I’m interested in people

leave me alone


[I teach in Goddard College’s MFA in Interdisciplinary Arts program. As part of my teaching practice, I periodically send my advising group a letter that speaks to some element of pedagogy, art theory, art practice, my practice, or the program’s degree criteria. I sometimes share the letters here.]

1 May 2017

Dear friends,

I feel uncertain of time. One the one hand, the semester seems to be racing toward summer. On the other, my to-do list feels without end. I suppose this is what they mean by being in the thick of it.

In Provincetown, the tourists are beginning to arrive. Every spring, this tide changes the town’s mood. Many feel encroached upon. Regardless of my occasional pique at bad manners, I genuinely love the rush of people who fill our streets. I love bumping into vacationing friends I haven’t seen in years, and I very much enjoy how vacations, really just a kind of unstructured time, reveal the essentially human qualities of those navigating a busy place—checking each other out, acting out, and seeing themselves, perhaps, in the expressions of another. It always reminds me of the first stanza of Walt Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”:

Flood-tide below me! I see you face to face!
Clouds of the west—sun there half an hour high—I see you also face to face.

Crowds of men and women attired in the usual costumes, how curious you are to me!
On the ferry-boats the hundreds and hundreds that cross, returning home, are more curious to me than you suppose,
And you that shall cross from shore to shore years hence are more to me, and more in my meditations, than you might suppose.

Indeed, the people who fill Provincetown’s streets are in my meditations more than they might suppose.

Why is that?

I’m teaching a leadership seminar this semester, and thinking a lot about the imperatives of navigating difference, of communicating values, of moving an agenda without ethical stumbles. Reading Ryszard Kapuściński’s essay, “Encountering the Other: The Challenge for the 21st Century,” I found this:

“Emmanuel Levinas calls the encounter with the Other an ‘event’ or even a ‘fundamental event,’ the most important experience, reaching to the farthest horizons. Levinas, as we know, was one of the philosophers of dialogue, along with Martin Buber, Ferdinand Ebner, and Gabriel Marcel (a group that later can to include Jozef Tischner), who developed the idea of the Other as a unique and unrepeatable entity, in more or less direct opposition to two phenomena that arose in the 20th century: the birth of the masses that abolished the separateness of the individual, and the expansion of destructive totalitarian ideologies…

“Levinas suggested, one must not only stand face to face and conduct a dialogue, but for whom one must ‘take responsibility.’ In terms of relations with the Other and Others, the philosophers of dialogue rejected war because it led to annihilation; they criticized the attitudes of indifference or building walls; instead, they proclaimed the need–or even the ethical obligation–for closeness, openness, and kindness.”

Days later, Facebook ‘memories’ reminded me of some reading I’d done in 2011:

Writing about Hannah Arendt’s conception of public space that allows people to appear before each other as “the best they know how to be,” Maxine Greene goes further: “In contexts of this kind, open contexts where persons attend to one another with interest, regard and care, there is a place for the appearance of freedom, the achievement of freedom by people in search of themselves.” (Releasing the Imagination)

How do we meet people in service to achieving freedom?

Perhaps it’s an obvious statement, but I’m interested in people. But I’m increasingly aware not everyone is. Whether it’s woundedness or something more intrinsic, so many tell me they’re done with people. I’ve periodically retreated myself so I understand—at least through a tiny lens. But I know myself through social interactions, too.

Mirrors are a modern invention, at least in evolutionary terms… and certainly in terms of mass production. Throughout history people have caught glimpses of their faces on the surface of water or otherwise, but never to the degree that we see ourselves mechanistically today. For most of our history we ‘saw’ through encounter with beings who could reflect a glimmer back, which would engender a counter reflection…and so on. That’s the thing Levinas refers to as dialogue.

But it breaks down. The best dialogues arise in curiosity, and enable us to stand eye-to-eye as Levinas suggests. But we’re trained not to stop, not to look, and to walk past. No strangers. Danger everywhere. And that establishes divisions. And division easily leads to defensiveness, eventually to conflict—or withdrawal and self-defeating behaviors.

I’m part of a critique group that meets once a month. Every six to eight months it’s my turn to show work or prompt a conversation. In an hour, I’m presenting. I feel like I’m in an odd place. My life and work are going well. I’ve achieved a number of goals recently. I’m teaching and very much enjoying the work. I’m making artwork, showing it, and receiving positive response. I’m living in a beautiful place, and I have caring friends. I’ve recently finished a degree in writing, and built a manuscript that I believe to have value. I’m working on a big public project that I’m passionate about. But I also feel stuck, and worry that in achieving some goals I’m becoming more deeply who I am, and not becoming who I might be. The work I’m doing, the projects I’ve undertaken rely on skills and abilities—facets of myself—that I developed long ago. But, I’m unsatisfied, too. I’m hungry for encounter. I’m eager to become something more.

Theoretically, our method of teaching and learning calls us into encounter. It’s the core of Progressive Education theory. Encounter requires some kind of faith—in our ability to navigate the unknown and in the intuitive attractions that draw us in one direction and not the other. Drawing on Sam Keen’s definition of the erotic – focusing more on potentialities than the sexual – bell hooks writes about these attractions within educational encounters:

Understanding that eros is a force that enhances our overall effort to be self actualizing, that it can provide and epistemological grounding informing how we know what we know, enables both professor and students to use such energy in a classroom setting in ways that invigorate discussion and excite the critical imagination. (Teaching to Transgress p. 195)

I suppose that’s the crux of it: self-actualizing isn’t self-centered. It requires the presence of others. And it requires a reciprocal commitment to depth, or as hooks puts it, to exciting the critical imagination. But I find reciprocity to be difficult to achieve, perhaps because my expectations get in the way. I want reciprocity to be forever, but my experience of it is fleeting. It comes and goes, like a tide.

One thought on “I’m interested in people

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