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Extraordinary Presences: Women, Poetry, Art Song

Following the performance of The Muted Note: Songs Based on Poems by P. K. Page by Scott Thomson and Susanna Hood, the International Institute for Critical Studies in Improvisation is convening a colloquium called “Extraordinary Presences: Women, Poetry, Art Song” from 2:00 to 5:00 on Thursday, 16 October 2014 in the Dodson Room of the Irving K. Barber Learning Centre at the University of British Columbia. Two panels of poets, composers, performers and scholars will talk about their own work and their collaborations. Presenters will be investigating the cultural politics of contemporary composition and performance by women: are there particular constraints or challenges that contemporary women artists face? Are there specific musical, textual or performative strategies that women employ in their creative work when faced with such challenges? Is it still necessary or even possible to address artistic work, as performers, composers and listeners, with attention to the complex cultural politics of gender and sexuality? In addition to the two discussion panels, there will be a performance by Lisa Cay Miller of her text-based improvisations for piano, “Lessing Stories.” Admission is free, and the colloquium is open to all, students, artists, academics and the general public.

Colloquium Schedule

2:00-3:00 Panel: Extending the Poetics of Song

Scott Thomson, composer and improviser, Montréal and Toronto

Susanna Hood, vocalist, choreographer, Montréal and Toronto

Sandra Djwa, P. K. Page biographer, Vancouver

Phanuel Antwi, Department of English, UBC

3:00-3:30

Lisa Cay Miller, “Lessing Stories”

3:30-4:30 Panel: Collaborations and Challenges, Sounding Out

Rachel Rose, Vancouver Poet Laureate

Jacquie Leggatt, composer, Vancouver

Bronwyn Malloy, Department of English, UBC

A downloadable PDF version of the colloquium schedule can be found here: Extraordinary Presences schedule

Toward an Improvisational Pedagogy 1

Over the last decade, using various undergraduate and graduate classes as provisional testing grounds, I have been trying to develop what I have come to think of as an improvisational pedagogy. By “improvisational pedagogy” I don’t just mean teaching about criticism of improvisation and the performing arts (music, theatre, dance . . .), although such work certainly forms part of what I might do. And I don’t necessarily mean teaching classes on how to improvise, although techniques derived from the hands-on practice of various forms of improvisation constitute significant elements in a nascent methodology. I mean, I think, an educational practice that engages in real time with its own cognitive, creative and critical horizons, the self-attentive work of thinking on your feet, both before and with other people.

In forthcoming posts over the next few months, I’m planning to write in better detail about what I feel are some of the significant learning outcomes of such a pedagogy – including remarks on technique and nascent methodology, on student reactions, on literacy and critical canon, and on what others in the emerging field have called “the ethics of co-creation” – but for now I want to restrict myself to laying a little personal groundwork for this field of study. I have been participating this past week, telematically, in a think-tank at Memorial University, convened by the new International Institute for Critical Studies in Improvisation, aimed at producing a draft curriculum for a potential graduate program for the study of improvisation. Some tangible results of our discussions and our collective commitment to this process will no doubt emerge in the coming year as this program takes shape, but for the moment I want to note how apparent it became during our meetings that we needed not only to define our field but to do so in a manner that distinguishes its salient characteristics, the traits and tactics that set it apart.

This conceptual winnowing, however, is particularly challenging around the study of improvisation because of its ubiquity: a fact that makes it both essential to study and seemingly impossible to frame as an object of study. At its core, improvisation articulates a deliberate elusiveness; whatever else it does, improvisation defines itself across a vast array of social and cultural practices as a refusal of the definitive, as excess. Whatever else – to repurpose an unsettled line from the self-troubling poet Irving Layton – whatever else, improvisation is freedom. It inclines, in all of its multiple and incommensurate forms, toward “whatever else,” toward not being an “it” at all, constantly worrying at and unknitting the hard knot of that “is” in definitions such as this. It’s a modality, for me, of creative undoing.

In a 2007 lecture called “Improvising Tomorrow’s Bodies: The Politics of Transduction,” George Lewis – who for many of us has become one of the major figures in shaping the field – reflects on how

improvisation is everywhere, but it is very hard to see. That’s because improvisation is not really a philosophical Haltung for a few people living the artist’s life, but a fundamental mode of being in the world that all of us share.

