Saturday, October 04, 2014

Slow down, Look, Listen, Breathe: Kvetching about Vexations and Thinking about Seven Generations (or, no wait, have you seen this funny meme?): On Hyperbole, Faking It, Lying, etc.

My tumblr project, Book of Lots, has continued to produce fruitful thinking for me. Producing posts virtually every day has meant paying both more and closer attention to the internet and to the behaviours, ideas, and practices that our virtual world facilitates, makes possible, and, often, exacerbates. As wondrous as is the access to so much information, the feeling grows in me that the internet is making us less smart, less compassionate, less kind, less human. It is also, along with numerous new phenomena, both shrinking our horizons and accelerating our attention-spans (making ADHD a cultural norm).

I wrote most of this article in early June 2014 but found myself overtaken by events in my life and, in addition to having to set aside this piece, also found it impossible to sustain my tumblr project to which i am returning  after four months. I’ve yet to determine if i can maintain good, creative focus. The exigencies of life (including, especially, the care of two young souls) are both constant and, at the moment, severely intensified. Which tends to make me still more cranky about the vexations about which i write below as well as more deeply needful of the ethic of seven generations which i am both contrasting with the velocity of our digital world and advocating for as something we need to take more seriously.

I received, sometime in July, a disturbing promotional email that announced access to thousands of books from a major publisher for a mere $8.99 a month which works out to $108 per year (before tax). Damn! It makes me remember that i have access to 11 million items (Books, eBooks, CDs, DVDs, and more) from the Toronto Public Library. With 99 branches across the city, you’re never far from one of them (in the inner city you’re almost always within easy walking distance of one or more). I’d sooner pay $100 more in taxes if i knew it would go to the library. I recognize the convenience of digitally available books and appreciate the lessening of pressure on paper production. But i also see an intensification of individuals being isolated even amidst neighbours and fellow citizens. There is little to no social interaction in searching, paying for, and downloading a digital book. The library, even though increasingly automated, is a social environment. And i am heartened to see how busy our local branch is at all times.  

Anyway, kvetching about books and libraries aside, my blogging has made more clear to me the host of new-ish practices sweeping through our lives, none of which are doing anything to challenge the ubiquitous injustice, inequity, and violence of the world we have made. Some are seemingly benign, many of them annoying, and a few are outright malignant. But all of them are part of the subtle machineries of oppressive hegemonic common-sense-rule to which we all make ourselves so compliant.

I suppose what i’m trying to figure out is just what constitutes ethical practice in this conjuncture of neoliberal capitalist hegemony, global environmental crisis, and the hyperbolic growth of digital/broadcast media (including, of course, the time and energy we devote to it). Applying Foucault’s notion of technologies of the self, i see connections amongst many practices, ideas, and behaviours that i can’t quite, as yet, resolve into clear focus.  But perhaps in writing about it i can.

Here i am applying two technologies of the self - the immediate one of writing this critical reflection. And also the documentation of my “cultural consumption” through this tumblr blog. This documentation is also a process of cultural production. And it is this “production” practice/disposition that i think is key and that i am wanting to theorize more in terms of being able to propose such production as an essential act of freedom (in the Freirian sense) and a key component of trickster pedagogy.

Vexations and the War for Clicks

Perhaps the most noticeable and pervasive irritant is the use of hyperbole and exaggeration to entice you to click on something. Everything is “the most amazing,” “i’ve never seen anything like this,” “you’ll never believe what…” It’s an endless sea of hyperbolic mediocrity. Given the overwhelming nature of consuming numerous, always escalating data feeds i can see that people have inflated their use of adjectives and splashy headlines - reflecting the worst-learned lessons of tabloid journalism. The effect, of course, of this overuse of click-baiting, exclamatory language is to dilute it all to a meaningless murmur of white noise. It’s a war for clicks. Which is, perhaps, a low-point in the history of our struggle to solicit each others’ attention.

