Humanities at Large

Reading Prophets

Submitted by Brigidda Bell on February 19 2019.
Research presentation by Brigidda Bell, 27 November 2018

A perennial problem in the study of religion is navigating the intersecting axes of belief and knowledge, which sometimes spindle awkwardly outwards, and other times collide and overlap, leaving the researcher the riddle of untangling their merging threads, and other times leaving the impression that they were never meant to be disentangled. My research focuses on loosening the threads around a particular knot: the anxiety produced by the threat of false prophets in early Christianity. In matters where the gods are involved, how can one know who has true access to the divine?

Wolf in sheep's clothing

On Jesus’ lips we find predictions of false prophets “who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves” (Matt 7:15); “false prophets will appear,” Jesus says, “and produce signs and omens, to lead astray, if possible, the elect” (Mark 13:22). The stakes are high; how could one know the true from the false?

To avoid the folly of being swept up by someone filled with the wrong spirit, followers of Christ are asked to ‘discern’ the spirits to determine if they are from God. The Greek word used, diakrinō, means to distinguish, interpret, question, and decide. In short, our earliest texts ask their audiences to judge the spirits before trusting their bearers. My research examines what this process of spirit discernment entails. What signs did a truthful prophet, one purporting to be possessed by the right spirit, evince to pass the test of discernment? New Testament scholarship has been interested in the doctrinal basis of this distinction: prophets had to espouse right teaching, right doctrine, to be deemed true. Our sources, however, point to a much more robust catalogue of behavioural signs, belying a rich Mediterranean cultural tradition of interpreting action and behaviour as revelatory of the truth hidden within. Visible amidst the intellectual discussions and lay practices of physiognomy, culturally appropriate scripts for the performance of possession-trance, and even in legal accounts of torture, reading bodies was key to discerning truth.

My rereading of early Christian discernment practices is based in evolutionarily-grounded research on human judgment that investigates the embodied and affective components of human decision making and animal signalling. Human and other-than-human animals communicate by means of subtle and overt, simple and complex, patterns of signs that are received and interpreted within specific environmental, contextual, and social frameworks. Some signs contribute more to our knowledge than others. This body of biological research informs my reading of the New Testament and apocryphal Christian texts, pushing me to more carefully consider the weight of signs of the body, and how behaviour shapes our interpretation of human intention.

painting by John Collier, The Priestess of Delphi, 1891
John Collier, The Priestess of Delphi, 1891

Reading bodies was key to discerning the provenance of spirits. We see this play out in contemporary Greek and Latin literary accounts where prophetic ability is scrutinized. In his mid first century CE epic, Lucan describes the pythia of Delphi possessed by Apollo, and how the petitioner discerns the presence of the god based on the movements of her body (Luc. 5.67-236). In Lucan’s narrative, true possession has a distinct bodily script, and the petitioner can tell by watching her when the pythia is faking her trance. Lucan suggests that you know true possession when you see it.
Lucian of Samosata, writing in the second century CE, also points to the body as a site for the discernment of truth. In his account of Alexander the False Prophet, Lucian describes Alexander running half-naked through the streets tossing his head of loose hair “as a devotee of the Great Mother in a frenzy,” and shouting incomprehensible words. The crowd, in Lucian’s account, is drawn in by this bodily performance of possession, as they “marvelled, prayed, and made obeisance” (Alex. 13). In order to portray Alexander as a fraud, Lucian needs to subvert this compelling bodily performance, and he does so by introducing anxieties about the manipulation of bodily truth. He tells us, for instance, that Alexander’s perfect hair is in part artificially enhanced. Alexander may appear perfect, says Lucian, but that is because he is a master manipulator of appearances: if we cannot trust his hair to be his own, why should we trust anything else we think we know of him?

sketch, The Prophet Alexander of Abuteichos with Glykon
The Prophet Alexander of Abunoteichos with Glykon

In discussing discernment, early Christian sources follow their Graeco-Roman contemporaries in demonstrating concern for a prophet’s behaviour. The Shepherd of Hermas describes the righteous character of the true prophet, and the self-importance and greed of the false prophet, as demonstrated through his actions (Mand. 11). Within the context of the importance of bodily signs, the more enigmatic statements of the Gospel of Matthew, “you will know [the false prophet] by their fruits” (Matt 7:16), and the Didache, “the false prophet and the prophet shall be known by their habits” (Did. 11:8), become clearer: we should look to prophets’ actions, their behaviour, their bodies, to know their spirits.


The Philosophy of Reading Faces

Submitted by Mason Westfall on February 13 2019.
Research presentation by Mason Westfall, 6 December 2019

image of three faces

We commonly make judgments about what people are feeling on the basis of seeing their face. Suppose you see Tessa smiling and come to know that she is happy. Though we routinely know what people are feeling in this way,  I’ll suggest giving a philosophical account is rather difficult. It’s difficult because what is intuitively obvious about these judgments is, upon reflection, puzzling.

There are two intuitively obvious claims about coming to know Tessa is happy. First, you don’t literally see Tessa’s happiness. Let’s call this ‘the invisibility intuition’. Second, your knowledge that Tessa is happy is direct. That is, you don’t need to infer or rely on background beliefs in judging that Tessa is happy. You can just tell by looking. Let’s call this ‘the directness intuition’. These two intuitions immediately pose a puzzle, though. How could our attributions be direct if we don’t literally see other people’s emotions?
Perhaps the puzzle has a simple solution. Maybe we should give up one of our intuitions. After all, lots of things that seem intuitive are false. Turns out, you need 23 people in a room in order for it to be more likely than not that two people share a birthday. Intuitively, the number is much higher, but our intuition is just wrong. Maybe we should regard, say, the invisibility intuition the same way. I think our intuitions are correct in this case. The way to test them is to see if they stand up to philosophical scrutiny.

Let’s start with invisibility. Here’s something you might say:

‘People used to think visual experience just presented patches of colors! Now we recognize perception is much richer than all that. We get depth, shape, cause and effect. . . Why think emotions are specially hidden? You just think that because you think minds are ghostly and we can’t see  ghosts!’

