Deciphering Culture

Archive for the ‘Meaning’ Category

Tommy on the edge of a cliff

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Labyrinth at Eagle's Point (Land's End, San Francisco)

A labyrinth is not a maze. There is no intention to fool you: there is one way in and one way out. You simply follow the path to the center and then back out, a metaphorical equivalent to any number of spiritual traditions. Walking a labyrinth can be a walking meditation if you do it with intention.

Placing one foot in front of the other,

Gauging the distance as you frame the intention;

Taking the step, intention inseparable from action.

It falls into a rhythm, step after step, clearing the mind.

For the last  year, I have been working to rewire my brain in response to some neurological difficulties. Choosing alternative modalities of treatment in lieu of the bag of drugs the neurologist handed me, I made steady but uneven progress. Bodywork, meditation, exercise, music became part of my daily routine. Recently, my wife suggested I add labyrinth walking to my regimen: “I think if you walk a labyrinth once a week, you’ll be healed.” She described her experience walking a labyrinth and I decided to give it a shot. A Google search located three labyrinths in San Francisco and I decided to visit the one at Eagle’s Point along the Land’s End trail where the bay meets the ocean. A drive across town and a forty minute hike led me down the bluffs to a labyrinth perched on a cliff. I entered the labyrinth and tried to walk the path with singleminded intention. Maintaining the clarity to keep an even gait was harder than I imagined, especially when the outer circle of the labyrinth passed within three feet of the sheer drop to the rocks and water a hundred feet below. I followed the circuitous path to the center, stood for a while then retraced my steps out of the labyrinth.

Entrance to the labyrinth at Eagle's Point

I left the labyrinth refreshed and inspired, and a little mentally tired. A beautiful sunny day, the experience of walking the labyrinth on the edge of the cliff had left me with the feeling of possibilities.  A number of the healing modalities I’m using are  premised on the theory that brain waves need periodic recalibration. To me, walking the labyrinth was most like becoming absorbed in listening to a piece of music. Like deep listening to music, walking a labyrinth can take you away to another world and bring you back reoriented to this one.

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Short Takes: Ethnographic Fiction

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One of my fascinations is the ongoing development of ethnographic fiction as a means of capturing qualitative research that is more evocative and significantly meaningful than typical ethnographic prose. I noticed that there is an interesting workshop coming up down under on ethnographic fiction & speculative design. Outside the bounds of my travel budget but well worth checking out:

Ethnographic Fiction and Speculative Design is a full-day workshop at the 5th International Conference on Communities & Technologies–C&T 2011, in Brisbane, Australia, 29 June-2 July, 2011.

Goals of the Workshop

This full-day workshop aims to explore how grounded ethnographic and action research methods can be transformed into fictional and speculative designs that provide people the kinds of experiences and tools that can lead to direct community action in the development and implementation of new pervasive technologies.

And added to my reading  list is After Life: An Ethnographic Novel by anthropologist Tobias Hecht. From the blurb by Duke University Press:

Bruna Veríssimo, a youth from the hardscrabble streets of Recife, in Northeast Brazil, spoke with Tobias Hecht over the course of many years, reliving her early childhood in a raging and destitute home, her initiation into the world of prostitution at a time when her contemporaries had scarcely started school, and her coming of age against all odds.

Hecht had originally intended to write a biography of Veríssimo. But with interviews ultimately spanning a decade, he couldn’t ignore that much of what he had been told wasn’t, strictly speaking, true. In Veríssimo’s recounting of her life, a sister who had never been born died tragically, while the very same rape that shattered the body and mind of an acquaintance occurred a second time, only with a different victim and several years later. At night, with the anthropologist’s tape recorder in hand, she became her own ethnographer, inventing informants, interviewing herself, and answering in distinct voices.

With truth impossible to disentangle from invention, Hecht followed the lead of Veríssimo, his would-be informant, creating characters, rendering a tale that didn’t happen but that might have, probing at what it means to translate a life into words.

