André Elias Mazawi[*]
“My work in the history of education has been like a Coast Salish canoe journey through time and space.”
On December 23, 2020, around three weeks before Professor Michael Marker’s untimely passing on January 15, 2021, I emailed him to convey my good sentiments for the winter break and my best wishes for the year 2021. I noted that 2020 was quite difficult and unusual for so many. The pandemic and its predicaments disrupted our work considerably. For Michael, these were not “ordinary” events. In private conversations and department meetings Michael shared his views that we are living through an “epochal closure”, a term apparently inspired by a Kantian metaphysics of presence that considers an epoch as a system of language and structure – a hegemonic political culture, if you will. As I (partially) understand it, as an “epoch” draws to a “close,” it loses its “logic” as a viable explanatory framework of the human world. In the words of Saitya Brata Das, its “hegemony expires when its principle of ground becomes impoverished”. Under such conditions, it is difficult to discern what would eventually emerge, what is yet to be born. As a nod to Michael’s view on the times we were living through, in my email I sought to reassure him that with every closure there is also a beginning, a birth, new potentialities, new futures which may not have been otherwise possible. I wrote so because, in my view, every new creation is imperilled by risks, dangers, vicissitudes, contradictions, and setbacks. Yet, as both Edward Said and Hannah Arendt captured it so differently, every beginning ultimately entails collective struggles that connect “scattered occasions” (Said) into a punctum that takes diverse shapes, forms and, ultimately, meaningful directions. Preserving hope in the face of adversity is crucial for the conduct of one’s struggles. To convey my sense of optimism, I included a verse by German lyric poet and philosopher Friedrich Hölderlin (1770-1843) that says, among other, “where the danger is, also grows the saving power.” I interpreted that verse to mean that while difficult and challenging life events expose our vulnerabilities and endanger us, they can also push us to think creatively about new ways of being and living.
My choice of Hölderlin’s verse was not arbitrary. Michael’s work resonates with the risks he took in his scholarly work and life. Consistently, he endeavoured to disrupt hegemonic discourses on history and Indigeneity. I knew and appreciated his scholarship well before we met in person at a conference in April of 2003 in Chicago. I then realized that I had included one of his papers in one of my syllabi as a mandatory reading as early as 2001. In his studies on the colonization of Indigenous communities Michael built a scholarly body of work that uncompromisingly sought to disrupt the hegemonic power of a Eurocentric version of modernity and history, particularly those discourses that are adamantly entrenched in schools and higher education institutions. Referring to the “alluvial zones of paradigm change”, Michael proposed a new language, one of life, dignity, justice, self-determination, and healing.
Michael’s response to my email, on the evening of December 23, 2020, was intriguing. Michael thanked me for my “blessings with gratitude and some joy.” Yet, he emphatically and flatly noted, “I do not share your optimism”:
“Yes, I do appreciate the words of German poets and thank you for sending them. Notwithstanding, I am more compelled by a German martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer; a great intellectual cut down in his prime while [Martin] Heidegger found cleverness to defend himself and pretended to not know of good Dietrich’s torture and execution. Bonhoeffer’s words ring true for me: “If you have boarded the wrong train, it does no good to run in the corridor in the opposite direction.” [Hyperlinks added to original text, AEM]
In his stance against Nazism in Germany, Bonhoeffer, a pastor and theologian, “was sharply critical of ethical theory and of academic concerns with ethical systems precisely because of their failure to confront evil directly,” as Douglas Huff points out. The foundation of ethical behaviour, Bonhoeffer believed, lay in reconciling the reality of the world and the metaphysical reality of God, making the latter manifest in and through the former. Ethical behaviour entailed a worldly and fully engaged activism towards the redemption of the human world, in words and actions. For Michael, too, scholarship cannot be reduced to academic concerns. It entails purposeful activism if one is to confront and expose “the varieties of hegemonies that neutralize a legitimate Indigenous voice and which are continuing to dismiss the Indigenous polemical Other as an exoticized outside case scenario.” He asserted that “healing and relationship building can only come of a rigorous decolonizing related to exposing the persistence and pestilence of technocracy and historical amnesia within schools and communities.” For him, decolonizing the ways in which history is studied is akin to “a canoe journey through time and space,” in view of creating a generative discourse and the re-articulation of institutional policies, practices, and cultures.