Everybody improvises, all the time. But next to no one appears to attend with much care or acuity to the implications of the forms and practices of improvisation; like Lewis, and despite my privileging of aesthetic in my own teaching and writing, I don’t mean to aggrandize the role of the critic or the artist or the pedagogue in raising such reflexive awareness, but rather – through Lewis – to affirm the political necessity of such study within democratic space, within the culturally and socially managed domains of that sharing. Improvisation, Lewis asserts, “is the ubiquitous practice of everyday life, a primary method of meaning exchange in any interaction,” but that primacy remains largely unaddressed and under-scrutinized. The task, as Lewis understands it, is first of all to illuminate “the condition of improvisation,” and then to interrogate its affective and material impacts on the conduct of human life:

My overall view of improvisation, which can be described (if not defined) as exploration, discovery and response to conditions, part of a ubiquitous human practice of real-time analysis, generation, manipulation, exchange, and transformation of meaning, mediated by (among other factors) the body, history, temporality, space, memory, intention, material culture, and diverse methodologies. My claim is that improvisation is fundamental to the existence and survival of every human formation, from the individual to the community, through the postnational body to the species itself.

This is a big claim for what has been, by his own admission, a neglected and marginalized field of study, but I want to be clear that I hear his interdisciplinary sweep not as apologetics or as rhetoric, but as a genuine imperative. Improvisation names a fundamental human relationship to temporality and to historicity, and offers a distinct and crucial means – however plural and however elusive – to address who and when and where we are.

In an effort to stabilize improvisation into something like a concept, I want to invoke Michel Foucault’s reworking of the Aristotelean ἐπιστήμη or “science.” In The Order of Things, Foucault deploys the term episteme to refer to a way of knowing that pervades specific cultural or historical epochs:

In any given culture and at any given moment, there is always only one episteme that defines the conditions of possibility of all knowledge, whether expressed in a theory or silently invested in a practice.

As a “field of scientificity,” an episteme doesn’t define a particular science (Latin scientia, “knowledge, a knowing; expertness”) so much as the range and limits of the truth-value of science as such: what counts and what doesn’t count as knowledge. This formulation strikes me as too inherently rigid, but in as much as improvisation both shapes and evaluates the immediate production and dissemination of knowledge in our present age, in as much as it might name historicity as such – a ubiquitous set of human relations both to and within ordinary time – it strikes me that it might be useful to think it through as one among several entwined episteme of our given moment, as a name for the enactive articulations and mobilizations of knowledge in the human present. Thinking improvisation along these lines – despite Foucault’s early and I think untenable tendency to want conceptually to reduce and to homogenize – might offer an opportunity to describe, if not to define, a finite set of modalities within an extemporaneous science, modalities of knowing less prehensile, less closed and enclosing, than we might expect,— including listening (or better, aisthesis), practicing, collaboration, intersubjectivity, reciprocity, alterity. Improvising might be better understood neither as a method nor as a discrete modality of knowledge creation, but more as a resonant network of commensurate modalities. This list a merely a starting point, and such modalities would need to be much more rigorously investigated and situated, but at least for the present such terminology may offer a means of settling on something approaching a basis for thinking through improvisation.

Improvising Across Boundaries: An Unconventional Colloquium

Coastal Jazz, the Improvisation, Community and Social Practice (ICaSP) research initiative and the International Institute for Critical Studies in Improvisation (IICSI) are hosting a two-day colloquium in Vancouver on June 21 and 22, 2014, focused on the theme of “improvising across boundaries.” Presenters include Neelamjit Dhillon, Michael Blake, Tomeka Reid, Lisa Cay Miller and Rupert Common.

The complete colloquium schedule can be found here: IAB2014.

Here is a link to the Education webpage for the 2014 TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival, during which the colloquium is taking place.

