The Edge of the Real: The Call of Desire

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DESIRE

The physical, emotional, or intellectual longing that is directed towards something or someone that is wanted.

Sarah Coakley, PhD.

Cambridge University

Desire is a longing which bridges our inner life with the outer world. It is a longing for connection, completion, and relationship.

Desire is a longing for fulfillment or achievement. It is a longing that is born in emptiness, frustration, or loss. It is the feeling that comes from a missed opportunity or the sense of unrealized potential when a project ends suddenly, or when love shared goes unrequited. 

This longing is born in our experience of change. It is something we feel inside. It is our inner voice telling us that more could be done or needs to be done.

Desire does not fade. It seeks out that which is beyond our grasp today, but maybe not tomorrow. Our desires define who we are.

Desire precedes and is greater than our goals, strategies, plans and intentions. Desire is that deep core within us that we identify as what we love, for those people and causes to whom we give ourselves with passion and sacrifice. It is that place within us where human flourishing finds its source and motivation.

I've seen desire in people for a long time. Early on, it was that "thing" which emerged when a group began to have a vision for their organization or community. They are passionate about their cause. They see it, feel it, taste it, smell it as this movie-like visualization of a idea that comes to life and compels them to invest their shared life to bring it to fulfillment.

Passionate desire is a longing for something better that engages the whole person, mind, body and spirit. It is who we are at our most central, deep and intimate level.

The desire for wholeness is born within us. Philosophers, theologians, motivational experts, story-tellers, and artists have spoken about desire, passion, and completeness in many and various ways. They know, as we know, that this is the nature of our world. Broken, incomplete, unjust, raw, untouched potential, filled with passionate visions of the good which touch us down deep inside, drawing us out into a life which is better, more complete and whole. This isn't a new story. It is rather the oldest story of human endeavor taking on urgency for each of us, everyday.

To follow our desire, we must think for ourselves, act as responsible persons, and live as the embodiment of that desire. Out of this commitment we discover a new life, and the potential for completeness.

Philosopher James K.A. Smith, writes,

“… we are primarily desiring animals rather than merely thinking things ... what makes us who we are, the kind of people we are – is what we love. More specifically, our identity is shaped by what we ultimately love or what we love as ultimate – what, at the end of the day, gives us a sense of meaning, purpose, understanding, and orientation to our being-in-the-world. What we desire or love ultimately is a (largely implicit) vision of what we hoped for, what we think the good life looks like. The vision of the good life shapes all kinds of actions and decisions and habits that we undertake, often without our thinking about it.”

The challenge is to not get lost in the rush of emotion that comes from passion.  We need to treat our passions with maturity, respect, and understanding.  Our passions have the power to create goodness as well as to destroy the very desires at the heart of our passion. 

We, therefore, need to understand the source of desire. We need to find a way to create patterns of thought and practices of behavior that allow us to see how to bridge the deep reservoir of meaning within in us with the world of change that envelops us like the sea does its fish.

The Three Desires

Over the years, as I've listened to what people say and have observed what they do, both in private and organizational settings, I've seen that this inscruble thing called desire is always present. It is evident in the passions and visions that people have for their future. It is also evident in their response to situations where they are frustrated, disappointed, anxious or angry.

I eventually came to see that this desire from down deep within us is a mix of three desires. I've concluded that this is the spiritual core of our humanity, or, what we mean by our human spirit. It is the center of our individual humanity that is the platform for the life and relationships we nurture in the outer world. It is what is celebrated, what elicits tears, cheers and commitment to making sacrificial gifts of art, wealth and time. From my own experience, I see this as the mark of divine intention upon our humanity. Nourish these desires, and we see why we exist, and what our lives are to mean in practice and difference. Our desires carry that kind of singular importance.

The Three Desires guide how we function in our work, our communities, and our families. Our desires are revealed when we plan, in how we address problems, in our celebration and mourning of life's transitions , when we succeed or fail, and, in how we go through the changes and transitions of our lives and work.

What are these desires and how are we to understand their function in our lives?

Our Three Desires are

for Personal Meaning, for Happy, Healthy Relationships,

and, to Make a Difference That Matters.

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We desire for our lives to have personal meaning.

Our minds sort through our experiences; sift through the sensory data we are receiving; categorize the information that we absorb; identify patterns of behavior and recurrence of ideas; then, our minds establish order, perspective, understanding, and finally meaning.

Most of the time, all of this takes place just below the level of our conscious awareness. Learning from childhood onward to think this this way, it becomes second nature. Physicist and philosopher Michael Polanyi describes it as tacit knowledge. It is that knowledge that we know, but we don't know how we know it. We just know it. It is learned in the experience of life.

We think this way, finding meaning in our lives and in the world, until there are too many discontinuities. Increasingly, in the modern world, these discontinuities are markers of societal and intellectual change on a grand scale. All the meaningful continuities of the past, of belief in God, in the goodness of humankind, in the power of government to do good, in freedom, opportunity and progress. Each of these points of personal and societal meaning are in transition. It doesn't mean that the foundational truths are changing, but rather how they function in the world is changing.

Personal meaning is not just a set of intellectual or spiritual beliefs that are important to us. This sense of meaning rises from down deep in us. It is not just individual, but a shared feeling. I've seen it in working with businesses. There is something that draws these people together. Some vision or desire that compels them to join their lives together to venture forth in some great endeavor.

A vision of this sort, as I point out in my Circle of Impact Leadership system, is formed by ideas. They provide a core belief or meaning for us to make the commitment to work together towards goals that we define as our organizational purpose. A vision, then, is a picture of shared meaning that is acted upon by the people who work within an institutional system to create impact.

Circle of Impact- simple

We articulate this order by telling stories. We share our opinions, make decisions and practice ethical discernment because of the clarification of the values that form our desires, or are the product of our desire for personal meaning.

We act on what is personally meaningful, by defining our purpose, by elevating values that underlie our purpose to a central place in our relationships with others, and, then, together, implement a vision that leads to the impact that is a fulfillment of that which is meaningful to us.

Unless there is constant attention to sustaining a culture of founding values, future generations only see those values as relatively meaningless, and possibly, irrelevant cultural practices.* In other words, Personal Meaning is not private meaning, but meaning that is shared within the social context of our lives.

We desire to have happy, healthy relationships.

In a previous post in this series, Fragmented Boundaries, I write,

I am who I am, always have been, always will be. Though I live in the external world, I am who I am, in an always changing interaction between this person who I am and the world in which I live. Therefore, I am always becoming the person who I am right now.

Crossing the boundary from our inner life to the outer world requires an engagement with that world. It is in our relationships with one another that we find our most tangible connection to the outer world. Let me describe what I see.

Recently, I took a salsa making class. In this class was a retired couple who had been married for six years. As we prepared our salsas, they talked about all the cooking classes that they had attended, from Santa Fe to Boston to Paris, and soon, in Tuscany.
I asked them, "Which one of you was the foodie who got the other involved? They said, "Neither. When we got married, we decided to do something that neither of us had ever done. We took a cooking class, and found out that we both loved it."
What was it that they loved? Sharing the experience of learning, of being creative, and establishing a whole new circle of friends in their hometown.

In the context of their relationship, individual desires, long dormant, came to life. Joy and meaning, and a life that matters resulted. For not only has their experience provided them a context for a happy, healthy marriage, it has also brought them into relationship with people that they may never have had  the opportunity to know.   

We are social beings, even the most shy, introverted and individualistic ones of us. It isn't that we want to hang out with people all the time. It is that our engagement with people, more than in any other facet of our lives, is where our inner selves meets the outer world. To speak, to know, to share, or to love, requires something from within us to form into words or actions that communicate to the other person, who translates what they see and hear into something that touches their inner self.

We are not random objects bumping into one another, like billiard balls on a pool table. We are purposeful, desiring beings who seek connection with other purposeful, desiring beings.

Our shared connections make us tribal beings as well. We gather around the things we love which release our passion in life. My tribes are the church, social entrepreneurs, organizational and community leaders, people who desire change, the Red Sox Nation, jazz and classical music aficionados, lovers of history, philosophy and culture, and travelers through landscapes of mountains, oceans and open spaces.   

We learn in the context of relationships; a living context where our inner lives touch the outer world in a less mechanistic, more organic way. To know someone, to interact with them, requires us to live in a shared story of meaning and expectation. This is true for our oldest friends and family, as well as the person that we have just met.

Our human relationships are the embodiment of particular values that are intimate, social and practical.

A happy relationship is one free of doubt, open to vulnerability, peaceful, affirming, with genuine compatibility, and love.

A healthy relationship is built upon the mutual practices of openness, respect, trust, honesty, and responsibility.

There are two distinct contexts for our relationships. One is personal, the other professional.

Happiness and health in our relationships with friends, lovers, spouses, children, parents and in-laws function in a long historical arch. Live with someone for ten, thirty or fifty years, and our lives are bound together in ways that are invisible and continually present. We nurture the health and happiness of long term relationships by giving our attention to the core desires that we each have individually and those we share. It is by this daily practice that we produce happiness and health. The ancients believed that happiness and health came as the virtues of life were mastered. This is the intention that is needed in our closest, most intimate relationships.

A relationship between two people is between individual persons. Each is defined by their own distinct values. Each is defined by what they desire in a relationship to the other, and, together they grow into an understanding of the difference their lives are to make. When there is compatibility and a sharedness in each of these three parts of our lives, then happiness and health can grow.

In the professional sphere, our relationships are less personal, more detached, more difficult to be qualified by the terms happy and healthy. Modern organizations have become increasing dehumanizing, unreceptive to human interaction (communication), and lacking the supervisory space to allow for the expression of individual initiative to create a collaborative environment for relationship.

As the old, dying models of 20th. century hierarchy fail to adapt to the rapid introduction of technologies for individual autonomy and collaboration, resistance to change grows. Defense of institutional positions of power and influence create weakness in the operating structures of organizations, making them less agile and more prone to corruption and violation of founding values.

Outside of many of these corporate structures are networks of relationships that are spontaneous, open and collaborative. Leadership is not directed and delegated, but shared and facilitated. The network of the relationship is marked by the phenomenon of shared values, responsibility and outcomes. The structure of organization that is needed rises from the purpose and desired impact of their work together, and by design is agile and adaptive to contexts of rapid, discontinuous change.

Network-Hierarchy ImageThe weakness of these networks of relationships is that it is difficult to scale and sustain the work of these kinds of relationships. As a result, they need a structure within which to work that can accommodate the energy and ambiguity that exists in these relationships. The challenge of hierarchy is nimbleness for change. Networks of relationships emerge out of the discovery that we - WE - share similar desires that call us together for achieving impact.  These structures need one another to counter their inherent weaknesses.

We desire to make a difference that matters.

The desire to make a difference that matters is the most fundamental expression of human desire. It is what we do, and the effect of what we do that we see as validating the value of our lives.

For some people, the obsessive need to prove their worth in achievement is the extreme expression of this most human of desires. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the lack of desire towards achievement or fulfillment is the product of the weaknesses or absence of the other two desires.

To make a difference is to create impact. To create impact is to take some idea or value and create a living expression of it.

If there is a forward movement through the three desires, it is towards making a difference that matters.  It is the most logical place where achievement and completion are realized.

There is some satisfaction in finding what is personally meaningful, as well as in having happy, healthy relationships. But it is this third desire which brings wholeness to our lives. If values strengthen the mind, and friendship enriches our physical life, it is making a difference through the expression of values in our relationships that brings the three parts of ourselves to fulfillment.

As a result, it is what we do, create and the impact we have which is the greatest expression of human spirit, and where wholeness is realized.

The Leadership of Making a Difference That Matters

Early on in my exploration of leadership, I came to see that all leadership begins with personal initiative. This initiative is specifically an act of decision in response to an inner desire for change. In effect, leadership is a form of our inner selves' engagement with the outer world.

This perspective is vastly different from views that are hierarchial or inspirational. Neither view places the source of leadership in human desire. Instead these views see leadership as either a position of responsibility within a management system, or, a kind of sloganistic pumping up of one's emotions to do various kinds of work.

My early inspiration for seeing leadership as a function of human desire towards creating change came from Peter Drucker, one of the preeminent management thinkers of the 21st. century. In his book, Innovation and Entrepreneurship, that was spark that led to the creation of my own leadership consultancy a decade later. Drucker writes about entrepreneurs.

Entrepreneurs see change as the norm and as healthy. Usually, they do not bring about the change themselves. But – and this defines entrepreneur and entrepreneurship – the entrepreneur always searches for change, responds to it, and exploits it as an opportunity.

Drucker's view from three decades ago remains true today. Change is the norm. Effective leaders, as well as managers, learn to work within the context of change. This requirement is now no longer limited to people in positions of leadership, but the necessity for each individual, regardless of their place, standing or position in life or work. To respond to one's desires, is to accept, not a leadership role, but a call to take initiative to make a difference that matters.

The Call of Desire

Desire rises from within us as a longing for connection, completion and fulfillment. It is expressed in the desire for personal meaning, happy, healthy relationships, and, to make a difference that matters with one's life. This movement of desire bridges our inner selves with the outer world. When we act upon our desires to make a difference that matters, we are exhibiting the character of leadership.

Our desires, therefore, are a call upon our lives. A call to step out to make a difference in a way that fulfills one's desires.

The Call of Desire is a call to meaning, friendship, wholeness and impact in life. When we respond to this call from within us, we are deciding to change not only our outer world, but also ourselves. When we do, we turn away from the world of the Spectacle with its artificial hyper reality. We claim a reality that can be touched and experienced, created and replicated. This is how we reclaim the real for our lives and for the people and places where our lives make a difference that matters.

The call begins within, must be answered, and lived out in the world of change. As a result our lives take on the character of an unfolding story. It is this story that I'll explore in my next post.

*See Jim Collins and Jerry Porras' Built to Last for a description of this reality.

Reclaiming the Real - a Leading Questions series

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RECLAIMING THE REAL series. (March - October 2013)

What Defines Us? - "It has become clear to me that the way we understand what defines us has to change."

The Spectacle of the Real - "Living in the world of the image and the spectacle is a world where reality is an appearance and beyond our capacity to determine is this real, true and the way things actually are. This is a hyper-real world which turns reality on its head."

