Tag Archives: voice

Freire: Finding Voice and Praxis

Paulo Freire - Pedagogy of the OppressedThis second post on Paulo Freire’s thinking is shorter than some of the others. Perhaps just because as a writer I wanted to highlight these beautiful thoughts about words, speech, dialogue — the wondrous space created between us through communication where things can come to life that are greater than the sum of my thoughts or yours. This is the promise of collective thinking and action, and over and over again I have seen it fulfilled. Equally beautiful, equally important, is the necessity for us to name and understand things before we can change them, and of finding our own voice in this process.

Always, there can be no speaking truth to power without a corresponding action:

Within the word we find two dimensions, reflection and action, in such radical interaction that if one is sacrificed—even in part—the other immediately suffers. There is no true word that is not at the same time a praxis. Thus, to speak a true word is to transform the world. (87)

He continues:

Human existence cannot be Silent, nor can it be nourished by false words, but only by true words, with which men and women transform the world. To exist, humanly, is to name the world, to change it. Once named, the world in its turn reappears to the namers as a problem and requires of them a new naming. Human beings are not built in silence, but in word, in work, in action-reflection.

But while to say the true word—which is work, which is praxis—is to transform the world, saying that word is not the privilege of some few persons, but the right of everyone. Consequently, no one can say a true word alone—nor can she say it for another, in a prescriptive act which robs others of their words. (88)

We all must speak. We all must act. But it is not just the speaking of words, it is the process of it and the underlying principles. Above all, the desire that we collectively realise our own humanity, and that this process demands love. In a footnote, Freire echoes Che Guavara’s famous sentiment:

I am more and more convinced that true revolutionaries must perceive the revolution, because of its creative and liberating nature, as an act of love. For me, the revolution, which is not possible without a theory of revolution—and therefore science—is not irreconcilable with love. On the contrary: the revolution is made by people to achieve their humanization. What, indeed, is the deeper motive which moves individuals to become revolutionaries, but the dehumanization of people? The distortion imposed on the word “love” by the capitalist world cannot prevent the revolution from being essentially loving in character, nor can it prevent the revolutionaries from affirming their love of life. Guevara (while admitting the “risk of seeming ridiculous”) was not afraid to affirm it: “Let me say, with the risk of appearing ridiculous, that the true revolutionary is guided by strong feelings of love. It is impossible to think of an authentic revolutionary without this quality.” Venceremos—The Speeches and Writings of Che Guevara, edited by John Gerassi (New York, 1969), p. 398. (89)

Thus love forms one basis for this radical dialogue in which we engage. Another prerequisite:

…dialogue cannot exist without humility. … How can I dialogue if I always project ignorance onto others and never perceive my own? How can I dialogue if I regard myself as a case apart from others—mere “its” in whom I cannot recognize other “I”s? (90)

Another:

Dialogue further requires an intense faith in humankind, faith in their power to make and remake, to create and re-create, faith in their vocation to be more fully human (which is not the privilege of an elite, but the birthright of all.(90)

Out of love, humility, and faith emerges the ideal we strive for, what Freire calls the ‘dialogical man’:

The “dialogical man” is critical and knows that although it is within the power of humans to create and transform, in a concrete situation of alienation individuals may be impaired in the use of that power. Far from destroying his faith in the people, however, this possibility strikes him as a challenge to which he must respond. (91)

He (she) responds through, patience, dialogue, a process of learning and acting together. Through this:

Humankind emerge from their submersion and acquire the ability to intervene in reality as it is unveiled. Intervention in reality—historical awareness itself—thus represents a step forward from emergence, and results from the conscientização of the situation. Conscientização is the deepening of the attitude of awareness characteristic of all emergence. (109)

Freire then writes, summarising for me at least just why this book is so important:

If this view be true, the revolutionary process is eminently educational in character. Thus the road to revolution involves openness to the people, not imperviousness to them; it involves communion with the people, not mistrust. (140)

This also perhaps explains why I wish Freire had had the same impact on European leftist movements that he did elsewhere in the world (though never enough I think, because this is hard). Imagine revolutionary politics based on love, faith in people and humility. Enough to make you weep.

