As a writer, I’m acutely conscious of the verbal aspect of our thoughts and the ways in which words stand for and ultimately replace experience. As a visual artist, I often endeavor to create and recreate primary experience, unfiltered by verbal descriptions.The thing about words is they are not original. Words are a shared commodity and have a communicative function. Words are transactional and often useful for conveying information that can be understood by others. But we also use words as mechanisms of thought. That’s a problem – because as cultural constructs our words are not our own. Our thoughts are not truly original as far as they are composed of strings of words. And those words have been conveyed to us as substitutes (replacements) for our experience of living in the world.What writers and speakers do is to translate experience into words. That seems simple enough but it is far from a straightforward process. The coercive function of verbal communication is always present in both written and spoken forms of address. Besides the simple conveyance of potentially useful information, words are used to influence those who apprehend them. Words are the primary way in which we attempt to manipulate events to serve our intended purposes. The act of putting things into words is inseparable from the act of intentional (and coercive) presentation of self. It’s a conundrum – perhaps the mother of all conundrums.*When we think about things we’re reprocessing the same words that have been conveyed to us by family, friends, peer groups, politicians, institutions, hucksters, egoists, and wordsmiths of all stripes.It’s important to keep the dual function of words in the forefront of our minds when we’re making sense of the world and our experience. Becoming a critical thinker involves, first and foremost, developing the ability to see words for what they are – imperfect and external substitutes for experience that we reuse and internalize as thoughts. The agendas conveyed by verbal communication are not always apparent but they amount to the standard types of influence peddling in which we all take part. We attempt to gain some leverage over people and events by means of our verbal communication.We’re all complicit in these verbal deceptions. Freeing ourselves from the persuasive and coercive power of words involves looking at how we may be using them in problematic ways.To actually experience nature or people we truly care about, for example, we can work to bypass the tendency we have to instantly translate our experience into words. We can put some distance between our sensations and thinking about them. They are two different things. And the map is not the territory. It is at best a pale imitation of our lives. To be (and to see) in the moment – with an open mind and aesthetic sensibilities – is to accept the impressions we get via our direct experience and to hold off on the desire we have to verbalize. Gaining some ability to do this allows the higher faculties of thought, feeling, and insight – critical, analytical, integrative, and synthetic processes – to exist as “truth filters” as it were. When we do take the inevitable steps toward verbalization, at least we have given consideration to the elusive and complex nature of thought and communication. This is step one in coming to terms with ourselves and with those who would convince us that things are how they want us to see them.*Image: “Words Lie,” Tullio Francesco DeSantis, 2005
Monthly Archives: June 2005
During the initial week of summer I was moved to visit the results of Peter Jon Snyder’s collaborative sculpture project entitled, Stepping Stones into the Future, at the Reading Public Museum. It is a massive creation constructed by the artist and members of the Reading/Berks community and facilitated by the museum. This homage to the summer solstice – on view through the entire season – dramatizes its surroundings and gathers viewers like a giant earth magnet.Strategically positioned on the grounds across from the museum entrance, the spiral earthwork rises up toward the sunlight it honors. The conical pyramid form is surrounded by a series of semiological assemblage sculptures that stand like silent sentinels. They guard the magical entranceway and invite visitors to make the journey up the marble-studded path to reach the summit. I visited the piece when the temperature was near one-hundred degrees. The day was all about the sun and it seemed fitting to make the pilgrimage.The work is accessed from the red bridge over the stream that runs by the front of the museum. Passing the brilliant flower gardens on the tree-lined way provides a positive feeling about this sun-drenched season of growth and bountiful life. Formed of earth, marble, and implements of wood and metal, Stepping Stones into the Future is about both the industrial and the natural aspects of our lives. On the day of my visit, big machines were excavating the street that passes by the side of the work. My mind was filled with the sights and sounds of both ebullient nature and bustling mechanical energy.Unlike much of Snyder’s work the assemblages that accompany the earthwork are mostly unpainted and show natural tones of rusted metal and weathered wood. The predominant hue is brown. Only the broken shards of polished marble that create the spiral pathway provide chromatic variety as they reflect the surrounding trees and the sky overhead. The packed topsoil that forms the structure