A call and response of truth and invention, mental illness and yearning, After Life is a tribute to and reinterpretation of the Latin American testimonio genre. Desire, melancholy, longing, regret, and the hunger to live beyond the confines of past and future meet in this debut novel by Tobias Hecht.

Written by Jeffrey Callen

April 22, 2011 at 4:15 pm

“Maybe stories are just data with a soul”

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Brene Brown is a qualitative researcher who collects stories to learn about vulnerability, courage, authenticity, and shame (as a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work). Her work over the last decade has investigated how we can learn to embrace our vulnerabilities and imperfections so that we can engage in our lives from a place of authenticity. In an engaging and fascinating talk at TED in June 2010, she discussed her work and the central importance of “wholeheartedness” in living an authentic life. And she begins with the story of how she came to declare ownership of the title storyteller.

Written by Jeffrey Callen

January 22, 2011 at 4:57 pm

Softwired for Empathy — the human condition (talk by Jeremy Rifkin)

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Hypebot.com just posted a talk (with animation by RSA ANIMATE) by social theorist & economist Jeremy Rifkin from a few months ago on recent neurological research that indicates that humans are softwired for empathy and that the PRIMARY HUMAN DRIVE IS TO BELONG (not to compete, conquer…).  Rifkin uses this research as a jumping off point to discuss the evolution of human empathy and possibilities for saving the world it has created. Rifkin’s omissions raise many questions but there is some meat here and it’s always interesting when heterodox voices come out of mainstream sources (Rivkin has advised numerous CEOs of major corporations as well as European governments). Lots of implications for those of us doing “cultural” research (in any sense).

For an expanded version, go to Rifkin’s 2010 The Empathic Civilization: The Race to Global Consciousness In a World In Crisis. It’s only fair to note that Rifkin is only one of many people exploring empathy — for a primatologist’s perspective see The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society by Frans de Waal, for a business perspective see Wired to Care by Dev Patnaik and there’s a lot more work out there.

Note: Rifkin doesn’t hold  himself back from some wild rhetorical flourishes (i.e., the Adam & Eve reference in this talk) and he  has been a ligahtening rod for criticism from some well-respected sources. From Wikipedia:

Rifkin’s work has also been controversial, and opponents have attacked the scientific rigor of his claims as well as some of the tactics he uses to promote his views. A 1989 article about Rifkin in Time bore the title, “The Most Hated Man in Science”.[9]Stephen Jay Gould characterised Rifkin’s 1983 book Algeny as “a cleverly constructed tract of anti-intellectual propaganda masquerading as scholarship”.[10] Stewart Brand wrote in 2009: “Among scientists who have read his work, Rifkin is regarded as America’s leading nitwit.”[11]

Written by Jeffrey Callen

August 4, 2010 at 11:55 am

Redesigning the world (“Healing or Stealing” by Paul Hawken)

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I must admit I’m a sucker for a great speech and Paul Hawken gave one last year as the commencement speaker at Portland University about what “it means to be a human being on earth at a time when every living system is declining, and the rate of decline is accelerating.” A few excerpts below and a link to the full text.

This planet came with a set of instructions, but we seem to have misplaced them. Important rules like don’t poison the water, soil, or air, don’t let the earth get overcrowded, and don’t touch the thermostat have been broken. Buckminster Fuller said that spaceship earth was so ingeniously designed that no one has a clue that we are on one, flying through the universe at a million miles per hour, with no need for seatbelts, lots of room in coach, and really good food—but all that is changing.

There is invisible writing on the back of the diploma you will receive, and in case you didn’t bring lemon juice to decode it, I can tell you what it says: You are Brilliant, and the Earth is Hiring. The earth couldn’t afford to send recruiters or limos to your school. It sent you rain, sunsets, ripe cherries, night blooming jasmine, and that unbelievably cute person you are dating. Take the hint. And here’s the deal: Forget that this task of planet-saving is not possible in the time required. Don’t be put off by people who know what is not possible. Do what needs to be done, and check to see if it was impossible only after you are done.

