Identity Check: Blogging With the Class of ’68


John Dotson



Identity, Civilization, and Consciousness

39th Annual Conference of the International Jean Gebser Society

Hofstra University, Hempstead, NY

October 15–17, 2009


The proposal:

In the fall of 2008, I attended my fortieth high school reunion, the Class of 1968, Dobyns-Bennett High School, Kingsport, Tennessee. Kingsport is a moderate-sized industrial city located on the Holston River. The locale is among the most significant in American history—sacred land to the Cherokee, where Daniel Boone set off to blaze the Wilderness Trail, an area of divided loyalties in the Civil War, industrialized early in the twentieth century.

After the reunion, several of us convened in a blog space and began a new era of connecting. Many persons who had not communicated in forty years—or who had never communicated—are now, continually, exchanging information, ideas, opinions. It is a self-organizing and self-sustaining community. I will invite my classmates to participate in contemplating these themes with us.

* * * * * * *

2008 had been among a grueling year for many millions of people and for me. When I first heard about the reunion, I did not plan to attend. That said, I have for several years been developing my next play which is about George Eastman who decided locate a branch of the Eastman Kodak Company in Kingsport in 1920.  An audience I would be most proud to please would be my classmates, many of them friends from early childhood. The call to connect is in my blood, in the flow of the river that the Cherokee called the Hogohechee, in that red clay mud, in the woods and Appalachian Mountains. So it was that I traveled from California to that hotel ballroom as the leaves were slowly turning last October.

To an onlooker, our reunion would have appeared typical—a well-planned, well-executed event, and it was a pretty good turnout. Any deeper paradoxes were not much in evidence. Of course, our class—and Classes of ’68 anywhere, certainly in America—share a set of particulars to consult with regard to our historical identities.

The Tet Offensive occurred in January of our senior year. The Prague Spring lasted until the Soviet invasion in August. Anti-war protests took place around the world. President Johnson ended the bombing of North Viet­nam. Kubrick released 2001: A Space Odyssey in April; the same month Dr. Martin Luther King was assassi­nated and riots erupted in major cities across the US. A week later, Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act. A general strike and student occupations shut down the French economy in May 1968. We graduated in June, and two days later, Robert Kennedy was shot in L.A. The summer ended with riots at the Chicago Democratic Convention. Richard Nixon was elected. The Beatles released the White Album. On Christmas Eve, the crew of Apollo 8 read from the Book of Genesis as they orbited the moon, the first humans to hold the whole Earth directly in their gaze.

However, the conversations I found were not much comprised of such references, but more getting up to date—marriages, partners this way and that, children, grandchildren, careers, fulfillments, compromises, trau­mas, triumphs—as would be expected as we near our sixtieth birthdays. Of course, conversations also ran on about the economy and the presidential election. And so forth into the early morning hours.

About a week later, classmate Karen Taylor Morley set up a blog site, extending the possibilities to connect from wherever we find ourselves coast to coast. The pages of our yearbook, elementary and junior high class pictures were posted, then photos of family travels, group convergences. We have book and movie reviews, a health forum, sections for missing classmates and obituaries. The home page is the place for general announcements and more serious matters, life transitions—joys, sorrows, circles of prayer—while a chat room morphed into being for real time give and take. Then a quick necessity was to set apart another space for political joisting—the tea party room. A few days from now, October 18, the site will have been up for a year. 

Among our first major topics was race. Dobyns-Bennett was racially integrated at the opening of our first year, 1965. Prior to that, the principle of “separate but equal” education had been policy, slow-to-change, in Kings­port. None of our black classmates attended the reunion, and none has yet joined the site. Of course, only a small percentage of classmates have joined the site, and a much smaller number actively participate. A central topic early on was the Viet Nam War and classmates who served there and remembrances of those who died there.