The Path to the Real - "To recover reality, we need to recover our awareness, our perception, of the physical spaces that we live in each day. We need to immerse ourselves in the processes of change that carry us forward. To do so is to seek to discover the fullness of human experience within the world as it exists."

The Reason for the Real - "The reason for the real is to create environments where doubt, suspicion and anxiety are replaced by trust, understanding and peace."

Reclaiming the Real through the Living Past - "Recovering the real from the hyper-reality of today's culture of the spectacle is partly accomplished by remembering the past as a living reality, here and now, in the present."

The Map of Memory - "We need to see that the world is not a collection of parts, of time and history as simply a linear list of dates, names and events, and that our lives are lived in a meaningless succession of discrete moments in time. We need to see life as whole, as integral and complete when the linkages of time and space are recognized and recalled."

The Lost Maps of Reality - "If we are to recover reality from the nullification of our minds and souls, then we must reclaim the context of history as a the map of memory, connecting past and present together as a living reality."

Hope that is Real - "Hope is visionary. It is something we can see, something we can imagine that is worth holding to, worth sacrificing for to gain a greater good in the future. In the case of Admiral Stockdale, he could see making it through, and going home. What does the unnamed author of lost hope see? Hard work and commitment without hope of success."

The Art of the Real - "Context matters because it is the ground upon which we live in the real."

THE EDGE OF THE REAL series. (March-May 2014) 

Our Fragmented World - "Hyper-real contexts always place us on the outside of the screen, looking in at those who are doing the real living. We are meant to see a reality that is larger and more important than our own existence, filled with the fascinating people we must follow, and never, ever, involving us as direct participants in their lives. The result is that our inner lives take on a stunted, not flourishing life, disconnected from an outside world that can fully engage us."

Fragmented Boundaries - "The boundary between our inner selves and the outer world is where we can see the fragmentation of our lives. It is here, along these fragmented boundaries, that wholeness can be discovered."

The Call of Desire - "Desire is a longing which bridges our inner life with the outer world. It is a longing for connection, completion, and relationship."

The Unfolding Story - "Our unfolding story is not the one we tell others. It isn't a brand or a marketing narrative. It is, instead, the story we tell ourselves."

The Leader's Call - "This call to lead comes from within us, and stimulated by our engagement with various settings of our life and work. The call to lead through one's own initiative is born in three desires that define us as individuals."

THE PLATFORM OF DESIRE series. (November-December 2012)

Part One: “I want to change everything related to 20th century organizational purpose and structure. I want to replace the institutions that created the problems we face now.  I no longer want to be sad because of the waste of human potential that I see around me.”  

Part Two:  Our loves and desires are shaped by how we live in the world around us.  The social and organizational systems and structures that are the context of our life and work is a place of engagement where we either find our desires fulfilled or frustrated.  Our happiness is not so much about what we think, but how we intersect with the social and organizational places where we live and work”

Part Three: When Nature is a platform, like any social or organizational structure as a platform, it influences what we value and desire. Or in the words of James K A Smith, what we love. To live in nature is to love it, but not in the abstract sense of love, but in the deeper sense of understanding, of respect, and of a relationship that requires listening and giving.”  

Part Four:  “The Platform of Hyper-reality- The world of social media is very far removed from our premodern ancestors' experience. Our experience is not one of a constant awareness of the physical danger of the natural world or of life on a farm. We live in a world mediated through sophisticated technology that, for many people, has removed them from any direct exposure to the world of nature."

"We live in an immersive world of an always-on information feed directed at our sub-rational desires. And the worst of these onslaughts focus on our fears, not our ambitions.”

Part Five: “Desire isn't just an idea. It is a movement within us drawing us towards some value or experience or person."

"This drawing, like water into the porous membrane of a sponge, is the activity of connection.”

THE SITUATIONAL AWARENESS series. (August-October 2014)

Situational awareness is a skill of insight, anticipation, and respect for personal boundaries in social and organizational contexts.

 It is the skill of perceiving reality as it is, not as we want it to be, or how others see it, but as it is.

 Situational awareness is knowing how to be yourself regardless of the context you are in.

Three Keys to Situational Awareness - "There are three keys to developing the skill of situational awareness: Objectivity, Engagement and Discernment."

The Speed of Change - "As we encounter the speed of change, we need to move more quickly than we have in the past. We will find when we do, that much of what we are now doing is adapting to changing circumstances. The quicker we do so, the better off we will be."

The Social Space of Situational Awareness - "To practice situation awareness is to see a larger picture, where my needs, wants, desires and demands, are not at the center, but just another set of considerations to be addressed in that moment of decision."

Social Conformity and Situational Awareness - "Social conformity breaks down situational awareness by suppressing individual initiative."

In the Moment of Situational Awareness - "From this place, situational awareness enables us to discern the influences that affect us both internally and externally. From those perceptions, we gain perspective. We can because we see the distinction between external realities and inner strengths. The external realities of the situation we are in seeks to control and absorb our attention. Our inner strengths are those qualities, so may say character, that enables us to move into a wide variety of settings without losing our sense of who were are."

The Story We Tell Ourselves - "What I've learn by working with a wide variety of people and groups, who are in the midst of change, is that we need a story that we tell ourselves. This story distinguishes us in every situation we are in. It is a story that enables us to know who we can trust, and who we can't. It is a story that tells us, don't go there, or, let's find out more."


The Art of the Real

 

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Analytical writing ceases to be able to express what is real and what we know about it.

Christian Smith

What is a Person?

Christian Smith's statement is particularly true of writing about beauty. For beauty, as in this vase created by Mollie Curtis of Laguna, New Mexico, is something that must be encountered in the real of life. The moment I saw it, I couldn't take my eyes off it. It isn't just the pattern, but the creativity that went into it. All by hand. No template. No formula. As she told me, a blank slate when she began. Just imagination applied in shape and image. For me, this is symbolic of the real that cannot be put fully into words. It must be encountered, not simply observed.

It is, also, somewhat contradictory to think that writing about reclaiming the real is an act of reclaiming it. The real is something that can only be reclaimed in the world of experience, of doing, of action, in creativity and through change and transformation. It is more than what goes on in our heads. It engages the fullness of our body's senses, emotions and thoughts. It connects to the moment of encounter with past remembrances of similar encounters, and gives a grounding to understand our place in time and place. This is what it means to live in the real. It is full, complete, integral and alive.  

We do need words to help us tell the story that gives meaning to the work of art and to life as a whole. In many senses that story is a story of human encounter. This is why the best novelist creates for us a real world in our imagination. She elicits from us emotions and memories, images in our minds that create a world in which we are apart as the story teller proceeds.

Carried out in the fullness of our lives, the words come to us within a context that guides us to see how we can act, not just feel. To make a difference that matters, that gives meaning to the action itself, we must be engaged in a real context as whole persons. To reclaim reality today, we must articulate why it is necessary, and why we have a problem at all.

The Inadequacy of Analytical Observation

Christian Smith's statement above gets at part of the issue, that of treating reality from an analytical perspective. This is what Pierre Bourdieu, French sociologist discovered as he studied the cultures of North Africa. He found that the analytical tradition that emerged out of the European Enlightenment two centuries before was inadequate. He writes,

Objectivism constitutes the social world as a spectacle offered to an observer who takes up a 'point of view' on the action and who, putting into the object the principles of his relation to the object, proceeds as if it were intended solely for knowledge and as if all the interactions within it were purely symbolic exchanges. 

Let's look at what he is saying here.

Objectivism is a belief that we can know something by standing apart from it. From the observers point of view everything is an object for detached observation and evaluation.

In its most benign sense, it is what the clinical lab does with the blood after your doctor draws it from your arm during your annual physical. Back from the lab comes a reading of your blood count that gives your doctor an indication of your health. However, as essential as this data is, it is your doctor's ability to see the whole context of your body's health that gives meaning to the data in the blood analysis. What matters is not an analytical reading, but a synthetic one that blends analytical analysis with an understanding of who this particular person is in their life context.

Detached observation and analysis has become the primary means for critics and commentators in the worlds of sports, entertainment, politics and society at large to present themselves as authorities.  They speak with an air of authenticity. As alleged 'objective' observers, they claim to provide "objective" knowledge for the viewing public. They exist to inform us about the issues of the day, and guide us towards a "correct" understanding of events.

Watch them on television as they interview the subjects of their observations, the practitioners of whatever arena the commentators are observing and their condescension emerges. Because they are detached, analytical observers, they believe they are more honest, objective critics. Listen carefully to their questions, and a formula reveals itself. It is the formula of The Spectacle of the Real, that I've written about in this series of posts. There I write,

Fueled by a 24/7 news cycle, actual news - a statement of "facts" that an event, an accident, a death, an agreement, a visit or something has taken place, described in the traditional journalistic parlance of "who, what, when and where" - is transformed into a spectacle of opinion and virtual reality driven by the images of faces speaking words of crisis, fear and self-righteous anger. Televised analysis - more important than the "facts" of the story- drives the news through the ambiguity of the visual image and is its source of validation.

The problem is that there is an 'accepted' narrative, and an 'unaccepted' one. The former we must 'accept' on face value, because it comes from those who have been chosen as "authoritative" interpreters of events. In this sense, the real is not authentic, the 'narrative' is the substitute for the real. The acceptance of the broadcast narrative leads to an audience and a populace who are passive receivers, dependent upon their daily missives from the screen to tell them what is true and real. This is the nature of the world as a series of spectacles as French Marxist philosopher Guy Debord has written in his book, Society of the Spectacle.

In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation. ...

The spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images. ...

The concept of "spectacle" unifies and explains a great diversity of apparent phenomena. The diversity and the contrasts are appearances of a socially organized appearance, the general truth of which must itself be recognized. Considered in its own terms, the spectacle is affirmation of appearance and affirmation of all human life, namely social life, as mere appearance. But the critique which reaches the truth of the spectacle exposes it as the visible negation of life, as a negation of life which has become visible.

Life seen as a series of spectacles, without continuity or reality, but rather a bright, shiny appearance of something of significance.

Malcolm Gladwell in his book, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and The Art of Battling Giants, tells the story of the French Impressionist painters of the late 19th century. In that day, the public celebration of art was governed by the French government. An annual artistic competition called The Salon was held to determine the best (good?) art of the day. Repeatedly, the grand epic paintings of day were chosen, and the Impressionists paintings of ordinary life through very different images of color and technique were rejected. Gladwell writes,

The Salon was the most important art show in the world. Everyone at the Cafe Guerbois agreed on that. But the acceptance by the Salon came with a cost: it required creating the kind of art that they did not find meaningful, and they risked being lost in the clutter of other artists' work. Was it worth it? Night after night, the Impressionists argued over whether they should keep knocking on the Salon door or strike out on their own and stage a show just for themselves. Did they want to be a Little Fish in the Big Pond of the Salon or a Big Fish in a Little Pond of their own choosing?

The Spectacle of the Real is a constant reminder to each of us that the world is a Big Pond, and we are all tiny minnows. We are dependent upon them for their observations to determine who we are, what we are to believe and how we are to live.

It is impossible with this kind of manufactured narrative-based, posed objectivity to establish a basis for understanding what is real. Every person has a 'point of view' that they use as the basis of their analysis. Everyone of us. We, each one, speak from a context that disqualifies us as objective presenters of reality. This isn't a problem, but a social asset. Our point of view is OUR perspective. Just as The Impressionists perspective was THEIR perspective.

Context matters because it is the ground upon which we live in the real. The further we distance ourselves from the spectacle of manufactured opinion, the more likely it is that we will discover the value of our own opinion, and consequently begin to express it inways that are creative and elevating to the worlds in which we move.

It is important, therefore, that we own our prejudices, claim our perspective as our own, and speak and act from a standing position in the arena of life. In doing so, we are better able to engage in conversation and deliberation about the crucial issues of our time, because we are honest about our bias and perspective, and have the humility and self-confidence to listen, learn and engage with people of differing view points. But to get there, we must see clearly how objectivity is a mask for prejudice.

What is good art?

In college, I took one philosophy course.  It was on the philosophy of art. I took it because I was interested in art, especially the visual arts, and wanted to develop my critical faculties for understanding what I saw.  The professor told us, at the beginning of the course, that we'd spend the semester exploring art from the standpoint of what is 'good' as a way to get at what art is. What he did not tell us at the time, but became obvious, fairly quickly, was that he did not believe that there was such a quality as good.

As the semester proceeded, many of us in the class became increasingly aware that while our professor claimed an objective perspective as our academic authority, we students increasingly did not. Instead, we viewed him as a dishonest teacher of philosophy. Ultimately, it was not his stated position on 'the good' or art that disqualified him as a professor worthy of our respect and allegiance, but, rather, his constant denigration of students who saw things differently, who were trying to work out in their own real world context the meaning of art and the good. What I learned from that semester is that all knowledge is interpreted knowledge, interpreted from within a person's own life experience.

Habitus

The issue here is not that we have opinions, but the relation that our opinions have to reality. Bourdieu writes,

... The theory of practice as practice insists contrary to positivist materialism, that the objects of knowledge are constructed, not passively recorded, and, contrary to intellectualist idealism, that the principle of this construction is the system of structured, structuring dispositions, the habitus, which is constituted in practice and is always oriented toward practical functions.

To know something is not to know it as an object, but rather as a part of a living context that is constantly in flux, always changing, and in which we live each day. To know something, anything, is 'to learn' to know it. This knowing is an engagement, or as Bourdieu calls it, a habitus, that involves us in the thing to be known.

These 'structuring dispositions' or habitus are the virtues that Aristotle writes about in his Nichomachean Ethics. Virtue is more than an ethical perspective as in "She is a virtuous lady" or "He is a good man."  Rather, it is a learned mastery of living. It is life as a craft to be mastered, a work of art to be created over the course of our lifetime. It is our capacity to live fully in a real world, with all its hardship of work, pain and suffering, along side the beauty and goodness that we can create through our own desires for meaning, connection and impact. Aristotle writes,

Virtue, then, is of two kinds, intellectual and moral.  Intellectual virtue owes both its inception and its growth to instruction, and for this very reason needs time and experience. Moral goodness, on the other hand, is the result of habit, from which it has actually got its name, being a slight modification of the word ethos. This fact makes it obvious that none of the moral virtues is engendered in us by nature, since nothing that is what it is by nature can be made to behave differently by habituation.

