Epidemiology, scares, containment narratives. This is what the authoritarian state uses against those who would live joyfully upon the earth. But even under rough trades, we can care for each other. Exercise compassion. Release birds from cages, shake rattles. Maintain a vibrant village. Keep each other well-housed and well-fed. Meanwhile news everywhere of schools migrating online, education conducted remotely for the remainder of the semester. These are unprecedented times.
It’s been several weeks since I last sat before the window for morning meditation in the room above the garage, facing outward, to the street to the trees to the sky. Meditation has instead become a yoga integrated into everyday life. This is election season, wealthy billionaire politicians throwing their money around to fill the air with lame signage as our cars and bodies zip around through outer space. Enough is enough! The time has come for change. Jerry Farber spells it out, tells it plain in his essay “The Student and Society: An Annotated Manifesto.” “Students can change things if they want to,” he writes, “because they have the power to say ‘no.’ When you go to school, you’re doing society a favor. And when you say ‘no,’ you withhold much more than your attendance. You deny continuity to the dying society; you put the future on strike. Students can have the kind of school they want — or even something else entirely if they want — because there isn’t going to be any school at all without them” (17). The problem, however, is that students lack consciousness of themselves as a class. They’re divided. Some of them continue to see school as a privilege. Hence the need for teachers — those outside voices who, like the character in Socrates’s cave allegory, return to the cave to free the others. If only I could assign Theodore Roszak’s book Sources, described in its subtitle as “An anthology of contemporary materials useful for preserving personal sanity while braving the great technological wilderness.” Roszak’s introduction points the reader back to Dwight MacDonald’s earlier book The Root is Man. These are important works within a largely forgotten strain of postwar thought: a kind of radical Marxist Humanism.
Literature can be used to educate the whole person. Readings prompt studies of the psyche—studies of authors and characters as well as studies of ourselves. But these studies of selfhood and personhood can lead us—so long as we’re attentive enough, so long as we read carefully enough—from microcosm to macrocosm, from worldview to world. Consciousness of the cosmos and our place in it. They help us build cognitive maps, as Fredric Jameson would say. Intimations of who we are, what we are, when we are, where we are, how we are. Injustices are registered, confronted, acknowledged; we contemplate demands rightly made upon us by the aggrieved across history. Those amid us who are crying, let us comfort them. The maps may have differences, they may emerge for each participant individually, revelation and awakening scaled to each person; yet this awareness is of our commonality, revealed through our interactions as fellow Beings in dialogue over shared texts. As the Western Buddhist Beats who inhabit Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums would say, we recognize operating throughout history a “Brahman”—a common consciousness or common ground of Being manifesting among the particulars of identity and historical circumstance. Taken in aggregate, these manifestations tell a story, however paratactically—a narrative history of which each of us is a part. This recognition of our relationship to history can’t be put into words, exactly, other than by declaring as Charles Olson does in his poem “The Kingfishers,” “This very thing you are” (171).
They: the standardizers, the calculators, the settlers. They convert by use of culture, / but cultures need not comply. We can learn other languages, teach other literatures, wise up, rise up.
Here I am, new to parenting, preparing a talk on pedagogy. What do I take as lessons from the one for the other? Both involve sound and space and movement. I dance around the room, whether it be the classroom or the living room, encouraging recognition of conditions of experience held in common, resummoning along the way history as an epic poem recited anew at every moment. In the classroom, there’s some of what Gregory Bateson discusses in Steps To an Ecology of Mind (though it’s there, too, perhaps, in my work as a parent). Spread across the early pages of Bateson’s book are a series of “metalogues”: metaphysical dialogues between a daughter and her father. Bateson defined the metalogue as “a conversation about some problematic subject” (1), though he stipulates that the conversation reflect as well on itself and its structure, hence the “meta.” That, I think, is akin to what I do as a teacher. It’s akin, as well, to what M.C. Richards does in her book Centering. Like Bateson, Richards introduces Centering as “interdisciplinary” — though Bateson says his book earns this description not just by exchanging information between and across pairs of disciplines “but in discovering patterns common to many.” The worlds rendered by the disciplines fall short of the one known by holists like Richards and Bateson.
I meet with former students for fun earnest honest conversation over drafts of beer. I trust and believe in them to do what is right. I sense them growing and awakening, having taught them several semesters prior. They are fellows, I think, in a shared story of transformation: what M.C. Richards calls “education as lived life” (Centering, p. 5). We build bridges to pick up from where last left off. We recognize each other as kindred spirits, shared in our plight despite differences of circumstance. Land, money-power — how to enter into right relations with the former amid the latter. Back home I feel sort of useless, unable to help parent due to a head cold, drowsiness and sinus pain, alas and alack. What is one to do? Too cold to walk the streets but for a few minutes spent gazing at the stars, the half moon above my head.
