The art of living

I strongly suspect that a contemporary art of living can be recovered. I believe in the art of suffering, in the art of dying, in the art of living, and, so long as it is in an austere and clearsighted way, in the art of enjoyment, of living it up.
Ivan Illich, Ivan Illich in Conversation (David Calley, House of Anansi Press, 1992)

People of faith can stand to learn a lot from environmentalism and conservation biology: few would dispute this proposition. But is the opposite also true? Can environmentalists and conservation biologists learn from religious and humanistic traditions? In the past year, the flagship magazines of several large conservation organizations have argued that such a cross-fertilization can and must take place. Articles have referenced the increasing efforts of clerics from many faiths to convince their followers that care for the environment/Creation is a sacred duty, and quoted testimonies from environmental activists for whom some form of spiritual awareness and/or practice is an important motivator.

Thus, two important messages have emerged: 1) an awareness of ecological realities and environmental crises should become a focus for faith-based activities; and 2) environmentalists and conservation organizations can improve their outreach efforts if they take the spiritual dimension into account. I’d like to take a small step further and suggest that if environmentalists really want to learn how to unite individual action with social movements and cultural transformation, they should look South, where the situation is the most desperate – and where some of the most creative solutions are beginning to emerge.

The steel drum culture of Trinidad was cited by the late social philosopher Ivan Illich as a model and an archetype for a new approach to cultural production now widely encountered in the global South. Half a century ago, musicians with welding torches discovered that 55-gallon drums discarded by the petrochemical industry could be drums indeed, and a whole new music was born. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure. And when this conversion takes place under the sign of a new melange of cultures – call it creolism, call it mestizaje – it can come to possess revelatory, even incarnational power.

By contrast, here in the North we are exhorted to “reduce, reuse, recycle.” This mantra of the waste manager trumpets a reductionist bias in its very first term. Human beings are nothing more than consumers, nodes in an endless cycle of resources. But as the old Anglo-German proverb “waste not, want not” implicitly recognizes, we cannot want without wasting. We cannot waste without wanting. To really understand pollution, we have to understand desire. For that, I believe, we must have recourse to religious and humanistic traditions.

But isn’t economics the true science of human desires? Potentially, yes. But in its most prevalent form, neo-classical and liberal economic theories are burdened by fallacious assumptions that impede a broader understanding. I speak not merely of the habitual externalization of social and environmental costs with which most conservationists are already familiar. According to the usual analysis, this blindness derives from a kind of over-enthusiasm – the cornucopian premise. I would argue (influenced by Illich) that this predilection has deeper roots: in the very notion of environment as Cartesian space through which commodities can circulate with no essential change in quality. The model for this kind of circulation is money – pure medium, with no real content. To reduce the world to commodities or resources is to literally devalue it – ultimately, to equate it with zero.

Recycling is widely viewed as an alternative to waste. But Nature neither wastes nor recycles: she transforms. I believe that humans can and must follow Nature if we are truly to “conserve” our “environment” – inadequate terms that may well be unequal to the task ahead. We need to reinvent the language of use and waste, to begin thinking instead of care and healing. For illustrations of the sorts of directions in which this could lead, I’ll cite just two examples, both from Africa.

“Art from Africa’s junkyards,” an article by Gloria Goodale in the March 21, 2003 Christian Science Monitor, described an exhibition of Senegalese Sufi art that had just opened in Los Angeles.

“Lilting dance music fills the rooms in the first US display of Senegalese Sufi art. But it is not just another piece of radio noise.

“The song, ‘Do You Hear Me, Father Bamba?’ is by the well-known Sufi singer, Youssou N’Dour, singing to his faithful and exhorting them to show their faith in everyday life.

“Indeed, showing the faith might be a good way to describe the intention of ‘A Saint in the City: Sufi Arts of Urban Senegal,’ at the Fowler Museum of Cultural History at the University of California, Los Angeles, through July 27.

“Through various art forms, including murals, glass paintings, and fragile historical documents, the show depicts a community-building vision of Islam that stands in stark contrast to Islamist radicals. ‘This is another, and very important face of Islam,’ says co-curator Allen Roberts, UCLA professor of World Arts and Culture.

