john brown’s truth, or the experience of art

Despair is the deepest wound of alienation. It cripples; it can kill. Despair is the experience of stasis, death-in-life, the idea that all possibility for growth, for positive change has ended, in one’s individual and collective existence.

Alienation is, of course, the experience of being estranged from self and world. The gift of mass societies, it is the almost universal condition of the humans that make them up. Hence there’s no shortage of despair; in the U.S. we’ve soft-marketed it as depression and medicated it, but of course it will never collectively vanish, nor even individually be “cured” as long as the conditions that create our alienation remain the primary context in which our lives are lived. In fact, by truly eliminating any of our most popular psychopathologies, you would destroy an enormous palliatives market, so there’s an additional disincentive to look at root causes anyway.

Activism has been promoted on the left as a truer antidote to despair—the very act of joining together with others in an attempt to alter the conditions of your existence, to change the rules of the game, is an attempt to get at the root cause of alienation. A fascinating documentary about depression released in 2000 called We Don’t Live Under Normal Conditions supported that conclusion. And activism does have exactly that effect at key moments. But over the long haul of system change, for those whose material survival or immediate community is not at risk, activism can become rote and static, and simultaneously frenzied, generated only by an invocation of current crisis that simulates the fried mental state of a speed freak, cut off from rootedness in deep time and consciousness, or the long, complicated unfolding of natural processes—which are where a fully human experience needs and longs to be.

Fortunately, there is a treatment for despair that, if it does not immediately and permanently alter the material conditions of your alienated existence, is what can actually make such alteration possible.

There are several stages to the process, but the culmination of them is the engagement with, or, better, the experience of art.

Arriving at that experience is actually quite problematic in a society where pseudo-abundance, as the Situationists called it, prevails. After all, cultural products are churned out at about the same rate as high fructose corn syrup here and the reason for the overproduction is the same: entertainment is a necessary addiction, just as sweetness is. Addiction to sugar helps make it possible for a bloated industry, agribusiness, to continue to siphon enormous profits when by capitalism’s own rules it ought to fall. Entertainment addiction goes even further. It fulfills a variety of functions that the system is incapable of fulfilling in meaningful ways: chiefly, like our other pathologies, it generates employment and profit. But it also accepts distraction for enlightenment, reassurance for fulfillment. It consumes rather than produces culture, and increasingly, leads to isolation as opposed to sociability.

There is no incentive to produce art when entertainment can be provided instead. And the super-expensive, elite, niche-market commodities that are called art are not what I am talking about at all. In fact the experience I wish to describe has very little, if any, value in a commodity system. For one thing it is a process, not a product. It is too complex and too contingent to be easily replicated, and it is too critical to be comforting. It makes demands, such as the demand for full attention, instead of pretending to ignore or assuage them. It is not addictive, because it actually addresses the root need that gives rise to it.

It’s important to say I don’t mean to knock entertainment entirely either. Entertainment and art are not polar opposites, no way; that would make the experience of art some kind of mental dentistry. And pleasure for its own sake is not a bad thing. Addiction to a particular, initially pleasing thing is my real concern, because chasing a high with diminishing returns is a sign that some deeper need is not being met; it is a symptom of alienation, it is a form of despair.

In this context, having what I’m calling the experience of art is extremely rare, and it is difficult to realize how rare until you do have it, and can compare that experience to all the casual consumption of cultural products you do on a daily or weekly basis, and review the difference in the way you think and the way you feel between the two. The first thing you realize is that you do not feel “entertained.” You are too busy feeling challenged, involved, expanded, curious, awake, and, most importantly, re-connected to your own experience and the larger context in which that experience unfolds.

Let me tell you a little bit about a recent experience of mine. It happened this past Earth Day, but that was incidental. And then again, it wasn’t. In the morning, I attended an Occupy rally. The Occupy rhizome now has many shoots with no apparent above ground connection, something that doesn’t disturb me as much as more traditional, usually older activists who want it to be more orderly, more centralized, more unified, I guess.

Their questioning is legitimate (when is questioning not legitimate?) and frankly perhaps the only reason I’m not bothered is because I didn’t expect much from Occupy to begin with and have had to rethink some presuppositions in light of its survival. (Marx, I was told, re-thought the vanguard party idea after the Paris Commune erupted, so I’m in good company there.) The spread of the meme at least is something I’ve never seen the like of in my experience of social movements.