Okay, first of all calm down. But let’s consider the proposed view. We can represent different views using schematic diagrams. Here is the current proposal:

schematic diagram: Tess is happy = Tess is happy

In these diagrams, blue rounded boxes represent experiences, white rectangles represent judgments, the text inside represents the content of the state, and arrows represent justification relations.  We are disagreeing about the bottom box. I want to suggest that there is no experience that presents Tessa as happy.

Compare these two pictures.


left image, optical illusion; right image, Mason Westfall headshot

These are both misleading images. On the left, the squares labeled A and B are exactly the same color.  On the right, I am creating the ‘illusion’ of happiness. I   am simulating the appearance of happiness despite being quite uncomfortable—my picture is being taken—and generally depressed. (Incidentally, I’d like to thank the Jackman Humanities Institute for their generosity in providing professional pictures of me.)

Compare your visual experiences of these two images. Though we can grant that they are both misleading, they are misleading in quite different ways. On the left, our experience is impenetrable. No matter how hard we try,  we can’t see A and B as the same color, even once we know how the illusion works. (It works by giving your visual system cues that suggest that B is in shadow while A is in direct light. Your  visual system attempts to compensate for this lighting difference, which isn’t real, resulting in a lightened experience of B and a darkened experience of A.) The same can’t be said for the right hand image. We do  seem  to  have  freedom  with respect to whether we take my face to indicate happiness. When you hear that I am actually uncomfortable, you may be surprised, but not in the same way the left hand experience is surprising. On the left, your eyes are not to be trusted. On the right, your eyes are doing just fine. They’re presenting the configuration of my face as it is. It’s up to us to interpret my expression.  Our theorizing should mark this distinction. Perhaps there is some attenuated sense in which we ‘see’ happiness. But it isn’t the literal sense in which we see the colors on the right. If that’s right, then we should reject the view that our knowledge is explained by ordinary seeing.

Perhaps instead we should reject the directness intuition. Recall, the directness intuition is that we can ‘just tell by looking’ that Tessa is happy. We need not rely on general beliefs and inference. Here’s what you might say if you were inclined to deny directness.

‘Of course emotion attributions are the result of inference. Just because it doesn’t feel like you’re performing an inference, doesn’t mean that isn’t what you’re doing. It doesn’t feel like an inference when I check my gas gauge and conclude that I need gas. But it isn’t magic. Some inferences just happen fluently. Everyone already knew that. I don’t understand why you’re being so obtuse about this.

There’s really no need for that kind of belligerence, but maybe you have a point. We can represent a view that rejects directness with another diagram.

schematic diagram: Tess looks happy vs Tess is happy

Here, in keeping with the invisibility intuition, our experience falls short of presenting the emotion. So all our experience can directly justify is a judgment falling short of the emotion. But, together with background knowledge, this judgment inferentially supports our emotion attribution (this inferential support is represented by a dotted line).

There are lots of versions of views that deny directness, since there are lots of options for what we put in the lefthand boxes: ‘she looks like that’; ‘she looks happy’; ‘she’s smiling’; her face is so configured; etc. I won’t try your patience by considering all of these. I’ll briefly consider ‘she looks happy’ and ‘she’s smiling’.

Do we know Tessa is happy by first judging that she looks happy? No, we don’t. The problem is that we can’t put ‘Tessa looks happy’ in the blue box. Experience purports to present the world as it is. The recognition of an appearance–reality distinction is achieved reflectively. But if that’s right, then experience does not present mere appearance properties. If we put something other than ‘Tessa looks happy’ in the blue box, though, then our initial puzzle re-arises, now with respect to looks. How does an experience that presents something other than Tessa looking happy enable us to know that Tessa looks happy? This was the puzzle we started with about emotions. So this view does not constitute progress in solving our puzzle.

Here’s another option:

schematic diagram: Tess is smiling vs Tess is happy

This proposal looks plausible. The idea is that we see Tessa smiling, quickly judge that she is smiling, and then on the basis of this, infer that she is happy. We plausibly make inferences like this all the time. You were quite right about the gas gauge, after all. We know that there is a relationship between where the gauge points and how much gas we have, and then we infer we need gas from our knowledge of where the gauge points.

This proposal makes a prediction. Because knowing someone’s facial expression is a precondition for knowing how they’re feeling, we should be able to quickly and fluently categorize people’s facial expressions independent of the underlying emotion. (Note that this is trivial in the gas gauge case. Of course you can determine where the gas gauge points.) We actually can do this with happiness. But the same doesn’t hold for other emotions. Try it with these pictures:

six faces express different emotions

We can quickly and fluently identify the emotions in these pictures, but not the  facial expressions. We can categorize them as ‘looking scared’, for example, but we’ve already dismissed that view. But if we can’t fluently categorize these expressions independent of emotion attribution at all, we certainly can’t do so in service of attributing emotions. This indicates that our ability to categorize facial expressions is actually downstream of our ability to attribute emotions. But if that’s right, then this view is wrong. More could be said about this, and other proposals, but I want to turn briefly to   how to vindicate both directness and invisibility. Briefly, the answer has to do with recognitional capacities. Consider this picture:

image of Joshua trees in the desert

Many people aren’t in a position to know what it is. Many of those people have heard of Joshua Trees. They could wonder whether it was a Joshua Tree, but they can’t know that it is. Perhaps that was you before reading this paragraph. What’s missing is a recognitional capacity. Roughly, they can’t link up experiences of a certain kind to the judgment expressed by ‘that is a Joshua Tree’. In my view, recognitional capacities need not link up experiences and judgments that share content. Though of course we often judge what we see, sometimes we judge *more* than we see.

