JUNE 9, 2019, fONTECCHIO, L’AQUILA, ITALY
Exploring possibilities for cultural projects in Fontecchio, L’Aquila, Central Italy. The beauty of nature here reminds me a bit of my homestate of Vermont.
I don’t think it can be overstated how rejuvenating it is to be surrounded by nature’s fluid intelligence and vibrancy. . . something we lose sight of in our cities. In urban life we find the vibrant diversity of human cultures and creativity. We can experience the “other” in a specific human context. Yet, we are so far removed from the greatest Other of all, which is found in the vast biodiversity of nature. We forget that we are of this, and that we need it to know ourselves more deeply. I think of the Zapatista call for spaces of encounter, wherein I show myself to you (the other), and you show yourself to me (who is other to you), and that in this encounter, where neither asks the other to conform, we come to know ourselves more fully. By encountering that which is different from us, we discover new aspects of ourselves that previously we did not see or feel. In this same regard we can enter into encounters with the ‘natural’ world - of which we are actually a part - and in so doing discover new qualities in ourselves. We find not a human constructed vision of the world, but an open expression of life that has evolved in its relationships across millions/billions of years. I tend to think that represents a quite a history of research & development, such that nature’s “technology” (as in processing capacity and comprehensive design) is the most advanced thing going! Yet, we pay so little attention and give it so little value. Far more impressed are we with our own inventions. Meanwhile, I have the impression nature watches us like grandparents watch their grandkids. There is great love, but heavy disciplinary action is already necessarily underway.
JUNE 9, 2019, L’AQUILA, ITALY
AN INTERDISCIPLINARY LENS TRANSFORMING CULTURAL NARRATIVES
Shifting the lens now to a different area of development and work, apart from the individual artist studio, is the work of conceiving new cultural narratives that can inform our society in profound and transformative ways. This work I consider to be perhaps one of the deepest and farthest reaching forms of creativity, because it compels a person to see beyond the fundamental archetypal assumptions of one’s culture, to conjure forth an entirely different vision, and to do so is an act not just of imagination but of integration and synthesis of documented research from many other disparate sectors, for the vision must be coherent if it is to speak to the broadest audience that it seeks to impact. It is not art for art’s sake, worthwhile even if no ordinary person can make sense of it. Rather, a successful core narrative must be profoundly compelling, able to speak to the deepest questions felt within the general populace, if it is to take root.
When I say “cultural narrative”, I am speaking of the story that sits at the center of an entire society, which at our present point in history can also refer to a global culture of sorts, such as that of the global economic system. This includes everything that exists within a specific culture, all systems of government, belief (in science or religion), specific identities of different groups, and all the activities therein. A cultural narrative is the fundamental story that a society tells itself. In most cases, the story is so imbedded, having evolved across so many generations before, that it is implicit, taken as a given, and passed on as a vision of reality that each member learns from the time of birth. Its assumptions thereby are mostly invisible to the those members that live by them.
Informing our contemporary society’s cultural narrative is a science that originates in the Enlightenment period, which celebrates rationalism as the pinnacle of human evolution on the planet and is seen as that which separates humankind from the animal kingdom and all of what we term the “natural” world. This science has produced a mechanistic view of the cosmos and the planet as composed of tiny building blocks of matter that operate according to physical laws of cause and effect. It is a science that believes in objective scrutiny of external phenomena, which infers (assumes) that humans possess the capacity to stand outside of the world and cosmos and, in a detached manner, debate its activities without affecting them in so doing. In this paradigm, there is no place, much less value, for subjective feeling, nor any other experience which cannot be ‘objectively’ measured. It is in this cultural climate that we have long been witnessing the global climate undergo radical change due to unchecked short-sighted exploitation of the earth’s biosphere. It is this underlying cultural narrative of modern and contemporary society that has allowed this situation to unfold (by contrast, under a different paradigm/narrative, such as those of many indigenous societies wherein the natural world was considered sacred, such exploitation would be in conflict with the base narrative and therefore not be permissible).
In parallel to the development of western science was the evolution of our present economic model and its supporting theories. It could be said that our scientific assumptions, which rendered the physical universe devoid of any implicit meaning or value, constituted a vision of reality, by rational argument, that gave free reign for the extensive exploitation of all the earth (a domain seen as “man’s inheritance”, a view consistent with teachings in western religion).