And if you see human history as largely resulting from the conflict between some people trying to control far more resources than they need and other people trying to reclaim their survival, work, time, and dignity, then you can never really know what conscious and collective action in that ongoing confrontation—in what place, at what time—will spark a greater advancement toward the goal of reclamation. Look at John Brown’s raid, dismissed in his time as a megalomaniac’s mad, futile gesture, and in retrospect viewed as the beginning of the end of American chattel slavery. Occupy is one avatar of a necessary, but still pending social process, the equitable redistribution of wealth and power on a global scale.

The idea of this particular gathering, I found out later, was to take over and actually farm a ten-acre piece of land, called the Gill Tract, that UC Berkeley had maintained as an agricultural demonstration plot, and now wants to cash in on, with a planned Whole Foods Market and parking lot. Of course any destruction of good farmland for sheer greed is bad, but the irony of replacing half of this tract with an upscale, insanely unaffordable and predatory chain store that sells fake organics and kowtows to agribusiness on GMO products (and whose owner actively opposes collective bargaining and national health care) needs no further elaboration.

I have to say, though, that my attention was minimally focused on the rally or what it was about. I had decided to go for less than fully intentional or committed reasons; it was a convenient place to see friends, to make a kind of ritual presence as people with a certain belief system, like people do going to church on Easter. The action, the planned takeover, wasn’t even announced, just a march to an unspecified destination.

It was a jolly little group of the usual suspects milling around in the foggy Berkeley park; we picnicked and admired the chickens brought there in a handmade mobile coop, watched a man playing the didgeridoo and a woman with veils and feathers dancing to it, clapped for the Brass Liberation Orchestra as they prepared to lead off the march. Artistry of some sort has become part and parcel of radical interventions, and the idea of representing our utopian possibilities this way is a nice one, although to me it mostly still seems an afterthought, a decoration. An entertainment.

However, during the rally one of the speakers said something that caught my ear, and stuck with me. Ironically, because I was only half-listening: in describing what the basic precepts of a gift-based society as opposed to a commodity-based one would be, he said that listening isn’t passive, it’s an active exchange; your attention, if it is real attention, is a gift you give the speaker; it has real value to both of you. And the exchange is co-creative; you are producing something together; that something is called consciousness.

I watched the little crowd march off down the empty, fog-softened streets to the sounds of the brass band. For me, at that moment, it was just a sight that evoked both the pathos and persistence of radical social movements; a necessary thing, so small against the structures it was confronting, so easy to dismiss, to turn away from and look somewhere else.

For now. It will be like that in any given place, at any given time, until it isn’t any more, until it’s no longer possible for all or most of those present in that time and place to turn away, regardless of what they think about it. That’s how it goes. Whatever hopes we have for consciousness, material conditions are still the imperative for system change; we haven’t gotten out in front of them yet. But avatars are all around us too; they are not to be dismissed. Or only in moments of despair, when alienation triumphs.

Later, in the evening, I went to hear someone sing. A woman I knew was performing in a work called John Brown’s Truth, an “improvised opera” written in 2009 to commemorate Brown’s raid on the armory at Harper’s Ferry one hundred fifty years before. It was happening in a little Berkeley performance space founded by Chilean exiles from the Pinochet dictatorship in the 1970s that has somehow managed to survive and continues to foment a variety of cultural activity that could all fit into what was once called engaged art.

As with Occupy, I had no real expectations for John Brown’s Truth. Art on political subjects can be as ritualized as public protest. And ritual, whether in art, religion, or political activity, always risks emptiness, reduction of those present to performers or spectators whom the ritual no longer serves to connect with the ideas or values that once generated it—or even with the others in the room or on the street at the moment. Abstracted obligation is just as poor a generator of meaningful experience as addiction is. Or, to put it another way, too little interest in pleasure and too much can end you up in the same place. As it had been with the rally, a personal connection was the real motivating factor—I probably wouldn’t have heard about this performance if I hadn’t known one of the people in it.

In retrospect, there were a number of issues with John Brown’s Truth. Some of the elements were standard agit-prop—simplified ideas and characters, a heroic, prophetic John Brown, whose role was performed by different singers, male and female, racially varied. There was no attempt to encompass the tensions or complexities internal to the abolitionist movement around the raid, like Frederick Douglass’ refusal to support it. And the style could have been dismissed as self-indulgently avant garde: there was no score, and the musicians, a dancer, and the singers improvised what they performed. And yet, for the most part, because of the skill and dedication of the performers, these things worked together, they didn’t create a void where understanding would be lost or boredom or kitsch would seep in. Another thing that gave it strength was the use of Brown’s own words, or texts from the period, although there wasn’t enough of this, and the writer’s imagination mostly didn’t measure up to the source.

