MANIFESTO FOR THE OBVIOUS INTERNATIONAL (2013)
With every passing moment, the exponentially-intensifying causes of the social, political, and ecological crises currently faced by peoples across the globe are becoming increasingly obvious; the well-being of all life on planet earth depends upon the immediate eradication of market-driven social structures that bolster the few at the expense of the many. The image of ourselves as separate—from one another, from nature, and from the havoc being wreaked—has reinforced the disastrously misguided impression that competition (as opposed to collaboration) and the quest for material wealth (as opposed to the cultivation of caring relationships) are not only prerequisites for fulfillment, but inevitable factors in the course of “evolution”.
Those of us who are members of the wealthiest, most technologically advanced (and often most exploitative) societies on earth can no longer afford to sit idly by, waiting for the catastrophes to run their course. Once we identify that which is founded on exploitation and avarice, we can begin to extract ourselves from these toxic systems and develop new approaches based on cooperation, empathy, and altruism. By engaging creatively and constructively in even the most seemingly mundane aspects of existence, each of us realizes the potential to become an active participant in the re-imagining of every facet of civilization, in clarifying what it means to be human.
In his 1978 "Appeal for an Alternative" artist and self-described “social sculptor” Joseph Beuys posed the question “Before considering the question WHAT CAN WE DO we have to look into the question HOW MUST WE THINK?” By identifying the kind of thinking (individual and collective) that is shaping our situation (for better or for worse), we can begin to fundamentally and constructively recast it. Inner alterations in perception can lead to outward shifts in the structure of our relationships, society, and surroundings. But just as thinking differently leads to different actions, different actions can lead to different ways of thinking.
Convention-challenging artists, writers, musicians, philosophers, architects, and others who live within dominant destructive cultures are currently approaching the ills of our time from all sides. By cultivating an array of alternative visions and actions, we are subtly undermining and replacing cultural paradigms that define “success” based on quantity of material goods rather than quality of life. We are supplanting that which emphasizes division (between human and human, human and nature, mind and body, time and space) over interrelationship.
Drawing on art’s infinite possibilities, system-defying agents are re-humanizing, de-commodifying, de-colonizing, and debunking all manner of contrived contraries by creating barter systems, cooperative workspaces, soup kitchens, food forests, and street libraries. In societies based on an ever-intensifying quest—not for peace, health, or contentment but for “progress” (broadly defined as the drive toward maximization of personal convenience, what social ecologist Murray Bookchin called “the fetishization of needs”)—strategies for existence that are participatory, inclusive, and non-hierarchical, and that encourage the sharing of skills, ideas, and resources (the maximization of meaning) are eminently subversive.
Beuys advised us to think first, but if critical thinking and appropriate action are not undertaken in a dynamic, harmonious fashion coupled with earnest consideration of underlying systemic causes, any remedies that may be derived will ultimately serve to temporarily assuage symptoms at best, or, at worst, divert attention away from authentic solutions while providing a false sense of effectiveness.
The most fruitful interventions will be ones that do not, inadvertently or intentionally, reinforce established destructive systems, but instead directly engage populations in acts of social transformation.
In philosophy, the collectively agreed upon definitions, symbols, styles, behaviors, ways of using language, and other factors that are held in common throughout a culture—assumptions about how things are “supposed to be”—are called the “social imaginary.” Whether it is “normal” to compete or cooperate, own property, go into debt, go to war, or go shopping is determined by a wide range of constantly-shifting factors, including the influence of our political, legal, and educational systems, corporate advertising, and the media…and various amalgams thereof. For the most part, the social imaginary is like a program that runs surreptitiously in the background; until we become consciously aware of it, we don’t tend to notice our attitudes are being influenced by entities that may have a vested interest in them. When we fear our neighbor instead of loving him or her, industries that produce guns, fences, and alarms profit—we willingly give them our dollars in exchange for a strange kind of security indeed (does anyone remember the days when “security” meant having enough trust in those around us to leave our doors unlocked?). The same happens when we accept the illogical premise that it is “normal” to pursue endless economic growth based on finite resources that, if consumed, destroy planetary conditions that support life.
