The exponentially intensifying causes of the social, political, and ecological crises faced by peoples across the globe are becoming increasingly obvious; the wellbeing of all life on planet earth depends upon the eradication of market-driven social structures that bolster the few at the expense of the many. The image of ourselves as separate – from one another, from nature, and from the havoc being wreaked – has reinforced the disastrously misguided impression that competition (as opposed to collaboration) and the quest for material wealth (as opposed to the cultivation of caring relationships) are not only prerequisites for fulfillment, but inevitable factors in the course of “evolution.”
Those of us who are members of the wealthiest societies on earth can no longer sit idly by, waiting for the catastrophes to run their course. Once we identify that which is founded on exploitation and avarice, we can begin to extract ourselves from these toxic systems and develop new approaches based on cooperation, empathy, and altruism. By engaging creatively and constructively in even the most seemingly mundane aspects of existence, each of us realizes the potential to become an active participant in the reimagining of every facet of civilization, in epitomizing what it means to be human.
Like many philosophers before him, artist and self-described “social sculptor” Joseph Beuys proposed that “before considering the question WHAT CAN WE DO we have to look into the question HOW MUST WE THINK?” By identifying the kind of thinking (individual and collective) that is shaping our situation (for better or for worse), we can begin to fundamentally and constructively recast it. Inner alterations in perception can lead to outward shifts in the structure of our relationships, society, and surroundings. But just as thinking differently leads to different actions, different actions can lead to different ways of thinking.
Convention-challenging creative practitioners of every ilk are approaching the ills of our time from all sides. By cultivating an array of alternative visions and actions, many of us are subtly undermining and replacing cultural paradigms that define “success” based on quantity of material goods rather than quality of life. We are supplanting that which emphasizes division (between human and human, human and nature, mind and body, time and space) over interrelationship.
Drawing on art’s infinite possibilities, system-defying agents are re-humanizing, de-commodifying, and debunking all manner of contrived contraries by creating barter systems, cooperative workspaces, soup kitchens, food forests, and street libraries. In societies based on an ever-intensifying quest not for peace, health, or contentment, but for “progress” (broadly defined as the drive toward maximization of personal convenience, or what social ecologist Murray Bookchin called “the fetishization of needs”) – strategies for existence that are participatory, inclusive, and nonhierarchical, and that encourage the sharing of skills, ideas, and resources (the maximization of meaning), are eminently subversive.
Beuys advised us to think first, but if critical thinking and appropriate action are not undertaken in a dynamic, harmonious fashion coupled with earnest consideration of underlying systemic causes, any remedies that may be devised will, at best, temporarily assuage symptoms or, at worst, divert attention away from authentic solutions while providing a false sense of effectiveness.
The most fruitful interventions will be ones that do not, inadvertently or intentionally, reinforce established destructive systems, but instead directly engage populations in acts of social transformation.
In philosophy, the collectively agreed upon definitions, symbols, styles, behaviors, ways of using language, and other factors that are held in common throughout a culture – assumptions about how things are “supposed to be” – are called the social imaginary. Whether it is “normal” to compete or cooperate, own property, go into debt, go to war, or go shopping is determined by a wide range of constantly shifting factors, including the influence of our political, legal, and educational systems; corporate advertising; the media; and various amalgams thereof. The social imaginary is like a program that runs surreptitiously in the background; until we become consciously aware of it, we don’t notice that our attitudes are being influenced by entities that may have a vested interest in them. When we fear our neighbors instead of loving them, industries that produce guns, fences, and alarms profit – we willingly give them our dollars in exchange for a strange kind of security indeed. The same happens when we buy into the illogical premise that it is “normal” to pursue endless economic growth based on finite resources that, if consumed, destroy planetary conditions that support life.
Changing what is “normal” in societies that are deeply influenced by corporate interests begins with rejection of forms of space (e.g., shopping malls, cloned fast-food/coffee conglomerates, cubicle workspaces) and time (e.g., chronic busyness, obsessive scheduling, being “on the clock”) that reinforce behaviors and routines that alienate individuals from one another, from the development of a sense of connection to place, and from the clarity of mind that arises when we feel integrated and composed.
Philosopher Henri Lefebvre believed that the fundamental character of a society stems from the everyday habits of its people. Cultural change begins when customs change. As town squares and markets, inviting cafés, locally owned shops, pedestrian streets, and solidly constructed edifices are eradicated, we succumb to a culture of the disposable, banal, isolated, and hurried, dispensed by short-sighted profiteers with little concern for enduring collective wellbeing.
Fortunately, the antidotes are obvious. We refuse to comply with those who would have us submit to a state of fearful isolation and frantic inability to think clearly, critically, and creatively. We do not allow our thoughts to be constrained by linear, commercialist clock-time, and subvert it by realizing immeasurable, fluid, unstructured time that, infused with intention, flows via its own trajectory and with its own momentum (e.g., Parisian café culture of the 1920s and 30s, Black Mountain College 1933–1957, potlatch gatherings, jam sessions). By understanding the detrimental effects of prefabricated space, we can transform or avoid it to the greatest extent possible and strive to create alternatives that provide inhabitants with deeper senses of connection to one another and to place (e.g., parks, camps, churches, locally owned establishments, community gardens).
The Obvious International is an imaginary collective – one joins by imagining oneself a part of it. While the collective is imaginary, the relationships it generates and the results of its efforts are quite real. By rethinking the meaning of evolution, humanity, progress; by reconsidering the meaning of meaning itself; and by living our lives according to what we find, we are setting a bold new course into the present. Each of us can start where we are, first by noticing and then by becoming practitioners of the arts of the commonplace, the quotidian, the obvious.
This manifesto is a catalyst for further dialog and development of appropriate action. It is neither a starting point nor an end, but an articulation along a trajectory. This text is copyleft, share-ready, and open for comment at obviousinternational.com. Plans, exchanges, designs, and modifications by collaborators are actively being sought, collected, assimilated, and implemented.
1. Paradox exists everywhere.
By embracing paradox, we acknowledge the human capacity to perceive subtlety and nuance, and we recognize the speciousness of habitual compartmentalization and dualistic thinking. We may feel separate from nature, but in fact we are both separate and interconnected. We are individuals and members of a society. Thought and action are not isolated; they are two facets of an intricate, dynamic process.
2. All is in flux.
When we appreciate that nothing is truly static or linear we gain a sense of the complexity of being. By embracing the idea that everything, including information, is in a constant state of refinement or modification, we see that conventional forms of communication that require one isolated viewpoint to prevail above another may hinder perception of subtle connections that exist within seeming contradiction. The dialectician’s goal is not to “win” a debate, but instead to pool and analyze knowledge to gain a deeper, more holistic understanding of a situation.
3. Culture is in the quotidian.
To change what is normal, we must recraft the commonplace and cultivate reverence for and awe at everyday phenomena including air, sensory input, flora, fauna, empathy, and architecture. By paying attention to the details of everyday existence (the ways we experience both space and time), we can influence its effect on ourselves and our communities.
This is a dynamic participatory occasion.