Inevitable Hope

The insecurity of knowing, which is the title of this blog, is a phrase coined by Patti Lather in her book ‘Getting Lost'(Lather, 2007). The book is an intellectual reflection, a repositioning and, at times, a lament as Lather reflects on her own work as well as on the paradigm battles of the late twentieth century. The project to emancipate knowledge from the grips of powerful and elitist discourses has not been as successful as some intellectuals may have hoped. Instead there is a ‘repriviledging of the scientific method’ (2007, pg 2) through a world wide audit culture that monitors and evaluates and so shapes and moulds the world to fit a ‘one size fits all’ consumer profile.

In some ways this PhD is also an opportunity for a more conscious moment of intellectual reflection. This may lead to a repositioning and hopefully, better research and work practice. It will no doubt contain some laments, regrets and disappointments. I was 24 when I did my Masters. It was a professional masters which made me the youngest in the group and, without a doubt, the one with the least experience in the professional world. I was an idealistic earth hippie who drummed at full moon, lived in a park home, was a member of a isiXhosa drama group and wandered around campus in ball gowns. Well that was the outward appearance. Inwardly I was troubled by injustice and, bless that young me, desperate with the hope for change. Nelson Mandela had been freed. My first adult voting experience was to vote in a new and liberated South Africa. I was a young adult in a new (South African) world and I devoted myself to this new world with a feverish passion that was found in many South African’s at that time. It is hard to describe that time in history. It is hard to tell anyone what it was really like because it is impossible to explain the fever in our hearts. It is also hard to explain our disappointment. Tim Hopwood, photographer, musician and social critic captured an aspect of this feeling  in his dedication song to Nelson Mandela written in the early 2000’s (Hope was inevitable). It is a song of a memory of watching Mandela walk out of prison into freedom while sitting on the roof tops in Cape Town and a reflection of how things have turned out since then. This song still brings a lump to my throat and tears to my eyes.. even now, even though I think I have given up on that inevitable hope. Tim Hopwood laments ‘This is so far from where we wanted to be’.  This sentiment was mirrored by a conversation with my then mentor and Masters supervisor at the beginning of this year. She said, ‘I’ve worked my whole life in the  environment and education sector and those two sectors are in a deep crisis. What have we been able to do?’

… and what have we been able to do? We may not be where we wanted to be so where are we and where am I in this project impossible. I am still beavering away at trying to understand where my and others agency lie and what avenues there are to change. At twenty-four I was wielding the weapon of drama with Augusto Boal’s ‘Theatre of the Oppressed’. I was riding the wave of challenging grand narratives and the security of knowing. I was deeply disappointed with science. Knowledges and knowings that arose out of the earth and out of the people working the earth – living and suffering or living and rejoicing – this is what drew me. These were the knowings that I thought may topple the precarious tower of ‘privilege to a few and the domination of many’.

Knowledges and knowings. Learning and transformation. Change.

I’m no longer working with drama but my interest in working with knowing and change in collaboration with people has not diminished. After three years of battling chronic fatigue I now I find myself deep in the lowveld working on an ambitious project to build resilience in the Olifants catchment. My role is monitoring, evaluation and learning using narratives as a form of evidence that provides opportunity for reflexive learning. I also find myself working with activists on a ‘changing practice’ short course that looks at how we bring about change in our work and communties. Around all of this are the new theoretical kids on the block : complexity theory, trans-disciplinarity, activity systems theory, critical realism, systems thinking, resilience. Researchers are once again having to embrace the insecurity of their own role in society. Is research actually able to address complex problems in the world? Has research really helped in addressing the environmental challenges of our day? What have we really been able to do?

The landscape of knowledge has also be irreversibly changed as we hook in and hype up our trendy surfer look with our latest facebook profile pic. Never before has there been a network so huge with Facebook having over one billion users jostling to be liked. Google is also the demi-god of information. The malleable, adaptable, flexible database that gives us what we want whenever we ask without question and (often) without reflection.

Snowden, in a documentary by journalist, Lauren Poitras (This documentary has recently won the Ridenhour Prize for Truth-Telling)  is quoted as saying “We are building the greatest weapon for oppression in the history of man.” What is he talking about? The internet or rather an internet that is being watched, tampered with and manipulated. Here the question is not so much ‘what have we really been able to do?’ but ‘what have we done? The danger is not only in an internet that is being watched but also in how the internet is being used. Multiple discourses clamour for our attention and we only need listen to the ones that perpetuate our values and belief systems. How to be a critical citizen in this vast and noisy space? And what are we doing with all this searching and posting and self-validating? We are all engaged in a full scale, full time process of meaning making so that we know how to engage, how to act and how to be.

