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

“It seems to me that daily practice—small choices, lives well lived, mindfully and attentively lived—is the only way a just society can sustain itself.” – A world made of stories

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 11/04/2013

Out of the Wild – A conversation between William Cronon and Michael Pollan

Bill: I think you and I would both say that a traditional experience of wilderness—the kind where you’re living outdoors for an extended period, in a landscape far away from ordinary comforts—is wholly a creature of civilization. It’s an expression of certain cultural values, but it’s still a real experience. It’s still something we can use to take our compass bearings. We can still look to those values for our sense of self in these places.

Michael: I think science can give us a measure, too. When you study how nutrients cycle in a natural environment, for example, you can learn something about how to nourish soil. The study of ecosystems in their untrammeled state can teach us ways to mimic them, and that’s a really important resource for things like sustainable agriculture.

Leaving “wilderness” aside, I do think there’s this wild other —I don’t know what exactly we should call it—that has an enormous amount to teach us. I think the encounters we have with plants and animals are really useful. We learn important things about what it means to be human and what it means not to be human. There is that quality of wildness that’s essential as something to learn from, to reflect on, to measure ourselves against.

Michael: Politics come in as soon as we attempt to define “sustainability.” I think we’re contesting it right now. There are meetings going on now between environmentalists and corporate leaders about how to define the sustainability labels put on products, and that’s a fiercely political argument.

Bill: That’s right. The other trouble with sustainability is that it tends to point toward a future in which the good system is a stable system. But that’s not how history works. History is unstable. Perhaps that’s why the word resilience now gets invoked. Resilience and sustainability together are the territory in which our political and theoretical work needs to be done. We need unstable systems that nonetheless operate within a band of sustainability.

Michael: The idea of resilience—there’s an example of drawing from what we understand about natural systems.

Bill: Correct.

Michael: And there is some role for science in describing those systems and explaining how they work. I find the word useful.

Bill: I do, too.

Michael: The word is useful in many different contexts, because it links to nature qualities we like in ourselves, in our children, and in the social realm, so I think it’s very productive. But where does it come from?

Bill: Out of ecology and climate science. It emerged as more and more scientists began to believe that the effects of climate change are such that we are going to lose ecosystems that we hoped could be saved. As the larger system migrates toward its limits, the question of which systems are going to survive has become more and more compelling.

Michael: But the word also comes out of biodiversity studies, right? The idea that the more species there are in a unit of land, the more it can deal with fire, with changes in temperature, and so on? It’s an interesting measure to apply to certain things. I mean, we need words that constitute value judgments, right?

Bill: We do—so we can tell stories about them. Environmentalism at its best has been good at telling stories about the connections we don’t ordinarily see in our lives. How what we buy in a grocery store has consequences for the earth, for people, for animals. Taking responsibility for the choices we make in our daily lives: that’s one of the things environmentalism has been teaching all along.

I’d contrast it with the illusion of a transcendent leap, that if we can just embrace the cosmic good, we can have a revolutionary moment in which all is transformed. But the older I get, the more I mistrust the notion of a revolutionary leap. It seems to me that daily practice—small choices, lives well lived, mindfully and attentively lived—is the only way a just society can sustain itself. We have to make daily choices. We can’t imagine one big apocalyptic change.

Michael: Wendell Berry has this great line about distrusting people who love humanity. You can’t love an abstraction, he says. You can’t love a statistic. You can love the person near you, and your community, and your neighbors.

Bill: Use abstractions as metaphors for humanity, but stay close to people.

Michael: I think that’s true. Another very important lesson I’ve learned from Wendell Berry is about the danger of specialization, the fact that we’re now good at producing one thing and consuming everything else. The sense of dependence that follows from the division of labor makes us despair of ever changing the way we live; it encourages us to feel that change can only come from outside—from government, from disaster—because we can no longer do very much for ourselves. That partly explains the power of gardening, which offers a reminder that, in a pinch, we can provide for ourselves. That’s not a trivial thing. It makes us more receptive to imagining change.

Bill: For me, the moral lesson of the garden—and I’m agreeing with you—is that being attentive to the work of the garden leads to greater appreciation for the work that makes life possible, which involves the work of others.

Bill: Right. Ecology, storytelling, history—they all render connections visible. We make that which is invisible visible through story, and thereby reveal people’s relationships to other living things.

Michael: Stories establish canons of beauty, too. There is a role for art in changing cultural norms about what’s worth valuing. One hundred fifty years ago, certain people looked at a farm and saw what you might see if you look today at a nuclear power plant or some other degraded landscape. Part of the reason we tell stories is to create fresh value for certain landscapes, certain relationships.

Bill: And stories make possible acts of moral recognition that we might not otherwise experience. They help us see our own complicity in things we don’t ordinarily see as connected to ourselves.

Michael: Yes, exactly. That recognition can help remove the condescension in so much environmental writing by showing us that, look, these things we abhor are done in our name, and we are complicit in them, and we need to take account of them. It was Wendell Berry’s idea that the environmental crisis is a crisis of character. The big problem is the result of all the little problems in our everyday lives. That can be a guilt trip, but it doesn’t have to be. You can tell that story in ways that empower people.

Bill: Messy stories invite us into politics. They also invite us to laugh at ourselves. And those things together—the ability to laugh, to experience hope, to be inspired toward action at the personal and political levels—these strike me as the work of engaged storytelling in a world we’re trying to change for the better.

Bill: Maybe that’s a good note for us to end on, don’t you think? The poet Muriel Rukeyser once said that “the world is made of stories, not of atoms.” When we lose track of the narratives that human beings need to suffuse their lives and the world with meaning, we forget what makes the world worth saving. Telling stories is how we remember.

“Not all are called to be artists in the specific sense of the term. Yet, as Genesis has it, all men and women are entrusted with the task of crafting their own life: in a certain sense, they are to make of it a work of art, a masterpiece.”

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 10/09/2013

Beauty will Save the World – Jeffrey Bilbro

I want to reflect today on the title chosen for this gathering, “Beauty will Save the World.” That’s quite the assertion, and I don’t know if I can convincingly support it, but I’ll give it a shot. My tentative thesis today is that the best way to cultivate healthy local cultures is to celebrate their beauty. It’s not to pass laws, it’s not to develop rational or economic arguments for their benefits, it’s not to start some new program. All these might be needed subsequently, but if we don’t first bear witness to the beauty of a healthy culture, then other approaches are doomed. It’s in this way, by enabling us to see the truth and goodness of healthy way of life, that beauty will save the world. So I want to think with you about the beauty of local culture, why that beauty is important, and how to cultivate it. I’ll begin by describing a beautiful, and I think saving, activity that I’ve had the privilege of participating in this past year.