Another vexation is share-pushing. Commercial tactics aside, this ranges from the relatively benign request to “share if you like this” or simply, “please share” to the more malignant, “share this or else...” The benign is easy enough to ignore and if i have to think about it i’m okay with granting the benefit of the doubt that the person doing this is perhaps new to social media and isn’t aware that the main economy of communication with social media is sharing. It’s the default assumption. And to push this is both superfluous and annoying. Still, i prefer simply to ignore all such requests. On the more malignant side of the spectrum is threatening share-pushing. This is almost certainly a continuation of pre-internet chain-mail practices. Common in this mode is the tacit threat - couched as promise - that if you share such-and-such x number of times good things will befall you. Again, the easiest thing to do is simply to ignore these. But then there is the simply loathsome tactic some people use which makes the explicit threat that if you don’t share this you are either a coward or otherwise on the side of the bad guys. This last is a form of bullying plain and simple. And bullies should not be tolerated. Do this to me more than once and i hit "unfriend."

What puzzles me is not that people are naive about (or otherwise fail to grasp) the nature of social media “sharing” but that some people seem to think that being pushy (and, at times to the point of threatening) is a way to persuade others of their point. Hardly a problem unique to the internet, of course. But it is one that is intensified by the thoughtless ease of clicking (emphasis here on “thoughtless”).

Another vexation that is easy enough to ignore but which puzzles me in terms of people’s willingness to submit to the judgment of others is the social media quiz, e.g.: “which [famous show character] are you?”; “where should you live?”; “what career should you have?” I imagine these quizzes being written by virtual teens who play darts to match answers to their questions making most of these quizzes meaningless except as games to tickle one’s vanity. Why do people submit to them? Personality tests are as old as modern sociology and psychology. Myers-Briggs, Birkman test, enneagrams. These, at least, have been crafted and tested by many people and within specific disciplines - whatever we might think of them. I’ve done several of these and i always get some useful information beyond a simple flattering of my ego. But i also treat them as games -  games of meaning - and i think worthwhile playing. Social media quizzes are games as well - but anemic by comparison. Such games of meaning can be important means of critical self-reflection. Which is why i like astrology and tarot. While i am agnostic about the divinatory applications of such things, i find these are systems of metaphorical thinking rich in the naming of countless patterns of human behaviour. And thus they are beautiful games that have the advantage of teaching the user to think metaphorically. This a powerful and worthwhile capacity that has many applications in life. Social media quizzes, by contrast, teach little except vain self-regard and they do this within the uncritical context of using popular culture. They are un-nutritious (albeit stimulating) 'sugar' compared to the rich nourishing meal that such games can be.

Just what does “love” mean in this new “Do What You Love” culture

Great piece by Miya Tokumitsu: In the Name of Love (Jacobin Magazine). I first learned of this from her lengthy CBC Sunday Edition interview (see 4th item at time-code 41:37). Tokumitsu rightly identifies the pernicious piece of pop-ideology called “Do What You Love” (DWYL) and exemplifies this with Steve Jobs’ 2005 Stanford University graduation speech:

"You’ve got to find what you love. And that is as true for your work as it is for your lovers. Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do.”

It doesn’t take much to expose the hegemonically-friendly hypocrisy of this sentiment. Just imagine Jobs giving this speech to the Chinese workers in one of the factories that produces Apple computers. Or, if you want to feel really ill, imagine him giving this speech to the Congolese coltan miners without whom our wired world would be far more anemic. Referring to the ‘invisible” industrial production that Apple relies on, Tokumitsu uses appropriately the phrase “violence of this erasure.” She deepens this point with a great description of the enabling work on which Jobs - and any industrialist (as well as most consumers, for that matter) rely:

"Think of the great variety of work that allowed Jobs to spend even one day as CEO: his food harvested from fields, then transported across great distances. His company’s goods assembled, packaged, shipped. Apple advertisements scripted, cast, filmed. Lawsuits processed. Office wastebaskets emptied and ink cartridges filled. Job creation goes both ways. Yet with the vast majority of workers effectively invisible to elites busy in their lovable occupations, how can it be surprising that the heavy strains faced by today’s workers (abysmal wages, massive child care costs, et cetera) barely register as political issues even among the liberal faction of the ruling class?”

