Wednesday, July 15, 2009

HISTORY OF THOUGHT -- IS THAT WHAT IT IS?

History of thought as a discipline has gripped me since I found out there was such a thing by blundering into the little alcove in the Chicago Seminary Bookstore that was labeled exactly that. This morning there was a fascinating short article by Clay Shirky at: http://www.cato-unbound.org/2009/07/13/clay-shirky/not-an-upgrade-an-upheaval/ The title refers to journalism but could just as easily apply to everything from the car industry to publishing, the ministry to the film industry.

Shirky is noting that because so much news is now gathered by individuals at large by pointing their iPhones, instead of by journalists and photographers with “trained” minds and eyes, the information comes to the newspaper or magazine in huge masses that include a lot of crazy stuff or misinterpreted stuff. The task then is to filter and organize it, a huge job and one that is problematic because the “editors” were not on the spot, maybe have little awareness of the actual circumstances of the place and time, and might have some kind of template (Identity politics anyone? Or are we all sick of it?) that prevents some of the reality being transmitted. Those who think a running camera records reality have never had to be a jury considering one of the squad car video monitors mounted on a dashboard and automatically turned on. Sometimes it tells you a lot more than you want to know, sometimes a lot less, and sometimes it’s deceptive.

I’ve stopped saving to my hard drive all the many articles about publishing and how the consolidation of publishing houses into corporation creatures who must produce 10% profit or die have constricted books to mere products, and then how the invention of the blog opened the pent-up floodgates to a huge tsunami of writing and opinion that’s totally unfiltered and often nuts if not slanderous and damaging. Quite aside from the question “what IS good writing?” Or even "who wants to know?"

How do we make our way between knowing too much (there’s an acronym: TMI) and knowing too little or knowing the wrong things? Once upon a time a person lived in a community that produced a consensus made up of many small opinion holders who argued it all out. Maybe it was a church congregation, maybe it was a village or neighborhood, maybe it the guys at work, or even a university class but there was a lot of support and reassurance in that.

My attraction to the ministry came through Organizational Design, which made me feel as though a community could proceed in some kind of orderly way -- at least a manageable way. Either I just wasn’t very good at it or I greatly underestimated the forces that come to bear even inside an congregation. You can make all the flow charts you want, but if facing something like a plague, a new technology, immigration -- either a disaster or a windfall -- everything changes. In fact, even one toxic person can shatter the group. I gave up.

Last night, continuing my anthropology expedition into the world of the GBLT etc. world, I watched a movie called “Fabulous!! The History of Queer Cinema” which was intelligently anchored by a sensible college professor and cultural commenter named B. Ruby Rich. First there is the possibility of making movies, then there is the impact of WWII which gave cover to gays within uniforms, then the continuation of that in gladiator epics and Westerns with unclothed Indians, and a parallel cover in noir women-in-prison-having-cat-fights, until along came the funny and “harmless” version of gays as campy. About that time the invention of videos a person could watch at home -- and possibly cable TV -- and things got serious. AIDS threw the issue right out in public, esp. when Rock Hudson died. And the cost of making movies came way down so that Indie directors could work without studios corsetting everything. By this time distribution was on DVD’s and Netflix would mail you a show like “Fabulous!” without you having to even go into a video rental outlet and face the clerk. And the ultimate is probably the teen in her bedroom putting herself on YouTube. Shrug.

Strangely, what has really happened is that we’ve now got names for things that were there all along. The good part of it is that people who thought they were misfits or maybe even psychotic can now find a community -- if they want it. The bad part of it is that everyone thinks they know all about differently desiring people and still insist on sorting them into boxes, some of them criminalized. Maybe the worst or maybe best part of it -- depending on point of view -- is that now sometimes the whole subject seems “over.” So we go from Queer Cinema to New Queer Cinema to Post New Queer Cinema with hardly a pause. “Fabulous!” ends with the question, “where do we go from here?” The subject has split and morphed into so many different ways that “queer” doesn’t mean much anymore. (I can never remember all the letters in the acronym anyway.)

Something like that has happened or is happening to both religion and politics. (Some would note that they are really the same thing as any other social category like queer or deaf or native American or jocks or journalists. . .) An historical consensus embodied in a community exists. Dissenters keep their heads down low. Gradually they find each other and build an alternative community. For a while there’s a major effort to suppress and eliminate them. Outside forces might intervene, like running out of oil or the growing realization that Diabetes II might be due to environmental pollution. The dissenters grow in power until they can claim a place. Everything splits out into chaos for a while.

Always -- despite all pessimism -- a new consensus forms and the process begins again. The question is how to survive the chaos. This is one of the reasons I keep going back to “what are the basics I -- as a human being -- really need?” Food of a certain quality, shelter (including heat, light, water and sewer), the communal systems of roads and distribution of goods, protection from the criminal and deranged (one of our loonier and scarier citizens was recently led off in handcuffs). To do this little exercise is to realize how many people don’t HAVE these basics and to realize, as we are told again and again, if everyone had what many people consider a MINIMUM, we’d need about four more planets. Obviously, if there were fewer people it would help. You go first.

In the meantime, I’m going to blog as fast as I can before “they” figure out how to censor what I say. But if the Internet infrastructure collapses tomorrow -- which it easily could -- and Netflix goes out of business -- which it probably won’t -- I have a hoard of pencils and paper. I will use them to make flow charts and take notes.

1 comment:

Lance Michael Foster said...

There's an interesting novel called "The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet" by Reif Larsen. Although it has its problems, it integrates visuals (charts, diagrams, sketches) as part of the narrative, and this works very nicely.

As far as the news-mess, well, Walter Cronkite died. This is sad and deeply symbolic as well.

I like your story. Speaking as damaged bait :-)