Blog Post

Born Free: Reclaiming the Physical, Part II

This post may be more of a prequel than a sequel to last week's post. There, I shared some personal information, some neuroses and compulsions that I suggested are normal in persons "schooled in capitalist America" under educational models that preference "present" over "past," superficiality over depth, and efficiency, economy, and completion over uncontrolled energy. What I was trying to do through sharing the true story of my ongoing painting project was to indicate that proclivities that have seemed dormant under industrial education have not been as dormant as we have perhaps assumed. There are, I'm certain, evidences of this human tendency everywhere, maybe most visibly in graffiti, body art, and piercings.  I suggested, second, that our next economy might be created not from continuing to claim and insist upon for everyone transcendence of the physical but from new engagements of materialities and physicalities.

My specific examples of a new way of engaging the material were tearing off aluminum siding and (alternatively) painting, which serve as strong metaphors for the desire for an alternative economy and a refusal to accept either the kinds of cover-ups or the kinds of abstractions that have attended industrialism.

I was also meditating on the concept of "born digital," and of course I was both wondering about its possibilities, considering the potential character of space created of digitization, and wondering also about, not so much its limitations as its cultural and economic context. Well, here's what I wrote last week:

I hope then that "born digital" does not mean born free floating. I hope freedom in the twenty-first century is not a matter of being disconnected and/or disoriented from the physical and the sensual but rather, because of digitization, only more dynamically engaged with history, with documents and other artifacts, and with people. 

In my model economy, what gets digitized doesn't so very quickly become a mass market product (or, sorry folks, a tenure-supporting product), losing in the process its origin and all of the stuff and workings that gave birth to it in the first place. (Two short stories by Alice Walker, "Everyday Use" (a story of inheritance of a family artifact) and "Nineteen-fifty-five" (the story of fictional blueswoman Gracie Mae Still who foretells the human cost of commodification) illustrate my concern. I am for a model that offers sustainability and not necessarily growth as we have known it.

My thoughts on these issues of economy are of course not new. Neither are my thoughts on learning. In my field, people have been chewing for a while on ideas such as body reading and body writing, what it means both to engage the body in these activities and how, even, to create knowledge through such dynamic engagement. So, I am simply asking how we can model engagements in the realm of the digital that are something more than exploitation, i.e. commodification of the kinds of historical artifacts I am working with for instance.

On the other hand, I, like others, am also thinking about whether, or the extent to which, postmoderns also need to come into contact with "the real thing," with books, for example. I have been contemplating whether the Register of Freedmen (a log of sorts of Civil War era workers), which includes so much invaluable, personal, and family-related information, should also take the form of a book. To pose this question is simply to ask if, first, the people most directly connected to this document are oriented to the world today in such a way that they need (desire or crave) the material book (like I need to paint) or if, to the contrary, they have been sufficiently reoriented at this point to be able--content and healthy with--foregoing the material. How does one begin to answer this question?

Perhaps this is another question for another day: Born Free...Part III. That post may be yet another prequel, but let me say for now that my thoughts on this have involved placing "born digital" next to "born free." Included in the Register are several African American children who were born free. That is, they were born at a contraband camp. While every one of their parents named a former owner, no owner was named for these children. Whose interpretation of the social identity of these children, their parents' or the camp administrators', determined their status? The answer to this question matters as one considers what freedom meant (or would mean) to African Americans who crossed Union lines. It is highly doubtful that blacks were caught up in legalism. (More on this later.) I am interested in knowing instead how or if the body figured in the ways in which these recently "freed" African Americans conceived of their freedom. As they co-constructed a realm in which they might be considered free, or, more importantly, one in which they might in fact feel free, in what ways did their bodies figure and the material aspect of the world around them matter?

So, alas, I'm back to my main point, my central concern. Today, we are it seems to me about the same work as these ancestors. We are conceiving a new realm, which may offer freedom of some sort. How will the physical be engaged within such new space, how will it interact with our other aspects, and how will it be informed by our prior orientations?


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