From Shorris’s NYT Obituary (6/3/12):
While education policy has leaned in recent decades toward giving students work skills, Mr. Shorris’s idea was to teach what he considered the ultimate skills: reflection and critical thinking, as taught by the humanities. “If the multigenerational poor are to make the leap out of poverty, it will require a new kind of thinking — reflection,” he wrote in 1997.
“And that is a beginning.” The study of the humanities, he said, is “in itself a redistribution of wealth.”
It was while researching a book published in 1997, New American Blues: A Journey Through Poverty to Democracy, that Mr. Shorris happened upon the vocation that would occupy his last years. He was interviewing inmates at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for Women in Westchester County, N.Y., asking for their opinions on why poor people were poor. One inmate, Viniece Walker, told him it was because they lacked “the moral life of downtown” — meaning, she said, exposure to “plays, museums, concerts, lectures, you know.”
“You mean the humanities,” Mr. Shorris replied, surprised by her answer.
“Yes, Earl, the humanities,” she said.
“Ms. Walker’s words triggered an epiphany of sorts, Mr. Shorris wrote in a 1997 Harper’s essay: Poverty was an absence of reflection and beauty, not an absence of money. It was comparable to the experience of people chained to the wall of the cave in Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, he said: They see shadows on the walls, and assume that is all there is in the world. At the first Clemente Course meeting, “’I passed out their reading assignment. Of course, it was the Allegory of the Cave,’” he wrote.
I only have a few intellectual heros–Adrienne Rich, Ntozake Shange, Robert Hass–and Earl Shorris was maybe the only one who kept me up at night, thinking. I wasn’t raised to have intellectual interests and wasn’t familiar with the “moral life of downtown” until I went to college later (than most) in life.
I treat as a testable claim Shorris’s assertion that “if the multigenerational poor are to make the leap out of poverty, it will require a new kind of thinking — reflection … plays, museums, concerts, lectures” and critical thinking, but I’ve yet to encounter a better alternative.
How Shorris launched his presentation to twenty potential applicants for his newly developed humanities course directed toward the poor and disenfranchised in New York City:
You’ve been cheated. Rich people learn the humanities; you didn’t. The humanities are a foundation for getting along in the world, for thinking, for learning to reflect on the world instead of just reacting to whatever force is turned against you. I think the humanities are one of the ways to become political … if you want real power, legitimate power, the kind that comes from the people and belongs to the people, you must understand politics. The humanities will help.
From “On (Digital) Photography: Sontag, 34 Years Later”:
Photography is a kingdom of glamour and banality. The photograph, whatever its cultural pedigree, does not so much exalt the everyday as establish the aesthetic parameters, the peaks and troughs, of everydayness. The camera may record astounding events or reveal shocking truths, but always within the context of the ordinary, the literal, the real.
As Roland Barthes put it in “Camera Lucida,” his graceful and disarmingly poignant meditation on the nature of the art, the photograph always says the same thing: “That has happened.” Which means that every photograph is equivalent even as each one is distinct, and that they all capture a precise present and register its conversion into an irretrievable past. Photography is the definitively modern, technologically relentless engine for the mass production of nostalgia. Video may be live, instantaneous, perpetually current, but a still photograph takes up instant residence in the archive. It gives you not the gratifications of immediacy, which moving pictures deliver so readily, but rather a teasing and endlessly seductive sense of distance.
[Barthes] was less troubled by this prospect than Sontag, whose prose, in the final pages of “On Photography,” ripples with alarm. “Images are more real than anyone could have supposed,” she wrote. She warned that our consciousnesses, individual and collective, were in danger of being overwhelmed, our aesthetic and ethical senses dulled and muddled, by an ever-intensifying blizzard of mechanically produced pictures. How would we be able to sort through them all, to decode their messages and judge their merits? How would we know what was real? “We consume images at an ever faster rate,” Sontag observed, and the more we do, the more “images consume reality.”
|“The real subject is yourself facing the world” – Thierry Girard|
Susan Sontag: Ecology of Images
“Images are more real than anyone could have supposed. And just because they are an unlimited resource, one that cannot be exhausted by consumerist waste, there is all the more reason to apply the conservationist remedy. If there can be a better way for the real world to include the one of images, it will require an ecology not only of real things but of images as well.”
“My own inordinate interest in what the lunatics are up to in every corner of our planet has to do with my childhood.”
— Goodbye Serenity, 12/5/2011.
“There is also a growing out-of-sight-out-of-mind problem. A study, by Sean Reardon, a sociologist at Stanford, shows that Americans are increasingly living in areas that are either poor or affluent. The isolation of the prosperous, he said, threatens their support for public schools, parks, mass transit and other investments that benefit broader society.
“The poor do without and the near poor, at best, live from paycheck to paycheck. Most Americans don’t know what that is like, but unless the nation reverses direction, more are going to find out.”
— The Poor, the Near Poor and You
Downtown with some DePaul students. Some of us will return this weekend for a vigil for Scott Olsen.