Remembering Introducing Fred Ho (August 10, 1957-April 12, 2014)

I only met Fred Ho once, when I was asked to introduce a talk he was giving — “Identity, Music and the Asian-American Struggle” — in the afternoon of Saturday, February 2, 2002, at the Western Front here in Vancouver. His presentation was highly charged, as full of strident compassion and of life-energy as his music. After the talk, he asked me if he could have a copy of the introduction, and I gave him mine, which had some handwritten notes and corrections. Later, I was contacted to contribute to an anthology of writings about his work, a kind of Festschrift for him, but I never managed to get anything properly together enough to submit; in 2007, I presented an abbreviated version of my work on him as a paper at the academic colloquium attached to the Guelph International Jazz Festival, “Improvising Diaspora: Fred Ho, John Coltrane and the Music of Radical Respect,” the text of which I have posted on my other blog, Frank Styles. This past week, I have been digging through my files to find the text of my introduction, and have finally come across it today. I’ll reproduce it below. I mention how Julie Smith, then the director of educational programming at Coastal Jazz, was working to create a symposium alongside the Time Flies music festival. Now defunct, Time Flies was modelled on Derek Bailey’s Company, an aggregating of free improvisors for a week of performances in ad hoc groupings and ensembles at the Western Front. The symposium eventually led to the Creative Music Think Tank and then, in 2007, to the first of a set of yearly colloquia in Vancouver produced collaboratively by Coastal Jazz and the Improvisation, Community and Social Practice research initiative (ICaSP). Here is the text of my introduction for Fred Ho. I remember him well.

 

It’s a great pleasure for me to introduce Fred Ho today.

This presentation is the first of the Time Flies Talks, a series of lectures and panels that we hope to develop into a fully-fledged symposium on improvisation and cultural theory next year, during the Time Flies Festival of Improvised Music. This year, to help inaugurate the series, we will also have a panel discussion on “How Time Flies in Improvisation,” featuring musicians Marilyn Lerner and Torsten Muller, and CJBS Artistic Director Ken Pickering, and moderated by me. It will take place here this coming Friday, February 8, at 2:00 pm; admission to the panel is free. Special thanks should go to Julie Smith, who has put these events together.

Fred Ho’s music has been described both as “politically charged,” brimming with “slashing energy” and fierce ironies, and as delicately lyrical, organic, graceful, life-affirming. His work offers a provocative mixture of idioms, drawing on — among other influences — free improvisation, traditional Chinese music and what Rahsaan Roland Kirk once described as “Black Classical Music.” His artistry seems to me to embrace both contrariety and multiplicity. Titles such as “Contradiction Please! The Revenge of Charlie Chan” signal his oppositional political stance, his keen awareness of the fraught dynamics of racial and ethnic identity among North American listeners, as well as a darkly comedic recognition of the exclusive and proprietary nature of cultural and musical stereotypes (not to mention a pun on one of bebop’s most famous pseudonyms). But his music and his thought are not simply directed at resistance to racial and social hegemonies; he is also deeply concerned with, as he has put it, “creating revolutionary aesthetics and changing the relations of cultural production”: with affirmation, with liberation, with creation. Fred Ho’s work seeks out a formal connection between the demands of musical form and the politics of gender, race, and class in a difficult and marginalizing world. The excluded, the marginal, the unacknowledged, sing back and sing out in Ho’s music, laying claim to agency, to presence, to immediacy — making themselves heard. His goal, he has written, “is a radical unity of form and content.” By this he means, I think, that the material lived conditions of social and cultural oppression can be engaged, countered and overcome in radical cultural forms, such as improvisation, that insist on a political dimension in the very substance of their articulation: in sound, in rhythm, in tone — in shout, cry, and caress. Fred Ho is a major artist, and a significant force in the emergence of a multicultural aesthetics. His many recordings and performances with his Afro Asian Music Ensemble, with the Monkey Orchestra, with the Brooklyn Saxophone Quartet, among other incredible ensembles, as well as his numerous publications, lectures and academic residences testify to his formidable energy and dedication to the political work of making music. Fred Ho is a performer, composer, pedagogue, political activist, in short an artist to be reckoned with, who calls us to reckon with ourselves and the world we inhabit. He will speak today on “Identity, Music and the Asian American Struggle.” Please welcome Fred Ho.

Teaching Literature in the Time of the MOOC (Audio)

Here is an audio capture of my part of a colloquium session for the University of British Columbia Department of English Faculty Research series, which took place in the afternoon of Friday, October 18, 2013, on “Teaching Literature in the Time of the MOOC.” I co-presented with Jon Beasley-Murray. (There are a few glitches – I inadvertently call Dave Cormier “Eric” – so I have included a script for the talk below. I truncated the long quotations when I presented. The gain on the recorder was also set a little high — my apologies for any clipping. Jon’s portion of the session can be found here.)

