Brett Beasley

Brett Beasley is a staff writer for The Curator and a doctoral candidate in English Literature at Loyola University Chicago. Follow him on twitter @Brett_Beasley.

Getting to Know Failure

The first man to take the stage was named Tom. He announced himself as the world’s largest provider of bachelorette party supplies and wore a red leather suit. He explained that his company, PriveCo, specializes in creating websites that sell items privately that are simply too embarrassing to buy in stores: enema supplies, hemorrhoid cream, and, as you can imagine, a wide variety of “adult” products. As internet usage surged in the late 1990s and early 2000s, so did PriveCo’s sales, and Tom’s efforts to expand the company’s offerings led to success after success.

One day, after reading a newspaper article about a coming lice epidemic, Tom was certain he had found his next big score. Six months and tens of thousands of dollars later, his online superstore for lice-eradicating supplies went live. But there was a problem. The site had oodles of features—advanced for the time—to help the customer determine whether they in fact had lice. It had a well-designed flowchart to direct them to the right products for their needs, but no one was buying.

Then it clicked: as soon as a person discovers he or she has lice, Tom realized, they go to the store immediately. Who would consider sitting at home for a few days waiting for shampoo to arrive in the mail while lice multiply on their scalp? No one. Suddenly the man who had made a small fortune helping others avoid embarrassment stood alone, pierced by the sharp laughs of a packed theater of strangers like Saint Sebastian in a red leather suit. The lights dimmed, and he was gone.

In his place appeared a timer. It began counting down from 1 minute 30 seconds. All around me other Failure:Lab participants scribbled thoughts onto their programs in the darkness or sat in the glow of their cellphones tweeting a lesson they drew from the story to #failurelab. The time drew to a close—15, 14, 13—we shuffled our papers and pens into their appropriate places—4, 3, 2—we sat back and a new storyteller appeared.

Apart from its basic format (“Six storytellers, seven entertainers, two hours, one evening, one intimate venue”) Failure:Lab’s website explains little—only that its mission is to “destigmatize failure.” And when it comes to failure in our culture, there’s not just a stigma, there’s a whole culture of ridicule, maintained by thousands of tweets, memes, and blogs, joining in a chorus of “FAIL, FAIL,” and even “EPIC FAIL!” Nothing defines us in the early 21st century as much as our desire to mock the doofus, the numbskull, the person who slipped up or has egg on their face. We’re convinced those who disagree with us are ridiculous, and we have talk shows to help us prove it. Even “serious” news sites now consist largely of reports about slip-ups (and nip slips), stars’ ill-timed tirades, and politicians’ gaffes. When it comes to ridicule, we’re connoisseurs.

Failure:Lab swims against the metaphorical (and twitter) stream, with an unlikely tool: stories. The storyteller draws the audience into the heart of a failure and then leaves them there. This makes being at Failure:Lab like experiencing an upside-down TED Talk. There is no lesson, no redemption, and no explanation. Instead, there are dark, empty moments where you sit quietly and let the story steep. Whether you laughed, cried, or were left speechless by the story, when the teller leaves the stage you feel like you’ve been introduced to their failure. You don’t just know about it, you know it personally.

Historically, there has always been a deep affinity between failure and stories. Many, if not most, of our greatest and most memorable tales are about something that went seriously, irredeemably wrong: Icarus crashed, Ulysses never sailed beyond the setting sun, Ponce de Leon didn’t find the Fountain of Youth. It is only we in the 21st century who find the tragic sensibility of earlier times so hard to understand. And with our cultish devotion to competence, it is we who need great failure stories most of all.

The stories of failure I heard that night ranged from a failed college class due to plagiarism to a multi-year failure to make it in the New York City music scene. Some of the failures were particularly notable because of the person behind them, like the avuncular executive of a security system company who was arrested after driving off the road while drunk, or the sophisticated-looking director of a contemporary art center who admitted that she did not qualify for a credit card at Target due to her lack of money skills. The storytellers ranged in demeanor and field of work from the red-suited privacy guru I mentioned to a Detroit-based rockstar to the regional director of Goodwill stores. The one thing that united all of the storytellers was that they were, despite their failures, successful individuals. They walked onto the stage and declared their failure directly and openly, and if not without pain, at least without fear or shame.

Since its first show in 2013 in a small theater in Grand Rapids, MI, Failure:Lab has spawned a movement. Shows are currently planned in New Orleans, Chicago, and Mexico City, and its popular YouTube channel has spread stories of failure across the globe. Last month, Failure:Lab announced it would begin licensing host sites to have Failure:Labs in other countries. Within 24 hours requests came in from cities as far away as Dubai and Melbourne.

Failure:Lab could soon be in your back yard. If so, go. It will remind you of the surprising power of stories. And it might even convince you that it can change the tide and destigmatize failure. Maybe. Or maybe not. Our love of ridicule runs deep—perhaps as deep as any aspect of human nature. Of course, Failure:Lab doesn’t have to be successful. Wouldn’t that be entirely beside the point?

An Interview with Greg Wolfe

This month Image journal celebrates its 25th anniversary. Recently, The Curator’s Brett Beasley met up with Gregory Wolfe, Image’s founder and Editor-in-Chief, at the Festival of Faith and Writing in Grand Rapids, MI. They had the following conversation about culture, beauty, and the difficulties of sustaining an artistic vision today.

 

Brett Beasley: Thanks so much for taking the time to sit down with us in the midst of this busy festival.

Gregory Wolfe: The pleasure is mine.

BB: Dickens, Dostoevsky, T. S. Eliot — these are people we consider to be great writers, but we often overlook the fact that they were also editors who started journals because they saw it as part of their mission to their culture. What did you see as your mission to the larger culture when you founded Image 25 years ago?

GW: Well, to be accurate and just, I came up with the idea to start Image in conversation and partnership with several friends and colleagues, including my wife. I tend to get the credit because I’ve been the day-in/day-out guy and maybe the driving force on a daily basis, but I think it’s really important, particularly when people are passing around congratulations, that I take a moment to say it hasn’t been all me.

The conversations we had came out of a period of time many people called the “culture wars.” The “culture wars,” included … famous incidents like debates over the National Endowment for the Arts’s funding of photography by Robert Mapplethorpe, which involved homoerotic sexual depictions and depictions of violence, or, for example, Andres Serrano’s famous photograph Piss Christ (of a cheap crucifix submerged in a container of his own urine). We became concerned that the relationship between art and faith in the public arena seemed to only surface when there was a debate or a political controversy. We noticed that people from vastly different perspectives — say, elite secular intellectuals on the one hand and millions of Christians on the other — seemed to agree, oddly, on the proposition that great art that grapples with the Judeo-Christian tradition could no longer be produced in this day and age. But we were convinced that such work could be created in the present time, and we were determined that there should be a space that wasn’t politicized — a space where it could simply be witnessed. Our models were writers like T. S. Eliot and Flannery O’Connor who, while deeply Christian in their convictions, were absolutely contemporary in terms of their artistic styles, their language, and the forms they used to mediate their visions to the world.

We wanted a place where this new work could be experienced without controversy and without debate, where the creative was the primary voice—not the critical voice, not the political voice, and not even the theological voice. We believed that these other forms of discourse were crowding out the creative imagination … But we also recognized that [this voice] needed to be heard in the larger public square, since another core conviction was that if religious faith and religious institutions are continually in need of renewal, one way that renewal comes about is through the effort to reimagine that faith in the context of the present time.

BB: Do you still encounter the sentiment that great art that grapples with questions of faith is no longer being produced? Certainly an event like this one seems to testify to the opposite, but what is your current sense of the public’s dominant assumption?

