If you're gonna open up a bar, you've gotta at least have the basics...
...well liquor, cocktail shakers & bottle openers - the essentials you build upon.
Similarly, we've got some core ideas that constitute the basis of what we're trying to do here and give us the theoretical tools we need to do it:
Why Frame True Blood as a potent medium through which to explore the human condition and to critically engage cultural currents and provocative social and political issues?
A lot of these ideas are informed by our inquiry into popular culture and its sociocultural and political impact filtered through the prism of contemporary music:
• While the performing arts & popular culture (of which True Blood is a part) can be received passively and seen merely as forms of consumption—pleasurable and fun but nothing more— we take a different view; while we acknowledge and deeply appreciate their entertainment value we also see them as something that impacts our society’s sociopolitical terrain.
• Popular culture’s got that kind of power precisely BECAUSE it’s popular; ultimately it’s only worth exploring human relationships or social conditions through a song, a TV show, or a movie if someone is listening & watching—and pop culture has a mighty wide reach. Beat author William S. Burroughs writes of the impact of pop culture in the context of music, describing it as “a sociological phenomenon of unprecedented scope and effect,” noting that a book might eventually sell hundreds of thousands of copies while popular music immediately reaches millions (Bowler & Dray, 1993, p. 2). True Blood has a similar effect; it can bring questions about the social problems it raises straight into the living rooms of more people than most political tracts or speeches could ever reach.
• We’re not suggesting that the arts’ influence on society is unidirectional. We think there’s a reciprocal pattern of influence that flows between the arts & pop culture and society and we’re interested in exploring the changes that have occurred and that can occur in each of these through their interactions. Think of this in terms of the interrelationship between music and the wider culture, as explained by author Robert G. Pielke (2001) who suggests that:
rock music not only reflects cultural consciousness but also participates in creating, stabilizing, and changing it by explaining the dialectical relationship between arts and culture: the arts reveal the status of culture by expressing its fundamental values. Thus, artists can both reflect and re-create cultural consciousness—–unpredictably and often unknowingly…it reflects as well as brings into being a particular state of consciousness.
Music industry insider and activist Danny Goldberg (2005, p. 62) uses an excellent analogy to describe what music of the era did: “People say that art is a reflection of reality…It was like a headlight, not a taillight, with the rest of society trying to catch up.”
In this vein, pop culture not only defines, reflects, or shapes what is, but suggests what might be.
• We're not naïve enough to believe that things like music, TV, theater and film can save the world but we do think that as their best, they can open space for change.
The inability of creative works to change the world is compensated for by their ability to articulate and alter our perceptions of that world, to give us a glimpse of other, better worlds; they offer us a medium through which to explore who we are and what we want.
• They can:
o catalyze people to think, synthesize personal perspectives, and act
o unsettle deterministic ways of thinking and help foster alternative views of human possibility
o move people to question, challenge and confront authority, and act on and redress social injustices and inequities
o present counter-hegemonic messages, instigate for subversion of—and serve as a site of rebellion against—prevailing and often oppressive social norms (Haycock & Anderson, 2006, ¶ 1 describe this as a role of popular music); this can help us explore our meaning-making systems
We think True Blood has the capacity to play all these roles within our culture. It doesn’t dictate a monolithic ideology; for us it doesn’t assert so much as question—offering viewers a site for intellectual and emotional engagement with the larger context of our times. That’s why we’d like this forum to be one that digs into its educative power and its role in the explicit and tacit learning and knowledge construction of viewers through:
• INFORMAL OR COVERT LEARNING. Learning that might not be recognized immediately, it takes place when people become aware of the learning potential of their activities and decide to learn from their experiences.
• ASSIMILATIVE OR INCREMENTAL LEARNING. Learning propelled by an integrating circumstance which is usually the culmination of a relatively long staged process (conscious and/or unconscious) of searching and exploring for something that is missing in one’s life.
• IDEOLOGY CRITIQUE AND CONSCIENTIZATION. The critically reflective dimension to learning; the process by which people learn to recognize how uncritically accepted and unjust dominant ideologies are embedded in everyday life. People are aware of themselves within their social context and capable of acting to change it.