Rather, our hope is that the students and staff and faculty who participate will see and experience how beautiful it can be to grow and eat our own food. This rich, practical connection with our food is what Wendell Berry calls the pleasures of eating. These pleasures are complex, and they are nearly impossible to quantify, but if you’ve ever eaten a sandwich with tomato slices still warm from your garden, you know something of these pleasures. When you plant a seed, water it, weed around the delicate seedling, try to protect it from deer and bugs, watch it blossom and set fruit, and wait for that fruit to ripen, the act of eating the fruit is not merely an input of calories and nutrients. Rather, eating is just one part, perhaps the climax, in a whole narrative that we’ve embodied and lived out, a narrative that connects us to our fellow gardeners and to the place in which we live.

To call something beautiful in this sense is to speak about its material shape or form, and also about the meaning or splendor that emerges from the form and makes it desirable. And as von Balthasar goes on to argue, when we see a vision of the beautiful, when we see the contours of its form, we are enraptured by its splendor, caught up in a desire to participate in the radiance that beauty grants us to see as love-worthy. So to call this narrative of our community garden beautiful means that the whole way of living that the garden enables us to glimpse, in which we work together and share the fruits of this work, is desirable and love-worthy.

And yet oversimplification leading to disease marks nearly every aspect of our fragmented, modern lives. Our corporate medical system does not aim for health, but rather isolates various parts of the body and treats particular abnormalities. Hence our medical establishment has been particularly unhelpful at offering preventive care and treating complex problems such as obesity. Our monoculture agriculture is merely another instance of our propensity to isolate and specialize, and I’m not sure that our biculture of corn and soybeans here in Michigan is much of an improvement. We still don’t have complex polycultures that include animals and a true variety of plants. Such simplification works itself all the way down to our lawns, which we spray with toxic chemicals just to have “beautiful” grass.

In their false simplification, such specialized visions and the ways of life toward which they lead inevitably contribute to disease. These narrowly-focused ways of life become insipid, losing the splendor of beauty, and yet they define much of our lives as we search for quick and easy solutions. Wendell Berry notes the irony in our culture’s stereotypical view of country life as “simple,” noting that in actuality, it is urban, specialized living that is simple:

When I am called, as to my astonishment I sometimes am, a devotee of “simplicity” (since I live supposedly as a “simple farmer”), I am obliged to reply that I gave up the simple life when I left New York City in 1964 and came here. In New York, I lived as a passive consumer, supplying nearly all my needs by purchase, whereas here I supply many of my needs from this place by my work (and pleasure) and am responsible besides for the care of the place. (The Way of Ignorance, “Imagination in Place” 47-48).

My point, then, is that our culture’s tendency toward reductive specialization is intrinsically un-beautiful, that beauty arises only from complex, harmonious forms, that health is beautiful. Currently, our cultural aesthetic is, in Solzhenitsyn’s terms, sickly and pale: we too often confuse the pretty, the mere appearance, for true beauty, hence our acceptance of lush green lawns that cause water pollution. But perhaps beauty can save, or at least salve, our world by giving us a richer imagination of health and thus causing us to desire ways of life that, as von Balthasar might say, carry the splendor of truth and goodness.

How do we actually see such forms whose beauty might inspire us to find more healthy ways of living? I think there are at least two conditions for perceiving such visions of beauty. The first is that we see beauty on a local scale.

We have to be able to see the whole to perceive beauty (again, note the connection between beauty and health). Analysis of the beautiful, if it does not begin with a vision of the whole and keep this vision constantly in mind, quickly devolves into an abstract rummaging through dead parts. It becomes what von Balthasar calls “anatomy,” which “can be practiced only on a dead body, since it is opposed to the movement of life and seeks to pass from the whole to its parts and elements” (Seeing the Form 31). This is the way the “industrial mind,” a term that Berry derives from the Southern Agrarians, sees the world. Such a vision, precisely because it is too narrow and specialized, inevitably leads to disease and deformation. In his essay “Solving for Pattern,” Berry argues that solutions based on this sort of specialized vision always worsen the problem—he gives the example of addressing soil compaction by using bigger tractors, which only compact the soil further, leading to the need for even larger tractors (The Gift of Good Land 136). So while a bad solution “acts destructively upon the larger patterns in which it is contained,” “a good solution is good because it is in harmony with those larger patterns” (137). In order to see the beauty of these larger patterns, and thus perceive what modes of life would harmonize with these patterns, we need to be able to see the whole form. When we try to imagine a beautiful whole on a global or even national scale, the difficulty, if not impossibility, of this task makes the temptation to perform a quantitative analysis of isolated parts almost irresistible. And yet such a fragmented gaze can’t see the living, beautiful whole, which is precisely the form that can give us the vision of health and beauty our imagination needs.

The second condition for perceiving this vision of healing beauty is a personal experience or encounter. We don’t see the whole form of beauty when someone describes it abstractly.
I can tell you about the Sistine Chapel and describe its scheme and what the various parts depict, but you won’t really see its beauty unless you stand in it yourself. The same holds true for a Bach fugue. This is so because of the complexity and richness of beauty; there is a qualitative difference between an experience of the beautiful and an abstract description of that experience.

…Every morning the local bakery draws a group of men who drink coffee, eat pastries, and talk about the work that awaits them in the day ahead. Their conversation is punctuated by oblique references to stories they all know and by the habitual phrases of friends absent or dead. The community’s memory lives in such conversation. But it’s hard to quantify and analyze what makes this community a healthy one; merely listing its attributes does not convey the beauty of its form. We perceive its beauty as a whole, when we experience life in such a community.

…So we all need to practice creating beauty. It’s remarkable how counter-cultural this participation might be, since we now live in a society that thinks “beauty” is meant to be produced by professionals from big cities and consumed by the rest of us.

We may not all be gifted artists like Kathleen, but we can still all be involved in creating beauty. As Pope John Paul II wrote in his “Letter to Artists,” “Not all are called to be artists in the specific sense of the term. Yet, as Genesis has it, all men and women are entrusted with the task of crafting their own life: in a certain sense, they are to make of it a work of art, a masterpiece.” We all have an opportunity and a responsibility to participate in this task of culture, and our “sub-creation,” as Tolkien calls it, should be guided by the contours of the beauty we’ve perceived.