GW: There are plenty of holdouts in various sectors. And there are even religious people like critic Paul Elie … [or] poet Dana Gioia, who have questioned the quality of the work that’s being produced today that engages faith. But I do believe that a much larger space has been carved out both within the community of faith and within the larger culture. That’s due partly to Image, but we have not been the only guys out there. Certainly an event like the Calvin Festival is evidence of change … [it’s] a venerable institution in its own right.

I would even argue that the high-water mark of intolerant secularism was somewhere in the 1980s. I’ve said this before, but many people see 1989 as a watershed year because one of the creators of the secular master narrative of modernity, Karl Marx, took a pretty big tumble that day. But I think Sigmund Freud did too. I don’t want to belittle Freud’s achievement, but let’s just say his attitudes toward religion weren’t his strongest suit. His notion was that religion was escapism or wish fulfillment; therefore, since great art has to deal with reality and has to reflect it seriously, it could not possibly be made out of that escapism. But I think that argument began to wither away. The world is now more porous and open to expressions of religious experience in art. Reviews in the New York Times won’t automatically condemn a work because it engages faith. If they feel that the artistry and craft are of world-class quality, they will … treat it seriously.

I think it’s an important change to remember because Christians are always tempted into what some people have called a ghetto mentality, or a “catacomb” mentality — the view that we are oppressed, hated, and persecuted. That view is not only unhealthy spiritually but it is also a direct contradiction of my understanding of the gospel, which seems to say that the public square is … where we belong.

BB: Something I’ve always valued about Image is its focus on beauty. Do you feel that your focus on beauty rather than a particular ideology has helped you avoid getting drawn into these debates?

GW: Absolutely. One of the key dimensions of beauty that theologians and philosophers consistently refer to is beauty’s disinterestedness. The very nature of beauty is that it escapes our attempts to turn it into an instrument for the benefit of the group or tribe to which we belong. There’s something both gratuitous, elusive, and yet attractive about beauty. That paradox is essential as a kind of leavening or balancing force in a world where there are always people with axes to grind, cases to make, and interests to promote. The theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar says that in a fallen world questions of truth and goodness will always be heavily debated, and people will always invest these debates with their interestedness, their parties, and their political leanings. He argues that beauty has the capacity to sail right under the radar of those interested parties. So, while truth and goodness are also “transcendentals,” beauty has the possibility of coming at us with a purer ray from the beatific vision itself.

We have felt the need not to raise beauty above goodness and truth but to bring the three into proper alignment with one another. We looked at the culture, including the culture of the church community — especially its moralism and rationalism, sins committed in the name of truth and goodness. [They] were dominant. We hoped that imagination and beauty could leaven the conversation and make space where space had disappeared as warring parties took over the whole territory. The value of apologetics and politics had been so overstated that they were becoming caricatures of themselves.

BB: Has it been hard for Image to balance maintaining this vision of a space for beauty and disinterestedness in the face of the tough realities of a changing publishing market and other challenges? In other words, how do you balance the search for beauty with sustainability?

GW: We have gone on faith that the artistic languages we speak — and those spoken in the journal — continue to have relevance, even when they’re competing in a marketplace with languages that are much more easily spoken and often seem more enjoyable and consumable than long short stories, complicated, multifaceted essays, or layered, nuanced paintings full of allusions and historical references. So, we’ve always braced ourselves for accusations of elitism. But that’s always been the case with high art. There are important ways to try and refute that accusation, among them the reminder that somebody like William Shakespeare could play to the groundlings in the cheap seats with bawdy jokes as well as to the Oxford graduates in the nicer seats.

But the attempt to uphold more demanding art forms has been tough. The technology itself favors the sound bite, the blog rant, and the infographic over these more demanding modes of human communication. It is challenging to compete against that material. I’ll put it this way: there are still people who love music enough to buy music on vinyl, and, in some sense that is what we are like. The rewards are tremendous for people who are willing to put in the up-front investment in learning how to appreciate those modes of discourse. We certainly believe there remains a place for the thing we do … [and] in some ways there’s currently a backlash against the sound bite and “instant” culture. People of faith are becoming aware that certain modes of human communication are essential to living a mature spiritual life. If you don’t develop the attention, discernment, and awareness of ambiguity and irony that great art can help educate you to, then you will live a more superficial, isolated existence. We’re always going to brace ourselves for being a tough sell, but we’re secure enough … to believe that our audience will find us.

BB: And recently you’ve been able to do something that almost seems impossible in the current publishing market, which is start a print publishing imprint, correct?

GW: Yes, that’s a Greg Wolfe personal project — Slant Books through the Wipf and Stock publishing company. But it certainly grows out of the community and experience that Image has provided for me other the years. Wipf and Stock is a dynamic company that sensed something of this backlash, the desire for the “vinyl” in the literary sense — meaning hardcover fiction. So, interestingly enough, right now our books are released in hardcover and Kindle versions, but not in paperback. It’s very counterintuitive, but we’re going to continue the experiment. We’ve had a lot of positive feedback.

BB: Given that there are hundreds of journals that are born and then fold every year, Image’s level of success is rare. What advice would you give to writers and editors who are struggling?

GW:  To use a phrase that my friend, the poet Scott Cairns, has been making his battle cry lately: we’ve always attempted to “raise the bar.” When we started the journal we looked at earlier efforts, particularly among people of faith. We found that many of them were allowing themselves to become publications that featured a particular group of friends or denominational members. The bar was set low enough that the publication was offered to anyone who was a member of the community. Often, that meant that the bar had to be pretty low indeed.

From the beginning, we felt that we could not go that way, in part because religion is always likely to present itself as a shortcut to the hard work of mastering a craft or creative discipline. I think people have been struck by Image because they respected that choice. There is a danger with new technologies and short print run books that the bar is going to be set lower and lower. It is not the most popular thing to talk about discernment and judgment. But we believe that precisely these days, when technology enables anyone to instantly declare themselves an author, that the act of discernment is even more important and necessary.

We’re going to continue to do that work. And that is why I launched an MFA program at Seattle Pacific University, because I felt that it was important that people who were interested in writing in the context of faith be held to a very high standard of discipline. That’s why the program is staffed with an exquisite bunch of writers and why the curriculum is demanding. It’s a process with a moral and spiritual dimension to it, and it’s not to be dismissed as simply elitism or exclusiveness. It is about challenging one another to develop the talents we’ve been given. I think there might be a parable or two in support of that sort of vision.

BB: Where does Image go from here? What changes and challenges are you currently excited about?

GW: The first thing I’ll say is that when we were planning our 25th anniversary issue and we asked ourselves, What should we do?, the first thought we had was the thought you would think we would have: “Let’s look back over what has happened over these past 25 years.” But the more we thought about it the more we thought, “No, that’s kind of a bummer; that’s looking back and this is a journal of contemporary art about what’s happening now, and we should be looking at the present and at the future.” We realized we had accepted so much material from young artists over the past months, and so we put two and two together: we would only have to ask for a few more pieces [to] have a full issue. So our 25th anniversary issue is, in a way, our “youth issue.” There is a symposium in that issue in which we’ve asked several writers, all under the age of 35, to tell us, “What do you want image to be, what can it be?”

There are many ways in which we have to strive to do better. We try to be a class act, but our limits mean that we always have to be ready to ask ourselves what we could do better. We need to always try to be more inclusive. We need to be more aware of what’s going on in the world, and especially in the Islamic tradition, which is a blind spot for many Americans. We need to be aware of what is going on in new art forms so that we’re able to not only cover things like painting and sculpture, but also video art, performance art, and conceptual art. We need to stay hip in that sense — not that we’re willing to take whatever comes down the pike, but rather, whatever is well made. We’re happy to have “Good Letters,” a blog running short pieces — but even there, each post is 1,000 words, a crafted mini-essay — to remind people of the larger vision of Image. We’re willing to go into any forum in which the imagination can go, and I think that our anniversary issue is a signal that in the next 25 years we want not to grow old, but to grow young with what the culture is experiencing, with what new artists are discovering, and with the new media they pioneer and use to great effect.

