Wednesday, November 26, 2008



"The purpose of this initiative is to establish a movement in Spain based on this new way of perceiving culture, and promote it as a vehicle for development of critical opinion in our country. More and more people willing to educate themselves and get rid of superstitions and dogmas which reduces your field of personal and social action. Democracy works with people armed with critical thinking. A society of illiterates in the hands of scoundrels (Perez Reverte), can never be democratic." -- Arcadi Espada


Becoming Screen Literate
By Kevin Kelly

Everywhere we look, we see screens. The other day I watched clips from a movie as I pumped gas into my car. The other night I saw a movie on the backseat of a plane. We will watch anywhere. Screens playing video pop up in the most unexpected places -- like A.T.M. machines and supermarket checkout lines and tiny phones; some movie fans watch entire films in between calls. These ever-present screens have created an audience for very short moving pictures, as brief as three minutes, while cheap digital creation tools have empowered a new generation of filmmakers, who are rapidly filling up those screens. We are headed toward screen ubiquity. ...


A woman who traveled on the same airplane as Tim and Isabella, his helper dog, recently remarked to Tim on disembarking that Isabella had watched the in-flight movie attentively and seemed to like it. “Isn’t that remarkable?” she asked Tim.

“Well, it surprises me,” answered Tim. “She really hated the book.”

* * *

Our assumptions about the world come in large part from fleeting glimpses and interpretations of what other people think, let alone other species. We speak of “the culture” as though it were a thing, an object with edges, and some people try to control it -- even to force it, especially by preventing change, like the Proper Grammar Police. One of the oldest moral mistakes is thinking that “what is” is the same as “what ought to be.” The idea is that what worked so far and what our ancestors thought was honorable and productive must be protected because it got us this far, didn’t it?

Jesus paid no attention and neither did Luther or Margaret Sanger or Pasteur or a host of other innovators like Gutenburg. Anyway, change goes on around us all the time, some of it good and some of it hardly worth remarking and some of it totally reprehensible (like various holocausts) and some of it seemingly brilliant at the time but disastrous later on (like our financial systems). Some of it is change that allows a whole cascade of unpredicted changes, like electricity.

A hundred years ago -- or maybe I’d better say 150 years ago, to make it mid-nineteenth century -- change fell upon the Blackfeet like wolves. (Sorry. Um, like Blackwater mercenaries.) Until then their culture had been based (as is all culture when you get down to the bottom of it) on their place and the materials and practices that would keep them fed, sheltered, and together. You learned from the adults around you. There were two kinds of people: “us” and “those other guys.” If you had to talk to those other guys, you used sign-language. If you talked to one of “us,” you spoke Blackfeet. The line between Blackfeet and others was that people who could speak Blackfeet were “in” and the others were “out.”

Then along came these white guys and they said, “You speak English because that’s what you ought to speak and you ought to do everything else like us, too, because that’s what’s right and true and what you ought to have been doing all this time.” At first the Euros didn’t think slaves and Indians ought to be taught to read, because reading was an advantage. For instance, they might read law books and figure out how to work the system. (Protestants learned how to read and so read the Bible for themselves, thus escaping the priests who had been the only ones who could read the big Bible chained to the lecturn.) But people figured out how to read anyway, and pretty soon a lot of jobs were dependent on reading operating manuals, contracts, and parts catalogues. Some people spent a lot of time reading the Sears Roebucks and Monkey Wards catalogues.

This leads us directly to modern commodification. We commodify everything: how much is it worth? How much profit? How many employees? How sexy should you be? With whom should you sleep? How much education does one need to be certified? Which leads us to education, which was the chief way that Blackfeet were forced to give up their language and speak English. It was not personal to the Blackfeet -- EVERYONE who wanted to live in the United States (which meant all immigrants, which meant everyone who was not an Indian as well as everyone who was) had to learn to speak English. Everyone mostly assumed that must be right.