“The exhibition, which Los Angeles Times art critic Christopher Knight dubbed as one of L.A.’s top nine art events for 2003, ‘actually began in the junkyards of Senegal,’ says Mary Nooter Roberts, chief curator of the Fowler Museum.

“She and her husband, co- curator Allen Roberts, were in the country nearly 10 years ago and noticed that discarded motor parts were being hammered into sieves. The exhibition explores the impact of one of the most important Sufi movements in the sub-Saharan African nation, known as Mouridism.

“‘There is this thing called the mystique du travail,’ she says, referring to the French phrase ‘the mystique of work,’ that surrounds the Mouridians. ‘They take this dedication to work as a means to salvation to something far beyond even the Protestant work ethic.’

“The Mouridism movement was founded by the Sufi poet and mystic, Sheikh Amadou Bamba (1853-1927), the spiritual leader of some 4 million Senegalese Muslims, including the country’s current president. The most important tenets of the religion are pacifism and hard work, says Ms. Roberts.

“Mouridians, she says, are known for transforming derelict areas of a community into vibrant, livable centers for commerce and political life, through their devotion to labor. Images of the detritus of industrial life being turned into useful objects abound. One photo shows vast piles of oil barrels that will be flattened into trunks.”

Although this article is no longer available for free on the Internet, another, much longer and more scholarly article is. A Saint in the City: Sufi Arts of Urban Senegal was authored by the exhibition’s curators, Allen F. and Mary Nooter Roberts, and appeared in African Arts magazine (Winter 2002). Roberts and Roberts identify the Muslim concept of baraka, or blessing, as the catalyst for the Mouride synthesis of life and art. Though others have translated this blessing power as “charisma,” they feel the word “aura” does more justice to its popular Senegalese usage. I like the way they put some fairly abstruse theory into play here:

“‘Aura,’ from the Greek, literally means a ‘breeze’ or ‘breath’ (OED 1982:565), and is extended to refer to the inherence of power and presence within a work of art (Freedberg 1989). ‘In the auratic experience the object becomes human, as it were’ (Foster 1988:197), and possesses the capacity to produce a response, bestow well-being, and protect its viewers. Through the theorizing of Walter Benjamin and the debates his work has engendered, ‘aura’ has also come to be associated with the ‘authenticity of a thing … [and] the essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning, ranging from its substantive duration to its testimony to the history which it has experienced’ (1988:221). When Benjamin wrote that ‘to perceive the aura of an object we look at means to invest it with the ability to look at us in return’ (1988:188), he might have been speaking of a Mouride sense of how their icons possess baraka. That an image with aura has ‘weight, opacity and substance’ and ‘never quite reveals its secret[s]’ (Baudrillard 1983:22-23) also echoes Mouride sentiments. Above all else, Mourides feel that baraka does things: it works, changes, and helps.”

And as the Monitor passage indicates, this is no fringe movement. In the 1980s, Roberts and Roberts note, “At a moment of dire tensions between urban youth and the Senegalese government over a lack of jobs and the collapse of basic city services, young people took to the streets–not to riot, as had been feared, but to refabulate their neighborhoods. That is, they cleaned, reclaimed, repainted, and renamed alienated spaces by endowing them with icons of their own imaginary [sic]. Instead of reminding people of colonial humiliations, new monuments and murals celebrated soccer stars, musicians, politicians, human-rights heroes, and above all, the saints of Senegalese Sufism. Portraits of Amadou Bamba figured importantly in this vibrant collage, and the Saint emerged as an ‘alternative figure in nationalist memory’ standing for and promoting both ‘a rupture in postcolonial memory’ and a ‘new modernity’ (Mamadou Diouf, personal communication, 1995).”

Given that one out of every three sub-Saharan Africans is a Muslim, and considering the instrumental role of Sufi brotherhoods in spreading this more tolerant form of African Islam from the 18th century onwards, we are not grasping at straws here to glimpse in Mouridism the shape of a new and more civilized future. But the inspiration need not be Muslim – or even explicitly religious. From the other end of the continent, Steve Biko delineated “Some African Cultural Concepts” in an essay later selected for The African Philosophy Reader, edited by P.H. Coetzee and A.P.J. Roux and published by Routledge in 1998.

