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Human beings are not machines. And machines will never be human beings. The same is true of other mammalian species: we may share vertebrae with our animal friends, but we don’t share a common language or cultural affects, images, and symbols. Indeed, culture is one of the few things that makes the human experience so unique.
Culture Predates Politics, Agriculture, and Organized Religion
Most experts suggest the first human paintings appeared 30,000 years ago, however, recent evidence hints that the first human paintings may have appeared 164,000 years ago. The oldest known piece of literature was first produced by the Sumerian civilization in Mesopotamia around 3400 B.C. Primitive flutes carved out of bone have been traced back 43,000 years, and many scholars who study the history of music suggest oral traditions even pre-date the advent of rudimentary instruments.
As for photography, “The world’s first photograph—or at least the oldest surviving photo—was taken by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce in 1826 or 1827. Captured using a technique known as heliography, the shot was taken from an upstairs window at Niépce’s estate in Burgundy.” Shortly after, in 1839, Robert Cornelius produced the first self-portrait (who said selfies were new?). Eadweard Muybridge is credited with creating the first “motion picture,” when he set up a series of 12 cameras to capture a horse in full gallop (to prove the point that all four legs leave the ground). He then put those images on a rotating machine that projected 12 frames per second.
Can you imagine life without Coltrane, Dr. Strangelove, Vonnegut, The Godfather, Miles Davis, Hendrix, Shostakovich, Grapes of Wrath, Brave New World, Tolstoy, Picasso, Warhol, Monet, Don Quixote, One Hundred Years of Solitude, Camus, Frank Loyd Wright, Fellini, Scorsese, Robeson, Sly & The Family Stone, Peckinpah, Satie, The Dead Kennedys, Queens of the Stone Age, 2Pac, Francis Bacon, Fautrier, or Robert Capa? We sure can’t.
Art, culture, the yearning to express ourselves, both individually and collectively, is baked into our DNA. Culture, much like love, pain, sex, and death, is an inherent part of the human experience. Without culture, we’re beasts or automatons. And that’s no way to live.
Existing and Exacerbating Alienation
Prior to the COVID pandemic, most Americans were living extremely alienated lives. According to a study cited in Forbes, Americans spend upwards of 12 hours per day in front of a screen (TV, computer, iPad, iPhone). Spending long periods of time in front of a two-dimensional screen is not only physically unhealthy, but it’s also socially and culturally destructive. Increased screentime has been connected to depression, ADHD, and various other mental illnesses.
The amount of time Americans spend entertaining their friends and family at home has decreased by 80% since the 1970s. Recent polls show that only 22% of Americans have a “high level of trust” in each other. That number is even lower among black Americans (13%), Latinos (12%), and young Americans aged 18-29 (11%).
Political polarization has only increased since the pandemic began, with tensions boiling over in the form of violent protests, shootings, riots, and uprisings. People have a tremendous amount of pent up aggression and anger, rightfully so. After all, we’ve been lied to for the past eight months and over 215,000 of our fellow brothers and sisters are dead as a result of political incompetence, greed, and hubris. People have every right to be angry.
But people are also addicted, depressed, and saddled with increasing economic pressures (rent, student loan payments, childcare bills, food bills, clothing bills, school supplies, internet subscriptions, and so on). Recent statistics show that the number of Americans experiencing severe depression has increased dramatically, as have alcohol sales, prescriptions for antidepressants, and so forth. These are bad signs moving into the fall and winter, especially for Americans living in cold weather climates where outdoor gatherings will be impossible to organize.
Social Opportunities Exist
In some ways, it could be argued that not only should we return to our roots, but that the pandemic offers the perfect opportunity to do so. That, in fact, culture should play a central role in our lives during the pandemic.
Let’s face it, sitting at home and surfing the web, reading the latest disaster-porn headlines, playing video games, watching Netflix, and generally wasting our lives on two-dimensional screens ain’t gonna cut it for another, what, 12, 24, or 36 months? Here, doctors and others who argue that human beings can’t live like this for a long time are correct: we are social beings who create and crave culture — we’re not meant to be living isolated lives in front of digital screens and mediums. We require touch, love, and social interaction.
Fortunately, we have much more information about how to stay safe than we did eight months ago. It’s clear that being outside helps quell the virus, as long as people remain at a safe distance, wearing masks, and following protocol. So far, people we know have attended socially distanced weddings (small attendance), outdoor movie screenings (all that’s required is a projection screen and mini-projector), even live music events (band and audience socially distanced).
We’ve hosted dinner parties on our roof. Nothing big, just a few friends, socially distanced and with their own utensils, plates, and so forth. We’ve celebrated birthdays, anniversaries, and mourned the deaths of loved ones, all in the company of other human beings. So far, each of these events has gone off without a problem (knock on wood). If people take the proper precautions, we can collectively interact, albeit at a certain physical distance. But physical distance isn’t the same as emotional or social distance.
Culture Never Stops
So, what sort of creative and collective artistic efforts are taking place right now? In Gary, Indiana, local historian, artist, and poet, Samuel Love has organized people from the Gary Poetry Project and The Gary Anthology to place aluminum signs across the city that display various short stories, quotes, poems, and songs from their recently published book. In poor and working-class neighborhoods, people spend a lot of time on foot. Many folks don’t have cars. And many poor cities don’t have public transportation. That means a lot of walking and biking. Why not make those walks and bike rides educational, interesting, and creative?
Speaking of biking, we have friends around the country who’ve been doing historical bike tours, which allow people an opportunity not only to interact at a safe distance, outside and masked, but to also participate in a collective educational event that brings together people from the community in a way that allows us to better understand our roots, where we come from, and how we got to where we are. In other words, historical bike tours can function as a form of popular education.
