Thursday, January 31, 2013

Fluid Communities

Portable Altar, Cluny Museum, Paris
It's late, but I don't teach tomorrow, and I'm so happy that my blog is now weirdo-ad free that I'm going to indulge in a little homecoming to the blog. (Plus, I get to tell you the really strange reason why those ads were there further down). Returning not just to teaching but to home and family has been a whirlwind.  My speaking on a panel at University of Chicago last week-end about how to present yourself (you, a newly minted UofC PhD) as a thriving candidate to a small liberal arts college, opened up into a 36-hour romp in Chicago for me and the girls, which included a night in a downtown hotel (pool with city views! cocktail hour for mommy!), and culminated in a visit to the (hang on) American Girl Store for Iris's birthday.  Wo. Ha.  Is it a blight? Is it a plague? No. All the parents I know and love agree there are good ideas behind it all. Is it overwhelming, but in a completely effective way? Yes.  Still relatively fresh from France, the ability of the place to create a community of fervent participants in no time flat was salient for me. How do they do it? I wish that I were more of a sociologist and I could tell you more. Is it that everyone uses first names? That everyone asks you what your plans are for your doll? That everyone there is so freaking happy? (This is not as snarky as it sounds, and please don't think that I was immune to anything there - I felt genuinely happy for my girls and I felt totally a part of something.). The objects that are the dolls are key, certainly, but it's really the care of the doll that unites the girls. (There's something here about "What It's Like to Be a Doll" and the Tool-Being of dolls, I swear). And I know that Americans get made fun of in France for being so quick to form communities, so quick to belong and join in, so quick to use first names and dispense with formalities, and so strange in finding authentic belonging in ephemeral, fluid (sometimes even virtual or digital!) communities. In France (she said, speaking broadly, but this is what stood out), authentic belonging can take generations.  It took our dear friend David a significant number of years to get a first "Bonjour" from a particular neighbor.  But of course, once that "Bonjour" has been made, then it's for keeps, then it's authentic.

Student photo of Pointe du Raz
All the stranger, then, that being out in the landscapes of Brittany gave so many of our students, so many of us, a sense of belonging.  Communing, bonding, euphoria - in a place so far from home and the familiar and yet, you instantly feel as though you are a part of something.  This generation being what it is, and my being fascinated to try this, I posted images on Facebook nightly about the trip (the one exception was our night in the nunnery), and so our sense of community moved seamlessly from the intensely material to the international virtual. 

new Facebook cover image
This is what currently graces my Facebook page.  Is it just the effort of the body in the space of this environment that gives this sense of belonging, of possession? There are more questions to be asked about why we feel so quickly "at one" with nature.  Why we are so sure this is wonderful and that we are a part of it. Why we can then walk away so easily.  I say this with the Ecology of Medieval Art, and its (in some ways) much more ambivalent responses to nature, very much in mind, and there will be much posting about that. I also say this with the fluidity of virtual communities in mind. While I was watching Iris's purposeful strides throughout the store, and still daydreaming about hikes in Brittany, and pondering which historical book and which pajamas I was going to get the girls, George Washington University was having a Digital Humanities symposium, filled with brilliant speakers and observations. The creation of communities was a big theme, as well as the spaces they inhabit: blogosphere (hello!), Facebook, Twitter. All authentic (oh my heavens, they have completely changed my life), all virtual, all fluid.  For my students, a now necessary step in their experience of nature is not just the gorgeous photography, but posting it on Facebook. Yes, granted, that was my last assignment to them (!), but many of them have gone on to post dozens of images on their own pages. And the fluid communities ebb and flow around "likes" and "comments," part of the authentic reach of being in Brittany.

That portable altar again
All of which brings me to the portable altar once again.  We'll be reading a rich article about it for EcoMed, but I paused at the Cluny and took this picture to savor a student's wonder that "God on the go" was a possibility in the Middle Ages. Despite its being made of stone and metal, there is something virtual about this object.  The architectural space that would normally frame an altar has become virtual.  The community that would worship around it was fluid, ephemeral, transitory. Virtual, as we now know, does not mean not real.  And this virtual altar allowed for an authentic connection/communication with the divine.  A real broadcast, if you will. Because that would allow me to tell you that it turns out that those weird ads, and our messed up Netflix, and our inability to screen pretty much anything for the past week has been the result of our router box thinking we're in Brazil.  That's right, our only subtitle option on Netflix was "Brazilian Portuguese," the kids' movie options were all in Portuguese, our queue disappeared, amazon-prime screening told me that I was out of the country, etc.  Oliver briefly contemplated watching his movies with Portuguese subtitles to maybe learn something. And so, for a week, we were unwitting members of a huge virtual community of Brazilian internet users. The kids were amazed: "Our internet thinks we live in Brazil!" We were transported.

I treasure ephemeral authenticity. I don't know if that makes me particularly American, or modern, or any other definitions.  But I treasure its possibility, I wonder about its traditions (the portable altar), I like to think upon the time of authenticity, and I love the thrill of it. Because it's the ephemeral authenticity that creates the fluid community - in forests, in Chicago, by the sea, in the virtual world. 

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