on Pauline Marois’ new ‘sovereignty offensive’

so this article from le devoir struck me as needing more response than is readable on Facebook. it explains (in french), Prime Minister Pauline Marois’ new ‘sovereignty offensive’, and then goes on to talk about her participation on the world stage.

here is a chunk in English: “After Davos, where she will attend the World Economic Forum, Pauline Marois will deliver a speech in London to businessmen and then will travel to Edinburgh, where she will meet with Prime Minister for Scotland Alex Salmond, of the Scottish National Party. Scotland is to hold a referendum on independence in 2014, whose legal framework has been the subject of an agreement between Alex Salmond and Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, David Cameron.

Pauline Marois said she found the agreement for the referendum between the two governments “interesting”, but also “different” from rules that prevailed in Quebec during the two referendums on sovereignty.” (thanks, google translate!)

There’s a lot going on here. Firstly, it’s a bummer that it’s Pauline representing Quebec in Davos. The government that she is responsible for is overseeing systemic educational underfunding, as well as a health system in chaos. I mention these examples because they are strictly provincial responsibilities, but don’t forget that construction in montreal seems to be owned by the mob, and that should concern taxpayers. of course, no one in Davos is going to be talking about universal access to education, or public funding for health services- and some even preside over still wackier banana republics than ours! why should the Premier do anything different?

This is the thing. I respect the right of all people to political self-determination (2nd link is to a .pdf), but if the province where I’m a citizen is interested in exercising that right, I’m very concerned about their vision of the independent country to come. Canada has problems; it’s not perfect, and getting worse. But if a culture of corruption, incompetence, and entitlement as outlined above get transposed onto a brand-new country, then that country’s going to be awful. it’s going to end up a country with corroding social services, and astronomically wealthy ministers, mafioso and mineral shareholders, like so many others.

Now I am all for Stopping Harper, and then, if that can’t be done, talking about declaring  independence. that said, the only country i’m interested in voting for is one which recognizes the need for universal access to education, healthcare, transportation, and housing, is committed to a sustainable, ecologically-sound development plan, and understands the obvious benefits that such provisions will bring to a 21st-century information economy which favours diversity, innovation, and multilingualism.

the world is pulling canada in two directions. on the one hand, larger and larger, and sometimes foreign, companies earn their bosses and shareholders more (pdf) and more money. on the other, environmental damage is making us aware that we need to act quickly to build resilient networks on a hyper-local level, to facilitate our transition to a sustainable system.

the point is that until the provincial, or (Scottish, or Catalonian, or Basque) government is prepared to implement, within the measure of its existing powers, such a development program, a sovereignty referendum is going to do more harm than good. if it fails, we are stuck with the status quo, and have lost six months to a year of our political efforts to change exactly nothing. if it succeeds, and we don’t have a resilient network of communities with shared values and mutual respect, we make ourselves very vulnerable to external systemic shocks.

there is so much a quebec government could do tomorrow (pdf) to promote social, economic, and environmental justice- to really help its most vulnerable citizens. if those efforts run into the wall of the federal government, then we have a serious decision to make- for tomorrow, though, there is work enough already.

playing in the road


i want to take a minute to talk about public space. the topic has come up, or been hinted at, or alluded to, in a couple of my lectures already this term, and so i want to unpack it a little bit.

this is a big topic, and i need to start somewhere, so i’ll start in zucotti park. as everyone knows, this was the public space where occupy wall street set up camp in september 2011. we’ve all seen the images of this supposedly joyful occupation, with drum circles and banners and peace and love- those speaking for the 99% reappropriating an urban space which purportedly belongs to them. the whole event was rife with symbolism, exactly as its authors/organizers intended: an occupation not by an occupying army, but instead by civilians. an occupation not of a city, or a building or base, not of a ‘productive’ edifice- but that of a common space. wall street banquiers are encamped in glass concrete towers- why should the people not camp in a park? occupying public space in explicit resistance to free-market capitalist injustices seems worthy, no?

what we might not know, however, is that the park is in fact private property. many, many places we believe to be public are not, in fact, public at all. a Manhattan judge ruled that the owner of the park, Brookfield Properties, had effectively the right to demand the occupiers off their private property, and, as a legal ruling, this decision could impel the police to disperse similar encampments on similar properties. even places we believed to be wilderness, true wilderness, are owned and operated by private entities, entities which don’t always inhabit the space in question. are parks not public then? certainly not all parks are. even nominally public ones are owned and operated by the government. but then how is it that when we envision a ‘public space’, ‘park’ appears close to the top of the list?

