Tactilely knowing what it means to be human: Aesthetic solidarity

Excerpts from Maureen O’Connell, ‘The Dance of Open Minds and Hearts: Aesthetic Solidarity as Antidote to an Anemic Solidarity’, Political Theology, 15(1), 74-87.

Anemic solidarity and a failing moral imagination

Christian ethicist Mary Elizabeth Hobgood notes that as more than merely a skin color, “whiteness” is a major social structure that has developed historically to organize social space and individual experience” in such a way as to “monopolize power for whites” and “create unearned advantages at the expense of others while denying dimensions of our relational capacities as human beings” (p. 75).

… Although we would have to acknowledge the inherent Eurocentricism in most if not all of Catholic social teaching given the ecclesial context in which it has been articulated, we can see evidence of a distinctively Euroamerican effect on solidarity in two simultaneous tendencies, both of which preclude interpersonal relationships of accountability and collective commitment to transformative social action. The first wrongly associates solidarity with ‘social charity’…The second, places solidarity at the service of “macro-charity”…

With this diagnosis in mind, Christian theologians and disciples in the Age of American Empire must ask themselves whether or not solidarity is irrevocably hamstrung in an Euroamerican context… I will suggest that is not necessarily the case, especially if we turn to the arts to retrieve important dimensions of solidarity that are easily lost in the consciousness of the Empire. … a diminished moral imagination in Euroamerican discipleship [is] a root cause. By imagination, I mean the capacity to challenge the ways things are by dreaming up and living out of radical alternatives (p. 78).

… Ultimately, the imaginations of the “super-developed,” those with the freedom to distance ourselves from a suffering reality if we so choose, are bound by what feminist ethicist Christine Firer Hinze describes as the “chronic clenchness” of living in the age of American Empire that precludes most of its citizens, particularly those of European decent, from being able to embrace fully the relational dimensions of our human nature – our bodies, senses, emotions, and the limits of our physical and social conditions – and from perceiving the web of relationships in which we move every day. A literal and figurative white-knuckled grip on our lives keeps us isolated in our socially constructed preferences for defensive individualism (p. 79)… This chronic clenchness results in a lack of moral agility – the ability to navigate contradictions, and embrace ambiguity, the courage to accept our inherent vulnerability or to engage difference rather than merely tolerate it. All of these things affect our capacity for solidarity, since Daniel Maguire claims that a failure of the imagination “is really nothing more than a failure to love” (p.80)

The imagination, the arts and aesthetic solidarity

… Christian peace activist John Paul Lederach implicitly points to the inherent relationship between our moral imagination and our capability for solidarity:

The moral imagination requires the capacity to imagine ourselves in a web of relationships that includes our enemies; the ability to sustain a paradoxical curiosity that embraces complexity without reliance on dualistic polarity; the fundamental belief in and pursuit of the creative act; and the acceptance of the inherent risk of stepping out into the mystery of the unknown that lies beyond the far too familiar landscape of violence.

However, perhaps more than ever, we need to turn to the arts as a midwife for the latent imaginative creative solidarity requires – what theologian Richard Viladesau describes as “a deep-seated ‘yes’ to being” – and to communicate verbally and nonverbally insights gained through such encounters about what it means to be human and we ought to live… the arts can help those striving to live in solidarity with others and the earth to shift from a merely heady, intellectual, and abstract engagement with the world and people in it – typical, as we have seen, in many ways of a Euroamerican way of being in the world – toward an embodied, affective, and imaginative mode of being.

… Paradoxical imagination, suspends our inclination to move unreflectively or reflexively to judgment or evaluation or action. It carves out “a personal and social space that gives birth to the unexpected,” something unexpected “whose every birthing changes our world and the way we see things.” In this way we no longer see the road ahead in terms of “narrow, shortsighted or structurally determined dead-ends” but rather in light of unexpected bends or bridges that we wrongly assume are impossible to build (p. 81).

… The arts unleash insights that come from these deeper places within ourselves, insights that often cannot be articulated linguistically or logically. Jensen claims that the “somatic knowledge” we gain with intentional acts of creation can counter our over-dependence on deductive rationality, noting “we need to become visually literate as much as we become verbally literate if we want to be more fully aware, insightful, and receptive to messages from both the secular and the sacred realms”. We receive sensorial information about what strong community feels like, how one intuitively knows when one is thriving, the colors that best capture the vision of the good life, the sounds of a community committed to justice (p. 82)…

Aesthetic solidarity is a firm and persevering commitment to become more fully human by risking the vulnerability that comes either with creative self-expression or with de-centering the self that accompanies such expressions so that we might tactilely experience together in our bodies and hearts what it fees like when we are all really responsible for all (p. 83).

Aesthetic solidarity and a tactile common good

… aesthetic solidarity fosters an embodied experience of living in right relationships… Aesthetic solidarity restores the human capability for imagination that has been damaged either by the violence of poverty or the “cult of having” superfluous goods… aesthetic solidarity shifts our focus on what justice is, perhaps by illuminating what it is not. It is no longer a theory or development strategy that we rationally construct, verbally articulate, and pragmatically implement. Rather justice is a palpable, mystical experience triggered by our senses, sustained by our imaginations, and engaged with our bodies. Justice is an embodied, mystical encounter with others who like us move their bodies, their hearts, and their spirit in “the dance of open minds.”…Aesthetic solidarity ensures that all persons involved in creative acts of justice experience a kind of transformation that comes with tactically knowing what it means to become more and more human (p.85, 86).

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