BB: Thanks again for talking with us, and we hope you enjoy the rest of the festival.

GW: Thank you.

 

In NYC?  Greg & Paul Elie will discuss contemporary Catholic literature in New York City on May 3. 

In Defense of War Poetry

Crimea. When the name appeared in the news last month, I suspect that it sounded exotic but vaguely familiar to modern, Western ears. At first, it might have sounded as if Russia was attempting to annex a part of Narnia or Middle-earth. We began to ask, What is Crimea?, Who owns Crimea?, Where, after all, is Crimea?—and is it “Crimea” or “the Crimea”? So, many of us turned to the source we expect to settle our most niggling questions: the internet.

But did “Crimea” Googlers and Bingers find what they were after? Were they satisfied to discover, to quote Wikipedia, that “the Crimean Peninsula, also known simply as Crimea, and historically as the Tauric peninsula, is a major land mass on the northern coast of the Black Sea”? Facts like these were powerless to answer our most pressing questions as the 2014 Crimean Conflict unfolded. They couldn’t tell us what Crimea meant—for the East, for the West, for Empires, or for various brands of Nationalists. Suddenly, with petabytes of data at our disposal, we were stuck looking for something that couldn’t be so easily Googled. Reputable news outlets started using words like “symbol” and “imagination”—that is, the language of poetry.

Strange. Or was it?

In the Crimean War, just 160 years ago, poetry still played an important public role, perhaps even more central than the role of news outlets. In fact, William Howard Russell, who relayed his eyewitness accounts of battles to the Times of London by telegraph, was England’s first ever war correspondent. But even as Britons developed an appetite for new stories from the front, many still saw poetry as the main way to shape public ideas and sentiments about the war.

Here’s an illustration: on the morning of November 14, 1854, England’s Poet Laureate, Alfred Tennyson, picked up the Times. The article he read reported that 600 British cavalrymen had obeyed an order to charge headlong at Russian cannons. Less than one in five survived. Tennyson felt compelled to compose a ballad that began

Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
“Forward, the Light Brigade!
“Charge for the guns!” he said:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

He titled the ballad, “The Charge of the Light Brigade.” It was published a few weeks later, to much public acclaim, and for more than a century was memorized by British schoolchildren.

Nevertheless, Tennyson’s poem contains a crucial misrepresentation of the facts. Tennyson wrote the poem believing that 120 of the 600 charging soldiers had survived. But later reports clarified that only 120 soldiers died. It was a dangerous mission, to be sure, but nothing like the near-suicide Tennyson’s poem suggested. Still, even after learning of the error, Tennyson refused to change the poem. And so, it was his inaccurate account that informed public sentiment and preserved the memory of the Charge of the Light Brigade for posterity.

Of course, as a poet, Tennyson was not attempting to objectively record events, but to commemorate them. As Poet Laureate, he was taking part in a tradition that dates back to the bards of the Middle Ages. By setting tales of heroic deeds in verse, bards functioned as an important communication technology. They not only preserved memories for posterity but also communicated events from town to town, like an oral, versified newspaper. Writing in this tradition, the Italian poet Ludovico Ariosto described poets as sacred swans that rescued names from the waters of oblivion and placed them on the mountaintop of immortality. In other words, facts are good, and good facts are better, but facts don’t tell or remember themselves. (This also meant great job security for poets, by the way.)

But by the time Tennyson wrote his famous poem, a crack in this tradition was beginning to form that would soon split the goals of poetry off from those of public information. The wars of the 20th century, especially, taught us to be deeply suspicious of any attempt to glorify war or aestheticize violence—and for good reason: during the century totalitarian regimes on both sides of the political spectrum used poetry as a vehicle to spread their hateful ideologies and mask countless atrocities.

Thus, for many great poets, the only genuine, sensitive response was to stay clear of the public arena altogether. For example, William Butler Yeats, in “On Being Asked for a War Poem,” wrote that in wartime a poet should “keep his mouth shut,” because he has “no gift to set a statesman right.” Instead, the poet should aim simply to please a “young girl in the indolence of her youth, or an old man upon a winter’s night.” In other words, poetry’s task was to be a private one, directed at particular individuals, not at the public.

Still, we shouldn’t allow the 20th century to convince us that public poems are always complicit in bad politics. Tennyson’s poem might misrepresent the facts, but, despite initial appearances, it by no means presents a simple or one-sided view of war or heroism. The soldiers of the Light Brigade face an absurd situation filled with mismanagement (“someone had blundered”) and hopelessness (“Theirs not to reason why, / Theirs but to do and die”) as well as defenselessness (they charge with minimal armor, wielding swords against cannons). In preserving the memory of the Light Brigade, Tennyson preserved the particular set of complexities and contradictions that characterized what many have called “the first modern war.”

So, I would suggest that as long as there are wars, there should be war poetry, poetry that introduces complex responses into the public debate about the significance of war. This kind of war poetry could even, in principle, be written by a pacifist. Take these lines by Suheir Hammad, a Palestinian-American pacifist, written shortly after the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center and revised several times during the Iraq War:

People saying, this was bound to happen. Let’s not forget U.S. transgressions.

Hold up I live here. These are my friends and fam, in those buildings, and we’re not bad people. Do not support America’s bullying. Can I just have a half second to feel bad?

Thank you, woman who saw me brinking cool and blinking tears. She opened her arms before she asked “do you want a hug?”

Big white woman, and her embrace only people with flesh can offer.

“My brother’s in the Navy,” I said. “And we’re Arabs.”

“Wow, you got double trouble.” Word.

Hammad’s poem is bold enough to tackle very recent, hotly contested events, and to connect the personal to the public sphere. And, what is more, it is bold enough to avoid spreading hatred and polarizing the debate.

This is exactly what our current public discourse, especially from the news media, can’t seem to do. We’ve grown accustomed to blaming this problem on the news outlets themselves for failing to give us good, objective information. But perhaps we should also blame ourselves for only looking for objective information.

Of course, poetry can’t write policy. It might not help us agree on a solution any more than information will. And it can’t tell us for sure whether we were right to let Russia annex Crimea last month. The poems we need today might not have the clamorous, dancing rhythms of Tennyson’s ballad, and they might not commemorate heroic deeds. But when we find them, we’ll know, because like Tennyson’s poem, they will challenge us to abide with the contradictions, at least for a moment, before we make a decision. By providing a complex response to a complex situation, they will help us think together better, and that is surely the first step toward living together more abundantly.

 

Photo: A grief stricken American infantryman whose friend has been killed in action is comforted by another soldier. In the background a corpsman methodically fills out casualty tags, Haktong-ni area, Korea. August 28, 1950. Sfc. Al Chang. (Army) U.S. Army Korea Media Center official Korean War online video archive

Elevation and Entertainment

As the van headed out of the dry basin that holds Salt Lake City, we exchanged introductions. I managed to overhear some of my fellow riders’ careers—accountant, musician, pastor, web developer — but soon we fell silent and admired the mountains. At first they were just a darker shade of sky pinned to the horizon like a ragged strip of construction paper. Then the road began to wind, the van’s engine grew louder, and enormous peaks surrounded us. I yawned to make my ears pop and began to see snow and ski lifts. Eventually we veered south as we reached the east side of the Wasatch Mountains, and, 7,000 feet up, we entered Park City.

