The last six months have been some of the most interesting of my life as a writer and speaker. Since New Creative Community was published in November, I’ve been visiting conferences and campuses, giving talks and workshops to artists, activists, funders, policy-makers and students. I’ve met hundreds of people, seen all kinds of work, had countless intense conversations, and as I travel, this great mass of data has begun to take shape, the contours of a new reality emerging from this swirling vortex of information.
In other words, I am absolutely thrilled to be developing the gift my favorite philosopher, Isaiah Berlin, called “the sense of reality,” which entails:
…above all, a capacity for integrating a vast amalgam of constantly changing, multicolored, evanescent, perpetually overlapping data, too many, too swift, too intermingled to be caught and pinned down and labeled like so many individual butterflies. To integrate in this sense is to see the data (those identified by scientific knowledge as well as by direct perception) as elements in a single pattern, with their implications, to see them as symptoms of past and future possibilities, to see them pragmatically—that is, in terms of what you or others can or will do to them, and what they can or will do to others or to you. To seize a situation in this sense one needs to see, to be given a kind of direct, almost sensuous contact with the relevant data, and not merely to recognize their general characteristics, to classify them or reason about them, or analyze them, or reach conclusions and formulate theories about them.
The “overarching pattern emerging from my sensuous contact with the relevant data” is this: that countless elements of our thematic universe are delivering the same hot news: the era of convergence has arrived. Every month or so for the last year, a new idea or influence has slid across my field of vision, waving and pointing. Look at me! I’m carrying the message too!
This past week in Philadelphia, in addition to talks and workshops I did at Delaware Valley Grantmakers, the Philadelphia Mural Project, Moore College of Art, the Samuel Fleisher Institute and the Stockton Rush Bartol Foundation, I gave a major talk at Temple University sponsored by the Arts in the Community program at Tyler College of Arts. I was very excited to write this talk, because I made it an opportunity to weave the things I’ve been learning from nature, politics, culture, science, spirituality and commerce into a single tapestry of future possibility. It was tremendous fun to deliver and the response was truly gratifying.
Below, I offer you a taste. Click here, then on “Converging Worlds” under “Talks and Speeches” to download the full text. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I did writing it. I hope it gives you ideas.
A few weeks ago I spoke at the University of Oregon. That beautiful state is home to the world’s largest organism: in the Blue Mountains of eastern Oregon, scientists with the Department of Agriculture have discovered an Armillaria fungus that covers 2,200 acres.
Researchers used to think this species consisted of disparate clusters of fruiting bodies commonly called honey mushrooms. But when they systematically collected and tested samples from widely spaced clusters, they found that all were part of a single organism. This giant fungus puts out an underground network of string-like rhizomorphs, which send up fruiting bodies here and there. Some outcroppings are 3 and 1/2 miles apart.
When we gaze through the window of nature, whether we see the Armillaria fungus or the vast panorama of James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis, which posits that the earth and all it supports make up a complex interacting system that should be understood as a single organism, the learning is the same. Everything is connected. What affects any part affects the whole.
And so it is with culture.
Human beings everywhere grapple with the opportunities and challenges of being alive in these amazingly capable bodies with—proportionally speaking—the world’s largest brains. Making use of our big brains, we constantly seek meaning in our experience. Indeed, you could say that people exist to make meaning, because beyond the things necessary to sustain life, what we human beings do most is tell stories, and they have a great deal in common.
All human communities, everywhere, reject the notion of the purely instinctive or unconscious life, of acting without awareness of connection or consequences. All human communities, everywhere, presuppose that we are capable of living with intentionality. They tell stories that lift the ordinary actions of life into a kind of sacred space, endowing them with higher meaning. We humans don’t just drop our offspring in a field; we have rituals to welcome them into the human community, declaring our hopes and blessings so that they will thrive. We don’t just heap dirt over our departed; we have countless rituals to recognize the meaning of a life and comfort those bereaved by its ending. With all the significant moments between birth and death, it is the same. The common experiences of humanity are the material basis for all culture: art, language, systems of belief, values, customs, dress, food, the built environment and more.
What we call culture, then, is the sum total of all the astoundingly rich and disparate ways human communities have devised to lubricate, beautify and give meaning to our journey through life. Culture is a single organism that holds the entire planet in an embrace of meaning, and our many distinct cultural traditions are clusters of fruiting bodies popping up out of that matrix. What we call art is the highest manifestation of this global meaning matrix, the most purely emblematic of culture, the brightest mushroom in the cluster.