I attended school in my late teens and early twenties — my undergraduate and early graduate years — in upstate New York in the city of Syracuse — and yet never in that time did I become knowledgeable about my Indigenous neighbors, the Onondaga Nation. They refuse to participate in the US Census, refusing to be made “knowledgeable” in that sense, available for apprehension as an object by census-takers, makers of imperial knowledge. They shield themselves from imperial eyes. How does it work? Are borders maintained with police? Is there a system of entrance and exit? Where am I, if not in the world where all of that is happening? How do I become an ally? Are there language barriers? How am I only just now arriving to these questions? A change must have occurred in the way I think. The Onondaga people live on 35 square miles of land one mile north of Syracuse. They base their lifeways on lunar cycles. They treat animals and bodies of water as kin. Are there ways for others to learn their language?
Fall foliage fills the day with color. Rich reds and yellows appear all around me as I drive around town collecting tools and parts, a would-be repairman. Maria Montessori’s been on my mind lately. I’ve been reading a handbook she wrote for American parents and teachers, originally published in 1914. Her approach to teaching, the famous Montessori Method, involved introduction of didactic material into children’s playhouses. Good to a point, I suppose — but I’d rather be playing multi-dimensional chess. Fredric Jameson likens our present reality to the latter in his new book Allegory and Ideology. The game is one where “a number of distinct chessboards coexist simultaneously with distinct configurations of forces on each, so that a move on any one of these boards has distinct but unforeseeable consequences for the configurations and the relative power-relations on the others” (191). Similar games appear in Sun Ra’s Space is the Place and Brian C. Short’s novel New People of the Flat Earth. “We live in just such a world,” Jameson writes, “just such a totality” (191).
What happens when, as an experiment, we treat moments of our lives as “encounters”? What were people doing when they joined T-groups, encounter groups, and consciousness-raising groups in the 60s and 70s at places like Esalen? How were these groups organized? Did facilitators exercise claims to authority in these groups? Were they like teachers? Workshop leaders? Pastors? Counselors? Therapists? Gurus? A bit of all of the above, I suppose. Groups fulfill needs of an emotional, psychological, and spiritual sort among people who have come free of traditional affiliations: disaffected subjects seeking re-enchantment, players in search of new games. Such people arrive at these groups and games as they wander markets, festivals, circuits, and arcades. The encounter groups of the 60s and 70s were sites where “role-playing” got its start. Games like Dungeons & Dragons emerged in roughly the same moment and milieu. What’s interesting about encounter groups is that participants trust their feelings to “a bunch of strangers,” rather than to uniformed technocrats, “experts,” priests, and elites. The encounter group is also interesting in that it births group consciousness through use of cybernetic feedback mechanisms. Group members are observed by facilitators. The facilitator reports these observations back to the group. The latter then react to the reports and the cycle begins anew, in much the same way “rounds” occur in D&D. Thomas R. Verney describes two favorite techniques of role-play used by Gestalt therapist Fritz Perls during the latter’s time at Esalen in the 60s and 70s: the “two chair” technique and another called “play the projection.” Could techniques of that sort have a place, I wonder, in one of my courses? Verny’s book Inside Groups: A Practical Guide to Encounter Groups & Group Therapy answers many of my questions. The least authoritarian of the leaders he describes are those he calls “T-group trainers.” The T-group trainer, he writes, “is usually described as a facilitator and a catalyst” (28). Leadership of this sort involves paraphrasing what is said by the group, acting as a mirroring instrument so that members can know themselves and the group can self-actualize. Encounter group leaders are a bit more unpredictable, their methods and techniques less subject to professionalization and external supervision. As for the techniques themselves, Verny writes, these are primarily “verbal and nonverbal confrontation, psychodrama, Gestalt, and sensory awareness,” as well as “fantasy, meditation, and transactional analysis” (34-35).
Students and I grow together as heads by reading and discussing literature about consciousness. Minds throughout the ages trying to know themselves. This is literature about education and enlightenment, minds as they undergo alteration and metamorphosis. Patterns disclose themselves, meaningful coincidences compound over time — formal and thematic resonances that defy existing paradigms. By attempting to interpret these, we arrive at new conceptions, new understandings beyond existing enclosures of possibility.