has been seeded but it may never attain a verdant covering – a situation that is shared by the farmers’ fields struggling to grow through the current dearth of rain. And so it is the raw and sometimes ruthless power of our sun that must be confronted. What makes this sculpture a spiritual experience for me is the rough truth that the same cosmic force that gives life can take it away again. The sun is an awesome and sometimes fearful presence in our lives. And it has always been thus. We tame it with architecture, temper it with air conditioning and irrigation, harness its energy for our needs, and bask in its warming rays. But it can overwhelm our attempts to control its constant energy and render us bone-dry, parched, and brittle. Humans worship the sun because it gives us life and we fear it because it can take life away. The artist’s community-spirited monument here evokes intimations of both life and death.Peter Jon Snyder was one of the first artists I met when I returned to Reading from San Francisco at the beginning of the 1980s. He has always struck me as a focused, brilliant, and exuberant man who is in tune with his inner self. His art is consistently celebratory and positive. In this most recent work I sense a mature vision that encompasses the complexities of experience and reflects a life lived close to the truths of humanity and the realities of existence on earth. We’re fortunate to have this artist and his moving work with us as we step into the future.*Images by TFD, 2005
One of the things we take along when we “go on vacation” is the content of our minds. We don’t get to leave that part of us at home, do we? And when you come right down to it, that’s what we experience – no matter where we are or what we’re doing. Is your mind often a jumble of contradictory desires? Are you constantly trying to please others while at the same time trying to satisfy an endless stream of personal urges? A break from all that is really what I mean by taking a vacation from your head. As the basic reason for this journal’s existence is cultivating and furthering an aesthetic frame of reference, I didn’t stop taking mental notes related to the topic at hand during my recent vacation. I’m back with some well-learned lessons on what it takes to be aesthetically experiencing life in the moment. Perhaps you can draw some parallels to your own needs as they relate to what it really means to take a vacation.First, there’s the vacation from work. During past vacations I’ve stayed close enough to my work to make sure I had an Internet connection available. This time, I didn’t worry about that. And as my work is all about the Internet, I was definitely not at work during this most recent vacation. That helped.Also, I was acutely aware of the desire to write about this experience as a way to touch base with how different an aesthetic state of mind can be from many of the other states of mind in which we find ourselves. The touch point I used as a measure of how in the moment I could be was the ocean. I spent hours before it with the express purpose of emptying my mind and allowing the raw sensory input of the sun, sand, and waves to replace the welter of useless thoughts that normally crop up in daily life.It turns out that was the perfect solution. I had something with which to compare my various states of mind that was immediate and always available. As I moved out from our home base – very near the beach at Cape May – and engaged in the panoply of experiences available within miles of that point, I could gauge the difference between my head when it was filled with nothing but the sound and scent of the surf and when it was bombarded by a zillion forms of sensory input on the boardwalk at Wildwood, for example. Of course the whole idea of cultivating an aesthetic state of mind is that it is eminently transportable. You can bring it with you wherever you go. That’s another goal of this journal. I’m interested in including all of human experience as available to our aesthetic comprehension and contrasting that with the other ways we’re accustomed to looking at life. And so it goes. The small lesson here is that it helps to have an aesthetic touch point – a type of experience that allows us to stand away from the ways we’re used to seeing things. Only when we’re able to distance ourselves from the many distractions that confuse us can we really experience things as they are in the moment. And this comes before developing a critical state of mind – something I’ve been discussing at length in these entries.Developing a critical state of mind is actually dependent upon being able to identify a basic starting point for one’s experience. And I find that nature in its raw magnificence does supply this for me. I take my sustenance from the sights, sounds, scents, and splendor of the natural landscape and then I work to bring that essential wholeness and calmness along with me when I move through the quotidian reality that I engage in transforming life into art and back again.*Image by TFD, 2005