• EPOCHAL TRANSFORMATIONS IN HABITS OF MIND. The result of a disorienting dilemma—an event that triggers a sudden, dramatic and reorienting insight. Transformative learning theory suggests that once a personal transformation has taken place, people seldom return to their old perspectives.
...which can support them to think autonomously and reflexively, in ways that question and challenge habitual modes and that reveal systems of oppression and injustice.
A TROJAN HORSE
We know, we know…most people probably don’t tune into HBO Sundays at 9PM because they want to watch educational programming…but here’s the thing; ever heard of the concept of edutainment? It comes from the idea of edutaining the massesKRS-ONE’s 1990 album Edutainment which was meant to advance the notion that music could both educate and entertain (Fernando, 1994).
And like other manifestations of pop culture True Blood it does it stealthily…
On the topic of how it was that Beatles music was able to reach listeners with countercultural ideas, John Lennon said: “In a way we turned out to be a Trojan horse. The Fab Four moved right into the top and then sang about drugs and sex and then I got into more and more heavy stuff” (Skinner, 2005, p. 179). According to Lennon, the Beatles gained acceptance in the traditionally entertaining medium of popular music, then began singing compelling, persuasive songs about socially controversial topics. Following the Fab Four’s Trojan horse formula, entertainment and pop culture can be at the very least an important means of reaching persons more inclined to listen to rock music than to radical speech making and more likely to buy a DVD than a political tract.
In this vein, True Blood has been particularly effective at sneaking political, social, and existential themes into the consciousness of the unsuspecting viewing public.
HOW CAN SOMETHING THAT IS OF CONSUMER CULTURE CHALLENGE OR UNSEAT IT - AND BY EXTENSION, THE STATUS QUO?
Not much escapes the grip of the dominant culture; mainstream forces–especially corporations, but also religious institutions and even the government–can and have influenced and even co-opted the arts and entertainment. We must reject the one-dimensional notion of “authentic” expression that is free from the influence of these sort of by larger forces. We can be suspicious of the notion of pop culture as being part of the wave of change because of its connections to consumer capitalism but ultimately its mixed status as both a commercial and a public entity that can impact civic life has to be recognized.
Anthony DeCurtis of Rolling Stone (who we had the pleasure of meeting at the first-ever academic conference on U2 in 2009) speaks to the tension of rebellion versus commoditization in rock: “It is both fully woven into the fabric of the American corporate structure and endlessly the subject of efforts to censor its rebellious, anarchic impulses. It is safe as milk and a clear and present danger (1992, p. xii).” In light of the tension between the commercial and the commoditized that exists whenever music of social change becomes involved with the recording industry it is worth highlighting Haycock and Anderson’s (2006) assertion:
Artists like Rage Against the Machine, Eminem, Marilyn Manson, and even the “supergroup” U2 have managed to circumvent or work with/against the commodification of contemporary music. Their commercial success has given them a stage to act as advocates for social justice, the environment, a voice for the oppressed and inveigh variously against poverty, war, cultural conformism and globilisation. (p. 6, ¶ 3)
In a similar way, True Blood can provide a medium for engaging with the terms of existence within a consumer society, a cultural expression inside the belly of the beast that can help move viewers to think independently and critically about what is happening in the world.
True Blood’s Subjectivity is Key to Meaning-Making
We don’t see the show as being didactic; its subjectivity is key in meaning making through critical and reflective thinking. This points to the constructivist perspective which informs us here at the Pierced Pomegranate Tavern: meaning is socially constructed by individuals in interaction with their world. In this view:
• Subjectivity is not static and unchanging but “a continuous process of production and transformation...a ‘doing’ rather than a being” (Bloom, 2002, p. 291).
• Positivism is naïve in its realist position that there is a reality out there to be studied, captured, and understood (Denzin & Lincoln, 2000).
• The meaning and impact of art (sculpture, dance, film, music, TV, etc.) is contingent upon the beholder’s constructions - it has no absolute meaning or value and can’t be assessed purely according to what critics say, or what the artist believes; it is a matter of what the art represents and expresses and how it is received; it depends on what the beholder makes of it. Only then does the art take a meaning, only then are its social and political aspects evident.