The past year has seen massive and radical shifts in the practice and delivery of higher education, particularly around the emergence of the MOOC, the “Massive Open Online Course,” adopted and (as of January 2013) offered for credit through many prominent North American and Australian universities. While some commentators continue to suggest that educators are over-enthusiastically caught up in surging hype around the technologizing of education, hype that will soon deteriorate into backlash, it has become clear that the MOOC represents much more than a passing trend. It signals a fundamental change in the cultural and pedagogical mission of the university – in what constitutes a university, and what constitutes university education, in our time. I, we, believe it is vitally important for academics – not just administrators, not just early adopters, not just those in the managerial echelons of an emerging knowledge economy, but particularly academics in the critical humanities – to address and to interrogate the implications of this change. Because of the velocity of these ongoing renovations to the form and substance of higher education, we need to do more than act as latecomers or followers, to be more than epigone adopters. Bluntly put, our job descriptions are changing, with or without our direct input and even our consent, and it is vital that we find the means, as both pedagogues and scholars, to contribute not only to managing but also to shaping the direction and structure of these nascent developments.

I don’t want to position myself as anything like an expert. Frankly, it’s too soon in the arc – I won’t say history, not yet – in tracing the developmental arc of media-savvy pedagogies for anyone but a few originators to lay claim to expertise, and even then there seems to me to be something endemic to these kinds of digital humanities, something inherent in what has come to be called connectivity, that wants both to exploit and to refuse cults of expertise, cults that have also largely tended to be understood as the provenance of a professoriate. I’m still under the sway, myself, of Paolo Freire’s critique of what he called the “banking model” of education, and I think I share his thorough suspicion of the cultural privilege of expertise. But rather than offer any materially rigorous critique of the economics of knowledge production and dissemination, I’m going to stick to a critique of the MOOC at the level of metaphor, something I feel like I can do with some confidence in my own method. It’s how I work, in my own field, as I understand it. But I want to be clear that I’m thinking of what I’m proposing today, briefly, as gestural and provisional, as a small contribution to a workshop rather than as a definitive or in any way exhaustive reading of the MOOC in our time, in its time.

I should offer at this point a potted history of the MOOC, although in a spirit of appearing to let shallow précis pass for knowledge, I have to defer to Wikipedia, which does a much better job than I ever could at condensing the last four or five years of MOOC history and at naming the significant names. Wikipedia – and Jon can tell you better than I can – in some very telling ways epitomizes the networked, editorial crowd-sourcing that is currently tending to replace expertise in this contemporary educational episteme, the time of the MOOC. So, go read Wikipedia, and find out something about Dave Cormier, George Siemens, cMOOCs, xMOOCs, Coursera, EdX, and the whole whelming business. In a November 2, 2012, article on Education Life, New York Times correspondent Laura Pappano dubbed 2012 “The Year of the MOOC,” lending an epochal weight to a phenomenon that is, I’m willing to argue, almost without a history, and even without history.

So what does a MOOC have to do with time? I want to gesture at two key aspects of generalized MOOC temporality, both of them catachrestic: packeting and velocity. As one among many formations in the current digitalization (as opposed to the digitization) of knowledge, MOOCs imply a mediated phenomenology, a specific set of experiential markers keyed to time management – or to a common figure in MOOC syllabi, a figure that I’m going to suggest manifests as generic course content around learning outcomes a technological latency, the data packet. For example, Jennifer Shoop’s current syllabus for “English 402: The Poetry of John Milton,” a MOOC from saylor.org, has a detailed segment on “Time Commitment,” which is distinctive to on-line pedagogy:

Time Commitment: This course should take you a total of approximately 73.25 hours to complete. Each unit includes a time advisory that lists the amount of time you are expected to spend on each subunit. These advisories should help you plan your time accordingly. It may be useful to take a look at these time advisories and to determine how much time you have over the next few weeks to complete each unit, and then to set goals for yourself. For example, Unit 1 should take 6.5 hours to complete. Perhaps you can sit down with your calendar and decide to complete subunits 1.1 and 1.2 (a total of 3hours) on Monday night; subunits 1.3 and 1.4 (a total of 6.5 hours) on Tuesday night; etc.