Michael’s intellectual courage stood out in our (last) exchange, as it did in his engagement with the world’s deep wounds of injustice, and its colonial legacies of oppression, violence, and dispossession. If he disagreed with colleagues, he argued forcefully, yet with courtesy and deference. His burning passion for inquiry, argumentation, and the exploration of ideas was visible to all those for whom the incisiveness of thought is a necessary condition in the fecund pursuit of those ethical values on which we could build our world. Michael was an intense interlocutor. For him, ideas must be pursued with a clear and sharp mind. Ideas command a constant search, a continuous exchange, and unending exploration, if experienced realities are to be captured in meaningful ways. Michael’s contrapuntal reference to Bonhoeffer’s life pushed back on my reference to Hölderlin’s lyric verse. By doing so, he made me realize that my optimism was underpinned by residues of an a-political Romanticism. His contrasting of Bonhoeffer’s and Heidegger’s radically antithetical destinies compelled me to decolonize myself from entrenched assumptions that have come to inhabit me through my literary education and the conditions under which I was schooled. I never had the chance to thank Michael for this exchange. The conversation was cut short with and by his departure.
One full year has elapsed since Michael’s passing. Remembering Michael – as colleague, scholar, activist, and faculty member – is painful. This text carries a portion of that pain. One colleague commented, “it hurts to remember Michael, but this pain of remembering is also what gives us life, courage and hope” (Pierre Walter). On January 20, 2022, the Department of Educational Studies at UBC commemorated Professor Michael Marker’s passing at the very beginning of its monthly meeting. For me, a department’s capacity to re-member, to re-call, to in-voke the memory of its members – whether those who passed or those who are (still) present, or still, those who moved on in life – is foundational for the maintenance and growth of our common home. A home – basically, a space within which activities take place – is not just physical or material. It is a dwelling that carries a full range of meanings, affects, moods, and memories. These meanings are part and parcel of what a home represents, as both space and experience. Invoking these meanings collectively – as part of an act of co-memoration – represents the most powerful political statement that a human group can utter: we do not forget any member who lived in this dwelling, nor do we leave anyone behind or outside its precinct. Re-membering represents the penultimate act of constructing a solidarity across time, space, and relations; one of several pillars in the process of community-building. Without remembrance I feel we would probably vegetate in a continuously desolate present composed of bricks, mortar, and empty glass corridors. Such a “home” would be daunted by the grinding effects of an alienating bureaucracy, the “iron cage” of surveillance and control, to which (the translated writings of) Max Weber referred. By in-voking the memory of our colleague we ensure and uphold our humanity, trapped – as it is – between its desires for knowledge, truth, and fulfillment and the effective challenges facing the translation of these desires into ethical, equitable, just, and inclusive worlds.
The commemoration of Professor Michael Marker was incidentally followed by a departmental discussion regarding how we could, should, or would be capable of coming together to share the fruits of our work and still feel comfortable with ourselves, in the privacy of our thoughts and concerns. In many ways, for me, co-memorating and sharing represent the two facets of weaving disparate ideas into meaningful horizons of possibility, the creation of a measure of “intellectual intimacy.” Yet, for this “intellectual intimacy” to be effective it must be grounded in a spirit of trust; trust between individuals and trust in that all participants feel engaged and respected in the conversation, while respecting those around them. Building trust represents an arduous and challenging project, no doubt. Without trust, all our endeavours, teachings, and claims to transforming the world would remain vacuous and resoundingly empty. Building relational trust represents an elementary condition in the generation of knowledges that lay legitimate claims to transformative powers within the communities they touch.
May Michael’s memory live among us in the ways we learn to relate to each other, as we strive to build a vibrant, life seeking, and confident Department of Educational Studies. Let the passionate argumentation Michael captured in his way of being in the world increase a thousand fold and let it blossom, among us, like a thousand cherry trees.
Let us commit to remember that.
© André Elias Mazawi, Feb 10, 2022.
[*] An abridged version of this text was released to the Department’s membership (staff, students and faculty) on January 15, 2021, as part of Professor Michael Marker’s commemoration. The present expanded version includes subsequent reflections shared with the Department. I am grateful to Deirdre Kelly, Pierre Walter, Michelle Stack, Hartej Gill, Bathseba Opini, and Amy Parent for sharing their feedback and comments on previous drafts. I am equally grateful to EDST’s GAA Team for their consideration of this text as part of the EDST Blog and for their support in bringing it to publication.