I soon learned that for the first hundred years of its history, Park City, which boasts the “greatest snow on earth,” was known not for its skiing, but for its silver mines. It’s strange to think that miners ascended the mountain and saw the shimmering snow-covered peaks only to be plunged day after day into darkness. Today, most visitors to Park City give little thought to the dormant network of tunnels beneath them as they hit the slopes. But for ten days each January things change. It is as if a piece of history flickers to life again. Visitors arrive in the city not to ski, but to file in and out of the darkness in search of something—but not silver. They are looking for something unique and fresh in the films premiering at the world’s largest independent film festival: Sundance.

That is why a group of nearly 30 of us assembled in Park City. We weren’t coming to Sundance as filmmakers or employees in the Entertainment industry. We weren’t there to buy, sell, or promote anything. Instead, we had all signed up to attend the festival as part of Into the Noise, an organization intent on approaching film, music, and art festivals as occasions for growth, transformation, and spiritual experience.

It might seem strange that people still travel to the mountains of Utah to see movies. After all, as early as 1936 the art critic and theorist Walter Benjamin claimed that film was the first medium of art that was completely reproducible. He pointed out that with film there is no “original” work of art the way there is an original Mona Lisa or Venus de Milo. A film screened in Los Angeles is the same film when it is screened in Chicago or New York or Singapore. So, for Benjamin, when it came to film there was no point in using old words like “uniqueness” or “authenticity.”

I think we would have to admit that Benjamin’s ideas hit even closer to home in the digital age, when services like Netflix, Vimeo, YouTube, and Amazon Instant Video deliver content on demand. But, while Benjamin believed that film would make audiences thoughtful by making art more democratic, it seems often to have the opposite effect. With access to so many films at our fingertips, it is harder than ever to find what is valuable among what is merely available. We lump trite and disposable films together with lasting and profound ones—it’s all “Entertainment.”

That is why in 1985 the Sundance Institute began helping independent filmmakers tell different kinds of stories. Instead of highly consumable products created based on carefully calculated business decisions, they wanted films that provoked, challenged, and unsettled audiences. Nowadays, when the budgets of major Hollywood films regularly top $200 million, ideas like risk and failure aren’t on the table. But this year’s Sundance Film Festival included 26 films that relied on crowdfunding sources like Kickstarter and IndieGogo, as well as 54 premieres by first-time feature filmmakers.

In order to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the festival, the Sundance Institute held “Free Fail,” a day-long celebration of failure and its role in the creative process. Even Robert Redford, who founded the Sundance Institute in 1981, was able to relate: the first day of the festival news surfaced that Redford had failed to receive an Oscar nomination for All is Lost, the widely-acclaimed independent film he made with Sundance Lab filmmaker J.C. Chandor. When asked for his reaction to the “snub,” Redford said: “[All is Lost] was for me more of a pure cinematic experience. I love that. But also, almost more than anything, it gave me the chance as an actor to go back to my roots … [Hollywood] is a business and we couldn’t conform to that.”

Sundance provides a place for similar labors of love, like Boyhood, a film that was shot intermittently over a 12-year period, or the musical God Help the Girl, written and directed by Belle & Sebastian frontman Stuart Murdoch. Murdoch wrote the songs for the film over a decade ago and slowly pieced together a script, then a cast, and managed to fund the film through Kickstarter, offering creative prizes for backers, such as a tour of Glasgow (where the film is shot) led by Murdoch himself.

This year’s festival also provided a place for experimental works. 52 Tuesdays, a film about a teenage girl dealing with the changes in her family as her mother undergoes gender reassignment operations, was written on a week-by-week basis and shot only on Tuesdays for an entire year. And, on the other side of the spectrum, They Came Together, a film directed by David Wain starring Amy Poehler and Paul Rudd, parodies all of the conventions of a typical romantic comedy. They Came Together was shot in just twenty days within the space of a few blocks in Brooklyn.

One of the most profound films to come out of this year’s festival, Happiness, took the issue of the role of Entertainment in our lives head on. The film documents the changes in the lives of the citizens of Bhutan following an announcement from their King that he would allow television and internet access in the country for the first time ever. The people, most of whom live an agrarian lifestyle in the upper reaches of the Himalayas, are overjoyed. They happily descend the mountains with yaks to sell for the money to buy their TVs, which they then lash to horses for the two-day journey back into the mountains.

The film won a cinematography award for its exquisite shots of the remote Bhutanese way of life. We, the audience, are transfixed by the stunning surroundings, and as we look up at the grandeur of the Bhutanese homeland, we’re puzzled why they think bringing a television up the mountain could possibly increase its value. As we finally see them sitting in the roar and glare of the television as they watch pro wrestling, the world suddenly becomes a little flatter.

Watching Happiness, I couldn’t help but think of the song “That’s Entertainment” by the British punk band The Jam: “watching the telly and thinking about your holidays … feeding ducks in the park and wishing you were far away—that’s Entertainment!” Entertainment might feel like an escape, but it always leaves us back where we started, in the place we were trying to escape from. It even shows through in the word’s etymology: it means “to maintain or continue,” from the Latin word tenere, or “to hold.”

Isn’t that why a “mountaintop experience” like Sundance is more important today than ever before? Like Moses at Mount Sinai or Roy Neary at Devil’s Tower in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, we are looking for an experience that—despite it lasting for a moment—transforms us permanently. Mountains help because they are the punctuation of landscape; they break up the boring prose of the plains and situate everything in a meaningful way. They are a marker, a signpost. But they also disrupt and dislocate our plans and pathways; if you’re going to go up on a mountain, you have to be ready for anything.

But you also have to go with someone who has your back. Not that we were in any danger at Sundance, but the environment is the product of hundreds of variables that are best navigated as a team. As I met with my fellow attendees for a few moments of stillness and reflection before we headed out in search of the dark rooms we would move in and out of for the day, we always practiced a mixture of rumination and strategy. Our experiences were part curation and part improvisation as we hurried to the films we had passes for and tried to see others along the way, using waitlists or finding individuals selling or giving their tickets away.

Each day we jelled for a moment, like an orchestra tuning up for a symphony. The violinist strikes a note, and then, from what feels like only noise, a single note emerges. And isn’t this what film is about in its purest form? Sitting together for a moment, seeing the same thing. Here. Now.

I often ask friends about movies—whether one is good, whether they liked it, whether I should go see it. Maybe I’m asking the wrong questions. Instead of, Is this good? or, Should I see it?, I‘ll ask, What can we discover in this together? What truth does it lay hold of? What glimmer can we find in the darkness? What note can we, together, wrest from the noise?

 

For more information on how to experience Sundance or one of the other festivals Into the Noise engages with, visit intothenoise.org.

Reading and Resistance

When billionaire hedge fund manager Steven Cohen came under scrutiny in an insider trading scandal this summer, his lawyers provided a novel defense: they claimed that although he received an email that contained the incriminating information he never actually read it.

I laughed out loud when I heard that. And then I thought about my own inbox teeming with unread messages. And I remembered my ever-growing archive of half-read ones conveniently banished to “the cloud.” I’m relatively sure that there’s nothing potentially incriminating up there, but as the cloud expands to include more and more gigabytes, I have a mounting anxiety that something essential might have slipped past me unnoticed.

Experts estimate that as many as 100,000 words now pass by our eyes and ears each day (for comparison, the complete text of Paradise Lost is only 80,000 words). “Sharing” is the buzzword of our age, in which nearly all of what we read can be linked to, tweeted, emailed, attached, and downloaded within seconds. Mass digitization projects like Google Books and the Digital Public Library of America place more words within our grasp each hour, yet meanwhile we continue to hear reports that nearly a third of Americans did not read as much as one book in the past year.

It’s strange, isn’t it? Reading often feels as easy as breathing. When I go on a road trip, I don’t have to make myself read the words written on the road signs and billboards. It just happens. But when it comes to anything longer than a few hundred words, the text seems to thicken and we have to push back against a surprising amount of resistance.

