7/1/16 Philosophy, Politics and the Role of the Artist, Part I
In 2005, as part of my graduation requirement for my low residency MFA program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, I gave a craft lecture titled “In Defense of Telling: How to Put Ideas in Your Short Fiction,” which eventually was published in early 2008 as an essay at Segue Journal’s Writers on Writing, which can be read here: http://www.mid.muohio.edu/segue/wow/baker-defense.swf. In that essay I discuss how classic American short story writers such as James Baldwin, Flannery O’Connor, and John Cheever integrated their world views into their short stories. That essay begins:
I really began thinking about the “vision thing” after the 2004 American elections. During that time, with so many of my fellow writers and teachers in despair over the direction our country was headed, I recalled a passage from one of my favorite short stories, “This Morning, This Evening, So Soon.” In the story, a French film director is in a bar talking to a group of young African Americans who are traveling around Europe. He tells them his opinion about the United States: “I cannot help saying that I think it is a scandal—and we all may pay very dearly for it—that a civilized nation should elect to represent itself a man who is so simple that he thinks the world is simple.”
The essay continues, “I’ve yet to read a recent story that resonates as much for me about the state of America today as that story written by James Baldwin and published in 1960.” Baldwin’s words from “The New Lost Generation” which I also quote in my essay resonate even more in 2017, “Americans have so little experience—experience referring not to what happens, but to who—that they have no key to the experience of others. Our current relations with the world forcibly suggest that there is more than a little truth to this.” In 2005 Baldwin’s comments formed my own moral imperative to write not only about the “what” but more so the “who,” which provides us with insight into the experience of others.
The more I travel and meet writers from other countries, the more I notice that so many American writers shy away from politically engaging work, often by claiming that the novel or short story is no place for political polemics. And yet, decisions about what to write or not write are always political. For example, the decision to write a novel or short story set in the millennium and to not acknowledge that our country is at war, is a political decision. To write about characters who are only white and upper middle class is a political decision. To scrub wars and race and class differences from a work of fiction is a political decision, an erasure of the reality of so much of the world. Baldwin’s exhortation still applies—it is important for artists to not only look at what is happening but to who, and I would add, why.
This is why I think it’s important to seek out American literature (often from smaller presses) that engages with the who and the why. And it’s equally important to read writers from other countries, who often seem more comfortable engaging in philosophical or political matters. For example, as a visiting writer at the recent three-day St. Martin Book Fair, I met many Caribbean authors representing a region of mixed races, cultures, languages, and colonies, who are addressing the effects of colonization in their work. Conversations, radio interviews, readings, and panel events often focused on how to write about the complicated effects of colonization on these countries. For example, the island where the conference was held, is divided into the French side, St. Martin, and the Dutch side, St. Maarten, resulting in an invisible border that divides the island linguistically and politically. At the book fair’s opening event, the President of the University of St. Martin, Dr. Francio Guadeloupe, began his welcome speech with a question: Can artists respond to the insight that the technological is the colonial?
Since hearing that question, I’ve been pondering that “insight.” What does it mean that the technological is colonial, and how might an artist respond to that insight? I’m still not sure, but am glad Guadeloupe’s provocative phrase has me considering it. Technology is historical as well as colonial—the invention of the wheel was a technological invention, and like most technological developments, it was embraced with optimism. And yet with each technological advancement comes not only innovation and improved standards of living, but also the desire to conquer and expand—boats allowed Europeans to conquer the Americas, and trains allowed Americans to conquer the West. (For a more in-depth analysis, see Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond.) In that sense, those with the most advanced technology are the ones most likely to colonize.
Today, nation-states do not have as much control over technology as the global corporations do; corporations run by technocrats, the elite group of technical experts who have emerged as the managers of society. As these technocrats control the use and spread of technology, their role can arguably be viewed through a colonialist lens. For example, technocrats control our access to social media and the devices we use to access it. They control who is surveilled and why. They control who is bombed by drones, and who is killed by drones extra-judiciously. They control technology to track our movements. The technocrats encourage the spread of technology and our dependence on it, enabling them to have increasing control over our lives, especially through mobile devices.