The living world is not “out there” somewhere, but in your heart. What do we know about life? In the words of biologist Janine Benyus, life creates the conditions that are conducive to life. I can think of no better motto for a future economy. We have tens of thousands of abandoned homes without people and tens of thousands of abandoned people without homes. We have failed bankers advising failed regulators on how to save failed assets. We are the only species on the planet without full employment. Brilliant. We have an economy that tells us that it is cheaper to destroy earth in real time rather than renew, restore, and sustain it. You can print money to bail out a bank but you can’t print life to bail out a planet. At present we are stealing the future, selling it in the present, and calling it gross domestic product. We can just as easily have an economy that is based on healing the future instead of stealing it. We can either create assets for the future or take the assets of the future. One is called restoration and the other exploitation. And whenever we exploit the earth we exploit people and cause untold suffering. Working for the earth is not a way to get rich, it is a way to be rich.

2009 Commencement Speech by Paul Hawkin (at Portland University): Healing or Stealing?

Written by Jeffrey Callen

July 29, 2010 at 11:19 am

The Music Matters “Trustmark”

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I can’t decide if this is a good idea or — given the changing revenue streams in the music industry — an effort to hold onto an outdated business model. You be the judge.

Music Matters is a collective of people across the music industry, including artists, retailers, songwriters, labels and managers, formed to remind listeners of the significance and value of music.

1. We all know that music matters: why is this initiative important?

We all know that music is important. But with music more available than ever before, it’s worth reminding ourselves of that fact. It’s easy to forget about the extraordinary lengths that performers, songwriters and musicians can go to record their songs, and the powerful effect music has on each and every one of us.

We believe it is important to support the artists and all those involved in making incredible music by choosing to consume music in an ethical way, and that’s why we’ve set up Music Matters.

2. What is the Music Matters Trustmark?

The Music Matters trust mark will act as a guide for music fans and help differentiate legal music services from illegal ones. Click here for a list of all supporting sites and look for the Music Matters trust mark when choosing new music.

When you choose sites carrying the trustmark you can be sure the site is legal and the copyright holders are paid for their creative work.

3. Why do we need a trustmark?

Globally, 19 out of every 20 tracks downloaded are done so illegally. In an evolving digital landscape, there can be confusion over which sites are legal. We think music fans would like to know that when the site that they are using is legitimate they are supporting the artists, musicians, songwriters and everyone involved in creating the music. (…read more at WhyMusicMatters.org)

And an insightful critical opinion of Why Music Matters from Associate Editor Kyle Bylin of Hypebot.com:

Why Music (Really) Matters…

When watching the series of short animation films released by Music Matters, a UK-based collective formed to “remind listeners of the significance and value of music,” I’m left with the overwhelming sensation that they are missing the point.

That, by trying to educate people on why music matters, in this manner, by exploring the work and lives of musicians past and present, and concluding with the message: “and that’s why music matters…,” they’re failing on a very fundamental level, failing to ask the real question, one that’s actually relevant to what they’re trying to get done.  Of course that’s why the music of Blind Willie Johnson, The Jam, Sigur Ros, and Nick Cave matters.  But why stop there?

If the core purpose of their campaign is to “remind listeners of the significance and value of music,” by educating and reconnecting them to that value through these short films. Then, in doing so, they’ve admitted to something important to our understanding of the shortcomings of their campaign: that not only is there an apparent disconnect between listeners and the value of music, but that the inherent value of music has, in some way, become disconnected from the music itself.  I’d imagine that this message is not exactly the one that they were hoping communicate to listeners.  So, now that we can see what’s troublesome about that message, how might they improve upon their question?

In order for their campaign to make the connection between listeners and the value of music, they need to understand that—in tandem with asking and exploring the question of ‘why music matters’—they should take things one step further and ask the question: why does music matter to people? (…to read more)

Written by Jeffrey Callen

May 3, 2010 at 7:44 pm

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