Other historical identifications include atomic bomb drills in elementary school, fears that Russian missiles might fall out of the sky and end the world with fifteen minutes notice. The assassination of President Ken­nedy happened in November of eighth grade. The moon landing in 1969 has come up, and many references to the power of music in our lives. In politics, healthcare has prevailed, with the role of government, taxes, vari­ous attitudes toward President Obama, and skirmishes of left vs. right, liberal vs. conservative, socialist vs. wingnut. Climate change seems to evoke either deathly silence or skepticism. Gay marriage has floated up once or twice. Right now, along with healthcare, Afghanistan is the focal point.

All in all, I find our site brings about enlivening and valuable dialogue. And so it was, when our conference theme was announced, that I imagined conjoining the discourse of this small, self-selected society of home­town peers with the global, self-selected colleagues of the Gebser Society—for the purposes of integral awareness. In both societies, I am continuing to serve the insight which came to me in the spring of 1970 when I had gone north as a communications and philosophy major at Northwestern, near Chicago. The insight—that generations now living will witness changes on scales of magnitude without precedent in human experience—sends a chill up my spine today as it did when I watched the sun rise over Lake Michigan that morning forty years ago. Generations now living are participating in magnitudes of change without precedent in human consciousness.

That prophecy brought fear and trembling in 1970, along with reverence for the vast creative/destructive forces of life always becoming something more. That was the year I first read Gebser. Lately, as I approach middle-age, I have been feeling a profound sense of dread. Could it be that I am getting older? The scale of changes has become difficult to take. That is why I am here with you, trying to work this salvation out.

As proposed, I posted on the site a request for resonances with the terms identity, civilization, and conscious­ness. Come to think of it, I’ve never seen these words on Facebook (even with Gebserians there). Twitter restricts sentient thoughts to 144 characters. One classmate, Stephen Million, Nashville, describes identity as “The glue that holds style, purpose, and strength together in one person, group, or system.” That’s good. The basic Latin is idem, “the same,” and identidem “over and over”—idem et idem, item after item. Identity.

Moving along to civilization. Stephen writes: “A design plan, created or evolved, which attempts to bridge the gap between those included, and those not included, with words, wars, and sometimes wisdom.” Excellent, Stephen. And Barbara Martin Lee, near Knoxville, responds: “Civilization means to me that people get together because they can do more together than they can alone. They can cooperate and do bigger projects. They can have division of labor. They can share things, and help each other out—benefit from each other’s skills. Gosh, they can go to each other’s houses for supper! We need to do that! I can see a vast desert, and then an oasis. People start to discover it, and build houses there. More people come. They enjoy each other’s company. They protect each other.” Indeed, civitas is a “community of citizens,” from civis, “homestead.” Civilization, the English noun, didn’t appear until early in the eighteenth century—expressing the sense of a “civilized condition” in contrast to barbarity. Three centuries later, barbarity flourishes.

Philosopher Alfred North Whitehead writes that: “The notion of civilization is very baffling. It suggests a cer­tain ideal for life on this Earth, and this ideal concerns both the individual human being and also societies. Somehow the general notion is elusive.” Also, “Civilization is nothing other than the unremitting aim at the major perfections of harmony,” and he speaks of “the zest of self-forgetful transcendence belonging to Civili­zation at its height.” At its height, civilization leads us to alterity, to transcend ourselves in finding one another. Well, that’s motivation enough to sign up and choose a password.

Regarding consciousness, Stephen posts “One’s ability and willingness to relax enough to see, feel, and attempt to analyze and understand any place or situation without blame or regret.” That’s an interesting take. I’ve never thought about consciousness as a manner of relaxing, but there’s an integral insight there that I need. I don’t know about you, but a little lightening up would certainly be an excellent result of my ongoing practices at mindfulness of our planetary predicament.

I have tried to gather something of what we are experiencing together. I introduced the notion that we do well to pay attention to the power of the field, that connect us, the interactive field where are sharing our identities in a manner completely impossible in civilization whatever it was forty years ago. We have hardly begun to recognize this new field.  And I am not referring merely to the ecstasies and addictions of navigating social media.

