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Jones and Freire: (Eco)semiotics in Social Structures

bluish's picture

Jones and Freire: (Eco)semiotics in Social Structures

We’ve spoken a lot about the word “environment” over the course of this week—unpacking its associations and investigating its origins. What I’ve found is that, much the same as other categorical monikers, it has an “othering” property; the definition of “that which surrounds us” comes to mind, implying that the environment is in relation to us, rather than one with us. On the contrary, our readings have only encouraged me to feel and experience this environment as an extension, a reflection, a dimension of myself. More specifically, Kolbert and Freire’s texts expose not only the oneness of identity and environment, but also review that sameness as a way of influencing the future of the human condition. With Kolbert, “Greening the Ghetto” profiles Van Jones and his mission to simultaneously tackle climate change, poverty, and racism (Kolbert 1). Complexifying this industry-based approach, Paulo Freire explains the critical role that literacy plays in further understanding and developing the identities of the oppressed, and how reading the environment allows us to see patterns, associations, and signs as interwoven and unjust, opposed to merely happenstance (Freire 11).

Van Jones revises the idea of “green industry” by coupling the urban poverty crisis and the necessity for sustainable technologies. Kolbert describes:

The best way to fight both global warming and urban poverty is by creating millions of "green jobs"--weatherizing buildings, installing solar panels, and constructing mass-transit systems. A percentage of these jobs--Jones is purposefully vague about how many--should go to the disadvantaged and the chronically unemployed. "The green economy should not be just about reclaiming thrown-away stuff," he writes. "It should be about reclaiming thrown-away communities” (Kolbert 4).

The idea of combining issues to combat issues is daunting. But the genius of Jones’ idea comes to light in just this: looking beyond the singularity of remedy, and viewing issues from structural commonalities. Jones proposes in a speech, “Let us connect the people who most need work with the work that most needs to be done” (Kolbert 5). By linking low-income individuals (mostly minorities) to the rising need for “green” industrial products, people and our ‘environment’ participate in this previously mentioned relationship through mutual benefit. Jones stresses the importance of recruiting at-risk adolescents, again—mostly minorities, in the hopes of combatting the school to prison pipeline that has emerged in most urban cities.

Freire then takes this idea to an even deeper underlying source-- viewing literacy as a way of furthering self-perception. The semiotic world alone creates meaning but literacy allows us to read and write that world, opening our everyday understandings to associative thinking (Freire 11). As Friere teaches adults to read and write, he imparts visual meanings related to greater societal contexts. He calls this idea codification: "pictures imaging real situations." He explains:

Decodifying or reading the situations pictured leads them to a critical perception of the meaning of culture by leading them to understand how human practice or work transforms the world. The pictures of concrete sitautions enable the people to reflect on their former interpretatins of the world before going on to read the word. This more critical reading of the prior less critical reading of the world enables them to understand their indigence differently from the fatalistic way they sometimes view injustice (Freire 11).

In class, we spoke briefly about teaching biases and whether they're always an issue, but in this situation that argument feels irrelevant. By imparting contextual meanings, educators have the opportunity to empower adult learners to relearn their own identities, circumstances, and societal inequities. 

If we couple Van Jones and Freire, things become interesting: not only do I see the environment as a facet of the self, but then, in accordance with Freire's idea, I can begin to question the very formulation of that self. As we move towards a greener industry, providing working opportunity for the impoverished gives them a chance at mobility while also contributing to the most-pressing environmental concerns of our time; but then reworking the ways in which these individuals, some illiterate, come to understand their conditions means a foundational, transcendental shift-- one which truly excites me.





Works Cited

Freire, Paulo.  "The Importance of the Act of Reading." Trans. Loretta Slover. Brazilian Congress of Reading, Campinas, Brazil. November 1981. Rpt. Journal of Education 165, 1 (Winter 1983): 5-11.


Kolbert, Elizabeth. "Greening the Ghetto: Can a Remedy Serve for both Global Warming and Poverty?" The New Yorker (January 12, 2009).


Anne Dalke's picture

i think you have nailed, here, the core idea around which this ESem is designed, and continually circles: not only are we asking you to see "the environment as a facet of the self," but also, in accordance with Freire, "to question the very formulation of that self." We are asking you all, as Friere asked the adult learners with whom he worked, to "relearn your own identities, circumstances, and societal inequities," to refuse a "fatalistic way" of reading yourselves, arising from your history.


En route to this perception, I admire your recognition of the "othering" embedded in the conventional use of "environment" as “that which surrounds us." I admire, too, your call to look "beyond the singularity of remedy," to view "issues from structural commonalities" (this reminds me of Maryam's observation, in class, that calling some task "too ambitious" is a coded way of saying, "let's not look beyond symptoms to their causes").

Speaking of reading code, your analysis of "decodifying or reading the situations" puts me in mind of Judith Butler's description, in "Gender is Burning":

... 'reading' means taking someone down, exposing what fails to work at the level of appearance, insulting or deriding someone. For a performance to work, then, means that a reading is no longer possible...the impossibility of reading means that the artifice works, the approximation of realness appears to be achieved.

Do you know Butler's work? It builds on Gramsci and Althusser, and I think would speak to you. More recently she's expanded her thinking about the construction of gender to talk-and-write-and-speak about more general topics, such as what makes someone "grievable." She's decided that identity politics fails to provide the necessary coalitional framework, and is now seeing
precarity is a site of alliance among antagonists. More @ Notes in the Dark....

I'd also like to discuss with you your dismissal of the question of "teaching biases" as 'irrelevant," on the basis that, "by  imparting contextual meanings, educators have the opportunity to empower adult learners to relearn their own." But context is always, well, contextual. So...

I think the biases of the teacher do matter. To talk about...