Challenging Modernity

This course has been one of questioning.  We have been forced to question our society and think about where its roots come from, why it exists in the ways it does, and what challenges it faces going forward.  We have truly found a wide range of challenges to modernity, from race relations in America, to rampant environmental degradation.  Questions of the morality of violence, and examinations of mental illness.  We have even faced questions about civilization itself and its validity.  These are often difficult questions to deal with, but after every discussion I feel as if I at least know more about the world we live in.  Only by asking questions and refusing to accept information as “given”.  I think the discussions that produced the biggest paradigm shifts for me were the discussions that really challenged what we have come to accept in our 21st century world.

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The Manhattan Skyline, a symbol of modernity and 21st century living.  Image Credit: Alec Jones

The first of these discussions that really sticks out to me was our discussion of happiness.  I think when discussing happiness, we really got into what happiness is, and examined why people often feel uncomfortable admitting that they are unhappy.  I wrote a blog about this very subject which can be found here.  By breaking down a widely used concept, and examining its contents, we were able to reach a level of insight that might previously have been unmet.  Another discussion that prompted such a response in me was our talk on good vs. bad.  We were asked to define good, bad, and evil before we opened it up for a discussion.  While writing these ideas down, I found it difficult to differentiate between the three at times.  There is often a lot of gray area in what we consider good, bad, or evil, making the three hard to expressly categorize.  However, I believe that in our daily life we very frequently assign these classifications to things arbitrarily.  This can be problematic, because oftentimes people and things are very multi-dimensional and never only good or bad or evil.  Without breaking these ideas down and examining them closely, I would never have thought about these concepts in that way.  I think that what has been most powerful for me in this course has been us challenging modernity.  Although we often discussed the challenges to our society and the world around us, it can also be very helpful to pause and challenge our society and question why certain things are the way they are, and than use that information to change how we think or act.

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Violence: A Bloody Last Resort

 

Humanity and violence are two concepts that seem inextricably linked throughout time.  One would be hard pressed to find a significant amount of time in human history where violence was not used as a way of solving conflict, gaining political power, or for social prestige.  Though storied, the relationship between civilization and violence has not always been a harmonious one.  Millions of humans have lost their lives over thousands of wars among fellow men, and almost every person to walk this earth has felt the chilling affects of violence in one way or another.  Because of these destructive results, the role of violence in our society has long been questioned, with many abdicating for peaceful, non-violent methods of conflict resolution in lieu of bloody disagreements.  However, some thinkers such as Frantz Fanon argue that in certain circumstances, violence can be the only viable option.  Continue reading “Violence: A Bloody Last Resort”

Coming Together in Tragedy

For the past few class meetings, we have been discussing Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot.  As a supplement to these discussions, we attended a lecture given by Professor DuComb on Beckett, and specifically on various productions of Waiting for Godot that have been done around the world.  In this lecture, Professor DuComb argued that productions of Waiting for Godot carried the most significance when performed in areas that were experiencing or had recently experienced tragedy or hardship.  In class we expanded this idea, looking at responses to tragedy, and forces that unite people together in moments of hardship or grief.  While contemplating this idea, I identified sports as a medium that has allowed people to come together and feel comforted.  There are a number of examples of this happening that I believe are particularly powerful.

Baseball after 9/11

A couple of the most memorable moments in MLB history came following the terrorist attacks on September 11th, 2001.  The first of these moments involved Mike Piazza, a player for the Mets, hitting a huge home run late in the game to win it for the home team.  This was the first sporting game played in New York since the attacks, and certainly created a special moment for everyone who witnessed it.  The other moment came in the beginning of the 2001 World Series with the Yankees playing.  Then-President George Bush delivered a perfect first pitch to the maximum capacity crowd at Yankee Stadium, an act that symbolized America’s resolve after the attacks.  Short clips describing each incident can be found below, including interviews from key figures.

 

As the Bush video hints at, sports offer a return to normalcy in times of tragedy. They provide the opportunity for people to join together in cheering on a group that represents them, in enjoying a past time that, at least in the three biggest sports leagues in the United States, is uniquely American.  By returning to this past time, people defy the fear and chaos that terrorism seeks to instill.

Another high profile incident of this phenomenon was the subject of the 2009 film Invictus .

The film, based on the true events leading up to the 1995 Rugby World Cup, tells the story of the South African rugby team and its quest to united a nation divided by racism.  Through the team, South Africans were able to come together behind a common cause, one that united beyond color lines and segregated neighborhoods.

Each of these sporting events represented opportunities for communities to united behind a shared cause, often leading to special & memorable moments.