I am afraid that what often keeps us from embracing the quotidian work of sustaining the “little platoons” of which we are a part is the sense that this local work can’t affect the national and international problems over which the news media continually obsesses. But while such local work may seem futile in our current political and economic environment, it may actually be the most consistent and effective way to cultivate health, given the farce that national politics has become. This is why Berry believes that our “Our environmental problems [as well as our other diseases that afflict our society] are not, at root, political; they are cultural” (What Are People For, “A Few Words in Favor of Edward Abbey” 37). Dreher echoes this sentiment in an essay on Wendell Berry in which he considers him to be “a latter-day Saint Benedict”: “I am convinced that conservatives have placed far too much stock in political action and far too little in the work of culture” (The Humane Vision of Wendell Berry 281). Dreher hopes that Berry has begun a sort of monastic cultural movement, where instead of pouring their energy into national politics or the culture wars, individuals work to form healthy, beautiful communities in their homes. These communities might then preserve and sustain culture, providing beacons of hope that stand in stark contrast to sick society around them.

I do want to qualify this politics/culture distinction. Politics is indeed part of culture and a shaper of culture, but my point is that it shouldn’t be the primary arena in which we try to affect cultural change. Rather, fostering healthy and beautiful cultures will inspire others to participate and cultivate the communities of which they are a part. Representative democracy too often relies on the slim majority forcing everyone else to do the majority’s will, whereas culture relies on beauty to foster a robust conversation about the common good, and then to persuade others that this common good, that health, is desirable.

This distinction provides, perhaps, the clearest insight into the unique power of beauty: whereas political power ultimately relies on force, beauty simply invites others to perceive the splendor within its form. Beauty is an invitation, a gift, and thus it is always vulnerable to rejection. This is its weakness, and this is why beauty is often overlooked as a salve for our contemporary problems. But its weakness is also its strength. In our cynical world, where people are jaded by political posturing over truth and strident demands that some particular way is the only right way to live, beauty simply puts itself on offer. And if its form reveals truth and goodness, then those who behold beauty may find it love-worthy. Once our affections are moved, right action and truthful speech will follow.

Poetry demanding the discipline of attention – Slow language for fast times

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 10/07/2013

The Pleasures of Poetry in an Age of Abstraction – Tessa Carter

The time has indeed come. Amidst the Googlization of everything, it has become clear that there are some things Google cannot and ought not do. Google cannot replace a distracted student’s brain with a curious and attentive one, nor can it enhance such qualities as courage, kindness, and truth-telling.

Given the aims of a humanistic education—the intellectual formation of human beings, whether they live in the digital age or the stone age—the production of ever sleeker and shinier gadgets is, despite proclamations of revolution, largely superfluous. As Coppage suggests,

[P]erhaps purchasing one more avenue for Google Now to anticipate our every need is not educationally value-added. Perhaps, what our education system should be focused on is keeping our minds sharp and disciplined, preserving the powers of self-direction and careful attention.

The powers of self-direction and careful attention are precisely things that are cultivated through the intellectual and moral habits of individuals and their relationships with other human beings, not through the replacement of mental and physical processes with Google products. When we discover that we are serving Google rather than Google serving us, we will find the service very poor indeed.

The poet Mary Oliver once wrote, “To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.” If this is true, then our proper work may include carefully considering our use of technology and how that use shapes us, and regularly setting aside the speedy tablet to give our attention to the slow language, poetry.

Poetry is a better, though harder, master than Google. Reading poetry is a peculiarly difficult act, for it demands the devotion of body, mind, and heart. And, as Coppage points out, “There are no shortcuts,” and never will be, if poetry remains and we remain human.



A poem truly experienced is a poem that is lived with
—memorized and spoken, recalled in the morning and remembered at night, growing more precious and meaning more deeply through days of recitation and reckoning. To appreciate poetry, we need to pay attention, and it may take some time to train ourselves to take the painstaking care needed to read a poem well. But the end of our labor is joy, just as a good meal needs time to slowly simmer and at last to savor and celebrate.

Now, what has all this Luddite romanticizing have to do with education?

A whole lot, it turns out, if we’re concerned with educating human beings rather than credentialing digital natives. Language shapes the way we think, and the words we use shape our vision of the world. Poetry renews our language, re-imbuing meaning into words maltreated by sound-byte discourse and Facebook memes.

Poetry demands both precision and imagination; it plumbs the depths of meaning, whereas Google can only optimize our search for information. Google can give us words on the screen, but it is up to us to make them our own.

If, as Plato said, “The object of education is to teach us to love what is beautiful,” then let us teach ourselves to love poetry. For love requires knowledge of the deepest kind—knowledge of an entirely different order from Google analytics—and learning to love requires profoundest attention.

Against (only) epistemological art – Sue Bell Yank’s The Constructivist Artwork

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 10/03/2013

“We must shift from a vision of intelligence, as a basically neutral cognitive ability, to a holistic vision of intelligence as an ability that nurtures the human spirit and enables a person’s full realization. Intelligence and love of life in this vision go hand in hand.” – Ramón Gallegos

“As Dewey says, ‘It is not experience which is experienced, but nature – stones, plants, animals, diseases, health, temperature, electricity, and so on.’ My valuing experience of an act of injustice as wrong is about value that I find in the same world where I also find plants and stones. To dismiss the importance of valuing in inquiry because it is merely subjective or a mere psychological reaction is to assume a dualism or to presuppose the supremacy of the theoretical standpoint in revealing what is real.” – Gregory Pappas

So much can be said about Sue Bell Yank’s post The Constructivist Artwork that it is difficult for me to address everything. Her piece is quite welcome as it raises many interesting questions. The quotes above hint at the crux of my response. Pragmatism, in many ways nullifies many of the “problems” posed by Yank. To start, the distinction between idealism and constructivism can be pragmatically useful, but the pragmatist believes that ideas are things, so they are as much a part of the world as ice cream. Pragmatism also preaches meliorism (which is essentially the belief that life can be improved) so it is not truth in any final sense that is sought, but a truth that “works.” Pragmatism, as William James describes it is “radical empiricism.” In his pragmatist version of empiricism, contra Locke, and Plato, the fact/value distinction (like so many others) dissolves. So if we apply some of these points of view to the piece by Yank, we see that she is correct that “constructivism is inevitable.” But, so is idealism, because the two epistemological nodes are part of a continuum.