The online magazine Slate recently found that fewer than 25 percent of readers who began reading an article would finish it and that the vast majority of readers didn’t make it past half way. Slate has now begun adding reading times to the headings of their articles so readers can decide if they want to invest the time (usually between one and five minutes) before they click the link. The Colbert Report was quick to poke fun at the apparent absurdity of the change:

“Clicking on a story is huge commitment. First you have to aim the cursor, then it takes about two seconds to load, then I have to scan the thing to find out how long it is. And if I want to back out I have to reload the page where I came from. Now as many as eight seconds have passed and I’m that much closer to the cold embrace of death.”

The Colbert Report
Get More: Colbert Report Full Episodes,Video Archive

 

Even though it seems silly to worry about the loss of eight seconds, Colbert’s remark reminds me of the many thinkers and artists throughout history who have written and worked with a momento mori, or reminder of death, nearby. While we might pride ourselves on the nearly instantaneous speed with which we can deploy and make use of information online, in the end our time and our attention are finite, and we have to make difficult decisions about what is valuable enough to spend our time on. We each have our own electronic tools—Feedly, Reddit, Evernote, HootSuite—we use not just to gather up information, but to dispense with what isn’t valuable, like machetes we use to hack away at the digital jungle.

In that sense there’s nothing completely new about our situation. In 1671 John Milton warned that “many books…are wearisome” and that the incessant reader runs the risk of becoming “deep-versed in books and shallow in himself.” For Milton and others, passively reading for information was worlds apart from the act of wrestling with, or often “digesting,” what is read. Erasmus of Rotterdam, for example, advised one reader of scripture to “bite off some of this medicine constantly [because] if we chew it assiduously and pass it down into our spiritual stomachs, if we do not cast up again what we have swallowed…it develops all its powers and transforms the whole of us into itself.”

The monastic reading traditions of the Middle Ages had an even greater emphasis on the importance of transformation. In fact, in many monasteries active reading was the centerpiece of daily life. Several hours of reading (or lectio) often fell in the middle of the day, with the rest of the day devoted to periods of meditation, prayer, and contemplation. While lectio “puts whole food in the mouth,” meditation “chews it and breaks it up,” prayer “extracts its flavor,” and finally contemplation “is the sweetness itself which gladdens and refreshens.”

The writer and designer William Morris once said, “you can’t have art without resistance in the material. No! The very slowness with which the pen or the brush moves over the paper, or the graver goes through the wood, has its value.” For monastics, as for renaissance humanists like Erasmus, the same was true of the act of reading itself. The goal was never to make reading a quick, easy exchange, but rather to locate value in the slowness of the process itself.

These might seem like the quaint notions of a bygone age. If text is more present today than ever, it can also feel lighter and more ethereal. As Andrew Piper writes: “With my e-book I no longer pause over the slight caress of the barely turned page—a rapture of anticipation—I just whisk away. Our hands become brooms, sweeping away the alphabetic dust before us.”

Stream, cloud, dust; now more than ever our text and our reading times are in need of a shape and an architecture. Intentionally or unintentionally, each of us has a reading practice that shapes the way we live, think, and interact. It is either a practice that goes along with dominant trends or bends them to our own purposes, and channels our limited time into something that changes us and challenges us and…

Look at that, you’ve already begun—you made it to the end. That’s roughly 1,000 words of the 100,000 you will see today. What will the others be?

Is That “Something”?

The sky above Stonehenge was two-tone with a bizarre, crinkled texture. Sharp slivers of grey flowed in curves and wisps and disappeared into the eggshell-colored background. The taupe rocks below were flecked with red and steel blue — the same odd texture as the sky. Colors stood in strong contrast next to one another as in a Van Gogh painting. But something about them hinted this was not a painting at all.

A bold red flame extended off the top left corner of the canvas and broke out into the open air. It billowed from the tail of the Millennium Falcon (yes, from Star Wars) as it careened toward the ancient stone structure. A glance at the tag revealed the mystery of the medium, if not the message: “duct tape.”

I punched the piece’s five-digit code into my phone and tapped to register my vote. As I turned to leave I caught a glimpse of buildings and a passing car reflected in the copper colored window of the Auto Fixit Body Shop where the piece was hanging. Was this experience part of the artwork, I wondered. Did the artist want me to read the modern city behind me into its strange collision of the past and imagination cast in duct tape? Why the Auto Fixit Body Shop? Did it matter that both the venue and medium were not intended for making, but for repairing? As I wandered away looking for the next piece to contemplate, I realized I could come to my own conclusions, but I couldn’t ever really be certain.

This feeling of uncertainty is, for me, the best part of my yearly visit to ArtPrize. Now in its fifth year, ArtPrize is an independently organized festival-meets-competition in Grand Rapids, Michigan. This year featured over 1,500 artists from 47 different countries with attendees casting almost half a million total votes. ArtPrize looks like what might happen if you combined an art fair and a contemporary art museum, shook them up, and poured them out over three square miles in the center of a city. Art might be anywhere: in the river, on the tops of buildings, hanging from the ceilings of restaurants, on the sidewalks, and, of course, on the sides of auto body shops.

As you wander through the environment created by ArtPrize it is hard to distinguish the art from the non-art. More than once I have seen passersby come upon a sculpture or installation and, unable to decide what it is and whether it is in the competition, say, “Is this…something?” Sometimes you squint and look for a tag, sometimes you try to overhear an explanation, sometimes you wait and see, and sometimes it is impossible to tell whether “this” particular thing is “something” or not.

Uncertainty can be disorienting, but it also affords certain freedoms. Visitors to ArtPrize feel no pressure to like what they see. Any artist over the age of eighteen with a venue willing to display their work can exhibit at ArtPrize, so it isn’t uncommon to find trite pieces next to revelatory ones, cheesy ones next to exquisite ones. Some of the art is charming, if strange, like the wooden fish carving I saw displayed inside a plastic dome that looked like an enormous eye protruding from the wall. Some of the art is profound like the 3-D model of a river at night created using digital models of sound signatures captured all over the city. When you go to ArtPrize you can expect to see art that is zanier than at any other art competition, but you might also be surprised—maybe even embarrassed—at what strikes a chord inside of you and makes you feel something you haven’t felt looking at art before.

When you look beyond the highly visible hype-focused pieces like this year’s giant mechanical fire-breathing dragon, which occupied one restaurant’s parking lot, you see that ArtPrize has developed a value for craft and technique that is sometimes missing in the highly conceptual corners of the art world. Previous winners of the $200,000+ publicly chosen grand prize have included a grand-scale photorealist painting of a wave, two elaborately detailed pencil drawings, a meticulously rendered 13-foot-high stained glass mosaic of the Crucifixion, and this year’s winner, a 20-foot-wide finely wrought quilted image of a Michigan shoreline. Of course, none of these pieces broke new ground in terms of content, but each was a large-scale display of masterful artistic technique.

Why hasn’t something like ArtPrize existed before? It would be hard to imagine ArtPrize without the GPS and mobile technology that lends coherence to the otherwise absurd idea of scattering thousands of works across the center of a city. Each piece of art is geotagged and as soon as a visitor enters the three-square-mile ArtPrize zone, they can register on the ArtPrize app, find routes, venues and works, as well as vote without ever speaking with a guide or buying a ticket.

As the novelist and coiner of the term “cyberspace,” William Gibson, recently said:

Cyberspace, not so long ago, was a specific elsewhere, one we visited periodically, peering into it from the familiar physical world. Now cyberspace has everted. Turned itself inside out. Colonized the physical.