That’s why it’s so important for intellectually engaged viewers of True Blood to use venues like the Pierced Pomegranate Tavern to talk about how the show and the issues it addresses have made ripples in their ways of thinking or acting in the world.
POP CULTURE, TRUE BLOOD, CIVIC EDUCATION & THIS BLOG
Pop Culture as Engine of Inclusive Discourse
According to Egendorf (2002) entertainment is becoming the dominant feature of American society and as such is important because it can shape people’s attitudes and beliefs. She quotes James Combs, the author of “Polpop: Politics and Popular Culture in America” to emphasize the import of this fact in relation to education:
Popular culture is so much a part of our lives that we cannot deny its developmental powers…Like formal education or family rearing, popular culture is part of our “learning environment”…Though our pop culture education is informal–we usually do not attend to pop culture for its “educational value”–it never the less provides us with information and images upon which we develop our opinions and attitudes. We would not be what we are, nor would our society be quite the same, without the impact of popular culture. (Egendorf, 2002, p. 9)
What if we did attend to pop culture for its educational value—especially the socio-political dimensions of some forms of pop culture, like True Blood? That’s exactly what we at the Pierced Pomegranate Tavern intend to do!
To bring forth an active and conscious community of decision makers we’ve got to find the most appropriate strategies and locations to promote the development of active, socially responsible, democratic, and caring citizens who have the competencies to engage in collective decision making (Schugurensky, 2002). Wilshire (1990) posits that if all educating power and authenticity were not implicitly claimed by the university, other claims to educate would not have to be regarded as bereft of value and new vantage points and horizons for learning would open around us.
Consider all those who have no access to the authorized sites of higher education (for example, a graduate seminar is an experience enjoyed by less than 1 percent of the world population) to get the full impact of how many members of our society are cut off from the setting which for father of transformative learning theory Jack Mezirow (2000) is most conducive to transformative learning. Mezirow himself queries, “Who is granted the opportunity to achieve autonomous thinking? Who is excluded, cast as the Other to be excluded and, by implication, dominated?” (pp. 28-29). Schugurensky (2002) similarly asks:
Can a genuine transformative learning process take place only among the most privileged members of our societies? What are the conditions that can promote transformative experiences amongst the most disadvantaged sectors of our populations? Are those who are not students and are not likely ever to be students necessarily excluded from engaging in critical deliberation and reflective discourse? (p. 66)
We need the views of those who are excluded. A blog (like this one) can be a democratic commons of the Internet—a venue for civic learning that opens wider access to exchange and discourse—a cornerstone for expanding and enabling political agency and the potential for critical thinking by bridging the gap between everyday life and learning and operating across a wide range of public spheres.
This is in line with O’Sullivan’s (2002) call for the development of a new civic culture in which a sense of community and place are the basic infrastructures for more extended involvement in the wider world and for developing a more alert citizenry. We’d like the Pierced Pomegranate Tavern to open space for these processes to emerge.
Such spaces for cultural empowerment and alternative forms of learning that question, contest, or subvert dominant values, norms and modes—especially when cut from the cloth of arts-dense organizations such as the Civil Rights era Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) which demonstrated a deep appreciation of the role of culture in activism (Werner, 1998) and the Highlander Center which was not only one of the few activist educational institutions in the U.S., but was also one of the even fewer to recognize the value of aspects of pop culture like music to social movements (Eyerman & Jamison, 1998)–can radiate a vibrant public energy. With our focus on True Blood, we hope to tap into pop culture as a vehicle to drive this action forward.
Nurturing a Learning Environment Most Conducive to Growth & Change
The concepts of the culture of peace and transformative learning:
- Involve and appreciate complexity and intricacy, relationship, and interconnection.
- In both, context and meaning are seen as fundamental and multilayer notions of the context: global, local, and personal–and the interconnections between them are recognized.
- Each articulates the need for fundamental changes in values, attitudes, and behaviors, to critique oppressive structures and to develop alternatives.
- Diversity is valued in both.