This requires a holistic point of view to adequately address and leads to one of the difficulties with this piece. It suffers from a one dimensional understanding of what knowledge is and mistakes education as being solely concerned with this limited (intellectualist) notion of knowledge. As Gallegos points out above, knowledge and intelligence needn’t be the purely cognitive type of material Yanks seems to imply. She says, “But often, experiences that are novel and rich with ideas have an educational “potential” and therefore a position on how we acquire knowledge and what that body of knowledge is.” Note that she describes experiences rich with ideas. This point of view is similar to the proponents of academic standards in schools (which functions in somewhat the same way as Yank describes “museums, art spaces, and funding entities” engaging in.). It mistakes that which can be measured for that which is valuable. So I’m left with making two suggestions – one, is to expand what counts as knowledge, or two, advocate for art practices that do more than engage the mind. Holistic educators are a rich source of guidance here (see Nel Noddings, Ron Miller, etc.). Without this adjustment, we’re stuck in the art world academics want – one that cultivates their own specialist skills and interests rather than an art world that cultivates thinking, yes, but also joy, love, and the soul.

“Loyal to our critical principles, we can barely squeak out the slenderest of affirmations. Fearful of living in dreams and falling under the sway of ideologies, we have committed ourselves to disenchantment…What we need, therefore, is to rethink our educational self-image and subordinate the critical moment to a pedagogy that encourages the risks of love’s desire.” – R.R. Reno

“The solution to a bad dream isn’t to argue yourself into a better dream, but to wake up and look at the world—then laugh or cry or be bored.”

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 09/30/2013

Excursions with Edward F. Mooney Part III: Whirling, Living, Dancing – Dean Dettloff

All this is far from “how to” advice. I think we improvise our way into what becomes a life, and that means listening to the last two notes we played, as well as knowing some basics: Am I any good on the sax? Should I stick to drums? Am I paying attention to what the rest of the ensemble is doing? And there are other questions. How do I discover a leaning, a capability, a pleasure, a calling? John Rawls talks misleadingly of “life plans”—I suppose this is on the model of “investment plans” or “career plans.” My mind doesn’t work that way. I can’t put down general “learning objectives” for my classes. I don’t have a life plan for my life, and don’t know what my long term objectives are (if I have any). If something goes bad, I have something to say. But I don’t start with a plan or desire for specific outcomes—except in the most platitudinous sense: stay healthy, don’t starve, be a mensch. In class, if asked for an overall aim, I’d say “get to love these issues, texts, figures, passages. Praise what you love. Get comfortable sharing your growing interests and loves as you ramble or stumble through the whirl, eye ready for sudden insight, sudden center.”

A recent magazine piece (maybe in the Guardian?) by Wittgenstein’s biographer, Ray Monk reflects on Wittgenstein’s collection of photographs. There’s a connection between looking at the photos collected and Wittgenstein’s emphasis on looking — rather than explaining. In a parody, we could say that philosophers explain-explain-explain. They can forget to just look at the world, or flow with it, or listen to it (like listening to music). Wittgenstein thinks that philosophy is not a set of theories, one of which may be correct. Nor is it a set of bad theories about to be replaced, thank God, by the good theory I’ve just concocted. Enlightened as I surely am, I hereby stop this proliferation of error by announcing the truth. (It’s nice to fantasize omniscience.)

Wittgenstein thinks philosophies are symptoms of unhappiness, of verbal and intellectual confusion, of anxieties that are nearly inescapable. (Don’t we really, really, need to understand?) But maybe these inescapable worries are rather unreal, like a bad dream—real enough in the moment, and troubling, but forgettable when you awake and can so easily change the subject. The solution to a bad dream isn’t to argue yourself into a better dream, but to wake up and look at the world—then laugh or cry or be bored. Whatever your reaction after fresh contact, you’d no longer worry about whether the world exists, or whether feelings are always dangerous and unreliable, or whether moral relativity is true or false. You’d soak up the morning, act as you act, and solve your daily problems the way most persons do—one by one, with a minimum of ‘theory’ directing them. So…stop explaining. Just look! That’s Wittgenstein’s advice. Acknowledge your confusion, but the aim is to move into life—join the dance!

Wittgenstein had a deep interest in religion, in Tolstoy, Goethe, and Kierkegaard: he wrote, echoing a bit of Kierkegaard, “faith is a passion; wisdom, like cool grey ash.” He carried Tolstoy’s Gospel in Brief to the trenches during WWI, and read from it every day. His Investigations is like a maze or storm at sea or series of unsolvable puzzles, full of almost biblical enigmas. You might say it holds both that human life has no Ground, no big foundation in logic or a rock-solid God, Science or Reason, and that it nevertheless has all the (God-given?) ground it needs—in overlooked aspects of life: the smile of a child, the rise of the sun, the sound of a clarinet, or a call to prayer from a minaret. To feel that, to live from it, would be something like leading a life of faith, being grounded in it. “All theory is grey, my friend, but ah, the glad golden tree of life is green.” Yes, that’s good, but not quite Wittgenstein. For him, theory might be “cool grey ash” but life was too polychromatic, including shades of black, to qualify as golden or green. In any case, it’s not just too much theory that makes for what he called “the darkness of the times”—his and ours. In his 1929 Notebook he writes enigmatically, “What is good is also divine.” He refused ashes. He could imbibe good: “Tell them I’ve had a wonderful life.”

I know that’s not a ringing conclusion, but it needn’t be reason for disappointment or angst. Except in rare instances, it’s not a well-plotted research program that culminates in definitive findings, conclusions, and closure. It’s a register of deep wonder and yearning. If that’s right, then philosophy will be always asking, no matter what, and always opening an impoverished agenda, and always improvising its way.

[from the LeisureArts archive] – Gambling in Reno, Some Notes on a Social Practices “Field Trip”

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 09/20/2013

Gambling in Reno, Some Notes on a Social Practices “Field Trip” – Published in Revelry and Risk: Approaches to Social Practice, or Something Like That (2007)

“After the conference papers are over, we go slumming in their bars.”

Like many things in my life, this essay begins somewhat obliquely. The above quote is from Richard Shusterman’s Pragmatist Aesthetics: Living Beauty, Rethinking Art. He’s writing about what comes to count as legitimate experience in the professional world of philosophy and literary theory. For an experience to count in these domains it has to take an institutionally recognizable form as a conference, a paper, or a book. This same question of legitimacy plagues the professional art world – roughly analogous substitutions might be exhibitions, works, and projects. Shusterman writes that we are impoverished by academic practices “…[which fail] to recognize the value of non-professional responses which seek neither interpretive truth nor publishable novelty but simply enriched experience [emphasis mine], experience which may perhaps be communicated in writing but does not need to be to count as legitimate and meaningful.” When one engages in such non-professional practices, when one goes “slumming” in Reno, you run the risk of academic oblivion.

