Tag Archives: shared power

Three Ways of Standing on Quicksand

Here’s a drawing I made on the back of an envelope over breakfast this morning, to illustrate three ways of standing on quicksand: territorial rivalry, amoral transactionalism, and moral community or mutual standing.

Three_Ways_of_Standing_on_Quicksand

Austin and Asking, 2

I’m re-reading Austin’s How to Do Things With Words, trying to come to terms with these lectures and what perspectives they offer on the broad theme of conversation and collaboration I’ve been exploring in a series of posts on the power of asking.

On my first reading, which I discussed here, I must have nodded midway through Lecture VI, or maybe I just wasn’t in the right frame of mind to appreciate the historical argument Austin advances in that lecture about the “evolution of language” (focusing specifically on the development of the explicit from the primary performative).

…historically, from the point of view of the evolution of language, the explicit performative must be a later development than certain more primary utterances, many of which are at least already implicit performatives, which are included in many or most explicit performatives as parts of a whole. For example ‘I will…’ is earlier than ‘I promise that I will…’.The plausible view (I do not know exactly how it would be established) would be that in primitive languages it would not yet be clear, it would not yet be possible to distinguish, which of various things that (using later distinctions) we might be doing we were in fact doing. For example, Bull or Thunder in a primitive language of one-word utterances could be a warning, information, a prediction, &c. It is also a plausible view that explicitly distinguishing the different forces this utterance might have is a later achievement of language, and a considerable one; primitive or primary forms of utterance will preserve the ‘ambiguity’ or ‘equivocation’ or ‘vagueness’ of primitive language in this respect; they will not make explicit the precise force of the utterance. This may have its uses, but sophistication and development of social forms and procedures will necessitate clarification. But note that this clarification is as much a creative act as a discovery or description! It is as much a matter of making clear distinctions as of making already existent distinctions clear.

One thing, however, that it will be most dangerous to do, and that we are very prone to do, is to take it that we somehow know that the primary or primitive use of sentences must be, because it ought to be, statemental or constative, in the philosophers’ preferred sense of simply uttering something whose sole pretension is to be true or false and which is not liable to criticism in any other dimension. We certainly do not know that this is so, any more, for example, than, to take an alternative, that all utterances must have first begun as imperatives (as some argue) or as swear-words — and it seems much more likely that the ‘pure’ statement is a goal, an ideal, towards which the gradual development of science has given the impetus, as it has likewise also towards the goal of precision. Language as such and in its primitive stages is not precise, and it is also not, in our sense, explicit: precision in language makes it clearer what is being said — its meaning: explicitness, in our sense, makes clearer the force of the utterances, or ‘how…it is to be taken’.

What Austin says here about how human beings came to mark and remark the forces of utterances and took language from a primitive to a sophisticated state can apply to asking as well. In this view, the explicit use of the performative ask (“I ask…” or “I ask that…”) would constitute a step forward in the evolution of language, “a later achievement…and a considerable one.” Austin calls it a “creative act” of “clarification.”

Historically, one thing that act might have helped to clarify — Austin’s caveat about the presumed historical priority of imperatives notwithstanding — is the difference between asking and command, and, therefore, the terms on which interlocutors meet, or the “social forms and procedures” that govern their relationships and necessitate this clarification or distinction.

This puts us in murky territory, and Austin readily admits it. The historical argument here seems “plausible,” as Austin says, but ultimately it may not stand up (though it’s hard to see how it could be decisively knocked down).

This much seems clear: the creative act of explicitly asking will always help clarify the force of asking; and the articulation of that force — that power of asking — essentially creates a new charter for conversation with a second person, an interlocutor or interlocutors whose standing to address us we recognize and whose replies we await and then take into account.

That said, let’s also admit that the explicit performative “I ask…” or “I ask that…” is not (nowadays) so widely used, but is reserved, it seems, for certain kinds of serious inquiry and formal address. (Austin’s own lectures furnish numerous examples of this reserved use, as I suggested in my earlier post; but they were given in 1955, and both words and things have changed, at Harvard and everywhere else, since then.)

Still, making asking explicit can help render the conversation serious, not just because it makes language more precise, but also because it clarifies the relationship between interlocutors and the power they have to reckon with, and share.

Why A Lake Superior Mining Indaba Is A Good Idea

Twice this week, first in reply to a comment on another post, and then in an email exchange, I half-jokingly suggested that we need to call a Lake Superior Mining Indaba – a big gathering of all stakeholders around the Lake Superior Basin to deliberate, listen and be heard on the future the new mining boom is already ushering in. I’d been following the African Mining Indaba underway this week in Capetown; and while that buttoned-up event — a forum focused primarily on private sector investment in Africa — isn’t exactly a model for the public gathering I picture, the Zulu word indaba and the images it conjures of people coming from all around the lake have stayed with me, and the promise of the idea keeps growing.

First, don’t let the Zulu word put you off. That’s just what got me started down this path. The concept it conveys is definitely not foreign to the Lake Superior region. Gatherings like these have a long history there. “The Sault,” writes Warren in his History of the Ojibway, “was a major summer gathering place for many native people in the seventeenth century,” well before the establishment of a trading post there in 1750; at La Pointe, where “a continual fire burned,” there was “a yearly national gathering” and initiation into the rites of the Midewiwin. In the 18th century big regional events like the Montreal trade fairs were as essential as more formal diplomatic forums in establishing and renewing the French-Algonquin alliance (though, as White shows, the regular accommodations necessitated by daily life were most important of all in perpetuating it).

A Lake Superior Mining Indaba, as I envision it, could combine elements of a Future Search conference, a bonfire celebration (like the Juhannuskokko at Misery Bay) a Pow Wow (like the Manoomin festivals in Ontario and Bad River), and a music or cultural festival.

Let’s say for the sake of discussion that the Indaba runs Wednesday to Friday, to be followed by a festival weekend. The conference brings together a few hundred people from around the lake to share stories and ideas and plan for the future. From more formal discussions and interactions to serendipitous, informal conversations, the conference would help people make meaningful connections, and build the kind of diverse, resilient network that’s needed to accelerate learning as the boom begins.

As I like to remind people, one of the busiest mining operations in the world is about to be staged around one of the largest freshwater lakes in the world. That calls for some concerted thinking about the future, as well as concerted planning and action.

The 90-day public comment periods like those we’ve seen in Minnesota for the Polymet project or the dysfunctional “community forums” Rio Tinto staged in Michigan – which I’ve written about before, and which have seen a falloff in attendance – are no substitute for genuine public deliberation. Nor do they allow for big-picture thinking or the kind of networked learning that a lake-wide Indaba like this could initiate.

Many environmental leaders in the region now sense the need for a cumulative environmental assessment – a scientific assessment of the effects all this mining on the US and Canadian sides of the lake is going to have on the waters and on the region as a whole. We also need a broad, cumulative assessment of where all this activity leaves people living around the lake, what direction things ought to take, and an actionable plan for how to get there.