September 25, 2012

The act, not the moment

There is a firefight happening in my head about the purpose of determinism that seems, judging by all the political rhetoric lately, to be being experienced on kind of a broad scale. This is not just in the air at the moment because Romney is a determinist in all things; we've all known many like him, I grew up surrounded by many like him, people have always been deterministic about race, class, gender, sex, money, culture, anything.

I know someone (a teacher, no less) who told me once that Pacific Islanders will always be “less” than whites because they fundamentally don’t understand western time. My big brother knows that the great division in music in the 60’s was between the Rolling Stones and the Beatles, and people were fans (and thus defined by) either one band or the other. And we all have encountered people who know the only true God. 

They are not just expressing sureness, but a sense of static truth, a sense of a universally shared truth. But what I can’t seem to get clear in my head is why anyone has ever argued that there have to be universally shared truths when it comes to human thought.

I don’t mean to be simplistic or na├»ve; I have some sense of history, and a sense of how people throughout history have coalesced power around a prescription. Yet I still hit this wall all the time. 

In the history of the arts, leaps forward in style and content are often described as the result of a loosening of intellectual constraints, a broadening of the definition of what is “true” for the viewer. These leaps forward are also leaps away from a way of thinking that art history tends to represent as almost universally shared – the idea that, in any given time, everyone “knows” that objects represented in a particular way reflect the norms of truth, the universal idea of what is true.So too in politics, in the art of popular persuasion, where proponents of a particular view tend to present what they know as reflective of a universal.  

But there’s the rub: Romney, et al tend to present their shared reality (now with percentages!) as a set of thoughts one can acquire that, in both their expression and in their acceptance, imply a concrete answer. Their universalism is about “known knowns” that require the listener/viewer/voter to adapt any extraneous thoughts or curiosity to the expressed thoughts. In other words, thoughts are conceived of as adding a layer of paint to an old house, with the aim of protecting the siding and defending against the weather. The house is the universal truth of human thought and experience; new paint is, over time, absorbed into the structure.

On the other side, the universal presented by Obama, et al, is the "universal" that all is contextual, that experience is myriad, that thoughts adapt to time, weather, circumstance – that the only static truth, if there even is such a thing, is that we re-shape “truth” to serve the time we inhabit. Honestly, if I had a dime for every time Obama has said “you need to understand the context here” to a reporter, I would be loaded.

And this is on my mind not just because Senator Scott Brown claims that he can determine her race from looking at his opponent, or because Todd Akin claims he can determine legitimate rape from any other kind, or because Romney has determined that he does not benefit inordinately from the capital gains tax rate, or because education reformers have determined that U.S. schools are failing and Finland and Denmark are the best models against which we should compare our educational system.

Arguing the facts is pointless, as determinist thinkers tend to simply mix facts into the paint. My teacher friend was entirely uninterested in any broader cultural interpretation of the realities of life in Samoa. A few months back I had a pretty uncomfortable conversation with an older, very wealthy white couple, who had determined that the problems we are seeing in urban public education today are really due to the issue of race, which, they said, "is just not a problem you can solve.” They had not considered that a pressing issue facing anyone in urban education is lack of resources, and always has been, and that this is actually a problem one might solve.

No, that wall I hit all the time is one that is surmountable only by denying determinist thinking and universalist claims, or even denying that there ever has been a need for such things. 

I am not indulging in an act of imagination here; every human mind that is capable of reflection is capable of comprehending context, fluidity, tolerance for change. The only way humans move forward (well, move away from rampant self-destruction) at all is that they display and act on these competencies, or have acted on these competencies. The ability to see context is actually a universal in that it is a shared trait among all humans, in terms of the functioning of the brain. We are programmed, down to the dendrites, to process new information and innovate our thoughts around this newness. We do it all the time. What is really not a universal is the idea that we all share…a universal concept of what is true. Or what is God. Or what is musical. Or even what is color.

