Optimism vs. cynicism

Strange morning. I was listening to CBC Radio as I usually do. On The Current, they interviewed George Monbiot, a writer for The Guardian, who was talking about air travel within the context of global climate change. Pretty heavy stuff. I agree with all of it. We’re sitting in a closed garage with the car running, essentially, and rather than turn the car off, we’re just enjoying getting high off the fumes. Wonderful. (And for the record, yes, I own a car.)

Anyway, an hour later, on Sounds Like Canada, on comes Bruce Mau, a designer who recently published a think piece in The Walrus called “Optimism: Imagining The Future.”

As a global culture we are beginning to outgrow polarized and binary divisions but we still confuse the media with reality. If we were to publish a newspaper called Reality, it would be a mile thick. The first quarter-inch would arrive on your doorstep, scare the hell out of you, push the worst of human possibility into your world, make you want to lock your doors, inhibit your impulse toward community, and drive you to xenophobia, resentful and fearful of all the violent others determined to ruin your life. The rest of the mile of newspaper — the reality of our world, the part that never gets published — would be Massive Change, the story of how millions of people from every part of the world are working together to confront the dilemmas we face as a global society.

What is Massive Change, and why is it capitalized? Not only is it an attempt here to create an idea, but it also refers to Bruce Mau’s Massive Change Project, which “explores the legacy and potential, the promise and power of design in improving the welfare of humanity.”

Massive Change explores paradigm-shifting events, ideas, and people, investigating the capacities and ethical dilemmas of design in manufacturing, transportation, urbanism, warfare, health, living, energy, markets, materials, the image and information. We need to evolve a global society that has the capacity to direct and control the emerging forces in order to achieve the most positive outcome. We must ask ourselves: Now that we can do anything what will we do?

For Bruce Mau, cynicism is the lazy response to the challenges facing the world. I agree. I just don’t know how to go about being a positive force in the world. I’m trying to figure it out.

In one of my recent posts, I talked about my need to start a new Islamic blog that isn’t weighed down by the state of global politics. Just yesterday, I was listening to a podcast with Leila Ahmed, a Muslim feminist who touched upon an interesting point: Religion has become so intertwined with politics that we seem to have trouble now seeing religion outside of politics. It’s a fascinating thought, particularly since that is a more eloquent way of describing the idea behind my potential new blog.

I don’t know what my point is in all this. I know that I’ve felt, for a very, very long time, that being realistic should not mean being cynical or pessimistic. I’m not saying we delude ourselves. What I agree with is the idea—Bruce Mau touched upon it in the interview—that intellectualism is so often intertwined with cynicism.

The art world, too, is caught up in this tendency. “Serious” art is, well, serious. It’s not a recent trend, either. Aristotle said as much in Poetics: tragedy is the high form of art, while comedy is the low form for the vulgar masses.

Writer Tom Robbins touched upon a similar point about the over-seriousness of art in an essay in Harper’s, that normally stodgy, intellectual and pretentious magazine that I still manage to respect. Here’s an excerpt of that essay called “Writing, Wisdom, and the Fabulous Club Gemini” (subscription required):

The fact that playfulness—a kind of divine playfulness intended to lighten man’s existential burden and promote what Joseph Campbell called “the rapture of being alive”—lies near the core of Zen, Taoist, Sufi, and Tantric teachings is lost on most Westerners: working stiffs and intellectuals alike. Even scholars who acknowledge the playful undertone in those disciplines treat it with condescension and disrespect, never mind that it’s a worldview arrived at after millennia of exhaustive study, deep meditation, unflinching observation, and intense debate.

Tell an editor at The New York Review of Books that Abbot Chögyam Trungpa would squirt his disciples with water pistols when they became overly earnest in their meditative practice, or that the house of Japan’s most venerated ninja is filled with Mickey Mouse memorabilia, and you’ll witness an eye-roll of silent-movie proportions. Like that fusty old patriarch in the Bible, when they become a man (or woman) they “put away childish things,” which is to say they seal off with the hard gray wax of fear and pomposity that aspect of their being that was once attuned to wonder.

As a result of their having abandoned that part of their human nature that is potentially most transcendent, it’s no surprise that modern intellectuals dismiss playfulness—especially when it dares to present itself in literature, philosophy, or art—as frivolous or whimsical. Men who wear bow ties to work every day (let’s make an exception for Pee-Wee Herman), men whose dreams have been usurped either by the shallow aspirations of the marketplace or by the drab clichés of Marxist realpolitik, such men are not adroit at distinguishing that which is lighthearted from that which is merely lightweight. God knows what confused thunders might rumble were they to encounter a concept such as “crazy wisdom.”

Crazy wisdom is, of course, the opposite of conventional wisdom. It is wisdom that deliberately swims against the current in order to avoid being swept along in the numbing wake of bourgeois compromise; wisdom that flouts taboos in order to undermine their power; wisdom that evolves when one, while refusing to avert one’s gaze from the sorrows and injustices of the world, insists on joy in spite of everything; wisdom that embraces risk and eschews security; wisdom that turns the tables on neurosis by lampooning it; the wisdom of those who neither seek authority nor willingly submit to it.

That being said, I’d like to send this message to Aristotle: Ari, I bite my thumb at thee! Long live puppy dogs wearing bow ties!

Now then, about that climate change thing…