I went to my Saturday morning Yoga class, in the dried out, skeletal bush of the lowveld yesterday. Malaria has become a problem again and the pre-yoga discussions were about how to deal with this potential threat. The conversation shifted from known cases to the strategies to deal with malaria, one of which is spraying your home. There was some worry about the effects of spraying on our health. One woman commented that she had searched google about the health implications of the spray and it was ‘true’, the spray was damaging. It is amazing that every human can now be their own researcher but I could write here that I am a blue skinned, vegan from the planet Voltar and it would be posted onto the internet as information. It, however, would not be true no matter what radical version of post-modernism you may wish to adopt. ‘What is interesting is that my fellow yoga practitioner felt that a statement like ‘I searched google.’ gives her information that ‘spraying your house is damaging’ more meaning in the context of the discussion (This makes me think of a comment, by Donavan Costaras, in response to posts on Facebook about way out claims by those opposing vaccination that Ebola is not actually a dreaded virus but an autism cover up –  he writes: ‘I quiver when I hear the words “I have researched”‘).

What was happening during the pre-yoga discussion was that a group of women were making meaning of a threat. They were doing this by drawing on different knowledges: past experience of malaria in the area, medical knowledge (one woman is a doctor), alternative medicine, heresay, the internet, personal experiences and newspaper articles. Every bit of this information was deliciously and with great complexity engaged with in the process of making meaning of the threat of malaria – what does it mean for me, my family, my neighbours, people I know with children, the vulnerable living in Acornhoek (who by the way don’t have a choice about whether their houses are sprayed or not)? It was more than just an information sharing session, it was a process of strategising, decision-making, adapting, coping, fitting in and finding support. Behind each word, each point in the discussion is ‘How do we know and what do we do if this is what we know?

This is what this blog will be exploring, challenging and questioning. More specifically I will explore how, faced with an insecurity of knowing, the practice of learning could be an emancipatory process for both human and non-human beings.

3 thoughts on “Inevitable Hope

  1. Derick

    I do see merits in the different points you make but tend to agree that facebook can become a large syndicate that is self perpetuating . And we know there is a lot of that in the world. It has become another way of ‘normailsing’ certain values and it that way is an instrument of conservatism and the mundane… we also have a lot of that! Yes it can be used to liberate but I am not sure we have a guarantee of that.

  2. Leigh Price

    Thank you for this interesting post Jane. I have to confess that my first attempt to write this blog was lost due to me moving off the page to search for a reference! One lives and learns!

    So, in probably a more abbreviated form than originally….

    The difference in perspective between your sister and yourself about facebook is really fascinating and your solution to it in terms of a layered reality is of course spot on. It seems sad to think that failure to understand this simple solution (that both perspectives are in some ways right) has caused so much conflict over the years. Quite often we hear what might at first glance seem like a similar position, which is that both people have a perspective that is true “in their reality” but this insists that we imagine everyone existing in their own separate realities, which seems like a lonely, individualist and disempowering place – plus it actually does not avoid the conflict – just avoids engagement with it. Your position allows both perspectives to be right, in different parts of a shared reality, where the emphasis is on shared. However, with knowledge comes the motivation to act, and it is much more complicated to act on the knowledge that both are right in a shared reality, rather than one or other is right, or that the knowledges are right in different realities (so the conflict does not exist in those different realities – in your reality you avoid facebook, in your sister’s reality she engages happily with facebook). How does one act on the basis that “both are right” in such a way that both you and your sister can enjoy the benefits of facebook, without the problems? I think the answer must be a form of activism, but an activism that is not based on shallow, simplistic self-righteous positions.

    Norman Fairclough explores this complexity with his concept of the colonization-appropriation dialectic in which social entities or language or discourse have this two-way nature. They both empower and disempower. I looked at in in terms of the discourse around sustainability, which was challenging of the status quo originally (like facebook) but was then appropriated and colonized and this removed the threat to the status quo…but not entirely. It works the other way too. Discourses designed to protect the status quo can also be appropriated by the subordinate and used in empowering ways, such as the way the discourse of women as sex objects can be used by some women for empowerment (so a high heeled shoe is disempowering for some women, empowering for others) (I seem to recall that Judith Butler explored this in her book Undoing Gender, but I can’t recall the page).

    Anyway, to get back to Norman Fairclough (1999), he said this on the matter (he could have been talking about facebook but actually was talking about the new labour discourse of capitalism):
    “The example shows that people are not simply colonized by such discourses, they also appropriate them and work them in particular ways. Textually-mediated social life cuts both ways – it opens up unprecedented resources for people to shape their lives in new ways drawing upon knowledges, perspectives and discourses which are generated all over the world. But in so doing it opens up new areas of their lives to the play of power. There is a colonisation-appropriation dialectic at work. Whether on balance people gain or lose depends on where they are positioned in social life – the fact that new possibilities are opened up does not mean people are unconditionally free to take them. ” (I think this may no longer be available, but I have an e-copy if you would like to read the whole article)

    Thanks again for the thoughts. I look forward to more interesting ideas. Leigh

  3. Pingback: Searching for an emancipatory science: Two introductions | THE INSECURITY OF KNOWING

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