“And those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music.”
The most difficult question to answer is “What’s up?”. So many things are up! And to tell you in this brief passing would do injustice to the complexity of ourselves and… onto other things. But seriously, what’s up? I brushed my teeth a couple minutes ago and the nice, minty taste is still in my mouth. My socks are soaking wet because I tried to jump over a puddle on the way to Lidl but splashed right into the fluid. My mind has been racing with thoughts about what’s next in life; thoughts that flutter around with their own demanding questions which I hadn’t thought to ask myself before—and before I know it, my own thoughts are asking me: “What’s up?!”.
Of course, to call the “What’s up?” question difficult is to assume it should be answered perfectly and methodically. Perhaps the standards of the question are not so high, and the question is merely a convention. Perhaps the kindest response I could give is “Not much, what’s up with you?”, most smoothly conveying that everything in my life is going on as I would expect it to go on—everything on track, or nothing notably off track.
This analysis of the “What’s up?” question is playful of course, but by painting this scene I hope to develop the context by which I can begin to explain myself. Words alone do not contain the entire meaning of a given text or utterance. Rather, the context—the meaningful context—of words provides much of the meaning that those words contain. Thus, it would actually be unfair to generalize the “What’s up?” question to being merely the “What’s up?” question. A “What’s up?” might for example convey: What’s up—with you right now with the weather being all bad and all and given I’ve noticed that you haven’t eaten oatmeal in a while and Kanye West is news right now so I assume the things that are up with you are in relation to that and… But to speak this mess would be too many words, too many words, so fewer words are spoken that derive their meaningful weight from the spoken context.
The problem, I think, is that more and more of our communications are distorted by rigid cultural assumptions and our new digital spaces. Let me explain. Lately, I have been quite experimental on social media. I’ve developed a newfound courage for placing creative assortments of words into a social light, and with my emphasis on creativity gave LinkedIn a heart attack—and Instagram maybe a palpitation. I deem my posts unconventional in relation to each social media’s culture. After an intense episode of posting, I realized that despite my laughs and giggles, given these cultures of social media use, the posts that I thought were cute-little-and-creative might be interpreted otherwise by the viewers! No! Not the viewers! The assumptions that underly these social media cultures are assumptions about what a post and its words represent. The culture is distorting my highly personal posts with wrong explanations! Look now, in this post you can see that he wrote these words for and only for your attention—you can tell because he posted it on social media. Yes seriously, look closely and you can interpret its meaning as an appeal for nothing more than your attention. Thus, the immediate interpretations of our words (and actions) are tied to culture—mob-ruled, chaotic, broken culture.
Let me explain something further. Another challenge is finding the right words, concepts, metaphors, the means of explanation, to explain yourself in a way that resonates with others but doesn’t distort your intended meaning. Culture provides many of the shared devices of explanation. Culture produces the standard concepts of living, the standard concepts of happiness, the standard concepts of suffering, so on and so forth; so the extent to which your lifestyle deviates from the cookie-cutter designs of culture, the more trouble you’ll have explaining yourself. For example, my life’s most difficult-to-explain moment was my great shift from working in software development in Minneapolis to studying philosophy in Groningen, and I always strain to explain this choice. I’ll say I made the choice because “Philosophy appeared more meaningful” or “I wanted an adventure in Europe”. Such explanations appeal to the heavily-shared, largely culturally defined concepts of ‘finding meaning’ in one’s ‘career’, or ‘wanting’ to go on an ‘adventure’. But these explanations honestly don’t sound right to me, and as such, in brief interactions even these answers taste like social convention—the “What’s up?” question, but instead, the “Which lifestyle do you live?” question.
I know, I know, I should just explain myself fully and honestly, and I agree, but to do so takes time and effort, both which seem to be diminishing in our current social climate. Explanation then is a matter of care—who do you care to explain yourself to and who’s willing and able to listen? Who will take the time to try to understand you in your meaningful context, that depth beneath the cultural surface? Who cares? Who might step into your room and paint with words for an hour only to set up the context—yes I’ll say it forever, the meaningful context—in which you might embark on the most intimate conversation with your most personal concepts. Conversations where you define your own words. Conversations that have not been had before, because nobody like you has ever existed before; though culture might tell you otherwise. Only in these moments, after having explained this much, do I think I can remind you that You are beautiful and loved. and have these words hit you with the force that they should.
But the contexts, the opportunities, to say such beautiful words with their loving force are disappearing unnoticed.
I only worry we might come to rely on culture for the very planning and explanations of our lives. Culture might become so ingrained in our thinking—so strong, so pervasive—that the beautiful depths of our selves disappear altogether. To be more technical, in understanding culture as social knowledge, the threat of culture is the rationalization of our lives—politicization, medicalization, and datafication, all words worth looking up. One can clearly see the spread of political, medical, and data-analytical (?) concepts into our intimate conversations, rooting themselves in our deepest senses of self. Yes, yes, I am as I am because it’s (please read me charitably here) politically correct, it’s best for my long-term health, and as for data, well, I’m saving all of mine so the analysts might one day figure out my best life.
There’s one more thing I’d like to explain: the appearance of this article. I write about these things here and now because when I started playing around more intensely on social media, I really began to wonder how others would take my words. Social media very quickly became an outlet for random snippets of creativity, and the reactions I received, or I assumed I received, became a new source of self-evaluation. But I think some of my posts came to be so out there—so mysteriously constructed with concepts that have taken on such a personal ring for me—that the content became purely personal, even selfish, creativity that I knew others wouldn’t be able to understand without a proper explanation. So, though I posted my posts in good humor without any expectation of mutual understanding, a part of me wondered: What will others see in these raw pieces of me?
Now, I don’t actually know entirely how my posts are received by others—social media is actually very bad for communication in many ways—and I’m sure the reactions vary, but what began to scare me was the emergence of a potential reader who doesn’t necessarily dislike my words, but worse, casts them into unreality. In my mind’s eye I saw an anonymous figure behind a bright screen that looked and saw nothing, made nothing of my words, and assumed there was nothing actually to be made of them. I began to fear that for this reader, the words and the lives residing outside the tightening social conventions are, in their essence, meaningless, unreal, or in their most dangerous forms, insane.
It’s difficult to explain so much in so few words, but we all have places to be, don’t we, so if I have only so many words to explain myself they would be: “Culture is powerful, even dominating; it makes it harder to explain oneself, and the only real contest to power is something it has not seen before.” By these few words I might explain to you why I think a solution and a poem are written in the same language of creativity. And creativity in its purest sense is difference. But don’t be so rash to think that difference is transgression; it is above it, Beyond Good and Evil, where I believe Love lies. But perhaps in this last moment I have grown too confident in my own words and have lost you. Difference, after all, actual difference, is very hard, almost impossible, to explain.
Now please, for me, read this again and again and ask me every question, and I’ll explain every detail; for I know communication is imperfect, even broken, and anyway I know we only have so long, but it would break my heart for us to go on like this, misunderstanding.