THE DISAFFECTIONS OF DAILY LIFE: FINDING PATHWAYS TO ACTIVATION WITHIN AND WITHOUT THE MACHINE
Disaffection and activation are intertwined in a multiplicity of ways. They are not necessarily related in a linear, cause and effect type of relationship. Sometimes, one can become disaffected from a way of thinking or acting, and this disaffection can lead to forms of activation. Other times, becoming activated for a particular cause or issue can lead to disaffection from the opposing ways of thinking and acting. Throughout one’s life, disaffections and activations come and go, overlapping each other, adding and subtracting understandings of life experiences. Disaffection without activation can lead to nihilism, and activation without disaffection can lead to co-optation. In whatever ways we understand their relationship, disaffection and activation seem to be dependent on one another.
In this essay, I want to reflect on the overlapping relationships between disaffection and activation, and emphasize how daily life experiences provide opportunities for both, by placing these reflections in the context of living in what I believe to be the declining stages of an era marked by hegemonic domination of the megamachine.
The idea of modern society as a megamachine comes from Lewis Mumford, as put forth in several works, most notably in The Myth of the Machine. Mumford developed the machine metaphor by tracing the historical roots of "megatechnic" societies, which are marked by hierarchical power structures and subservience of individuals to those structures. Although Mumford finds the beginnings of megatechnic societies in Egypt of the Pharoahs, he locates its fullest expression in modern Western societies.
Features of the modern megamachine include the absolute rule of authority and the exercise of arbitrary or institutional power, which in either case demands blind allegiance and creates the feeling of being just another "cog in the wheel." Its methods include speed, mind control, and mobility. In the end, the megamachine is a crushing entity, chewing up all that enters it for some presumed greater cause, which is never felt by its components. The byproducts of the megamachine that most of us feel daily can include racism, classism, and sexism, as well as the numbness from what passes as vocation and/or education. The danger of resisting the megamachine by way of solitary disaffection is that one can devolve into nihilism, which is why I am pairing disaffection with activation.
One way to understand disaffection and activation is to see them in shifting frameworks, in the context of human liberation and ways of seeking truth. The American Black nationalist Malcolm X, for example, shifted his position many times in his life, and, in several ways, he was born into and lived a life of disaffection and activation. His father worked in the Marcus Garvey nationalist movement, and was killed by white supremacists, while his mother was institutionalized by the state. Disaffected from the American system, Malcolm turned to crime as a way to gain some power and control over his life, which ended him up in jail. Once there, he became activated differently; disaffected from the life of crime, he turned to understanding the faces of racism in American society.
Malcolm eventually joined the Nation of Islam, a Black nationalist organization that was gaining popularity in the North during the post-World War II period, when many Blacks had become disaffected after being shunned by the white society they fought to protect during the war. Malcolm’s disaffection from white society helped him to become activated in the cause of Black liberation, but soon he began to discover flaws in the way the Nation of Islam was run, and he became disaffected from the organization and its leadership. Around this time, after making his pilgrimage to Mecca, he also became disaffected from the brand of reverse racism propagated by the Nation of Islam, having seen how peoples in the Muslim world had moved beyond the social pathologies around race.
Malcolm became active in yet a different way, calling for human rights rather than civil rights, attempting to place American racism and the plight of American Blacks in a global forum. It seemed his passion for the truth and for human liberation in a way circumscribed his various pathways through disaffection and activation, although at the time he was living those experiences daily, he did not always articulate them.
Ever since I read his autobiography when I was a college student in the 1980s, I found the life of Malcolm X to be inspiring for my own. To me, Malcolm’s life is a good example of how disaffection and activation can come about in daily life contexts, and how they come upon us. His story has helped me to make sense of life as a sequence of disaffections and activations. After coming to understand Malcolm X in this way, I became attracted to people with similar stories, admiring their ability to admit changes in their outlook, both small and profound, but always seeking some greater truth, some greater reality, some greater form of awareness.
Lewis Mumford is another important person in this context. I began reading his books around the same time I discovered Malcolm X. Mumford’s days spanned virtually the entire 20th century, and he, like Malcolm X, went through a series of disaffections and activations throughout his life. Beginning as a technological utopian, those early feelings were tempered by the technological horrors of global warfare, and Mumford came to believe that the problem was that humans had become slaves to their machines. He supported US intervention in World War Two, but came to regret that support once the wanton death and destruction was unleashed, becoming disaffected from that cause. Later, the scientifically assisted horrors of the Cold War and Vietnam activated him further away from the technological utopian outlook he once had, and he became one of the staunchest critics of what he dubbed as the megamachine. But what kept Mumford on track, through all these disaffections and activations, was his commitment to humane living, and human centered habitats in harmony with nature, and his ongoing commitment to art and architecture, how the environments we construct shape us.
