Well, you walked into that one, I thought to myself when asked a pop quiz sort of query about my educated take on a current event. See, the challenge with having an academic major is it lends itself well to what we might term mechanic-worker syndrome. Having a friend who excels in mechanics and general fix-it-ness often leads that person to be asked to help when one or many automotive or lawnmower issues arise. So, when announcing oneself as a psychology or sociology student it may happen that an audience assumes one’s proficiency on the topic in a way that fits their expectations. One could give a flat and arid account of the issue on offer or, perchance, try something completely different.
One discursive tendency breaker involves just two syllables: Dada! The Dadaists arose after the irrational horrors of the Great War, where the richest countries of the world squandered their lives and their riches to conduct a bloodbath, based ostensibly over their loyalty to a system of NATO-like alliances. Like living in a nightmare, young people suffered and died to keep the word of the leaders of their nation. The answer, figured the Dadaists, was to make a mockery of prevailing viewpoints to liberate our better impulses. Andre Breton announced himself as such by introducing the concept of a soluble fish, one that lives not only in the water but of the water, perhaps to imply that we make our own news in the context of ourselves as a democracy of one, an autonomous zone of our own chosen reality. Were society really part of us we’d lose our identities, dissolved within mantras of consumerism and family alliances. Yet our minds transcend trifles of belonging every time we better ourselves through education.
We ascend past the grind of daily life and news cycles or, as Breton put it, “the ground beneath my feet is nothing but an enormous, unfolded newspaper.” Birds in gilded cages may still fly the coop and we at AU may also learn to think outside the bounds of normalcy. Athabasca gives us the chance to carve out our own epistemic niche as we add our learning to the broader vistas of our life. While that may not be enough when society demands us to give answers it preordains as relevant, we can certainly offer some alternative realities to our interlocutors.
Dada is useful, then, as an entry point to describing how divergent viewpoints are only the beginning of education. To really get outside the box can mean making an alternative box of seeming nonsense. Rather than rote facts and flimsy figures, creative thinking can be about swimming far away from piers of normalcy and conformity. Witness Dada’s brazen disregard for typical topics treated in a mundane manner: “Politics, finally, which it seems to me has been given scant space, tends above all to govern good relations between men of different metal, the first rank of which is occupied by calcium men. In the minutes of the seances in the chamber, as simple as a chemistry report, they have been more than partial: thus the movements of wings have not been recorded.” (online). Metal, what? Is this about Iron Maiden versus Black Sabbath fans on a 40-plus social media forum? For Dada the sense is in the sensibility, not necessarily the literal meaning. One thinks of the Rhino Party who, in the 1989 election won narrowly by Joe Clark, garnered almost 100 000 votes (online).
Creative whimsy, that mystical drive that led many of us to skip class and even flunk out of school in our younger years, is precisely the answer rarely seen in a textbook. It’s like saying: make it up as you go along and traditional education is far from granting leash to such tendencies. So, when we find an academic topic that jives with our inner realm that’s when we come to actually enjoy learning. To be believable and credible, then, the key when asked about our major is to give an answer not only about what we’ve learned, but one that feels right. Like a writer, we might want to appeal to all the senses; how does a topic smell, your inner Dada humunculus might ask. Or how would you dream about a given topic, were you fully lucid.
Life can, for instance, feel anywhere between a dream and a nightmare and even pariah theorists like Freud can provide grist for the mill. So when asked about a new Netflix show about neuropsychology an answer might be to ask what about dreams, how do they feel and how ever could they be mapped onto a brain scan machine. Can your CAT device do this? There are always more fish in the sea of explanation. Freud, for his part, described the sensation felt by one of his clients: “a particular feeling of which [my friend] himself was never free, which he had found confirmed by many others and which he assumed was shared by millions, a feeling that he was inclined to call a sense of ‘eternity’, a feeling of something limitless, unbounded—as it were ‘oceanic’” (online). Within oceans of meaning, we find ourselves in society, and education is about finding meanings that make sense that had previously been invisible. Meaning is contrary to facts, perhaps, when we consider that all the evidence in the world is of a different nature than our heart felt perspectives. Sociology, then, is in a way about not belonging, about providing space between ourselves and our subject under study. Those who feel a bit abnormal, and maybe we all do, make the best social science students. After all, if everything in life felt fine, we’d not be curious so much as complacent.
So. It’s okay to answer a question about culture by saying that the topic doesn’t interest us. We’re not in school merely to describe how things work; to contemplate why things operate how they do is just as important. When we ask why, we often find out our motivations—and those of others. Alienation may be the core reason that students seek answers outside of the everyday; if normal reality suited us fine, we’d require only the daily news cycle to tell us what society was up to. For Breton, however, a sense of being out of step with the times provided a window to imagine new realities. “It is as if a waterfall stood between the theatre of life and me, who am not the principal actor in it.” (online). To reclaim a sense of control over one’s ideas is key to higher education; thinking critically even when consensus provides a sense of certainty is what education is all about.
My answer to cultural issues, then, begins with describing that learning to think away from my instincts is the key to acquiring a sociological imagination. C. Wright Mills, rebel theorist in starched 1950s America, claimed that when we see our puny lives within the great gears of society and history, we shall acquire a new sense of imagination. And from there we can imagine life as we should wish it to be, rather than merely as it is. If there’s one thing education provides, it’s a sense that the world has been many things to many people and even the staunchest of adversaries tend to have an awful lot in common with one another.
Every nation has its foundational myths, for instance, and every marketplace has the notion that value is produced by an invisible hand of desire. Yet, contrary to business education where needs and wants are achieved privately and expressed publicly with dollars and labour, one might sociologically note that a certain brainwashing accompanies even our most personal wishes. The business of commerce may be the front line of politics, a land either so appalling or so boring (or both) that many of us take cover in entertainment (which is also fraught with similar perils of intellectual laxity). Calling back to Breton, then, his statement about the metal men is more than just nonsense. Nonsense says so much, like asking what would happen if someone installed a Tim Hortons drive thru and only dispensed fortune cookies. Much of life is ludicrous if we look at our dreams that way. Wouldn’t learning be better if we started closer to home? Allen Ginsberg once noted that mundane facts like shopping for groceries become relevant matters for utopic imaginings and polysci ponderings when he asked “When can I go into the supermarket and buy what I need with my good looks? America after all it is you and I who are perfect not the next world” (online).
Believing himself ugly, he assumed that a better world would start with less consideration of appearances. Our academic majors are like that too; whatever others assume about sociology or psychology we might want to throw out so that we can really address topics at hand. Answers themselves, pat assertions, comfortable in their complacency, may even be the wrong places to start. For this reason, when asked about current events, I find it helpful to respond by saying that my education leads me to ask the interlocutor what they themselves think? We’re all students of human life, after all.