Classmate Kevin Henry, Pittsburg PA, observes “Our lives are dynamically intersecting, each unfolding together, with a staggering array of sensate experiences attending each moment, sort of like fireworks spiraling out in all directions. If we don’t get too involved in judging it, but just relax into the fascination of it, it’s sim­ply beautiful. We’re doing it on this site all the time. And it’s a wildly alivening experience that we’re having and creating doing it. What we’re doing and loving doing gives us a whole new way to see ourselves. Quite a kick.”

Yes, Kevin, it is important to recognize this new site of understanding the unfolding of our lives as we wonder what’s coming next. And I agree with Stephen that “one of this Earth’s greatest humanitarian causes may become helping individuals and families deal with not living in the manner they’re accustomed to.” You can say that again, on a planetary scale. There’s a lot more going on than we think. There has always been a lot more going on than we can think. And still, we are responsible.

I offered a new expression to the folks on the site, one that could be useful in describing the water that we fish find ourselves swimming in. The expression is cinemaesthesia from the Greek words, kínēsis, “motion, movement, change” plus aísthēsis, “perception, sensation.” The term applies not only to how we perceive change but also how the way we perceive changes.

Cinemaesthesia can be used to describe the changing field of awareness that involves information and com­munication technologies (photography, film, radio and television broadcasting, audio and video, internet, cell phones). The cinemaesthetic field is a third mode of the imaginal field that we experience both when we are awake in various states and also when we are dreaming.  The cinemaesthetic field has irrupted, largely unrec­ognized, from the early-nineteenth into the twenty-first centuries along with scientific discoveries such as relativity and quantum physics and technologies that affect our perception. The effects are not reducible to any formulation of cultural norms, social relations, or any set of identifications, categories, or comprehensions. The powers of the cinemaesthetic field exceed those of electrical transmission and surpass the combined pro­ductive outputs of the global economy. These powers are greater than a calculus of capital, vectors of govern­ance, and political ideologies. These powers call for educational approaches appropriate to planetary transfor­mations on scales without precedent in human experience.

There you have it—some of what I posted. Bobbi responded, “John, I’ve read your entry over and over, and I don’t have any idea what you are talking about.” I tried again:

Just think of field as in football field or baseball field. Hold that in your mind and think about the nature of that open field with nothing happening on it. Maybe think of a country field. That’s what field meant to me growing up—running free at Grampaw’s down in West Carter’s Valley. Think of a cornfield or a football field. These fields are distinct places set apart by boundaries and purposes. A cornfield is defined by a fence, a football field by a grid. For agriculture, the whole field includes the wisdom of when and how to work the land, knowledge that determines plowing, seeding, and harvesting. For football and baseball, there are whole sets of rules. But even then, with the place and the knowledge and the rules, nothing has happened. Teams are formed, practice, show up at an agreed time, and then the game begins. At that point, the excitement is not-knowing exactly what is going to happen. In baseball, there is no way of knowing when the game will end. These are unpredictable factors of the fields.

Thus, we have fields of possibilities, we have knowledge based on past experience, we have rules, we have those ready to act on the basis of the rules, we have the purposes of winning, we have uncertainty about how things are going to turn out.

When we think of a field, most of us probably think “horizontally”—a surface that has been made flat to play on, or ground that has been cleared to plow. But fields are also vertical—goalposts, outfield walls, fences, bleachers, light posts, or fence posts, barns, silos. There are horizontal and vertical planes. Plus there are time factors. There are seasons for baseball, football, and soybeans. And again, the challenge and the excitement is: how is the game going to come out? Will it be a winning season? Will the crops come in? All these dimen­sions, then, make up the wholeness of a field. Otherwise, we have an incomplete field.

We could say all these elements exist in an imaginary field, or imaginal field. This field is vital for our sur­vival and includes our memories and our abilities to intuit and hypothesize and manage possible outcomes. The imaginal field is as real as your ability to theorize your lunch, and then earn it. The imaginal field is what sets the stage for all future halftime shows. It is possible for us to imagine what does not yet exist, and what might exist, and also what might have existed without our knowing about it and has not yet come to light or understanding. The field includes what we know and what we might know and also what we can never know.