Sigmund Freud & Happiness

In his book Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud looks at many aspects of humanity and the societies in which we exist as humans.  One of the aspects of humanity that Freud examines is the concept of happiness, and the role that this feeling plays in our everyday life.   In our unit on Freud in class, we devoted a large part of one of our class meetings to this discussion on what happiness means, and whether or not it is achievable.

Freud.  Image Citation

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Happy.  The word means something different to each person, and each person probably has multiple uses for it.  Freud argued that ultimately, to find happiness is the goal of each and every person.  However, what exactly finding happiness means is another question.  Many believe that happiness should be achieved when one “succeeds” socially, or financially, or both.  To be unhappy then, is to have failed at a crucial aspect of human life.  I believe this puts an undue pressure on people to give off the impression that they are generally happy, when in reality this is an unfair standard to live up to, and creates a hesitation to admit discomfort, at least openly.  Though I consider myself a happy person for the most part, there are certainly some significant sources of unhappiness in my life, and while I believe that a lot of people probably share similar feelings.  Feelings of pure, uncontaminated happiness are rare to come by, if at all possible, and often not continuous.  This makes the pursuit of happiness a tricky one, one that may be never ending, even if there are moments of joy and moments of sorrow along the way.  In many ways, these alternating peaks of both happiness and sorrow are the slopes that make up life as a human, and are shared by all.  Perhaps continuous time spent at either a peak or a valley are exceptions, and dissimilar to the experiences of the masses, if the experience of humanity can even be simplified to this extent.

These ideas lead my view of happiness to be that of a spectrum.  There are no absolutes, and everyone falls at some point along a spectrum, with highs and lows, and although being “happy” is the more socially acceptable label, people should feel more comfortable acknowledging unhappiness, and not confusing unhappiness with social failure or any other flaw.

 

Further reading:

“The Keys to Happiness (according to expert research):

“World’s Happiest Countries”:

The Contemporary Role of Silent Spring

Silent Spring, written in the mid 19th century by Rachel Carson, focuses on human changes to the environment, particularly the introduction of synthetic pesticides to ecosystems across the United States.  Carson, though not a scientist herself, incorporates the research of many experts across the country in an effort to show the environmentally catastrophic effects of these pesticides, and to suggest alternatives that have fewer unintended consequences.  Although the book was published over 50 years ago, and the pesticide that receives the most attention from Carson (DDT) has since been banned, Silent Spring continues to hold significance in our contemporary discussions on human/environment interactions.

As Carson notices, the technological progress which has allowed so many of the comforts we enjoy also means that our actions have effects on the environment in a speed and severity that has never been experienced before.  “The rapidity of change and the speed with which new situations are created follow the impetuous and heedless pace of man rather than the deliberate pace of nature”, writes Carson.  The speed of the changes is a reality that can be hugely dangerous for our world.

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While pesticides were the problem of Carson’s generation, global warming is the problem of ours.  Human emissions of Carbon are heating our planet, leading to widespread issues, such as rising ocean levels, loss of habitat for thousands of animal species, and more intense weather patterns, along with many other effects.  We have never been in this position before as a species, meaning that the results of these actions are not entirely known.  While scientists warn us of drastic consequences, much the same way they did in the pesticide era, humans have generally shown a great ability to get themselves out of trouble, and avert any serious long term harm.  When Carson warned us about pesticides and the destruction they brought, a solution was found, and now many of the most visible consequences of pesticide spraying are in the past.  It is possible that people believe the same will occur with global warming.  Government officials and scientists will think of solutions, and the problem will go away.  However, this is a dangerous way of thinking, and one that could lead to the delaying of the problem until it is too late to be fixed.  Perhaps one of the biggest reasons that Silent Spring had the impact that it did, was because of the way it was embraced and held up by the country.  Carson’s words, conviction, and diligent research combined to create a work that rallied a country behind a cause.  The lasting message of this book is not in the specific struggle it addresses, but in template it provides for addressing issues in our world.

A Response to “Hip-Hop in the Eyes of Beyonce and Michael Jackson”

This post is in response to the post Hip-Hop in the Eyes of Beyonce and Michael Jackson by classmate Sarah Herring.

Sarah briefly runs through the history of hip-hop, and highlights the art form’s wide spread cultural influence on people across demographics.  She gave special attention to the work of two widely recognized musical artists, Beyonce and Michael Jackson, noting the influences of hip-hop on their work.  One of the themes Sarah touched on briefly was the relation between hip-hop and black identity in American culture.  I think this is a highly fascinating theme, and one that I have heard discussed before in music and among friends.  In mainstream media, hip-hop culture and black culture have sometimes become one and the same, with the two being highly associated.  Though this has brought some aspects of black culture to the mainstream in America, it has also had some negative consequences.  One of these consequences is the spread of the idea that some of hip-hop’s more controversial or explicit lyrics are representative of black culture, and that all people of color are associated with the drug dealing or sexism that is sometimes (but certainly not always) featured in hip-hop music.  This can negatively affect people’s view of people of color in our society.  The other negative consequence of this correlation is the idea given to youth of color that the only way they can be successful is through hip-hop or athleticism.  This is discussed in the J.Cole song “Kenny Lofton“, when Cole discusses in the chorus that he feels the only time Americans care about black people is when they are rapping, or are professional athletes.  Beyonce and Michael Jackson play into this mold perfectly.  This highlights a serious lack of black leadership in our country’s businesses and government, even though President Obama has occupied the nation’s highest office since 2008, there is still a far way to go before we can honestly tell our children that they can excell in any career path they choose.