i have a theory. a french friend once told me that in france, virtually every park worth the name in an urban centre will have a sign saying ‘keep off the grass’, and that this sign is, generally, respected. i, in canada, can count on one hand the number of parks i’ve seen with such a sign, and can safely assume it would be roundly ignored. in europe, it would appear, walkers follow the paths laid out for them, while here we trace desire lines (french). so the theory? there a park is imagined as something constructed, an urban feature subject to urban rules, completely distinct from the ‘wild’ outside the cities. here, however, a park is a piece of the wild which has been surrounded by the city, but which is not a part of it- a place where we take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints, and help make it better than we found it. a park is not a piece of art to passively consume, but a piece of the wild to actively sculpt.

this is besides the point, however. if a park is not a true public space, poetry aside, then what is? the academy, we may be tempted to say. that’s to say, the ensemble of public education institutions ranging from the tiniest elementary school in the suburbs to the National Library. these are places of learning, of reflection, where the ‘product’ is a deeply public one- the creation and sharing of knowledge. this was the theory, of course, behind the Maple Spring. This movement was a reaction to the commercialization of education, leading to drastically inflated student fees, in the context of a climate of global austerity led by ratings agencies and the IMF. Activists moved to occupy the spaces where they are students and teachers to demonstrate their power in the same way the Occupiers demonstrated theirs.

the validity of the tactic totally aside, some students learned that the academy is not public space either (despite of the public interest of the work performed therein) when the police arrested 16 of them (french) in august, just as the fall semester was due to start. the students had not yet voted to end their strike, and so on the first day of classes, they went to picket. they were removed for violating a court injunction. here again, we see the law overruling the ‘democratic’ will of the people concerning how the space they occupy is to be used. i have reflected before on the role of the police in interacting with demonstrations, and i don’t mean to make ‘cops busting in all over the place’ the focus of this piece. the point is that in the academy, just as in parks, a ‘public’ space whose form and use is believed to be controlled by its occupants, is not always so free.

so where to look then for public space? there is one bold proposition, and that’s to look to the street. the roads are by and large owned by the city, a democratic entity that in theory is the manifestation of the will of the people. there is no restriction on who can enter them and how long they can stay for. there are rules surrounding the conduct of drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians, but these are not of the same order, mostly, as ‘trespassing’ and ‘mischief’, i can attest that the street can be made public, but only for so long- the critical mass of people needed to effectively occupy a space built to scale for cars, not people, where nothing grows and no freshwater flows, can not remain in place forever. the road, of course, can be shut down too.

it seems that maybe there is no true public space remaining to us, or at least, none within easy walking distance of our homes. so what recourse do we have if we are to, in the words of Henry David Thoreau in his essay ‘Walking‘ “go forth on the shortest walk (…) in the spirit of undying adventure, never to return, prepared to send back our embalmed hearts only as relics to our desolate kingdoms”? Asks Thoreau, “When we walk, we naturally go to the fields and woods: what would become of us, if we walked only in a garden or a mall?”

Maybe we can play in a different kind of road. The bridge between physical and digital space is rickety, and the chasm is deep, so we will just leap across it all in one bound- the unregulated internet is the best approximation of the unsculpted wilds left within easy reach. I diverge, of course, from Thoreau here- his essay writes about the appreciation of the beauty of the physical world, and we have thus left him on the physical side of the chasm. But on this side, the digital side, we can see an ideascape early in its formation. There is a resonance that these movements preaching reoccupation and decolonization of physical space find online: Occupy, the Maple Spring, and now IdleNoMore all draw major support from online activists, and it is these online activists who contribute mostly directly to continuing media coverage. This is obviously not to disparage grassroots organizers and activists on the ground: without their efforts there would be nothing to cover. It remains, however, the ‘social media’ side of things driving awareness, drawing eyeballs, and helping it blow up into a mainstream issue worthy of coverage by mainstream press.

It is interesting because an analogy can be drawn between the physical landscape we inhabit, covered with structures, denuded of trees, devoided of wilderness, and the mental landscape we construct around it- papered in advertising, bound by laws, and sculpted by dogma. More rightly, the two landscapes are radically permeable to each other, and the system formed by both in combination has properties not present in either of the parts. What would we think of consumerism if not for the environmental destruction it brings? What would we care of climate change if not for the threat it poses to the established order? The world we live in and the ideas we have about it are not the same thing, but neither can be totally understood in the absence of the other.