Driving to Sunday’s Pocono 500 provided an opportunity to reflect upon our lives in relation to the automobile and how the total-immersion world of NASCAR racing is a metaphor for our relationship to machines and media – the prime movers of our postmodern culture. On the drive home from the race, I was thinking about the preeminent role that television plays in our lives, how televised reality is the standard against which other realities are measured, and how pre-packaged experience replaces what is sometimes referred to as the “real world.”Five miles from the track NASCAR fans were everywhere apparent. We began funneling our vehicles into snake-like rows that inched forward past rickety roadside stands selling everything from unlicensed car and driver apparel to counterfeit tickets and illegal fireworks. Some folks had started their tailgate parties early and in-transit – grilling franks in the back of moving pickups, waving racing flags and banners, or driving with sliding van doors wide open. Passengers were drinking beer beside life-size cardboard cutouts of favorite drivers sticking out of their vans into the few feet between vehicles making their way to the speedway Mecca. The tailgate party proper began in the parking area the night before the race. Piles of crushed beer cans attested to the vast prior consumption of party-hearty participants. Nearly everyone was wearing a picture of a car, a car number, or driver and many canopy-covered gatherings were graced by the full-size facsimile figures of the most popular racers on the circuit. U.S. flags and patriotic stickers, banners, and apparel shared the space along with NASCAR-related imagery. NASCAR is not just about racing. It’s about an idea of America itself – a robust, rowdy, free-to-be-me vision of American consumerism and branded self-expression.Entering the fenced-in raceway grounds I was immediately surrounded by dozens of titanic trailers emblazoned with gaudy allover race graphics and displaying all manner of racing collectibles. It’s de rigueur to purchase t-shirts commemorating attendance at big events like this and long lines of ready buyers made this patently clear. Inside the track structure itself – beneath the grandstand – I was struck by the distinct notion that this was a totally mobile city – a city built entirely with branded products emblazoned on every available space. The average attendance at NASCAR races is 180,000 and it’s clearly a very like-minded citizenry – united by the love of automobile racing, but even more, united by participation in an ultra-branded postmodern ritual – one that is connected to every aspect of life. Fans buy the cars produced by the sponsored automakers, watch the races and the pre- and post-race productions in their living rooms, buy the long lists of NASCAR-branded products, and identify their loyalties by means of clothing, speech, and behavior. Postmodern thinkers who see the roots of Roman and Nazi crowd-control-and-influence methodology in contemporary live events have resurrected the significance of the coercive function of spectacle in contemporary society. However, as I see it, it seems that today the live event functions merely as to-be-recollected sensory accompaniment to the televised or otherwise electronically mediated experience. The spectacles that dazzle us do so primarily via our electronic and digital media.These races, for example, are better seen on TV. And televised races constitute the vast majority of races experienced by race fans. One attends a live event primarily in order to collect the various sensorial inputs – the sounds of the cars at near two hundred mile-per-hour speeds, the smell of fuel and rubber, the feel of the crowd. Later, these memories enhance the professionally produced experiences we attend to on a daily basis.Electronically reconstituted performance is enhanced in ways that magnify the ability of the audience to perceive aspects of the performance that are unavailable to live viewers. We form base impressions of our significant spectacles – from rock concerts to presidential campaigns – from television and other media. Live experience exists to add additional data to events-as-media. It does not stand alone. In our current cultural mindset, television and other electronic media are the ultimate standard of what is real and they are our preferred method of apprehending the world. More and more, we form our conceptions of the world from experiences that have been created, packaged, and marketed to us. Our views are not our own – instead, we have been urged as willing consumers to acquire them from corporate sponsors. We may not acknowledge it but our tribal pride in them and our eagerness to flaunt their symbols belie our protestations to the contrary. Once I had collected the relevant sights, sounds, and paraphernalia of the Pocono 500 on site, I left the venue and motored back home to watch the finish of the race on television – where I had a better view. *Pocono 500 Images by Tullio Francesco DeSantis, 2005
As sports entertainment goes, America’s major markets (large metropolitan areas) have their home teams. But NASCAR, by virtue of its widespread track circuit – based in the heartlands of middle America – is the sport of choice for much of the rest of the country. And in the past decade, it has become very big business – so big, in fact, that NASCAR Cup races rate complete major network coverage (FOX), NASCAR-related programs fill a very large part of the programming on the Speed Network, and MRN Radio Network covers the races on 650 stations. The nation’s top advertisers know that NASCAR fans are the most loyal brand-conscious consumers among all sport enthusiasts and they have jumped at the opportunity to sponsor vehicles in the Nextel Cup circuit, NASCAR Busch Series, and the NASCAR Craftsman Truck competition.NASCAR is surely the most heavily branded and packaged