How does “enriched experience” find articulation? Does this essay enhance or undermine the experience of our field trip? How do you provide enough of a structure for something to become legible without allowing the structure to be the only thing that’s experienced? Perhaps these considerations are central to social practices, or maybe this is merely my conceit. My interest has always led me to teeter as far on the edge of evanescence as possible – allowing, for example, the trip to Reno to live or die in the memories of my fellow travelers rather than making a video, or taking photos, or creating a Jeremy Deller like travel guide.

This essay may undermine this anti-ambition, but it can at least specify that no guide book is possible for the trip. It was a singularity comprised of a specific set of people at a specific moment in time. This is not to say that fruitful discussion/interpretation cannot take place, but if the trip was “successful,” discussion, documentation, and exhibition, would never adequately capture its complexity. This is dangerous territory. I’m sounding awfully “arty.”

Perhaps there’s little else you need to know about the trip other than the fact that it was bookended by free appetizers when we arrived in Reno, and sage cheddar cheese on crackers on our way home in the white mini-van. Perhaps that is all you can know unless you were there. It was never a “project,” but it was something more than spontaneous revelry, although that happened too. Above all, it was a gamble.

I’ve gambled with others in Reno before, in more and less serious ways. Neil Young has indirectly asked – Tell Me Why Only Love Breaks Your Heart? To this I can only offer the corniest of replies – love is a gamble, and that gamble, if it is to have any meaning at all, must have failure as one of its real possibilities. Without the risk of losing everything, gambling/love is just another game, one hardly worth playing. Maybe my deepest ambition for social practices and the art/life tension it embodies for me, is that it too is a game worth playing, something more than a profession, something more than a series of projects, a game with something tragic at stake – something that could break your heart…

Mark T. Mitchell – The Art of Attention – Stewardship and Cosmopolitan Neglect

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 03/01/2013

Liberal Education, Stewardship, and the Cosmopolitan Temptation – Mark T. Mitchell

When speaking of the proper care for the natural world, the word that best describes our efforts is stewardship. Stewards are care-takers. They lovingly guide, protect, and cultivate that which is under their care. In the language of stewardship the concepts of indebtedness, gratitude, love, and responsibility all find their proper places. But it is not only in the context of the natural world that the concept of stewardship has meaning. When we examine the topic of liberal education the idea of stewardship is indispensable. For as inheritors of a civilization, we are its stewards. And because the gifts of civilization are tender plants requiring constant nourishment, our task as stewards requires perseverance, courage, and, ultimately, faith that succeeding generations will take up the mantle when we are no longer able to bear it.

It is, in the end, impossible seriously to engage the great tradition without cultivating the habit (or is it the art?) of attention. Tocqueville notes that the habit of inattention is the greatest vice of democracy. This vice is exponentially more pervasive in an age where email, text messaging, Tweets, and YouTube are only a click away. Learning to attend carefully is, perhaps, one of our culture’s greatest needs. Paying attention requires self-control. We must learn to listen before we speak and think before we act. These habits are essential for self-government.

But with all this, there is at the heart of much writing about liberal education a sort of cosmopolitan temptation that, ultimately, does a disservice to the concept of stewardship. When proponents of liberal education describe it as the attempt to grasp the whole, they are partially right, but if we do not continue with the acknowledgment that the whole is grasped via particulars and that, as human creatures, we necessarily inhabit only a small and particular part of the whole, we are missing something crucial.

If a liberal education teaches a person to love abstraction, to relish the exchange of universal ideas of justice, charity, and beauty, yet to be inattentive to the neighbor down the street or the beauty of a well-tended garden, then something has gone wrong. Such an education is suited to abstract beings who naturally belong in no particular place and have none of the senses by which particular beauty or empathy can be experienced. Such an education is, in other words, not fit for human beings.

In other words, a liberal education should teach students how to be human beings and how to live in some particular place. If a course of education cultivates a hatred for home, it has failed. If it cultivates a dissatisfaction with the local, particular, and the provincial in favor of distant, abstract places where cosmopolitanism drowns out the loveliness and uniqueness of local customs, practices, stories, and songs, then the education has failed. To be well-educated is to be educated to live well in a particular place. It is to acknowledge the creatureliness of one’s existence and thereby to recognize our many debts of gratitude and the scale proper to a human life. A successful liberal education cultivates stewards who are disposed to love their places and who are equipped to tend them well.

Some social practice thinking out loud inspired by Edward Mooney and first posted on facebook

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 11/01/2012

This is just a quick reaction to reading Edward Mooney’s Lost Intimacy in American Thought. Mooney is actually writing mostly about philosophy but it is easy to extrapolate his thinking to art. The quotes below are from him (except the Cavell). Extensive notes from Lost Intimacy will find their way into subsequent posts soon-ish and I might even riff on it and social practice a bit more…

Social practice fails, or undermines its potency precisely to the degree that is a public gesture and thus Claire Bishop is right that such practices are inadequate, but wrong to think that it can succeed in the terms she sets for it…it is the ability to enter convivial relationships that give social practices their power and that ability will not be found in DISCOURSE, but “…in a heartfelt acknowledgement of multiple and mutual dependencies enacted in intimate contexts of exchange far from public forums of legalistic or philosophical debate.”

Perhaps social practice needs to embrace “pushing back poetically” against critics like Bishop, those cynical skeptics…while it is certainly possible (and easy) to critique and engage the conceptual shortcomings of her work, you simply can’t argue your way to victory…the skeptic’s failure is not a failure of knowledge or argumentation (although it sort of is with Bishop), but a failure “of affirmation, or acknowledgment – a failure of love.” At some point you either take a leap of faith or you don’t.

“To live in the face of doubt, eyes happily shut, would be to fall in love with the world. For if there is a correct blindness, only love has it. And if you find that you have fallen in love with the world, then you would be ill-advised to offer an argument of its worth.” – Stanley Cavell

Perhaps rather than refute, one should simply set aside. “Pushing back poetically is not pushing with argument or doctrine but with simple lines and longer narratives.” To this I would also add pushing with embodiment, experience, and ecstasy.

This is a much more hyperbolic approach to the same theme.

The Solidity of the Insubstantial – Kathleen Dean Moore

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 09/27/2012

Concrete Footing: On the solidity of the insubstantial – Kahthleen Dean Moore

This is what breaks our hearts, we soft beings who desperately love what is destined to disappear – our own lives, the singing substantiality of our daughters and sons, the spans of city bridges.