But the virtues we do acquire by first exercising them, just as happens in the arts. Anything that we have to learn to do we learn by the actual doing of it: people become builders by building and instrumentalists by playing instruments. Similarly we become just by performing just acts, temperate by performing temperate ones, brave by performing brave ones ...

We don't know something because we read a book about it, or took a class on it. We know something by living in a learning relationship with it. Mollie Curtis did not wake up one morning and create beautiful pottery automatically. She learned over many, many years how to create a work of art as the one shown above.

The vase is a whole and complete expression of Mollie's art. It stands alone. It is does not need reference to anything else to be complete. It is not symbolic of anything. It is a work of art that is whole and complete in itself. As a result, it will be a lasting source of fascination as it resides in my home.

It is an expression of a creative life of integrity. Nothing artificial, nothing intended to push a perspective, just art for the sake of creating something beautiful.

 This vase is a product of the mastery (virtue) of Mollie's craft. It is good because it is a reflection of her learned skills. Goodness is another way of talking about excellence. As a work of excellence, it stands on its own, as a unique expression of the artist her self.

The Choice

Ultimately, it is not necessary to understand the inner workings of the Spectacle of the Real. All that is required to reclaim the real is to act, to create, to contribute to the world in which you live.

Start somewhere, and go where it leads. As you do, your world will expand. It doesn't expand by spending more time passively observing others expressing their 'authoritative' opinion. It does not because it lacks a context in which you live.

Plan each day to choose to do something that makes a difference that matters. By doing so, by focusing on creating impact, you turn away from a passive fascination with the spectacles of our time.

Ask yourself these questions.

Why is it important to understand why Mylie Cyrus has taken her performance craft in the direction that it has?

Why is it important to pick sides in the political games that Washington plays to distract us from what is really going on?

Why is it important to know how much money NFL quarterbacks make each year?

Now ask, how does this change my life, and especially what I'm going to do today?

More importantly, what will I do differently because of knowing more about these spectacular subjects?

Follow the desires that we all share. There are three of them.

1. That our lives have personal meaning.

2. That our relationships are to be health and happy.

3. That we make a difference that matters with our life.

We all share these desires. They are part of what makes us human. And to flourish as human beings, we must find ways for these desires to live and find fulfillment.

Lastly, think for yourself. Don't let anyone tell you what you must believe, think or do. Stand fast as a person of dignity, with gifts to share, having a purpose that elevates your life and the lives of others.

This is how we create our lives as works of art that enable us to reclaim the real.

May this be true for you and all those whom you touch with your life's work.

*******

This post is apart of the Reclaiming the Real series. Links to the other posts can be found here.


Hope that is Real

JamesStockdalePOW 

Over twenty five years ago, I first encountered the writings of Admiral James Stockdale (second from left in above picture). They were writings about philosophy and life as a prisoner of war.

Stockdale was the highest ranking US officer imprisoned by the North Vietnamese. His story is one of strength and resilience in the face of torture. His attitude and behavior, during the eight years that he was in the Hanoi Hilton prison, provided the leadership that made it possible for other POWs to survive the ordeal.

Jim Collins did the world a favor by bringing Admiral Stockdale's story to a wider audience. In his book, Good To Great, Collins presents the leadership principle, The Stockdale Paradox.

The Stockdale Paradox is two practices, that when joined together, provide a strength of character that is hard to match. Collins describes it as the capacity to,

"Retain unwavering faith that you can and will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties, AND AT THE SAME TIME have the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be."

This is a way that people can maintain a clear connection to reality, even in the midst of the most difficult of circumstances.

Loss of Hope

Hope and optimism have always been part of the public face of leadership. Yet,  I know many people in positions of leadership who are filled with doubt, disillusionment and lacking in hope for the future.

One of the reasons is the effect that living in a world of images and hyperreality has upon us. I call it, The Spectacle of the Real. In this culture, our sense of self, our self-perception and awareness, is established by our outward appearance. This is more than whether we are young, handsome and pretty. It is seen in the products we buy, the causes we join, the celebrity figures we follow and the way we spend our off-time.

A friend recently recommended to me a book by a popular business consultant. He did so because he felt that the author and I where addressing leadership issues in the contemporary world in very similar ways. I will not name her or her book out of respect for her past work that I have found innovative and useful. This book is a personal cri de coeur. It crosses a boundary of expression that is not simply an author demonstrating her change of mind, but rather raises questions about the perspective that she has presented for the past two decades. She reveals her own loss of faith in the ability of people to change the world. Is this a way of grabbing her audience's attention, or is she really a person who has lost hope?

My reading of the book left me with the uneasy feeling that her loss of hope has led her, not to self-reflection, but to blaming the public for not recognizing the genius of her ideas.

Here's how she frames her loss of hope.

Many of us – certainly I’d describe myself in these terms – were anxiously engaged in “the ceremony of innocence.” We didn’t think we were innocents, but we were. We thought we could change the world. We even believed that, with sufficient will and passion, we could “create a world,” one that embodied our aspirations for justice, equality, opportunity, peace ... This vision, this hope, this possibility motivated me for most of my life. It still occasionally seduces me into contemplating what might be the next project, the next collaboration, the next big idea that could turn this world around. But I’m learning to resist the temptation.

This is not a book that contemplates what we might do next, what we’ve learned from all our efforts, where we might put our energy and experience in order to create positive change. I no longer believe that we can save the world.  Powerful, life-destroying dynamics have been set in motion that cannot be stopped. We’re on a disastrous course with each other and with the planet. We’ve lost track of our best human qualities and forgotten the real source of satisfaction, meaning and joy. ...

But now, for many reasons, hope is hard to find and the good people who have created successful projects and built effective non-government organizations (NGOs) are exhausted and demoralized. They keep doing their work, but it’s now a constant struggle.  They struggle for funds, they struggle with inept, corrupt bureaucracy, they struggle with the loss of community and the rise of self-interest, they struggle with the indifference of the newly affluent. The dream of a new nation of possibility, equality, and justice has fallen victim to the self-serving behaviors of those with power.

Yet I have not set out to write a book that increases our despair. Quite the contrary. My intention is that we do our work with greater resolve and energy, with more delight and confidence, even as we understand that it won’t turn the world around. Our work is essential; we just have to hold it differently. ...

How do we find this deep confidence that, independent of results, our work is the right work for us to be doing? How do we give up needing hope to be our primary motivator? How do we replace hope of creating change with confidence that we’re doing the right work?

Hope is such a dangerous source of motivation. It’s an ambush, because what lies in wait is hope’s ever-present companion, fear: the fear of failing, the despair of disappointment, the bitterness and exhaustion that can overtake us when our best, most promising efforts are rebuked, undone, ignored, destroyed. As someone commented, “Expectation is pre-meditated disappointment.”

The author, with respect to her, is a victim of The Spectacle of the Real. She considers herself one of the experts who has the answers for solving the world's problems. She is so confident about the work she and her colleagues have been engaged in, that she cannot imagine, how on earth the world has not embraced the relevancy of their message. Her loss of hope is essentially a loss of faith in herself. She is a victim of her own celebrity and the followers who tell leaders just how important they are.  There is more that I could say in critique about her book, but that is not, ultimately the point of this post.

The Stockdale Paradox

To stay connected to reality, and remain hopeful about the future, requires resilience and circumspection.  Hope must be held within the context of the way the world actually is. Not the way we'd wish it would be.  In other words, if we can embrace reality and maintain hope, then we are more than likely to find a way to achieve our life and work goals that we would otherwise abandon.

In his book Good To Great, Jim Collins describes his first encounter with Admiral Stockdale as they walked across the campus of Stanford University.

"I never lost faith in the end of the story ... I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which in retrospect, I would not trade."

Collins, after few minutes of reflection asked,

"Who didn't make it out?"

"Oh, that's easy," he said. "The optimists."

"The optimists? I don't understand," I said, now completely confused, given what he's said a hundred meters earlier.

"The optimists. Oh, they were the ones who said, 'We're going to be out by Christmas.' And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they'd say, 'We're going to be out by Easter.' And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart."

Another long pause, and more walking. Then he turned to me and said, "This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end - which you can never afford to lose - with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be."

To this day, I carry a mental image of Stockdale admonishing the optimists, "We're not getting out by Christmas, deal with it."

Reading Stockdale's account of his imprisonment, In Love and War: The story of a family's ordeal and sacrifice during the Vietnam years (co-written with his wife, Sybil, a national leader of POW wives, who brought public attention to the plight of POWs and their families), provides the backstory that illustrates the principles he described to Jim Collins.

I want to use the Stockdale story as a mirror to reveal that the unnamed author of lost hope is one of Stockdale's optimists. She lives with the resignation that " I no longer believe that we can save the world."   Her statement is not a judgment about the world, but, in truth, about herself. She believed, naively, in my estimation, that the power of her ideas, and her approach to leading are self-evidently the way the world must go. All we must do is follow her lead. Her disillusionment came in seeing that "Powerful, life-destroying dynamics have been set in motion that cannot be stopped."

Sadly, and most importantly, she does not believe that she and her colleagues will prevail in the end. Instead, "that we do our work with greater resolve and energy, with more delight and confidence, even as we understand that it won’t turn the world around. Our work is essential; we just have to hold it differently."

This is an odd denial of reality and loss of vision for how we can adapt to the realities of the world as it exists. On the one hand, she believes that the world cannot be saved. Yet on the other, she still believes that her work is essential. What is missing is reflection, circumspection, and positive self-criticism. She needs the capacity to look at her own reality, at the brutal facts of her situation, assess and recognize her own failings or limitations, and then to understand how to work with greater resolve and energy, with more delight and confidence, to prevail in the end. Her problem is not her ideas for change, but a lack of grounding in reality.

The line between idealism and defeatism is thin.  What this unnamed author of lost hope needs is the inner strength of resilience to the face of obstacles that stand in the way of changing the world. Embedded within her philosophy is a deterministic perspective that sees the world as a system of emergent forces that are outside of our control. If she is correct, then her loss of hope makes sense, and we should join her. If, on the other hand, there is freedom to affect these impersonal forces, to foster change in the world that makes a difference, then her loss of hope is not grounded in reality, but in her own fear or loss of faith in herself. 

To embrace reality in this way requires a capacity for self-learning that is more than philosophical, but at the practical level of character development.

Hope in the Midst of Torture

NVA Rope Torture
North Vietnamese Rope Torture

In a speech that Stockdale gave following his return, he speaks about the US military's Code of Conduct that was the ground upon which POWs lived under torture.

"I am not aware that any POW was able, in the face of severe punishment and torture to adhere strictly to name, rank, and serial number, as the heroes always did in the old-fashioned war movies, but I saw a lot of Americans do better. I saw men scoff at the threats and return to torture ten and fifteen times. I saw men perform in ways no one would have ever thought to put in a movie, and because they did perform that way, we were able to establish communication, organization, a chain of command and an effective combat unit. ...

Unless you have been there, it is difficult to imagine the grievous insult to the spirit that comes from breaking under torture and saying something the torturer wants you to say. ... But I and many others were tortured in ropes ... The reason it was important to take torture ... was to establish the credibility of our defiance - for personal credibility ...

In short, what I am saying is that we communicated. Most of the time most of us knew what was happening to those Americans around us. POWs risked military interrogation, pain, and public humiliation to stay in touch with each other, to maintain group integrity, to retain combat effectiveness.

We built a successful military organization and in doing so created a counterculture. It was a society of intense loyalty - loyalty of men one to another ..."

To live in this kind of life situation requires circumspection paired with an indomitable commitment to prevail over the brutal facts. This is not egotism plus stubbornness. Rather, it is self-awareness and resilience.

In his memoir, following a torture session where he surprised his torturers with an outburst of anger, Stockdale writes, 

"Anyway, I'd committed myself to another course now. Live and learn, live and learn. The rules of this ball game would change as we went along. But for now I was spinning the web, and I like it better on this side of the fence. Time would tell."

This is the attitude of prevailing.

Hope in Hard Times

Many people I know have experienced hard times. They have lost their businesses to economic collapse. They have lost children to suicide or drug and alcohol abuse. They have seen their marriages end, or lose their spouses to cancer or other diseases. These people have every reason to have lost hope in the future. It is out of these relationships that I developed my Transitions in Life & Work program.

What I've learned from these friends and colleagues, as well as from my own experience of change, is that hope is not blind. Hoping against hope is not hope. It is the loss of hope.

Hope is visionary. It is something we can see, something we can imagine that is worth holding to, worth sacrificing for to gain a greater good in the future. In the case of Admiral Stockdale, he could see making it through, and going home. What does the unnamed author of lost hope see? Hard work and commitment without hope of success.

Hope that is Real.

Hope - to believe in a better future - in the midst of an embrace of reality - confronting the brutal facts - requires us to live in the real world. Real as in the opposite of fake. Umberto Eco wrote in his Travels in Hyperreality,

"... the American imagination demands the real thing and, to attain it, must fabricate the absolute fake. ... the frantic desire for the Almost Real arises only as a neurotic reaction to the vacuum of memories; the Absolute Fake is offspring of the unhappy awareness of a present without depth."

A present without depth is a future without hope. It is the loss of the past as a living reality, the loss of reality as a context for understanding and, the loss of an embodied presence that gives a clear sense of who we are.  The hyperreal present is one without a past, a future or hope.

Admiral Stockdale's POW war experience is analogous to our present culture of simulation and hyperreality. His captors created a fake world of isolation built around the false charge of criminality. The entire context of the prison was intended to break down the body in order to reach the mind and heart. Reach the mind with doubt. Reach the heart with lost hope. 

It was a game of propaganda. The intended audience for the fruits of torture was the American public who would view this artificial hyperreality through the screens of televised news and their morning newspapers. The aim of the North Vietnamese was to create a hyperreality where the POWs looked like they were healthy and well-cared for, and had come to see the rightness of the North Vietnamese Communist cause. In effect, the war on the minds of the POWs was also a war on the minds and hearts of Americans in their homes across the country.

