The Reimagined Culture Project

Blog   Garrison Benson   Thursday, September 14, 2017   Reimagined Culture   Comments


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I'm creating a new, fantastical, and real culture.

I recently bought 10 acres in the northeast of Michigan's lower peninsula. Owning land has opened up many new possibilities for me from both an artistic perspective (landscaping, architecture) and an economic perspective (homesteading, simple living).

My goal for my homestead is firstly to take care of myself and possible future family, marrying myself to a particular place I can care for and enjoy into old age. But secondly, it is to make space for visitors to rest from the daily grind—and hopefully take a break from expectations about what people in our society must or must not do. For instance, our society impresses on us that we must own a car, must depend on heavy machinery, must depend on exploited workers, must make as much money as possible, must work full-time, must buy new toys for our kids, must own what our neighbors own, must keep up with TV shows, must compete for livelihood, etc. I hope when my guests return to their normal lives they feel more free to question this orthodoxy and seek a better way to live for themselves. That's the primary way I hope to make the world a better place before I die: to liberate the spirit through acts of space-making.

When we're reading a book or watching a movie or playing a game, fantasy and science fiction allow us to leave the trappings and traps of the modern world behind, suspending our disbelief—our internalized rules and boundaries, our instinctive rejections of other-ness—to enter another world, "an other-world". Using beauty, wonder, drama, and horror, they invite us into a more receptive and childlike mental state, allowing us to see outside our judgmental frameworks. So it's no surprise, for instance, that Star Trek received almost zero negative reaction for its shocking 1968 interracial kiss. While the show broke through a barrier, the characters did not: even in the 1960s it was easy to accept that in the future, in outer space, interracial romance is merely natural.

So, to accomplish my goal of helping visitors rest and renew their spirits outside society's pressure to conform, I am engaging in a long-term creative project combining both art and economy. It sits at the intersection of fantasy worldbuilding and real-world reformation, of escapism and social action. For now, I call it the Reimagined Culture Project.

The core idea is to re-imagine culture from the ground up—and then embody it. What would a healthier culture for this time, place, and people look like—in terms of lifestyle, economics (at every scale), ecology, transportation, architecture, fashion, cuisine, music, language, folklore, rhythms of work and rest? Or, to put it in terms of myself: How might I sculpt an expression of my own values in the medium of my day-to-day life?

So, I'm dreaming up a culture as if I were creating a fantasy world, but with the intent to actually live in that culture and share it with others.

I am a dogged pursuer of rightness, and I believe that rightness unfolds in manifold forms according to context. So, rather than try to craft the culture of right living, I'm trying to craft a culture of right living specific to me, to this ten acres, and to this point in history. The aim is not to dream up a new set of expectations and judgments to press on other people. It's to dream up a new culture in part to help others feel free to do likewise for themselves in their own times and places.

In mythic terms, I'm audaciously casting myself as a post-deluge culture hero. A mythic deluge symbolizes apocalyptic destruction and renewal (chaos washing over the decaying world, destroying and cleansing it, followed by a rebirth of the world and society). The hero of a deluge story (like Noah or Utnapishtim) often saves the seeds for rebirth from destruction in an ark, or after the flood dives into the depths to recover soil for rebirth. A culture hero is a mythic figure who founds a new culture, embodying cultural values and establishing a way of life. (Think Abraham, Moses, Romulus and Remus, George Washington.) So more so than creating a culture ex nihilo, I'm salvaging it piecemeal from other times and places (including fictional times and places), quilting the various pieces together into a cohesive whole, a cultural ark to help us through these chaotic times. (From a fantasy worldbuilding perspective, I'm building like George Lucas built the galaxy far, far away: a cohesive, inviting world quilted from samurai movies, Westerns, WWII documentary footage, Flash Gordon, Eastern religions, comparative mythology, and everything else that inspired him.)

In an inversion of the founder narratives of most mythic traditions, the culture I shape is not the one universal right or divine culture acquired from the gods, but rather one I somewhat arbitrarily, fallibly invented by learning from others and observing myself and my place, and by following my own tastes and instinct. As such, others are encouraged not to adopt my culture wholesale but to take the journey for themselves, becoming culture heroes.

Specifically I'm developing:

  • A lifestyle based on living simply and prioritizing health both internally (body and mind) and externally (community and ecosystem)
  • A cuisine based on what's local to my area, in season, humane, sustainable, healthy, and tasty
  • A fashion appropriate to the local climate and an agrarian lifestyle, using local fibers and simple designs not requiring sweatshop labor
  • A mythology drawing on local ecology and day-to-day agrarian life, designed to communicate cultural values, serving a therapeutic/cultural function harmoniously complementary to science rather than opposed to it
  • A language designed as a vessel for the culture and its values, and designed to invite the mind into a more childlike state, used for artistic and ceremonial functions
  • A literary canon (mythology, poetry, proverbs, guided meditations, etc.) in said language but also translated into English
  • A calendar designed to enrich awareness of our place in time and the cosmos, to deepen metaphor (e.g. between astronomical cycles and biological cycles), and to keep time for healthy rhythms of work, rest, and celebration
  • An approach to landscaping that evokes a sense of spacious wonder and seeks harmony between the wild and the domestic
  • An architectural style using local natural materials and energy-efficient design, drawing on the lessons of environmental psychology
  • An approach to technology that embraces its genuine boons while stressing the need for its prudent use in the context of a balanced life and ecosystem
  • Music and art that invite people of all skill levels as active participants, not just consumers

All of the above are also intended to carry a playful aesthetic of fantastical other-worldliness, to draw the visitor into a more dreamlike, childlike perspective. For instance, though I want the language to be easy to learn, I also want it to feel strange and deeply embodying in the ear, the mouth, and the mind.

Finally, one more purpose for this project is to shape a healthier role and identity for white people in North America. I believe white culture has a deep narcissistic wound around our right to be here—or not—, around our deserving—or not deserving—the fine things we inherit and the power we possess disproportionately, and around our often villainous role in North America's history. Like other kinds of shame it comes out in various ways, including the recent surge of white supremacy and white nationalism. Many former members of hate groups have told us that young people join because they crave purpose and belonging. We have allowed our narcissistic wound to fester—we have not taken responsibility for guiding the young.

As white people in North America it is our responsibility to adapt and mature our cultural identity. By explicitly marrying cultural artifacts of my own white ancestry (English, Norse, German, Benson) with those that arose from this place's historic caretakers (like the Potawatomi and Odawa who once lived here) and those of other diverse peoples that have helped shape my life; by practicing a way of life that is nurturing and curious and cooperative rather than exploitative; and by constructing a mythic narrative about grappling with the sins of one's ancestors, accepting ego-annihilation, and heeding the call to learn to become a healthy member of the here and now; I hope to mark a path (a path, not the path) through that shame and toward a sense of nourishing belonging and fruitful purpose in the present, not in the alt-right's mythic Golden Age.

In future posts I'll share more about the specific pieces of this project as they develop. Because I'm trying to be receptive to the local ecology and history, this will be a slow go—decades, not months.


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