Subtitles and Closed Captions
- Hi everyone, my name is Ryan Smolko,
and I'm the Associate Director of the Career Center
It's sincere pleasure to introduce
this year's Last Lecture speaker,
Assistant Professor of Theater, Dr. Matthew Moore.
- Dear class of 2020, thank you for the opportunity
to address you all today one last time.
With humility and gratitude, I now sit down
to try to steer our careening sidecar toward something
that feels like an ending.
Knowing that something intangible
and deeply necessary must go missing.
Like you, I mourn the absence of our final months together.
I feel the weight of absence as I speak to you
from home in front of a camera days
before you will receive this message.
These kinds of speeches are usually dominated
by empowering sentiment, reassurances of bright futures
and artful weavings together
of some relevant scholarly theme, with the current moment.
I fear I am not equal to the demands of our circumstances.
Like all of you, I'm tired, lonely,
the future feels uncertain, purpose diluted.
All I can do is promise that I will find a way back
to the tenor one might expect from one
of these speeches by the end.
I have to talk about what's happening
My three year old cried yesterday
because someone stopped by the house,
stood outside the gates, said a few words to his mother
and when he asked them to come in
and play they told him they couldn't.
It was the first person he'd seen in our home
He hasn't seen another child in over two months,
and I wonder what that will do to him.
My older son's uncle died of COVID-19 a week ago.
Six of my wife's companies in home caregivers are sick,
patients have already died,
and still these people go to work making $12 an hour,
knowing that if they get sick, there's no guarantee
Many of you could share similar stories.
None of us will go unchanged by these events.
In the midst of so much suffering,
how are we to think about what's happening in our world?
I will try to offer some possibilities.
Three or four weeks ago, my older son Owen,
a rising Junior at Muhlenberg asked me over a bowl of cereal,
"When do you think things will get back to normal?"
I paused and said simply, "Never."
If you mean when will things feel
like they did two months ago?
Perhaps we've all asked some version of this question.
but what do we mean by normal?
Do we mean when will we feel the same
about physical contact with other people?
About airports? About the prospect going to a concert?
Our government and media seem exclusively focused
on a return to the economic status quo.
but our untimely insistence on re-opening,
only masks the thing that this pandemic
The status quo is broken.
Perhaps it has been for a long time.
Maybe it always has been.
Perhaps some of you have already arrived
at this intellectual conclusion,
perhaps even as a result of your experiences at Muhlenberg.
But COVID-19 has thrown these critical ideas
into stark relief against a background of real
and unequal human suffering.
We know that our society is not so arbitrarily organized
in ways that make some members disproportionately
susceptible to the health risks
and economic impacts of the current pandemic,
we can each of us perhaps begin to imagine
how our different levels of exposure to this crisis
lead on differently to despair, anger, loneliness and fear.
But this crisis is also an opportunity.
The status quo has become unfamiliar, alien uncomfortable.
We've seen in the last few months
changes in the fabric of our social reality
and a new landscape of the everyday.
We have also seen unprecedented action
on the part of our government
and unwavering commitment to communal well being
by millions of individuals.
so much seemed impossible.
But countrywide shutdowns, economic bailouts,
massive changes in bureaucratic processes,
mobilizations of healthcare systems,
innovations in social welfare,
digitization of whole industries and more,
isn't as impossible as we've been led to believe.
We have collectively entered crisis mode
and found ourselves more adaptable, more resilient,
more compassionate, and more connected
than we might have previously believed.
We must find a way to hold on to
that energy to refuse a return to business as usual
that would reinstate normative power relations
we can survive a catastrophe as we are.
First of all, we have not survived,
whatever politicians full of career aspirations
might like us to believe.
to view this pandemic as an isolated incident,
a misfortune that we'll all put behind us in.
It seems obvious at this point
that COVID-19 must teach us something
about the interconnections of nations,
at least on the economic plane we privilege.
It will also revolutionize digital technologies
about communicative interpersonal connections.
But we might also choose to see this crisis
as indicative of more far reaching models of connectivity.