ArtPrize has taken this concept and turned the art world inside out — putting virtual ballots into the hands of each and every visitor. Rather than allowing art to exist in the specific “elsewheres” we call museums and galleries, ArtPrize takes it to the streets, to the bars, to the coffeeshops and to the conversations of regular people. ArtPrize is a radically impure environment, unlike the hospital-white walls of museums. It is like a theater in which the footlights that distinguish the actors from the audience have been turned off. Suddenly the production, promotion and purchasing of art no longer feels like a specialist enterprise reserved for a select few — it’s now the stuff of everyday life.

Eventually ArtPrize goes away. The footlights come on again. Most of the artists remove their works and return home. Like the law of nature that makes oil mixed in water separate again, art leaves the sidewalks and the auto body shops and returns to the museums and galleries. But some of the residues of ArtPrize remain. The permanent pieces like mosaics, sculptures and murals fill in new bits of the city’s white space each year like a paint-by-number project. I hope someday a time comes when it is impossible to tell when ArtPrize ends and begins. But until then ArtPrize teaches us to pay attention. It keeps us asking, “What is this? Is this…something?” And it leads us to approach our world with a healthy dose of uncertainty.

Comedy and Nothing

It all happens in the space of a tenth of a second: your zygomatic major muscle engages and exposes your teeth, fifteen muscles in your face contract, your epiglottis begins to obscure your larynx and disrupts your breathing, and you start to vocalize involuntarily— a laugh.

Laughter is a marvel. It erupts as powerfully and unexpectedly as a volcano. The smallest glance or the tiniest irony can set it off and send us doubling over. We laugh until we cry, and sometimes we laugh when we should be crying. We can’t control it. It makes us spew drinks on friends and excuse ourselves from plays and concerts. Try as we might to seal our clenched lips with our hands, it breaks through in muffled puffs and gasps. No physical force can keep it in. And then it subsides as quickly as it came.

Yet there are a few intrepid souls—we call them standup comedians—who stake their livelihoods and reputations on their ability to walk alone onto a stage and produce laughter. “The equivalent for most people,” Jerry Seinfeld once said, “would be going to work in your underwear.” [1] Or as Chris Rock tells Jerry in a recent episode of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, “It is more freakish than being able to run fast, or dunk a basketball, or any of those things. It is freakish—do you think Superman could talk to a thousand people at one time?” [2] To stand up is to stand alone before a jury of strangers several times a week with the goal of making everyone laugh every few seconds for over an hour.

Yet, the great comedians like Jerry Seinfeld, those who keep standing up for decades, maintain a sense of humor about what they do. As early as the sixth episode of Seinfeld, Jerry was poking fun at his own routine investigations of the minutiae of everyday life: when his girlfriend Marlene breaks up with him after seeing his set, complaining, “it was just so much fluff,”[3] and by its third season the show shifted into full self-parody with George and Jerry’s attempt to write their own “show about nothing.”[4]

Still, fifteen years after its last episode, Seinfeld fills the airwaves each weeknight, raising the question as to why its “nothing” ends up seeming so relatable. But as a physicist might say, nothing is a condition of all existence: we are all atoms that were something else and will be something else held in an agonizingly brief dance. All that we know as real exists without the ability to create or sustain itself. As the philosopher Blaise Pascal once wrote, to be human is to be suspended between the two impenetrable abysses that surround us after and before us.[5] “Nothing” is quicksand constantly beneath our feet. It threatens to consume us in every moment. But we can dance across it— if we can learn to take ourselves lightly.

The idea of “nothing” in Jerry’s comedy outlived Seinfeld. In his first appearance on the Late Show with David Letterman after the end of the sitcom, he opened with the following bit:

“Everybody says to me, “You don’t do the show anymore, what do you do?” I’ll tell you what I do: nothing. And I know what you’re thinking, “That sounds pretty good.” You’re thinking, “I might like to do nothing myself.” Well let me tell you, doing nothing is not as easy as it looks. You have to be careful because the idea of doing anything, which could easily lead to doing something that would cut into your nothing—that would force me to have to drop everything.”[6]

But in a sense “nothing” couldn’t have been further from the truth: after writing and starring in one of the most successful sitcoms in the history of American television, Jerry decided to retire all of the material he had ever written and subject himself to the grueling process of developing completely new material. Testing it out night after night in clubs across the country he sometimes lost focus, forgot lines, and even encountered hecklers in spite of his stardom. He was finally ready to make his appearance on the Late Show after six months of perseverance.

By deprecating what he does as “nothing” Jerry protects and sustains his work, allowing it to speak for itself year after year, decade after decade.  He has avoided the greatest danger that any comedian faces: believing his own hype; when a comedian’s stardom takes center stage the jokes stop sounding like jokes and start sounding like appeals for more popularity. In an effort to gain or sustain notoriety, many young comedians resort to using shock value to force laughs, and ultimately leave their audiences feeling empty.

Jerry, on the other hand, is content to let trends and hype pass and write material that sticks. “Whatever is the opposite of planned obsolescence, that’s why I’m into,” he recently told a New York Times journalist.[7] His new show, Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee is a 360-degree study in staying power, with each episode featuring a different classic car chosen to reflect the episode’s guest. In recent episodes legends such as David Letterman, Mel Brooks, and Carl Reiner offer glimpses into the indefatigable passion and drive required to be a lifelong creative performer. Riding through the streets of Los Angeles in a majestic 1957 Cadillac, 86-year-old Don Rickles exclaims between ribbing and doing impressions, “I keep working! I’ve got to keep working!”[8]

In Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, the quotidian act of conversation demonstrates the truth about comedy: “I’ve figured out that the non-event is the best part of life,” Jerry tells Sarah Silverman on their way to pick up a doughnut.[9] Comedy is the magic in the mundane. It helps us snatch a little something out of the nothing. It causes us to smile and laugh as we savor the serendipities that could just as easily have passed into oblivion, unnoticed like gossamer on the wind.

Perhaps, then, comedy isn’t about anything—  in the sense that it is not about something outside itself. Jerry often uses sports analogies to show that comedy has its own rules and its own measure of excellence. In a recent interview he compared it to surfing:

“It’s just pure. You’re alone. That wave is so much bigger and stronger than you. You’re always outnumbered. They always can crush you. And yet you’re going to accept that and turn it into a little, brief, meaningless art form…I’m not filling a deep emotional hole here. I’m playing a very difficult game, and if you’d like to see someone who’s very good at a difficult game, that’s what I do.”[10]

Jerry’s commitment to his work as an end in itself also shows in his writing process. He spoke of perfecting a Pop-Tart joke over the course of two years.

After demonstrating the organization, wording, and pacing changes he considered for the joke, he explains, “to spend so much time on something this stupid— that felt good to me.”[11]  If what one means by pointless is that it serves no end outside itself, then Jerry is right. But Jerry’s work pursues excellence on its own terms.

Dorothy Sayers once suggested that all work should be just as gloriously pointless:

“If your mind is set upon serving the work, then you know you have nothing to look for; the only reward the work can give you is the satisfaction of beholding its perfection. The work takes all and gives nothing but itself; and to serve the work is a labor of pure love.”[12]

Jerry’s comedy, for this reason, always feels like a gift: it is perfectly and simply true to craft and asks for nothing in return. “The rose is without why, it blooms because it blooms,” Angelus Silesius wrote. If we can resist the lie that whatever doesn’t return fame or fortune is not worth doing, our work can emerge in the same way. We build our lives amidst the clamor of a million phony somethings. When we block out the clamor— sometimes by doing what looks like nothing— we’re free to focus on work that is its own reward, work that feels right no matter how pointless it might appear.

