Identity Check: Blogging With
the Class of ’68
Identity, Civilization, and Consciousness
39th Annual Conference of the International Jean Gebser Society
University, Hempstead, NY
October 15–17, 2009
In the fall of 2008, I attended my fortieth high school reunion, the Class of
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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:
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,
We do not know what we shall
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.