As a kind of commentary on the power and reach of these technocrats, Guadeloupe had this to say in his speech:
“As politically heuristic as the distinctions between despots and democrats, atheists and theists, creationists and evolutionists, or in more macro terms the imperial West and the developmentally arrested non-West may be, these fade into insignificance when one comes to see that the technological is the colonial.”
To me, this section of the speech raises several points. First, as artists (and as humans) we often see the world in binary terms which lead us away from more significant matters. For example, an American atheist might write on social media that Vladimir Putin, a despot, is undermining American democracy. However, the control that several multi-national corporations have over the world is much more significant than these heuristic distinctions we often focus on. So, if we want to really examine what is happening and to whom, then we should be looking at these corporations’ technocrats and their colonization of almost all aspects of our lives—education, communication, finance. These technocrats’ goals may not be “bad,” and in fact many technological advances offer the world immense benefits, but there can be little doubt that the system is now designed to allow for the consolidation of power by the few, which is certainly a form of colonization.
For example, I write this essay from San Cristobal de las Casas in Mexico, a city of colonial Spanish architecture—Baroque, Neo-classical, and Moorish—with churches and cobblestone streets, a region known for its local indigenous textiles. I am able to write this essay because I have a computer and my comfortable hotel room provides wi-fi so I can research and deliver this piece remotely. My brother, who is traveling with us, is also able to work remotely, as long as he has access to the internet. Earlier this morning I practiced Spanish with my Duo Lingo app on my I-phone, and texted my brother who is staying with my 14-year-old-nephew on the other side of town. Later, I will walk the cobblestone streets to Tierras Mayas Language school and take private Spanish lessons for three hours a day. There the instructors rely on handwritten notes, a few worn photocopies, and a whiteboard they erase with a crumbled piece of paper. The windows in my classroom look out over the mountains and city below. It’s a cliché, but these human interactions in the absence of modern technology are the most memorable part of my stay here.
Meanwhile, children who are barely five years old walk up and down the streets carrying bright souvenirs and tchotchkes for tourists like me to buy. Often, if those children do not bring home enough money, they are beaten or are kicked out of their home. The eyes of those children, desperate and pleading, are the eyes of the Syrian refugee children I encountered in Turkey two years ago; they are the eyes of children on the streets in Zambia from eight years ago; they are the eyes of homeless children in Cambodia from twenty years ago, of children in the the slums of the United States today. They are the eyes of the forgotten children of the world.
San Cristobal is also one of the cities the Zapatistas briefly occupied during the 1994 Zapatista uprising against NAFTA, which cancelled an article in Mexico’s constitution which protected Native communal landholdings from sale or privatization. Here in San Cristobal, NAFTA, free trade, and technology (what), has allowed (who) people like me and my brother to travel in comfort and ease while it has not helped and perhaps hurt the indigenous people (who) remain excluded from the technological order.
Further in his speech, Guadeloupe regards artists as “the keepers of non-conformity” and encourages them to foreground this insight in their work, to focus on the human. As David Sessions writes in The New Republic, it has become increasingly necessary to form “a society that prioritizes human flourishing over private profit, and strong political networks that guard public goods against the prophets of an atomized, high-tech future. However difficult that society may be to achieve, one thing about the present gives hope. We are finally getting clear about who its enemies are” (see https://newrepublic.com/article/143004/rise-thought-leader-how-superrich-funded-new-class-intellectual).
Guadeloupe ended his speech with another question:
“The question worth contemplating is whether artists (active in all professions and walks of life) are creating art that entreats us to unconceal another way of being and becoming with the rest of existence while acknowledging in a radically transformative way the partial goods brought about by our global technological order?”
Guadeloupe’s bracing call to “unconceal another way of being” reminds me of the Russian formalist Viktor Shklovsky’s assertion that the purpose of art is to help us “set the mind in a state of radical unpreparedness” “to see and hear as if for the first time.” It seems that for me, as a writer, I am taking all this advice as something of an exhortation to return to Baldwin. Now, I am trying to ask not only what is happening, but to whom? And how, do I, as an artist, as a human being, respond?