Other posts on Freire:

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Fantasia, an Algerian Cavalcade

457864I quite loved this raising of women’s voices that plays with the deeply collective nature of their experience. It acknowledges the strengths of an enforced world of women hidden away behind veils and walls,  but also its high walls and limitations, examining the fractures in that world as women support the independence struggle, receive an education, travel to Paris. They are both joyful and devastating fractures. This narrative from multiple viewpoints in time and space struggles with an undifferentiated mass of understanding, survival of a life cycle where freedom of streets and speech end before puberty and all else folds in on the family and other women, but also those women who have been torn like splinters from it, whether through education or the freedom struggle. There is pride in this heritage, and also frustration. Nothing is easy and nothing is entirely one thing or the other.

She writes:

How could a woman speak aloud, even in Arabic, unless on the threshold of extreme age? How could she say ‘I’, since that would be to scorn the blanket-formulae which ensure that each individual journeys through life in a collective resignation? . . .

my oral tradition has gradually been overlaid and is in danger of vanishing: at the age of eleven or twelve I was abruptly ejected from this theatre of feminine confidences — was I thereby spared from having to silence my humble pride? in writing of my childhood memories I am taken back to those bodies bereft of voices. to attempt an autobiography using French words alone is to lend oneself to the vivisector’s scalpel, revealing what lies beneath the skin. the flesh flakes off, and with it, seemingly, the last shreds of the unwritten language of my childhood. (156)

The complications of relationships around gender fold into the complications of the colonial relationships fold into the complications of being a writer and a women emerging from then women’s world of illiteracy and oral tradition. It is a swirl of what is lost and what is gained negotiating all of these sides, and a needed counterpoint to the more straightforward narratives of the French/Algerian struggle narrated so eloquently by Mouloud Feraoun,  and Alistair Horne.

It is the French as the Other:

The policeman and his family suddenly seemed like transient ghosts in this locality, whereas these images, these objects became the true inhabitants of the place! For me, these French homes gave off a different smell, a mysterious light; for me, the French are still ‘The Others’, and I am still hypnotized by their shores.

Throughout my childhood, just before the war which was to bring us independence, I never crossed a single French threshold, I never entered the home of a single French schoolfellow… (23)

It is the French use of language, and their imprisoning within their own ideologies and stories, contrasted with young Algerian women:

But what is the significance behind the urge of so many fighting men to relive in print this month of July 1830? Did their writings allow them to savor the seducer’s triumph, the rapist’s intoxication? These texts are distributed in the Paris of Louis-Phillipe, far from Algerian soil…Their words thrown up by such a cataclysm are for me like a comet’s tail, flashing across the sky and leaving it forever riven.

And words themselves become a decoration, flaunted by officers like the carnations they wear in their buttonholes; words will become their most effective weapons. Hordes of interpreters, geographers, ethnographers, linguists, botanists, diverse scholars and professional scribblers will swoop down on this new prey. The supererogatory protuberances of their publications will form a pyramid to hide the initial violence from view.

The girls who were my friends and accomplices during my village holidays wrote in the same futile, cryptic language because they were confined, because they were prisoners; they mark their marasmus* with their own identity in an attempt to rise above their pathetic plight. The accounts of this past invasion reveal a contrario an identical nature: invaders who imagine they are taking the impregnable City, but who wander aimlessly in the undergrowth of their own disquiet. (45)

It explores the collectivity of women created by time and tradition and strict rules. One of the narrator’s sits outside of this, she receives a love letter and somehow feels it is for all:

those women who never received a letter: no word taut with desire, stretched like a bow, no message run through with supplication. (60)

There exists the fact that husbands always referred to as ‘he’ and not by name because for each woman there can be only one he, a multitude of unnamed men to match the multitude of women present. A tradition that beats individuality off with a stick, disciplines human being into the roles laid out for them.