The word cinemaesthetic can be used to describe a way that we see and hear things, how we are experiencing our lives to be changing—visibly and invisibly. And as we are experiencing right now all over the planet, the cinemaesthetic field has no boundaries, no fences, no walls. The cinemaesthetic field is not limited to hard­ware or software, not limited to horizontal or vertical, and it is also not limited to any particular sense of time. In this new, global civilization, there are no absolute barriers. Our concerns are not only with what we observe but also how we observe and how we participate.

I doubt that Grampaw would have believed me if I could have told him there could be a way to connect instantaneously with anyone, anywhere in the world, with words, pictures, moving pictures, music, dance. I wonder what he would have thought if I told him that it would be possible to search and re-connect with almost anyone he had ever known who had a similar desire for contact, and he could meet new people, and that all these connections would be at the speed of light, and include limitless archiving at will. And these powers would be available to him anytime and anywhere he wanted. And all with a device that would fit in his overalls pocket—smooth as a philosopher’s stone found out in a field.

All of us on planet Earth—all species, the rainforests, the ice caps, your back yard—are entangled with the imaginal field. However, our lives in this field are being integrated both efficiently and deficiently. “It is the business of the future to be dangerous,” Whitehead proclaims. The prelude to all online sessions for me is a scanning of the information links on my menu bar. Every email and posting is enmeshed with a review of the BBC global edition and the other familiar homepages of information pulsing, pulsing, pulsing. I confess, my name is John, I am compulsive scanner. What am I scanning for? What is the Latin for this? Identidem? Civi­tas? Homestead.” Con+scius? Conscious, “knowing with another,” “knowing with others.”

We have new a new field of responsibility for all the Others who are affected by our behaviors even though they may not have access to the portals. We have limitless responsibilities to all human beings, beings of all species, plants, the oceans, the atmosphere, the climate, and to all life processes beyond our capacities to imagine. Our new powers to reach out also bring awareness of the dimensions of non-reachability, difference, our being in eclipse.

We have a capacity for global dialogue unlike any generations that have come before us. What are the rules? What are the costs? The business of the future is very, very dangerous. How is it possible to care for everyone and to care for everything? How are we choosing (whether we know it or not) what to pay attention to? In the shadows of our inevitably selective inattention, how is it possible to meet our obligations to those who remain unrecognized? Narcissism is not a belief system. Anesthesia does not work. Numbness is not a plan.

According to Whitehead, “The major advances in civilization are processes which all but wreck the societies in which they occur.”  Research shows that young people today are using all available means to access infor­mation and to communicate culture, to extend their friendships and interests while forming their identities. I would describe this “new site of Self-directed, peer-based learning” as nothing less than the emerging field of world civilization. Research shows that we elders may actually be included and welcomed as “experienced peers” who can have a certain “collegiality” with those who are two and three generations removed from the Sixties. It will not be long until we have a complete generation born in the twenty-first century. Rev up your search engines and check out changing trends of global demographics. Here comes everybody. The words of a young Dylan Thomas come to me, “This is the world. Have faith.”

I will close with a few verses from The Medium is the Massage. This is the oldest book I own. I was 17 when I bought it, in 1967, when it was published—$1.45. The cover has come loose (and so has mine). Here is Pastor McLuhan:

The medium, or process, of our time—electric technology—is reshaping and restructuring patterns of social interdependence and every aspect of our personal life. It is forcing us to reconsider and reevaluate every thought, every action, and every institution. Everything is changing—you, your family, your neighborhood, your education, your job, your government, your relation to the others. / Survival is not possible if one approaches the environment, the social drama, with a fixed, unchangeable point of view—the witless repetitive response to the unperceived. / Electric circuitry has overthrown the regime of time and space and pours upon us instantly and continuously the concerns of all others. It has reconstituted dialogue on a global scale. Its message is Total Change. / Our new environment compels commitment and participation. We have become irrevocably involved with, and responsible for, each other.

We do not know what we shall become.

Jean Gebser says

In transparency the spiritual comes to perception: origin is present.
In truth we ware the whole and the whole wares us.

Amen, and amen.

I will endeavor to practice this more mindfully next time I enter my password and log on.