Lebenskünstler

Addendum as manifesto: “All we have to do is look around: toward a local social practice syllabus” Part II

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 04/11/2016

Robert L. Thayer’s LifePlace: Bioregional Thought and Practice should get all the credit (or blame) for this, especially his chapter “Learning” where many of the following quotes and paraphrases are lifted from.

In a a post from several years ago, I lamented the state of social practice education – a placeless, homogeneous, view from nowhere. In short, social practice education is like most so-called education in the United States an empty embrace of the values of abstraction and global capitalism.

All we have to do is look around: toward a local social practice syllabus – Or, an idiosyncratic “arty party” field guide to Vermont.

In the ensuing years, things have continued to devolve with students mostly being trained to join not a specific community rooted in a specific bioregion, but rather to join a global capitalist network – “the art world.” Ironically, the overwhelming emphasis in graduate art education is the inculcation of a fetish for criticality. Of course, it is a highly selective form of criticality, one that does not turn its gaze on the notion of criticality itself, but more importantly, does not turn its attention to the abstracted space and values of the educational apparatus. Well, it certainly does in terms of a liberal concern for identity politics and student debt, but does not seem to connect the dots to understand how debt is as disembodied as the structure of education – a purely fungible relationship of data points where course credit equals monetary credit…

So universities, banks and art schools continue to act as centripetal forces – pulling resources into vast global flows while the animate earth on which the entire edifice is built, continues to be ignored, or is itself only considered through the lens of a global climate crisis. And despite the congratulatory backslapping of an activist class that brings all of its intellectual and critical faculties to bear on the matter, they are blind to the fact that they have been trained by institutions mired in a fundamental category mistake which they themselves emulate.

To paraphrase David Orr, there are some debilitating myths at play – that ignorance is a solvable problem rather than a fundamental feature of being human; that knowledge (and technology) are, alone, enough to solve problems; that the increase in knowledge (rather than wisdom) is an inherent good; and that the education of students is primarily concerned with knowledge (or in the arts, with learning to be critical consumers of knowledge). But maybe it would be better to quote Orr:

All education is environmental education. By what is included or excluded, students are taught they are part or apart from the natural world. To teach economics [or social practice], for example, without reference to the laws of thermodynamics or ecology is to teach a fundamentally important ecological lesson: that physics and ecology have nothing to do with the economy. It just happens to be dead wrong.

So, in the intellectual parlor games of e-flux and other smarty pants organs of the academic-art-financial nexus we don’t find the cultivation of (via Thayer) spiritual sensitivity, gentleness, caring, compassion, or generosity. Some may bristle at the suggestion of a spiritual role in the crisis we face equating it with some sort of magical thinking, but in the downward spiral of an accelerationist embrace of an intellectual homeopathy, we find a truly absurd form of wizardry. As Orr notes, the earth has been degraded on a massive scale by the educated, by the products of a system of displacement that trains even its supposed avant garde to search for solutions in the very intellectual tools that are the cause of the problem.

An education must be rooted to be radical. As Wes Jackson has said, there is only one serious major on offer at colleges – upward mobility (be it in terms of financial, social, or cultural capital). But as generations leave their homes to become citizens of a discipline rather than citizens of a watershed, or biotic community, fundamental questions are cast aside – “who am I?” and “what should I do?” often remain, but the answer to those end up being distortions in which membership in a professional class becomes the enduring identity – I am an artist. I should make art (build a vitae).

But another question, one that provides an interlocking context for the other two – “where am I?” gets cast aside. In today’s refugee crisis we see the heartbreak of an uprooted people. Academics decry this, all the while being seemingly oblivious to their own displacement, having no home (that truly deserves such a name) of their own. They are adrift in the gig economy, in the cosmopolitan nomadism of academia, replicating “monocultures of the mind” as Vandana Shiva would put it. And like technological approaches to agriculture that apply a specialized, highly trained, expert perspective to solving an urgent issue, we are left with an illusion, not only of mastery, but of plenty. Meanwhile more and more communities are being poisoned or starved. We must abandon the rootless sky, settle upon the earth and build practices of permanence, regeneration, and love – or, you can’t have social practice without soil practice.

See also: Toward a #soilpractice + #socialpractice manifesto: ending the art system and restoring aesthetic ecology

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