The Spectacle of the Real is a similar form of propaganda. It's methods are not physical torture. Its aim is the same. Isolate the individual into a present that has no past, nor future. This is a culture of alienation and lost hope. The Spectacle of the Real is an emotional vacuum that creates a longing for the real that can only be met through the emotional attachment to consumer products, celebrity entertainers, politicians and, the 24/7 broadcast of opinions and adviced by authorized experts.  The is not an artificial reality, but a fake one, an unreal one that seeks to end individual thought and initiative.

One could describe this system of the spectacular in the words of the unnamed author of lost hope,

"Powerful, life-destroying dynamics have been set in motion that cannot be stopped. We’re on a disastrous course with each other and with the planet. We’ve lost track of our best human qualities and forgotten the real source of satisfaction, meaning and joy."

Admiral Stockdale challenged a similar system in the Hanoi Hilton prison by creating a communication system that connected the POWs together. It was essential to their survival and their ability to resist the propaganda efforts of the North Vietnamese.

At one point during the POWs' resistance to be used for propaganda, Stockdale issued a general order not to volunteer for a bomb-debris cleanup in Hanoi. He writes in his memoir,

"... it was a trap - that for every prisoner, every shovel, there would be two cameramen snapping propaganda shots continually, and there we would be in the world press: 'American prisoners of war go to the aid of North Vietnamese patriots as Yank bombs rain on the city of Hanoi.' ... we made up another general order ... 'No repent; no repay; do not work in town.'"

The result of this defiance was that Stockdale was handcuffed in manacles, both feet and arms, and place outside in a open courtyard exposed to the South East Asian sun.  After three days, they came to take him to interrogation.  He writes,

"I sensed I was going over toward Heartbreak (an isolated section of the prison), and my anxiety was high enough, with the cuffs still at full ratchet, that I called out my name: 'Stockdale, heading for Heartbreak!' In the midst of the noon-hour quiet, I knew some prisoner would pick it up. Position reports become an obsession when you realize how close you are to permanent isolation or even death."

Hope that is real amounts to a belief in one's capacity for adaptation and resilience. In our culture of hyperreality, the loss of hope is the loss of belief that one can prevail. This loss at the inner core of lives requires us to create change in ourselves that builds character for face to face confrontation with reality.

Ultimately, what I've learned, and Admiral Stockdale's story confirms it, is that prevailing in the face of the brutal facts cannot be done alone. We need others in our lives who believe in us so that we may believe in ourselves.

The reason I did not name the unnamed author of loss hope so as not to isolate her any more emotionally than she already is. For to lose hope is to accept emotional isolation. 

Finally, how do we have hope that is real. Three suggestions.

Follow The Stockdale Paradox. Be absolutely convinced that you will prevail in the end, and at the same time, face up to and deal with the brutal facts of reality. The more you practice them, the greater confidence you have to stand on your own and be less subject to the hyperreality of modern day consumer and political propaganda.

Establish relationships where Admiral Stockdale's two principles live. We need people in our lives who believe in us. We need to believe in ourselves, but also in others as well. Where those relationships are strong, we can face the brutal facts of our world, with resilience and hope. These relationships require honesty, transperancy, integrity and mutual caring.

Learn to see how hyperreality is a fake reality. The whole point of this series of essays on Reclaiming the Real is to recover a belief that we can make a difference that matters.  It is so people like the unnamed author of lost hope, the men who shared prison life with Admiral Stockdale, and the people you and I live and work with everyday, may not lose hope, and find ways to live lives of meaning and impact.

May it be so for us all.

Series Note: This post is one in a series that I am calling Reclaiming the Real. You can find a page of links to each post in the series here.


The Lost Maps of Reality

 

 

This day is called the feast of Crispian:
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when the day is named,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say 'To-morrow is Saint Crispian:'
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars.
And say 'These wounds I had on Crispin's day.'
Old men forget: yet all shall be forgot,
But he'll remember with advantages
What feats he did that day: then shall our names.
Familiar in his mouth as household words
Harry the king, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester,
Be in their flowing cups freshly remember'd.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember'd;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,

Henry V

William Shakespeare

History is more than a record of past events. It is the story of the actions and decisions of people, and as in this scene from Henry V, the shared experience of endeavor. The Spectacle of the Real, on the other hand, wants no part in the kind of history shared by King Harry and his "band of brothers" on the fields of Agincourt. Rather, they seek the public's passive attention to their opinions, in effect to nullify the living presence of the past.

In my post, The Map of Memory, I write,

"History, in its simplest form, is a story in the context of a specific time and place.  It provides perspective for understanding how we got here, and, possibly, where we are going. The map of memory helps us decide today what is true or real within the culture of the spectacle because it reveals the embodied relationship we have to the past.This is what a well-told story does for us. Places us into a context of meaning that helps us to know ourselves within the larger scope of history.

History, as a living narrative, is accessed through memory and recollection. Seeing history as the facts of chronological time, retrieved as lists of dates, events and personalities is to fail to see that the meaning of the past has meaning for today."

History carries a deeper resonance than simply my story or your story. It is even more than our story. It is the story that illuminates the present so that we can understand why life is the way it is, how we got here, and where we might go in the future.

There is a great divide, greater than the span of the Grand Canyon, greater than the length from our world to the end of the universe, greater than the distance from mind to heart. It is the divide between individual initiative and acquiescent passivity.

This difference is the one that exists between a life lived to the full, and a life that is viewed vicariously through personalities portrayed in the virtual world of the screen. This latter existence is what I see as The Spectacle.

Look, watch, observe and be a spectator; don't speak out, just listen; don't think, just comment; don't imagine, just accept; don't act on your own initiative, just do as you are told; don't remember, just be in the moment.

This is the message of The Spectacle of the Real. A life suspended in order to absorb the opinions and conjectures of others. To do this, one must detach oneself from time and the course of history. One must live only in the moment, and forget the continuity that exists in time.

But history does exist. It is all around us. It is discovered in places of honor, remembrance, restoration and reenaction. It is where families gather to remember lost love ones. It is where communities restore historic districts. It is where people gather to commemorate significant historical events.  In these settings, history can live as an act of remembrance. In others, the commemoration is The Spectacle, where the historic occasion is just the excuse to direct people's attention elsewhere. Where history lives, we can become a part of the story as it connects to a past that informs us of the realities of the world in which we live.

William Cronon writes about what American historian Frederick Jackson Turner told his students,

"... they must bring to the past their most urgent concerns of the present. "Each age", said Turner in 1891, "writes the history of the past anew with reference to the conditions upper-most in its own time. Pursuing that idea, he argued for a history that would study not just politics and elites, but the social history of ordinary people: "the focal point of modern interest," he wrote, "is the fourth estate, the great mass of the people.' A history that would do those people justice would have to study many fields-literature, politics, religion, economics, culture. It would have to focus on places and regions which past historians had ignored, places which, as luck would have it, were also home to many of Turner's students. It would have to turn to untapped documentary sources and apply new statistical techniques to their interpretation. It would have to set American history in the context of world history, and it would do so not by simple narrative but by studying problems. If these things were done, then the histories of ordinary people in places like Wisconsin or Kansas or California might come to have the significance they deserved. "History has a unity and a continuity," wrote Turner; "the present needs the past to explain it; and local history must be read as a part of world history." "

This is The Map of Memory, where the connections between generations, between past and present, between my story and our story becomes a panorama of understanding that we can share.

This living narrative is lost in The Spectacle of the Real. History is swallowed up, digested and regurgitated, as the authorized perspective replaces historical context. We, then, suspend our skepticism, that is at the heart of learning, in favor of a passive acceptance of expert opinion.

Without critical awareness, understanding the causes and meaning of moments in time becomes unnecessary. The goal of those who profit from The Spectacle is a passive, attentive following, who believe what they are told and accept what they see as true.

The Spectacle, therefore, is the active nullification of individual initiative and thought.

History Must Be Destroyed

French critic Guy Debord, writing in the context of Europe between the 1960s and 1980s, makes this point about the Spectacle's effect.

"With the destruction of history, contemporary events themselves retreat into a remote and fabulous realm of unverifiable stories, uncheckable statistics, unlikely explanations and untenable reasoning. ... One aspect of the disappearance of all objective historical knowledge can be seen in the way that individual reputations have become malleable and alterable at will by those who control all information: information which is gathered and also – an entirely different matter – information which is broadcast.  Their ability to falsify is thus unlimited. Historical evidence which the spectacle does not need to know ceases to be evidence. ... Never before has censorship been so perfect. Never before have those who are still lead to believe, in a few countries, that they remain free citizens, been less entitled to make their opinions heard, wherever it is a matter of choices affecting their real lives. Never before has it been possible to lie to them so brazenly. The spectator is simply supposed to know nothing, and deserve nothing. Those who are always watching to see what happens next will never act: such must be the spectator’s condition."

The Spectacle is a form of domesticated thought control. It is the efficient management of public opinion through self-censorship and collective shame. 

All we need to know about what to think, who to trust, what to buy, who to vote for and what not to say is gained by listening to the expert pundits who fill the internet and television programming with their opinions and prejudices. To doubt is to court humiliation and shunning. To be a person free of having to think for him or her self, and take responsibility for making a better world is to listen, follow and do nothing. It is a kind of noble passivity where one feels apart of some great following, while contributing very little.

Bloggers know that embedded in the comment section of their weblogs lies a public seeking intellectual communion with others. The comments may be rude and disrespectful in many cases. And many are parrots and trolls who simply comment to suppress alternative comments. Yet, seeing one's ideas in print along side dozens or hundreds of other commenters creates the sense that individual contribution and mass support is possible, and can make a difference.

That difference can be made only if our perspective is broader than whatever is on the screen of our computer or television. To think independently, we must learn to read the Map of our Memories within the context of history. We need to realize that the context that we are often fed online is non-existent.

In order to think, to understand, to make our own choices, and act upon them, we must reconnect with our history.  We must look beyond the moment and recognize that what is happening now is a product of what happened in the past. It is all connected, and by making the connections, we gain wisdom for our lives, our families and communities. Here's an example of what I mean.

The Context for Understanding

Torkham - Kyber Pass - Afghan-Pak border
The border village of Torkham - Kyber Pass - Afghanistan-Pakistan border - July 1981

If we knew our history and the history of other peoples, would we have ventured into a war in the mountains and on the plains of Afghanistan?

But we did go. Do you know why? Was it to fight the war on terror or secure our rights to oil? Did we go because we didn't not want to show weakness in the face of terrorist destruction? Or, did we go to project American strength and confidence in the world?

See how confused our reasoning was. All those reasons are not reasons, but attempts to justify what essentially was an unclear context of understanding. These are the reasons that are derived from The Spectacle, which is founded upon the projection of unquestioned authority. For all the bright and intelligent experts who have continued to speak about the war on terror, not a one, in my opinion, has yet to provide a clear historical context for our actions, both domestic and foreign, since 9/11.

What do you think? Are we in a better place as a nation today than in 2001?

While I do believe America is exceptional, I also believe that it requires us to be far more humble and circumspect than we have been in our response to terrorism.

To know the history of the Afghan region is to know that war is not occasional, but perpetual. It is to recognize that no one invades and conquers. Rather one leaves as a stalemate is reached. It happened to the Soviets. It is now happening to us.

Without historical perspective, we believe anything. Collect the right images together, and anyone can be fooled for a fortnight. Then the next Spectacle is upon us because there is no real historical continuity, only momentary linkages.

Without historical perspective, we believe that history is on ourside. We look at the outcome of the Second World War, and think, we can do it again. We tried in the jungles of Southeast Asia, and now on the steppes of Central Asia. What has been the outcome? What is the endgame? Can there be a perfect outcome? Can there ever be an ending? These questions are much more easily answered when we have a understanding of history's continuity over time.

At the heart of that history is remembering the failures that brought perspective. What did we learn from our past wars?

From the Civil War on through to the current war on terror, what we learned is that if we apply enough technology, enough young creative minds and bodies to the battle, then we can defeat any foe. At least that is what we tell ourselves. In other words, we learned not humility, but hubris.

As a mindset, this hubris is applied every where American power can be exercised home or abroad.

I see this because as a person born and raised in the American South. As the descendent of men who fought on the side of the Confederacy during the Civil War, I grew up in a region that understands what it means to lose a war, and the consequences of that loss. Many of those who fought in the Vietnam conflict feel in similar ways. Yet, their loss is not to the Communist forces they faced but rather from their conviction that their country failed to stand by them as they put their lives on the line for their country.

NCMemorialGettysburg
North Carolina Memorial at Gettysburg

Two members of my family served with the 55th North Carolina Vounteers, one, my great, great grandfather, Alfred Belo commanded the regiment at Gettysburg, and another, his brother Henry, died later, during the Battle of The Wilderness. The following two quotes are taken from Jeffrey Girvan's history of the regiment.

"Once in the Confederacy, North Carolina made important contributions to the South's quest for independence. Approximately one-fifth of all the provisions and supplies used by all Rebel armies came from the Old North State. An estimated 125,000 men from North Carolina eventually served in Confederate regiments and state militia units ... at least one-eighth of all soldiers who fought for the South were from the Old North State. Only 19,000 of these fighting men were draftees. Over 23,000 North Carolinians deserted during the war, more than from any other state in the Confederacy. By the end of the war approximately 40,275 North Carolina soldiers had been killed in battle or had died from disease while serving in the army. One-fourth of all Confederate soldiers killed on the battlefield were from North Carolina."

This is part of the historical context of the Civil War. Why did all these men leave their homes and venture off to fight in a war? Is it simply to preserve the institution of slavery as we are informed today during the 150th anniversary of the war? Or is there something more going on that gives reason to their service.

"The 55th North Carolina was probably one of the least homogeneous regiments from that state. The ranks of the unit were filled by men from every region in the state and represented over 20 counties. This regiment was a microcosm of the state. These counties varied in political ideology, social institutions, total population, slave count, and economic stability. The majority of the counties represented in the regiment contained less that 4,500 slaves, but the unit had a company of men from Granville which according to the 1860 Federal Census had more slaves than any other county in North Carolina. ... Most of the soldiers who fought with the 55th owned no slaves and worked as yeoman farmers or farm laborers. Although farmers constituted the majority of the regiment, there were also blacksmiths, teachers, merchants, lawyers, doctors, and mechanics. it is reasonable to assume, on the basis of the soldiers' letters and the 1860 Federal Census information, that most of the men who fought for the 55th were not strongly motivated by questions regarding slavery. However, they still felt motivated to resist when "outsiders" invaded their soil, and they were not about to let Yankees dictate how they should live their lives."

