I’ve been trying to find the right words. I think they might be “belonging,” purpose,” and “pleasure.”
Remember in the first Clinton campaign, when the candidate became famous for a sign that summed up the essence of his message: “It’s the economy, stupid”? I’ve been trying to find a few words that do that for the big message I feel impelled to put out into the world.
Here’s what I keep coming back to: It’s all about belonging. We want to be seen and known. We want to be acknowledged for our place in the community and our contributions to it. We want to feel connected and respected. We want to see ourselves in sites of public memory; to know our histories are not forgotten; to have a stake in our common future.
This is a world of multiple participation, multiple belonging. None of us is encompassed by one type of belonging. For many people, the core of belonging is about a specific place on the land. If that doesn’t matter to you as intensely as it matters to my friends who grew up on ancestral lands in Indian Country or Appalachia, for instance, consider how much it matters to those you hear about in the heartbreaking news from Gaza.
Belonging is plain language for “cultural citizenship,” in which everyone feels at home and welcomed in his or her own community, in which the connection, acknowledgement, and respect I just enumerated are fulfilled. Our need for social healing can be seen in the vast numbers who have the legal status of citizens, yet lack full cultural citizenship because those with more social and economic power treat them as inferior (or at least dismissible), devaluing their contributions, reinforcing a state of otherness with material and spiritual consequences that are the opposite of belonging.
I’m a member of the community where I live, with a share of collective responsibility, but my roots don’t point toward the earth. I’ve been a nomad most of my life. The other types of belonging closest to my heart make a long list: cultural activists; progressive Jews; advocates of equality and justice for all races, genders, conditions, orientations; music lovers; foodies; storytellers; and so on. In those realms, I feel cultural citizenship.
How do we come to experience that state of belonging? Treaties and laws matter a great deal, of course. The abuse of political power radically disrupts necessary belonging, leading to the gargantuan battles over identity and belonging that fill the headlines, at once symbolic and horribly real. But day-to-day for those not on the literal battlefront, belonging is nourished by culture and art: when our stories are shared with respect, interest, and reciprocity, whether onstage or in a small circle; when we see representations that truthfully depict our own histories or experiences; when we hear the music of our hearts; when we move our bodies in the ways they want to move. When all of these things are invited, supported, and valued.
When we recognize that it’s all about belonging, and move together to create the conditions of full cultural citizenship for everyone, my mission—and the mission of many like me—will be fulfilled.
In this quest, purpose and pleasure are twinned for me, or at least that’s the state I seek (and sometimes find). To feel fully used in one’s work is delicious. I imagine myself as a musical instrument channeling the precise tune I was made to play. And I worry about the extent to which purpose and pleasure are severed in the old world I call Datastan: there is so much pressure—economic and otherwise—to conform to absurd social arrangements devised to maximize efficiency and profit at the expense of humanity.
It’s in the realm of art—in the conscious creation of culture—that purpose and pleasure align. The skills that artists bring to their work are powerful: empathy, imagination, innovation, resilience, resourcefulness. Once learned, they are directly transferable to all the tasks of civil society. We employ social imagination to conceive a future we want to inhabit; empathy to open our hearts to our fellow beings with whom we share past, present, and future; resourcefulness and resilience to see in the broken pieces of the old order, Datastan, the raw material for a new world, the Republic of Stories, strong and vibrant enough to contain our full potential, to use all of our talents and energies.
I think about all the social contexts in which purpose and pleasure have been disregarded, or at least miniaturized to the point of invisibility. Education, for instance. Is the purpose of education really to get a high-paying job, as Datastan says? In the Republic of Stories, the purpose of education is to know ourselves and the world, to experience the pleasure of learning so that its repetition becomes a lifelong desire, to prepare ourselves for whatever challenges and opportunities life tosses our way.
I’m on this quest for new language because the way I usually share my message employs words that some people tell me are off-putting, or too open to interpretation, or just not the words that ring their bells. What about the words that are coming to me now? If I find a way to employ belonging, purpose, and pleasure, will that be clearer and stronger? If you have time, please let me know what you think.
What’s wrong with my old language? People keep telling me “culture” is a problem, for instance. I know what I mean by it, something big and then something a little smaller. The big meaning is the aggregate of signs, symbols, and creations that enable human societies; everything made by humans, as opposed to nature. Narrow the lens a little and you have culture in the sense of those things explicitly created to embody, symbolize, or communicate: literature, art, drama, music, dance, film, fashion, furnishings, built environments, and so on.
But the word refuses to sit still on the page. In one of the most famous uses (often misattributed to Gestapo founder Hermann Goering), a character in a play that was performed for Hitler on his birthday says, “Whenever I hear of culture… I release the safety-catch of my Browning!” The implication here is that the word has released something dangerously uncontrollable that must be reigned in by force. This is slightly ironic, because for many people today, the word “culture” emits an inhibiting air of snobbery, not so much dangerous as irrelevant.
People tell me “art” is a problem too. You have only to ask those you encounter by chance if they are into “the arts” to elicit a passel of self-effacing demurrals; yet those same individuals will happily admit that they sing in a band or choir, they take photographs or make videos, they dance every chance they get. Snobbery again, to be sure: marble halls, red velvet curtains, and punitive art teachers have a lot to answer for in depriving so many of us of the pleasure that would be ours if we’d been free to experience art without the framing that capitalizes that initial A.
I’m not planning to give up on either word, any more than I am willing to abandon the word “democracy,” for instance, because more than one person has advised me that it’s “kind of controversial.” Nor “love,” “beauty,” “truth,” or any of the other contested words whose ring I long to hear instead of the kind of defensive speech that has all the edges filed off to avoid rubbing anyone the wrong way.
But if those words shut some people’s minds, I want to find another way to open them to the points I most urgently want to make. The message as I have been writing it is summed up in these paragraphs about my two most recent books, The Culture of Possibility: Art, Artists & The Future and The Wave.
Culture is the matrix of every humane society, the power-source of the imagination, empathy, creativity, and resilience needed to activate our innate capacity for moral grandeur and social healing. Begin to see culture clearly and everything changes from despair to possibility. We know ourselves and each other through music, images, movement, and stories. Thousands of years ago, art aided our survival as a species. Today, culture is the laboratory in which we nurture compassion and discover how to improvise a livable future. And artists are both the stem cells of the body politic, generating myriad forms of beauty and meaning, and our indicator species for social well-being.
People sense the truth of this, but the guardians of the old order can’t yet see it. They keep ignoring what’s emerging and trying vainly to solve all our dilemmas with numbers. Corporation Nation is killing us: our social institutions and official understanding no longer fit reality. We are like 20th-century people trying to live in the 19th century.
The antidote to this malady is awareness: face the damage, assess our capacities and talents, envisage the possible, then bring our actions in line with the new reality.
It’s all about belonging? It’s all about aligning purpose and pleasure? Are those the right words? What do you think?
While you’re thinking it over, listen to this amazing James Booker version of “St James Infirmary.” Purpose and pleasure aligned.