Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Sleepless in Ferguson, Waking Up in Toronto

by Dean Dettloff

Two nights ago, on August 9th, I was checking my usual news sources and social media after being away from the internet for almost two weeks due to traveling. After taking planes and cars around North America, attending a best friend’s wedding and spending time with two newborn twin nephews, I quickly realized that yesterday was the anniversary of Mike Brown's death in Ferguson, Missouri, an event which a year ago transformed my orientation to philosophy, religion, myself, and my world. I took some time to follow the difficult reflections from a variety of activists I became familiar with in the last year. Demonstrators gathered in Ferguson to mourn Brown's death and continue making sure he was remembered, and I watched as twitter was constantly updated with videos and photos of police in riot gear. I was ready to go to bed at a reasonable hour, back home, safe and sound in my own familiar bed in Toronto, when I started seeing reports that someone among the Ferguson protesters was shot.

I stayed up late watching reactions and hearing news in real-time from reporters and activists on the ground via twitter (a better strategy than waiting for Fox or CNN), anxious about new details. Who got shot? What were the police saying? Why did a man just get arrested for taking video of the shooting victim surrounded by armed officers? Having just finished reading Ta-Nehisi Coates' new book Between the World and Me, all this news hit me differently and even more profoundly than the news of Mike Brown's shooting a year ago.

A rush of thoughts paraded through my mind as I tried to finally fall asleep. What does it mean to be a white, American, Christian man studying philosophy in Canada at a place called “The Institute for Christian Studies,” working for the “Centre for Philosophy, Religion, and Social Ethics?” How will I explain the transformative months between August 2014 to August 2015 to my children? Am I allowed to comment on this? Who can I listen to in order to purge myself of the ways in which I participate in a systemically racist society? Should I really be worried about my own guilt when a black person was just shot? What headlines will I wake up to tomorrow morning? Will the activists I’m following be alive and out of jail (as it turns out, at least two ended up being arrested)? How many of these questions are hiding a deeper racism in myself that remains to be dealt with?

How many of these questions are hiding a deeper racism in myself that remains to be dealt with?

Monday, July 27, 2015

The Gesture of Blogging

By Matt Bernico

In January 2016, Matt Bernico will teach a distance course entitled "In Media Res: Media, Technology, and Culture" in the Master of Worldview Studies (MWS) program at the Institute for Christian Studies (ICS). This blog post illustrates the kinds of questions that will be raised in the course, which will draw from the work of Vilém Flusser, Walter Benjamin, and others in order to think through how media affects and effects human culture. From the course description: "According to Michel Foucault, the 'blueprint' of the 20th century was the prison or hospital. However, we might say that the 'blueprint' for the 21st century is the computer network: namely the Internet. With the technological revolutions of the 21st century, we see the digitalization and informationalization of everything. Learning to live, think and act within this sort of society is increasingly difficult and requires new diagnostics of culture, politics and the self. This class will engage with these questions in light of the importance of materiality and embodiment in the community of faith’s ongoing reflection upon Christian life and mission." For more information on how to enroll in the MWS program at ICS, visit our web site. 

The relationship between technology and the body is always fraught with misunderstandings, ideology and assumption. For example, in a post-industrial society, what is work? It appears to be hammering away on a keyboard, but in what way can we disentangle post-industrial work from typing an essay, a blog, and so on? Materially, we might say these acts are identical, but observing and unpacking the gesture of blogging itself might yield some phenomenological difference. So, then, what is the gesture of blogging?

To begin, we might consider what a gesture is at all. In his book Gestures, the media philosopher, Vilém Flusser (1920-1991), calls a gesture “a movement of the body, or tool of the body, for which there is no satisfactory causal explanation. Meaning must be discovered in relationship to movement” (2). A gesture is a thing we do in collaboration with other actors/objects that describes the human intentionality and freedom in an act. For example, if a car speeds toward you and then you leap out of the way, this is not the gesture of leaping: the intentionality is not your own. Whereas, we might call leaping in the context of exercise or a game as the gesture of leaping. The difference is in determining what actor has the ability to express the most intention and freedom.

What can we say about the gesture of blogging? Flusser, a thinker who exclusively used a typewriter, writes about the gesture of writing and even typing, but typing on a digital apparatus, especially in the case of blogging, is quite different. Before we can get at the gesture of blogging, let’s look at the gesture of writing. According to Flusser writing is about scratching a surface in a specific linear pattern with graphite, chalk or ink. The gesture of writing is about inscription.

It is the tendency of some philosophers of technology and the media, namely Heidegger, to bemoan the fall of writing to the typewriter and in turn digital media. Heidegger points out that the way we act on the world is through our hands and writing is certainly one of the ways that humans act. Flusser would be in agreement here; humans pass the world through their hands, whereas a squid, for example, sucks the world in through it’s mouth.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Everything Will Be Alright: Overcoming Christian Whiteness

By Josiah R. Daniels

In rapper Kendrick Lamar’s newest music video Alright, Kendrick puts visual imagery to themes he has been working with for quite some time; black nihilism/resiliency, police brutality, the new Jim Crow, life in the ghetto and the fragility of black life. Like the entirety of To Pimp a Butterfly, this video demonstrates Kendrick’s keen ability to address modern crises regarding racial violence in an artistic and prophetic way.

[Warning: some readers may consider language or images in the following video to be graphic.]

