There’s one thing from the Seabeck gathering which impacted me quite deeply, but about which I’ve really said nothing so far… the language of revolution. Much of this comes from a brief talk that Al Roxburgh gave on Wednesday morning, but for those who weren’t there, it also features in an article on the Allelon site (Page 3 in particular. It was also part of the subject matter for a walk around the mall with Papa Al and Brother Maynard. (Sara Jane dubbed it, Paparazzi Bill publicized it.) If this post is of interest, I recommend chasing down some of the longer explanations and discussions in the links I’ve provided. In the nature of the zen story which is told and retold orally in part because it is then shaped by the experience and understanding of the storyteller, here, mostly in my own retelling, is what I got, which I relate under the question with which Al opened his brief address at Seabeck: “How do cultures change?”
In the 1960s in France, there was something of an uprising among students and workers… not quite major revolution, but enough of an uprising to take clear note of it. The French government sought understanding of what had happened, and after a number of experts had weighed in with their opinions, in 1974 they hired a Jesuit priest, Michel de Certeau to do a study (see his The Practice of Everyday Life — overview). de Certeau began to probe the everyday lives of ordinary people looking for the “silent laws” that were at work. He was convinced that ordinary folk who felt their lives were determined by forces beyond their capacity to name or control were creating spaces of resistance, and that in these spaces of resistance he would find key clues to the mechanics of cultural change. That is to say, de Certeau suspected and found that the source of cultural change is found in the everyday lives of ordinary people.
Believing that the “civic-speak”, or officially sanctioned expert explanations of events, neither named nor appreciated what was happening among ordinary people, he essentially began excavating the narratives and stories of everyday life, looking to find what was going on beneath the officially sanctioned narratives. His assumption was that people are never passively shaped or determined by the strategies of the systems in which they live or by the analysis of experts who produce the civic-speak meant to define and categorize them. (For de Certeau, “strategy” has a distinct technical meaning, as opposed to a “tactic”.)
The only way to unearth what he sought was by focusing on the “practices of everyday life” among ordinary people, to give language to these everyday practices, bring them to the fore for reflection as a means of naming what was happening in their lives. He came back from his digging with a series of examples to summarize his observations. He explained how people individualize mass culture, altering everything from utilitarian objects to street plans to rituals, laws and language, in order to take ownership of them. de Certeau described how, in coping with cultural, political and commercial systems and strategies over which they had no control and could not escape, ordinary folk would find ways of doing small things which meant little on their own, but collectively became a powerful engine of social change. He described a situation which occurs when a factory worker swipes a bit of material from the factory floor. He takes this bit of material and poaches some time in the shop to fashion something new from this material… not something which the factory produces, part of the industrial routine, but something of his own creation. He takes it home as a toy for his children or some instrument for his wife. De Certeau called this process “making do,” and observed that it is the natural result of people feeling that they are living inside a system which they cannot name, but feel that under its influence, they cannot control their own lives.
As an entrepreneur, I thought it sounded rather like employee theft… but in considering the management implications being described, I find that employees with little autonomy are most likely to engage in employee theft. Employees who are able to “ownership” over some area of the company and its operations with the ability to help determine their outcomes are not what de Certeau is describing, and the distinction is crucial. Al described a process he knew from his youth by the name of “fiddling.” When asked where an item was procured, the response, “I fiddled it” was a shorthand way of explaining what de Certeau called “making do.” In all of these, I see a small way in which the worker retakes control over some very small part of his destiny, if only for a moment. In this light, it is less “lashing out” or “theft” than it is a coping mechanism for the inability to change the course of one’s life in any significant way.
