Sunday, March 08, 2009

Another World

Having fled the cold of the north I am writing this post in the comfortable shade of the sunny retirement haven of Yuma Arizona visiting my parents.  A few recent thoughts and experiences have converged which I would like to reflect on.  Last week Conrad Grebel College in Waterloo hosted its annual School for Ministers.  The keynote speaker was Duke University’s newly minted professor of homiletics.  He talked at length about the foolishness of both the Gospel and also the foolishness of preaching.  He drew his inspiration from court jesters and holy fools.  He spoke about those risky and vulnerable people who turned ideas and norms on their head.  These were people who had no ‘real’ power and so they subverted power through creative resistance.  Overturning dominant ideas and cultures is also, partially, the theme of Michel de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life which I have just begun to read.  In his introduction de Certeau introduces what he calls rhetorical tactics.  He refers specifically to the Sophists who were known for making the ‘weaker’ position appear ‘stronger’.  In his book as I understand it de Certeau will analyze the different manners of ‘consuming’ in relation to dominant and marginal expressions.  What I think he means by this is how we appropriate and re-appropriate our culture’s ‘raw materials’. De Certeau looks to the indigenous people’s response to Spanish colonizers as an example. 
“Submissive, and even consenting to their subjection, the Indians [sic] nevertheless often made of the rituals, representations, and laws imposed on them something quite different from what their conquerors had in mind; they subverted them not be rejecting or altering them, but by using them with respect to ends and references foreign to the system they had no choice but to accept.”
Yesterday Chantal and I participated in a common Yuma pastime which is parking near the border to Mexico and then walking in the small Mexican town of Los Algodones.  Seniors flock to Algondones for cheap medications, dental work, prescription glasses, booze, and anything else they can haggle down to something they can boast about when they return home.  There is a cultural shift when you enter this town.  Things are no longer fixed or stable.  Everything is open-ended lingering with a question mark.  Is this real silver?  Is the water safe?  Can I trust the dentist?  Am I getting ripped off?  Americans and Canadians think they can come and secure a deal, fight in the market place for the best deal.  They come assuming they are in charge because they bring the money.  But everywhere the locals control the playing field.  Nowhere was this more clear and more ironic then in the Mexican restaurant that we ate in.  The dining area was filled with grey hair, pale skin, and high socks.  For entertainment there was an old local man with a ball cap pulled over his head slouching on a chair.  He sang with a keyboard accompaniment.  It was difficult to make out his words until he broke into his own rendition of God Bless America.  His almost imperceptible lyrics suddenly swept through the dining area like a tidal wave until the whole room culminated with a roar, God bless America my hooome sweet hooooooooome!  As a Canadian this of course struck me as odd (later his Canadian national anthem was met with silence).  More than this though I couldn’t help but think the man simply enjoyed making the people ‘dance’.  It was almost as though Algodones was able to parody in its little village the way that the U.S. has been able to treat countries like Mexico.
There always remain subtle but potentially powerful expressions within our ability.  Our context and circumstances furnish a particular environment that we cannot always change but how we appropriate these raw materials is always a negotiation.  We are able to create worlds within worlds.