The precision suggests an empirically obsessive scientism, but also a desire to lay out student commitments with as much transparency and accuracy as possible. Al Filreis’s “ModPo,” a “fast-paced” and much more loosely orchestrated MOOC from UPenn on “Modern & Contemporary American Poetry,” still lays out participant time commitments (“Workload: 5-9 hours/week”) and offers some proleptic feedback in an FAQ on course velocity:

You say the course is “fast paced.” Will it move too fast for me?
ModPo is “fast paced” because we will not spend long on any one poet. This is a “survey” course — covering many poets with the objective of conveying a sense of poetic movements and trends. We will study only a few poets in any depth (Dickinson, Williams, Gertrude Stein, John Ashbery) but otherwise during each week we will typically talk about poems by three or four or even five different poets.

A sense of depth is sacrificed for coverage, and the learning outcomes are accordingly adjusted, offering gestalt in lieu of detail. Finally, the extensive course matter around Gregory Nagy’s HarvardX MOOC on the Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours explains at some length how pace and segmentation interconnect, a pedagogical strategy as well as a gesture at the temporality of his subject-matter, particularly the Homeric epic. Indeed, of all of the MOOC syllabi I have tried to encounter so far, Nagy’s is the most reflexively sophisticated, and conveniently provides me with something of a test-case for an informed critique of the humanities MOOC.

In an article from The New Yorker earlier this year, Nathan Heller seems to think so too, spending considerable column-length on Nagy’s HarvardX course, and its time-demands:

Nagy has been experimenting with online add-ons to his course for years. When he began planning his mooc, his idea was to break down his lectures into twenty-four lessons of less than an hour each. He subdivided every lesson into smaller segments, because people don’t watch an hour-long discussion on their screens as they might sit through an hour of lecture. (They get distracted.) He thought about each segment as a short film, and tried to figure out how to dramatize the instruction. He says that crumbling up the course like this forced him to study his own teaching more than he had at the lectern.

Presuppositions about attention span and attentiveness push Nagy to “crumble up” and parcel out his material, but I’d like to assert that what’s happening here isn’t so much an effect of his students’ shrinking cognitive capacities, but rather the impact of the structural informatics of media-dense teaching. He’s creating analogues on his students’ screens to the data packets – as distinct, though not entirely so, from the packaging or commodification of information – into which his texts and videos must be divided in order to disseminate efficiently across a network. Data packets are essentially arbitrary segments (blocks, cells) of bits and bytes, of data, into which a text, for instance, must be materially fractured if it is to be transmitted effectively. The process of packet-switching involves a horizontal leveling of parceled information to facilitate exchange across a dimensional (as opposed to linear) network; in a way, you could imagine one of Nagy’s students ranging in an anti-linear fashion through the welter of text, video and assessment tools that make up his MOOC, although that movement is still governed by a broadly linear rhetoric – at least a rhetoric, if not a teleology – of progress and completion, of sectional and totalized learning outcomes.

Efficiency, as a hallmark of good tech, of vibrant network and of functional pedagogy, is tied to velocity or pace, the re-assemblage and the intake of cultural knowledge – in Nagy’s case, of Homeric epic and Sophoklean drama. The trick to success in his course in particular, he suggests, is learning to manage and to adjust your rate of reading, to accelerate and decelerate modes of critical attention. There is, frankly, way too much material on Nagy’s syllabus, as there is on Filreis’s. I have to confess that I signed up for the Nagy MOOC – drawn by the promise of some sort of close-ish link to the cult of expertise that accretes around Nagy’s work on Homer. And I flunked it, mostly because I just didn’t have time to do the reading or to complete the multiple-choice and short-answer assignments. It’s reading, of course that I have done before, for the most part, so that shouldn’t have been a problem, but there is a density of information – something keyed to what I’d like to think of, analogically again, as bit-rate compression – that was frankly overwhelming, particularly as spare-time or extra-to-load reading. Nagy insists in the descriptive matter he writes about how to take up his assigned coursework, that students need to learn different velocities of reading, from fast to slow; the second is privileged, as a mode of close attention that Nagy develops from his own take on Friedrich Nietzsche’s Homeric philology. (I hope you’ll pardon the extensive quotation.)