I think recognitional capacities that outstrip perception are operative in attributing emotions on the basis of facial expressions.  Though  our  experiences  present  facial configurations, our recognitional capacities enable us to directly judge about emotions. Or, pictorially:

schematic diagram: Tessa is smiling vs configuration of Tessa's face

This vindicates both intuitions. The blue box does not contain emotions, satisfying invisibility, and our judgment issues directly from the experience, satisfying directness. This view has a surprising consequence for how experience supports judgment. People commonly assume experience supports judgment by presenting things ‘as true’. For this reason, we are entitled to take our experience at face value. People who think this take the ‘testimony of the senses’ metaphor quite literally. We gain perceptual knowledge by ‘listening’ to what vision is ‘saying’. But if I’m right about emotion attribution, this view is false. Our experience does not support judgment by presenting content ‘as true’. If our experience can directly support attributions without presenting the relevant properties *at all*, then it cannot be that perceptual knowledge is explained by how things are presented. Vision doesn’t tell us the way things are; it enables us to judge for ourselves.


Commemorative Pollution in Post-War Iran

Submitted by Amir Khadem on February 13 2019.
Research presentation by Amir Khadem, 17 January 2019

In 2015, Stephen Greenblatt travelled to Iran for a conference on Shakespeare as keynote speaker. He found the very idea of travelling to Iran quite tempting and on his return, wrote an essay for The New York Review of Books ruminating over the trip. His hosts arranged at cross-country trip for him, which he’d gladly accepted. He travelled not only to Tehran, but also to cities such as Kashan, Esfahan, and Shiraz. An astute observer, Greenblatt makes politically shrewd but also seemingly naïve comments about what he saw in the streets of Iran’s several metropolitan areas. “Billboards advertising computers, detergent, yogurt, and the like,” he notes, “alternated with inspirational images of the Ayatollah Khomeini, political slogans, satirical depictions of Uncle Sam and of Israel, and many, many photographs of ‘martyrs’ from the Iran–Iraq war.” He observes the ubiquity of martyr imagery in the cityscape:

There were martyrs along the avenues, in traffic circles, on the sides of buildings, on the walls around the buildings, on overpasses and pedestrian bridges, everywhere. On the light poles, the martyrs’ images were generally in twos, and the pairings, which may have been accidental, were sometimes striking: a teenager next to a hardened veteran, a raw recruit next to a beribboned high-ranking officer, a bearded fighter next to a sweet-faced young woman.

photo of martyr flags along Iranian highway
Photo by Amir Khadem, 2017

What Greenblatt sees, the presence of war commemoration as an imposing force in the urban environment, is only half of the picture. Had he been able to read Persian, he would have also noticed that most streets, highways, parks, back alleys, bridges, parking lots, and other urban structures are named after martyrs. The question of remembering the war and those fallen in it has long transformed not just the public discourse of the postwar period, but literally, has left its mark on the public space.

What matters more is the way this inundation of official remembrance practices has effectively obstructed any alternative remembering of the war. In postwar Iran, the practice of commemoration is almost entirely appropriated by the state. By establishing official organizations for documentation of war’s oral memories, or oral history projects, organizing film festivals and art exhibitions, and funding publication houses exclusively focused on war-related literature, the Iranian government effectively chokes alternative paths of the war’s remembrance. Greenblatt’s observation is, therefore, a testimony to a certain type of “commemorative pollution.” 

A curious side-effect of this corruption of public memory is that many counter-narratives of war become as erroneous as, if not more than, the official narratives they purport to dismantle. When independent verification of historical accounts becomes increasingly difficult, the commemorative practices that tend to resist the state-sponsored histories are themselves highly susceptible to counter-factual statements.

Among the most interesting of these anti-establishment narratives is the widespread story of “keys to heaven,” which is also relevant to the question of underage conscription in Iran. According to this narrative, the Iranian state systematically sought to recruit child soldiers, and took recourse to incredibly ludicrous, and yet chillingly vicious propaganda tactics, one of which was to distribute golden plastic keys in schools and telling the students such keys are symbolic relics to open the doors of heaven for whoever wishes to join the war front. This was supposedly a tactic in brainwashing teenage boys to conscript. It is quite difficult to trace a genealogy of this narrative, but there are plenty of examples in oppositional personal narratives by Iranian expatriates, most of whom were never themselves in the war, but claim to have heard the story of boys getting fooled by plastic keys to heaven. One instance is in Marjane Satrapi’s highly celebrated graphic memoir, Persepolis.

image from graphic novel Persepolis of golden key
Marjane Satrapi, Persepolis (2003)

While beside these testimonial accounts, there is no evidence to corroborate the plastic keys to heaven narrative, there is at least one conjecture to what might have been the possible ground beneath this claim. In modern Shi’ Islam, there is a famous and widely circulated book of prayers, collected in the 18th century and remains in print to date, called Mafatih al-Janan. In almost every Shi’ite Muslim religious household, right beside the Quran a copy of this prayer book can be found. The book’s title simply translates to Keys to Heaven. It is highly probable that many young volunteer troops carried or were given a free copy of this book. This might be the reason behind the fallacious, and even ridiculous, story of golden keys. We should note that no definitive answer to the key-to-heaven narrative’s question has yet been offered by any historian of modern Iran, which is the whole point of what I call commemorative pollution. The postwar Iranian public memory is a densely populated arena of problematic official histories and equally troubling counter-histories.   

New Perspectives on the Postcolonial Prison

Submitted by Katherine Bruce-Lockhart on February 07 2019.
Research presentation, 15 November 2018

by Katherine Bruce-Lockhart, SSHRC/CHCI Postdoctoral Fellow

image of prison bars

Prisons represent one of the most vexed yet persistent features of the contemporary justice landscape. In 2018, an estimated eleven million people were incarcerated worldwide, a number that is likely much higher in reality. While most of the media attention focuses on mass incarceration in the United States, prisons have become a favoured option for dealing with offenders across the globe.

This phenomenon is relatively new. Until the advent of European colonialism, most communities in the Global South had alternative means of dealing with people who violated social norms. However, in the rhetoric of European colonizers, the punitive practices of the colonized were deemed “barbaric” and “backwards.” These discourses flattened and condemned indigenous modes of maintaining social order while also fuelling European calls for the “civilizing mission” and, by extension, colonialism itself.