And so if our physical space is this, territorialized, colonized, and possessed, as in the case of parks, universities, and the road, then maybe the only recourse we have left is to deterritorialize, decolonize, and deposess the mental space which imbues the physical with meaning. Don’t think that we are starting from a position of purity, here: the digital landscape is heavily colonized by companies and governments. Facebook is a publicly-traded company, after all. Twitter has Terms of Use, and collaborates with dictators to stop service in certain areas or surrounding certain topics. Google knows more about you (much more) than your mother does, and is publicly traded as well. We post and tweet and wuphf using Apple-branded devices often made by workers treated little better than slaves. Governments themselves sometimes pull the plug on the whole system, rather than engage with their own ideas.

this work will not be easy, certainly no easier than reappropriating physical space. i myself am taking small steps. i don’t have the technical ability to make a real change in this direction, but i am trying to move my sites to low-impact platforms free from ads. I myself lack the technical skills to open up the digital world and to make it truly public, to promote a free, fair exchange which occurs on no-one’s playing field, but a shared one. There are others who have those skills. There are others like Aaron Swartz who have tried and been smashed by a system that mistrusts a space it can’t exert dominion over. On the internet, there are no weapons, only ideas- though to some the latter are much more dangerous than the former. For this reason, the simple reason that the ideas we share in this digital space can be fashioned into the tools to save our world from catastrophe. Let’s take some small steps now so we can run when the time comes.

Indeed, we should all play in the road- play in every road available to us. If the physical world and the digital one are interpermeable, changes in one will affect the other. If I bring my casserole or my red square or my feather into the physical street with me, I can open a new branch off the digital one. If I write a new idea in chalk on a digital wall, I can encourage someone to hop over a physical one. If we inhabit space mindfully, whether in person or online, we can start to change the architecture.

Hockey is Dead, Long Live Hockey

So in the wee hours of this morning, a deal was finally struck to ‘save’ hockey for the year. Yes, the owners and the players have finally decided on a way to split their huge fat stacks between them ‘equitably’, and everyone is willing to lace up, open the gates, and give the crowd what they want.The thousands of ordinary Canadians, small-business owners, service employees, and others who depend on the league, and its famous Stanley Cup tournament, for their livelihoods can return to work. But this return is different: the NHL has likely shot itself in the face in a number of small markets- already in desperate competition with basketball and football, the absence of hockey this fall could very well be the last nail in the coffin for Phoenix, Nashville, and others besides.

For this lockout is different- at the start of the 2005-06 season, at least, we got some fun new rules to open up the game (eg. two-line passes, shootouts, a point for overtime losses, and the behind-the-goal safe trapezoid for goalies), and so when hockey came back there was the promise that we’d be seeing something new on the ice. Hockey game back from its break rejuvenated- if not better, at least different. Not this time, though: we left hockey at the start of the blocked shot era, and it looks like that’s where we’re going to pick it back up again.

Now, far be it from me to criticize the league’s business model. Ill-conceived expansion south of the Mason-Dixon line aside, they seem to have done alright for themselves, and the fact that there are so many millions to be divvied up is proof of the fact. But that said, there is a malaise. In a Toronto Star poll this morning, 31% of respondents indicate they will not watch the shortened season as they are ‘no longer NHL fan(s)’- a further 38% will watch, but feel the lockout has ‘soured’ the season.

This, don’t forget, is Toronto- I can only imagine the results of a similar poll in Phoenix. Indeed, some serious damage has been done. We seem to have come a long way from the heady days of the Original Six era, where hockey was the thing that mattered to Canadians, where Maurice Richard’s suspension could set off riots, when the Leafs needed to put a decent team on the ice to ensure their revenues, where hockey could be seen as a metaphor for our nation, rather than a perfunctory pageant populated and promulgated by the very richest. There was a time, in other words, when hockey was real, when it was visceral, when it served its ancient purpose (as with all sports) as a proxy, or metaphor, for war. Our boys versus theirs, us versus them, in the spirit of fair competition for the honour of victory itself.

I have seen it repeated as a truism this fall that hockey players ‘used to be different from other athletes’: that they were motivated by love of the game, not by profit. It’s worth considering where this trope comes from, as hockey players, and hockey owners, have in fairness been making money hand over fist for a good long time, well before even the Original Six. But the history of the Stanley Cup can point us in the right direction. The Canadian Encyclopedia reminds us that it was “(d)onated by Governor General Lord Stanley in 1893 for presentation to the amateur hockey champions of Canada.”