So what do I mean when I say slow reading and fast reading? Let me explain briefly, starting with slow reading in §5A and then moving on to fast reading in §5B. For the reading of the following paragraph, §5A, you will have to slow down and take more time. For the reading of the paragraphs after that, §5B, §6, §7, §8, and the Appendix, I hope you will feel free to speed up again.
§4a. So here is the paragraph that needs to slow you down until you have finished reading it (and this paragraph includes the moderately long quotation that you see ahead). Please give yourself about five minutes. That said, let me delve into it. When you do slow reading in this course, you have to slow down and give yourself time to stop and think about what you are reading. You have to do this even if you feel at first that you simply do not have the time to do this. You have to develop a sense for feeling that you really do have the time to stop your reading and to think about what you have just read, allowing yourself to make connections with what you have read earlier. Some people think that philology is the “art” of such slow reading. Friedrich Nietzsche was one of these people, and he compared the “art” of this “philology” to the art of the goldsmith:
“Philology is that venerable art which demands of its votaries one thing above all: to go aside, to take time, to become still, to become slow – it is a goldsmith’s art and connoisseurship of the word which has nothing but delicate cautious work to do and achieves nothing if it does not achieve it lento. But for precisely this reason it is more necessary than ever today; by precisely this means does it entice and enchant us the most, in the midst of an age of “work,” that is to say, of hurry, of indecent and perspiring haste, which wants to “get everything done” at once, including every old or new book: – this art does not easily get anything done, it teaches to read well, that is to say, to read slowly, deeply, looking cautiously before and aft, with reservations, with doors left open, with delicate fingers and eyes.”
In closing, let me highlight one big change I made in the translation I just quoted: the translator had written “with delicate eyes and fingers,” but Nietzsche in the original German text mentions fingers first and eyes second – in order to drive home his comparison of philology with the art of the goldsmith: when you read slowly, you read with a sense of touch – with “delicate fingers and eyes” (mit zarten Fingern und Augen). We see here an example of reading out of the text instead of reading into the text (I will define these terms in §8).
Now that I am finished with this paragraph, please feel free to go back into a mode of fast reading.

Such Nietzschean tactility feels anathematic to a largely tactless and intangible internet. The manual control of the eye, its kinesis across the liminal surface of a screen, seems to be a transplanted version of formalism or of the deconstructive “slow reading” practiced, or so he says, by J. Hillis Miller. Nietzsche, it sounds like, wants you to run your finger over the paper, tracing each line. But the tactility of translucent fonts is both metaphorical and – despite the existence of the touch-screen and the new Windows touch, say – at best a feint. Stopping to think, rewinding a video, going back over a passage are all embodied reactions, all reading tactics, that have nothing inherently to do with electronic media. Rather, Nagy is cautiously attempting to return something of the material character of the book – of the manuscript, of “hand-writing,” in fact – to a multifunctional medium that fractures, compresses and accelerates. Yet rewinding, as Laura Mulvey reminds us, is a temporal trait – a gestural inversion of what Vladimir Jankélévitch characterizes as time’s essential irreversibility – that remains specific to cinematic media, from videotapes and DVDs to the YouTube videos. The time of the MOOC – that is, broadly understood, its temporal episteme – has everything to do with shaping and managing these recursions and inversions, with stopping and starting, with packet-switching and shifting velocities. In 1993, Paul Virilio asserted with dire conviction that

With acceleration there is no more here and there, only the mental confusion of near and far, present and future, real and unreal – a mix of history, stories, and the hallucinatory utopia of communication technologies. (The Art of the Motor 35)

I want to start to claim here, pace Virilio’s warning, that we need to think carefully about how the anxieties around mass connectivity and the knowledge economy, anxieties that are for me essentially temporal in character, don’t so much impel us to withdraw nostalgically into a world of letters and paper, but help motivate is to address (say, through a more careful interrogation of something as seemingly incidental as metaphor) what it means to teach literature, and what literature and reading might become, in an era when something like a MOOC is even conceivable, let alone a cultural and educational destiny.