Similarly, I could cite other inspiring people who were able to become activated within and without the machine. Barbara McClintock, the biologist and geneticist, was a maverick in those fields, but she was disaffected from the aggressive and interventionist methods and assumptions of the patriarchal, mechanistic paradigm of Western science. She developed her own method of research based on observation, rather than experimentation. Her work was impressive at the time. However, because she did not conform to the dominant paradigm of science she was shunned by her (primarily male) colleagues for decades. She was only belatedly recognized with a Nobel Prize years after her achievements. Like others, McClintock found ways to live and learn outside the machine, freeing her mind to seek other pathways, but she was also able to work in it when she had no choice.
One thing that impresses me about each of these important twentieth century figures is that they could become so incredibly aware without going through much formal schooling. Each in their own way developed their awareness of problems in their society through various forms of self-learning. Malcolm never went to college but he ended up speaking at Harvard and Oxford. Mumford attended college but never completed a degree, and yet he was awarded several honorary doctorates. McClintock was shunned by a university system that was too slow to recognize her genius, yet her breakthroughs in genetics are taken for granted today. Despite the systems that constrained them, they found ways to become active without the confines of modern schooling, and they also accepted the changes that were necessary in their outlooks on life and its problems, moving through a series of disaffections and activations.
In a sense, they developed themselves as thinkers and activists outside the machine, finding their own pathways through life, but they also found ways to operate inside the machine, realizing it was the place most people spent their lives. It seems like a difficult balance, operating within and without the machine, and it seems to take a unique mind to keep that balance and not become part of the machine. Yet, and perhaps paradoxically, it also seems necessary for increasing numbers of people to find ways to operate within the machine, without becoming of the machine, at least for the time being, until a more critical mass can join together on pathways to their own disaffection and activation. This can involve a broader definition of what it means to be educated, that education is different from schooling, that schooling is a machine and education is life, and that life often teaches us important lessons, if only we can find ways to reveal their wisdom.
With these introductory ideas in mind, I’d like to ruminate for a while on my arguably more mundane daily life experiences with teaching and learning as pathways through my own disaffections and activations.
Like many post-war Americans, my parents played by the rules of the machine and followed the experts. For example, professional medical knowledge in the early 1960s dictated that mother’s milk was "nutritionally weak," and that science could create a superior, nutrient-rich milk. Women were admonished not to breastfeed, and I was among a generation raised on technical formula. I was also a sickly infant, skinny and maldeveloped to the point that the doctors, the very same doctors who told my mother breastfeeding was non-nutritious, thought that my parents were some how not feeding me enough. I didn’t know the difference, of course, these are just stories that I sorted out since then.
But I got angry when I learned, three decades later while reading the work of Joseph Chilton Pearce, that breastfeeding serves many purposes, especially in fostering a mother-child human bonding experience, and that the nutritionally "weak" mother’s milk guaranteed frequent feeding, and thus continuous bonding experiences. The doctors did not see any of this, they could not see it, they were schooled only to see measurable amounts of nutrients, not human, spiritual and social relations, and so they turned infants over to the incubating machine. I couldn’t be angry at all this as a child, I didn’t know the machinations of the health care system; I could only be sick. Little did I know at the time, but my disaffections from the destructive megatechnic paradigm and its systemic institutions of mind and body control had begun at birth.
With school desegregation in full swing by the time I was ready to begin my K-12 sentence, my parents joined the march of white flight to the suburbs, pursuing the American dream in newly constructed suburban enclaves north of New York City. I grew up in an all-white town, except for one family. Mark and Joe Pedillo were my childhood buddies, from an upwardly mobile Puerto Rican family, and theirs was the first non-white family to move into the white enclave my parents chose. This caused my parents, and many families in the area, some consternation, since "they" were now moving north, too, but since they were isolated in a sea of white, the Pedillo family seemed non-threatening. There was little one could outwardly identify as Puerto Rican about them, anyway. They had learned to hide it well. Even their names were sacrificed; their given names, I found out many years later, were "Marco y Jose."
As children and young adults, we just got along as friends, though I always felt somehow isolated for being friends with the only "colored" kids in the town, and had to listen to people calling them "spics" and chastising me for being their friends. The isolation I felt with Mark and Joe hit harder when my parents sent me to baseball camp for a summer away from home, learning to play ball in a real little league stadium with kids from all over the USA. At the camp, I befriended two African American brothers from Baltimore, and spent most of my time playing with them. The other boys, mostly middle and working class whites like me, didn’t take kindly to a white kid playing with the "niggers," so I was taunted and beaten regularly. But, at the same time, they left the Black kids alone.
