Wednesday, March 16, 2016

The Integrity of Anonymity

This is a series of excerpts from an essay that questions the role of external recognition in our understanding of identity, and explores the importance of doing unrecognized work for the common good. It situates identity and environment as interdependent, re-framing the unseen labor of being one of many, not as an affront to who we are, but as an essential aspect of our self and our power. It seeks to inspire and support us as we allow our diverse identities to breath into the space of shared experience and to celebrate the integrity of anonymity.

As a teacher and artist I feel a void in our culture when it comes to celebrating the huge amount of work that must often be done anonymously as part of a political movement, scientific inquiry, or institutional advancement. In order to align our society and education systems with environmental sustainability and human rights, many individuals must work together toward goals, which may have nothing to do with personal recognition. Social media however, has turned daily life into a popularity contest of sorts, amplifying the fear that we might cease to exist if we are not seen. For many people, this has reversed of the cause and effect relationship of action to recognition. Public recognition is increasingly a primary motivator for generous actions, rather than a result of them.

The current presidential primaries reflect our culture’s obsession with celebrity and delight in the entertainment value of baseless, shocking claims made by overstuffed egos.  At the same time they are revealing that there are pockets of the American people who see very clearly that our political, economic, education, and criminal justice systems have become corrupt. These people are mobilizing behind a candidate who speaks almost entirely about transforming American systems for and through “we” rather than “me.” The realization that change in our governing systems might be possible is gaining inspiring momentum, but its basis in the collective good is so revolutionary to our egocentric American culture, that the mass media is still in shock. Many Americans are casting votes for candidates who embody status quo selfishness as a reflection of their own fear of equality.

Living in a hierarchical society, we are conditioned to perceive the misfortunes of others as “good” for us. Through his, her, or their loss, we are given the opportunity to look down at someone, giving us the false sensation that we have somehow risen.

Numerous studies have shown that greed does not lead to happiness. Greed, selfishness, and our desire to be acknowledged as “special,” are powerful motivators that separate us from our environments and convince us that the only consequences of our actions that matter are the ones that we can acknowledge as personally beneficial. Our culture does a fantastic job pitting the oppressed against one another so that we will be so distracted by our own disputes that we will continue to look the other way, as we are all taken advantage of.

The Occupy Movement, Black Lives Matter, and the 4th wave of feminism are all political movements that are charged by particular events and individual stories, but which represent the interests and experiences of large groups of people. Social movements have historically consisted of masses fueled and organized by outspoken and articulate leaders, but as the times change so do our ideas about participation and recognition. The integration of media into almost every aspect of our daily lives, and the resulting un-curated access we have to the construction of celebrity culture via digital followings, has dual functions. Social and mass media both simplify and accelerate the mobilization of large groups of people, and at the same time they can feed the hungry ghost of the ego that often times wants to be recognized as an actor more than it wants to act. 

Current breakthroughs in the field of cognitive science however, stand in direct opposition to the idea that we are individual agents who must see others loose in order for us to win. The emerging field of Four E Cognitive Science investigates our self-realization, not through our isolated identities, but through our engagement with the world around us. It also points out that every one of our actions impacts our immediate and extended environments.  The definition of mind and self articulated by Four E Cognitive Science supports us as we seek to break down the outdated notion that we are protected, by the walls we construct to divide us.

Artists always seem to be one step ahead of scientists. Visual artist Carrie Mae Weems began a lecture in 2015 by saying that she was inspired by the simultaneous truth of two opposing facts. On the one hand, we are living on a tiny planet in the middle of a vast ever-expanding universe. On the other, we leave traces of our DNA on everything we touch and these traces of our presence can remain in our environment for thousands of years. The first observation points to our undeniable anonymity in the eyes of universal forces. The other suggests that our every action affects the world around us, and that through these actions our individual identities are manifest and consequential. Both observations are true.

In his February 3, 2016 lecture entitled, Embodying the Extended Mind, Al Kaszniak, referenced the work of contemporary cognitive scientist and philosopher Even Thompson and the late neuroscientist Francisco Varela, who have reconceived the notion of “mind.” These figures are using Western scientific methods to prove what Eastern philosophy has claimed for thousands of years; the mind is not a computational device that is manifest in our brain alone, but a process that arises from the interaction between living organisms and their environments. Drawing on Thompson’s work in Four E Cognitive Science, Kaszniak describes mind as, “embodied, embedded, enacted, and extended" and adds to these four E's that the mind is also, "evanescent.” This articulation of mind-as-one-with-experience has helped me tremendously to understand how illusory individual identity is. It does not deny that each of us has a perspective, but it situates all of us as both in process, and interconnected. It suggests that our world, communities, and cultures are in themselves, recognition of our action. For me, the acknowledgement that my actions have an impact on the world soothes the desire for further recognition. Both Carrie Mae Weems assertion of contrasting dynamics our human condition, and this articulation of the mind/self as an inter-subjective process, can help us to reconsider our individual connection to the common good.