In 1989, Felix Guattari proposed
a radical model of ecological awareness
based not on intrinsically economic inner relations
of organisms within a given physical environment,
but extending into strata of our lived experience
that the dominant dualistic cartesian paradigm holds apart.
building on the cybernetic theory of Gregory Bateson,
Guattari argues for the essential interrelationship
of three networks, the mental, the social,
As a fundamental part of the biotic enterprise
to use Aldo Leopold's phrase,
human beings inhabit these three spheres simultaneously,
that is, we live at once in our heads,
among other human and non human subjects,
and in the physical world.
Each of these necessarily abstracted locations
exists in relation to the others,
and while we might metaphorise
each as an ecological relational system
Guattari demands we consider
an ecology of these ecologies.
In other words, he wants us to ask
how our individual experiences of subjectivity
and mental health, our ethical
and practical relations to one another,
and our lived relationship to the natural world connected.
Chaos Theory has given us conceptual tools
to move beyond the neat causal relationships
that a fading Western Modernist Cartesian tradition
uses to map and explain reality.
We understand even a few of us can explain
an insistent truth lacking behind the butterfly effect.
But we've only begun to fathom the levels of connection
that Bateson and Guattari's works pretend.
COVID presents the elephant in the room.
Its appearance and spread
is a product of our ecological crisis.
It is one though not the first,
and not the last of many natural disasters
we've prepared for ourselves, mental, social,
that we live in an era of increasing crisis of the subject.
To illustrate on only one level,
depression and anxiety run rampant in our world.
Most of you will have had direct experience of this by now.
Suicide is on the rise in the US,
and we can probably expect
to see a spike in the fallout of the pandemic.
Experts hypothesize a wide range of reasons for this,
but we need only turn inward for answers.
The pressures of modern life seem unsustainable,
expectations, unrealistic, even absurd.
Our connections to work, others
and Divinity have been torn asunder
by an ideology of naked self interest
that Marx decried in the early stages
of our new capitalistic religion,
which has reached its Apogee in 21st century America.
Marx knew the model of production
and productivity we have inherited.
We all now live according to its logic.
and in an attempt to mean something,
to secure personal happiness,
we reproduce it every day.
One of Marx's great claims is that such models
produce our ways of relating to one another.
They also leave their impressions on our psyches.
I'm not suggesting that depression stems directly
from a conscious realization
that the new iPhone you had to have was made far away
by human slaves whose nutritional needs are not being met.
that would be too simple to causal.
and really, we can't succumb
to such a tender hearted sentiment, right.
Rather the workers plight
and our ability to ignore our complicity
in such truths are both symptoms
of an edioldic human bond.
Perhaps systemically broken on the cogs
and wheels of industry over the last 200 years,
perhaps never fully realized to begin with.
Racial tensions in America
are further evidence of a still unrepaired social schism,
again rooted in a sick model of labor.
Perhaps the psychic weight of unresolve difference
at the heart of our social reality
has something to do with individual mental health,
For others, it may be the effort
to ignore such insistent truths
and their daily operations
that produces new schisms within the subject.
When will we be able to imagine a healthy community
of unlike citizens who are nonetheless bound together,
interdependent and equally deserving of rights
Drawing the physical environment
into this question is perhaps self evident at this point.
the unrestrained exploitation of natural resources
and the despoilation of land
and species had been fueled
by the conjoined ideologies of a Judeo Christian worldview
yes men at the center of life on Earth,
and the capitalistic greed whose only metric of success
or notion of the good life stems from economic growth.
That our planet is in crisis,
that life as it has been known faces imminent threat
should at this point, come as no surprise.
we have committed unspeakable environmental abominations.
We are not separate from the world
we inhabit either in mind or in body.
Each of us carries the seeds of the sickness inside us.
Our own feelings of inadequacy
are self doubt are totally screwed up
but still operative values,
evidence a diseased mentality in which we all take part.
Nationalism, racism, and classism
are the symptoms of a disease sociality.
One that none of us has built,
but which we all huddle inside
to varying degrees of comfort and distress,
threaten the illusion of balance
and stability that we so assiduously protect
in our conception of normality,
perhaps it is time to stop asking what
or who caused this to abandon our ingrained,
nonsensical need for causal explanation
and instead turn toward ecological reaction.