Changing what is “normal” in societies that are deeply influenced by corporate interests begins with rejection of forms of space (e.g., shopping malls, cloned fast food/coffee conglomerates, cubicle workspaces) and time (e.g., chronic busyness, obsessive scheduling, being “on the clock”) that reinforce behaviors and routines that alienate individuals from one another, from the development of a sense of connection to place, and from the clarity of mind that arises when we feel integrated and composed.
Philosopher Henri Lefebvre believed that the fundamental character of a society stems from the everyday habits of its people. Cultural change begins when customs change. As town squares and markets, inviting cafés, locally owned shops, pedestrian streets, and solidly-constructed edifices are eradicated we succumb to a culture of the disposable, banal, isolated, and hurried, dispensed by short-sighted profiteers with little concern for enduring collective well-being.
Fortunately, the antidotes are obvious: We refuse to comply with those who would have us submit to a state of fearful isolation and frantic inability to think clearly, critically, and creatively. We do not allow our thoughts to be constrained by linear, commercially-driven clock-time, and we subvert it by realizing immeasurable, fluid, unstructured time that, infused with intention, flows via its own trajectory and with its own momentum (e.g., jam sessions, potlatch gatherings, quilting bees, European and Latin American café culture, Black Mountain College 1933–1957, entire life-ways of many peoples considered Indigenous). By understanding the detrimental effects of prefabricated space, we can transform or avoid it to the greatest extent possible, and strive to create alternatives that provide inhabitants with deeper senses of connection to one another and to place (e.g., parks, camps, spiritual/religious places of worship, locally-owned establishments, community gardens).
The Obvious International is an imaginary collective—one joins by imagining oneself a part of it. While the collective is imaginary, the relationships it generates and the results of its efforts are quite real—by re-thinking the meaning of evolution, humanity, progress; by reconsidering the meaning of meaning itself; and by living our lives according to what we find, we are setting a bold new course into the present. Each of us can start where we are, first by noticing, then by becoming practitioners of, the arts of the commonplace, the quotidian, the obvious.
This manifesto is intended to serve as a catalyst for further dialog and development of appropriate action. It is neither a starting point nor an end, but an articulation along a trajectory. This text is copyleft, share-ready, and open for comment. Plans, exchanges, designs, and modifications by collaborators will be actively sought, collected, assimilated, and implemented.
1. Paradoxes exist everywhere.
By embracing paradox, we acknowledge the human capacity to perceive subtlety and nuance, and we recognize the speciousness of habitual compartmentalization and dualistic thinking. We may feel separate from nature, but in fact we are both separate and interconnected. We are individuals and members of a society, not either/or. Thought and action are not isolated functions; they are two facets of an intricate, dynamic process.
2. All is in flux.
When we appreciate that nothing is truly static or linear we gain a sense of the astonishing complexity of being. By embracing the idea that everything, including information, is in a constant state of refinement or modification, it becomes clear that conventional forms of communication that require one isolated viewpoint to prevail above another may hinder perception of subtle connections that exist within seeming contradiction. The dialectician’s goal is not to “win” a debate, but instead to pool and analyze knowledge in order to gain a deeper, more holistic understanding of a situation.
3. Culture is in the quotidian.
To change what is normal, we must recraft the commonplace. We must cultivate reverence for and awe at everyday phenomena including air (breathing), hearing, seeing, digestion, flora, fauna, caring, clouds, stars, and the sun. By paying attention to the details of everyday existence (the ways we experience both space and time), we can influence its effect on ourselves and our communities.
This is a dynamic participatory occasion.
Published at Truth-out.org on June 3, 2013.
THE POST-ANTHROPO-SCENE: RECLAIM THE HUMANE
ADDENDUM TO THE MANIFESTO FOR THE OBVIOUS INTERNATIONAL (2014)
Lately I have been exploring the meaning of the word "humane". While it has its roots in the word "human", it refers to compassion and empathy with non-human entities as well ("humane societies" are generally intended to encourage the humane treatment of animals, not people, for example).* A quick internet search reveals a graph of the word’s usage over time; according to this set of data, the adjective "humane" has been on the decline since 1800 (with a brief upward trend in the early 1970s). I can't help but wonder, has the entire concept of humaneness been on the decline too?