In his book, The Biology of Wonder, biologist/writer Andreas Weber provides an insightful summary regarding the symbiotic evolution between science and economics (what he refers to as “bioeconomics”) by giving context to their shared conceptual origin in Victorian England:
“Darwin was naturalist but still representative of the urbanized civilization of his time. He belonged to the upper middle class, in which, to achieve something and maintain one’s status and possessions, struge was inevitable. England was the most powerful nation in the world, at apex of competitive success. . . Great Britain at the time of Darwin was full of desperate poverty. People dwelled miserably in slums and had to compete for the lowest-paid drudgery. One of the significant works of that epoch was "On Population” by the British economist Thomas Robert Malthus. His thesis was clearly inspired by the bleak social situation of the time. Malthus claimed that any population inevitably grew larger, resulting in a brutal, merciless struggle for resources that only the fittest could win. This idea became the cornerstone of Darwin's theory evolution. . . The missing link, which yielded the mechanism of selection, therefore did not stem directly of the observation of nature but from the theory of a social economist, corroborated by his daily experiences of Victorian society.”
(New Society Publishers, 2016, p. 44)
While economic theory has changed little, developments in physics (quantum theory) and life sciences (along the lines of research and theory by scientists such as Andreas Weber), have begun to disassemble core assumptions of the traditional scientific frame. However, these discoveries remain far from the mainstream and have, therefore, yet to redirect the course of social progress.
A third area I would cite as a core narrative to contemporary society is the construct of race. The tragic and brutal history of this construct is visible throughout the entire world, manifest through our economic and political hierarchies and the resulting human costs. While modern times, from the abolitionist era through the civil rights movement up until our present day, has made progress in exposing and addressing the racism that permeates our personal, institutional, and systemic realities, it still remains deeply wedded to the construct of race itself. While we work to fight racism, we fail to expose the fact that the concept of race itself is an invention with specific historic origin (arising with the development of new scientific field of taxonomy in the 16th and 17th centuries) and put forth by specific individuals, among whom French physician Francois Bernier and, later, German physician and anthropologist Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, were most influential. The science of the times soon embraced these racial classifications, structured them according to a value system of white supremacy, and then used to rationalize colonial conquest in South Asia, Africa, and Central and South America, the barbarity of the the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and to underscore manifest destiny as the ideology that emoldened the conquest of North America. Today’s science, in stark contrast, finds no biological basis for racial classifications whatsoever (consider that blood-type would would be a far easier demarcation between different groups, and which bares no correlation to the construct of race). Nevertheless, today’s mainstream cultural discourse continues to embraces race as a valid demographic classification between different human populations. The question that mainstream society has yet to grasp, much less answer, is how do we address racism (which is robust and aggressive in its present reality) while refusing to reify the construct of race (which has no factual biological basis) as a valid categorization for human beings? Presently, there exists only a tiny handful of political thinkers/authors that have dared address this polarizing issue.
For those of us involved in this work, we come to the question of; how do we fundamentally shift a cultural narrative that we barely are aware of in the first place? I long struggled with the personal challenge of never being able to “specialize” in my professional life (the values of our society clearly beg us to specialize if we wish to achieve any degree of merit). It has taken a long path in maturity to recognize that my role is not to specialize but to synthesize (which often means synthesizing the work of specialists working in different arenas). The vital work of academics and researchers seldom enters into a language that can reach the general public. The insights and unorthodox processes of artists seldom attain any substantial rank of value among the considerations and priorities of business and government leaders. Entirely different worlds of experience exist between the different factions of our society. As such, the crafting of a meaningful narrative, one that genuinely speaks to a wide array of core concerns, and that is at once simple, concise, and profound, is an art in itself. It is towards this “art” that I feel inwardly compelled to contribute.
I believe we each have our distinct roles to play, distinct pieces to the puzzle that we each offer, as individuals and as whole societies (as we can see that different societies/cultures succeed and fail in different areas of concern). No one possesses the whole. And so, when I speak to these issues, it is in the spirit of contributing to the discourse, not with answers, but with questions of substance to which others can join their own thoughts and impressions. Together we can begin to reimagine, and continue to adjust, a new perspective and ethos that promises a more enlivened experience across the different sectors and aspects of our lives and communities.
While they differ greatly in their positions and interpretations, much of the entire field of today’s politics, from the far right to the far left, still operates within the frame of core assumptions of the shared paradigm I have described. It is for this reason that I believe it is in addressing the underlying paradigm itself that we may have the greatest potential to bring about a new manner of approaching the challenges that collectively face us all.
JUNE 8, 2019, L’AQUILA, ITALY
Introducing Enlivenment as a Meta-Narrative
Alongside my work as a multidisciplinary artist with a studio practice, I have always been passionately committed to exploring/devising different approaches to community engagement - seeking intersections between the creative impulse/drive, the inner sense of one's personal voice, and the relationship of oneself to the interdependent web of both one's immediate community, the greater society and its surrounding ecosystem. Somehow this has led me to explore biology and ecology, which have increasingly come to inform my creative, social, and political perspective. It has been an 'organic' development as I began to happen across different biologists and ecologists asking similar questions, within a scientific frame, that I had arrived at via the intuitive dialog that often transpires with an artist in his/her process, relying less on external observations than on internal intimations. At the heart of this inquiry is the premonition that there are fundamental narratives that essentially sculpt our experience - personal narratives (how we conceive ourselves on the deepest, even unconscious, level), and collective narratives (by which entire nations or peoples conceive themselves). My own particular lens of investigation with regards to social change has to do with attempting to see with greater clarity and discernment the invisible assumptions that underlie these narratives, to deconstruct the narratives using the potent technology of curiosity. Deep curiosity requires one to work from an inward feeling of not-knowing, and it is this feeling that opens outwardly to the world, inviting the world to show new layers of itself that were before unseen.