The embodied mind refers to the 2-way neurological streets that connect our physical bodies to our brains and breaks up one of the oldest hierarchies we have been conditioned into, that which separates the mind and body. “Mind” refers not to the workings of the brain in isolation, but to the interaction between the brain and the rest of the body.

Embedded mind refers to the depths of cultural conditioning. Despite our efforts to think for ourselves, we are always making judgments in relation to the web of ethical and aesthetic priorities that are woven all around us though our societies. Whether we agree with or rebel against the status quo, our minds are shaped by the cultural contexts in which we live. Our actions re-enforce cultural conditioning and we become subject to what we assert, or as visual artist Jenny Holzer states in her 1978-87 Truisms, “You are a victim of the rules you live by.”

Enacted mind refers to the interconnectivity of action and consciousness. Through action, we become aware of our environments and ourselves. Numerous studies have shown that not only does our physical and mental development depend on dynamic sensory stimuli, but also, movement throughout our lifetime is what makes us aware of our physical being. While we are in motion, the ways in which our choices resonate with or fracture our environments, feeds back to us. This feedback reinforces or inspires change in our minds and actions. At the same time, each choice that we make affects the environment and society we inhabit. “The path is laid in the walking of it,” Kaszniak asserts. Similarly, choreographer Bill T. Jones once counseled me, “The answer is in the doing.”

Extended mind is an articulation of our desire to outsource certain aspects of our thinking to external devices. Whether we are talking about Google searches on a smart phone, the use of pen and paper to catch a “to-do list,” books that hold histories, or artworks that communicate cultural ideals, humans have long “extended” our minds through technologies. As our integration with technology steadily increases it becomes increasingly important that we do not becomes slaves to technology, but rather embrace and fully utilize it as part of our extended mind in a process of collaboratively co-creating reality.

Kaszniak deftly connects this evanescent definition of mind to Zen practices that support our embodied understanding of the mind as a process, not a thing. Key to this process is the interactivity between our mind and body, personal and cultural histories, changes in our environments, and the countless causes and affects of our actions. This articulation of integration between an “in-process” individual and their environment, in turn this reveals that our society is also in constant motion, which illuminates the potential for change.

Seeing my “self” as a process that is co-creating reality with my environment and community is a perspective that I find immensely empowering. Similar to the dichotomy presented by Carrie Mae Weems, it suggests that while my perspective is of consequence, it is also a product of collaboration. “I” am making choices that are constantly informed by and informing my environment. Hence, “self” improvement, and community improvement are one.

Perhaps I find the idea of co-creating reality so empowering because I have recently transitioned from the life of a full-time performer to that of a full-time professor. As an artist I am primarily interested in communicating ideas, and as a teacher I am overwhelmingly dedicated to communicating ideas, so in many ways, this is really just a change in venue for the same, on-going work. However, as you may well imagine, the shift in lifestyle is rather dramatic.

My life as a teacher is decidedly less glamorous than that of my still performing peers. The daily relationship to identity construction and recognition seeking has been replaced by a daily rhythm of service. I thought I would miss the spotlight, but instead I find that I am increasingly drawn to the freedom, power, and integrity of anonymity.

As a dancer, one of the things I loved most about performing was that I was part of something larger than myself. Though I was acutely aware of the strain in my own legs, heart, lungs, and focus, I was also aware that I was only one part of a moving painting, an experience being shared with fellow performers, audiences, technical crews, funders, presenters, arts administrators, etc. I have always loved working in community with others. At the same time, I would be lying if I were to suggest that I, as a dancer, did not consistently desire recognition for my tiny piece of the performance puzzle. It is part of a dancer’s job to aspire to be luminous, and most of us choose to perform because we want to be recognized for that momentary glow, which is supported by a lifetime of work. We want to be part of a successful production, but also to have the choreographer choose us for the featured solo, to have critics mention our name as one of the shows’ many attributes, and many of us eventually leave performance companies to start our own, so that our own voice and name can be found in bigger type and bolder font.

In stark contrast, there is no spotlight on a teacher (that is unless the teacher’s goal is to harness devotees instead of actually teach). One who is dedicated to education as a form of growth and development can hope to be admired and respected by one’s students and colleagues, but as a conduit for knowledge, you can be assured that to the students you work with, your voice will be one of many, co-creating the students’ paths.

One of the dance techniques I teach is the Martha Graham technique. Graham (1894-1991) is undeniably one of the most important choreographers of the 20th century. She created over 180 ballets in her lifetime and revolutionized American culture’s ideas about dance as an art form, gender and costume design, and the relationship between abstraction and narrative in theater. She created an angular and aggressive movement technique in collaboration with the dancers with whom she worked, in order to facilitate the performance of her repertory. Graham technique is based in precise movement practices such as the contraction and release of the torso, the use of spirals and rotation to connect the limbs of the body to the core, and assertive shifts of weight that allow a dancer to cover immense amounts of space in a single stride. These principles are still useful today in relation to contemporary choreography. Unfortunately however the technique is more often taught as a form of idol worship, than as a series of principles. Graham’s notorious ego would have it no other way. She worked in collaboration, but demanded sole recognition for her successes. As a result, instead of being celebrated for its enduring underlying principles, Graham’s legacy is quickly being reduced to a series of “Martha said…” quotes.