We all have the privilege of living in a time when, like I am doing by writing this, we can look askance at accepted norms of the past and say “ha! back then you totally didn’t have brain scans that show us how we actually function, or the genomic sequence,  or photographs from deep space, or data from Mars, or an ability to map the physics of weather” or what have you. I am using (and I guess abusing) that privilege by denying that the need for determinism was ever valid.

But really, I think those who ever claimed a determinist frame for human thought – just as those who are doing so now, in the public sphere – are actually the ones using and abusing some projected understanding of all of human nature. What better way to wrangle people to particular ends than to play on their fears of individual disintegration? What better advertising campaign has there ever been, in the history of history, than the one that claims that you are part of a great universal something and by acknowledging that, by submitting to that, you will be safe, you’ll be intact, you will always belong?

August 27, 2012

The Shootist

I had only shot a weapon once before, waaaay back in summer camp, in a riflery class. This was in the green, leafy, sleepy foothills of the Adirondacks: a row of tiny little 12 year-old girls all splayed flat on a modified back porch with little rifles in our little hands, taking squinting aim at a round multi-colored target which seemed as far away as Pluto. I recall propping myself on my elbows, aiming, and missing repeatedly; I came away from that experience with blistered elbows, no interest in riflery, and an irrational concern that I would likely be blind by the time I was middle-aged.

Flash forward to middle-age. The eyesight is worse but not gone, and there was no camp this summer...but I did go shooting, with my husband and two friends. I shot an automatic, a Glock 9, at an indoor firearm shooting range in the suburbs. I shot it exactly twice. The two bullet casings jumped from the gun and pinged me after I shot -- one on my forehead, one on my right thigh. My  target (the outline of a human form) was set seven yards away. With my first shot, I hit him just above the breast and under the collarbone on the right side. I had never held or fired a handgun before in my life.

The gun range we visited was in a bland one-storey building near a suburban mall, just off a main drag. The place was packed when we were there, each lane in the range was full and there were folks waiting to get in. Just inside the front door we were confronted by the pre-entry missive, written on a blackboard, declaring proper gun use and lawful gun owners as altogether different from "what happened in Aurora."

We walked down one aisle of ammo, and one aisle of rifles, and then reached the the firearm cases, where we were directed to choose a weapon or two from the 100 on display for use in the range. Then we were told to pick out paper targets. The options: circles, an outline of human form, zombies, a picture of a guy who looked a lot like Freddie Mercury pointing a gun, a picture of a guy who looked like the unibomber holding a white woman at gunpoint, or a big headshot of Osama bin Laden.

When our turn came we set up our targets in two lanes. The guy in the lane to my left had been there a while. He was shooting a semi-automatic rifle of some kind, and the bullet casings, dozens of them, came flying through the break in the wall between the two lanes and popped us all in the shins. His girlfriend stooped behind him while he shot and methodically picked up the rest of the stray casings in his lane. We wore earplugs and headphones, but the sound was defeaning. The smell was overpowering as well.

Shooting an automatic weapon is easy as pie. You don't even look at the target, just at the sight; you line up the line with the circle and pull the trigger. The gun just makes the complete disconnection between thought and action, or action and consequence, seamless and undisruptive.

Everything about the experience -- from entering a building full of guns and ammo to holding an unloaded Glock to loading the gun to firing -- was terrifying on a personal level. This was not so much a fear of something bad happening, though I am sure some of it was in there, but rather a fear of being in a place where people may not understand how to use their power. I sure as hell didn't understand how to use that power. And, generally, as a female survival trait, I don't go to places where lots of men congregate around activities that disconnect them from thought and consequence.

But another fear kicked in after I (quickly) shot those two bullets. I immediately saw the target as a man, and saw the bullet hole I had made in him, and realized that I could have just killed someone.

"So what" the other folks at the range might say, "you'd shoot them in real life if they had it coming, don't kid yourself, it's a dangerous world, you live in a dangerous city." I swear that mantra was playing subliminally in the background at the gun range -- that, and the other subliminal message about white people lawfully protecting their own.