Scholars’ inquiries into the history of the prison have focused on three particular moments: the “birth” of the prison in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, its expansion into colonized spaces, and the rise of mass incarceration in the United States. Historians, however, have yet to engage deeply with the carceral landscape of the postcolony. Representations of the prison in postcolonial African nations, for example, often reproduce the discourses that characterized European accounts of precolonial punitive forms. This tendency is perhaps most apparent in accounts of Uganda under Idi Amin, the military dictator responsible for the deaths of an estimated three hundred thousand Ugandans in the 1970s. Medievalesque descriptions of Amin’s “gaols” and “dungeons” appeared regularly in Western media at the time, generating images of the nation’s prisons as sites of unmitigated torture and suffering.

TIME magazine cover featuring Idi Amin, 7 March 1977,16641,19770307,00.html

Focusing on Uganda, my research examines the prison’s endurance after colonial rule. In particular, I am interested in the period between Uganda’s independence in 1962 and the inauguration of Yoweri Museveni, the current president, in 1986. During this time, the country experienced significant political instability, including a military coup led by Amin in the 1970s, war with Tanzania, and a civil war in the 1980s. Uganda’s prisons were thus operating in an environment marked by violence and unpredictability. However, their history cannot simply be reduced to the well-worn narrative of postcolonial institutional dysfunction. While there were (and are) grave problems of neglect and abuse within Uganda’s prisons – as can be said about the Canadian, American, and other penal systems – scholars must expand their analysis beyond a singular focus on coercion in order to understand the prison’s endurance in postcolonial states.

Sign, Republic of Uganda, Uganda Gov't Prison Fort-Portal
Photo by Katherine Bruce-Lockhart

One way of doing this is to focus on the social lives of the people who animated penal spaces. While scholars have written extensively about prisoners’ experiences, my work illuminates the perspectives of prison officers. It traces how they harnessed the prison’s status as a “monument to modernity,” linking the institution’s development to the wider goals of the postcolonial state.[1]  Prison officers fashioned a professional identity that was based on the ideals of service, expertise, political neutrality, and integrity. Under the leadership of Fabian Okwaare, the first Ugandan to serve as the Commissioner of Prisons, the Uganda Prisons Service’s approach was driven by criminological and penological perspectives. Particularly in the 1950s, 1960s, and early 1970s, senior prison staff engaged in global networks of criminologists and penal practitioners. Many attended the United Nations Congresses on the Prevention of Crime and the Treatment of Offenders, as well as professional training programs and conferences held overseas. Junior officers were also well-versed in the language and ideas that animated global circuits of penal knowledge and practice in the latter decades of the twentieth century. Overall, prison work was seen as respectable and in keeping with the wider modernizing goals of the nascent nation.

Uniformed prison officers dancing
Photo by Miriam Namutembe*

Officers’ pride in their work and sense of purpose was profoundly challenged in the 1970s and 1980s. During this time, extrajudicial detention in spaces ranging from basements to luxury hotel rooms became commonplace, resulting in the torture, disappearances, and deaths of many Ugandans. Government prisons, too, were greatly impacted by the militarization of the state, tasked with holding a wide range of criminal and political prisoners, coping with wartime insecurity, and dealing with an influx of paramilitary agents. Through examining the Prisons Service’s response to state-sponsored violence, my work thus explores an issue that numerous societies have grappled with, from Nazi Germany to Pinochet’s Chile: how to create public service institutions that provide a counterweight to political extremes.  

Ultimately, the importance of my research lies in how it recasts the parameters of studying the global history of the prison. Scholars must look more deeply at both the postcolonial period and prison staff in order to understand why the prison has become a universal phenomenon.



  1. Frank Dikötter, ‘Introduction: The Prison in the World’, in Cultures of Confinement: A History of the Prison in Africa, Asia and Latin America, eds. Frank Dikötter and Ian Brown. (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2007), 4.



The Indian Act as a Method for (Mis)Reading Indigenous Peoples

Submitted by Danielle Taschereau Mamers on January 24 2019.
Research presentation by Danielle Taschereau Mamers

10 January 2019

In my second year as a postdoctoral fellow at the JHI, I have been exploring the ways that the Canadian state has made Indigenous peoples visible as so-called “Indian” subjects. Broadly, this project examines the broader visual-political scene of settler colonialism through the nexus of vision, documentation, and power. Taking Canada’s “Indian” documentation techniques as a case study, I am investigating the world-creating capacity of documents and their role in mediating settler colonial political visions.

To develop the concept of settler colonial ways of seeing, this project addresses four key moments of documentation: the Indian Act, the Indian Register, Certificates of Indian Status, and the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. Each of these moments of documentation contributes to making Indigenous lives visible as objects of knowledge and governance, yet invisible as lives that matter. My research presentation for the JHI Fellows on January 10 focused on the Indian Act.

Indian Act 1876
The Indian Act of 1876

The Indian Act, first passed in 1876, asserts the terms of the political relationship between the Dominion of Canada and some Indigenous peoples, who the Act defines as “Indians”. At the heart of this legislation is the definition of “Indian status”. This category is defined in restrictive, explicitly gendered terms designed make it much easier for someone to lose status than to gain status. By design, the definition leads to a shrinking population of “status Indians” and serves colonial logics of elimination through forced assimilation. For Indigenous peoples, the stakes of being visible to state agents as a “status Indian” are high, as status determines one’s ability to participate in reserve governance, eligibility for on-reserve housing, and access to treaty-owed healthcare and education[1]. Val Napoleon, a Saulteau and Gitanyow (Gitksan) legal scholar, diagnoses the Act’s restrictive definition as “extinction by number”[2].

In addition to defining “Indian status” and who is eligible to pass status on to their children, the Act seeks to govern all aspects of life for “status Indians” in Canada. While the Act has undergone several amendments and the specific modes of restrictions on Indigenous lives have changed over time, the assimilationist intent of the legislation and Canadian state’s claim to have the “authority to control the reserve land base, the definition of ‘Indian’, and reserve governance” remain constant[3].