China did not engineer the Coronavirus we did.
We all collectively unthinkingly lay the groundwork
for its transmission and effects every day.
We created the world in which a pandemic,
this pandemic could happen and is happening,
and even if new evidence proves beyond the shadow of a doubt
that someone created the virus in a lab
and even if it's release into the population
I stand by the idea that we all had a hand
in bringing this reality to pass.
The 911 attacks were not the renegade handiwork
of a few maddened members of a distant society.
Unless we consider that madness to as its ecological causes.
We all bear the burden of a world
in which such acts become possible and expedient.
but it will not be the final global crisis of our lives.
Cataclysmic weather events, ecological refugees,
economic collapses associated
with the ends of capitalistic expansion,
gun violence of epidemic proportions.
Die offs of thousands of species
and a host of other related issues lack on the horizon,
and so acknowledging the very real suffering
taking place all around us,
we who enjoy the privilege of relative safety
should see this event in two ways.
One, as a rehearsal for a future fraught
with global catastrophe woven across the plans
of individual social and environmental health.
and two, as a wake up call alerting us
of our under interrogated modern enterprise.
The values, goals, beliefs, structures
that govern our ordinary everyday lives are
not natural in any sense,
though they often feel that way.
how we relate to each other,
how we relate to the phenomenal world we inhabit
and how we conceive of our own worth,
are merely habits sedimented over time
Each has its origin in a particular historical moment
each is the product of a seismic shift
in our perception of reality,
and so the question becomes
not when will we get back to normal?
but how will this shared experience
This question cannot be asked passively,
it is no casual wondering or
waiting to see as if change will be announced
As a species, we crave stability,
and those who seemed to have it,
will embrace the illusion of its return.
If you want something to change,
you'll probably have to do something
to precipitate that change.
Normative forces especially under capitalism
have proven incredibly resistant to change.
They're surprisingly able to absorb
and incorporate changes lunches to their hegemony.
We need only reflect on the systemic function
of UR in many ways subversive
and definitely liberal arts education
to witness this capitalism's special power
of turning resistance into servitude.
In an interview entitled Rituals of Exclusion,
Michel Foucault discusses how capitalist norms
are inscribed pedagogically,
even when pedagogy is focused on their dismantling.
He writes, there is the first function of the university
to put students out of circulation.
Its second function, however, is one of integration.
Once a student has spent six or seven years of his life
within this artificial society,
he becomes absorbable society can consume him.
Insidiously, he will have received
the values of the society.
socially desirable models of behavior.
So that this ritual of exclusion
will finally take on the value of inclusion
and recuperation or a re-absorption.
In the liminal space of college,
students are allowed to experiment with radical ideas
and rebellious fantasies often in discussions
with similarly inclined faculty members.
But in Foucault's analysis,
we stand as the hypocritical desirable models,
who will facilitate your re-absorption.
A middle class career academic
participating in the very structures of capitalism
that I decry in my classrooms,
I unintentionally dangle the poultry
rewards of your acquiescence in front of your faces.
We should always search for gifts in a catastrophe.
You who have been coercively deceptively prepared to inherit
and carry on the status quo,
the landscape of your intended inheritance,
and it are in time and space
and see its utter inadequacy.
Its fundamental instability,
In short, the madness of a plan
that seeks your passive acceptance and cooperation.
Soon you will no longer be sheltered
in the artificial Society
of academia whose secret cause despite
and some subversive efforts
has always been to transform you
into the next generation of a professional managerial class.
keepers have a profane ideology rooted in self interest
of an anthropocentric hyper individualistic heresy.
on the cliff's edge of your intended futures,
wash up on this island of time,
you could choose to stop,
to question the validity assumptions
and perhaps imagine new ones.
The value of your education will not be diminished
by such reconsiderations.
Indeed you have been equipped to recognize,
dismantle, expose, reimagine,
and re engineer the workings of our stoled out reality.
One heartening thing this past century
is that individual action is political action.
Inaction then, is also a political choice.