sports entertainment phenomenon in the world. Cars and drivers are covered with sponsor logos and color schemes in an all-over manner. Because NASCAR is a private family-owned business, there are no unions or disclosures that require open contracts and drivers make secret deals with sponsors. We do not know their salaries, for example. But it costs from ten to 20 million dollars to sponsor a Nextel Cup car for a racing season and there’s no dearth of takers. The heavily researched demographic of brand-conscious NASCAR loyalists is legendary in contemporary marketing.It was Tom Wolfe, whose pivotal 1965 piece on driver Junior Johnson in Esquire magazine, that propelled the rowdy, greasy, dusty, ornery, and down-home world of NASCAR to the pristine reading rooms of the global intelligentsia. Films like Stroker Ace and Days of Thunder dramatized the NASCAR experience and today’s green-to-checkered flag television coverage brings it into our homes in wide-screen, high-definition, and surround-sound.I find myself so thoroughly fascinated by this all-encompassing life-as-media world of NASCAR racing and what it says about us as a culture that I spend a lot of time thinking and writing about it. I have an overarching interest in the union of man and machine. This relationship, which distinguishes us from other species, seems to have a hold on me – especially as regards trying to define what it is about us that seems most significant in contemporary life and culture.I see us as not being separate from our culture/technology since the days before our ancestors climbed down from trees and began their habitation of caves. What this means to me is that for at least the last hundred thousand years, there has not been a human animal that is an entity that can be distinguished from a man/technology entity. We use machines to the degree that they become us and we become them. That’s just how it looks to me. Those thinkers who see us as something different from our technology confound me. It is a popular fiction – but a fiction nonetheless.Taking it as I do that we are a human/technology entity, I prefer activities that acknowledge this fact. I do not have a lot of appreciation for romantic notions of the individual person who stands somehow opposed to technology or to its total embrace. I see such ideas as throwbacks to a mythical time when the contemporary landscape was not a biomechanical entity and the merits of individuals were measured by the effort of their minds and sinews alone. In this context it seems to me that NASCAR racing represents the ultimate presentation of the facts of the matter. The fact that NASCAR is a packaged and marketed total-immersion phenomenon gives me an opportunity to observe, reflect upon, and write about something that typifies what is happening to us as participants, observers, and consumers of a tightly organized postmodern culture.The concepts that most intrigue me about all this have to do with three ideas: we live in a television-mediated world; television trumps life; and our thoughts are primarily composed of concepts which are branded, packaged, and marketed to us. *Pocono 500 Images by Tullio Francesco DeSantis, 2005
Minded by Media For many years I lauded the potential of communications technology to correct the isolating and alienating forces of contemporary life. I saw global media as the cure for narrowly defined viewpoints and as the best way to unite people around the world in conversation and collaboration toward mutually rewarding pursuits. I thought interactive media would allow ever-expanding opportunities for citizens to become content creators rather than simply mindless consumers. The positive potential of global media is still here but, judging from the ways in which commercial interests have monopolized it, it is an unrealized – and perhaps unrealizable – potential. What has become most apparent regarding contemporary media is how manipulative and downright coercive it can be. The influence of multi-million dollar marketing research is all-pervasive. Measurable responses to particular forms of suggestion and manipulation, from the placement of products and their attendant messages to psychological cues that trigger our unconscious impulses, are strategically mapped on to every sector of the marketplace. And as a result of the always-on, always connected aspects of personal electronic technology, the marketplace is everywhere. We are rendered highly susceptible to suggestion and we are made to feel inferior and unsatisfied in ways that extend into our personal and social lives. Judging from two recent books on the subject, I am not alone in my suspicion that what was once viewed as something having a unique potential to free us has become something that is well on its way to capturing and perhaps enslaving us. Douglas Rushkoff, a long-time enthusiastic advocate of the liberating potential of contemporary media has changed his tune for the new millennium. In his well-conceived book, Coercion, Rushkoff reports with detailed specificity as he argues his case against the pernicious takeover of global media by marketing technologies. He includes everything from interactive content, entertainment media, concerts, sporting events, and news programs to the planograms used to place products before us and guide our impulses toward instant gratification. We Know What You Want : How They Change Your Mind, by Martin Howard (with a foreword by Rushkoff) functions as a companion