Philosopher-physicist Karen Barad routinely uses the word “matter” as a verb. Through the lens of language, she invites us to envision a kind of “post-humanist” world in which humanity along with everything else is not just equal and interconnected, but is intra-connected and ever-becoming – ever-mattering – based on constantly-morphing intra-relationships. Incensed that it is possible to live in a world in which it is of urgent necessity to point out that #BlackLivesMatter (glaring evidence, if ever there was, that the obvious is in dire need of advocates), it is in this active sense of the word "matter" that I am suggesting that #HumanenessMatters. Active humaneness towards everyone and everything of all colors, genders, species, and even presumed status with regard to “aliveness” or “consciousness” is bound to cause an immediate ripple effect, resulting in a measurable increase in overall planet-wide levels of humaneness.
To humanize someone or something – human or otherwise – is to relate to her, him, or it with compassion, on an equal plane with oneself. “To humanize” has elements in common with “anthropomorphize”…to ascribe our own characteristics to things outside of ourselves, such as plants, animals, geological features, or forces of nature. Anthropomorphization is often thought of as a quaint, if slightly risky, poetic device, a handy metaphorical tool, but something that must be used with discretion if we wish to be taken seriously as rational creatures in societies in which it is collectively assumed that humans are different, separate, and superior to everything around us.
On the other hand, to “dehumanize” someone or something is to degrade it, to divorce oneself from responsibility for her, his, or its well-being. Soldiers are trained to de-humanize those deemed enemies in order to fight, kill, or torture them. Imperialists de-humanize pre-established populations in order to colonize their lands. Capitalists often de-humanize labor in order to exploit it. In addition, they may find it necessary to detach themselves emotionally from environments and entities that must be harmed or eradicated in order to maximize profit. De-humanization is routinely employed to justify all manner of predatory behavior.
The ongoing effort to reverse these trends – racism, classism, sexism, speciesism and other oppressive -isms – may be enhanced and accelerated by the radical re-humanization of everyone and everything. A simple mental shift will transform the pigeon in the park or the mountain in the distance from “it” to “him” or “her” (as is standard in many languages other than English). This could be thought of as a kind of “post-anthropomorphism”, the reflexive granting of equal status, respect, and care to every being and every thing. What if we were to begin with the assumption that we are more alike than different and work our way out from there, instead of starting from a position of presumed separateness-until-proven-connected?
Even if you are a scientist, have no fear; this mindset will not permanently impair your capacity for objectivity when necessary, nor will it cause you to do your job less accurately. In fact, you may be able to do it more constructively; empathizing with your specimens could move you to design more humane, ethical, and beneficial experiments. After all, the notion of objective observation is a poetic device too.
It turns out that poetic devices—including our basic assumptions about the ways the world works—can have extremely tangible effects, for better or worse, on the ways we treat each other and the planet we share. By choosing a social imaginary that presumes equality and interrelationship, rather than one that perpetuates exploitation and abuse, our individual everyday lives become re-infused with purpose and meaning. Detachment leads to alienation and nihilism, while caring leads to a sense of cooperation and fulfillment.
In this time when it seems apparent from a cursory glance at the daily news that humans are capable of so much damage and violence, it is important to bear in mind that it is a relatively small percentage of the total population of humans that is causing the majority of the harm, whether through extremist acts of aggression or by a seemingly more innocuous form of fundamentalism: excessive consumerism. For those wooed by such ideologies, gravely destructive acts have become normalized.
But it is not too late to stop the spread of destructive -isms and reclaim the spirit of what it means to think and act humanely – with kindness, compassion, and empathy. If “to humanize” means to connect with another in an intelligent, emotional way that feels uniquely human to us, we can approach this fraught moment in history most constructively and with maximum grace by coming to humanize everything.
* Curiously, most definitions include a reference to “humane” ways of killing.
Published at Truth-out.org on December 26, 2014