What I can say is that the individual limitations were overcome by some response to the whole that was highly unusual for me. While the exact reason was hard to pin down, the combination of elements and ideas being presented lifted me out of the narrow box of expectations my responses to performance usually fall into. A lot of things start happening at once, when you have the experience of art, as I mentioned earlier, and this is one of them. Emily Dickinson said: “when I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry;” yes, that is the opening of the dusty, airless box of the contracted, reified, alienated self.

Another part of the experience is a profound sense of time, which is almost the opposite of that old marketing saw about the “timeless classic.” Instead of timelessness you feel steeped in time, you feel, in a challenge to the eternal present-future focus of the commodity system, the reality of the past, its responsibility for you, what you are experiencing, and every other aspect of the world. In this case, it wasn’t just that the work had a historical subject, although that was part of it. Because of the type of performance it was, there were cultural currents flowing through us as well, from times in the early 20th century when new forms were united with a pervading sense of social concern; when jazz was born, and modern dance, and surrealism, constructivism, futurism… It wasn’t that this work aped those earlier experiments, just that it reminded me that they had happened. The experience of art is more about recognizing the attempt, rather than a supreme, static sense of realization, because realization is really about product, but process is the key, process is where we participate, where we are alive, where meaning is.

Part of the bravery of this effort was its existence completely outside any pandering to what a commercial performance is supposed to be like without actually abandoning the importance of craft, the hard work of production that so often gets elided from considerations of what art really is. The fact that it would never see a mass audience was irrelevant, because it had declared itself part of this tremendous underground river of creative and prophetic resistance through time, which is always local in its origin, always a matter of a few people in some locality who tap into a deeper current that uplifts them, enables them to think, to see, to create, to act. As with acts of resistance, there’s never any foretelling which cultural products will truly extend the boundaries of understanding or for whom—the most important thing is to be part of the process.

In any case, I suddenly didn’t feel as if I were just consuming another cultural product, I felt as the speaker at the rally had described, that my attention was in active participation and interchange with what was going on onstage. Art is, in this sense, a thoroughly ecological process; our symbolizing, metaphorizing minds have a propensity to perceive and create connections everywhere, all the time. When you have a sense that connections are real and alive, and you are part of them, then once again you have challenged alienation, pushed it back.

I also felt the locality of the community that had fostered this work. Mass society fails and must always fail to provide us with a deep understanding of who we are, and at this stage in the hypermobility, globalization, and commodification of everything, more of us really need to work hard at weaving ourselves into a locality in order to advance the cause of human ecology as a whole. The universality of the themes that the piece tried to claim was important, but its existence as something that happened to a small group of people in a single place and time was also important. To be part of a meaningful group, for however brief a time, is fundamental to challenging alienation and being able to think and act again.

All of this also has to do with the commodity system, with the possibility of producing things like food and culture without having them be utterly emptied out by that system, as long as it continues to exist. And retaining an identity nourished by the web of personal and natural relationships of which it is part instead of having to mediate everything through money and products. Neither the individual nor the state can do as much as a trust-based community invested in a locality to meet the deepest needs we have without operating entirely within the commodity system.

Such communities are already rare as hen’s teeth in the contemporary U.S. (and Berkeley is not what I’d consider one of them). They are being disrupted and erased all over the world, but they are not extinct. The experience of art, in the same contingent way it challenges individual alienation, will continue to challenge the destruction of community as well. Any need so deep keeps generating expressions of what must satisfy the need, so communities will struggle to be born, or reborn, and to survive, and art will go on struggling to be made.

It made me think: what would the world look like now if the last ten thousand years of human social life had mostly been spent deepening our individual and collective consciousness instead of developing tools and techniques that created mastery without generating understanding? Was it possible to think that that aborted evolutionary process was still possible for the species—or had the tools really become our masters? This has nothing to do with a phony nostalgia for a romanticized notion of first peoples, or a dismissal of the empirical method either. Marx thought human consciousness could only begin to expand to its full potential once the material conditions, the economic and social relations that have created our alienation, were permanently changed. There’s no going “back” now, no separate peace, no spiritual high road, just as there’s no techno-fix, no gimmick, no market-based solution. Can’t buy me consciousness, as it were.

But what is there in the meantime? Learning. Engagement. And the experience of art.