Near the end of his 2003 documentary Comedian, Jerry attends a performance by Bill Cosby, whom Jerry has admired since he was a kid. After the show, Jerry asks him about his choice to continue performing two two-hour shows each day at the age of 63, to which he simply replies, “I love it, I just love it.” He explains:

“Isn’t it fun that you took what is comedy and what is you and you have a body of work now? You can play at any bar even if you’re 70 years old, and you can stand beside Bill Russell, Muhammad Ali, Willie Mays, and Joe Louis when these guys say, “you know, I played the shit out of my game.” It is one of the great moments of being a performer when you can say, “I took what I had and I knocked it out of the park”—that’s what you’ve done.”[13]

Jerry beams at his hero’s expansion of his own favorite analogy. Cosby, a fellow master performer, acknowledges that greatness isn’t wealth, fame, or recognition; if it were, he would have been finished long ago. Rather, as Dorothy Sayers said, “satisfaction comes, in the godlike manner, from looking upon what [one] has made and finding it very good.”[14]

It is a truth we all grasp at one point or another, however briefly, usually in the midst of a hobby or leisure activity. We might even sense it momentarily in laughter, that gloriously pointless vocalization that so mysteriously punctuates life here between the abysses.

 


[1] Charles, Christian and Jerry Seinfeld. Comedian. 2003. Film.

[2] Seinfeld, Jerry and Chris Rock. “Chris Rock.” Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. 2013. Film.

[3] David, Larry and Jerry Seinfeld. “The Ex-Girlfriend.” Seinfeld. 1990. Film.

[4] David, Larry and Jerry Seinfeld. . “The Pitch.” Seinfeld. 1990. Film.

[5] Pascal, Blaise. Pensées and Other Writings. Oxford University Press, 1999. Print.

[6] Charles and Seinfeld. Ibid.

[7] Weiner, Jonah. “Jerry Seinfeld Intends to Die Standing Up.” The New York Times. 20 Dec. 2012. Web. 12 Aug. 2013.

[8] Seinfeld, Jerry and Don Rickles. “Don Rickles.” Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. 2013. Film.

[9] Seinfeld, Jerry and Sarah Silverman. “Sarah Silverman.” Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. 2013. Film.

[10] Weiner. Ibid.

[11] Woodward, Jenny. “Video: Jerry Seinfeld: How to Write a Joke.” The New York Times – NYTimes.com – Video. 20 Dec. 2012. Web. 12 Aug. 2013.

[12] Sayers, Dorothy Leigh. “Why Work?” Creed Or Chaos?: And Other Essays in Popular Theology. Methuen, 1957. Print.

[13] Charles and Seinfeld. Ibid.

[14] Sayers, Ibid.

 

 

Reading Kierkegaard in the Age of MOOCs

Although he was born frail and sickly, in 42 years  he left behind a bafflingly insightful and beautiful body of work. His writings appeared under the names of nearly a dozen pseudonyms. He has been called philosopher, theologian, preacher and even poet, yet he said, “My existence itself is really the deepest irony.”  In the 200th year since his birth, Søren Kierkegaard still possesses the coyness of the Cheshire Cat, disappearing at will, leaving only his grin behind. But behind the tricks, disguises and illusions is the Kierkegaard the 21st century urgently needs: Kierkegaard the educator.

Kierkegaard preferred to use the term “upbringing” rather than “education.” Upbringing encompasses the growth of the whole human person—not just the mind. For Kierkegaard meaningful education does not end in knowledge, but in the realization of knowledge. An upbringing is not complete until learning influences the life of the student. A teacher cannot bring up a student by teaching abstract theories like Kant’s “categorical imperative,” nor can a student be brought up with so-called “practical” learning—how to build a bench, interview for a job or input a VLOOKUP formula in Microsoft Excel. Kierkegaard believed that overly practical education—education only concerned with how questions—would create what he called “fractional” human beings: people who are trained to do a particular task rather than to strive for personal transformation.

Kierkegaard’s revolutionary insights about the nature of upbringing led him to question the value of information itself. In Kierkegaard’s age new printing technologies allowed newspapers and journals to reach a mass audience with much greater speed than ever before. Kierkegaard sensed that these new developments led his contemporaries to the faulty assumption that the “knowledge” produced by information was an end in itself. He even pointed out that information can get in the way of authentic living, complaining that “the whole mob of publishers, book-sellers, journalists, authors” distract from the truth that “relatively little knowledge is needed to be truly human.” The new technologies and trends emphasized extensive knowledge to the exclusion of intensive knowledge, the knowledge that affects us personally and intimately, and alters our way of living. Kierkegaard insisted that without real upbringing, information is meaningless.

As an example, Kierkegaard tells the following story:

A sergeant in the National Guard says to a recruit, “You, there, stand up straight.”

Recruit: “Sure enough.”

Sergeant: “Yes, and don’t talk during the drill.”

Recruit: “Alright, I won’t if you’ll just tell me.”

Sergeant: “What the devil! You are not supposed to talk during the drill!”

Recruit: “Well, don’t get so mad. If I know I’m not supposed to, I’ll quit talking during the drill.”

 

In this story the recruit is able to receive the necessary knowledge from the sergeant and yet the knowledge doesn’t alter his actions or his attitude. The recruit fails to see that the sergeant does not aim to simply inform him, but to transform him into a soldier. The sergeant, Kierkegaard explains, will have to use indirect communication like drills, challenges and exercises to shock, startle and shake up the recruit. He will have to communicate not only to the recruit’s mind, but to his will, desires, goals and his life project. This shows why, as Kierkegaard also wrote, “to bring up human beings is a very rare gift.”

Today’s nearly instant communication and vast stores of online information make the technology of Kierkegaard’s age look primitive. We are more fast-paced, more analysis-driven and more practically minded in our education than any society early 19th century Denmark could have imagined. We pride ourselves on outsourcing thinking to software and memory to “the cloud.”  Perhaps most tellingly, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are quickly becoming the new paradigm for “progressive” education. MOOCs are enormous—courses reach tens of thousands of students at a time. Widely available and often at very low cost, MOOCS involve a minimal commitment from students, making it easier than ever to confuse a wealth of information with total education or upbringing that Kierkegaard reminds us to strive for.

The kind of teaching that Kierkegaard wrote about is not so much under threat as it is forgotten. This March, announcing that he would leave the teaching profession after over forty years of service, Gerald Conti wrote that his “total immersion” approach to teaching is “not only devalued, but denigrated and perhaps, in some quarters despised” in favor of a “data-driven” approach. He concluded his resignation by stating,

“I am not leaving my profession, in truth, it has left me. It no longer exists. I feel as though I have played some game halfway through its fourth quarter, a timeout has been called, my teammates’ hands have all been tied, the goal posts moved, all previously scored points and honors expunged and all of the rules altered.”

Countless teachers like Gerald Conti are struggling to make their voices heard, insisting that the art of teaching is not scalable, marketable or packageable and that it does not lend itself to our demands for efficiency, predictability, calculability and control. Teachers insist that they are more than knowledge transfer technicians who streamline and facilitate a download of information into their students’ heads. Their job is not always to make things easier, but sometimes to make things difficult. They don’t simply grease the wheels of the educational machine; they provoke, prod, challenge and upset, doing whatever it takes to break through the passive consumerist mentality that makes us receivers of knowledge and not active participants. Put simply, they remind us that, unlike MOOCs, upbringing always costs something. It demands pain, time, energy, focus, passion and diligence.

If upbringers want to make an impact on the 21st century, they will have to be more elusive, more artful, more sly and more creative than ever. And when they’re ready to learn they can look to Kierkegaard the educator, the master magician with the Cheshire Cat grin.