That’s right, the amateur champions. In fact, the NHL gained control of the cup in 1926 only, 33 years after its dedication. The NHL at this point was recognized to be the pinnacle of hockey competition in the world, and because there were Canadian teams playing in it, it was a safe bet that whoever won the NHL championship was indeed the champion of Canada. The fact that American teams could, and can, win the Cup is an act of charity on the part of all Canadians. The fact that professional teams can win the cup is a testament to the power of commercialization.

Of course, I am not the first commentator to notice this. The following two paragraphs lean heavily on Colby Cosh’s manifesto from August 23 2012. Effectively, during the last lockout, in 2004-05, the NHL was sued by Gard Shelley and David Burt, a couple of Toronto rec league players, to allow the trustees of the Cup to award it to a non-NHL team in the event that the NHL, for whatever reason, declined to organize a tournament in a given year.

The lawsuit was settled out of court, and the result subject to a strict confidentiality agreement. In the one part of the settlement that was addressed publicly, however, Shelley and Burt’s lawyer, Tim Gilbert, affirmed just that: “The current agreement…between the Trustees and NHL shall be amended to acknowledge that nothing therein precludes the Trustees from exercising their power to award the Stanley Cup to a non-NHL team in any year in which the NHL fails to organize a competition to determine a Stanley Cup winner.”

There is one important element outstanding in this analysis: the Cup’s origins as a challenge cup. The Champions held it as long as they could keep defeating challengers, and the trustees were responsible for ensuring the fairness and timeliness of these challenges. Thusly, small teams from small towns could put themselves together and go after it. The victory of the Kenora Thistles in 1909 was not the product of efforts by paid professionals from Russia, Sweden, the Czech Republic, and the United States- it was truly, deeply local.

There is a certain metaphor to be seen here- just as liberal economics have opened up the world to trade, disconnecting us from the sources of things we buy, economic considerations have caused the NHL to expand to the point where maybe one player out of ten is ‘local’ in any meaningful sense. The NHL is a league unrooted, and maybe here we have hit on some of the problem.

The Cup, as we’ve seen above, still has trustees: it is rightly the property of the people of Canada. Returning the Cup to its rightful place as a Challenge Cup, and stripping it of its corporate overtones, can only help restore some nobility to the game. In his column linked above, Colby Cosh proposes justly this: allowing any eligible Canadian hockey player to form or join a pick up team to enter a tournament for the express purpose of challenging for the Stanley Cup. The definition of an ‘eligible player’ is tricky, but for the moment let’s limit it to any player who makes their living from hockey.

Assuming an upper limit of 24 teams, and a lower limit of 12, such a tournament would look a lot like the world cup of hockey- a round robin with four (or two) divisions of six teams, who each play each other once (or twice), with the top two from each division advancing to the knockout round. If we’re trying to condense this tournament, they can play single-elimination knockout games until someone wins. If removing the Cup causes the league to finally collapse under its own sclerotic weight, and we have plenty of time to do this, they can play best of three, best of five, or even best of seven series until the end. It would certainly take place only during winter months, as I don’t think Lord Stanley ever envisioned his hardware going anywhere in June.

The advantages to such a tournament are easy and obvious. The big one is that the Stanley Cup would no longer be the personal purview of Gary Bettman or any of the other big-wigs (read: clowns) at the NHL head office. It would be awarded annually to a Canadian team comprised of only Canadians. The tournament itself would be played in many venues- any city with an AHL arena should be able to host a game or a series, and teams would decide amongst themselves or draw lots to determine who would play from which ‘home’ arena. It would bring top-flight hockey to places where it either does not presently go, or where it is too expensive to see. Profit from this tournament would go exclusively to funding boys’ and girls’ minor hockey programs from coast-to-coast- playing for the Cup, after all (in this perfect world), is about the love of the game, not making money. Professional players would thus be amateur, in the true sense, for this tournament only.

I am not an expert, but I am a hockey fan, and a proud Canadian. It pains me to see one of our national symbols, an important part of our national identity, abused and defaced and held hostage in the name of profit. Lord Stanley’s Cup will be awarded this year, but its unclear whether those who hoist it will be ‘worthy’ of it, in the sense he envisioned: amateur, playing for the love of the game, and Canadian, playing for his countrymen. It is time to do something about this- time to make a change to reclaim our heritage. Hockey is dead- long live hockey!

