Tuesday, December 19, 2006

chicken feathers

You might as well know up front that this is a long post...possibly even a non sequitur...though that remains for each of you to judge...

I was talking to one of my colleagues yesterday, a prof de philosophy, he described a project he has undertaken with students for two or three years running. He and a group of interested students form an atelier lecture (reading group) that meets once a week. They select a contemporary European writer/artist who has situated his work in a particular city. They study his/her work and then, in the spring, they visit the city in which the work is situated and they meet the artist as well. Part of the project involves the students preparing a plan for a journal/photo/video document that is inspired by what they have read.
The opportunity for them to extend their imaginations beyond the covers of a novel and then to carry those imaginings with them into the city itself, strikes me as singularly impactful. The prof claims that his students behave differently on these trips, not like the students who merely on vacation and looking for any pretext to amuse themselves; rather, they come to the city with an eye toward understanding how it compares to the city they have imagined. When they return home they put up an exposition of their work.
His group's initial project was in Rome, the next year was in Prague...possibly Naples this year. The teacher seems a bit unsure of the projects future because of funding difficulties...students/parents have to come up with the money.
I actually have heard of a similar project in Oregon. A colleague of mine on the coast (his name escapes me right now, Chris, I think), has taken kids to visit Northwest writers after first reading their works in class...seems like a cool idea to me.
Anyway, this philosophy prof is adamant about the integral role of the arts in the transmission of culture from generation to generation. He is animated on the subject, alternately describing the situation here as scandeleux and criminel.
He passed along to me an editorial from a recent edition of Le Monde entitled Vers un monde d'adolescents (a world full of adolescents). The columnist asserts that a kind global juvenilization is occuring, that popular culture everywhere is falling under the thrall of the worship of youth. With tongue only slightly in cheek, the editorial references the famous marketing slogan for comic book Tintin "for children 7-77 years old" and then asserts, perhaps more plausibly, that it is becoming increasingly more difficult to differentiate between the desires of people from 15 - 60 years of age. The traditional stages of life, particularly those of adulthood and elderhood have been eclipsed by an ever expanding adolescence .
Years ago I read a book by Neil Postman entitled The Disappearance of Childhood which in many ways advanced the same premise as this editorial. Both Postman and the writer in Le Monde seem preoccupied with the ways in which technology, specifically information technology, has exponentially accelerated the process by which information becomes available to everyone, bypassing in large measure the hurdles of literacy in favor of oral, visual and tactile modes, and how that same technology is constantly rendering information obsolete or "out of date" thereby undermining any tenable sense of tradition or authority that might be derived from "knowing things".
In a world where knowledge is continually up for grabs, where expertise is as likely to reside in the hands and the head of a nineteen-year-old as it is in that of a fifty-year-old, it is very difficult to conceive of "tradition" as being a vital and valued part of the culture as opposed to being merely a curiosity or, worse, the province of snobs.
The editorial ends on a pensive note, wondering without benefit of a crystal ball whether the world's population is becoming steadily more immature as it grows more and more beguiled by the dream of eternal adolescence and therefore ever more fond of the charms of material consumerism. What kinds of youthful fits of creativity and impulsivity are we in store for? What kinds of reactionary responses are likely to emerge to counterract them?
It's tempting to agree...but I'm wary of each generation's temptation to behave curmudgeonly towards the generations that "follow" it (chronologically at least).
On the other hand, as a teacher, I am inclined to take seriously the idea of "cultural transmission". It seems very near the heart of the project that I am most interested in participating in (compared with the chamber of commerce-style project that focuses on "competencies" and "workplace skills").