 

 


[i] Kierkegaard, Søren.  Søren Kierkegaard’s Journals and Papers. Edited and translated by Howard V. and Edna H. Hong

Doughnuts and American Ingenuity

Every day at 7:15AM my wife and I enter the red line station at the corner of Sheridan Road and Loyola Avenue. We are part of a steady stream of commuters that enters through the doors and immediately turns right toward the turnstiles. But every once in a while, someone turns left. Cutting back across the flow of the throng, eyes averted, it’s a sure sign that they’re headed to the other end of the station—to Dunkin’ Donuts. Each day this moral drama runs its course anew. Those with the requisite self-control step to the right; those weakened by stress, a sleepless night, or low blood sugar step to the left, and, to the demise of their diet, receive their temporary delight.

To be fair to my fellow commuters, the cards are stacked against us. Like some citywide sting operation by the calorie Gestapo, a Dunkin’ Donuts seems to be near every single train station in Chicago. Many commuters face this lipid-laden temptation four times each day. For me, and I’m sure for others, the Dunkin’ Donuts sign is no longer inviting, but remains a reminder that my health and waistline are permanently under siege.

No doubt a similar drama plays out on countless street-corners in every city in America. It might not be Dunkin’. Perhaps it is the siren song of Krispy Kreme’s “Hot Now” sign—the drama remains the same. In the face of a 24/7 offer of doughnuts, we are no longer rational, decision-making human beings, but urge-ridden troglodytes bound to our inborn drive for fat and sugar.

What about the time before America ran on Dunkin’? Wasn’t there a way to do doughnuts right? Weren’t there doughnut places left over from a time before our McDonaldization, places built to offer quality rather than mere availability? I quickly discovered that precious few such places exist, even in a city the size of Chicago. The small, independent doughnut shops I found could be counted on one hand. Almost none of them were actually old. In other words, they weren’t survivors—they were revolutionaries. These shops opened specifically to offer something fresh and different in a market dominated by the fast food practices of the major doughnut chains. I began to get hints that the doughnut story was not so much a story of extinction as a story of rebirth.

As I scoured the city in search of a different kind of doughnut, I decided to conduct an informal experiment. I simply mentioned to friends, family, and co-workers that I was writing an article about doughnuts and waited to see what reactions would follow. Most laughed good-naturedly, as if to say that I was being silly in examining something not worthy of my attention. Many other people, however, were more derisive. They seemed threatened by what they took to be a ploy to intellectualize something that was actually inane, or even disgusting: the food of choice for Homer Simpson and overweight cops. This further motivated me to discover what I believed would prove them wrong.

Fittingly, the first shop that caught my attention was named Do-Rite Donuts. Do-Rite has a simple mission: to offer the freshest doughnuts possible every single hour they are open. To achieve this goal, Do-Rite makes their doughnuts in small quantities—never more than 36 per batch—with chefs continuously at work in the kitchen. Do-Rite usually sells out of their daily stock in the early afternoon, though one employee mentioned that they have closed as early as 11am. Do-Rite’s menu changes every day of the week with lots of seasonal specials like the cinnamon and sugar old fashioned doughnut topped with cream cheese, baked apples, and caramel sauce that is only offered during the holiday season.

Despite Do-Rite’s proclivity toward striking combinations (orange and rosemary, or the peanut butter and jelly doughnut, for example) I prefer their handling of the classics, like their Boston creme topped with slivered almonds, or their simple old fashioned variety that is so crispy it crunches like popcorn when you bite into it. For a few hours every morning business people headed toward the enormous state building surrounding Daley Plaza can be seen with Do-Rite bags in hand. Do-Rite’s only location at 50 W. Randolph Street is so tiny that I found it impossible to locate using the Google Maps street-level view. Even standing across the street, I had to squint to distinguish Do-Rite from the larger restaurants that surround it.

Another establishment in River North, Doughnut Vault, is even smaller than Do-Rite. On my first trip to Doughnut Vault I waited over half an hour in line. My second time, in an attempt to beat the line, I arrived the minute Doughnut Vault opened only to find that a long line of people were already waiting. Inside, Doughnut Vault is true to its name; the cramped interior has been converted from an old bank vault. It is surprisingly cozy. Its thick stone walls have soft lighting and lead to a single cashier behind an antique brass cash register.

The infinitesimal Doughnut Vault sits in the shadow of the Merchandise Mart, one of Chicago’s most imposing structures that, when it opened its doors in 1930, was the largest building in the world. Until 2008 it had its own zip code. Nevertheless, unlike most of the space that surrounds it, Doughnut Vault has opted to focus on quality rather than availability: the doughnuts sell out shockingly fast, sometimes within two hours of their 8am opening time. Due to the extremely small supply and intense demand, Doughnut Vault’s staff communicate with their over 7,700 followers on Twitter, tweeting announcements like, “Good morning everyone! We are open! Today’s special is pistachio glazed. Hurry in and get in the front of the line!” and “Out of gingerbread stacks!! 6 dozen old fashioned, 1 dozen chocolate, 3 dozen chestnut, 5 dozen vanilla! About 15 people in line!”

Doughnut Vault’s selection seems based on the motto, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Each of their seven types of doughnuts is simple and excellent. My favorite is the blackberry jelly doughnut, which is really filled with something more like fruit sauce to be served with a piece of cheesecake than what the word jelly implies. A major crowd pleaser at Doughnut Vault, however, is the plain but enormous glazed doughnut, which is so large it is difficult to eat with one hand.

I was even more astounded by Glazed and Infused. Situated in the west loop, Glazed and Infused sits on a landscape born out of a process of urban renewal. What was once a tired and outdated industrial section of the city has in the last decade become a vibrant community, boasting some of Chicago’s finest bars and restaurants. Like its neighborhood, Glazed and Infused is taking old forms to unforeseen heights. One great specimen, for example, is the crème brûlée doughnut. With all of the traditional elements of a crème brûlée (crème inside and carmelized sugar shell on the outside of the pastry) this creation pushes the limits both in terms of culinary techniques as well as class-conditioned notions of what kind of food the doughnut is and who it is for. Several other creations at Glazed and Infused, like the carrot cake doughnut and egg-nog bourbon doughnut, play upon the same set of distinctions between high and low culture.

Along with the many miles I walked and the innumerable calories I ingested on my quest for a different kind of doughnut, I began to look for answers as to why this pastry that is so celebrated popularly had become so reviled publicly. I came across the following story that I believe speaks volumes: One legend has it that the doughnut was born when a ship captain named Hanson Gregory became dissatisfied that his olykoeks (Dutch: “oily cakes”) never seemed to cook all the way through. In a flash of inspiration he removed the top of his ship’s tin pepper jar and used it to cut out the center from the dough. What I love about this story is that the distinctive feature of the doughnut turns out not to be its taste, its ingredients, or even its national origin, but rather a simple act of ingenuity.

For many, doughnuts symbolize our basic inability to reconcile our exorbitant desires (Supersize it!) with our aspirations for perfect health, long life, and ideal bodies. But, I believe there is more to the doughnut. I am reminded of what W.E.B. Du Bois said in describing American art and music: “Little of beauty has America given the world save the rude grandeur God himself stamped on her bosom; the human spirit in this new world has expressed itself in vigor and ingenuity rather than in beauty.”

Doughnuts are not a refined food (unless we’re talking about refined sugar), but perhaps it is this feature that makes them all the more distinctively American. Perhaps it was because doughnuts captured the spirit of American ingenuity that millions of them were shipped to American soldiers in the trenches in World War I and why doughnuts were billed as the “the food hit of the Century of Progress” at the 1934 World’s Fair, right here in Chicago. Even as we move away from the fast food model and the havoc it has wreaked on the American way of life, perhaps in re-engineering doughnuts we can bring that essential part of what captured the imagination of past generations with us.

So I’m looking forward to the future of the doughnut in America. Maybe the trend will continue to catch on, and maybe—we can’t be sure—we will remake and rediscover ingenuity. In the meantime, as I enter the train station, I’ll keep stepping to the right.