There is much more to be said about the historical context of the reasons why these men from North Carolina and the South would go to war against their own countrymen. It is the story that is missed in the coverage of the 150th. anniversary observance. It doesn't fit the narrative because it isn't simple or image based. This lost of historical reference points means a loss of perspective about what it means to be an American.

What is it that drives people to visit a battlefield like Gettysburg? Is it a shared experience of battle as soldiers? Is it family history? Is it a desire to understand this pivotal moment in our nation's history?

Today, what does the Civil War, understood both from a Northern and Southern perspective, tell us about how we should have approached the war on terror?  What about other threats to the nation?

In the end, what drove these mostly farm boys to war was an ancient notion of honor. This idea is gone, totally eradicated, from The Spectacle that is presented to us each day in Washington, on Wall Street, and through the media. If you look there, you will not see it. You must look away to those who do not seek your attention, but rather live quiet lives of service to their families, neighbors and communities.

What has not been lost by the public is an understanding of the importance of trust in relationships. People who venture to military parks like Gettysburg, whether they are aware of it or not, come because honor is, ultimately, the only answer to Why did they fight. And they seek, whether they realize it or not, the lost virtues of honor and trust that are fought for on battlefields wherever citizen soldiers fight.

Recovering the Lost Map of Reality

In my post, The Map of Memory, I present a perspective that characterizes our memory as a map. The more connections there are, the more detailed the map of memory, and the greater our understanding of the landscape of meaning.

French theorist Jean Baudlliard's Simulacra and Simulation, written a quarter century ago, is today more relevant than ever. He writes,

The great event of this period, the great trauma, is this decline of strong referentials, these death pangs of the real and of the rational that open onto an age of simulation. Whereas so many generations, and particularly the last, lived in the march of history, in the euphoric or castastrophic expectation of a revolution - today one has the impression that history has retreated, leaving behind it an indifferent nebula, traversed by currents, but emptied of references.

Walking the battlefields of Gettysburg during the 150th. anniversary of the battle, I wondered whether there were sufficient reference points for the thousands of people present to understand what had taken place. More than anything, as troop movements are described, cannons fired, and heroism celebrated, I wondered if anyone would leave with an understanding that these thousands of young men did not come to play war games, shoot their cannons recreationally, and go to battle to have stories of heroes to tell their grandchildren. They came to kill as many men on the other side of the battlefield as possible in the name of honor.

The Spectacle avoids death in these terms. Death as the purpose of fighting wars. Death to the Spectacle is something to sensationalize, as the daily murder trials that fill newspapers and televised news shows. We become immune to death when the killers become celebrity personalities. It becomes a game whose purpose is to divert us from reality.

The nation's awareness of the deaths on 9/11 are the exception. Within a few short months, though, we loss our historical perspective as Americans cheered the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. I am not a pacifist. I believe that war is often necessary and unavoidable. I respect and honor the men and women who go to war. But I do not at the same time view it as a game, a Spectacle for our amusement. I hate the deaths that result, the loss to families and communities, and the desensitization to death that results.

French cultural philosopher Guy Debord, who was the first to write this phenomenon in Society of the Spectacle and two decades later, in Comments on the Society of the Spectacle, writes,

History’s domain was the memorable, the totality of events whose consequences would be lastingly apparent. And thus, inseparably, history was knowledge that should endure and aid in understanding, at least in part, what was to come: ‘an everlasting possession’, according to Thucydides. In this way history was the measure of genuine novelty. It is in the interests of those who sell novelty at any price to eradicate the means of measuring it. When social significance is attributed to what is immediate, and to what will be immediate immediately afterwards, always replacing another, identical, immediacy, it can be seen that the uses of the media guarantee a kind of eternity of noisy insignificance.

This is how we came to lose our maps of reality. What is reality, if not a clear perspective where we can see ourselves in both a positive and critical light. We have lost this capacity for self-criticism as individuals and as a nation.

The things that provide us a basis for understanding the past are being lost in the unreality of the Spectacle.

History isn't simply facts, dates and names or a rationale for contemporary ideologies. History is a living human context of conversations about who we are as people and how we inhabit time and space on both a local and a global scale. It is also what has truly mattered in our lives when we reach our lives' end.

George Santayana is famous for having written, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

If we are to recover reality from the nullification of our minds and souls, then we must reclaim the context of history as a the map of memory, connecting past and present together as a living reality. 

All this requires is a willingness to think for ourselves and take responsibility for what we learn. That's all.

Series Note: This post is one in a series that I am calling Reclaiming the Real. You can find a page of links to each post in the series here.

The Map of Memory

ParkerHomesteadThreeForks

Parker Homestead near Three Forks, Montana

                                         

                                         Time past and time future

    Allow but a little consciousness.

                                    But only in time can the moment in the rose-garden,

                          The moment in the arbour where the rain beat,

                              The moment in the draughty church at smokefall

                           Be remembered; involved with past and future,

          Only through time time is conquered.

Burnt Norton

Four Quartets

T.S. Eliot

Time is the nemesis of progress. Time is change. Yet, not all change is progress. Instead, change is the natural state of all things. Things grow and decline simultaneously. To see this reality requires perspective, the perspective of memory.

To remember is to see the past as integral to the present and instructive for the future. But memory is difficult in a time of images and spectacle.

William Faulkner wrote in his novel Light in August,

"Memory believes before knowing remembers. Believes longer than recollects, longer than knowing even wonders."

Our memories are a presence that lives in, some say haunts, time. History is not just collections of the facts of time, place, person and institution. History is memory. Representations of the reality of our lives: of our past successes and failures, of love, rejection, boredom and abandonment, of joy and suffering, of life and death. Memory is the record of life lived.

Living in a time where images and spectacle dominate and dissimulate, we distance ourselves from the reality of the past as it lives in the present. There is an unfortunate prejudice against the past as less progressive, modern, forward and complete. The result is the lost of a context for perspective for knowing who we are, and why our lives, and our world is as it is. In remembering, we reclaim time as the past is present for us.

Remembering in Context.

Anyone who has a shared past with others realizes that our perception of the past is highly individualized. It is personal. Listen to a group of friends who have shared a concert, and they each remember something unique to their own experience, even as they stood and clapped and cheered together. The richness of the experience is both shared and individual.

Our memory is a patchwork quilt of recollections that help us to see the past. We don't remember facts, but the connections that link what we call facts into a picture that helps us to remember the past as present. As that recollection lives, it changes, becomes clearer, and its value grows.

I don't remember every meal I've ever eaten. I do remember the ones where there was a significant human encounter with another person or persons. I remember Thanksgiving at my mother's parent's home; how the cousins ate in the foyer of the house; how we played football in the front yard, and roamed the woods surrounding the house. These moments in time remain with me, and form the bond that I have with my sisters and my cousins. Time remembered and cherished.

In The Spectacle of the Real, the past is not history as it happened last week or a century ago.  It is a platform for the sensationalization of the current moment. This past no longer represents the past, but rather a simulacrum, a replacement of what happened to serve the moment of attraction. The past becomes a Disney-like hyper-reality, pristine and sanitized for consumer consumption. 

In this way, our memories are valid only if they fit a narrative structure that is contrived and hidden. The spectacle nature of hyper-reality makes it difficult for the real of the past to live in the real of the present. There is no connection, no relation that allows for this blending of time past and time present to make sense.  As a result, memories, instead of serving us by connecting us to meaning, are treated as illusions.

Is it any wonder, then, why life in the modern world feels so disconnected and unstable. These are not just feelings, but recollections of our embodied memories telling us that something is awry, not quite right. We must listen to reclaim the real.

Our memories, therefore, are the ligaments and tendons of time that tie together the events of the past into a body of remembrance that gives us perspective and meaning. The more we remember, the better able we are to discern the real from the hyper-real, the true from the false, the good from the meaningless.

Memory in a Lockbox

Memory in modern thought has been treated as if it was a container for objects of remembrance. We retrieve the past as snippets of data that are contained in a book or an encyclopedia, sealed in a bank lockbox or in a computer harddrive to be shared on Twitter, Pinterest or Tumblr. David Farrell Krell describes this perspective.

"'Memory,' says John Locke, ' is as it were the Store-house of our Ideas.' ... Memory is a storehouse whose stores are nothing stored nowhere. ... Call it then a power to revive perceptions of 'Ideas' once perceived, along with the assurance that one has perceived them before; a power of the mind to paint its 'ideas' afresh on itself, though with varying degrees of verisimilitude. Verisimilitude? To what should memories approximate? Whence the assurance that one has perceived this or that before? Apparently memory is a storehouse?"

The Wikipedia entry on memory provides a similar description.

"In "Psychology", memory is the process by which information is encoded, stored, and retrieved. Encoding allows information that is from the outside world to reach our senses in the forms of chemical and physical stimuli."

I find this not only an inadequate perspective, but misleading about human experience. It suggests that memory is a fixed object of information that can be isolated from our experience. Maybe, in a laboratory, a memory can be isolated in such an pristine manner.

However, we don't live in research labs, but in the real world, where our memories, good or bad, live with us. We don't have the option, if we desire to live healthy lives, to isolate parts of our lives, like the past, our memories, as if they don't matter. We are whole beings, not mechanical thinking contraptions that can simply shut down one function so others may continue unhindered by remembrance.

Our memories function within our intellectual, emotional and spiritual selves. We are not separate from our memories. They live with us. We can choose to embrace them or deny their presence, and that is where the challenge of recovering the real in our lives exists.

Memory in Context

Our memory exists in a context of space and time, and in relation to the people who were present then, and who are present now.

I remember many events as a child. I remember being lost at the county fair, fearful of never seeing my parents again, and then standing at the gate, relieved to see them approach. I see and feel it as if it was yesterday.

I remember the days that I spent as a refugee worker during the summer spent in Pakistan in 1981. I remember how those eight weeks were a progression of days of travel, on foot, by jeep, van and plane, every day, to a new corner of the mountains of northern Pakistan, engaging new and different people every day. I remember those days as if they were one long epic story that occurred yesterday. The pictures that I took, the map that I carried, and the journal I wrote in that summer, all contribute to memories remaining vivid to this very day.

As a result, my memory of Pakistan, is not that which we see on the evening news. My memory is not the televised spectacle of the war on terror taking place on the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Instead, I see a country divided by terror, no different than ours. I see mothers and fathers, and their children suffering because of wars, both internal and external, that have been their constant experience for centuries.

Is memory just data, like a commodity, stored and retrieved at will? Or is our memory a context of living history that influences how we live, relate to others, and find direction in life?

This is the question that we must answer to find reality for our lives today.

The Map of Memory

A better analogy for our memories is that of the map, an interactive map of connections, personal, physical and cultural. There are points on the map, the "facts" of history, like a birthday date, the name of your 4th grade teacher or that song from your first junior high school dance. Our recollection moves between these kind of facts to create a landscape of memory that we remember as a story.  Tied together they create a landscape of recollection that places us back in the moment of time.

When I was five or six years old, I swiped a pack of gum from the drug store that my parents patronized. As we drove home, my father asked where I got the gum that I was chewing. I said at the store. He turned the car around, and took me back to the store, where I apologized, and my father paid the clerk. That early childhood moment, I remember vividly, the layout of the store, the moment in the car, the place on the route home when my petty theft was discovered. But the central memory of that moment in my childhood isn't the fact of my thievery, but rather the shame I felt.

In this sense, the map of memory cannot be just facts, but rather the connections between those facts. These connections are paths that link the parts of our experiences into a whole picture, like a map, which guides us through our memories. The more complete the map, the more complete our memories.

Our memory is part of the moral context of our lives. We access meaning and purpose for our lives through our embodied sensory experience.  To remember is to be ever present in that memory. With that memory, we remember what matters and why.

Where do those connections come from? Our memories are not created out of nothing. They don't originate with themselves. They are not like the false memories of the Spectacle. They are representative perceptions of the world that we experienced at the time, that remain with us as memories.

Maurice Merleau-Ponty writes in Phenomenology of Perception,

"... in order to fill out perception, memories need to have been made possible by the physiognomic character of the data. Before any contribution by memory, what is seen must at the present moment so organize itself as to present a picture to me in which I can recognize my former experiences. ... ."

We are embodied persons, not memory containers, or mechanical thinking machines. Our memories are links to past perceptions that are recollected in the context of current ones. This linking creates a map of memory that is constantly being evaluated and reformed in the blink of an eye. Merleau-Ponty writes,

"No sooner is the recollection of memories made possible than it becomes superfluous, since the work it is being asked to do is already done."

Living memories, therefore, no longer live in the past, but in the present, and become part of the moment itself. This is the unfolding character of time and history. It is not linear, but whole, opening itself up to new "maps" or landscapes of understanding.

A Map of a Moment in Time

I see it in my minds eye. I see the precise moment, the place in my fifth-grade classroom, the angle of my head as I looked at the speaker on the wall, as the principal of my elementary school announced to us that President Kennedy had been shot and killed.

That memory is a map of a whole series of moments all linked together like a network of pathways that will forever remain with me.

I remember vividly what happened from that moment on Friday afternoon through Sunday morning in late November 1963. The Friday afternoon in the classroom. The Saturday I spent at my friend Steve's house where every channel on the television was about the assassination. The Sunday morning as our family watched coverage on the television, then seeing Lee Harvey Oswald being escorted out of the Dallas police station only to be shot dead by Jack Ruby. 

All those recollections of moments within that three day time frame serve as a map through those days. It is not the linear record of the clock, but rather a map of the landscape of time. Landscape as in a panorama of images and emotions all connected together to create a whole, embodied memory though my own personal, quite selective recollection. What is remembered is the connections that link the various parts of those days. This is how memory works. It is a landscape canvas that captures a moment in time that continues to live, past and present together.

Memory as a Living, Ever Present Story

History, in its simplest form, is a story in the context of a specific time and place.  It provides perspective for understanding how we got here, and, possibly, where we are going. The map of memory helps us decide today what is true or real within the culture of the spectacle because it reveals the embodied relationship we have to the past.This is what a well-told story does for us. Places us into a context of meaning that helps us to know ourselves within the larger scope of history.