Indian Act 1951
The Indian Act of 1951

My project approaches the definition of “status Indian” as a state technique for making Indigenous peoples visible in ways that align with settler colonial political visions. The ways of seeing at work in this legal definition and the documents it gives rise to are part of broader attempts to arrange the field of the perceptible. Invested with the claimed authority of colonial law, the definition of “Indian” contains a claim to reflect the world as it is. Settler colonial ways of seeing do not merely mistake “Indians” for Indigenous life. Rather, the settler bureaucratic gaze is designed to only see “Indians”. This gaze operates as if the two were identical. This is fully separate from how actual Indigenous peoples live their identities, memberships, and relationships.

A key insight from Kahnawà:ke Mohawk political theorist Audra Simpson provides a point of departure for my thinking about how the conditions of perception and settler colonial power work together. In her 2007 article, “On Ethnographic Refusal”, Simpson argues that colonial framing and its concepts have shaped the “terms of even being seen” for Indigenous peoples and nations[4].  Similarly, in Seeing Like a State, James Scott argues that states try to order the world by rendering it in the abstract terms of bureaucratic representation, like maps, land surveys, and population registries[5].  My broader research project develops the concept of “settler colonial ways of seeing” to clarify the conditions of possibility that establish such “terms of even being seen” and to examine the documentation as a technique through which this seeing—and unseeing—unfolds.

“Indian status” and its documentation—and revocation—are one way that state agents work to bring the settler colonial vision of Canada into being. From early band rolls compiled by Indian Agents in the mid-19th century to the contemporary system of registration and status cards, administrators have used documentation to assert the existence of “status Indians”. Invoking Suzanne Briet’s conception of documents as things produced to represent, reconstitute, or prove the existence of a phenomenon[6],  I read state-generated identity documents as a method of producing—and reproducing—evidence of the material existence of a legal fiction. Where the Indian Act first asserts “status” as a phenomenon, official documents produced to account for a specific individual as a “status Indian” then iteratively reproduces the fact of “status”, as a fixed, material concept. Collectively, the body of documents reflecting “status Indians” creates an administrative population using terms and processes unilaterally imposed by policymakers. This effort to classify, order, and govern Indigenous peoples—a governance strategy premised on eventual disappearance by assimilation—disregards how actual Indigenous communities govern membership.

The legal definition of “status” and the iterative process of its documentation are designed to erase the social and political fact of multiple Indigenous nations, their epistemologies, their relations, and their histories, while generating abstract “status Indians” and the conditions for their forced assimilation into the settler body politic. However, this settler colonial way of seeing is neither totalizing nor fully successful. Indigenous voices—such as Sharon McIvor[7], who has spent more than three decades fighting the sex discrimination that mediates the Act’s assimilationist effects —have disrupted and continue to refuse the Indian Act taxonomy and its torqueing effects on relations and communities.



  1. Chelsea Vowell, Indigenous Writes: A Guide to First Nations, Métis, and Inuit Issues in Canada (Winnipeg: Highwater Press, 2016), 25-35.
  2. Val Napoleon, “Extinction by Number: Colonialism Made Easy,” Canadian Journal of Law and Society Vol. 16, No. 1 (20001), 113-45.
  3. Mary-Ellen Kelm and Keith D. Smith, Talking Back to the Indian Act (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2018), 11.
  4. Audra Simpson, “On Ethnographic Refusal: Indigeneity, ‘Voice’ and Colonial Citizenship,” Junctures 9 (2007), 67-80.
  5. James Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998).
  6. Suzanne Briet, What is Documentation?, trans Ronald E. Day, Laruent Martinet, and Hermina G. B. Anghelescu (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2006[1951]).
  7. Pamela Palmater, “What You Need to Know About Sharon McIvor’s Major UN Victory on Indian Status,” Indigenous Nationhood, 20 January 2019,

Knowledge Versus Belief

Submitted by Jennifer Nagel on December 13 2018.
Research presentation by Jennifer Nagel

Knowledge versus Belief

Lunch discussion led by Faculty Research Fellow Jennifer Nagel (Philosophy)

11 October 2018

Human adults “read” social scenes automatically: without conscious effort, we see other people not just as physical objects moving through the world, but as agents who see, want, and know many things about this world. This social intelligence is an amazing capacity. Seeing what someone knows or wants is not like seeing the color of their hair. We rely on remarkably subtle outward cues in calculating the inner lives of others: tiny shifts in the direction of eye gaze, fleeting facial expressions, slight differences in gestures of pointing or reaching. Meanwhile, we have very limited introspective access into how exactly we are performing this task of mental state attribution (as is the case for many other intuitive capacities, such as face recognition).  

Here’s a question you might never have asked yourself: when you watch someone who (for example) sees a ball rolling into the corner pocket of a billiard table, do you see that person as believing that the ball is now in the pocket, or as knowing that the ball is in the pocket? (Or do we do both of these things at once, attributing both knowledge and belief together at the same time?) It’s not trivial to figure out which of these states we are tracking, because we generally expect very similar behavior from knowers and believers. Whether a rival player knows or just believes that the ball is in the pocket, he will reach into that pocket if he wants the ball.

Gentlemen playing snooker in 19th century Germany
Public domain photo from R. A. Müller: Geschichte der Universität, 1990, S. 189 (Städtische Sammlungen Tübingen)

Questions about exactly which mental states we are attributing are difficult, but not unanswerable. To answer them, we need to figure out the inner logic of mental state attribution. Empirical research can help, but not without making some philosophical assumptions about the character of knowledge (and belief). We may also find ourselves rethinking our philosophical theories of knowledge and belief on the basis of what we discover about how these attitudes are naturally attributed.

To understand the mature human capacity for mental state attribution, it can help to look at creatures in whom this capacity is not quite at our level, and here we discover something really interesting: knowledge is easier to track than belief. Our closest relatives in the animal kingdom, apes and monkeys, seem to be capable of recognizing whether members of their own kind do or do not know some important fact about their shared environment, especially in competitive situations. In games involving hidden food, for example, they are great at keeping track of who knows about what, and who is ignorant. But nonhuman animals can’t keep track of any beliefs that fall short of knowledge.