Belenky and Stanton (2000) state that all these themes reappear when they discuss how educators and public leaders empower people to become articulate, reflective constructors of knowledge. Indeed, they also reappear, run parallel to, and get support from Freire’s pedagogy of the oppressed and critique of banking education, Langer’s (1997) view of mindful learning, and Wilshire’s (1990) critique of professionalism and the university.
And yet, we’re willing to bet that if you were to poll any number of random students–from elementary to university–you would find that the overwhelming majority of them would not say that these conditions are present in their respective learning environments. The activities of “learning” in any given classroom across America at any particular time are more likely to resemble what critical pedagogue Paulo Freire (2006) calls banking education, which mirrors oppressive society as a whole in its attitudes and practices.
In banking education:
• The more students work at storing the deposits entrusted to them, the less they develop critical consciousness.
• The educator’s role is to regulate the way the world “enters into” the students; to “fill” the students by making deposits of information which he or she considers to constitute true knowledge. Since people “receive” the world passively in this model instead of co-creating or constructing it, education makes them more passive still, and adapts them to the ruling classes’ world.
Mezirow (2000) is adamant that adult educators should not indoctrinate; they must strive to create learning environments in which the conditions of social democracy necessary for transformative learning are fostered. This involves blocking out power relationships engendered in the structure of communication, including those traditionally between teachers and learners.
Freire (2006) writes that for any educational system to be a midwife of transformation, it must stop serving the needs of the oppressor and perpetuating the prevailing paradigm. What the banking system of education engenders–and what the elites of today really want–is for the people not to think (Freire, 2006). Belenky and Stanton (2000, p. 92) discuss the term “midwife-teacher” which was coined to describe “educators who see their students as active constructors of knowledge and work hard to draw out their best thinking.” Midwife-teachers support their students’ thinking but do not think for them or expect the students to think as they do. Midwife-teachers help student deliver their knowledge to the world, and they use their own knowledge to put students into conversation with other voices–past and present–in the culture.
In this vein, as your salonnières we’re not here to tell you what or how to think. Rather, we’re here to invite and cultivate independent thinking.
Wilshire (1990) asserts that there is genius in the Latin word eduare–to lead out, or draw out; this concept seems to be closely related to Freire’s idea of problem-posing education. It contrasts sharply with instruere–to build in, which seems to be the root idea for the banking concept. At some point in an educational program based on eduare, there must be hospitable and inviting room for students to take the initiative. Similarly, we want you—our readers—to take initiative in building this community and in contributing to generative discourse that can expand our collective horizons.
WHY OUR WAYS OF THINKING AND BEING MATTER AND ARE INTERCONNECTED
Both individual transformations and social transformations are equally important aspects of paradigm change; these interconnected and interrelated spheres are in constant dynamic and reciprocal interplay. Therefore, it follows that shifts in an individual’s consciousness are critical to the process of larger systemic change. The processes by which individuals shift paradigmatic assumptions may provide a microcosmic window into how such change may take place at societal levels.
Several transdisciplinary theorists have issued a clarion call for paradigm shift as an integral and overarching component of systemic social change (Morin & Kern, 1999; Nicolescu, 2002; Plumwood, 1993; Wilshire, 1990). This a metamorphosis which is nothing short of the birthing of a new vision to replace the old frameworks dominated by dichotomous thinking that form the bedrock of modern society and are fundamental to its many ills.
As the caterpillar is compelled by forces from within to slough away its DNA to allow for the butterfly with a completely different genetic code than its larval form to emerge, so too does our civilization transform as a result of pressure, pushing from the inside-out.
This process is driven by the interconnected crises of modernity. Goerner (2001) asserts that there are hints all around us that modernity has reached the end of its useful life; its virtuous beginning ushered in the noble notions of liberty, equality, fraternity, and reason but its twilight is delivering silent disaster on an epic scale. The transition from modern to integral age will entail profound global change. It will eventually alter every facet of civilization, and it is happening now, not in one or two countries, but in the entire developed world and in many developing nations.