Audio: A Lecture on Kathleen Jamie’s “Fever” and “Surgeons’ Hall”

Here is an audio capture of a lecture I gave on Wednesday, October 16, 2013, at the University of British Columbia, on two essays by Kathleen Jamie: “Fever” and “Surgeons’ Hall.” Both come from her 2005 collection Findings, which I’m using in my section of English 111, a first-year introduction to the study of nonfiction, to provide a set of thematic and conceptual anchor-points for the course. In the lecture, I focus on Jamie’s sense of the limits of language, of the intersections of body and text, on the concept of intersubjectivity, and on trying to understand the page as a porous membrane.

Deracinated

Mais, qu’est-ce que c’est donc un noir?  Et d’abord, c’est de quelle couleur? (Jean Genet, “Pour Jouer Les ‘Nègres’” [1959])

Yesterday I heard El Jones on the radio. The community activist and current poet laureate of Halifax was speaking with Jian Ghomeshi on Q about an emerging controversy surrounding an upcoming concert by Chris Brown, and the building opposition in the city to his appearance there, because of his history of domestic violence. One of the key points she made, both eloquently and forcefully, was that this discussion had much to do with current debates around race and identity, particularly in Halifax, where the cultural politics and the cultural history of blackness has played a significant role in shaping the character of the city and its district (Dartmouth, Bedford and other linked communities).

Her remarks had me think back to the beginnings of my own engagements with the discourse and history of race in this country, how this trajectory of my education was set in motion. I was taught Canadian History in my last year of high school in Truro, Nova Scotia (about an hour’s drive from Halifax), by Wayne Foster, who had designed his course around what must have then been a risky and innovative principle in 1981: the first term presented the emergence of the nation filtered through the perspectives of a number of First Nations, while the second term focused on African-Canadian history. I know we had a textbook, although much of what Mr. Foster discussed came from his own research, and I know that he had us reading on our own, too: finding source material for ourselves, if we were able. But I’m sure I had no idea at the time how atypical and how genuinely provocative this class could prove to be. I’m sure he wanted us to think about the ways in which our own history, the history of our place, had been shaped, about how perspective mattered, and about how the recovery of racially-inflected – that is to say, non-Anglo-Celtic – viewpoints had the potential to radically shake up our senses of the given, of what we were told had really happened as our country was being formed, confederated. And I knew next to nothing about the history of the Black community in my own town. Looking back now, I truly admire Mr. Foster’s courage, and his willingness to take what were then substantial intellectual risks, and to invite his students to do the same: to raise consciousnesses, to make us more fully and carefully aware of who and where we were. At the time, however, as a slightly smug seventeen-year-old, I remember myself not so much being grateful as resistant. For some reason, and this is still a bit hard for me to explain to myself, I didn’t want to hear what Mr. Foster was offering us. I think I wanted to cling to a generic, comfortable and singular view of where my sense of language, place and belonging might have come from. This resistance, this recalcitrance, seems all the more peculiar to me given my reading and my taste in music at the time, which was thoroughly caught up in anti-racist punk, existential political philosophy, soul and post-Coltrane jazz. Really. Somehow, I guess I needed to keep the conceptual and the aesthetic separate from the historical, from the immediate experience of being from small-town Nova Scotia. My reading and my listening were idealized and remote from who and where I was, even though I know I identified powerfully with Miles Davis, with Rahsaan Roland Kirk, with The Clash, with Otis Redding, with Jean-Paul Sartre and Jean Genet. I now realize that, despite my rather artificial adolescent resistance, Mr. Foster’s history class has had a substantive impact on how I have come to think about race, about the collision of the aesthetic and the political, of the representational and the lived, in our social and cultural existences in this country. And I need to acknowledge and to thank him genuinely for that.

El Jones’s radio spot was one of several public interventions she has made in the past few days: she also appeared on The National on CBC television, and published, in a Huffington Post blog entry called “Protecting Canada’s Trayvon Martins,” a list of “some things Canadians can do” in the wake of the verdict in the George Zimmerman trial in Florida. Her work, here and elsewhere, voices itself – advocates – primarily in the imperative; here is the sixth of her eight calls to action:

Educate ourselves and our children about racism. Yes, it is important to tell children they can follow their dreams. But we also must give them information that protects them. This case showed us racism isn’t over, so let’s stop being scared to tell the truth to kids, leaving them vulnerable and confused. Teaching about racism also means teaching them Black Power principles. Don’t pretend race doesn’t exist for them, give them the knowledge to understand themselves.