I have had a lot of vehement and sometimes complex opinions about the idiocy of war, violence, and guns as an adult. I have voiced those opinions based on assessment as well as supposition, but not on anything "real." And one could argue I am still in that place, as I will never be a solider or a cop, and have never used, or carried, a gun out in public, outside of the structures and strictures of a gun range.

But I didn't really go to a gun range to have the experience of firing a gun.

I went along to see how it feels, for myself and more importantly for all the others there -- to be in a community, even for an hour or two, of people who get pleasure using guns. Because firing guns is pleasurable, and even fun, to those who "practice" at the range. The sounds, the smells, the companions, the purpose are all pleasurable. Like enjoying your favorite drug, or other things one could name. They do it because they like how it feels.

And the social exchange in that place, as with anyone who is a gun owner, is about that feeling, I know now, not about anything else. There really is no coherent intellectual defense against a thing that people do because they want to have a particular feeling, other than to contain that pleasure-seeking behavior if it infringes on the rights of others in a detrimental manner.

But that is the terrible beauty of (and likely the original intent of the development of) guns. They contain your attention so completely, so quickly; there is no other to even imagine you are infringing upon.

There is just you, and your weapon, and lining up the sights, and squeezing. The only consequence is a blistered elbow. Or a bullet casing tapping you on the forehead, leaving a small smudge of lead above your eyebrow, and then falling gently to the ground.

March 8, 2012

Freedom Creates Its Own Degrees

There seems to be no relief from feeling vulnerable when one is in graduate school. Classroom performance, conferences, presentations, face-to-face field work -- all opportunities to be confronted with your own ignorance. Or maybe that's just me.
Ten years of studio work did not prepare me well for the relentless (and yes, sometimes joyful) social engagement that is grad school -- or at least, for grad school with a social research bent.
This kind of vulnerability feels different than "studio raw." In the studio, you can get naked, you can revisit every place you've been, roam and find connection, or find fear, or find grief. Or find love. In class, and in academic writing, there are the expected constraints (which many find comforting) but there is also this different raw, the raw of competition, of the pressure to encapsulate ideas and theories with coherence, of conveying what you consider knowledge in both a persuasive and an acceptable manner.
And because of the interdisciplinary nature of my graduate program, I am having a schizophrenic experience in school. Half my time is spent with people who are committed to exploring urban education  and the attendant (and rancorous) issues of social justice, economic disparity, and racism. Half my time is spent with art students who are becoming art educators and who seem primarily committed to exploring themselves, their field, their craft.
Urban educators seem, at least at this point in my endeavor, to be intensely, relentlessly other-focused, to the point of almost being entrapped by the need to explain subjective human interactions using social theory terms. Art-educators-in-training strike me, in contrast, as self-reflective and expressive. But they are also less directly engaged in thinking about how, say, poverty may grind students relentlessly down. They tend to think they have a different purpose; they are teaching, in part, to uplift.
As usual, I feel I am not fully a member of either tribe. Not that that is required. But it does seem to make life easier for them. Thus the different kind of raw. Its been a peripatetic life so far (though both Mark and I feel we'll be in Philly for a long time to come) and my skills are lacking. I'm rusty on what it means to situate, to become a member, to settle in. Or perhaps, in truth, I have never had those skills. But at the same time, as one of my urban ed classmates says, we all are working to avoid becoming like those who teach us. We don't want to become accustomed to settled thoughts and comforting ways of being, since education is in constant turmoil, and constant flux. And we want to be in the game.
Now, when I have a chance to spend time in my studio, I find I am thinking about my field work, or a paper I have to write, or a research project. I am thinking about thinking, in the place where I most want to feel unbounded. Its a strange feeling, but not a loss. We all transform, sometimes in very conscious ways, sometimes while we're sleeping. I think everyone has had that moment of realization at some point, that life has altered you, and not vice versa. Here is different, and very intense. I feel buffeted and I feel changeable. But I am wide awake.