An Open Letter to Stephen Harper re: Chief Theresa Spence

Dear Mr. Harper:

Where are you, man? It seems like it’s been forever since you’ve been around. You’re aware, I hope, that one of our friends, and one of your fellow citizens, Chief Theresa Spence, is literally dying to see you. She hasn’t eaten since December 12, you see. She’s waiting for you to come down and meet her. She doesn’t want anything from you right now- just your attention. Now I can understand of course that you’re a busy guy- you’ve got executives to shmooze with, a caucus to manage, and I’m sure your hockey book is probably taking up some time as well. I even hear that you have a family. So I can understand that you wouldn’t have be able to see Chief Spence immediately, even though I’m certain that you would love to.

But Mr. Harper, it’s been weeks. Three weeks. Twenty-one days. Our friend, and your fellow citizen Chief Spence has not eaten in that time. I’m sure that you, Mr. Harper, have enjoyed some tasty meals since then, surrounded by your friends and loved ones. I’m sure that you can understand the tremendous force it must take her to maintain her strike, and the serious danger she is placing herself in as the holidays fade into winter. You, Mr. Harper, and you alone, have the power to save her. I know that you know this, because you’ve sent faxes, e-mails, and phone calls to her office- I also know that you know, like the rest of the world, that Chief Spence is not there, that she is in a tent on an island in the Ottawa River, spitting distance from your office.

It’s been three weeks, Mr. Harper, and the only logical conclusion I can draw is that you are choosing to ignore her. Presumably, you are motivated by two things. The first is the desire to prove that hunger strikes won’t work, and that you are prepared to see our friend and fellow citizen into the grave rather than imply that others, too, could meet you if they showed a similar fortitude. The other thing, I assume, is the same thing that motivated Jean Charest this spring, when hundreds of thousands of young people flooded the streets of Montréal and other cities in Quebec- that you think this strike is meaningless, that your mind is made up, and that you will execute your planned agenda regardless of dissent.

Let me take the second point first. Last spring, the student strike was called meaningless by all sorts of commentators. “Who cares if the students don’t go to class, they’re only hurting themselves!” “Tuition fees are going up, there’s nothing they can do about it!” “If we ignore them, they’ll go away!” However, the one thing that is very clear, almost a year after the strike, is that ignoring the protestors was the absolute worst thing Charest could have done. It strengthened their resolve. It made them louder, it made them work harder. I was there, after all, and I can’t say it more succinctly than this: “Cri haut, plus fort, pour que personne ne nous ignore!” Shout! Louder! So no one can ignore us!

And six months after the fact, Charest lost his job, and the fee increases were cancelled. The protestors understood something fundamental about a democracy that Charest, seemingly, did not: here, policy comes from the street and it’s up to the politicians to implement what the people want. We do not elect someone for him or her to impose their plans- we elect them to implement ours. Charest was charged in his position with implementing policy developed collaboratively and which reflected Quebec values. Universal access to education, free assembly, and free speech are Quebec values: endebting those who simply wish to learn for learning’s sake is not.

Nobody voted for you for dictator, Mr. Harper- you are a public servant. Canadians voted for your party because they trusted you to be a sound manager whose agenda would reflect the values of the country. Conservatism- the idea that we should move carefully, cautiously, do our research, listen moderately to dissenting views, and build a nest egg sustainably- this is a Canadian value. Limitless, unsustainable exploitation of natural resources for private profit on the backs of our First Nations brothers and sisters is not.

Mr. Harper, you might think that Chief Spence’s hunger strike is meaningless. You might think she’s only hurting herself, you might think these resources are going to be developed anyway, so who cares if she wants to starve herself to death? You might think that if you ignore her, and her allies, that we will go away. But thinking this way will lead you nowhere productive. If you don’t meet her, Chief Spence will die. You don’t need me to explain what type of social movement that will set off- you will be faced with hate, vitriol, and the fury of those whose loved one you could have saved, but chose to ignore.

But you have a second option. Though you want to prove hunger strikes don’t work, that Chief Spence should follow the proper channels (the same ‘proper channels’ responsible for residential schools, land theft, and thousands of other injustices, might I remind you), you could do something different. You could leave your Mountie buddies on the shore, humbly step into a canoe, and paddle yourself out there. Have a cup of tea with our friend and your fellow citizen, and truly hear her concerns. Hear where she is coming from. If you are lucky, maybe you too will hear the rhythm of the living earth with which we have been blessed through drum circles and round dances.