Until the Sixties and Seventies after WWII when a counter-culture formed. The Blackfeet now used education to relearn Blackfeet. In spite of the best efforts of teachers, parents, and authority figures, the children slipped through their fingers, learning from Sesame Street and then from the cable sit coms and then from drug pushers. By then everyone was so busy accumulating commodities and mowing their lawns that they hardly knew what their children were up to anyway. They were inventing an underculture.

The educated people in the university world said they were inventing a new culture as well, one they often called “the third way,” that hopes to combine science and humanities in a more resourceful and less primitive and more flexible and less superstitious approach to life. So ... the long withdrawing roar of one culture is matched by the barbaric yawp of a new culture and then the two of them give birth to something that is so new that everyone but the kids feel like dogs watching movies. It’s interesting, but what does it MEAN? Can it be controlled? Does Obama REALLY know what he’s doing? Won’t gay marriage take us all straight to hell? Where did all these Mormons come from?

I sit here in the middle of a great nest of paper. But my eyes are on a computer screen and the papers are all downloads so that I can take them to my reading chair, push out the resident cat, and use a hi-lighter to try to figure out what I’m reading. I have not been culturally adept enough to afford broadband (which is provided here by a rancher’s co-op formed when the telephone lines got to the prairie). I’m barely affording elecricity. I’m between cultures. Maybe AMONG cultures.

My plan was to write great books, best sellers if possible, which would bring me fame and fortune. What worked for Anne of Green Gables doesn’t work for me. I’ve settled for blogging but no one knows how to commodify it yet. They’ll get to it. Maybe it will be part of the reconfiguration of the globe that is growing out of our financial emergency. So many systems, including schools and publishing, have grown pot-bound, overly complex, a nasty combination of unregulation and overregulation, grabbing one idea after another and squeezing the life-force out of them like Skeksis squeezing the little red-headed puppet people in “The Dark Crystal.”

We are devolving into one big global culture that is more generational than national, more a movie than a book, where someone in the Sahara sees a pop bottle fall out of an airplane and knows at once what it is, can even sing the jingle, but then throws it over his shoulder, saying, “Oh, that’s so last century.” And keeps on walking to the AIDS clinic.

At the same time we’ve broken into small cultures, “bundled” as it were, by commodification. Furniture for families with small children vs. furniture for geezers in front of television. Food for clever urban foodies vs. food for the dietetically challenged. And under it always that commodification: how can we market this new stuff we’ve just invented? Never a thought to what it might do to human life, let alone the rest of the planet. Melamine isn’t just in baby formula in China, but also in a thousand American products. Dioxin is in the breast milk of polar bears. Our cars are destroying their icebergs. We may run out of oil just in time before all mammal life is twisted out of existence by chemists converting fossil goo into strange molecules.

The meta-subject of all discussions of culture and education is what are we doing to ourselves? It begins to be clear that the “superstitions and dogmas which reduce your field of personal and social action” are yesterday’s truths and pieties. Like “progress is our most important product.” Products may have nothing to do with progress. We may have to struggle through decades of incomprehension. Except for the kids, who are thumbing twitter remarks even as I go back to polish my sentences.

Culture Yes

My war with culture is to provoke you.

I admit it.

I have seen the lock-step-and-fetch-it culture. The furniture is heavy there and the room is never rearranged. There is no dissent. Only lip service to it. The ideas are no longer vibrant. They become the past. Revolutions are like that. They are often ruthless.

I was walking down Castro Street in SF once.

With a friend.

A car pulled up. A bunch of guys got out of the car with baseball bats. They went for us.

What they saw were two gay men and the culture war was on.

But I'm not gay. No. Well, you looked gay.

Gay enough.

We fought back. We fought back hard.

We took those baseball bats from them and we beat some heads in. Then, we beat the car and smashed the windows.

Do not fuck with me.

We left them. Bleeding.

And continued on our way.

They wanted a culture war. Bring it on.

Today, I want my art to be a baseball bat. Sometimes.

Not always. But I want that option.

They are still cruising around the block. Every now and then, the haters pass me by. We exchange glances. There is no down time. No quiet moment.

Often, in any culture war, you're just taking what comes at you. One battle at a time.

Culture yes.

Tim Barrus

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