Saturday, May 26, 2007

Oikos ... random thoughts on a sleepless night

I've been working designing courses centered around identity/place/community, etymology/keywords, global/local/interrelatedness and community activism/learning/engagement. The Greek idea of Oikos (eco), along with inquiry and orientation are key grounding concepts... also recognition of student experience and reconnection to place through an awareness of interrelatedness on multiple levels (including research into origins of words/beliefs/places/objects/etc...)

Now I’m at Bluegrass Community and Technical College, where I’m teaching courses centered on the concepts of Place, Identity, and Community. I have developed this pedagogy as an attempt to bridge students’ everyday experiences and academic knowledge. I hope that through discussion and writing about our sense of self, place, and community, we can develop a new awareness of the possibilities of writing/thinking as a form of civic engagement and hopefully, in the process, provide a helping hand to at-risk students.

This is doubly distressing for me. How can I expect my students to make meaning out of the swirl of data when I am devoting large parts of my life to informing my self about current events without clear results? I lack certainty! I am often confused! I know my reflective doubt is supposed to be a good sign in that I am avoiding the dogmatic certainty that often leads to abuses, but can radical doubt be the foundation for critical engagement? Academia has skillfully prepared me to question all texts and positions. Grasping my hammer tightly, I eagerly assault all sacred idols and social illusions, leaving the mess for others to clean up. Perhaps in this time of secrecy and lies it is time to think about a reconstructive ethics?

Still stumped, I have to return to the basics. What is it I see as a problem in our society? What plagues my own thoughts? What would I like my students to learn? What ideas can frame the beginning questions that might allow the imagining of new possibilities? This nausea that pervades my being initiates a radical need to return to the etymological roots (rad-) of the words that might jumpstart my stalled intellect.

A framing concern for me — personally and professionally — is ecology as the study of the interconnectedness of beings in environmental systems of all types. The root “eco-” originates from the Greek word oikos, which referred to an understanding of home, household, or more fully, our habitus. Ecology, then, is the study or understanding (take that apart — the foundations of the ground below us that support our current position… what lays under the point where we are standing) of the world which we inhabit and the attempt to derive new meanings from the interconnectedness and interrelationships of life. The need for ecological awareness seems obvious to me, but the word has unfortunately been paired in an oppositional relationship to another dominating term — “economics.” While ecology derives its conjunctive meaning from logos (knowledge), economics draws its conjunctive power from nomos (law). We have then in contemporary society a dualistic division of the concerns of these two important and powerful words. The study, knowledge, and understanding of our environments vs. the control, regulation, and management of those environments.

Might a reconstructive ethics start here in a rapprochement of these two essential concepts for understanding the increasingly interrelated and interconnected global system? Would the breaking down of these artificial barriers between these two major concerns of life allow for a fuller understanding of how we might restore a sense of justice, rights, and responsibilites? No longer would it simply be an issue of ecology against economics, or the market before our environment, or a separation of the human from nature.

Guillermo Gomez-Pena and Roberto Sifuentes, in their “Temple of Confessions” diorama performances, deconstruct the modern ethnographic gaze in order to expose its predatory nature. They critique the dominate culture's power to classify and regulate, by turning stereotypes inside-out, exploding cultural myths and, most importantly, allowing their audiences to reveal their own place in the national narratives. For a detailed analysis of their deconstructive performances, visit my review of the “Temple of Confessions” performances in Bowling Green, Ohio, and Detroit, Michigan. Cultural performers like Gomez-Pena and Sifuentes are restor(y)ing the modernist practice of ethnography in order to reconstruct 21st-century (auto)ethnographic poetics. As Norm Denzin reminds in his book, Performative Ethnography (Sage, 2003), we all perform culture and this is never an innocent practice (as in free of intent to influence). With this realization, the critical thinker develops a clear and honest statement of his/her position as a writer-producer of knowledge and re-cognizes their role in the production of ethnographic knowledge.

Moving to the forefront of the development of 21st-century autoethnographic poetics are stories by the people who live these stories. These autoethnographic documents speak for themselves because they are written in the direct and honest voice of the authors:

Reconstruction Editors: What We Write and Why We Write

(notes on) H.L. Goodall: Writing the New Ethnography

Catherin Russel: Autoethnography--Journeys of the Self

Elizabeth Barrett: Strangers With a Camera

Mathamegenic: Two Papers, Me in Between

Donna Haraway's The Companion Species Manifesto (scan down on the page)

Michael Pollan's The Botany of Desire

Zone Zero: Exposiciones

While the world is continuing to speed along in a confusing, chaotic manner, there are those that are taking the time to provide us with glimpses of their particular realities. Each one is an insight into the secrets, passions and realities of this world. Each one allows us a glimpse into how this world is experienced and, thus, provides with a vision to compare with our own. It is in dialogue, discussion and debate that we sharpen our intelligence and revise our perspectives. Won't you do the same? The world benefits from the free exchange of ideas and open dialogue! We need to develop the response-ability to envision a different way of life.

Enough of uninterested knowledge (the most manipulative information is that which seeks to mask its intent/bias)--all meanings and knowledge are situated, biased and argumentative (whether implicitly or explicitly)

Michael Benton

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