Human adults can easily figure out situations where a competitor will have a mistaken belief: for example, if someone sneakily takes the ball out of the pocket when his rival turns his back for a moment, an adult who watched the whole chain of events will expect the rival to reach into the pocket for the ball when she mistakenly believes it is still located. We expect the competitor to have the false belief that the object is in its original location. This ability to track belief is something that our closest animal relatives don’t share. There was a flutter of excitement in 2016 when researchers from Michael Tomasello’s lab in Germany found great apes showing patterns of anticipatory looking consistent with false belief attribution when they watched videos involving actors who had been deceived.  However, in subsequent work, Tomasello has argued that these apes were only tracking earlier patterns of knowledge, and not belief itself. Belief is tricky because it doesn’t just represent how things objectively are: what you believe can differ quite radically from what others believe, and from reality itself. Getting the concept of belief involves an appreciation of the possibility of multiple conflicting perspectives on our shared reality.

Human babies also go through a stage of being able to track what others know before they can recognize beliefs falling short of knowledge (whether these are false beliefs, or beliefs that are true just by chance, as in lucky guesses). It is a very interesting question why our species ever developed the subtler ability to grasp mere beliefs. One suggestion advanced by Tomasello and others is that human beings need to have the concept of belief because we have a very special form of cooperation. Animals other than humans cooperate in projects that change features of the world, like building beaver dams. Human beings cooperate not just in doing things in the world, but also in building our understanding of the world through communication. Of course, other animals can communicate, through signals like the tail flash of a white-tailed deer, to indicate danger. But animal signaling is a one-way street (another deer can’t correct a tail-flasher who is getting it wrong, or even raise the question of whether it is making a mistake).

What is special about human signaling is that it is a cooperative back-and-forth process: we don’t just respond mechanically to signals the way white-tailed deer do. We humans can raise doubts or actively ask questions of each other, mostly helpfully sharing what we know, and sometimes spreading misconceptions. If we are going to work well with each other in this cooperative project, we need to recognize that other people can have subjective perspectives different from our own, perhaps falling short of reality. When should we trust others as telling us something objectively correct? When do their signals tell us more about their subjective perspective than about the actual shape of the world? An ability to sort out knowledge from mere belief is crucial to the project of working together to figure out the nature of reality.

young deer

Activating Relationship to Build Our Canoe

Submitted by Jill Carter on November 16 2018.
Deep Time Working Group encounters the Great Lakes Canoe Journey at Water's Edge

By Jill Carter (Co-Convenor: Deep Time), October 2018

Deep Time Working Group members
Deep Time Working Group members. Photo: Mehrangiz Monsef, 2018

Taakwaakin (autumn) is for the Anishinaabeg a time of preparation. It seems most fitting, then, that on a miraculously mild day near the end of October, members of the Deep Time working group met with Sylvia Plain (founder and coordinator of the Great Lakes Canoe Journey) to prepare a relationship-build at Kabechenong  (the Humber River).
“I’m not going to tell you that,” said Sylvia in response to a settler-researcher who requested explicit instructions around the fabrication of the wiikwaas ciimaan (birch bark canoe) to whom she had introduced us and from whom we were to receive lessons in paddling, partnering, and research methods. “Neither will any other traditional canoe-builder.”
“But then,” pushed her interlocutor, “how am I to learn it? How did you learn it?”
“You do the work,” said Sylvia. It’s that simple. Do the work. Build partnerships. Work in community with builders, offering your strength and sweat to the task of building something wonderful that will never belong solely to you. Over time and in relationship, she told us, this is how we might begin to learn.
As Sylvia spoke, an activation was beginning.

Carrying a canoe
Carrying a canoe. Photo: Jill Carter, 2018

The canoe to whom Sylvia introduced us is the locus of numerous activations and itself a peripatetic activator: “The Canoe is my teacher; I just go where it takes me,” Sylvia told us.  As she went on to enumerate the communities (human and non-human) that had contributed to its fabrication, the stories of each became clearly legible through every detail of the canoe’s design. Its outer flesh was harvested in Waswagoning where the Anishinaabeg there share this precious resource with countless basket-makers, and canoe makers from nations for whom healthy birch is becoming increasingly difficult to locate.  Its cedar and maple bones were harvested in Hiawatha First Nation and Michigan, while bear grease and sap to seal and protect her were provided by still other communities. This canoe is filled, then, with the collective spirit, intention, knowledge systems and labour of multiple communities. Through its lifetime, as it cuts through the waterways that connect the communities of the Great Lakes Peoples, it will carry the gifts with which it has been invested back to their sources, as the story thickens and the relational web is extended.

The young people who had gathered at PCVS High School in Peterborough (or Nogojiwanong) to build this canoe entered into relationship with these harvesters and with knowledge keepers and design experts from these and other Anishinaabe communities. Now, all of these storied lives, meeting at Nogojiwanong—mingling at “the place at the end of the rapids”—are now inscribed into the very DNA of the vessel with, in and through which Sylvia chose to begin teaching the Deep Time membership about research-relationships and canoe families.

Sylvia Plain helps Keren Rice into the canoe
Sylvia Plain helps Keren Rice into the canoe. Photo: Jill Carter, 2018
Sylvia Plain shares canoe teachings
Sylvia Plain shares canoe teachings. Photo Jill Carter, 2018

All the relationships that were activated in her construction remain alive within this canoe. And as the day drew on, I felt myself being drawn more deeply into this relational web-- activated by and activating the land and waters around me as my paddle contacted the water, as the waterfowl swam along beside us, as a cormorant took flight, as seagulls wheeled overhead, as ladybugs peeped out at us from the undersides of leaves, as my paddling-partner steered us to shore and as Sylvia and her helper Mehrangiz Monsef pulled us to safety, helping each of us in and out of the canoe in  our turn.