Haphazardly, my ordinary life experiences taught me about racism and racial hatred before I knew what those terms were, before I could analyze, criticize and rationalize them. Because of this, I became disaffected from my family and white society. And I felt this growing disaffection on all fronts, and not just from being friends with the "spics" and "niggers." When I was in the Boy Scouts, for example, the scoutmaster thought I was Jewish, and even though I tried to tell him I wasn’t, I had to spend the camping trips being called a "kike" and a "dumb yidd". Yet, I got beat up by the good old Christian boys when I didn’t go to the makeshift chapel in the woods on Sundays. Actually, I didn’t go to the Chapel because I had become disaffected from Christianity at an early age, especially the non-thinking Catholic variant to which I was subjected. The empty rituals seemed, well, empty to me.
Meanwhile, because I had a German surname, a Jewish bully who lived down the street used to beat me up because I was a "Nazi." But as I now see it, I was lucky (unlucky?) enough in my early life to have first hand experiences with racism and discrimination, though I really didn’t understand them at the time. Those experiences I had put me on different sides of the various racial divides, so I did not inherit much of the thinking of one group or another. And, thinking back on all this, I rarely, if ever, fought back against any of these people, perhaps because I did not understand these attitudes, or perhaps because I felt disconnected and isolated.
Alongside my experience with racial hatred, I dutifully attended school, which did nothing to address the problems I faced day to day. In the early years I was a model "good student," the kind of student teachers praise at the parent-teacher conferences. With my thick-rimmed glasses in third grade, my teachers assured my parents that I would grow up to "be a scientist." But then something happened; I began to see school as a place to escape. I am not sure how and when it happened, but there are all sorts of experiences that continuously unmasked the system for me.
In retrospect, one event that seemed to turn the tables had to do with literacy and reading. By the time I was in 2nd or 3rd grade, a new system of teaching reading was being introduced in many American school districts. Dubbed ITA (my inability to find the words represented by those initials is testimony to how such faddish innovations come and go in modern schooling), it featured a modified phonetic alphabet that was supposed to be a truer representation of how language actually sounded, the goal being to teach reading by sight that was closer to reading by sound, and avoid confusing early learners with the myriad exceptions to the pronunciation rules encountered when learning the hodgepodge language of English.
ITA was supported by the Board of Education and the professional associations, with plenty of experts to teach its particulars, and the publishing industry had a windfall in supplying the requisite textbooks. A perfect system in all its technical glory. There was one flaw of ITA, however. Once the new alphabet was learned, it seemed that students were having difficulty moving over to the conventional alphabet. I wonder if anyone has ever traced impairments like dyslexia to such early childhood experimentations. In my case, despite having a mother who was an avid reader and lover of words, I never took much to reading.
Maybe that was why I was uncomfortable in schooling from an early age. In any event, that feeling was reinforced as I climbed the ladder of secondary education. I can still recall Mrs. White, my tenth grade English teacher. Some how I got into an "honors" class and the experience exposed for me some of the issues that had always plagued my relationship to schooling. Mrs. White, politely speaking, was "at the end of her career," having taught at that high school for three decades. While the system respected her, to me, she was just a fool. She wore sunglasses in class to hide her red eyes, and all the students knew that she had a bottle of gin in her desk drawer. Her teaching was incoherent, her assignments meaningless, but I guess everyone looked the other way, in their own way. Nothing about what she tried to teach about English stuck with me, and this was another facet of a reading-impairment that stayed with me for many years. Bypassing English class as often as I could, I spent more time in the cafeteria and schoolyard, and Mrs. White rarely noticed that I was gone.
On rainy days, or when boredom set in, I would go to class for a few laughs. The class clown, Tommy Azadian, used to play jokes on Mrs. White. Tommy was a master at mimicking the blaring loudspeaker above the door to the classroom, next to the ubiquitous clock, and through which the passing bells rang, and which also broadcast an occasional announcement. "Mrs. White, please report to the office," intoned the garbled speaker one day, except it was Tommy’s voice disguised by cupped hands. Mrs. White dutifully went to the loudspeaker and replied, "Yes, I’m here, what may I do for you?" As the old saying goes, fool me once shame on you, fool me twice shame on me; Tommy would fool Mrs. White every time, until finally the Assistant Principal figured out what was going on.
The class would giggle, but since these were "honors" students, they knew how to work the system much better than the "stupid" students. They knew that a "good" student was one who did not make trouble and always did what the teacher said. So there were only soft giggles, not the loud guffaws one would hear had it been a "stupid" class. She thought she had a class of little angels, of bright "leaders of tomorrow," but they were just taking an easy ride at her expense. And, since I was not a "good student," I just cut the class most of the time, preferring to find what I thought were more meaningful activities, liking talking with friends and wandering in the woods.
Although history is one of my favorite subjects today, and something for which I have become an active teacher, in high school it was a blur of boredom and disaffection. There was one teacher, Mr. Rutts, who would intone dates and places for what seemed like hours while pointing to a faded, outdated map. I recall nothing of his course on the "foundations of civilization" (which was probably for the better!), but I do remember that every Halloween his house was pelted with eggs.