Because I agree, Mr. Harper, than Canada is a blessed country, and that this can be Canada’s century. All the ingredients are here. But your neo-liberal, slash and burn, for-profit mentality will not get us there, and is indeed a dogma responsible for many of the gravest injustices of the 20th century. Like the carrés rouges in the spring, like IdleNoMore now, and like the waves of protest movements to come, we are millions of Canadians demanding social and environmental justice today. You, Mr. Harper, can either join us, and help us save our shared natural environment and restore our First Nations allies to their rightful place as the senior partner of Confederation, or you can be swept aside by the tide of history.

I hope, for your sake, and the sake of Chief Spence, that you decide soon, because I don’t think any of us should need to wait one more day.

Best regards,

Marc “Richard”

For a Magic 2013

so it seems to be in vogue to post one of those ‘end of the year’, or, as I prefer it, ‘start of the year’ posts. i’ve seen some good ones, some funny ones- this one here, however, will probably be the weirdest because i want to say a few words about magic. now full disclosure up front here- i’ve spent the better part of the last week rereading the harry potter books. i’ve been immersed. it’s the first time since it came out that i read the last one. it made me think; more importantly, it made me feel. now i don’t mean this to trivialize what ideas will follow, but to offer them a bit of context. first things first, though: here’s an anecdote.

once upon a time there was a fantasy fiction course, taught by a professor who led off with the idea that in order to serve a story- a good story- magic must be believable. sounds crazy! how can magic be believable? seeing the looks on her students’ faces, she offered to demonstrate ‘real’ magic to her students- she singled one out, somewhere in the middle of the auditorium, and said to him: “stand up”. the student stood. “that,” the professor is supposed to have said, “is magic.” the professor caused action at a distance- without touching the student, without exerting any physical force on him, she caused him to stand.

this is the crux of it. we are all then wizards and witches, because we carry this power with us everywhere, at all times. we use it constantly, every day. there are some things that we make with our hands- some things we can sculpt and build and create by acting on matter. our creation is tangible and sits before us. we can point to it and there is no need for words because its form is self-evident. its characteristics and behaviour are bound by predictable physical laws which manifest identically to all observers. there are other things, however, that cannot be sculpted and built and created this way. relationships. communities. we cannot physically force each other to change our thoughts, to master our feelings- we can manipulate the body of another, but it is only magic that allows us to manipulate the soul.

this is manipulation sans malice ni rancune, in the way a carpenter manipulates her tool, and the process, obviously, works both ways. we are radically permeable to each other- every syllable, every pause, every sigh, every stutter has an impact. i speak and my words have an impact- i am spoken to and i am impacted. we are all better for what others have given us, far beyond physical objects and trinkets: the parts of themselves others have given us through their words. this magic is ancient and it is subtle. no one can predict the consequences of a given incantation, because ideas have lives of their own once uttered, and because they interact with each other and with ourselves in a complex- a staggeringly complex- web of interactions.

there is magic in us. there is magic in the decision to attend a party, or to leave it. there is magic in the decision to go to work, or to quit it. there is magic in waking up in a lovers’ arms and saying good morning- there is magic in saying goodbye. magic exists on a spectrum- we can imagine the dark arts as those ideas/words/thoughts/looks/communications which serve to isolate, knock down, destroy, and defile others, and noble magic as those incantations which unite, build up, create, and honour them. like everything this is not a binary operation, and like all magic such judgments are tied precisely to the time place and season. but while we can’t describe it- can’t quite put our fingers on it, can’t quite nail it down in its entirety- we can perceive it.

this magic is the rush of fire in a soldier’s gut when her general speaks. it is the electric thrill of learning the name of a stranger. it is the proud glory of free expression- of giving form to the abstract, of transforming an idea, without physical, independent existence, into an utterance, which forms it and allows it to propagate. words change the world. we are permeated with magic every moment of our lives: but so much of that magic which transpires around us is so banal, so uninteresting, that we stop noticing it.

over 2012, i have been bewitched by more than a few spells. i have hurt and been hurt. i have described and been described. i have greeted and said goodbye. all of these experiences which have changed me so deeply, the ones i will always remember, were spoken. at the beginning of the year, in this space, i resolved to enter this year as a ‘whole person’- leaving it, i see it is not just myself which is whole, but my surroundings as well. to borrow obi-wan kenobi’s formulation: this ‘discursive magic’ surrounds us, penetrates us, and binds us together.

