Synchronized Chaos April 2013: Looking Deeper

Welcome to April’s issue of Synchronized Chaos International Magazine! We wish you a lovely Earth Day, and an energizing spring or fall, depending on where you are.

This month’s submissions encourage us to go beyond just absorbing the information and entertainment we see and hear, and to explore and analyze it in more detail. This starts with first fully understanding what we’re considering, as Joy Ding says Lynn Gilbert tries to help her readers do through her oral history biography collection, Particular Passions.

Gilbert, before the invention of the Internet, researched and put together biographies of accomplished women from history, such as computer programmer Grace Hopper and writer Betty Friedan. Using academic oral-history techniques, she lets each person, whether famous or lesser-known, speak for herself, discussing topics such as her inspirations and motivations, work-life balance, and the journey of becoming a pioneer in her particular area of knowledge and encouraging more women to enter her field. Particular Passions aims to look at each woman’s journey in more detail and record chapters of history people entering the workforce nowadays will not remember.

We can also go deeper by contextualizing items and artifacts in terms of history and geography, knowing where and when things happened. Dacia Mitchell takes on this task through her thesis, where she interprets historical cartoons. She describes how 19th century American caricature artists ironically reinforced pre-existing ideas of racial superiority through the seemingly rebellious act of poking fun at politicians, by giving those they didn’t like stereotypical nonwhite features. She discusses her thesis in this month’s installment of her interview with Daily Echo political journalist Randle Aubrey, and goes on to analyze the social functions of media such as talk shows and music, placing things in context by comparing them to cultural artifacts from other times in history. 

Randle Aubrey himself talks about an educational project for Middle East nationals concerning current affairs, entitled Democracy Camp, and highlights the importance of knowing about places before we can talk about them. This can start with something as simple as locating the country or region under discussion on the map, as Democracy Camp participants learn.

Using one art form to reflect the style and sensibility of a piece created in another media, as Neil Ellman does through his ‘painting poems,’ also provides a richer understanding of the work’s structure and content. Some have said that writing about music is like dancing about architecture – i.e. that some formats would be very difficult and nearly ludicrous to translate. This may be so in some cases, but derivative works such as Ellman’s do grant us a chance to more deeply examine the same material by grasping and echoing the underlying aesthetic.

We can also reach greater levels of understanding when we go beyond surface impressions, ideas and criticisms, as Nigerian author and social critic Ayk Adelayok does through his columns. Adelayok’s The One Whose Face is Veiled, My Oga at the Top and Ours is a Nation urge people to look beyond the promises and style of those in power to challenge their corruption, and not to dismiss as ineffective those who are actually taking the required time for critical analysis. ‘Oga’ goes beyond the political, encouraging readers to examine their own personal and intellectual foibles before making fun of politicians or blaming the system for their unemployment.

Science may seem out of place in this discussion of art forms, social values and historical thought, as the hard sciences are theoretically based on evidence and hypotheses testable through impartial methods. However, while the physical facts may not change, science is still a story told by humans. The words and methods we use to explain and convey what we discover can reflect our social attitudes and psychological preferences as much as the facts themselves. 

One of the ways people tend to want to understand science is as a good story: simple, understandable, and dramatic. The extinction of dinosaurs through a meteorite crash has those characteristics, as we imagine picturesque Apatosaurus snacking on leaves in the cool of the day and fearsome Tyrannosaurus returning from the hunt, unaware their lives will end in an instant and the planet will change forever.

Knowing we cannot accept this story purely on its narrative quality and plausibility, Dr. David Lindberg looks into this commonly accepted narrative. He finds that the large impact could well have killed the dinosaurs, although the precise mechanism would have been a little more complex than we imagine. And he drives home an even more unsettling point: that the surviving species were not necessarily the smartest or best adapted to their environment, but merely those who would have escaped the lingering effects of the blast.

Leena Prasad’s protagonist does the same thing in her monthly column, Whose Brain Is It, sampling fish as her older family members have told her it’s good for her brain. She evaluates the findings through modern science, and after considering the inconclusive evidence, chooses to go ahead and eat it, with the cognitive benefits as an extra possible bonus. 

Moving from science back to poetry and prose, how do we express strong feelings in new ways through words? One way is to look deeper at specifics, starting with images and details and moving from them to ideas and emotions, so our words are grounded in something real and not just sentimental. Several writers this month follow this pattern, beginning with literal places, memories and events, which they adorn with poetic descriptions.

Some works eventually place a greater focus on the feeling and atmosphere than on the event’s literal facts and details. But our feelings are very much real, as motivations for our choices and thus contributing causes to human events.

Poet D.M. Aderibigbe of Lagos, Nigeria conveys scenes of childhood, soccer, and beaches where as UC Davis African Literature professor Dr. Brenda Deen Schildgen said, the published and translated modern literary canon is fairly recent. The history people and writers grapple with involves not idle nostalgia, but real and present events with lingering effects on people of the day.

Cynthia Lamanna does the same with the familiar Easter story, exploring the feelings of Jesus and the disciples during His arrest and execution.  She integrates the physical reality with imagined empathetic thoughts, starting with a historical event and going farther to create a poetic meditation on faith and sacrifice. As a person of strong faith, Lamanna experiences the crucifixion and resurrection as present realities. As with D.M. Aderibigbe, the historical events inspire her daily life, as she strives to follow Jesus’ example.

And Sarah Melton’s review of Charles’ Ayres’ memoir Impossibly Glamorous echoes in this vein. Ayres isn’t expansively poetic, but his book does make use of atmospheric details to take readers deeper into his life and into a period of American history, allowing readers to see the 1980s through the eyes of a young gay Midwestern teen. This decade’s often viewed as a consumerist, materialistic, artificial time, full of peppy pop music, shoulder pads and shopping. This was before the West discovered environmentalism, when the economy did well for those at the top and the rest tried to emulate them.

Yet Ayres goes beyond the facile stereotypes of those years. We see what people were hiding from during that decade – loneliness, AIDS, the possible side effects of the past few decades of war and rapid social change, the threat of everything falling apart. In recent years some societal sectors have witnessed a resurgence of 1980’s culture, and it’s been suggested that the eighties came back because they were more fun than the serious grunge or alternative ethos of the 90’s. People can miss illusions, even if they suspected all along they were illusory.

Charles incorporates pieces of what he finds in different places, including Japan’s pop music and radio DJ scene, where he became a minor expatriate celebrity, into his life. As with  D.M. Aderibigbe and Cynthia Lamanna, he starts with the specific and lets deeper themes emerge. These are all the more powerful because we aren’t moving from one drama and tragedy to another, because we get the chance to breathe, to feel the cool of the stone and the defeat of the disciples, hear the glitzy club pop and clumsy foreign mispronunciations, and kick the soccer ball upon the Mauritian beach. 

It’s been said that life’s a journey of creating yourself as much as finding yourself…and Charles Ayres, and our issue’s other writers, incorporate different traits and cultural artifacts into their lives, becoming the people they are today.

We invite you to consider and peruse this month’s posts. Perhaps this issue of Synchronized Chaos will serve as raw material for you in creating yourself!

Icon created by Finn Gardiner, a collective in Boston, MA