Throughout his video, Kendrick imaginatively and concretely depicts the danger that threatens black and brown people day in and day out. But this does not stop Kendrick from literally soaring above it all; he flies above the lights, the streets, the fans and haters, the ghetto, the city, money and even the police themselves. The last scene depicts Kendrick perched above his hometown Compton, looking out to see all that he can see. A white-male police officer appears underneath the place where Kendrick looms—the officer looks up and sees Kendrick occupying an unusual space. It is unusual in one sense because Kendrick is, so to speak, flying sky high. But Kendrick’s being on top of the world is doubly unusual: Kendrick occupies a black body—a body that has, since the “colonial moment,” been fraught with an unwarranted history of subjugation. This black bo(d)y must not and sadly cannot escape the fixity of the racial imagination. Kendrick, a black-inner-city-male, “flying high” (which the reader should now understand to be a metaphor) is akin to an elephant flying, an absolute impossibility.

It becomes clear that the officer means Kendrick harm. Rather than using his rifle or his sidearm, the officer, cast as the white-masculine, makes a gesture towards Kendrick by pointing at him with his fingers which have been formed into the shape of a weapon. And with a single “shot” Kendrick is knocked back down to the dirty dusty earth. With all this in mind, a twofold question must be posed: What is Kendrick trying to convey to his audience and what is the significance of the concluding bit of Alright?

I think that the conclusion of Alright tells us that the racial problem is bigger than white people, guns, or the police. That’s not to say that this triad is wholly exonerated from culpability concerning injustices perpetuated against dark bodies. However, there is something that Darren Wilson takes as an a priori before he, a white, gun-toting-police man shoots the “demon” known as Mike Brown. This seemingly intangible, indescribable, elusive “something” was also a fait accompli in the shootings of 12-year-old Tamir Rice and 50-year-old Walter Scott. This “something” is what causes the police officer in Alright to shoot Kendrick Lamar. This “something” is whiteness.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Laudato Si, Fracking, and Air Conditioning

Pope Francis’s new encyclical Laudato Si is, as expected, making a lot of waves. Though it maintains the criticism of market ideology found in both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI (the latter even once called for a “New World Order” capable of restraining the destructive effects of unfettered economics), Laudato Si is unambiguous about what needs to change. Even conservative commentators are noticing there is little wiggle room, opting for outright critique of the document rather than simple domestication. Laudato Si addresses, however, the undeniable situation of humanity today, one in which humans can and do actually change the environments we find ourselves in—and Pope Francis recognizes that we can no longer afford to ignore the increasingly toxic environment we are actively producing.

Pope Francis recognizes that we can no longer afford to ignore the increasingly toxic environment we are actively producing.

In a recent article published in Rolling Stone, Paul Solotaroff tells the story of a fracking town, Vernal, Utah, where infant mortality rates are rising at an alarming rate. The discovery of this tragedy was made not by the EPA, and certainly not by those in the fracking business, but by a midwife, Donna Young, for whom infant mortality rates are not a statistic but a lived reality. As Solotaroff narrates, the conditions of Vernal are hardly inviting for the fragile development of new lives. Fracking, which injects high-pressured fluid into the ground in order to force the gas underneath to the surface, produces a variety of derivative environmental effects—perhaps most troubling are the carcinogenic gases which populate both the air and the ground. Vernal’s location in a basin only compounds the problems, since the bowl traps the gases producing a thick haze of contaminants. 

When Young began to investigate the unusually high numbers of infant deaths and troubled pregnancies she was encountering, her reputation and position were quickly maligned—for a town that depends on fracking to exist, calling its adverse effects to the fore is a dangerous political move. Young’s story is heartbreaking, a classic case of someone trying desperately to speak the truth for the common good but being squelched for the sake of deep pockets. But Solotaroff’s article brings another important question to the fore, namely, the general problem of atmospheric conditions. Vernal is a town where the environment is literally becoming unsuitable for life.

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Justice, Interfaith, and Bathrooms

by Allyson Carr

It’s funny how something as ordinary as the need to use the washroom can spark a profound moment of solidarity.

This past week, I spoke at a conference in Ottawa and attended a community forum as part of our Justice and Faith project. Both of these events featured a performance of Just Faith?, the one-act play that was developed out of the research for that project. Since the play was in many ways a product of our research, it was intended for a Christian audience (the community upon which the research was based). And yet, the way that MT Space (the theatre company we engaged to write and perform the script) works draws on their own life experience, and so there were multifaith elements present throughout the play. The actors’ lives woven into the scenes set it in an interfaith context, even as a play that focuses on Christians struggling to understand Scripture’s call to pursue social justice.

This time around, MT Space introduced a new scene, replacing one that had originally been written by an actor who could not attend the Ottawa performance. In the new scene, a woman recounts the story of her mother and her grandmother opening up their doors to an unexpected swarm of strangers who appeared one day, walking through their small home village in India. The strangers were from all over the world—different ages, ethnicities, and religious backgrounds — but it turns out that in that particular moment these hundreds of people were all united in their need for one thing: a bathroom. While there was only one toilet in the home, the women told us how her mother and grandmother welcomed these hundreds of strangers into their house, fed them what they could, and allowed them to rest for a bit from their travels. She recounted how there were people covering every possible surface in the home and yard, exhausted, but content—now that they had been able to get to that bathroom.

In the new scene, a woman recounts the story of her mother and her grandmother opening up their doors to an unexpected swarm of strangers who appeared one day, walking through their small home village in India.

As the strangers left again a few hours later, they profusely thanked the mother and grandmother, explaining that they were on a walk marking the 75th anniversary of the Salt March—the 1930 protest against British rule led by Gandhi. The actor closed her scene by asking, “I wonder what the world would be like if we all just…opened our doors to each other?” Watching that scene and thinking it over, I wondered too.