Then there was the memorable course on the Iroquois Indians, which was team taught in the "open classroom" style that became faddish in the mid-seventies at my school district. The teachers worked hard to make the class "fun." We ate corn bread and venison, wore feather bonnets and moccasins, built dioramas of teepees and prairies, and read poems about when the Buffalo roamed. I remember the fun and games very well, and can still vividly recall the experience today.
The problem was that I learned nothing about the Iroquois, or the Haudenosaunee, as they prefer to call themselves. Instead of teaching about the Indians of New York State, which the state curriculum required, the teachers reinforced a mishmash of stereotypes from American popular culture and Hollywood imagery about "Indians." The funny thing was that I did not realize this until graduate school, when I took courses with members of the Haudenosaunee nation. The high school class had been a "success," however, since the students were happy, attendance was high (I even went to class for the corn bread!), and everyone got an "A." But what was taught about Indians actually did deep damage to my understanding of Native American cultures.
In fact, everything Americans learned about Indians and the founding of America was a sham; I still recall the revulsion I felt after reading Francis Jennings The Invasion of America while thinking back to grade school and those carefree days merrily skipping home with my black Pilgrim hat made of construction paper, with the big yellow buckle on it, for Thanksgiving, oblivious to the murderous and psychotic heritage of the Puritans that Jennings masterfully dissects. None of that mattered in the world of schooling; all the teachers cared about was order, and all the "good students" cared about was working the system.
These are not the only experiences that disaffected me from schooling. Like many students, I hated the rigid structure, militaristic discipline, and mind numbing exercises, which were often glazed over with faddish liberal veneers like "cooperative learning" and "team teaching." My disaffection developed alongside various forms of activation, not necessarily profound in the social sense, but deeply meaningful in the personal sense.
School always seemed artificial to me. I lived in a rural area, with lots of forests, lakes, caves and pastures, all of which seemed like a much better place to spend a day than cooped up inside a sterile, sealed up school building. So I was constantly absent throughout secondary school, rain or shine. In fact, I spent many a crisp winter day warming up by a bonfire in the woods next to the school. I had a friend named Frankie who knew the terrain really well, he was a camper and a hunter at heart, and although I feared his ease with guns, I admired his sense of the woods and he used to take me on hiking adventures in the local hills.
Growing up in the country had its benefits, despite the incursions of the megamachine via schooling, and those early experiences, the juxtaposition of sterile conformity in school with natural diversity outside school, activated me toward an environmental consciousness that has stayed with me until this day.
High school graduation was anti-climactic. There were no causes to ascribe to, no peace signs to wave, no long hair or tie-dye jeans to wear under the robes; it was a period of retrenchment from all the activism of the 1960s and early 1970s, and a pre-Reagan rollback was already gaining momentum. So I just graduated along with everybody else, silently, anonymously, ready to join the "real world," to become "another cog in the wheel" of society. But most of what I learned about life in the years leading up to graduation was accidental learning, unintended learning, unconscious or out of awareness learning, what might even be seen as a form of "anti-learning," since at the time I bought into the myth that learning only occurs in school or within the family, and that it is some how controllable, testable and predictable. I did not really accept my experiences as learning, since there were no tests and books, no bells and blackboards, they were just "experiences."
With all the disaffection from schooling, there is tremendous pressure to get active with something. Not very interested in the juvenile delinquency pursued by many of my disaffected peers, I turned to other endeavors to activate my life. During my school years, I got involved in the usual extra curricular activities — little league baseball, painting classes, stamp collecting — but I never really latched onto any of them whole heartedly.
A turning point came for me when we were on a family outing in an amusement park, and there was a rock band playing. The music blended together, just like I heard on the radio, but at one point they introduced the musicians and the guitarist pounded a sustained block chord. I was enthralled! That sound, open fifths, without the mind manipulating games and deferred gratifications of major-minor tonalities that drove Western art music. Instead, it was the immediate power of an overdriven amplifier with non-committal open fifths and an energized sustain, and I wanted to do that. I convinced my parents to get me guitar lessons and I finally had something to latch onto, to learn that was meaningful to me.
I especially enjoyed the one-to-one learning experiences of the guitar lessons, and I was fortunate to have a kind and patient teacher. It was all very appealing to me, except that he was into folk and acoustic music, and, at the time, I wanted to make electric music. So, after learning the basics in the private lessons, by my mid-teens I was on the way toward self-learning music, and I focused more of my attention on music than on school, including the social relations around playing in various music groups with my peers, while the guitar lessons taught me that sometimes a good teacher is necessary, and I was always in and out of lessons, to see what I could pick up from others in an active student-teacher relationship.