“You build your best to give it away,” Sylvia told us, articulating a “hard” teaching she had received after putting much of her spirit and all of her effort into building a canoe that the Anishinaabe Canoe Family of which she is a part gave away to the Squaxin Island Tribe after only three days. And this is a teaching that has activated, in me, an ability to more precisely conceptualize and articulate, in Anishinaabe terms, my own purposes as a researcher. The research-project is a canoe, containing the spirit, intentions, knowledge systems, and labour of myriad individuals, their ancestors, and their communities. Invested as they are with the spirits of so many, the outputs we produce, the knowledge systems we disseminate, and the knowledges we create (like the canoes that Sylvia builds) are not ours to keep; they do not exist to provide an individual researcher (or team or institution) with profit, honour, or pleasure. Rather, they activate a complex relational web; they are held and stewarded by all the communities and individuals who have contributed to their making; and they reverberate—activating ripples—through space and time to effect (for better or for worse) life on earth for the generations who follow us.


I continue to shape

Submitted by Kim Yates on November 01 2018.
25 October 2018
Nicholas Galanin, Things are Looking Native, Native's Looking Whiter, 2012
Nicholas Galanin, Things are Looking Native, Native's Looking Whiter, 2012

I continue to shape

Notes from a visit to the Art Museum

For a change of pace, I took the JHI Fellows for a tour of the exhibition I continue to shape (curated by cheyanne turions) at the Art Museum of the University of Toronto after lunch.

I wanted to see it, and I wanted them to see it for a few reasons.  First, cheyanne turions was the curator of a previous exhibition at the JHI in 2015-2016, titled Talking Back, Otherwise. It was a smart, elegant show that paired perfectly with that year's theme of Things That Matter, and I was curious to see how cheyanne's work had developed since then.

I also wanted to see I continue to shape because it appeared to be a good fit for our current theme, Reading Faces--Reading Minds. Clearly, a lot of the works that were profiled in the Art Museum's website ( featured faces, and the show’s description, about the ways that aesthetic practices of highlighting and distortion can affect the ways history is told, seemed to speak to our work this year -- what does it mean to read? Are the faces we see and the voices we hear representational?

Finally, I organized this tour because it featured Indigenous perspectives.  Last year, we worked very hard on the theme, Indelible Violence: Shame, Reconciliation, and the Work of Apology. This was not a one-off event.  The JHI's commitment to attending to, and foregrounding, Indigenous experiences and perspectives in our work is ongoing, and it was a pleasure to have this opportunity to see, learn, and discuss.

The artists featured in I continue to shape are Maria Thereza Alves, Cathy Busby, Justine A. Chambers with Deanna Bowen + Ame Henderson + Jessica Karuhanga, Nicholas Galanin, Lisa Myers, Mickalene Thomas, Joseph Tisiga, and Charlene Vickers with an additional collaboration with Maria Hupfield.  It is a large exhibition that moves through several rooms and includes video works as well two-dimensional and sculptural pieces. Many of the pieces invite the viewer to interact -- to be seated, to go through a series of meditations, to touch, to look through a tiny view hole. 

The works that moved me the most deeply were Nicholas Galanin's Things are Looking Native, Native's Looking Whiter (2012) and Joseph Tisiga's A Prop for Reconciliation (2017). Galanin's work is a composite photograph that splices together two faces into one: Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia Organa in the 1977 Star Wars: A New Hope, and a much-earlier photograph of an Indigenous woman that was taken by Edward Curtis.  The two images are linked by the hairstyle, and they are so perfectly aligned that the eyes seem to look out of a single face. We talked about questions of originality and cultural appropriation: Princess Leia’s hairstyle seems directly taken from earlier, Indigenous precedents, but the world of Star Wars never acknowledges of this cultural precedent. We know that Curtis often set up his photos to frame the subjects in ways that white settlers would understand as Indigenous, but these were ways that tended to flatten or obscure the facts of their lives. Galanin's composite face asks us to think, which half of this image is "real"?

Joseph Tisiga, A Prof for Reconciliation (Jughead), 2017
Joseph Tisiga, A Prop for Reconciliation (Jughead), 2017

Joseph Tisiga's work is actually a set of images, each of which inserts a flat comic-book character from the 1950s Archie comics into a scene with a more three-dimensional Indigenous motif or character. Yet, the Indigenous faces are rubbed away, as though the painting has aged faster there. Each of the Archie characters is shown with mouth open; the mouths of the Indigenous figures are closed and seem to be sad or frowning. Betty wraps the iconic Hudson's Bay blanket around a much-smaller woman; Reggie looks through the eyeholes of a mask, and here, Jughead appears to mansplain his refusal of the peace pipe. These images struck me at first as playful, even funny; but as we looked and talked, it became clear that the flat white faces are superimposed on a fading environment, and that the perspective of the Indigenous faces was in danger of being obliterated altogether -- and the playful fun gave way to a sense of sorrow.

Our tour was led by Theresa Wang, whose gentle interventions got us all talking and thinking together about what the exhibition was trying to communicate.  After we had seen the works, we had the use of a smaller room within the exhibition to talk for a while longer about our thoughts. It is in this conversation, in the range of our different individual responses, that we learn from each other. 

Reading, Again

Submitted by Kim Yates on October 17 2018.
Lillian O'Brien Davis discusses the JHI art exhibition on 14 September 2018

Every year the JHI hosts an exhibition of art. Students in the Masters in Visual Studies program in Curatorial Studies at the University of Toronto propose an art exhibition based on the annual theme, and one of these proposals becomes a practicum. This year’s exhibit, Reading, Again was curated by Lillian O’Brien Davis, who is completing a MVS under the supervision of Barbara Fischer (Executive Director/Chief Curator of the Art Museum at the University of Toronto and cross-appointed to the Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design). At the lunch on 14 September, on the day after the official launch of the exhibition, Lillian discussed her choices with the fellows who will be working alongside these pieces in the coming year.

This exhibition seeks to complicate how we think about perception. Works in a diversity of media confront the viewer with perceptual and conceptual disorientation. Some works highlight the way vision is imbued with memory and/or anticipation. Others illuminate the way in which legibility is muddled when something is uncoupled from an original framework or context. There are also works that focus on permeable and delicate structures of looking, such as lenses, filters, and screens. When perceptual fibrillations cause cognition to stall, there is an opportunity to explore looking and the conundrum of sight. With this in mind, the exhibition asks visitors to look, yes, look again, and longer this time.