History, as a living narrative, is accessed through memory and recollection. Seeing history as the facts of chronological time, retrieved as lists of dates, events and personalities is to fail to see that the meaning of the past has meaning for today.

This is why the novels of William Faulkner have had such a powerful influence upon people in the South. We are brought into a world of living memory that resonates as true and real, even though we live in a different time and place. Few of us alive today, lived in the culture of the Deep South in the late 19th, early 20th centuries. Faulkner's stories are narrative histories of human imagination that place us in a time remembered that is as contemporary as it is historic.

Lee Anne Fennell describes Faulkner's literary world as,

"... a 'land haunted by memory' ... too little attention has been given to memory's overarching role in elucidating such distinctively Faulknerian elements as disordered time, preoccupation with the past, the influence of the dead, and, most importantly, determinism. It is memory ... that pulls pieces of the past into the present, resurrects the dead and remakes family history. ... Time collapses for Faulkner's people: the past is conflated with the present, the dead share narrative space with the living, and childhood traumas lie just beneath the skin of the present moment."

This is not the container view of memory, but rather a living context, a living presence, that is more spiritual than informational.

Faulkner's intentional disordering of time brings the past into the present as a living reality that is not just personal, but a shared experience of human community, at its best and worst.

French novelist Jean-Paul Sartre in his essay about about Faulkner's use of time in The Sound and The Fury, writes,

"In the classical novel, the action has a focus ... It would be futile to look for this kind of focus in The Sound and The Fury: is it Benjy's castration? Caddy's unfortunate love affair? Quentin's suicide? Jason's hatred for his niece? Each episode, once it has been grasped, invokes others - in fact, all the other episodes connected with it. Nothing happens, the story does not progress; rather, we discover it behind each word as an oppressive and hateful presence, varying in intensity with each situation. ...

It is man's misfortune to be confined in time. '... a man is the sum of his misfortunes. One day you'd think misfortune would get tired, but then time is your misfortune. ...'  This is the true subject of the novel. And if the technique adopted by Faulkner seems at first to be a negation of time, that is because we confuse time with chronology. Dates and clocks were invented by man: ' ... constant speculation regarding the position of mechanical hands on an arbitrary dial which is a symptom of mind-function. Excrement Father said like sweating. To reach real time, we must abandon these devices, which measure nothing: '... time is dead as long as it is being clicked off by little wheels; only when the clock stops does time come to life.' Quenton's breaking his watch has, therefore, a symbolic value; it forces us to see time without the aid of clocks. The time of the idiot, Benjy, is also unmeasured by clocks, for he does not understand them." (emphasis in the original)

Faulkner's treatment of time, as Sartre describes, is quite similar to what I see as the map of memory. It is landscape of recollection that travels with us.

Faulkner is famously remembered for the quote from Requiem for a Nun, "The past is not dead. It is not even past."  I find this to be true. It is a living presence that fills in the gaps of perspective so we can better see the world as it is. This is not just an alternative to the Spectacle, but its opposite.

Mapping Our Memories

In order to regain our sense of the past as a living reality, we need to make one important shift in the way we perceive the world.

We need to see that the world is not a collection of parts, of time and history as simply a linear list of dates, names and events, and that our lives are lived in a meaningless succession of discrete moments in time. We need to see life as whole, as integral and complete when the linkages of time and space are recognized and recalled.

"The past is not dead. It is not even past."

To recognize this to be true requires us to be skeptical of all claims to authority by those who produce The Spectacle of the Real. They must earn their credibility and our trust by demonstrating a respect for the past as meaningful in itself for making sense of the present.

It is, therefore, not enough to simply understand that history is the map of memory. We must understand how to use the map of memory to reclaim the real that has been lost. I'll address this in my next post, The Lost Maps of Reality.

Series Note: This post is one in a series that I am calling Reclaiming the Real. You can find a page of links to each post in the series here.


Reclaiming the Real through the Living Past

Aviary Photo_130143349190604384"The past is never dead. It's not even past."

Gavin Stevins

Requiem for a Nun

William Faulkner

The Spectacle of the Real penetrates into all aspects of contemporary life. It isn't just about the media, or the news, politics or sports. It is also about family and history.

Families get trapped into the culture of the spectacle when the externals of consumer choice determine how a family positions themselves within the social environment of their community.  The context of history provides a counter-balance as past generations' culture of identification provides perspective for self-identification.

The advent of "moving pictures" over a century ago in films and later television initiated the use of images as a way to depict the real world. Over the decades, the image on the screen became increasingly a hyper-reality.  Post-World War II families, as presented on the screen, were understood to be a cultural standard for what a typical, traditional, middle class American family should be. The emergence of a new and growing middle class marked the shift of families out of the the poverty of the Depression era as a new society of consumers, with Hollywood and Madison Avenue as their guide.

Television's presentation of families shifted over time to become less traditional to more hyper-real and spectacular. Beginning with the traditional family of The Donna Reed Show, to all-male families of My Three Sons and Bonanza, to the pristine frontier family of Little House on the Prairie to the blended family of The Brady Bunch, each family represented a type of growing hyper-real traditionalism, where what constituted a family became less and less defined. 

The ironic genius of Norman Lear in the late 60s and 70s, entered new families in shows like All in the Family, One Day at a Time, and The Jeffersons as the traditional understanding of the family was turned upside down.The span of television's perspective on the family came full circle as the Huxtable's of the Cosby Show were an updated affirmation of traditional family values and structure.

The_Loud_Family_1973All these shows, though were fictionalized families in situation-comedies and historical dramas. Even as a kid, I knew they were not real families. Then in 1973, An American Family premiered on PBS. This was the first truly reality-based show. The series followed The Loud family through their daily lives. One son, Lance, came out as gay during the series. The parents, Pat and Bill, separated and divorced during the series. It began the trend toward reality television that continues to this very day in series like, The Real Housewives of Orange County. 

The spectacle of hyper-reality is detached and voyeuristic at its core. It builds around the attraction of the images and stories whose unbelievability makes them all the more believable.There is fascination in people who are somewhat like us, yet, not like us at all. This is the pull of hyper-reality.

As a result, history has become less a continuing story of the past, but, rather, a design backdrop for the present.

History as Context for the Real

My son Troop and I have a long running, ongoing conversation about history, its place in the modern world, and its effect upon our family.

As a young man, he is seeking to understand history through the craft of writing novels. I find his insights deep, rich and expansive. He has begun a multi-volume history of one North Carolina farm family through many generations. The first volume of this family's story, The Knot of Home, will be published later this summer. Here he describes the cycle of stories that he has begun.

Stories have beginnings and ends, we all know, but sometimes we aren't aware of the start until we have already reached the finish.  Maybe we were simply unaware of what was happening, or were born at the wrong time to have seen the whole of the story from its inception. 

Arlen Breckenridge came to realize this too.  Perhaps he feared that he was at the end of the cycle, that the family ways would all die with him.  But that gave him the ability to look back to the beginning of his story, embodied in his family, and understand.

The Knot of Home, though chronologically the last, is in truth the first of several books in The Breckenridge Cycle.  Each book in the Cycle will examine the roots of the American agrarians, their values, their ways, and what they fought to build and preserve, often in vain, as America modernized.  The Cycle will illuminate for all Americans what has been lost and forgotten, but what can be remembered and upheld, if we just have a little imagination.

Following one of our late night conversations about history and our time, I asked him to put in writing what he had said. Here's a portion of what he sent.

Rather than a distinct collection of facts that we know are right, have been tested and proven, are easily definable, and can be used to justify any theory or position on the world (present and past) in a neat, bibliographical form, history is rather a massive, ill-defined, humbling dialogue, both between individuals, but also larger groups, communities, etc; and also between the self-conscious thinker and his acknowledgement of his own influences, personality, and tendencies.

The latter definition encompasses everything - every discipline, field, tool, etc. - as a way for understanding the world in relation to the past (which is really the only real world, because it colors our view of the present). Thus it can build something by the agglomeration, juxtaposition, tension, or negation of various ways of looking at the world.

To get at both a certain true historical reality and thus a workable method for living in real, current world (two sides of the same coin), I am not writing any academic history. I am not dealing with facts, because the tested and proven facts that I was given by those who have "done the work" before me do not explain the reality that keeps poking its Cyrano de Bergerac nose through the curtain. Thus I combine from different sources - folk tales; philosophy; my own archaeology of past behavior in certain groups of "backwards" people; personal letters; psychology; traditional histories; and literary archetypes. These all prove to be different tools for getting at the same thing, which you will never do perfectly. For choosing one of these methods for understanding is as arbitrary as choosing "facts." There is no rational (or otherwise) criteria for choosing facts as criteria. But if you understand the uses of each method and are prepared to create a dialogue between them (both in your own head and potentially between other people who represent a given method), then you stand a chance at working out some kind of synthesis. ...It is all context, then. It is also the universal. ... Thus the dialogue runs on, getting closer to the truth, but always needing expansion. (Emphasis mine.)

This historical context for recovering the real is a dialogue that takes place with many contexts, not just one or two.  Most of us can access these histories. They are embedded in our families and the communities where we live. We do so by talking with others, doing some leg-work, doing research online, and being aware of the historic connections that exist between the present and the past.

The Context of Family

I have a photo file of grave markers of the members of my family, from both my mother's and father's side, going as far back as six generations. I have been accused, jokingly, but not without cause, of practicing ancestry worship; it isn't worship, but honor and remembrance.

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The scene above is of the Brinegar Cabin where Martin (1856-1925) and Caroline (1861-1943) Brinegar settled after they migrated into the mountains from the foothills of the Piedmont region of North Carolina in the late 1800s. This cabin is preserved by the National Park Service within the boundaries of the Blue Ridge Parkway (Mile Marker 238.5). The Brinegar's (notice the different spelling from mine, Brenegar) are "distant" cousins. We have to go back about five or six generations to find the family connection between my father's line and Martin's.

The story of Martin and Caroline and their cabin provides context for understanding my father's father's family who lived within a twenty mile ride of the Brinegar's before they moved to the mountain. Seeing the contrast between Martin and Caroline's life and my grandfather's family's life in town has provided me and my family perspective on who we are.

What is that story? Martin's lineage were farmers. My grandfather's were merchants, clerks and government workers.

On both sides of my family, I cannot find a single farmer within the past five generations. One great, great grandfather was a Presbyterian minister. Another great, great grandfather was a newspaper man, and his father ran a general store. My mother's father's mother's grandfather (my great, great, great grandfather) was a farmer in the Swannanoa River Valley of Buncombe County, North Carolina. One great grandfather was a lawyer, another a banker. Others were politicians and civic leaders. My father's father worked as clerk for a tobacco company. My other grandfather was a lawyer and a veteran of the battles in France during the First World War. No farmers after the first half of the 19th. century though.

What does this family history tell me, my siblings and my children? It shows how we were part of the growing modernization of the region and the nation. That there are reasons why we are more mobile, less rooted in the soil, and why our consumer tastes are more urban than rural.

I understand the reasons why my mother's mother told the stories that she did. Why she impressed upon us certain values. Why family was important. It wasn't about pride. It was about history and honor for those who came before us, and about never bringing shame to the family.  It is identity and meaning that links generations of my family over the past 300 years.

My mother was a Morrison. Our Morrison line came from one of three brothers that came over from Scotland in 1750. Those three brothers ended up in the Rocky River community of Cabarras County, north of Charlotte, North Carolina. Two sisters there have done the genealogical research and produced a volume on each of the brother's lineage. It is fascinating to see time through the lives of these families. It is more than a history of the nation. It is a tangible way to understand the social, economic and political changes that have taken place over the past three centuries.

My father's family came to America in 1730 on a ship from Germany into Philadelphia. The Bruenenger's, as the name was spelled then, eventually migrated, like my Morrison kin into the Piedmont region of North Carolina. The two families were only about 65 miles apart. And yet, it was not until around 1949-50 that my parents met, and these two families were joined in their marriage.

Our family histories are not just about family, but about identity, place and community. In understanding them as living histories, we begin to understand ourselves within the context of each day's historical transition from the past to the future.

Traditions: Dead or Alive

I know many families that are broken, as spouses, children, siblings, parents and grandparents are at odds with one other. There is something missing from their relationships. It is only partly the self-centered independence of our time. That is too simple an explanation for the problems that I have seen in many families during my lifetime. 

The lack of a broader context for understanding who the family is, and the obligations that come with being family is a greater contributing factor. The weaknesses that I see are not because these families are not following a traditional path of recognized family values. In fact, many of these families, that are in distress, are very traditional in their approach to being a family. The reality though is that the family doesn't work for each member. There is a failure for the family unit to provide a sufficient environment for the child to discover her or his identity in the context of the history of the family.

For many families, the expectation placed on the younger generation is that they will follow along the path that previous generations have trod. That loyality to home and hearth is to resist change, and sublimate one's own personality and sense of call in life to the family. This is the heart of Rod Dreher's story, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, where he leaves his small town Louisiana home to discover his course in life, returning after the death of his sister, to discover a part of his family's life that he had missed by moving away.

Col AH Belo - 55th NC CSA
Col. AH Belo - 55th NC regiment, CSA

This also part of the story that my son Troop is writing in his The Breckenridge Cycle of novels.

We all wonder what it means to go home. For Arlen Breckenridge, it is no different. Leaving his North Carolina farm to fight a bloody war across Europe, Arlen finds that the memory his own home, a real and lasting place, is the only thing that makes him fight on. He hopes to protect it and return to it. But when he returns the hero, Arlen is a different man. His little rural world has changed, too, and Arlen is left almost alone, trying to bring the soil of his old farm back to life. Was all his sacrifice, misunderstood by everyone around, all for nothing? Or can he find redemption in how he has changed, able to make his home, his farm and family, live once again?

The larger context of family history is recognizing that each generation has had to establish their own path, while maintaining connection and respect for the past. At the heart of this context are values that provide a basis for understanding what has worked and has not worked in the past for families.

How we approach our family's histories is a guide to how we can approach history in general. If we close off understanding of the past because there are unpleasant aspects of it, the presence of the proverbial horse thief or scoundrel, then we also close ourselves off to a recognition of values that are worthy of elevation, and have served to define us as people.