But cultural transmission seems predicated on the notions of tradition and authority, it is by definition a conservative (if I can use the word apolitically for a change) project...at least in temperament. I see my job within the disciplines that I teach, therefore, as an effort to help my students situate themselves in a context of traditions and practices that continue today in large measure because they represent the collected wisdom of those who have come before us, but which will continue on into the future only to the extent that they are adapted and shaped with the same kind of imagination and audacity that formed them in the first place. Such a context invites students to identify "father figures" intellectually and artistically speaking. The great American novelist Ralph Ellison, for example, considered Dostoevsky and T.S. Eliot as part of his literary parentage. Ellison, who was black, recognized his fellow black writers like Richard Wright as brethren but he adopted different literary parents than they did.
The creative impulse is, in other words, indispensable to the evolution of tradition and therefore to the transmission of culture.
The aims of this kind of conservatism are the preservation not so much of specific traditions and practices (the sort of thing I learned to associate with neoclassicism in European literature for example); rather, the aims are the preservation of those habits of mind which are necessarily enjoined in the twin spheres of science and art, the domains which define, I think, what we think of as our culture.
Even as I write this last sentence I hear myself objecting that I have left out a third domain...the marketplace. Can there be any sphere of activity more likely lay claim to our cultural identity than the marketplace? Have we not utterly distinguished ourselves there, for good and for ill, in our nearly religious commitment to satisfy the full range of human appetites? Has not that commitment led us to invent, to barter, to acquire, to consume, to own, to sell, to dabble, to play, to pretend, to speculate, to conceive, to build...the marketplace is the domain in which liberty is expressed as personal preference, as variety, as novelty and is writ large in dollar signs. It is where we desire things and we attempt to anticipate/create/satisfy the desires of others. It is both anarchic and collectivist, it provides a context for innovation and enormous pressures to conform, it is an important expression of freedom even as it shackles people to remorselessly competitive lifestyles.
And unlike science and art, there is no domain more intrinsically hostile to the notion of tradition than that of the markeplace. The marketplace assigns value to all things within a profit/cost matrix. History or tradition get no special value added. Citing the dynamics of supply and demand, Adam Smith's invisible hands, etc...the marketplace can rightly claim to have some connection to the pulse of the people...as a public we participate in the marketplace on a scale and in a visceral way that perhaps we do not with science and art (I may well be wrong on this count). We as a people tend perhaps to trust the marketplace at least at some point in time to reflect our desires back to us in the form of new products and services. Perhaps we aren't quite so sanguine about our personal connections to the domains of science and art, each of them belonging it would seem to "experts" whose aims are esoteric and mysterious contrasted with the aims of entrepeneurs and captilalists. We buy things because we want them and/or we need them. The marketplace obliges us, for a price.
If only it were as simple as knowing our desires or knowing how to convert such desires to dollar figures...Woody Allen once observed that "the heart wants what it wants." Aritstotle argued that education should be focused on the teaching the heart to want the right things, and then training the intellect and the body to attain those things...right desire connected to right thinkings leads to virtuous action. Misery, he argued came from being crippled or malformed aesthetically and emotionally...even the smartest head will be mislead by a warped heart.
The marketplace doesn't care about Aristotle, it doens't care about whether people want the right things, it doesn't worry whether children have had the opportunity to properly begin the formation of their notions of good and beauty and pleasure, it only wants to satisfy the Woody Allen's of the world. (That's not fair to Woody Allen probably...we all want what we want...and we all go shopping to find it.)
But just because the marketplace doesn't care whether we prefer Aristotle to Adolf Hitler doesn't mean that we shouldn't care about the messages we send to the marketplace. If we wanted different things we might see a different marketplace, if we valued time (ours and other people's), people and resources differently then we might see a different marketplace, if our sense of long and short term costs and benefits were calibrated differently we would see a different marketplace...
we get what we get when we want what we want.
Chicken feathers...?


Anonymous cjones said...

Very impressive Posting. Love it when you reference Postman. Aristotle's the man! As is Randolph -- Blazers had won five in a row until they lost 101-100 in OT tonight.

10:48 PM  
Blogger kc said...

Thanks,cj. It's a little scary to think that Zach is the man...since Shaq already calls himself "the Big Aristotle", Randolph may have to settle for being the little Oedipus...you know, family wrecker extraordinaire...

11:48 PM  

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