Reading, Again features the work of six artists: Laurie Kang, Nadia Belerique, Colin Miner, Wanda Koop, Katherine Knight and Henri Vergé-Sarrat—each artist responds to questions of perception and sight by exploring questions of time and material.

Colin Miner, Stalactite sculpture, 2018
Colin Miner, Untitled (Stalactite) (detail) bronze casts and rock, 2018-2019. Courtesy of the artist.
Photo: Lillian O'Brien Davis

Colin Miner’s practice uses photography to investigate the material and conceptual nature of the medium. He works in video, sculpture, and photography, but also as a writer and curator. Comprised of several components, each element in this work was first created as an independent work. The bronze sculpture, which is installed outdoors, is comprised of two distinct elements: the stalactite and the spiral. Both pieces were made during a period of research when the artist used photography to record processes of calcification. The risograph prints displayed inside the JHI refer to the location where the bronze stalactite and spiral were created, as they depict the steam from the pool that aided in the solidification process. The bronze sculpture is exposed to the elements which will cause it to slowly change and, over the next 10 months, register the passage of time through the change of the bronze’s surface. The rocks included in the piece offer an additional indication of the passage of time through shifts in materiality, as they contain specimen fossils, calcified memories suspended in time.

Nadia Belerique, i hate you don't leave me, 2015
Nadia Belerique, i hate you don't leave me, 2015. inkjet photographs, 16.5 x 11.8" Courtesy of Daniel Faria Gallery

Nadia Belerique combines photography and sculptural installation to engage with and explore how the relationship between perception, representation and psychology is always shifting. Pushing the limits of photography, Belerique’s practice often muddles the image/ object distinction, playing with the concept that experience creates meaning. This selection of works by Nadia Belerique is part of a series that puts to the test what can be considered the “real” object or an art work. Made on an uncovered scanner bed, Belerique plays with layers and depth in order to appeal to the viewer’s psychological state, intuition and senses. Using familiar objects and images and presenting them in new contexts produces alternative modes of understanding, prompting new visual awareness and engagement. The rough edges of some of the scanned material conflicts with the slick mounting of the photographs; equally, the presence of the artists fingerprints on the scanner bed speak to the fluid narrative of the life of the work that exceeds the parameters of the frame.

Laurie Kang, In and Out (detail), 2013-18
Laurie Kang, In and Out (detail), 2013-2018.
Unfixed, unprocessed photographic paper, darkroom chemicals (continually sensitive), silicone, duratrans, and magnets. Courtesy of the artist.

Laurie Kang’s practice includes photography, sculpture, video and site-responsive work. She engages with materials in order to engage with their sensitivities to and connections with human and nonhuman matter. For Kang, bodies are situated and political as well as always in a state of process. Her mis-use of mediums and materials simulates relational and unknown affects and produces changes through unexpected collaborations. This work explores the sensitive nature of materials, which is key to its visual presentation. The colours in the work are inherent to the material but are also contingent on the (mis)use of the material. The core of this work is based on what emerges through the pushing and pulling of the materials away from their original structures. The body of the artist is an integral part of the work as another materiality that is constantly evolving and changing and whose boundaries are unfixed. The viewer is implicated in the work through the reflective yet distorting quality of the duratrans surface. This work enacts the experience of both delving into and revelling in an unfamiliar moment.

Overall, these artworks explore the possibility found in the moment between mis-recognition and understanding.


Vision Confounded

Submitted by Kim Yates on October 12 2018.
Discussion led by Rebecca Kingston

27 September 2018

This week Faculty Research Fellow Rebecca Kingston (Political Science) led a discussion on the theme of “Vision confounded?” Her presentation focused on the work of Lisa Feldman Barrett, particularly How Emotions are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017), and its potential application to Erasmus’ Education of a Christian Prince (1516).

Professor Kingston presented Feldman Barrett’s interrogation of the findings of Paul Ekman, whose research has been the source of widely circulated theories on emotional expression. Feldman Barrett suggests, contrary to Ekman, that emotions are not automatically expressed in our faces in the same way and that there are no automatic and universal templates for emotional expression. She demonstrates this by having us recognise that the same facial expression can be read in different ways depending on how we are primed to read it. We are led to believe a facial expression is that of a person in terror, until we are told that it is an expression of joy. We have been shown a closeup and then broader picture of Serena Williams on her winning of the US Open in 2008.

Her alternative account of the genesis of emotional expression is complex (read the book!), but the upshot is that we need to understand the meaning of expression through the concepts by which we filter our experience and our understanding of others. There is no deep neurological key to the meaning of emotions. When we read faces we must be aware that expressions can signify many different things and that often some form of subjective account or an understanding of both personal context and collective history is still the key to understanding what they mean specifically.  

Erasmus, Education of a Christian Prince, title page 1516
Erasmus, Education of a Christian Prince, 1516 (title page)

In a different vein, Erasmus in his Education of a Christian Prince (1516) considers the dynamics of perception as related to power. He remarks on how the rules of vision work in the public realm. Public status serves to magnify and intensify what people see when they look to the prince, such that the prince’s life is open to view and often carries a moral force of exemplarity: “Turn the pages of history and you will always find the morality of an age reflecting the life of its prince”. In terms of how the prince views the public, on the one hand, Erasmus counsels a disposition of “watchfulness”; but on the other he suggests that the prince needs to cultivate a generalized view of the public and not be swayed by particulars of flattery and flashy displays. Invoking an anecdote from Plutarch regarding the Thebans, he suggests that the king should be blind, not being swayed by appearances.

So how are these related?

Feldman Barrett shows that meaning can not be reduced to the narrow visual clues given by facial expression but requires an understanding of broader context. The more general lesson here is that how one sees and thus what one sees, is partly conditioned by factors including framing, concepts and cultural narratives.

For Erasmus the optics of what one sees and thus how one sees or how one ought to see is in part conditioned by the direction of the gaze, whether it be towards a person in the public sphere, or towards a general public. We might say that moderation as a normative requirement of good governance requires on the part of the prince a sort of blurry vision.

Thus, in the realm of the empirical as well as the normative, how we read faces and are expected to read them, is only partly a matter of neurological capacity.