Moving Forward vs. Remembering the Past

Ta-Nehisi Coates, in his critically acclaimed book Between the World and Me, delves into the complex racial inequalities and interactions that have come to the forefront of national attention in recent years.  As Coates points out, the current state of race in our society has been hundreds of years in the making, starting with slavery, and continuing to evolve under different forms of institutional racism.  Coates reminds readers that this racism is not suddenly gone in America, and it is still very much a part of the daily lives of those who are disadvantaged by it.  He claims that racism is visceral, and has very physical effects.

“All our phrasing—race relations, racial chasm, racial justice, racial profiling, white privilege, even white supremacy—serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth.  You must never look away from this.  You must always remember that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land, with great violence upon the body.” (Coates)

In this passage, Coates is telling his son about the ways that racism damages the body, and how this is a fact that cannot be lost in all of of the buzz words or distractions that exist in our world.  One of the central points of this passage is that the history of racism in our country can never be forgotten or let go.  This position caught my eye.  While I am by no means in a position to decide how African-Americans should feel about the centuries of unacceptable suffering that they endured, I was initially confused by Coates’s position.  I think that in most matters, it is difficult to move forward in life to a more perfect future, while still harboring resentment or holding on to past injustices.  Though my experience with this phenomenon is mostly restricted to small grudges or similarly insignificant issues, and is hard to expand to a national issue with centuries of mistreatment and abuse at the root.  I do, however, believe that it raises an interesting question.  What is the proper balance between remembrance and acknowledgement of past injustices and forgiveness with an eye to the future, if such a balance can exist.  I believe that the answer to this question likely changes on a person to person basis, and that no one person should be declare a perfect answer.  Each person, whether their ancestors were enslaved or free, must decide how to best move forward in the 21st century version of race relations.  I believe that Coates would agree with this vision, and although some critics argue that Between the World and Me focuses too much on problems without offering any solutions, Coates certainly hopes for and believes in a day when race relations are less tense in the United States, and no one will be systematically oppressed.  On the road to this far away goal, however, Coates would surely say that it is imperative that America not forget the injustices that certain people have been put through, and that those struggles are never disregarded.

Duane Lee Holland & Nicki Minaj

Duane Lee Holland spoke at Colgate’s Brehmer Theater on Friday afternoon to a large crowd of students.  His main subject was hip-hop, and he shared a lot about the beginning of hip hop and the art form’s roots, as well as the significant cultural influence it carries.  Holland began by discussing the early roots of the art, and how it evolved from funk and became something unique, and moved on to discuss what hip-hop has become today through a combination of discussion and performance.  When asked later how he felt about the self-indulgent and lavish turn hip-hop (at least commercial hip hop) has taken recently, Holland responded that simply celebrating accomplishments wasn’t itself something to look down upon, as long as it comes with an understanding of the roots of the art form.  As a big hip-hop fan myself, this intrigued me.  Though I do not fit in to the initial core demographic of the genre (oftentimes urban minority youth), I still consider myself a fan who knows the genre well and who is fairly proficient in modern hip-hop.  But I hadn’t heard of any of the people Mr. Holland mentioned, and I wasn’t familiar with many of the elements of the music that he deemed central to its identity.

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This all boils down to a simple question. If someone isn’t familiar with the roots of a genre, and cannot directly relate to many of the central themes of the art form, can they still embrace the genre and be considered a “true” fan?  I think that Mr. Holland would argue that the answer is no, saying that a real and true fan should know the background and history of the art they are appreciating.  I would suggest, on the other hand, that anyone who embraces an art form and begins a relationship with it from whichever point they were introduced to it could be considered just as much of a fan.

Response to the Sorrow Songs

In W.E.B. Du Bois’ influential work The Souls of Black Folk, he devotes a chapter to discussing African American spiritual songs, which he refers to as sorrow songs.  In the chapter, he reveals that the musical and lyrical accompaniments at the beginning of each chapter were actually songs traditionally sung by slaves working in the American south.  He notices their somber and often tragic tones, leading to his title of Sorrow Songs.

Continue reading “Response to the Sorrow Songs”