Nature hikes can also function as a form of popular education. Yes, it’s important to get outside and exercise. Studies show that interacting with nature improves one’s mental and physical health. And it’s nice to learn about native plants and species. But nature hikes can also be educational events that help our communities better understand the impact of climate change and ecological devastation. In East Chicago, local environmental activist and organizer, Thomas Frank, has continued taking people on his ‘Toxic Tours,’ which cover the Calumet Region and the tremendous impact industrialization and deindustrialization has had on our regional ecologies.
There are ways to get around the cold weather. Pool resources with your friends and purchase a propane heater, the sort you see on outdoor patios at restaurants. They work great for a small group of people and provide enough heat to deal with 30-55 degree temperatures. Fires also work great, but that requires some land or at least municipal laws that allow for such a thing. For those living in apartment complexes, having a fire is out of the question. But the aforementioned activities (biking, hiking, public art installations, outdoor movie screenings) are not out of the question.
If you need more resources than you can pool together with your friends, get to organizing and force your local officials to dish out some money for cultural activities. Or, partner with the city to make it happen. At this point, no one cares who gets the credit. We’re trying to maintain some semblance of normalcy (safely) and not allow our fellow neighbors, coworkers, friends, and family members to fall into a state of utter despair. Here, art, literature, comedy, painting, music, cinema, and photography are essential.
Productive Use of Digital Platforms
Yes, we admit, at some point, online platforms are required. We should do our best to avoid these platforms, seeking to maximize human-to-human interaction, even at a distance, but we should also discuss how we could utilize digital mediums in a productive and creative fashion.
If we’re using digital platforms, we should follow four basic rules:
- Digital media projects and campaigns should be collective. It’s great if you want to start your own podcast or video streaming site, but it’s much better to do so with a group of friends or a collective body of people from your community.
- Produce something physical. Right now, everyone is cash-strapped. We’re not ignorant of most peoples’ material reality in the United States. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t pool resources, something every poor and working-class person should already be doing with their friends, coworkers, neighbors, and family members. Let’s say you start an online art class, or a podcast, for instance. Create art that you can trade with people. Create art that you can give away as gifts. Create art that can be used to further a political cause or draw attention to an issue that’s important to you and your community. If you’re hosting a community podcast that highlights local talent, stories, history, and people, create a zine with some stories from your interviews. Pass out that zine in your city or town. Take donations and make t-shirts. Distribute those t-shirts to people who donated or to kids in the city. If you’re a musician, live streaming is great, but make an album or CD. Again, we understand this requires money, but gathering the funds needed for such a project also offers an opportunity to organize.
- Create Unique Projects. This one is simple enough. Take a look around and ask yourself, “What isn’t being created?” Or, “What needs to be created?” Then, do it.
- Build Toward Future Projects. Think of whatever you’re doing now or for the next several years as a foundation for future projects, campaigns, ideas, events, and the like. Start reaching out to the people you’ve worked or wanted to work with prior to the pandemic. Start coming up with plans. Then, put those plans into motion. But make sure they’re building toward a future project, one that exists in a post-pandemic world.
The Urgency of Now
In the end, the best culture elicits a sense of companionship, hope, and compassion. Culture can bring us together and help us better understand and articulate our collective experience on this planet. On the other hand, culture can function as an individual pursuit, a series of norms, rituals, and experiments that aid the development of our subjectivities. Put differently, humans have the capacity to create culture both individually and collectively. Both approaches are worthwhile.
As many epidemiologists have said, there may never be a day when COVID doesn’t impact our lives. In other words, this virus may be with us for the rest of our lives. It may take your life, or ours. Here today, gone tomorrow. That’s how life works. If anything good comes of this virus, perhaps it’s the realization that life is short and our collective civilized existence quite fragile.
The last eight months should’ve been a wake-up call for everyone, ourselves included. It’s now or never on all fronts: politically, socially, culturally, economically, ecologically. That’s true not only collectively, but also subjectively. We should speak to the pain and suffering we’re all enduring. But let us also use culture as a way to express our hopes, dreams, wishes, and desires for a better world. We need both.
We must stay safe, yes, but we can’t allow physical distancing to morph into a sort of permanent social distancing. We can’t permit digital platforms to dominate our lives. And we can’t stop doing the things that make us human. We believe there’s a way for our society to (potentially) exit the pandemic stronger than ever. That process will require deep and immersive cultural projects. Not only do we need culture in the short-term, we’ll need deep cultural projects over the long-term to cope with the experience of the pandemic. The collective trauma experienced by all during this period will require a form of collective healing and that can only happen through cultural pursuits.
In the end, make every day count. Create with every last breath. Organize and resist with all our collective will. Leave nothing on the table. There’s far too much at stake.
[INITIAL SUBMISSION: Vincent Emanuele | AUTHOR: Collective 20 (Andrej Grubacic, Brett Wilkins, Bridget Meehan, Cynthia Peters, Don Rojas, Elena Herrada, Emily Jones, Justin Podur, Mark Evans, Medea Benjamin, Michael Albert, Noam Chomsky, Oscar Chacon, Paul Ortiz, Peter Bohmer, Savvina Chowdhury, Vincent Emanuele)]
[Collective 20 is a group of writers located in different places throughout the globe. Some young, some older; some long-time organizers and writers, others just getting started, but all equally dedicated to offering analysis, vision, and strategy useful for winning a vastly better society than we currently endure. The members of Collective 20 hope their contributions concerning social, political, economic, and environmental issues will generate more useful content and better outreach through a collective publication effort as opposed to individuals doing so on their own. Collective 20’s cumulative work can be found at collective20.org, where you can learn more about the group, see an archive of its publications, and comment on its work.]