Episode 2: Hanging with the Brains
A couple weeks ago, a friend of mine from LA sent me an email detailing this salon series in Manhattan. The topic—something to do with the promotion of consciousness through technology—seemed appealing to me and as I run my own event series that runs along similar lines, I thought it might be good to see what they were up to.
The salon was held in a huge, luxury downtown loft. The room, whose walls were lined with a wide-gapped, blonde wood paneling, was dominated by an entertainment system that surely cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.
When I arrived, the host was rolling several joints. I wasn’t sure what I had walked into.
The host, who I’ll call Bob, was a very nice guy. He’s a psychologist who with a strong Eastern bent and an even stronger bent toward the use of psychedelics for therapeutic purposes. We chatted for a few minutes and then I mingled with the crowd, which was an interesting mixture of young and old—ranging from mid-twenties to what I’d guess were late seventies.
The structure of the salon, was that there is a “producer”—the person who leads the discussion, shares her work around the particular topic, and then it opens up into a group discussion. The producer that night was a cute girl, who I’ll call Jane, was doing her PhD in some sort of communication field at NYU. Jane’s talk was about a question: can a “critical consciousness” be taught (critical consciousness having a specific meaning, as defined by Marxist philosopher Paolo Friere). And perhaps more specifically, can it be something taught through technological channels (though she didn’t seem overly concerned with adhering to that medium).
The talk was broken up into three parts: what’s going on now, where it’s heading and a possible answer. What’s going on now was a general overview of civilization: mass consumerism, poverty, global warming, hegemonic power structures, etc. Where it’s heading: nowhere good. Possible answer: she didn’t really have one, other than to make the inquiry into the possibility of inculcating this critical consciousness—in other words, is it even feasible to instigate, via educational modalities, a change of consciousness to rectify aforementioned woes?
The girl (who was super cute) gave a talk that sounded like it was straight out of a textbook, using cumbersome language that seemed to me to obfuscate a lack of clarity of purpose or potential utility. I’m someone who would be nothing if not for abstraction, but I couldn’t see how even the inquiry was any more useful than a Salvation Army dude ringing his bell at Christmas.
A conversation ensued, mostly carried by the elders in the room, whose intellectual confidence and activist experience lent itself to authoritative remarks and well-honed questions. The chief question is: how do you know whether you have “taught” someone critical consciousness? Is there some sort of metric?
Jane addressed the measurement question indirectly, referring to an academic philosophy called Constructionism, whereby the process of the inquiry and the observations therein are the result, rather than applying a more scientific approach, testing a theorem or what not. I bought this, as I think of my life in constructivist terms—by not having any presuppositions about how it should be lived, I just keenly observe the process and see what happens.
The conversation was lively and high-minded. Toward its end, the joints were passed and eventually people split up and chatted. I had a few rousing conversations with some of the guys in attendance about the trajectory of humanity and I connected with a couple cute girls (alas, not Jane).
It was a fun evening, but there was something that felt very otherworldly—the opulence of the loft, the caliber of intellect, the general whiteness of the crowd, the stereo system, the joints; it all just seemed very removed from this cultural consciousness that was meant to be the focal point of conversation, as if we were still the hegemonic power wielders, lounging in our rarefied intellectual thrones, contemplating the fate of a world that we were in, but not necessarily of.
The next day I went back to Dan and discussed my two experiences: being with him soliciting folks to make Youtube videos and being at this salon, discussing things like linear versus cyclic processes.
Dan, no intellectual lightweight, weighed in on some of the topics. We discussed the effectiveness of technology in instigating social change, or whether its manufacturing processes, something governed by the hegemonic powers-that-be, precluded the dispersement of unmediated information and therefore could never be a reliable disseminator of consciousness.
Whereas Dan had been a hawker par excellence the day before, the deeper we burrowed into conversation, the less he was soliciting people to partake in Brooklyn Mobile. It made me think about these two emotional states: expression and explanation. The former is spontaneous and needs no explanation. It is an emotive way of existing and performing in the world, whose intention doesn’t hinge on a perfect argument. Ask a child why she likes to finger paint and you will generally not get some answer that involves self expression and communication of life experience. It’s just an expression of who she is.
Explanation, on the other hand, attempts to quantify reality. It breaks it up into discreet patterns for interpretation and comprehension. The salon was an explanation session. Dan and my later discussion was an explanation session. While it’s not intrinsically, non-physical in nature, the explanatory exchange is primarily a cerebral one. There is often a loss of playfulness—a more corporeal reality—when we try to explain stuff.
Dan I continued to talk out on Flatbush Ave, making occasional, and more muted calls to passerby’s to partake in Brooklyn Mobile. Finally, a gaggle of 12 year-old girls acquiesced to make a video. Teeming with energy and laughter, they sang a cacophonous version of Jay-Z’s “New York”. It was so spontaneous, so devoid of explanation, so free from any pretension to perform any action other than to sing and express their ardor of the song, it shut both Dan and I up. There was something so self-evidently beautiful about the scene that when they left, we were both stoked. For me, it wasn’t a response that could be measured, but a pulsation and unfolding of the beautiful process of expression.
I don’t want to suggest that our intellects—our desire to explain and understand the world in and around us—are a murderer of expression, or vice-versa. It just seems as though there must always be a dialogue between the two—that we mustn’t become closed systems, where our intellectual windmills are powered by our windy arguments. That we are ever mindful of the expression and the process of living—something whose import and beauty can’t always be explained in a treatise, but must be sung in verse.