Music opened new doors of learning for me, new ways, new things to learn, new places and reasons to learn. Although I got involved in various music groups, eventually even playing semi-professionally, for me music was about self-discovery. I spent countless hours working on musical projects, which eventually connected me to audio recording and amateur filmmaking. And once I broadened my horizons beyond the rock music that enthralled me as a youth, my interest in music taught me about ethnocentrism and racism, it taught me about art and technics, it taught me to respect culture and craft. I found this out on my own, since little of this was supported by the militaristic-industrial suppositions of modern schooling. In fact, music was sort of like an anchor for me as I drifted and floated my way through the schooling megamachine, a place for my soul to swim in sounds, to counterpoise the soul-numbing efficiencies of schooling. Music was something I could do for myself, which would connect me to others in ways not necessarily sanctioned or promoted by the machine.
School was useless in my quest for musical enlightenment, since the megamachine demanded that there be order and adherence to the classics; for me music was about freedom and experimentation. My musical sojourns, for a working class American male, became surprisingly diverse, from loud rock to pulsating jazz, a stint at classical guitar (which I found too stodgy), and finally settling into various non-Western string instruments, like the kora (West Africa), oud (Arab world), and saz (Turkey), but always returning to guitar. However, my lessons on this journey were bittersweet. Approaching my learning initially like my culture taught me, that if I had money I could buy anything, I realized I was doing deep disrespect to the cultures whose instruments interested me. It could take a lifetime to learn any one of those instruments, and there were traditions and wisdoms associated with each that would require patience in one’s self and, in many cases, deference to a master. That disaffection from my simplistic tourism of "world music" helped to activate me to learn about the cultures of other peoples, a journey that I am still on today.
Books were not an important part of my youth; I was raised on television, music and magazines. As an undergraduate in college, I read mostly textbooks, which is not really "reading," and very few of what might be called academic or literary books. There were exceptions, however. I once had to do a book review as part of a course on cognitive development, and I browsed the card catalogue (they still used cards in those days) and stumbled on Neil Postman’s classic work Teaching as a Subversive Activity. Many years later, I came across the paper I wrote about the book, and found it to be a rather unimpressive, disorganized collection of thoughts, many irrelevant to the book or misstating Postman’s point of view; it was clear that I did not know what I was reading, and upon reflection I remember finding it very difficult to finish the book and complete the paper. I just didn’t "get it," although I knew intuitively that there must be something interesting in there. I had been attracted to the title, teaching as a subversive activity, even though I could not follow the argument intellectually.
That was the only book I recall reading from the formal experiences of my undergraduate days, but I guess what it said to me was that there were other people unhappy with schooling, not only as students but as teachers, and they were doing something about it, acting on their disaffection.
So after college, I became, of all things, a teacher. Although I could say that it was primarily an activist decision, wanting to some how change the system I loathed as a youth, that would not be the whole story. Teaching, in a classic working class construct for Americans, was a "fallback" position, something to do while one’s true passions were being developed. My passion at the time was music, and so I became a music teacher as a fallback position. But it was awful and numbing.
My first job was in a Catholic high school, and whatever semblance of humane or subversive concern I had for my students was bludgeoned into submission by the system. I realized that school, on both sides of the desk, was about conformity and repression – of students, of teachers, of knowledge – and it was a terrible experience, a bad job, that I held for two years. I knew that the vocation of teaching could be better, since as a musician I had great teachers and I had also been teaching guitar to teenagers for many years, but when it came to the institutionalized setting of modern schooling, I could not connect with the same teenagers, and there was tremendous pressure to become what I hated about my own school teachers.
After a similar stint as a media studies teacher in public high school, I decided to go to graduate school and get an M.A., which was required to maintain a teaching license, even though I was not really interested in remaining a schoolteacher. I was coming to the realization that I liked teaching and working with youths, but I disliked schooling, and I had begun to think about the unresolved paradox of schooling, that it is one of the few cyclical and collective experiences of daily life, but that it seemed hopelessly bound to the megamachine.
Rather by chance, I had found a graduate program in Buffalo that allowed a lot self-directed learning, and which emphasized interdisciplinary work. I had wanted to pursue my two interests at the time, world music and electronic music, and I had a small MIDI recording studio in my apartment, along with an array of Asian and African instruments that I was learning to play. On the world music side, I worked with a sociomusicologist, and on the electronic music side, I worked with a computer music composer. What I had in mind was some sort of synthesis of the two. Those were an important two years for me, not because of my studies, but because of finding a space to pursue my interests, which at the time were in music, audio production and film making. I had a weekly radio program on Arabic music (which got shut down as soon as the Gulf War heated up), and formed a music group playing Arabic songs in local clubs.