Narratives structure value. When thinking on the core narratives of our society, I find two core values that appear omnipresent: the opinion of science, and the primacy of the market/economy. We default to science to tell us what is actually, factually, true about life and reality. We default to the market to tell us whether something is of pragmatic value (that which has little market value will alway remains low on the list of priorities by which our society is shaped). Technology is a great example of where science and the market intersect - technology as a human construction based on the physics of an observable and measureable (mechanistic) universe, and technology's ability to be commodified with robust profit margins. It's real, it's practical, it's profitable (perhaps this could suffice as the holy trinity of our present societal order!). Qualities and proposals that do not adhere to the logic of this trinity remain marginalized from consideration when it comes to serious decision making. Love, for instance, is horribly impractical, and any attempt to profit from it invariably transforms it into something else. Therefore, love has no place in the public sector of governance, much less the private sector of the market. We cannot study love under a microscope as we do a bacteria, nor through any other scientific means, and so science avoids it altogether. And so, behold, the state of planet earth in 2019.
For those of us in the arts, we find that, no matter our heartfelt or intellectual arguments, be they for societal health, social justice, humanistic philosophy, spiritual or moral callings, etc., our positions invariably lack the factual basis (and therefore import) of observable and measurable phenomena as required by science, nor do they produce or promise tangible economic outcomes remotely competitive with other sectors. Science and economy (celebrated through technological invention) "trump" art (i.e. everything unquantifiably felt) in almost every instance. We are relegated to a sector or mere good intentions.
It is in light of this kind of summary that I felt so heartened when I came across the recent writings of biologist/writer Andreas Weber. Writing from a scientific lens based in empirical research, Weber articulates a vision of life principles and processes shared throughout the earth's biodome (in which we are thoroughly intertwined) that provides and entirely different view and logic from what traditional sicence has taught us. For once, it could be that science is on the side of feeling - that our interiors, from the life of cells to complex organisms, are driven by feelings and the identification of values, which are then expressed as physical actions and manifestations that shape the phenomenlogical world as we experience it. In other words, the world of interiors (as is most often the focus of investigation and expression in the arts) becomes recognized as a central determining power of life's expression on the planet.
The following is a summary taken from an earlier writing by Weber on "Enlivenment".
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A New "Bios" for Life
People often call for "changing the system" and seek to reform the "free market" approach that turns everything, including life itself, into a commodity. But it is impossible to alter our prevailing "operating system" for economics, politics and culture if the underlying "bios" – our unexamined, foundational assumptions about reality – remain the same. This is our biggest problem today: our understanding of "bios" -- the nature of life itself –- is wrong.
Our civilisation operates as if reality is all about organising inert, dead matter in more efficient ways. This is the heritage of the Enlightenment, which claims that physical bodies are entirely separate from immaterial minds. Once this assumption is made, no serious systemic change is really possible, as much as we might try. This viewpoint has profound implications for what we call "environmental protection."
Enlivenment as Enlightenment 2.0
For the last 200 years, scientific progress – and all explanations of biological, mental and social processes – is based on the smallest possible building blocks of matter and systems. It advances through analyses that presume that evolution in nature is guided by principles of scarcity, competition and selection of the fittest. Rational thinking is an ideology that focuses on dead matter. Should it be so surprising, then, that the survival of life on our planet has become the most urgent problem?
To suggest a more promising, alternative future, this essay proposes a new paradigm of "bios" called "Enlivenment." Based on recent research findings in the biological sciences, the idea of Enlivenment explains how nature – and our role in it – is irrefutably individualistic, cooperative, and centered on experiences and meaning. The world is not simply an elaborate machine driven by impersonal macro-forces. It is alive! From an Enlivenment perspective, nature itself is a living commons.
Empirical Subjectivity and Poetic Objectivity. . .
The biosphere is not just the result of various forms of blind competition, but springs from the commoning activities of a myriad of individual agents interconnecting in diverse ecologies of relationships. We need to reconsider "life" and "aliveness" as fundamental categories of thought. Enlivenment tries to supplement – not to substitute – rational thinking and empirical observation – the core practices of the Enlightenment – with the "empirical subjectivity" of living experiences, and with the "poetic objectivity" of meaningful expressions.
Enlivenment. Towards a Fundamental Shift in the Concepts of Nature, Culture and Politics. Böll Foundation, Berlin 2013.