As a part of this legacy I am beginning to notice, that teaching through a singular historic figure or even through a cannon that was established through a historic (which in America means racist and misogynistic) filter, only serves to guide students towards imitation and reverence, not towards the critical and creative thinking needed to inspire a generation to move forward with their lives as agents of change in a troubled world.

The confusion between the teacher and teachings is not isolated to the performing art world. There are teachers in all subjects who use their positions of power over students to boost their own egos. The style I aspire to when I teach is inspired by my study of Ashtanga Yoga and Zen Buddhism, wherein the guru or teacher can take almost any form of embodiment or experience in order to be a conduit that can open a student’s eyes to certain truths. However, even in the long-standing schools of the supposedly spiritually uplifting Yoga and Zen practices, egomaniacal teachers often prey on the inexperience and devotion of their students.

Just because something is common and/or wide spread however, does not make it right. Teaching anything in order to establish or maintain power over others is at best a waste, and at worst an abuse, of education systems. In his 1916 book, Democracy and Education, philosopher John Dewey states, “Each generation is inclined to educate its young so as to get along in the present world instead of with a view to the proper end of education: the promotion of the best possible realization of humanity as humanity.”

By teaching students to revere an individual teacher, we keep our lesson plans locked in the past. They honor what has happened, rather than what could happen. I share Dewey’s opinion that the proper end of education is not to prepare students to enter the workforce and maintain the status quo, but it is instead to empower and inspire students to change the world, and to create new roles for themselves within it. Through education, we, students and teachers, create reality together. My perspective colors my delivery of information, as does the generation, ability, race, gender, class, and curiosity of the students with whom I work. However, I seek to engage the classroom as a collaborative space. One in which I lead by example, letting my identity and anonymity dance an intimate duet.

Dewey also asserts, “The conception of education as a social process and function has no definite meaning until we define the kind of society we have in mind.” This brings us back to the political concerns that opened this essay. If we are seeking to build a society of individuals who prioritize power over others as opposed to power with others, then teaching students to imitate from a celebrity pedestal will create the kind of followers that society calls for. If instead we define the “best possible realization of humanity” as one in which, community, human rights, and environmental sustainability are respected, then we need to think about how individual teachers can become channels for teachings that are much more consequential than any one artist, intellect, or cannon. In this way perhaps we can develop educational models that celebrate the embodied, embedded, enacted, extended and evanescent mind.

It’s one thing to say, we should all love each other. It is entirely another thing to work tirelessly towards a society in which equality manifests. How many of us are interested in that work, which makes the world a more just place, rather than the work that attempts to put our name in lights, leaving others in shadows? Can we begin to frame, and understand, identity and anonymity, not as mutually exclusive states, but as simultaneously possible? Can we anchor our identity in our works, as opposed to our titles? Can we, as a culture, find ways to celebrate the integrity of anonymity, so that enough individuals recognize their interdependence in time to create the ground swell needed for a political revolution in the upcoming election?

I believe that the answer to this lies in the cooperative efforts of students and teachers, educators and presenters, performers and audiences, creators and consumers, scientists and religious leaders. For in fact our identities are embedded in one another. Whether we are conscious of it or not; we are all co-creating reality. To honor this interconnectivity and work for the common good is to celebrate our embedded identities and allow the integrity of anonymity to amplify the power of our actions.

Abbreviated Works Cited
-Dewey, John. Democracy and Education. New York: MacMillan, 1916. 96-97.
-Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum, 2000.
-Goldberg, Michelle. The Goddess Pose: The Audacious Life of Indra Devi, the Woman Who Helped Bring Yoga to the West. New York: Penguin, 2015.
-Juhan, Deane.  Job’s Body. Barrytown: Station Hill, 2003. 21-55, 185-202.
-Lehrer, Jonah. How We Decide. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009.
-Lehrer, Jonah. Proust Was a Neuroscientist. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2007.
-Shlain, Leonard. Art & Physics: Parallel Visions in Space, Time, and Light. New York: Morrow, 1991.
-Thompson, Evan. Waking, Dreaming, Being: Self and Consciousness in Neuroscience, Meditation, and Philosophy. New York: Columbia University Press, 2015.
-Van Der Kolk, Bessel. The Body Keeps the Score; Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. New York: Penguin Group, 2014. 223-227. 
-Varela, Francisco. Ethical Know-How: Action, Wisdom, and Cognition. Standford: Standford University Press. 1999.
-Weems, Carrie Mae. "Constructing History: An Artist Explores the Context of Her Work." Lecture, The Jack and Lewis Rudin Distinguished Visiting Scholars Program, Marymount Manhattan College, New York, October 28, 2015.