But with the threatening phone calls and letters that the radio station received, and the jeers of the bar crowd when we played Arabic music, racism had reared its head again. The experiences with racism of my youth soon included Arabs and Muslims, and I learned that Palestinians in particular were exempt from the usual sympathy that liberal academics had toward selected disenfranchised peoples, and that was a hard lesson to learn. And, as before, it was putting myself in the shoes of the other – this time by way of playing Arab music – that taught me the arbitrariness of race relations. It may be impractical to say that one way to temper racism is to get beat up once in a while, but I know for me it helped to piece together an awareness of racial hatred.
I have often wondered what these experiences might tell us about current efforts to deal with racism in American society. Most of the discourse on "multiculturalism" has been co-opted by sometimes well-meaning (white) liberals who always some how manage to keep a distance from the visceral aspects of racial hatred, how it is lived in people’s lives. I’m afraid that once something becomes institutionalized, with a duly appropriate "-ism" attached to it and federal funding on offer, we will find that it becomes abstracted and detached from daily life experiences, and pushed into the realm of self-serving academic debate. Such debates often rage in the United States, but they never really seem to get anywhere.
Maybe part of the problem is that Americans worship definitions. So, they will hold high the codified ideals of things like school desegregation, while any visit to the inner city districts of places like New York City show that segregation is still painfully apparent in practice. Similar points could be made about the criminal justice system, where a disproportionate number of Blacks are consistently incarcerated. As long as Americans hold up high their unattained ideals without dealing with the realities on the ground, the arguments about race and racial hatred will continue to be fruitless.
Before leaving Buffalo, I assembled an M.A. in Humanities, and got enough skill with writing to convince Columbia University that I was a safe investment for a three-year fellowship toward the Ph.D. However, the things I loved about the M.A. program were absent at Columbia, and it seemed more about conforming to the prevailing academic discourse than about developing one’s potentials. And, oddly, the music that I loved to play was reduced to something about which one could only write, silently; there was no performance component to the program. These kinds of experiences created disaffection toward higher education, but I also realized that in the conformity machine of modern schooling, there were small pockets of resistance, at least at the time. I was lucky enough to have found some of them, and I would never have survived all those years in a conventional Ph.D. program. To this day I still wince when people call me "doctor."
In any case, I had to learn to write like an academic, although I found that style cold and dry. That was one reason I left Columbia, I was seen by the stuffed shirts there to be "subjective" and unable to achieve any "scholarly detachment," some one who couldn’t be "objective," because, sin of sins, I actually liked the music and the people I was studying, in this case Arabs and Muslims. And, I waved my hands around and rose my voice when speaking, definitely not good Columbia posture.
In fact, that hit me hard when I first arrived from working class Buffalo. In Buffalo, I called professors by their first name, hung with them informally, could speak my mind and write any way I pleased, and that in a sense spoiled me, because when I arrived in New York, the first thing my new advisor said to me was, "you are at Columbia now." I swallowed hard and realized then that it would be a difficult trip, but I decided to make the most of it for the three years, because I saw the benefits of living in New York City with a world class library. So I toed the line for three years in the ethnomusicology program that supported me but did everything I could to take advantage of other programs. I spent most of my time sequestered in a small studio apartment, with piles of books on the floor, reading.
That was when I realized, for the first time in my life, that I was reading-impaired, and was amazed that I could get so far in higher education with such a condition. At first I had excruciating headaches, and I could not do any sustained reading, nor follow any complex arguments. Eventually, the tensions eased and my mind opened wide, and I couldn’t get enough of reading, one book after the next after the next, on any topic I could find, I felt like I needed to make up for lost time. But the academic program itself was stifling and colonialist in its attitude toward others, so I left New York without the Ph.D., though I did take an M.Phil. from Colombia, before heading back to Buffalo where I felt so at home. I enrolled in the Ph.D. program in American Studies and had the good fortune to be among a very unique academic community (which has since been dismantled).
At the time, American Studies was a sort of coalition department, comprised of Native American Studies, Women’s Studies, Puerto Rican Studies, Working Class Studies and Cultural Studies. On the faculty were Native American tribal elders, feminists, social activists of different sorts, musicologists, and a broad array of mostly radical academics from a variety of disciplines. This setting gave focus to my reading, and I owe it to these people that I can think clearly about global and local issues. They really provided a nurturing environment, lots of freedom to develop my own voice, support when it was needed, and space when that was needed, too, really the antithesis of all my prior schooling, with the exception of the Humanities M.A. program, which by that time had also been dismantled. As I see it today, it is a disgrace on higher education that such programs are shut down, but I count myself among the fortunate that I was able to take advantage of one while it was in place.
Outside of academia, during that period of my life, I became interested in religion and philosophy. Raised as a Catholic, I was alienated from the Church (another manifestation of the megamachine) by the time I was in my early teens. I lumbered along without spirituality until my mid-twenties, living a somewhat hedonistic lifestyle. But I always felt an inner yearning, something that music could not fully assuage, and through different friends who were interested in Eastern religions I began to explore Hinduism and Buddhism, latching onto Chogyam Trungpa for a while, and learning some Yoga. But it was my association with African American jazz musicians, who were Muslims, that awakened me to the possibilities of religion as a way of life. They seemed more centered and at peace than the other musicians I worked with, and I felt comfortable in their presence. I never talked to them about religion, but they planted seeds in my consciousness by their presence.
