Atop Maslow’s Hoary Peaks, or Critical Approaches to the Self-Congratulatory Production of Culture
Ez and I are fidgeting in our chairs, munching on veggie sticks and passing notes back and forth, as we struggle to endure the inflated, garbled, address delivered by our Keynote speaker, a professor of social justice here at the school.
The upshot of his lecture you could probably guess. He makes the usual (erroneous) allusions to all the diversity and individuality represented in the room, pats us on the back for being “cultural workers” and celebrating our home publications as revolutionary opposition to dominant media, traces our roots, not surprisingly, right back to our pamphleteering, revolutionary forefathers.
Ya da ya da.
Give me a break. And when you’ve done that, stick around to hear my thoughts on what zine publication (or craft making, or playing in a band for that matter) is really about.
Unpopular a stance as it may be, I am willing to stand up and say that at root, there is little to nothing revolutionary about this kind of cultural production, that it might in fact, be a pure manifestation of status-quo preservation in action. No hate or disrespect to my many creative friends, least of all to my own call-for-validation creative endeavors, but the time seems nigh for a little break from our “revolution” in order to examine how and why we create.
Some 70 years ago Psychologist Abraham Maslow first formulated his now famous pyramid model for human development called Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs Maslow posits that in order to become a healthy, productive member of society, a person must pass through stages where certain needs are met in. One cannot progress to the next stage until satisfied at the previous station. At the base of the ladder are the primal needs of sustenance then safety. Once these have been secured, a person can effectively cultivate relationships based on love and belonging, which lead to self-esteem building. The final phase is one of self-actualization in which a person is able to positively intellectualize her existence and see herself as a worthwhile entity, orbiting in complex relation to other like entities.
I know little to nothing about the field of psychology but the model makes a good deal of sense. While creativity happens at all levels of the hierarchy (I studied the history of art in school for a good number of years so need no one regale with fantastic stories of tormented, impoverished geniuses or eccentric visionaries), I will confidently argue that while a creative spirit may burn inside the homeless drug addict or the exhausted factory worker, these demographics do not constitute a sizeable (or visible, I should say) slice of the cultural production pie.
Why is this? To be painfully, childishly Marxist, fighting, I mean really fighting for survival leaves all but the most exceptional people with little time or energy left over for creative endeavors. Furthermore, having to claw so desperately at that Maslowian hierarchy might mean for some it takes longer to climb. It might not even occur to a person that creative avenues for self-expression exist when one is stuck somewhere along the way to actualizing this self. Of course people who face incredible obstacles manage to create, often resulting in work that is unspeakably raw and powerful. Let me be absolutely clear that my aim is not to myopically preclude or elide these voices from the cannons. Rather, I am choosing to focus on the sectors of cultural production where creative expression is the rule, not the exception.
Who then is making most of the music, the art, the writing? Go take a nice long gaze in the mirror.
It’s people just like me.
Just how diverse was the representation in the conference room that morning? In terms of subject matter treated in the overwhelming spread of home publications, impressive: travelogues, cookbooks, poetry, fiction, music writing, agit-prop on topics spanning mental health, environmental and prison activism. Nice spread. But (not surprisingly) what did we have in common? The usual suspects: mostly white, “counter culture”, and almost certainly college educated (if not “more”).
We all shared a quiet camaraderie that functions on several levels. There is the obvious and self-congratulatory level at which we are attempting to hack out space for personal narrative and alternative expression in a so-called increasingly “streamlined” culture of corporate media conglomarization Beneath this thin veneer, however, is the true nature of our cadre: We create because we’ve been taught that we can. Moreover, that we must.
The Ephemera Festival, like my constellation of friends, like climate at the small liberal arts college, contains a striking proportion of creative types. While the details of our lives obviously vary, for the most part we are all white, middle class kids who were raised in homes where, despite the usual gamut of struggles and eccentricities, we were fed, clothed, loved, nurtured and educated. Somehow along the way we picked up the notion that college was not just a place for Frat parties and honor society networking opportunities. It was a place to immerse oneself in world of ideas (and the occasional/not so occasional whiskey ablutions). While we worked hard, both at our studies and paying our ways, we enjoyed the comforting presence of familial and socio-cultural safety nets waiting (though sometimes distantly) beneath our stumbling feet. We learned that lives not lived in the pursuit of knowledge are somehow incomplete. To slog through the drudgery of existence is insufficient- one must wrestle with the world’s great tangle of mystery, and preferably, leave some relic of this struggle in plastic form.
Plainly, whether conscious choice or magnetic gravitation, I have ended up in a section of society that places an incredibly high premium on contemplative cultural practice and creative production. Like many people I know, I do not write, make art or play music because I really think I am changing the world. I maintain creative projects because at this stage in the self-actualization game, it’s what’s expected of me. I am primed to confidently assert that I have something to say and armed with a clunky arsenal of painful self-awareness, a modest but undeniably elite grasp of the history of ideas, aesthetic movements and all sorts of cultural arcana, I’m going to cough it out.
But it’s not all a rosy picture of positive reinforcement, mind you. Beyond the Carrot and Stick, lurks the Discipline and Punish. Consider it a sort of Foucaultian panopticism: if I fail to create, well then, I’m out of the club. Where I ended up, these are the rules for how one is expected to engage with the world. And the invisible spirit of ideas and ghosts of class, like the engines of capitalism themselves, demand results.
There is no moral to this story. Not even an embittered call to trade in our self-indulgent projects (from the hackneyed to the prophetic) for posts in shantytown AIDS clinics worldwide (though is the undeniably more noble path). And fear not gang, we make such amazing things! We rock, we move to tears, we open discourses, we stimulate minds and most impressively (potentially imperialist value judgment fast approaching), we do this all INSTEAD of kicking the shit out of each other and robbing convenience stores.
Most of us will accomplish little more with our endeavors than massively enriching our own lives and the lives of those close to us. But Goddamn we are incredibly lucky to have the resources and the time to reflect ponderously and gloriously on all our heartbreaks and tribulations, our pain and our elation.
Actually, maybe that is a moral after all.