…We stand on time and sand. We stand on truth. Waiting for the bus, we stand on forests of sea lilies flattened into streets. What is durable? The shadow of a roofline cast on a concrete wall. A memory of the swallows that once slid down the rising air above a city street. A yearning for the child who long ago walked out the door. The tube of emptiness inside a pipe. The smell of dust in silent light. Can we find the beauty in fleeting moments, held in the conscious mind? If not, all our loves will be sorrows. And all our astonishments will be overwhelmed by regret, that these wonders cannot last forever.

Philosophy, a Living Practice – Grace, Place, and the Natural World – Kathleen Dean Moore – The Ecology of Love

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 07/05/2012

Words will never describe my love for Kathleen Dean Moore.

A Weakened World Cannot Forgive Us: An Interview with Kathleen Dean Moore – Derrick Jensen

Jensen: Immersion doesn’t occur overnight. It takes a long time to get to know a place, and for it to get to know you.

Moore: That’s especially true given the separations that characterize our contemporary Western lives. We don’t lead lives of “quiet desperation,” as Thoreau claimed. We lead lives of relentless separation – comings and goings, airport embraces, loneliness, locked doors, notes left by the phone. And the deepest of all those divides is the one that separates us from the places we inhabit. Everywhere I go, I encounter people who have come from someplace else and left behind their knowledge of that land. Universities, which should study connections, specialize in distinctions instead. Biologists in their laboratories forget that they are natural philosophers. Philosophers themselves pluck ideas out of contexts, like worms out of holes, and hold them dangling and drying in the bright light. We lock ourselves in our houses and seal the windows and watch nature shows on tv. We don’t go out at night unless we have mace, or in the rain without a Gore-Tex jacket. No wonder we forget that we are part of the natural world, members of a natural community. If we are reminded at all, it’s only by a sense of dislocation and a sadness we can’t easily explain.

…if philosophy is concerned with big, abstract ideas, then it must be di-vorced from the details of our lives. I believe that is a huge mistake. If philosophy is about big ideas, then it must be about how we live our lives. If I find out what a human being is, to borrow Socrates’ example, then I will know what makes one human life worth living.

Most philosophers work in isolation on little intellectual islands, and when people live in isolation for a few generations, they start to speciate, develop their own languages, and twitter in words that only they can understand.

People are desperate for the kind of insights philosophers can provide. When I speak to fisheries biologists, or wetland managers, or conservation groups, they are all looking for someone to articulate the worldviews and values that can help us make sound decisions. Scientists can tell us how to save wild salmon, for example, but it’s up to philosophers and others to tell us why we should. The values, the moral imperatives, the framing ideas – all these are missing from the public debate, in part because philosophers are too busy publishing arcane tracts that no one but a tenure committee will ever read.

Jensen: Why is it so hard for philosophers to write about real-life issues?

Moore: I think part of the problem has to do with striving for a specific kind of clarity and certainty. It took me probably twenty years to realize how steep a price philosophers have paid for this peculiar clarity. The first thing to go was the philosopher as a person. By writing always about ideas and never about themselves, philosophers became disembodied authorities with no past, no future, no reason for wondering, or even for living.

What happened then is that the range of possible subjects narrowed: the things one can write most clearly about are also the simplest, and nothing in real life is simple. So the philosophers I met in graduate school wrote about such pure, slick-surfaced ideas as truth and consistency, but not about home, not about landscape, not about parents, not about fish.

Jensen: I would like a philosophy that teaches me how to live: How can I be a better person? How can I live my life more fruitfully, more happily, more relationally?

Moore: These are traditionally the most significant philosophical questions, but they’ve been washed off the surface of philosophy by the twentieth century.

It’s a failure of courage, I think. Real-life issues are messy and ambiguous and contradictory and tough. But their complexity should be a reason to engage them, not a reason to turn away. The word clarity has two meanings: one ancient, the other modern. In Latin, clarus meant “clear sounding, ringing out,” so in the ancient world, clear came to mean “lustrous, splendid, radiant.” The moon has this kind of clarity when it’s full. But today that usage is obsolete. Now clear has a negatively phrased definition: “without the dimness or blurring that can obscure vision, without the confusion or doubt that can cloud thought.” For probably twenty years, I thought that this modern kind of clarity was all there was; that what I should be looking for as a philosopher was sharp-edged, single-bladed truth; that anything I couldn’t understand precisely wasn’t worth thinking about. Now I’m beginning to understand that the world is much more interesting than this.

…to lead a moral life we have to acknowledge the depth and complexity of our ties to our natural communities – our own experience of caring for those communities, and the value we place on caring. And we must commit ourselves to acts that grow out of love. Aldo Leopold said, “Sing our love for the land and our obligation to it.” It’s amazing how quickly obligation follows on the heels of love.

What is called for are not just acts of enlightened self-interest, but acts that grow from our connections and acknowledge the worth of the land we care for so deeply. The right act isn’t the one that makes us happiest as individuals. The right act is the one that strengthens and reknits the web of relationships, and so tends, as Leopold said, “to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty” of the community.

Figuring out what’s right in any given instance isn’t easy. You have to learn about your natural communities – how things fit together, what makes communities flourish, what weakens their bonds. You have to study what one might call “the ecology of love.”

Jensen: What is the relationship between love and the natural world?

Moore: I’m always surprised when a nature writer describes going off alone to commune with nature. That way of relating to nature is all about isolation, and I don’t have much patience with it. To me, that’s not what being in nature is about at all.

In my life, the natural world has always been a way of connecting with people – my children, my husband, my friends. The richness of my experience in the natural world translates immediately into richer relationships with people.

I think one of the most romantic and loving things you can say to another person is “Look.” There is a kind of love in which two people look at each other, but I don’t think it’s as interesting as the love between two people standing side by side and looking at something else that moves them both.

Let’s think about this in terms of what we were saying about memory and identity: If we are our memories, then to the extent that two people share memories, they become one person. The whole notion of the joining of souls that’s supposed to happen in marriage may come down to those times when we say, “Look,” to our partner, so the two of us can capture a memory to hold in common.

 

Against Cosmopolitanism – Mark T. Mitchell – Rootedness vs. Restlessness – Wendell Berry

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 06/19/2012

The Unmaking and Making of Community – Mark T. Mitchell

Skepticism about transcendent reality tends to lead in the direction of philosophical materialism, and philosophical materialism in our age has opened the door to the more general materialism of consumerism…Home tends to become merely a launching place for economic and hedonistic endeavors, and individuals tend to lose any abiding concern for the long-term future of the local community. In such a setting, any notion of community membership, which evokes ideas of commitment and loving concern over a lifetime, is replaced by the much narrower concerns for personal affluence and individual pleasure.