In the early 1990s, Vaclav Havel addressed the American Congress and was expected to provide some description of the fall of communism in Russia and in his native Czechoslovakia. If the expected response was to confirm that the Americans military might and superior capitalist systems had won over communism, Congress must have been disappointed. Havel told them that the fall of communism had nothing to do with their guns or their ideologies. He explained that as he and all those around him had grown up, communism was not an outside force, it was inside them, a part of their very being. There was no alternate party they could join, and there was no sense that communism would fall, ever. But, he said, what was happening was that people were gathering for coffee, meeting in restaurants and coffee shops, sharing meals together, and talking. And as they would talk, one of them would take a scrap of paper or a napkin and write just a couple of lines, a short poem. This poem would get passed around the coffee shop, and others would add to it. Gradually, new stories were being created. The notes and the conversations said basically one thing: “I don’t believe this anymore.” And as the new stories grew up, they began to displace the stories they had been taught by their communist leaders. Literature in fact became a powerful force for change… but even this began in everyday conversations.
In de Certeau’s words, what Havel was describing was a “making do” process. Although they could not control their lives under the system they were in, the conversations and writings began to take the shape of a “space of resistance,” an area which did not yet exist in reality but which slowly began to take form, gradually changing from a series of insignificant exchanges into a powerful engine for social change. The people simply didn’t believe anymore, and when enough people get to that state, de Certeau says, a culture cannot survive.
This description and explanation fascinated me, and it made sense of so much quiet revolution. It explains fundamentally why grassroots movements form and spread… in Malcom Gladwell’s terminology (from The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference), they reach the “tipping point”, and a small movement becomes an epidemic. I thought about the Beat Poets, and the Beat Generation. My mother once told me that if I’d been born a few years earlier, I’d have been one of them. She wasn’t talking about chronology. I thought about Jazz, about the Blues Highway. I thought about the folk musicians of the 60’s, about the Spanish poet García Lorca, and about Black slavery in America… about stories, poems, songs, and the birth of the Negro Spiritual. All of it is the language of revolution. It’s the expression of a people aware that they don’t control their destiny, but beginning to say, “I no longer believe what you’ve been telling me.” I thought about Martin Luther King Jr.‘s dream, about Rosa Parks, and I thought about an unnamed student staring down a tank in Tiananmen Square, and I thought about Desmond Tutu, and Aung San Suu Kyi, of Nelson Mandela. I cite a list of extraordinary people… all of whom, like the coffeeshop literati in Czechoslovakia, connect with and represent the voices of ordinary people. Were they born extraordinary — or did they rise up from among the ordinary? I began to see how powerful de Certeau’s conclusions are, how profound is Havel’s identification of the source of communism’s fall. Sure, we can recognize the building momentum in many areas moving toward change… but what we need to see and hear are the stories of common folk, hearing from the “spaces of resistance” even before momentum ensues. It is in this place were we find God at work.
It is so in the church as well, where I clearly see a group of people saying quietly to one another, “I don’t believe this anymore.” Most of the time, it isn’t the major points of orthodoxy, the matters of faith in which they no longer believe… it’s the system in which they’ve been told to practice their faith. And if they cannot disconnect the two, then both will have to go. This much is not a leap for those of us who follow faith and culture and the emerging church conversation. In a sense, I like others have become a surveyor of the murmuring voices of ordinary folk in the pews, hearing the message from their spaces of resistance: “I don’t believe this anymore.”
We forget at times that there is in our culture now a growing disaffection with the systems which control it as well. As our own culture transitions through liminality, taking brief refuge in spaces of resistance, it is important we don’t leave the house empty. In the fall of communism, the spirit of capitalism swept in… but is that a case of seven spirits more vile than the first? (HT on the imagery to Al’s Wednesday address.)
For now, so many are beginning to be agents of change, acting differently, writing songs or poems, telling new stories. Looking for change, and exchanging a greeting that tells us we’re kindred in our disbelief and search for the genuine. If God is where the people are, then God is in the ordinary, and in these exchanges we identify with one another, and we find a growing community. Blogging is a lot like this, finding others with whom we find resonance in the similarity of our stories and poems, beginning to reshape the civic-speak and take ownership of the result.
At the heart of it all, we’re just coffeeshop poets, passing notes.