The “Canadians” she’s addressing in entries such as this sound not like Canadians in general, but like those of us (not me) who identify as black: and maybe even more specifically as east-coast, an identity George Elliott Clarke once named “Nofaskoshan” or “Africadian.” A conceptual fracture emerges in the encounter with such an identity when we put a bit of pressure on what specific practice of education El Jones means to call for – despite the overt claim to candour and directness she makes, and even enacts stylistically in the feel of straight talk here. Educating “ourselves” can’t only mean discovering the presence of blackness in our Canadian midst, although that’s a starting point. That’s what I think happened for me thirty-odd years ago in Mr. Foster’s history class. While that discovery – that re-discovery – appears to have become a necessity again now for many, education also means going a bit further, I think. It means recognizing, and negotiating, our complicity in a general cultural and historical problematic around cultural constructions of blackness. For me, this fracture runs deep, and it’s crucial to acknowledge it and to inhabit it critically, thoughtfully.

Race, in my experience, comes to name not a framework for identity but the ongoing fracturing of identities. Despite its various corporeal and historical materializations, despite its difficult tangibility, despite its challenging lived realities throughout the human world, race – in this instance, blackness, which seems to serve as a synecdoche for race as such – remains largely a cultural and historical construct, a “floating signifier” as Stuart Hall argues. To emphasize the semiotics of race (against its genetics) is not to ignore or to obscure its reality, but to try to find a means – a poetic means, I’d say – to encounter it and to counter its nascent perniciousness, the slippery slope down which race slides into racism. I’m not starting to make a case “against race,” although I find Paul Gilroy’s approach to what he calls raciology both resonant and critically provocative. The pedagogical imperative to “educate ourselves,” as I read El Jones, means learning to face those conflicts, to recognize and to work through the often dire representational fractures that discourses of race tend to frame. But not necessarily ever to be done with that work.

So the imperative, as she recurrently characterizes it, is still a need, but more specifically “the need to have difficult conversations.” (I’m lifting this phrase from one of her Facebook updates, but she uses versions of it throughout the radio spot.) It’s a hard form of language-work, a poetics. That’s not to substitute aesthetics for politics, but to return to the uneasy craft of language a tangibility, an engagement with the what matters: to politicize the aesthetic. The difficulty of conversation, in my view, gets foregrounded in Jones’s return to the rhetoric and ideology of the late 1960s. A disturbing question lurks in and behind this call: that is, shouldn’t we have been done with Black Nationalism by now, more than 40 years on? (As El Jones rightly points out, it’s more like 400 years on. And who, by the way, constitutes this “we” I’m so glibly tossing around?) Perhaps our shame – pointed up by the discursive tangle surrounding Trayvon Martin – is that in North America we clearly aren’t done, and aren’t going to be done with it. I find I can’t accept El Jones’s call to return to “Black Power principles,” because my critique of race – enabled, no doubt, by a personal history of deracinated privilege, of not having to be subject to discrimination on a daily basis – involves challenging what feels like an under-interrogated identity politics; that challenge, for me, is in fact what it means to educate ourselves. Identity politics, in my experience, tends to shut down conversations, rather than to enable them. But the fact remains that my kind of academically privileged and rarefied critique might not be especially timely, not yet. The work of consciousness raising still, still, seems to require identifications, solidarities, nationalisms and ethnocentrisms. Even now. Perhaps especially now.

So, as I position myself here, I remain at least partially excluded from those adhesions and identifications, and necessarily so. I’m still working to find my way back through the resistance I felt in that history class thirty-odd years ago. But I think that’s exactly what I ought to be doing. Exclusions and differences are part of the needful difficulty of talking about race. I’m putting more pressure on El Jones than maybe her words have invited, but I think what she has said in the past couple of days represents an important intervention, and a significant provocation to public discussion and debate. And I’d like to thank her for that, as well.

[Edit: El Jones wrote an excellent article on race, violence and Chris Brown, published in the Halifax Chronicle Herald on July 19, 2013. You can read it here.]