Younger generations often struggle with the forced allegiance to family traditions that seem without logic or reason.  This is often their parents and grandparents fault for failing to articulate the significance of the values that are at the center of their family's history. Families, like other traditional social and organizational structures, can fall into the trap of simply doing things because that is the way it has always been done. However, if they looked back in their history as a family or group, they'd see that those hardened traditions had a beginning in time that were created with the same sort of resistance to change as new ideas today

There is a difference between traditions that are alive and those that are merely habitual. The difference are values that provide the glue to the relationships. Values, when they are elevated to a place of engagement, are a living context for families. 

In my own family's history, I go back to the decision my great, great, great grandfather, the proprietor of the general store mentioned above, gave to his son to make at the outbreak of the Civil War. The choice was to stay home, help his father run the store, or leave as a volunteer, and if so, the store would close. He chose to join the Confederate volunteers from North Carolina and spend the next four years at war. 

Choice, responsibility and contribution are values that are part of my family's past that live on in how we function as a family today. The strength of those values provides the glue that holds us together as we live in different parts of the country and world, and as we, like all families, go through times of trial.

Living within the context of history enables us to know and understand who we are. This is particularly true for families. Without a grounding in the past, even if that past is not one of strength, provides a context for knowing what are the values upon which we can build our future. 

Recovering the real from the hyper-reality of today's culture of the spectacle is partly accomplished by remembering the past as a living reality, here and now, in the present. Memory becomes an important aspect of this process of recovery, and is the subject of the next post in this series.

Poetic Postscript

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After posting, I decided to add this poem by Kentucky farmer and writer, Wendell Berry.

Testament

Wendell Berry

And Now in the Abbyss I pass

Of that Unfathomable Grass …

1.

Dear Relatives and friends, when my last breath

Grows large and free in air, don’t call it death –

A world to enrich the undertaker and inspire

His surly art of imitating life, conspire

Against him. Say that my body cannot now

Be improved upon; it has no fault to show

To the sly cosmetician. Say that my flesh

Has a perfection in compliance with the grass

Truer than any it could have striven for.

You will recognize the earth in me, as before

I wished to know it in myself: my earth

That has been my care and faithful charge from birth

And toward which all my sorrows were surely bound,

And all my hopes. Say that I have found

A good solution, and am on my way

To the roots. And say I have left my native clay

At last, to be a traveler; that too will be so.

Traveler to where? Say you don’t know.

 

2.

But do not let your ignorance

Of my spirit’s whereabouts dismay

You, or overwhelm your thoughts.

Be careful not to say

 

Anything too final. Whatever

Is unsure is possible, and life is bigger

Than flesh. Beyond reach of thought

Let imagination figure.

 

Your hope. That will be generous

To me and to yourselves. Why settle

For some know-it-all’s despair

When the dead may dance to the fiddle

 

Hereafter, for all anybody knows?

And remember that the Heavenly soil

Need not be too rich to please

One who was happy in Port Royal.

 

I may be already heading back

A new and better man, toward

That town. The thought’s unreasonable,

But so is life, thank the Lord!

 

3.

So treat me, even dead,

As a man who has a place

To go, and something to do.

Don’t muck up my face.

 

With wax and powder and rouge

As one would prettify

An unalterable fact

To give bitterness the lie.

 

Admit the native earth

My body is and will be,

Admit its freedom and

Its changeability.

 

Dress me in the clothes

I wore in the day’s round.

Lay me in a wooden box.

Put the box in the ground.

   

4.

Beneath this stone a Berry is planted

In his home land, as he wanted.

He has come to the gathering of his kin,

Among whom some were worthy men,

 

Farmers mostly, who lived by hand,

But one was a cobbler for Ireland,

 

Another played the eternal fool

By riding on a circus mule

 

To be remembered in grateful laughter

Longer than the rest. After

 

Doing what they had to do

They are at ease here. Let all of you

 

Who yet for pain find force and voice

Look on their peace, and rejoice.

 

from Collected Poems 1957-1982, Wendell Berry, North Point Press, 1985.

 

Series Note: This post is one in a series that I am calling Reclaiming the Real. You can find a page of links to each post in the series here.


The Reason for the Real

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... is trust.

In the realm of the spectacle and the hyper-real, what matters is not engagement, but attachment. This kind of attachment, born of fascination, creates a co-dependency between the observer and the observed, between the viewer and the screen. With the spectacular, the pull is to become absorbed in the singular moment that evolves into a 24/7 series of manufactured moments.

For example, I ask because I do not know, what is the fascination with the Jodi Arias murder trial? Why does CNN and other networks invest so much air-time in the coverage of this one case. What is there to learn from it? What difference does this case make to the lives of millions of viewers that coverage of another court case does not?

This is the spectacle of the real that becomes the preferred hyper-real experience precisely because it is not our reality.  The culture of the spectacle is at its core voyeuristic.  We could describe this type of programming as murder-porn because it exploits the same sexual fascination with young attractive women to drive viewers to the screen.

When reality is engaged, a truth emerges that provides a way to understand how we relate to one another and to our environments. It is this relational connection that creates engagement. It is a connection that has a mutual flow between the relating parties. This is true even if we are speaking of our relation to the natural environment. 

Our human relationships of trust require honesty, transparency and openness in an environment of mutual sharing. It is possible to have these relationships virtually. But they must be intentionally developed.

The reason for the real is to create environments where doubt, suspicion and anxiety are replaced by trust, understanding and peace.

I'll write more about this in future posts. This short one is to simply clarify the points that I've made in The Spectacle of the Real and The Path to the Real.

Series Note: This post is one in a series that I am calling Reclaiming the Real. You can find a page of links to each post in the series here.


The Path to the Real

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All that passes descends and ascends again unseen into the light: the river coming down from sky to hills, from hills to sea, and carving as it moves, to rise invisible, gathered to light to return again. ... Gravity is grace.

The Gift of Gravity (1982)

Wendell Berry

In my previous post - The Spectacle of the Real - I take us on a long excursion to show how in many areas of our lives, we live in an unreal world of hyper-reality, spectacle and simulacra. This last term - an unusual one - is the simulation of one reality as a mask for another. It isn't a replacement, an alternative perspective, but something different. It accomplishes this diversion from reality through the use of images and the presentation of spectacles as a means to grab our attention.

The effect of living in this unreality is that it ill-prepares us for a time when reality surfaces in the form of disaster, disease or disappointment.

The Liberating Limits of the Real

This is what happens for the victims of a house fire, or a cancer diagnosis or the sudden discovery that a trusted business partner has been embezzling funds. Reality in this sense, accompanied by some kind of pain, awakens our perception to a world that we've been ignoring.

I've seen this in people who have suffered through economic hardships and loss. One response is denial and diversion.  Another is anger followed by bitterness and cynicism.

Then, there are those who wake up, fight through the pain to recreate their lives. For these people, they embrace the reality of their pain and use it as a lever to change their lives. In the words of Fredrich Nietzsche, "What doesn't kill me makes me stronger."

Pain, suffering or failure confront us with the reality that there are genuine limitations to our existence. We discover a horizon to our lives when we discover we can't do it all "by my ownself", finding that we need help in completing a project or doing our best work requires collaboration with others or recovering from injury. Our limits are liberating as a result as they open us to possibilities that weren't present. Our limits are mainly time and space, the strength of our bodies, the capacity of our spirit, and our minds' imagination.

 The Embodiment of the Real in Time.

Without a grasp of reality, creating continuity in our work over time can be difficult. There is a transitional nature to life. Most of us speak of this, with teeth clinched, as change. Time and change are indelibly linked together as Aristotle writes,

Time is a measure of change and of being changed, and it measures change by defining some change which will exactly measure out the whole process of change ... .

We move through stages that flow enabling us to build upon both the good and the hard in life. Without a grasp of the real, we see life as random, intermittent, and disconnected from purpose and meaning. This perspective is the perfect platform for the spectacle to become the default culture of our time. It is embodiment of the irrationality of change.

As a result, we don't see the gaps, the in-between spaces, the transition points, the ways that creating openness or vacuum in processes lead to opportunities that can carry us beyond our horizons.  We don't discover the flow, where life flourishes. Without the real, sustainability is difficult to establish.

The problem of time in an age of hyper-reality and spectacle is that we believe that we can make time stop. Time is not a quantity. It is not really minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years or a lifetime. Rather, it is the way we recognize the embodiment of change as life. If all time is is a measure of an endless series of days, then we have a life of random spectacle. However, if time is a measure of change, then we can see meaning unfold in ways that help us to see how our lives can make a difference that matters. To do so requires that we recover the reality of time as change.

It is change that represents time better than the clock or the calendar. I take this thought from Albert Einstein to his life-long friend Michele Besso as an indicator of what this means.

For us who are convinced physicists, the distinction between past, present, and future is only an illusion, however persistent.

Change is what we experience in life. Some of it is welcomed, some of it not. But change, none-the-less, is what we live with each day. To face reality is to recognize that the boundary between the past and the future is a transitional one. What we call the present is just a way to identify the activity of change, those transition points, that we all experience. 

The border between past and future is porous, not defined. Some transitions are hard and fast, others slow and gradual, blending what was before into what will be. There is no static present that can be claimed and fixed in time. There is only the movement of time forward measured by change.

The illusion of time as something fixed is seen in our sense of having lost or wasted time. What we are really lamenting in those moments is the loss of opportunity or the failure to take advantage of a moment of change.

Along the path to the real, we recognized the importance and value of change in our lives. To resist change is to fail to understand life as it is. To embrace change is find the flow of life and time as synonymous. 

The Embodiment of the Real in Space.

Being able to distinguish the real from the fake or from the simulacrum of the virtual requires us to think differently about how we perceive the world we are in. Instead of taking statements and images at face value, we need to look at the wider context, which is always greater than the event or the presentation itself.

Almost seventy years ago, French writer Maurice Merleau-Ponty wrote,

“We must not, therefore, wonder whether we really perceive a world, we must instead say: the world is what we perceive. In more general terms we must not wonder whether our self-evident truths are real truths, or whether, through some perversity inherent in relation to some truths, that which is self-evident for us might not be illusory in relation to some truth in itself. …  The world is not what I think, but what I live through. I am open to the world, I have no doubt that I am in communication with it, but I do not possess it; it is inexhaustible.” (emphasis mine)

We each inhabit a space. We move into and through other spaces to inhabit them along with others. The limitations and horizons of our lives are porous. We move into spaces and become a part of that space. There is a relational character to the way we move through spaces.

I sit in my favorite chair to read, but I do not become the chair. The chair and I do have a relationship that joins us together. It is not just momentary, but historic. It is my mother's chair from her childhood. I think of her as I sit. I remember other times, like the time I discovered a new way of looking at the world because of a passage in a book.

The same is true with other objects of which I am largely unaware yet within reach as I sit and read. The lamp behind me. The small table beside me. The pen and pad for taking notes. 

As I sit down, into my chair, for a brief moment, I feel the comfort of the cushion and tactile softness of the fabric. Then my awareness of the chair is gone, transferred to the book that is in my hands. Then to the words on the page, but not to the individual words but to the string of words that create a sentence, but not even the sentence or the paragraphs, but the meaning that the author's words suggest. Even then, I do not see the words, but the image or thoughts that the words conjure up in my mind, until I come across a word that I do not know. I stop, refocus to that word as the object of my awareness.

Our perception of things is whole, but our conscious awareness is always selective, governed by how and why we are moving through spaces.

I walk into a grocery store. I'm looking for things on my list. I ignore most of the things on the shelves that my eye catches. I don't see them. There is no conscious acknowledgement of those products. Yet, I am perceiving them because something triggers a recollection of a kind of cheese that I had a party last week. I go over to the cheese section, and find that special cheese that was not on my list, but is now in my cart.

We see more than we acknowledged. A part of these spaces are our memories, or recollections of things past. These are memories that are triggered by our senses. I've heard that smell is the sense most rooted to our memory. We remember things, not in our conscious awareness, but instead as an awareness of the wholeness of the spaces we enter.

We are watching a movie, and, we think, "I've seen this before." But where? We trace back through our memory. We are not thinking about the movie itself, but rather the context, the place in which we saw it. We try to remember the room, the people, the conversation afterward, the time of day, and other happenings in our daily lives at the time. Then our recollection of the space clicks into our awareness and we are there, in the past watching the same film. We relax, satisfied in our recollection, and settled back into watching the film in the present.

We move within physical spaces and encounter people and places that not only help form memories, but impact us as persons.

Educational programs that primarily focus on the development of intellectual knowledge are less effective in educating the whole person than those that create a range of behavioral responses to the situations we encounter. Aristotle wrote,  

"Anything that we have to learn to do we learn by the actual doing of it; people become builders by building and instrumentalists by playing instruments. Similarly we become just by performing just acts, temperate by performing temperate acts, brave by performing brave ones."

This learning does not take place only in our minds, but in our bodies within the places we live and move, work and play.

To see these spaces as they are means that we must get out of our heads and recognize that we are fully embodied persons moving in a world of fully embodied persons who, like me, inhabit a world of objects that also inhabit a space. In this sense, it can be said that in whatever space that I am in, that I have a relationship to those things, those physical objects, like chairs, lamps, cabinets, refrigerators and the like.

A wood worker becomes a master craftsperson by developing a relationship with the tools of her trade and the wood that is her canvas. That relation becomes less conscious and more second nature as she develops that relationship.

It is just like learning to ride a bike. Once learned, being conscious of maintaining balance is not necessary. That knowledge is now in our bones, and it was not learned solely in the mind, but in the bodies that we have.

When you go to a restaurant, do you care where you sit? Of course you do. If they put you in the kitchen, by the backdoor, near the dish washer, you would be offended and leave.  The spaces we inhabit matter to us because each part operates as a part of the whole context.

When we enter the restaurant, we look for a space that is a network of relationships between the chairs, the tables, the lighting, the placement within the room and its proximity to people. We do not identify each of those separately, but as a whole set of relationships.

This is how we interact with reality, as a relationship to a whole context of space and time.

The Path through Space and Time

The virtual, online world lacks this context. We have the surface of the screen in front of us. The view could be Antarctica, but we are in shorts and a T-shirt on a ninety degree day in Miami. In virtual space, our body is mostly disconnected from the context that our mind inhabits.The connection is more emotional as we find ourselves immersed in a narrative of virtual reality. It can be compelling because it does touch us, but is still incomplete, because the embodied experience is missing.