and so for 2013 i will simply resolve to be aware of this magic, and to the best of my ability, to use it for good. i know that saying ‘good morning’ can be the difference between jumping in front of the metro and heading into work. i know that saying ‘keep going’ can be the difference between falling asleep in a snowbank and making it safely home. i know that saying ‘i love you’… well, i know that that is magic of the most powerful sort. i will be conscious of it, and i hope that you, reader, will be too. tell others. you don’t need to borrow my flowery incantations, but remember the spell i have cast in these lines. this conjuration you are reading, like all the millions of others conjured around you, and those which you yourself conjure, can not leave you unchanged.

i will speak the truth, even to myself. i will speak kindness, even when i am hurt. i will ask questions and embrace that hearing the answers will change me. i will know my questions will change others. i will be aware of how small my part is, but join my voice enthusiastically to the choir. we know, and have known for a long time now, that things are changing, but we are not riding into disaster unarmed. we have ourselves, and we have each other: we have big dreams, big ideas, and between us everything we need to make them real. sometimes it seems like things are out of control, and frankly for the most part they are, but that shouldn’t bother us, for magic is subtle and will lead us where we’re meant to go.

all my very best for 2013.

Early Thesis Thoughts

the high points of my thesis

for anyone curious, i’m currently preparing a master’s thesis in a program called ‘francophone literatures and media resonance’. in my case what this means, in layman’s terms, is that i study twitter. specifically, i’m out to investigate the theory that social media reflects and interprets the social discourse in a similar way as did literature over the last 150 years. let’s define some terms.

‘social media’ refers to the ensemble of online communications where readers are also writers. when you read a book, you can’t write content into it. when you listen to the radio, you have no control over what the station is playing. you can’t control what is shown on tv, and if you try, you’ll get edited out. however, on twitter, facebook, reddit, or wikipedia, for example, reader contribution is absolutely fundamental, and previous similar networks have fallen apart when contributions ceased. in traditional media, there is a production company, publishing house, or broadcast network that frames and directs (you could say ‘narrates’) the message. this framer/director/narrator is the simple architecture of the site- it governs the form, but not the content, of the message.

‘social discourse’ refers to the whole ensemble of everything said and/or written down in a society. it includes political discourse, economic, literary, judiciary, artistic, poetic, linguistic, gender, and all other discourses. this discourse can be conceived of, but not perceived, by any individual reader/writer (who is anchored to her own social-economic-political-cultural circumstances). All readers/writers contribute to it, and their contributions are informed by it, by ‘that thick is communicable’. thus the social discourse informs, and is informed by, the entirety of a society’s information output.

finally, when i say ‘literature’ i really mean the comic novel, which, in a french context, we can trace back to about as far as the railway paperback in the mid 19th century. one critical interest of the novel is that many multiple characters speak different opinions, in different ways, leading the ‘hero’, the subject of the story, to or from his goal. in the case of the novel though, these characters are all created and narrated by one singular author (or a group of authors not comprising all readers), edited by a singular editor (or group of editors, again not comprising all readers). the novel, like social media, can be described as ‘radically permeable’ to social discourse.

so why study such a thing? it’s interesting because we know a lot about the ways in which traditional media influence the way we speak, act, and think, but we have very little idea about how social media do. part of this is because they are so new- few predate the 21st century. however, if we can identify structural differences between examples of social media and equivalent examples of traditional media (eg. wikipedia v. encyclopaedia, craiglist v. classified ads, reddit v. messenger boards, and most controversially fb and twitter v. realist comic novels), we might come up with, if not answers, some more pertinent questions.

because let’s be clear- social media is revolutionary, and its just as well, because we live in revolutionary times. there are big changes that need to happen in our relationships: foremost with the environment, and then with other human beings throughout the world. the last four years have shown us a social and economic system encountering its natural limits, resulting in persistent injustice. if our social discourse is read by traditional media, we are lost- repeating the same talking points, remaking the same stories, and being directed by fewer and fewer conglomerates. things will continue as they are until their inevitable collapse.

in the social media, however, there is new talk. when the structures erected by the publisher, the network, or the editor are removed, each person is free to engage on equal ground with others. there is bleedthrough from the social discourse: Barack Obama is going to be a celebrity on twitter whether his tweets are good or not. The signs and signals erected by traditional media are not evacuated from the social. They are, however, reinterpreted and repurposed.