piece to Coercion in much the same way that, nearly forty years ago, Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore’s, The Medium is the Massage, functioned as a companion piece to McLuhan’s large-scale media study entitled, Understanding Media. The recent work of Rushkoff is a clarion call (perhaps a cry in the wilderness) for media literacy. If we are not educated in ways that allow us to understand what is happening to us as a result of inhabiting a reality that is rendered up to us via media we will succumb to it as inevitably as moths drawn to a flame. The scale and scope of the collective forces of big-budget advertising and psychological-motivation research are far too strong to be experienced without a critical perspective. Sadly, media literacy is not a significant enough aspect of our educational system. Children are left without critical contexts to experience the onslaught of media messages directed at them. They are increasingly manipulated into becoming demanding consumers of hundreds of things they do not need and would do better without. As we are several generations into this trend, there are many millions of adults who have been guided into an eternal state of frustrated and needy post-adolescence by a lifetime of exposure to media marketing and influence. The books listed above can serve as excellent introductions to the subject. In the absence of public education self-education is required. Arming oneself with a knowledge of the techniques used to coerce us into becoming something that we would prefer not to become is the best strategy for regaining some personal control over managing one’s conditioned impulses and manipulated desires. I suggest we start putting in some personal work on resisting the lure of mindless consumerism and induced low self-esteem by learning what is being done to us while we are being informed and entertained. Ultimately, we serve each other by this process since much of what we are and how we behave is socially regulated. A media-savvy population is the best antidote for a media-created worldview.
During an enchanting evening attending the Alpha/Omega Players encore performance of Godspell, I found myself reflecting upon the nature of man, the consciousness revolution that occurred during the second part of the 20th century, how popular media is uniquely suited to conveying powerful messages, and the simple essence of spiritual truth.The show and the continued existence of the theater group have been made possible by new funding from the borough of Birdsboro and J.P. Mascaro & Sons. Alpha/Omega nearly lost viability as a result of low funding and the need for renovations to their building. The reprise performances of Godspell (June 3rd and 4th; first presented in April) were a celebration and a thank you to the community for the theater’s newfound lease on life. Casting was superb. The talented performers gave every ounce of energy and enthusiasm to their performances. And that created a palpable sense of enjoyment in the audience. As Godspell is a perennial favorite among small-theater fare, many folks were seeing it again. Alpha/Omega’s version was as good as this show ever needs to be. The ensemble sang the familiar repertoire pitch-perfectly and with great panache.Godspell presents a group of adults dressed as fantastic young boys and girls acting out sketches related to The Gospel of St. Matthew. The costuming and on-stage antics of the cast create a situation where humans are portrayed as idealized flower children – innocent and lovable. Our sympathies are with them from the start. Underscored in the Stephen Schwartz script is the utter simplicity of the teachings of Christ. They are comprised of comprehensible nuggets of spiritual truth – hard to put into practice but easy to apprehend. This is a laudable approach and it is appropriate to the underlying messages here.This practice of popularizing arcane spiritual and philosophical wisdom is as old as the theater itself and has its roots in the ancient tales told by all cultures. The revolutions in world culture that shook the 1960s gave this trend a media-induced boost. Churches held rock versions of the Mass and all forms of media became “message conscious” in a way that echoed marketing methodologies.The trend itself is not without its inherent problems. The way in which new and different concepts can be disseminated by mass media is most effective in swaying large populations under the guise of entertaining them. There seems no limit to the number of radical, socially problematic, and downright offensive messages that can be foisted upon audiences using these techniques. Yet, in the context of Godspell, there’s nothing to be concerned about except for the underlying persuasiveness and all-pervasiveness of this approach.An absence of Christ-like living is characteristic of our lives today. The most basic and self-evidently constructive ways to treat each other and ourselves – charitably and with respect – seem lost to us. The notion that our daily lives can be suffused with love for our neighbor is alien to most of the situations in which we find ourselves. A non-sectarian and generalized understanding of the values that can tether our minds and give us cohesiveness as a civilization is crucial to our continued well being. The flexibility and adaptability of Godspell make it uniquely able to grow with us and even give us a sense of tradition as we move forward through the postmodern era.