I think Tokumitsu gets things pretty right. But there are three things with which i differ: just how prevalent is this ideology; the actual or hegemonic purpose of this ideology (Brave New World, 1984); and the fetishization of work as something for which love is even relevant.

Just how prevalent is this ideology

As much as i agree with Tokumitsu’s critique of DWYL, when she writes, ““do what you love” (DWYL) is now the unofficial work mantra for our time,” i can’t help but ask for whom, exactly, is this a mantra? And who is the “our” she refers to? Likewise, who is the “us/we/our” in, "Superficially, DWYL is an uplifting piece of advice, urging us to ponder what it is we most enjoy doing and then turn that activity into a wage-generating enterprise. But why should our pleasure be for profit? Who is the audience for this dictum? Who is not?”

Even while she poses the question of “who is the audience” for the DWYL message she is, with her written piece addressing an audience. Aren’t these the same audiences?

Sure, in the first instance, she is addressing readers of Jacobin magazine. But i’m guessing that her audience to whom her thinking is directed is somewhat larger (not least because of social media sharing). Which is typical of such writing. Even while she acknowledges that this ideology denigrates  the vast majority of workers, she exercises the common totalizing tactic of framing a universal “us.” A tricky matter, at best. How do you talk about such things without inadvertently stumbling into these linguistic/ideological traps? Not least of which is the trap of reification. By writing about this phenomenon, addressing an audience who are the participants in this phenomenon, Tokumitsu actually contributes to the production and reproduction of this very idea. Granting it the legitimacy of something worth criticizing gives the phenomenon energy. "No such thing as bad publicity" and all that. The challenge is to ensure that whatever false reification happens, that it is more than made up for by the articulation of the more significant critical frames within which such phenomena exist and grow. Whether this is achieved cannot be determined by one article.

But what’s it really aimed at doing

While Tokumitsu suggests that DWYL “may be the most elegant anti-worker ideology around,” and that, “In masking the very exploitative mechanisms of labor that it fuels, DWYL is, in fact, the most perfect ideological tool of capitalism,” i think there is something yet more insidious going on. Once you stop and think for a moment about this ideology, it’s easy to see it as perhaps the newest “don’t look at the man behind the curtain” tactic to deflect attention from conditions (of the economy, labour, consumption, etc.) that would rouse anxiety (at least) and destabilizing anger (more fearsomely). Also, when i think about for whom this message is intended, i feel that the vast majority of workers and especially the poor, are not that easily duped. I would say that the vast majority of the world’s working population know that DWYL is, at best, a luxury opinion and is probably thought of by most as so much nonsense. The audience for this message is the relatively small middle class - certainly not the reputed 1% - nor even probably the top 20% whom i expect are quite stable. The way i see it, of the 80% of the world’s population who own/survive-on 10% of the world’s wealth, there is a small wedge of the top of that 80% (to which we could add a small wedge of the bottom of the 20%) who are critically precarious, who represent a great deal of wealth capacity but who, themselves, are not that stable. The consent  and docility of this group, i’m guessing, is crucial. (And who, of us, might be included in this group?) And keeping that group both comfortable enough not to want to lose what they have and fearful enough of losing it should they dissent from the reigning common sense is where i see hegemonic ideologies like DWYL coming into play. The insidious nature of this ultimately cynical and violent ideology is that it is a social-psychological (or hegemonic) means of regulating dissent. And my intuitive and likely flawed math aside, it seems fair to hypothesize that the higher you are in the percentage of the world’s wealth distribution the more invested you are in the maintenance of that system. And it’s easier to be invested by believing that such conditions are both normal and natural. That’s how hegemony works.

So What?

All of the above, along with the prevalence of the pop psych meme, the perpetual avalanche of selfies, the hyperbolic exaggeration of click-baiting headlines, the growth of street-level fundraising (uncharitably - though kinda truthfully - dubbed “chugging" for "charity-mugging"), and the oh-so-easy cheat of “faking” knowledge (due to the ease of clicking over to Wikipedia see here and here  and here)  all connect for me in the way that they narrow the event-horizon of our experience to an immediacy that discourages both longer-term thinking (that of a life) and thinking about our the interconnectivity of all things. These two things are, themselves, linked. Reduced to a fetishistic focus on the moment, how can anyone be expected to discern the larger patterns of life, our environment, our social world, our histories, and the politics that determine our collective journey into the future?