You escape Algeria momentarily for Paris, the uneasy relationship, love found between two young people there, even as they remain trapped in the webs of revolutionary fratricidal violence:

The couple continued to roam the streets, chatting together, momentarily free of the others and the ‘Revolution’; nevertheless, even if their embraces in a doorway could not claim that they were making history, still their happiness was part of the collective fever, and they were always on the look-out to see if they were being shadowed and to throw the police off their trail. But the police were not seen to be the greatest danger…the couple knew that the secret fratricidal struggle was all around them….

As they strolled through the Paris streets together, at every crossroads the girl’s eyes instinctively avoided the tricolour flag whose red reminded her of the blood of her compatriots recently guillotined in a Lyons prison…(102).

Here a woman finds freedom and expression and space in the streets without being the prostitutes idealised by Breton or Soupault, without being the flaneuse or nightwalker.

A woman walks alone one night in Paris. Walking for walking’s sake, to try to understand…Searching for words and so dream no more, wait no longer.

Rue Richelieu, ten, eleven o’clock at night; the autumn air is damp, To understand . . . Where will this tunnel of interior silence lead? Just the act of walking, just to put one foot energetically down in front of the other, feeling my hips swinging, sensing my body lightly moving, makes my life seem brighter and the walls, all the walls vanish . . .

While the solitude of these recent months dissolves in the fresh cool tints of the nocturnal landscape, suddenly the voice bursts forth. It drains off all the scoriae of the past. What voice? is it my voice, scarcely recognizable? (115)

Some find voice in the city streets of Paris. Some find voice in the French language. But always it comes at a cost:

As if the French language suddenly had eyes, and lent them to me to see into liberty; as if the French language blinded the peeping-toms of my clan and, at this price, I could move freely, run headlong down every street, annex the outdoors for my cloistered companions, for the matriarchs of my family who endured a living death. As it . . . Derision! I know that every language is a dark depository for piled-up corpses, refuse, sewage, but faced with the language of the former conqueror, which offers me its ornaments, its jewels, its flowers, I find they are flowers of death… (181)

And yet…

To refuse to veil one’s voice and to start ‘shouting’, that was really indecent, real dissidence.

Writing in a foreign language, not in either of the tongues of my native country…writing has brought me to the cries of the women silently rebelling in my youth, to my own true origins.

Writing does not silence the voice, but awakens it, above all to resurrect so many vanished sisters. (204)

Nothing can sit easily here. Nothing avoids contradictions.

After more than a century of French occupation — which ended not long ago in such butchery — a similar no-man’s land still exists between the French and the indigenous languages, between two national memories: the French tongue, with its body and voice, has established a proud presidio within me, while the mother-tongue, all oral tradition, all rags and tatters, resists and attacks between two breathing spaces. In time to the rhythm of the rebato, I am alternately the besieged foreigner and the native swaggering off to die, so there is seemingly endless strife between the spoken and written word (215)

A story comes near the end of the book, interspersed with an old woman telling of her hardships in supporting the freedom struggle, the house burned down about her, tramping into the hills. Burying her sons. A young woman joining the struggle. Burying her brother. This story of a wedding, a celebration of women to which uninvited guests can come and watch but cannot remove their veils and join in.

As if they were finding a way of forgetting their imprisonment, getting their own back on the men who kept them in the background: the males — father, sons, husband — were shut out once and for all by the women themselves who, in their own domain, began to impose the veil in turn on others. (205)

It mourns and celebrates the opening up of this world, the freeing of women and men from these bonds, and looks uneasily into the future and the crushing of contradictions and the voices that they made possible.

I wait amid the shatter sheaf of sounds, I wait, forseeing he inevitable moment when the mare’s hoof will strike down any woman who dares to stand up freely, will trample all life that comes out into the sunlight to dance! Yes, in spite of the tumult of my people all around, I already hear, even before it arises and pierces the harsh sky, I head the death cry in the Fantasia.

Paris/Venice/Algiers
(July ’82–October ’84)

*severe malnutrition characterized by energy deficiency.

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