Biko describes African society as fundamentally humanistic and communalistic. He contrasts this with Europeans, among whom “a visitor to someone’s house, with the exception of friends, is always met with the question ‘What can I do for you?'” Seeing people as instruments, as “agents for some particular function” is foreign to the Bantu worldview, he maintains. “We believe in the inherent goodness of man. We enjoy man for himself. We regard our living together not as an unfortunate mishap warranting endless competition among us but a deliberate act of God to make us a community of brothers and sisters jointly involved in the quest for a composite answer to the varied problems of life.”

While these views may be anathema to those who buy into the cant about an ineluctable conflict between “anthropocentrism” and “biocentrism,” I would merely point out that it is precisely our distaste for each others’ company here in the U.S. that fuels the on-going orgy of road building, SUV manufacturing and suburban and exurban sprawl. If Americans were more like Africans, there’d be a hell of a lot more unfragmented wild habitat left, and the air would be a lot cleaner, too.

This humanistic philosophy is on display in another, more recent article from the Christian Science Monitor (they specialize in this kind of hopeful stuff): “From Rubble to Revival,” by Megan Lindow (Feb. 26, 2004). It details the successful struggle of a South African artist, Mandla Mentoor, to galvanize his neighbors and turn their Soweto neighborhood around. Mentoor began as a local activist focused on unemployment, crime, and environmental degradation. He traces his inspiration to the student protest movement of the 1976, in which Steve Biko had played a leading role.

“At first, he says, he recruited young people and unemployed women to salvage paper, cans, and other waste materials to sell, but he quickly realized this was not the best way to make money. So he developed Amandla Waste Creations and began teaching people to use these materials to make low-cost building materials and crafts such as papier-mí¢ché and wire sculptures to sell to tourists. . . . The organization’s first real grant money came when Mentoor won the World Wilderness Forum’s Green Trust Award in 2002. Mentoor’s group voted to use the prize money ($1,500) to buy rakes and masks needed to clean up ‘the mountain.'”

The neighborhood’s visual focal point, a little hillock topped by a water tower, had been strewn with garbage – the legacy of over a decade of local tax revolts against the Apartheid regime, which led to the cessation of all garbage pick-up services. “Criminals frequented the area, women were raped, and local people sometimes found abandoned babies and dead bodies in the rubble, Mentoor recalls. He had the vision to look past all that: to see, instead of wasted space, a unique and powerful place, the neighborhood’s true heart.

“Today . . . the trash is gone, and patches of dusty hillside have been planted with trees and vegetable gardens. Residents have built makeshift theaters and cooking huts, and walls of rock have been piled up to form ‘dialogue circles’ – spaces for meetings, parties, and performances.

“Projects like this reflect a ‘greening’ movement that is slowly spreading in neglected urban townships and degraded rural settlements, where most South Africans live,” the article continues. Part of Mentoor’s genius was to recognize the importance of creating ties to place through community gardening, art, even renaming: “We call this place Somoho, the Soweto Mountain of Hope.” And though the article focuses largely on his vision, it’s clear that hundreds of people are now involved and employed in enterprises ranging from bakeries and sewing shops to film and recording studios.

“Sydney Cindi, who runs the waste-art section of the program, says he’s trying to get young people involved so they won’t make the mistakes he did. He learned to work with clay in prison, where he served four years for robbery. ‘To me, Somoho is not just a project, it’s a school of learning,’ he says. ‘When we started on the mountain it was a dumping place. Now it’s a place where people sit under the trees.'”

“We reject the power-based society of the Westerner that seems to be ever concerned with perfecting their technological know-how while losing out on their spiritual dimension,” Steve Biko declared. “We believe that in the long run the special contribution to the world by Africa will be in this field of human relationships. The great powers of the world may have done wonders in giving the world an industrial and military look, but the great gift still has to come from Africa – giving the world a more human face.” God grant that it be so!

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