This reminds me of yet another vexation which i believe is driven by shortened time-horizons and the ever-accelerating pace of life in our information age: that aspect of environmental and social justice activism that perpetuates a culture of outrage. On the one hand there is an overabundance of things deserving of our anger. On the other, if that anger is not rooted in both our passions for a better world and our critical (if not also radical) sense of ourselves as participants in long histories of struggle (and in which many of us are inheritors of unjust privilege) then our anger risks being merely outrage which, for me, means a reactionary stance (or, at best, what permaculture activist and witch Starhawk might term “rebellion”) rather than the more transformative disposition of resistance. (also see Starhawk: Fierce Love: Resisting the Weapons the Culture Has Devised against the Self in Truth or Dare: Encounters with Power, Authority and Mystery (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1987). Pp. 71-89.) The speed of the internet, the proliferation of distracting vexations (and the pervasive context of both climate change and state’s inaction about it) all contribute to fragmenting our attention, disorganizing us into isolated individuals each trying to get from day to day. We forget to breathe, to taste our food, to enjoy hugs and the company of our children, to enjoy sleep and dreaming, and so much more. But we can resist.

I have reflected a great deal over the years on the variety of ways that various cultures have named the interconnectivity of all things: ubuntu, heshook isn tsawalk, I/Thou, Mitayuke Oyasin, All Our Relations, environmentalism, and more. The one that comes to mind as i ponder the puzzle of these vexatious patterns is the indigenous teaching (also referred to as a prophecy) of “seven generations”. Commonly quoted as something like, “in all decisions consider the consequences unto seven generations”. I can’t recall when i first learned of this but it probably came to me via the Kahnawake Mohawk reserve near the suburban community where i did my primary and secondary schooling. I remember this ethic (which is how i think of it now) as being attributed to the Mohawk, the Iroquois, and the Onondaga. Of course, the Mohawk and Onondaga were both members of the so-called Iroquois Confederacy, also known as the Haudenosaunee. But i am cautious about being too firm about attributions of the origins of such things. Given the violence (ongoing) of colonialism, the disruption to indigenous cultures remains extreme. And claims are often made about this or that piece of indigenous knowledge as if it was as certifiable as the discovery of the atom. Such knowledges are trickier matters than the (apparent) certainties that science is fond of serving up. (i continue to wonder about the origin of the so-called “medicine wheel” which seems to have been taken up by many indigenous nations and yet is a relatively new practice for some). I’ve been told that the prophecy of the seven generations can be found in The Great Law of Peace, articulated perhaps a thousand years ago by Deganawidah (known as The Great Peacemaker) and which is the origin of the Haudenosaunee (Five Nations - which became six in 1772 when the Tuscaroa joined the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca). This Great Law of Peace was an oral ‘document’ for hundreds of years before being written down more recently. At any rate, there is no mention of seven generations in the versions of The Great Law of Peace that i have read. So, for me, the origins of this ethic remain murky. Nonetheless, learning about “considering the welfare of up to seven generations” had immediate appeal for me when i first learned of it. And i’ve always taken such an ethic as an self-evident good.

But i’ve also always been curious about the significance of "seven”. Why seven generations and not five or ten? Assuming a generation is 20 years (the approximate cycle within which humans begin to reproduce), then seven generations works out to 140 years. Given that our contemporary political generation of decision-making can barely manage thinking about five years, 140 years is a pretty awesome timeframe to work with. Still, if 140 years is good, wouldn’t 200 years be better? And easier-to-remember arithmetic? Why seven?