We are more than thinking machines. We are more than feeling response mechanisms. We are embodied, perceiving, relating persons moving in and the through the spaces that we inhabit.

To recover reality, we need to recover our awareness, our perception, of the physical spaces that we live in each day. We need to immerse ourselves in the processes of change that carry us forward. To do so is to seek to discover the fullness of human experience within the world as it exists.

Over the next few posts we'll look at how to recover the real in some specifics ways of living and understanding.

We'll consider how reclaiming a context of history helps us understand why, where and how our lives unfold.

We'll look at the nature of meaning or values as reflections and guides to the real.

We'll explore how our relationships with one another are the most the best and most beneficial context for recovering the real.

And finally, we look at the nature of personal leadership within the context of social, institutional and organizational life.

The recovery of the real follows a path. As a result, it is a journey of discovery that will bring both pain and joy, freedom and obligation. It is the journey of living.

Series Note: This post is one in a series that I am calling Reclaiming the Real. You can find a page of links to each post in the series here.


The Spectacle of the Real

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Afghan Mujahideen camp

Afghan / Soviet War

Chitral, NWFP, Pakistan

July, 1981

We live in a time of images. They form our understanding of history and engage us in the present. These faces of Afghan freedom fighters from three decades ago sustain a memory of an encounter that I had with them as a young refugee worker. This image helps me understand the continuity of history in the region.

But without that direct engagement, this image maybe more surreal than real. For there is no life context in which to interpret what was taking place when the picture was taken.

Just a few days after the above photograph was taken, this man, an Afghan refugee, honored me with an expression of thanks after our team of refugee workers brought food, clothing and shelter to his refugee village on the desert plain outside of Peshawar, Pakistan.

Afghan man - Peshawar desert camp

Images influence our sense of what is real. Without direct engagement, however, they can deceive us.

Simulating the "Real" Story?

The Boston Marathon bombings were watched by millions on television and discussed all across social media platforms and online communities. The event, though, was mostly absorbed through pictures. The bomb at the finish line exploding over and over again. The pictures of the injured and maimed being wheeled away to rescue workers and hospitals. The faces of the two brothers as they became known as the bombers. Facts were few in number; reporting rich in conjecture, and all born through images that touched our emotions.

Fueled by a 24/7 news cycle, actual news - a statement of "facts" that an event, an accident, a death, an agreement, a visit or something has taken place, described in the traditional journalistic parlance of "who, what, when and where" - is transformed into a spectacle of opinion and virtual reality driven by the images of faces speaking words of crisis, fear and self-righteous anger. Televised analysis - more important than the "facts" of the story- drives the news through the ambiguity of the visual image and is its source of validation.

Imagine a gathering with family and friends, catching up on the news of each other's lives, and the conversation is like the panels of "experts" who fill televised news each day. No one intentionally chooses their backyard barbeque guests to mirror the political divisions of the nation. That would be boring, tedious, and just inhospitable and unwelcoming.

These televised events aren't conversations seeking truth, but, rather, people talking at and past one another in a game of leveraging images for social and political influence. We are drawn to the image on the screen of these "experts" having something to say that is meaningful, hoping that at some point some sense of the moment will be revealed, bringing reality into view.

Political Speculation.

Politics has degenerated into a unreal media-driven spectacle of dissimulation and simulation.  What we are given is not a story about what is real because to do so, the experts and our politicians would have to admit to their own limitations of insight and foresight.

Rather, we are given a simulacrum, a virtual story whose narrative appearance conceals a different purpose, enveloping the listener, the viewer, in an alternative world of meaning. Politics is a game of deflected attention, a sleight of hand, an allusion to the real that is an illusion. Get the public to focus on what inflames their passions, isolating them into their defensive enclaves, then we can go about the real purpose for which we were elected, to secure the next election and pass legislation that the public would not approve if they really knew. This is what the modern practice of politics has become.

French theorist Jean Baudrillard, in Simulacra and Simulation, describes how the portrayal of what is real has become the hyper-real.

To dissimulate is to pretend not to have what one has. To simulate is to feign to have what one doesn't have. One implies a presence, the other an absence. But it is more complicated than that because simulating is not pretending. "Whoever fakes an illness can simply stay in bed and make everyone believe he is ill. Whoever simulates an illness produces in himself some of the symptoms" (Littre'). Therefore, pretending or dissimulating, leaves the principle of reality intact: the difference is always clear, it is simply masked, whereas simulation threatens the difference between the "true" and the "false," the "real" and the "imaginary." Is the simulator sick or not, given that he produces "true" symptoms? (emphasis mine)

This is the game of appearances. In one instance, it is like the child pretending not to have the pilfered cookie that is in his pocket. Dissimulation is the lie that we learn as children where we hide what we have. It is a denial of reality, based on what everyone knows is true.

Simulation, on the other hand, is an imitation of the real.  Some simulators, like those that train pilots, are meant to mirror the real world as closely as possible. Other simulations are intended for the exact opposite, to create an alternative reality.

The Main Street of DisneyWorld is a simulated image of a typical American small town. Umberto Eco, the Italian novelist and linguist, writes in Travels in Hyperreality,  

"the American imagination demands the real thing and, to attain it, must fabricate the absolute fake."

"The Main Street facades are presented to us as toy houses and invite us to enter them, but their interior is always a disguised supermarket, where you buy obsessively, believing that you are still playing,".

This is a simulacrum of a small town. It looks, on appearances, that it is a small town. But instead, it is a place of commerce hidden behind the image.

Simulations Abound

Patriotism is a common theme to simulate. Particularly in the use of the American flag as an icon of all things good about America. Print the flag on a can of beer, a bikini, a holiday table cloth, woven as a blanket, painted on motorcycle gas tank, flown in a church, and in massive numbers on Memorial Day, the Fourth of July and on Flag Day, and you have attached the greatness of America to your consumer product. The image on the product distracts from the real purpose of the flag and its history in the founding of the American republic. The flag has become an commercial icon attaching itself to a powerful emotion - love of country - by simulating the perspective that buying is patriotic.

Pornography, in a similar way, is a simulation of love and intimacy. Televised sex is a provocative restatement of social relations for the purpose of advocating the primacy of sexual expression and pleasure for modern human beings. Pornography is a simulacrum that defines human beings, not as social beings, but as sexual ones. The erotic power of sex fills a person with intense sensory feeling, and by it, alters how a person views their relationships with others. The logical outcome is the practice of having friends with benefits.

Human beings may be animals, but we are not just animals. We are human animals for whom human fulfillment is more than intense sensory release. We desire to be known in the realness of our lives. We are not fulfilled by "playing" a part, but by finding relationships of openness and mutuality. The mutuality of human love, of giving, receiving, sharing, is at the heart of the sexual intimacy that is so key to human flourishing.  The lie of pornography is that sex = love and love = sex. It is a simulacrum of the appearance of intimacy, though without the other conditions that drive human communion.

Spectacle as Simulated Reality  

Simulations can become a simulacra, a virtual reality, a hyper-reality, a replacement reality of the world of meaning.They are a kind of diversion, a deflection from reality that commands our attention. This is the nature of the spectacular event.

The culture of the spectacle, of the event that captures our attention for the moment, has become the driving force in the culture of news, entertainment, sports and consumerism. The spectacle deflects us from the real toward the hyper-real through the intensification of the historical moment as beyond history, as a singular moment in time that we must become immersed in to be alive or to be "informed." Not just a different version of the story, or different narrative, or a different perspective; but a different reality. This spectacle is a simulacrum. A iconic image event that simulates a representation of values or meaning, regardless of whether the reality of the event was about the moment being represented.

Reporting on the Boston Marathon bombing became a platform for speculation and conjecture based not on what was known about the bombing, but a projection of individual bias as expert opinion. The nature of the spectacle requires linkage to other spectacles to establish a pattern that validates credibility. This is now the nature of the news as presented throughout the day, everyday. Everyday, every event, is a spectacle for drawing attention to the screen.

As news became an entertainment medium, entertainment lost much of its distinctive appeal. The "news" isn't about the news, but a sensationalization of opinions about the news for the purpose of ratings and increased advertising revenue. On-air time space must be filled, and be paid for by ads. Without the sensationalism of the daily spectacle, no one would watch. The entertainment value of the news is the hook to tie us into a consumer culture of serial exhilaration and boredom. The difference between CNN and TMZ is one of degree, not of the difference between news and entertainment. The difference between the reality TV of news and entertainment and the actual lives that people experience is the difference between the simulacrum and reality.

The Game of Entertainment

Professional sports is a televised entertainment spectacle, less a sport, no longer simply a game to be played by talented athletes. It is the business of entertainment. The game is just the hook. The simulacra of professional sports has permeated the games that children once played, so that now, play is an adult managed hyper-organized simulation of college and professional athletic competitions. No longer do children just play on their own initiative, but are socialized into the developmental system of organized sports, essentially trained to become part of the entertainment spectacle of modern sports. 

The NFL is the master of the weekly sports spectacle.  Fantasy sports leagues now provide outlet for filling the attention gap when games are not on. It is real only in the sense that the contest happens. But it is unreal because, as a spectacle, it exists less as pure sport, and more as a collection of one-off entertainment events.

Winning a championship has meaning for the moment. By the next day, the thrill is gone and the addictive pull of the next spectacle returns. The spectacle isn't the event itself, but rather all that precedes it.  College basketball's March Madness has turned what was a locally focused, end of season tournament by regional conferences into a national three week spectacle, where even the President's "bracket" makes news. The entertainment pull is to analysis and the set up for the next spectacle. It is a consumer culture of diversion and hyper-reality.

Living in a world of impermanence.

The simulation of reality, the game of appearances, a hyper-real experience, diverts us from the mundaneness of daily existence, towards more pleasurable diversions that take us out of the real world.  Watching news, sports or entertainment programming are diversions of the type that scientist / philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote about in the mid-17th century.

Sometimes, when I set to thinking about the various activities of men, the dangers and troubles which they face at Court, or in war, giving rise to so many quarrels and passions, daring and often wicked enterprises and so on, I have often said that the sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to be quiet in his room.  A man wealthy enough for life’s needs would never leave home to go to sea or besiege some fortress if he knew how to stay at home and enjoy it.  Men would never spend so much on a commission in the army if they could bear living in town all their lives, and they only seek after the company and diversion of gambling because they do not enjoy staying at home.  ...

The only good thing for men therefore is to be diverted from thinking of what they are, either by some occupation which takes their mind off it, or by some novel and agreeable passion which keeps them busy, like gambling, hunting, some absorbing show, in short by what is called diversion.

The triumph of the culture of simulation is that it replaces the reality that we don't want with a hyper-reality that simulates what we do. But the simulation is not the same as reality. As Baudrillard wrote, "To simulate is to feign to have what one doesn't have." This is the power of a world that exists increasingly like an immersive video game, where I can "play" a role, a character, and live a fuller, more complete life in a Sim-ulated world, than in the real world of home and work.

MIT professor Sherry Turkle describes this simulated reality in her book Alone Together.

"After an evening of avatar-to avatar talk in a networked game, we feel, at one moment, in possession of a full social life and, in the next, curiously isolated, in tenuous complicity with strangers. We build a following on Facebook or MySpace and wonder to what degree our followers are friends. We recreate ourselves as online personae and give ourselves new bodies, homes, jobs, and romances. Yet, suddenly, in the half-light of virtual community, we may feel utterly alone. As we distribute ourselves, we may abandon ourselves. Sometimes people experience no sense of having communicated after hours of connection. And they report feelings of closeness when they are paying little attention. In all of this, there is a nagging question: Does virtual intimacy degrade our experience of the other kind and, indeed, of all encounters, of any kind?”

Simulation is not real life, but an artificial one. The result is that life becomes a series of spectacles, events that command our attention, one or more at a time in serial progression without continuity. The diversion works if we do not think too deeply.

French Marxist philosopher Guy Debord in his book, Society of the Spectacle, writes.

In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation. ...

The spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images. ...

The concept of "spectacle" unifies and explains a great diversity of apparent phenomena. The diversity and the contrasts are appearances of a socially organized appearance, the general truth of which must itself be recognized. Considered in its own terms, the spectacle is affirmation of appearance and affirmation of all human life, namely social life, as mere appearance. But the critique which reaches the truth of the spectacle exposes it as the visible negation of life, as a negation of life which has become visible.

The life of the spectacle, therefore, is a hyper-reality lived through the images of the event. During the 9/11 attacks, the images of the Twin Towers burning, then collapsing, became a reference point for people to share their shock, their sadness, their anger, and ultimately their compassion for those who lost love ones.

But the nature of the spectacle is that it is too intermittent an experience to foster a life of continuity. Moving from one self contained event to the next is not a sufficient ground for a society or community to find a common life together.  Something else must provide that glue that makes civic life work.

Recovering Reality

Living in the world of the image and the spectacle is a world where reality is an appearance and beyond our capacity to determine is this real, true and the way things actually are. This is a hyper-real world which turns reality on its head.

The dilemma we face is not directly with the spectacular or simulated realities. Rather it is not having a ground upon which to distinguish between the real and the hyper-real. Some people may choose to believe in the reality of the hyper-real world, which leads further into the world of spectacle and its consumer driven nature. But reality has a way of confronting such an artificial world with economic collapses, environment catastrophes, and the experience of disease, brokenness and loss.

To recover reality is not to challenge the simulacrums of our time. But rather seek to understand the larger context in which these simulations / spectacles function.

The ancients would describe this capacity to discern reality as wisdom. While wisdom is certainly in short supply and in great demand, it is only one piece of a wider fabric of reality that is needed.

One of the results of the world of simulation and spectacle is the loss of the capacity for open, trustworthy, mutually caring relationships. Instead, we have connections with people. We have "friends" whom we've never met, had coffee and seen face to face.

I am convinced that the recovery of reality comes through the establishment of relationships of genuine meaning and love.

For to love another person requires a kind of reality that allows for honesty, emotional intimacy and commitment to the care and nurture of the relationship.

Series Note: This post is one in a series that I am calling Reclaiming the Real. You can find a page of links to each post in the series here.