When the Reverse is also True: a Conversation on Culture, Art and Literature
On 21 August 2006 in Edinburgh, Martin Belk interviewed two esteemed men of letters and culture, Jim Haynes and John Calder.
On 21 August 2007, excerpts from that spry conversation opened an international web event entitled When the Reverse Is True, and I had the double privilege/honor as the international female participant of contributing by streaming live from the comfort of my New York living room, while moderator Martin Belk gathered Mr. Haynes, Mr. Calder and The Skinny editor Rupert Thomson before a live studio audience in Edinburgh to move the conversation about the future of culture, art and literature forward.
My aim here is to sustain that forward motion with comment on the experience of my first WEB EVENT and reflection on some of the issues that arose during our stimulating, sometimes distressing, and happily often amusing, scrutiny of the way things are now. And may be in the future.
First off, as a long-term technophobe recently converted to technoskepticism, my enthusiastic participation was no mean achievement. It’s an historic illustration of one of the points vividly discussed by the panel: the role of technology in civilization today. While Mr. Calder is a venerable manual typewriter/telephone man, Mr. Haynes spoke highly of the toaster and today maintains a lively blog. My point is that any/all technology is but a tool- a set of increasingly diverse and complex tool options which can be helpful or harmful, constructive or destructive, or a combination, in the complex enterprise of sustaining and enhancing life on planet Earth. Globalization includes global warming. Unplugged is hip for singers like Tony Bennett, eighty-one this year and still singing his heart out from San Francisco to New York to the wide, wide world (WWW.). Solo ear-plugged listeners enjoy private musical company and tune out direct contact with the here and now reality of others in shared space. Live and lively music missed, twentieth century avant-garde composer John Cage would lament. He claimed his favorite music- even more than his own-was the 24/7 street noise of Sixth Avenue in New York.
Mr. Calder observed, “We are becoming a culture of ants,” and said we need a new avant-garde. Shortly before his death in 1968, another avant-garde artist, Marcel Duchamp, asserted that the great artists of tomorrow will go underground. If they have, we don’t know their names and they are free from the profit-driven business culture many believe has replaced what we heretofore called civilization, populated now by consumers not citizens. Greed is ugly everywhere and technology too often is used by the haves to get more at the expense of the increasingly marginalized and deprived have-nots.
Nobel Prize winning Mexican writer Octavio Paz said that the twentieth century was the most violent in human history. But he died in 1998. Capitalist business culture uses the language of war; making a killing, etc. We may then say that business culture is the culture of (perpetual) war. And consumers are, if not ants, then foot soldiers dutifully marching to their graves, bloated by their advertising-driven consumption or starved by their celebrity-frenzied anorexia. Either way they are victims of cruelty manifest across the globe. American fast food and fizzy drinks have exported obesity to China, which has reciprocated with poisoned fish and children’s toys imported to the U.S. iCulture speeds and spreads the plague.
In this era of extreme everything (weather, politics, eating habits…) what can be done?
Education comes to mind.
In 1971 when I completed my M.A. thesis entitled “Poet in the Post-Literate Age” (a consideration of “the medium is the message” ideas of iconoclast academic Marshall McLuhan, the influence of new technologies on the future of poetry and the exemplary practice of Dream Song author, my friend and mentor John Berryman), there were no personal computers, no on-line courses, no Google=research reductive thinking. There were books and students and teachers. With good reason Jim Haynes remarked, “Most teaching kills curiosity, joy.” Many reasons, in unfortunate fact. While 24/7 access to information may be a boon, it is also a burden and has created a false sense of fair play in the education industry. An industry reported to be the third largest in the U.S. There are teachers and students and books as well as laptops, but the pure pleasure of learning has been too often replaced by the terrible teaching to the test. Joy evaporates and students of all ages experience an unhealthy and alienating pressure to perform instead of enjoying the rainbow delights of learning and free creative activity. Are there exceptions? Of course. There are, as there always have been, exceptional teachers and mentors dedicated to authentic, individualized learning, who encourage critical and creative thinking. And students who benefit from their active presence within the classroom and without. But increasingly the educational environment is hostile.
This year’s annual Small Arms Survey reports that there are nine guns for every ten people in the U.S.-about 270 million in circulation. Tragically, too many of them turn up in school, brought there by troubled teens and by uniformed police who have on recent occasions in New York overstepped their mandate, as reported by New York Times columnist Bob Herbert. An environment of violence cannot be conducive to the joy of learning.
In addition, the academy is often motivated more by financial considerations than the quality of education. The administrations of publicly subsidized state university systems and proprietary institutions now prize credentials (new doctorates) over experienced competence and docile faculty agree to teach blended or exclusively on-line courses rather than risking their rank by insisting upon the first class learning experience found only in small class and tutorial formats. Which is where a privileged elite will continue to prosper while bargain on-line degree programs are advertised in the free dailies for the young, poor working stiffs.
It’s one thing to complain about class size-too big. It’s another to take an on-line course with no physical contact with the teacher and an indeterminate number of fellow students. When I saw a recent ad for a discussion/book signing by Dr. Rudy Crew, an admired former chancellor of New York’s public school system, the book title caught my eye: Only Connect. Then I read the book’s blurb: “… visionary plan to fix America’s broken public schools…presents inspiring ideas and practical strategies that will help teachers and parents prepare kids for the real word.” I shared that ad with two former students who teach in a New York public school and a tony private one and asked them what was wrong with it. The answer: we should prepare students not for the real world but to transform the world. That may be the only way to save it. Imaginative, independent thinking, not conformist ant behavior, is what is called for to return joy to the classroom and to the world.
Joy to the world: la joie de vivre. All good teaching and learning and art and literature enhance the joy of being alive. Underground or above, let us all be avant-garde, encouraged by another Nobel Prize winner, Albert Camus, who declared, “Art and revolt will die only with the last man.”
Mary Folliet was born in Minneapolis in 1946, educated at Northwestern University, the University of Minnesota (BA in English and Philosophy) and the State University of New York at Stony Brook (MA in English). After living for many years abroad (London and Paris), she taught literature and writing in New York at the Metropolitan Center of the State University of New York and served as the Writing Program Coordinator.
Her publications include a limited edition poetry collection, MODERN STYLES, published in London in 1975 and a Georges Perec translation, ATTEMPT TO EXHAUST A PARISIAN SPOT in 2002.
She divides her time, energy and heart between New York and Paris, seltzer and champagne, jazz and poetry and coaches writers individually and in small groups along their authorial way. In New York she may be reached at 212-595 4722.
I WONDER IF THERE IS GOING TO BE SOMEONE—AND IT’S GOING TO TAKE A BRAVE PERSON—WHO WILL POST THEIR BANK DETAILS AND ALL THEIR WEB PASSWORDS, AND TOTALLY OPEN UP THEIR LIVES AS AN ART STATEMENT. WHAT MIGHT THAT DO TO PEOPLE’S PERCEPTIONS OF INTERIOR AND EXTERIOR?—RUPERT THOMSON
You don’t need to have access to mass media. You can create small things that blossom—Jim Haynes
THE NEXT RULING CLASS MAY BE ROBOTS. THEY WILL TAKE US OVER AND SEE NO REASON WHY WE SHOULD EXIST. IF TECHNOLOGY CAN DO HUMAN JOBS BETTER THAN WE CAN, THEN THAT’S INEVITABLY GOING TO HAPPEN—JOHN CALDER