Amongst my many esoteric interests has been that of sacred geometry including the history of mathematics and archaeoastronomy and from which i’ve learned that numbers in stories are almost never arbitrary. And seven is a very interesting, pervasive, and ancient number. There are seven deadly sins, seven virtues, seven seas, seven days of the week, seven wonders of the world, seven dwarfs, and more. Sevens everywhere. Seven is a prime number (the fourth such) and there are many interesting mathematical aspects to it as a number. Perhaps one of the most ancient instances of the use of seven to encode knowledge is that of the seven planets (something that goes back to Babylon and which persisted in some form until Galileo). The seven planets refers to the seven moving objects in the night sky visible to the naked eye: sun, moon, mercury, venus, mars, jupiter, and saturn. Did this ancient observational knowledge start a trend of inferring sacred meaning to the number seven? Perhaps. Hard, if not impossible, to prove, i expect.

And, of course, there’s the seven in seven generations. Not connected at all, as far as i know, to the examples i cite above. But, having learned that numbers in stories are rarely, if ever, arbitrary i’ve always been bugged by the apparent arbitrariness of seven generations. Until now. J'net AyAy Qwa Yak Sheelth told me of another way of looking at the notion of seven generations. She learned it from Vancouver-based Ojibwe artist Don McIntyre. Rather than think of the seven generations being calculated with our own generation as zero, we can look at the seven generations as going both forward and backward in time. If we consider ourselves the centre of a seven generation cycle (rather than the beginning or ending) then an interesting thing emerges. 70 years is the approximate maximum average human lifespan though, of course, many people live into their 8th and 9th decades. But 70 being half of 140 will suffice to make my point. Born into a 70 year lifespan, it is entirely possible to know someone who is 70 years older than you and, eventually, someone who is 70 years younger than you. And thus, in a very real sense, one life, though 70 years short, can touch both ends of the 140 years that is seven generations. One life can actually touch (and be touched by) seven generations. Perhaps more in some cases and certainly fewer in many cases. But, on average, the math of 70 works. And now, for me, the seven in seven generations starts to feel less arbitrary.

But this challenges what i have understood as the conventional interpretation of seven generations. So what merit might there be in thinking about this differently?

I am reminded of a moment several years ago when i was in Spain visiting a friend. We were in a small village, Hinojosa del Campo, in the province of Soria. It is an ancient village, one of four in a shallow altiplano valley through which runs a Roman road (which is pretty damn cool). The feeling of antiquity is strong. The village, with a population of a few hundred, once farmed a quarter of the valley (the remaining three quarters being farmed by three other small villages) but with the advent of modern farming technology had been reduced to virtual cottage country. Now it was a summer retreat for the urban-dwelling village descendants -  and many of the homes were dilapidated and crumbling while a few dozen were well-maintained. One afternoon i was walking about the village with a feeling of familiarity when i flashed on an image of how my Irish paternal grandmother must have lived prior to immigrating to Scotland. From Donegal, she no doubt lived in a stone cottage similar to the ones i saw around me in Hinojosa. And then i thought of my Acadian maternal great-grandfather who had a farm in Aboujagane, New Brunswick. The feeling that overwhelmed me in that moment was one of connection across decades and with people whom i’d never met. But i marvelled at the feeling as well as the realization that there were only three generations between me and farming life. It is hard for me to describe the feeling of connection as i stood on that dusty village street in rural Spain. It reminded me of a visit to a graveyard near my Acadian great-grandfather’s farm where i read the names on the modest plaques and recognized so many that were familiar. I was startled by the tears that came as i stood amidst the remains of ancestors.

Thinking of seven generations as stretching both into our future and past, strikes me as a far more effective ethic in making decisions. And, while I do like the math of 70 years before and after - which, as i’ve mentioned, is a time period in which our bodies actually participate - why not also think of seven generations as both 140 years into our future and 140 into our past? Both/and seems a wise way to engage this ancient wisdom.

So, i am struggling to return to my (tumblr) project of “tracking cultural consumption” that Emily Pohl-Weary tossed my way as a challenge. I’ve got my thirteen year-old doing the same. I reach for that space of mindfulness within which not only our bodies but also our souls breathe and stretch and dance. And, while i resist vexations, i reach both backward in time (to draw to myself inspiration and memory) and forward into our uncertain future (casting my heart over the hurdles in hope that my body will follow).

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