Thursday, November 26, 2015


Father Marquette, early Jesuit

I welcome the advent of thinking about pre-literate history, not just because it is another breakup of the hegemonic world of Western Thought, but also because it is so valuable in thinking about Blackfeet and their history which has been written for such a short time, usually by Others.  Only now -- after the revolution in thinking represented by those slippery “French” thinkers like Foucault and Co. who have legitimated post-colonial ideas -- have the tribal people of the prairies been free to think about pre-contact culture, mostly because contact missionaries used shaming to suppress anything not “civilized”, rather transparently meaning “like Euros.”

Once the graphic marks that are the substrate of “writing” and “math” -- the meaning of literacy in our culture -- are pushed back from their dominance in our education systems, the language of information becomes “trace.”  That is, the stories and relationships embedded (literally) in geology and memory or even the morphology of bodies.  The same subtle evidence used by post-modern thinkers to unmask printed words to reveal their secret meanings can be used to explain the supposedly mute world around us.  What is the grammar of geology?  What is grammar?  To so many indigenous people it’s a burden and an abyss because it is used to force conformity to white ways.  But to many white people it’s just a waste of time.  Or a challenge to break all the rules while not entirely abandoning intelligibility.  On the other hand, many cling to rules as sanity and strictly limit inquiry into anything disturbing.

Maybe literacy is also a ball-and-chain of thought

I was sitting in the break room of a local school when an older boarding school educated woman remarked that a certain white woman in the past had been the best English teacher the school had ever had.  “She really knew the right way to talk and she corrected the rest of us all the time.”  That is, teaching English -- to this woman -- meant only correct usage. 

Another time, soon after Montana passed a law requiring the teaching of Native American history, an educated woman said to me,  “I don’t see why we have to study THEIR history.”  This community has a Belgian origin of which it is proud, but they don’t know anything about the European country (war, King Leopold) except it looks quaint and cultured to them.  Their emigration as a community just before WWI seems to them an arrival in the Promised Land.  1900 is the beginning of time.  

Grammar is about structure, DEEP organization of phrases, clauses, and order that rests on sound thinking about relationships.  Too fancy for high school -- maybe.  But I have yet to come across young people who aren’t enchanted by Whorf’s ideas of Hopi language being founded on gerunds and participles because it’s based on seeing processes instead of our noun-based sentences.  A unit on “Yoda’s grammar,” which is about word order (actually Celtic), was a hit in 7th grade.  I left teaching before I took it much farther.  Taking it that far is part of why I had to leave.

The grammar of the planet is geology, isn’t it?  Sedimentary, igneous, metamorphic, plus the effects of erosion and the subterranean tectonic plates?  These elements have always created and destroyed culture, which is assumed meanings about survival.  Very verby.  Volcano, flood, fertility, earthquake, cyclone, monsoon, the adjectives and adverbs of the land.
CSI lab

Ironically, much of the “trace” of early human times must be accessed by highly technical means in many dimensions and scales.  Analysis of compilations of language over time so that we can see the changes and where they probably originated.  “Bar codes” of the genomes of creatures, diseases, and all other entities dependent on meiosis rather than cloning.  Environmental evidence (drowned forests, clam fossils at the tops of mountains, retreating glaciers revealing Otsi).  The structure of the individual cell and the ports in its wall.  How stars form and now how planets form around stars.  These are traces beyond the ken of early story-tellers.   Much of their ceremony is in the scenes of CSI programs: lab work with mysterious machines but also little containers and eye-droppers of fluid, scrapings from the fenders of cars, analysis of hairs picked off a lapel with tweezers, interpretation of graphic screen evidence.

We know now how much we rub up against each other and our environments and how tiny bits stick to us, just as we leave little dots of ourselves: epithelials.  We’ve figured out that the epigenome is one way the genome is played like a piano and that things like nutrition, trauma, and contagion can imprint a genome for generations to come.  We can methylate single genes to turn them off and on and use light filament to pinpoint which gene we mean.

Lucy Parsons (circa 1853–1942) Labor organizer, socialist, and legendary orator. 

No one is admitting that our writing is a big part of modern consciousness, much of which rests on words.  The underlying concepts are quite ignored.  We begin to move back towards speaking.  Even a person in Africa who cannot write can speak with our clever handheld instruments.  This means primacy has shifted back to story and eloquent spoken persuasion, very much the core of Blackfeet life until a few hundred years ago.  Most of our politicians have not caught up with that yet.  Many of them still can’t figure out a computer.  Our political systems are garroted by words.  We still live in a noun world full of thing-acquisition, instead of a verb world of process, becoming, discarding.

Changing focus to physical remains, maybe you know the story of the first grave opened to reveal neanderthal remains which were "strewn with flowers":

(Wikipedia:  Shanidar Cave (Kurdish: Şaneder or Zewî Çemî Şaneder; Arabic: كَهَف شانِدَر‎) is an archaeological site located on Bradost Mountain in Iraqi Kurdistan.  The remains of ten Neanderthals, dating from 35,000 to 65,000 years ago, have been found within the cave.The best known of the Neanderthals are Shanidar 1, who survived several injuries during his life, possibly due to care from other members of his band, and Shanidar 4, whose body lay beside a flower that can either be explained as evidence of burial rituals or animal contamination.)

Our romantic media immediately summoned up a beautiful woman tragically killed and wreathed with our Victorian "language of flowers".  The facts turn out to be more prosaic, but still tragic since war in the Middle East now has destroyed most of the skeletons.  “Shanidar I” was an “old” (40 to 50) man with a disfigured face and many injuries.  The flowers in the grave were sometimes interpreted as evidence of “religion”, but it turned out there is a little gerbil/pika/hamster that will dig holes and stash both grasses and flowers in loosened soil.  I never did understand why strewn flowers proved there was an afterlife anyway.
Gandhi's body

More shocking to racial purists has been the fossil genetic evidence that modern humans in some places are carrying neanderthal genes, which calls up images of King Kong running off with blonde Jessica Lange clutched to his hairy chest.  Another version of this brute-haunt has been idea of the origin of contemporary persons being displaced from the Middle East to Africa.  Eve was BLACK.  Think of THAT!!!

So evidence of trace and stories by interpretation wind in and out of each other, saturated with emotion, just as they do in the CSI serieses.  Because these crime stories are contemporary, they are gender-inclusive.  Though the lab personnel are one gender or the other, perps might be atypical.  However, the series called “Bones” addresses a unique science problem, which is a kind of person (Asperger?) who is blind to human relationship but able to handle incredible amounts of “trace” information and bring them into meaningful implications.  Technology has overwhelmed their feeling systems. 

This is a sub-cellular medical illustration -- I don't know what it represents.

Another powerful force of the series is the constant and respectful attention to human bodies, vividly illustrated with “medical” cartoons of the rushing around in our flesh as the cell community of eukaryotes goes about their business of trying to stay alive.  We learn how subtle changes can force death as well as horrifying tearing apart of flesh, and then the putrefaction that reduces us to goo and the other beings who ingest and digest us, to their benefit.

There’s a lot more to say.

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