…a healthy local community comprises particular people inhabiting a particular place and sharing local customs, activities, and stories. In short, they participate in a complex web of relations that are flavored by the particular history, geography, and culture of that place. When we describe a local community in those terms, it becomes clear how a massive national community is simply an impossible ideal. Even more fanciful is the notion of a world community. To be sure, because we share a common nature and many common needs and desires, we can empathize with and render aid to humans from radically different communities. But the cosmopolitan ideal that one can be a “citizen of the world” is only imaginable if we strip down the rich notion of community to mean something like “the brotherhood of man.” The idea of universal brotherhood is appealing and, as far as it goes, it is true, but abstract brotherhood is not the same as living in a local community with men and women of flesh and blood… it may be easier to love the world than to love our neighbor. Ultimately, when love for a particular place and the people inhabiting that place are lost, community is lost as well. Love itself becomes an abstraction.

But though the temptation to stay at arm’s length, to inhabit a place with ironic detachment, is alluring, the implications for a robust and healthy local community are grave. Indeed, if a critical mass of such people occupy a certain place, they are merely a collection of individuals rather than a community. They are mere residents and not stewards. In such a situation, local stories and traditions that are only kept alive in the telling and the practice are lost. But these are the very things that provide context and meaning to our social lives. They provide us with guidelines for acting together. They are the source of manners and customs that make life in a community possible. With the loss of common traditions and shared stories, we lose the cues that help us navigate a particular local world.

…[Wendell] Berry argues that a meaningful community must include the ideas of rootedness and human scale. “By community, I mean the commonwealth and common interests, commonly understood, of people living together in a place and wishing to continue to do so. To put it another way, community is a locally understood interdependence of local people, local culture, local economy, and local nature.” Berry identifies the corrosion of flourishing communities as the result of an excessive individualism that places rights ahead of responsibilities and economic gain ahead of meaningful and durable relationships—relationships with neighbors, with local customs and practices, with the land itself. As he puts it, “if the word community is to mean or amount to anything, it must refer to a place (in its natural integrity) and its people. It must refer to a placed people….The modern industrial urban centers are ‘pluralistic’ because they are full of refugees from destroyed communities, destroyed community economies, disintegrated local cultures, and ruined local ecosystems.” Ultimately, according to Berry, “a plurality of communities would require not egalitarianism and tolerance but knowledge, an understanding of the necessity of local differences, and respect. Respect, I think, always implies imagination—the ability to see one another, across our inevitable differences, as living souls.”

 

Ramón Gallegos – Holistic Education

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 04/30/2012

“If a nation, through its schools, its child-welfare policies, and its competitiveness, fails to nurture self-knowledge, emotional health, and democratic values, then ultimately economic success will be undermined by a moral collapse of society.”

“Holistic education is both secular and religious education in the true and original sense of these concepts. The problem arises when secularism is interpreted in scientistic terms and religion is interpreted in dogmatic terms. In scientism any non-scientific knowledge is rejected as false or inappropriate in an educational setting. So when a child asks ‘Who am I?’ or ‘What is death?’ the false secularism or scientism disregards the questions due to their lack of academic or scientific context…these are the questions that encourage the child to learn…These fundamental questions are the real teachers…”

“Holistic intelligence acknowledges the limitations of thought…It is a creative process that has more in common with wisdom than with knowledge. It is the ability to make distinctions and in that way recognize responsible action. It is unconditionally connected to human values. Indeed, it is not possible to separate intelligence from love, compassion, liberty, gratitude, respect, humility, solidarity, friendship, and honesty.. Intelligence is an unfolding of one’s comprehension of the value of all life and of all human beings. A scientist working for war or a politician who destroys thousands of lives is not intelligent. They may be astute, efficient, and skillful, but they are stupid: They do not know themselves.”

“We must shift from a vision of intelligence, as a basically neutral cognitive ability, to a holistic vision of intelligence a an ability that nurtures the human spirit and enables a person’s full realization. Intelligence and love of life in this vision go hand in hand.”

“…one cannot become a full person simply through cognitive development and analytical processes.”

“…the crisis of today is not one of technology or machines. It is a crisis in relations between human beings. It is a crisis in our sense of meaning.”

– Ramón Gallegos in Holistic Education: Pedagogy of Universal Love

Douglas Sloan – Insight-Imagination

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 04/03/2012

“An education in which skills, narrow intellect, and information have no connection with insight, imagination, feeling, beauty, conscience, and wonder and that systematically evades all engagement with the great, central issues and problems of human life, is a wasteland.”

“…an exquisitely stupid cleverness adept at taking the world apart with no grasp of what it is doing, nor apparent concern.”

“An adequate conception of education, an education of imagination, will always strive for that way of knowing which springs from the participation of the person as a total, willing, feeling, valuing, thinking being- a way of knowing that leads to the wisdom in living that makes personal life truly possible and worthy. It will have as its prime purpose, as its ground and aim, the complete, harmonious realization of the full capacities and potential of the individual as a whole person. Any conception of education that arises from some other or lesser concern or that fastens on a partial or isolated aspect of the total person will finally abort, delivering only fragments of persons and figments in place of reality. And by its nature, such a lesser education cannot avoid serving purposes that will be basically nonhuman and ultimately inhuman.”

[quoting David Bohm] “…insight is not restricted to great scientific discoveries or to artistic creations, but rather it is of critical importance in everything we do, especially in the affairs of ordinary life.”

“Rather than the sense of self indweling and sustained by a living and meaningful world in which the boundaries between self and world, self and other, are not sharp but flow and merge into one another, the modern experience has been increasingly that of a self separated sharply from other selves, and detached from nature, standing as a self-enclosed subject over against nature as object.” [the critical academic expert is exemplary]

“…chronological snobbery and temporal provincialism that so constrict the modern mind set.”

