’s story in a public setting, as ins the practice in some truth commissions, reveals the emphasis placed on storytelling in relation to the formation of the citizen-subject. 


2) The House of Difference: Cultural Politics and National Identity in Canada by Eva Mackey.

In The House of Difference: Cultural Politics and National Identity in Canada, Eva Mackey explores the ways in which multicultural and pluralist discourses, while espousing the rhetoric of tolerance, may in fact create a climate of intolerance and resentment. By examining the strategies of power at play in Canadian multicultural policies, Mackey challenges the national myth of an inclusive and tolerant Canadian society. Her explorations reveal how an account of national identity that focuses on pluralism may be a form of managing difference as opposed to allowing for difference to flourish.

Mackey utilizes several methods in order to explore the terrain of Canadian identity as it relates to policies of multiculturalism. She offers a re-reading of historical documents, analyzes iconic imagery (including painting, sculpture and photography) and their circulation, and conducts interviews with people around and about several events celebrating the 125th anniversary of Canadian confederation.  This eclectic approach strengthens Mackey’s points, highlighting the diverse ways in which multicultural discourses takes shape on both national and local levels.

In the context of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Canada, it will be interesting to see how this myth of a tolerant nation will be affected.

kazuo_ishiguro3) Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel, Never Let Me Go, follows the haunting tale of three friends who are “donors.”  The story moves back and forth between the present and the past, recounting Kathy H’s sometimes-tumultuous memories of two dear friends, Tommy and Ruth. Although the novel is set in the 1990s in England, it straddles the boundaries between a world that seems incredibly familiar, and one that is eternally distant. A sense of familiarity is created by the recounting of Kathy’s childhood and youth, including arguments with friends and first loves that will resonate with most readers. At the same time, a sense of distance is created by the realization that Kathy and her friends are part of a system where they are reared expressly for the harvesting of their organs.  The novel provides an interesting context in which to discuss issues of personhood, the ethics of biotechnology and human rights.


In his essay, “On Forgiveness,” Derrida discusses the paradox of granting forgiveness: true forgiveness consists of forgiving the unforgivable.  Throughout the essay, Derrida is working within the realm of contradictions. He negotiates the terrain between pure and mediated, conditional and unconditional, and individual and collective forgiveness.

Both forgiveness and reconciliation are concepts that have secular and religious interpretations.  Although there is a trend towards an attempted liberalization and secularization of reconciliation discourse, the theological undertones of reconciliation continue to play an important role in the way in which reconciliation takes place. As Derrida illustrates, Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s role as Chair of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission undoubtedly influenced the public’s perception of reconciliation in relation to forgiveness. The tensions between religious and secular conceptions of reconciliation also foreground the roles of individuals in comparison to those of the collective. Secular ideas of reconciliation tend to emphasize tolerance on the individual level and see amnesty on the collective level as a valid way to proceed. Religious conceptions of reconciliation, however, emphasize the idea of forgiveness and national healing.

Derrida argues that the concept of forgiveness is misplaced when used in relation to a national trauma. For example, he writes that “forgiveness must engage two singularities: the guilty (the ‘perpetrator’ as they say in South Africa) and the victim” (42). If a third party steps in to mediate this process (such as a national truth commission or juridical entity), pure forgiveness is no longer possible. Forgiveness then stays in the domain of the individual, not the state. And once the process of reconciliation has begun, pure forgiveness is no longer possible. Because once one embarks on a process of understanding the Other, the guilty, the perpetrator, the irreducibility and incomprehensibility of the Other is shattered. For Derrida, pure forgiveness “must plunge, but ludicly, into the night of the unintelligible” (49). Because reconciliation works to make sense of this unintelligibility, it drives one away from forgiveness.

At the end of this essay, he explores the implications of granting forgiveness. The granting of forgiveness implies a legitimate claim to power in order to do so. Derrida asserts that this form of power must be divorced from forgiveness; pure forgiveness is one without sovereignty (59). 

Derrida himself notes that he is ‘torn’ between the “ethical vision of forgiveness” and the practicality of reconciliation (51). His ruminations on forgiveness do not imply that reconciliation as part of a political process is impossible, nor that it should be avoided. Rather, he is arguing against the conflation of the two terms: forgiveness and reconciliation.

Derrida, Jacques. “On Forgiveness.” On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness. New York: Routledge, 2001.

See VanAntwerpen for a fuller discussion:

VanAntwerpen, Jonathan. “Reconciliation Reconceived: Religion, Secularism, and the Language of Transition” in The Politics of Reconciliation in Multicultural Societies. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008, 25-47.


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