I put together a couple of papers this fall (in French) concerning specific examples of funny things on Twitter, as well as outlining its basic format, functionality, and grammar. I reference the works of Saussure, Barthes, Bakhtine, Collot, and Genette, among others, as well as the tweets of Donald Trump, Hurricane Sandy, the rock on Mars what Curiosity blowed up, and many more besides. I establish a) that twitter is a linguistic, if not entirely literary, system, b) that twitter is radically permeable to the surrounding social discourse, and c) that some discursive properties of Twitter are user-generated, while others emerge from the interactions of content generated by different users.

from these conclusions, we can ask some interesting questions. what happens semantically when a profile representing a real person interacts with one representing a fictional/dead one, considering their respective places in the social discourse (when i pray to God on Twitter, does he reply?)? How can one discern the significance of a given tweet considering the multitude of ways its author could intend it (U fucking kidding me Pope?)? how do hypertext and hashtags influence the way a tweet is composed (Why do people use hashtags on Facebook?)? In short, what can social media tell us about social discourse that we could not know otherwise?

Hopefully, some answers, or at least some more pertinent questions, will follow.

the part of the police

there’s no easy way to say ‘manifestation’ in english. it is a noun rendered of a verb without object: it is not a protest (against) or a demonstration (to). it is an idea, a feeling- a chorus of emotions made manifest in shared public space. one person can manifest and indeed often does- pouting, screaming, singing, dancing, (fucking) and fighting are all physical manifestations of emotional states.

But just as there is a difference between drizzle and downpour, there is an important difference between these fleeting emotional manifestations and the more durable ones which have rolled through downtown montréal every night for the last month. The police, as we understand them, are mostly able to manage small ‘domestic disturbances’ or some drunks slugging each other on the Main, but how do these police responses scale?

For example, when the cops roll up to a suburban house because the neighbours heard screaming, they are walking into a situation dominated by emotion. They have no way of knowing the dynamics at work in the home they are visiting, and these dynamics are heavily influenced by cultural, linguistic, and historical factors. The police have only one real weapon in their arsenal which could avoid setting off a powder keg (if one were to be present); this being capital-R reason.

The badge, the hat, the patrol car- the sigils and signifiers of the police- all make appeal to the law of the land, which, in our constitutionally democratic belief system, is the product of sober reflection and Reason only. They make clear the legal consequences of any actions which may be taking place, and enforce those consequences as necessary. As always, for the safety of all concerned, a responsible police officer will seek to de-escalate the situation at all turns, dialling screaming down to shouting down to talking down to calm.

Again, how does this scale? It is first important to point out that the night marches are the emotional manifestation of a generation malaise- a creeping terror of the future which is being strip-mined as we speak, paired with institutions which ridicule their concerns. A sign last night read ‘nous sommes devenus des bêtes féroces d’espoir’. When you ignore a child, the child will act out- the solution is neither to cave completely nor to continue ignoring, but rather to identify the problem and consider solutions.

In this context, consider now the effects of certain possible police measures on a crowd of 10 000 young people who already feel marginalized from their society’s political discourse:

1. Ignore the manifestants: they will manifest harder. Certain radical elements will commit acts of violence to call attention to their demands, and as the silence from the institution persists, more and more people will join in their frustration. This will inevitably lead to:

2. Meet them with force: sound cannons, tear gas, water jets, rubber bullets- the kit. This again will do nothing but radicalize the group- as acts of physical violence are committed against individual manifestants who have not personally aggressed the police, the violent sentiment will escalate. If de-escalation promotes everyone’s safety, what does escalation do?

The only sensible option is 3. Don’t Panic. Encourage the main bulk of the march to keep together and keep moving, while isolating trouble spots off to the side where possible, or farther along the route if necessary, Commit to meeting violent elements with less violence than they themselves have used, in the hopes of de-motivating further violent acts by others.

It is imperative to note that the police themselves can do nothing to address the demands of the protestors. The only folks who can do anything to calm this situation are the government- they should annul the Loi 78 before it is struck down by a Charter Challenge and freeze tuition at present levels until at least Fall ’13, while calling a Public Inquiry into the management of Québec’s universities and the future of their funding to decide the question permanently.

Failing that, Charest démissionne- call elections and find a job up north.