In the ebbing tide of the pandemic,
change is perhaps newly possible,
and poised as you are to re-enter circulation.
The quality of the entrance
is you choose to make will redefine our shared reality.
In case you couldn't tell,
that was the promised return to empowerment and optimism.
to leave you hanging on such abstractions.
If you're still listening,
then you must be struggling to locate
and name the arena's of your interventions.
an unlikely voice in my arrogant opinion,
has delivered a message of actionable solidarity,
compassion, trust and hope.
If you're looking for something to practice today,
look to your families, your partners,
your friends, spread across the globe,
and do something to communicate,
support, love and respect.
and people desperately need to feel that.
I don't think I can see it better than our
former President George W. Bush already has.
If you haven't checked out his short message
for what to do going forward,
I found two articles inspiring
links will appear at the end of this talk.
Perhaps thousands of others will be shared in the Twitter
that will run alongside it,
and yes, I've already begun to say good bye.
If you're looking for a cause,
to blaze through a wilderness of uncertainty
The first printed in The Guardian on March 31
encourages us to preserve our state of emergency
and the unique brand of consciousness it establishes.
But to turn toward the looming crisis of our time,
climate change, and its manifold effects.
for continued radical action.
the feelings of being in common with this disease
we might find the resolve
to respond to a much greater threat to our biotic community.
A threat we daily compound,
and leaning into Guattari's relational logic.
If we can begin to heal the earth,
we might also heal ourselves.
The second link you will see in a few minutes
will take you to Politico,
an online publication started
by former editors of The Washington Post.
This article invites a wide range of experts
to speculate about how the Coronavirus
Running a gamut of possibilities
it contains over 30 prophecies.
The article succeeds in offering
a map of points across the landscape of mental social
that we've been surveying.
But each is speculation only.
Most will only materialize
as the result of unintentional intervention.
Here are a few of my favorites,
paraphrased and transposed into action.
Each promises a place to get involved.
This pandemic has shown we need to prioritize
placing people who know what they're doing
The government is entrusted
with nothing less than our collective survival.
Political loyalism, cynicism
and petty emotional satisfaction
are no longer acceptable motives in the electoral process.
Trump aside, we need to fill our government
There are actually jobs to do, not just campaigns to run.
Two, end your romance with market society
Market based social organization has eroded our humanity
and condemned countless global citizens to lives of risk.
desperation and economic depression.
the next time you eat McDonald's cheeseburger,
and essential business in contemporary parlance.
Three, forge new community.
provide new models of sharing our lives,
Myriad ways to deliver lay before you.
Four, rebuild family care,
health care, and welfare.
We're just joining the armies of people out there
right now fighting to provide these services.
Five, improve and expand education.
Science is real, and if we'd all heated germ theory
and the mathematics of exponential growth,
this pandemic might have gone differently.
Six, join the inevitable political uprising.
At the very least we can expect and Occupy Wall Street 2.0
Seven, limit mass consumption.
It's widening the inequality gap,
destroying our environment
and maybe even creating the diseases, the plagues.
Eight, oppose online education as a replacement
If your experience of seclusion
has revealed the ineffable value of live social interaction
and place as part of the educational process,
help preserve these experiences
and the ways of thinking they engender
Nine, change your habits.
They form your ways of thinking about
Dominant ways of thinking
and seeing the derive from shared
socially transmitted habits are infected.
Above all, form a perspective based on what you seen,
Individual action is political action.
Bigger questions then how we get on with our lives,
begin the careers we dreamed of,
or make some money are now before you.
Don't let the opportunities this crisis has opened up,
Each of you is now a fully vested,
educated adult member of this society.
The future of our people, our planet,
and your own place in the ever shifting construct
we call reality lies with you.
As the philosophers love of Dziedzic claimed,
with something gone terribly wrong.
Some things have gone terribly wrong.
The world is but a dream of our own making.
and over again billions of times a day
through mundane as well as extraordinary action.
Authorship rests with each of us.
You have been given the perspectives to recognize this,
the tools to perform your reality differently
and the crisis necessary to change direction.
My endless love and respect to each of you.
You are closer to my heart than you will ever know.