Then, one day, while rummaging through an old bookstore in a rural part of upstate New York, I came across a copy of the Qur’an. The first thing that struck me was the Arabic calligraphy. It was an English-Arabic edition, but I couldn’t get anything out of the English meanings, the translations. Arabic appealed to me on an aesthetic level; the language itself, the cursive script, was beautiful, and I fixated on that. I eventually collected books on Islamic calligraphy and decorative arts and was enthralled by the shapes of the language, without paying much attention to its meanings. In graduate school, when it came time to learn another language, I chose Arabic.
After hearing why I chose Arabic, one of my tutors, an Egyptian post-graduate, said, "If you like the way Arabic looks, you might like the way it sounds," and he gave me a tape of recitation of the Qur’an. I immediately recognized something about that stark, soulful, lone voice chanting, which captured my heart, and brought together for me several strands in my life, the musical, the aesthetic, the experiential. This soon led me to seek out books that talked about the ethical dimensions of living in Islam, and I was drawn in particular to the works of Shi’ite revolutionaries, the thinkers and activists who catalyzed the Islamic revolution in Iran. The ethical dimensions of Islam, especially the Shi’ite focus on justice, coupled with my love of Malcolm X and the role of Islam in the African American experience, merged with my aesthetic sensibilities, and I became further drawn to Islam as a way of life, as a sort of life quest.
The thing that conquered my stubborn American will, the step I needed to take to accept Islam into my heart, came when I realized that the first word of the declaration of faith was "no." To become a Muslim, you have to believe that there is "no god except Allah," which in a metaphorical sense is a rejection of all those things people come worship – money, power, desire – and an affirmation of something outside the self. I realized that my whole life I was saying only "no," but the declaration of faith in Islam completed the cycle, and gave me something to affirm, not in the missionary sense, but in having an affirmative dimension to life.
Spiritually invigorated, and now with a Ph.D. in hand, I found myself working as a teacher of teachers in an inner city university. It seemed odd that, after all my trials and tribulations in school, here I was back once again, but a job is a job, and I took what I could get. I tried to make the most of the experience, and I attempted to implement a way of teaching that would use daily life experiences of the ordinary in a subversive way.
For example, I can recall a peak moment during a Spring semester class one year, in an afternoon that began like others. Some students arrived directly from their teaching internships, and were eagerly sitting around the classroom trading front line stories of their experiences in Brooklyn classrooms, having picked up a habit already from their school mentors, the art of "bullshitting" to release tension. Other students shuffled in with large cups of coffee or soda, taking seats in the back, clearly exhausted from the day’s experiences, not really energized for a three-hour seminar on "Teaching Methods in Secondary Social Studies."
I had seen it before, it was a daunting task. Most of these folks were already acclimated to the schooling megamachine, donning the "been there, done that" kind of survival attitude that many teachers wear as a form of passive resistance, jaded before they begin their careers. Not exactly the best audience to begin lectures on teaching methods, the finer points of constructivist theory vis-a-vis behaviorism, the latest lesson plan fad, or whatever else the fifteen pound textbook offered. But I knew them, because they were me, in many ways, and they were as disaffected from the machine as I.
But now I was part of the machine, and they were here for one reason: to get college credit so they can maintain their teaching license and be in the "real world" of classrooms, not this artificial place called a university, or to get a raise by piling up credit hours. I sympathized with them, having worked as a teacher, and having been bored to death myself by programmatic, irrelevant lectures. There is a certain, sometimes valiant, working class veneer that one develops, especially in New York City, toiling as a teacher, with twinges of the anti-intellectualism one finds in many working class settings, which always seemed ironic for people working as teachers, but it is testimony to the pervasive mind-numbing qualities of modern schooling.
Normally, most teachers would begin a session by calling the class to order and proceeding with the day’s lecture or lesson or what ever was planned in advance. I had no plan, none that I can recall now, but I had been thinking a lot about the absence of the ordinary in academic life, and was inspired by reading Ira Shor’s Critical Teaching and Everyday Life, and struck upon an idea. As the class of about thirty students chattered on, and the clock ticked twenty minutes past the designated start time, I picked up a chair, one of those plastic and tube metal seats with a pressboard side desk, and slammed it down hard on top of the teacher’s desk, which was one of those heavy industrial metal monstrosities. It made a loud booming noise that echoed around the concrete walls of the room, and the students were stunned, immediately turning toward me, transfixed for a moment in utter silence.