The “great turning” thesis emphasizes the critical role of changing the assumptions that guide our thinking about the world and our place in it. She suggests that shifting the root metaphor we use to explain how the world works from mechanistic to web and ecosystem metaphors will render modernity as radically different from the coming integral age as our current civilization is from medieval times (Goerner, 2001).
Meadows’ (1997) outline for systems intervention reinforces the importance of a massive rethinking and shifting of underlying worldviews. She asserts, “The shared idea in the minds of society, the great unstated assumptions–unstated because they are unnecessary to state; everyone knows them–constitute that society’s deepest set of beliefs about how the world works,” and that “people who manage to intervene in a system at the level of paradigm hit a leverage point that totally transforms systems” (p. 84).
Paradigm shift is already underway in every realm and that with one fifth of the U.S. population; 50 million adults, actively seeking a new way we are approaching critical mass (Goerner, 2001). Such a reformulation will depend largely upon the choices we make, and whether we as a society can loosen the assumptions and worldviews to which we cleave to allow new ones to emerge like a butterfly from its chrysalis.
The sense that paradigm shift is an urgent imperative in today’s societal recalibration led us to a conclusion that was presaged by a hero of ours, John Lennon, when he said: “It all comes down to changing your head” (Street, 1986, p. 171). On the concluding page of his book You Say You Want a Revolution: Rock Music in American Culture Pielke (2001) includes an adaptation of the lyrics to the Beatles’ song “Revolution” emphasizing this concept in the line, “The basic strategy must always be to change people’s consciousness first–not constitutions and institutions [italics added] (p. 249).
Given the belief that there are places within a complex system where a small shift in one thing can produce big changes in everything and that the level of mindset out of which the goals, rules, and feedback structures of a system arise is the most effective level at which to intervene (Meadows, 1997), Lennon’s seemingly facile assessment cuts to the core of the perspective that both individual transformations and social transformations are equally important in building the foundations of a better world, and that these interconnected spheres are in constant dynamic and reciprocal interplay (Schugurensky, 2002).
Mezirow’s (2000) theory of transformative learning contains the seeds of this type of societal transformation, as it has both individual and social dimensions. Simply put,
transformative learning refers to the process by which we transform our taken-for-granted frames of reference (meaning perspectives, habits of mind, mind-sets) to make them more inclusive, discriminating, open, emotionally capable of change, and reflective so that they may generate beliefs and opinions that will prove more true or justified to guide action. (p. 8)
Within this framework, a disorienting dilemma occurs that prompts self-examination, resulting in a critical assessment of assumptions and ultimately a reintegration into one’s life based on conditions dictated by one’s new perspective. Mezirow’s (2000) theory emphasizes the linkages between forging new ways of thinking about the world and developing new ways of being in the world; not only is life seen from a new perspective, it is lived from that perspective.
We don’t subscribe to the philosophical theory of atomism according to which social institutions, values, and processes arise solely from the acts and interests of individuals, who thus constitute the only true subject of analysis (Fay, 1996). However, we do believe that the processes by which individuals shift paradigmatic assumptions may provide a microcosmic window into how such change may take place at societal levels.
We also think the above discussion provides a good rationale for our desire to use the Pierced Pomegranate Tavern as a venue for the expansion of individual consciousness through dialogue around social issues via True Blood.
THE PIERCED POMEGRANATE TAVERN & TRUE BLOOD AS BUT ONE DOOR
|an enigmatic painting in San Francisco's famed City Lights bookstore|
This forum operates at a threshold—–a door to a place where dialogue and exchange of ideas can result in real-world change. Pop culture in general and True Blood specifically are no panacea. They are but one avenue through which dialogue can be generated, people can be engaged, and their ways of thinking and being in the world can be shifted. We anticipate a time when we will see the large-scale rebirth of a stimulating sociopolitical debate and a wave of return to engaged civic life and activism via popular culture, and we think there are many ways in which the Pierced Pomegranate Tavern can contribute to this cause.
No doubt, more questions than answers will be sparked here–questions that can hopefully keep the discourse around how viewers subjectively experience and interact with True Blood, the significance they attach to it and the meanings they construct for it; how it shapes their lived experiences and ways of being in the world, and the civics of popular culture going.