[and this especially on the academically ‘gifted’] “Those who display the requisite intellectual skills are singled out as special for their proficiency in the use of an aspect of mind that has no intrinsic relationship to the art of living well as persons…Most have been ill equipped by their education to live well as persons, to find delight in friendship and love, in the joys of sound and touch and color…”

– Douglas Sloan in Insight-Imagination: The Emancipation of Thought and the Modern World

Miranda Lambert – Ephemerality

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 04/02/2012

Me and Charlie boy used to go walking
Sittin in the woods behind my house
When bein’ lovers meant a stolen kiss
And holding hands with nobody else around
Charlie said he wanted to get married
But we were only ten so we’d have to wait
He said we’d never let our love run dry
Like so many do these days

So we treat our love like a firefly
Like it only gets to shine for a little while
Catch it in a mason jar
With holes in the top
And run like hell to show it off
Oh promises we made when we’d go walkin
That’s just me and Charlie talking

Charlie always said he’d like to leave here
So he turned 18 and left our sleepy town
Letters came and went and I kept waiting
For Charlie to come back
And bring the life he’d found
Funny how time and distance change you
The road you take
Don’t always lead you home
You can start a love with good intentions
And you look up and it’s gone

So you treat your love like a firefly
Like it only gets to shine for a little while
Catch it in a mason jar
With holes in the top
And run like hell to show it off
Oh promises we made when we’d go walkin’
That’s just me and Charlie talking

Now and then I sometimes think of Charlie
How we thought we knew it all back then
Now I’d give anything to feel love
From a child’s heart again

So you treat your love like a firefly
Like it only gets to shine for a little while
Catch it in a mason jar
With holes in the top
And run like hell to show it off
Oh promises we made when we’d go walkin
That’s just me and Charlie
Me and Charlie talking

– Miranda Lambert “Me and Charlie Talking”

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The “Great Man” Syndrome – Everyday Heroism

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 03/05/2010

I was recently reminded about having clipped out a letter written in response to an article (about William F. Buckley Jr. )  in the New York Times Magazine (5/09). The letter writer (Al Larkin of Milton, MA) expresses, more eloquently than I am capable of, his reservations about the “Great Man” syndrome. The tenor of his letter resonates with my abiding interest in “ordinary” people, and “ordinary” achievements. The letter [emphasis mine]:

I have long been a fan of both Buckleys — William F. Jr. and Christopher. However, the younger, in writing about the elder, has proved again that a son should think twice before writing publicly about his father. It is always a complicated relationship, and to blame William F. Buckley Jr.’s parental shortcomings — and some of them were simply astonishing — on the ”Great Man” syndrome does an injustice to the average guy who works two jobs, pays the bills and still finds time to coach his kid’s Little League team. If only he were ”Greater”: he could justifiably skip the ballgames, the hospitalizations and the graduations. And who could blame him? Worse, for those unfortunate kids stuck with paternal miscreants who don’t also happen to be Great Men, is there any convenient way for them to explain their plight? I agree that the elder Buckley was a great man. But I prefer the story of my mother, who never wrote a book or appeared on a television show but raised six happy children. At her funeral, someone described her as ”an extraordinary woman who lived a very ordinary life.” She was, in other words, a great mom.

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Draft of a manifesto written in defense of a group of people that did not ask for my defense, using words they would not use and engaging people they ignore.

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 01/19/2010

[descending into Mobile, AL – turbulence – warming sunlight a pale stripe against a cloud tundra]

The resistance to being theorized, examined, abstracted…isn’t this a basic sort of dignity?

We are not your intellectual playthings. Perhaps you see something publishable, a critical opportunity, but we reject your representation and demand our autonomy. We might not have read your recent darlings (Rancière, Agamben, etc.), but you have not lived our lives either. We refuse to meet on your terms within your own idioms – prejudged by your theoretical dogmas.

While you wring hands over what it all means, we are trying to change the world, build relationships and communities. Are we naive? Possibly. We prefer a world of naive dreamers to cynical observers. Keep your beloved “criticality.” Hold it close to your heart and tell us what you feel. We are friends, not “colleagues” and we choose to embrace humane values and each other. We offer a different vision. Against the professional hegemony of academic intellectualism we offer – trust, love, sentiment, passion, egalitarianism and sincerity.

We won’t live our lives in “quotes” and think being thought silly is preferable to the safety (and cowardice) of the knowing wink. In short, we reject the antiseptic posturing of the theoretical class. We welcome the messiness of lived human experience – all the stuff that resists intellectual appropriation and is routinely dismissed as petty, mundane, insignificant.

We are gamblers, believing in the value of risking everything for the sake of our “foolish” dreams and schemes.

Feel free to stand aside and critique yourself into a corner, into passivity, but save your elitist judgments for your fellow bibliographic temple builders…your heartless (and gutless) intellectual fundamentalism is not welcome here.

Tiger Woods – Love – Agnès Poirier

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 12/10/2009

“Without risk there can be no passion. Philosophers know that, beyond golf, romance is under threat”

“If this saga proves one thing, it is not Woods’s “malice”, but that love is threatened by the world’s two leading ideologies: libertarianism and liberalism. These two 21st-century diseases concur to make us believe that love is a risk not worth taking: as if we could have, on one hand, a safe conjugality; and on the other, sexual arrangements that will spare us the dangers of passion. Both are illusions.” from an article by Agnès Poirier here.

Risk, passion, love – something I wrote about at LeisureArts re: social practice in this post: Social Practice – Revelry and Risk – Art/Life

Love – Education – R.R. Reno

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 06/10/2009

“Loyal to our critical principles, we can barely squeak out the slenderest of affirmations. Fearful of living in dreams and falling under the sway of ideologies, we have committed ourselves to disenchantment…What we need, therefore, is to rethink our educational self-image and subordinate the critical moment to a pedagogy that encourages the risks of love’s desire.”  – R.R. Reno

Carl Wilson – Love – Criticism

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 02/11/2009

Some quotes on criticism from Let’s Talk About Love by Carl Wilson:

“A few people have asked me, isn’t life too short to waste time on art you dislike? But lately I feel like life is too short not to.”

“I cringe when I think about what a subcultural snob I was five or ten years ago, and worse in my teens and twenties, how vigilant I was against being taken in – unaware that I was also refusing an invitation out. In retrospect, this experiment seems like a last effort to purge that insularity, so that the next phase might happen in a larger world, one beyond the horizon of my habits. For me, adulthood is turning out to be about becoming democratic.”

“The kind of contempt that’s mobilized by ‘cool’ taste is inimical…to an aesthetics that might support a good public life.”

“I would be relieved to have fewer debates over who is right or wrong about music, and more that go, “Wow, you hate all the music I like and I hate all the music you like. What might we make of that?”

What would criticism be like if it were not foremost trying to persuade people to find the same things great…It might…offer something more like a tour of an aesthetic experience, a travelogue, a memoir.”

“…a more pluralistic criticism might put less stock in defending its choices and more in depicting its enjoyment, with all the messiness and private soul tremors – to show what it is like for me to like it, and invite you to compare.”