With most students probably expecting to be scolded for talking too much, and already thinking up witty retorts, I caught the whole class off guard by not missing a beat and asking: "What is this?" There were looks of confusion. I pointed at the chair, and asked again, "Come on, what is this?" After deciding some clever game was in progress, one student retorted, "It’s a work of art!" I said, "Really? Does anyone else see a work of art?" Some laughed, most looked puzzled, and it took a while for the class to realize that there was no trick to this question, no clever retort. I really wanted them to tell me what it was: a chair.
Finally, some one got it, and I proceeded to teach them how an ordinary object contained within it a broad array of social and political relations, teaching them a method by enacting it, deconstructing the chair, what it was made of, where the materials came from, who put them together, eventually expanding the discussion to tracing chairs as signifiers of gender and class, from student’s chairs to teacher’s chairs (Why were they different? What did that mean?), to thrones and pews and even no chairs, unpacking the meanings of what most took for granted as a part of daily life.
Some resisted, still clinging to the belief that this was not knowledge, though the class was savvy enough that they could answer each other and I could concentrate on revealing the social matrix embedded in that one chair, the economic relations, but also the way it normalized the human experiences of teaching and learning. To achieve the latter, I asked some one to demonstrate the right way – and the wrong way – to use this object called a chair, which I had hoped would lead us on to discussions of uniformity, conformity and the politics of comfort in the classroom.
Then something interesting and unexpected happened. A female student was demonstrating the "wrong way" to sit in the chair, which was to slouch down in the seat and rest her legs on the desk part, taking notes on a notebook resting on her lap. "Why do you sit that way?" I asked, and she said, "The correct way is not comfortable for me." This young lady was, let us say, full figured and short, and I asked, "Are you uncomfortable because of your body shape?" I knew I was going out on a limb with such a question, and immediately another student said, "Hey now Progler, that’s discrimination!" I said, "Perhaps, but I think it’s the chair that is discriminating, not me!" Everyone laughed in disbelief. "Can this inanimate chair discriminate?" I continued. They scoffed. "Only people discriminate, this is an object," many insisted. I asked, "But if we just showed that a whole array of people and social relations are involved in bringing this chair into the classroom, then do you mean to say that it was not possible that they may have built some of that into this chair?" There was silence.
The student sitting "incorrectly" in the chair agreed with me, and others began to talk about not being able to find a left handed desk, and eventually we had a meaningful discussion about how social relations get embedded in objects. It was an amazing experience, and even the cynical students thanked me. I continued to develop methods that focused on revealing the social relations and politics of daily life, although I was breaking the institutional rules by so doing, and while some students resisted, asking "Where’s the textbook?" others came to accept what I was doing.
Eventually, I sent students out to fast food restaurants, museums and other sites of what some may call "cultural pedagogy," and worked to help them come to grips with life in the megamachine, see it for what it is, creating disaffection, and urging them forward toward their activation.
These are some of the more memorable experiences that contributed to the path I am on now, the path that found me becoming a caring and concerned teacher of young people, dedicated to awakening minds to the wonders (and horrors) of the world around them, to finding humane and fulfilling ways of living outside the megamachine, to locating survival niches on its margins and fringes for those who are still trapped within it. But in retrospect, most of my life has been spent living and working in an institutionalized setting, and, in the end, that is what I mean by the megamachine. I think it is common for people to find themselves feeling like a "cog in the wheel" but many never find a way to escape that.
For me, ways of escape found me, but while my mind was largely free of the machine, my body was often still its captive. Living in the machine is a survival tactic for many of us, but being of the machine is death. When thinking about writing the story of my own disaffections and activations, it seemed necessary to look into the deep past when such words did not make any sense, to seek out those visceral, out-of-awareness, non-rationalized kinds of experiences, that deterred some of us from the machine at an early age, those episodes that "got us into trouble." I think articulating such experiences and transformations can speak to the importance of daily life in developing a critical consciousness and humane self-awareness. Most academic work, most schooling, neglects this component of learning, and my own thoughtful nature with my own daily life experiences has helped me to try to find ways to integrate daily life with academic work. That has informed my teaching ever since, within and without the machine.
F. Jennings, The Invasion of America: Indians, Colonialism, and the Cant of Conquest (W.W. Norton and Company, 1976).
E. F. Keller, A Feeling for the Organism: The Life and Work of Barbara McClintock (W.H. Freeman & Co., 1993).
L. Mumford, The Myth of the Machine (Harvest Books, 1974).
J. C. Pearce, Evolution’s End: Claiming the Potential of Our Intelligence (Harper San Francisco, 1993).
N. Postman, Teaching as a Subversive Activity (Delacorte Press, 1972).
A. Shariati, Red Shi’ism (Mizan Press, 1980).
I. Shor, Critical Teaching and Everyday Life (University of Chicago Press, 1987).
Malcolm X, The Autobiography of Malcolm X (Ballantine Books, 1992).