Friday, July 24, 2009

Sustainability IV: Legitimacy Pt. 3 (Too Legit To Quit)

Another thought about legitimacy and worldview (see the previous post) strikes me as I was listening to Jaydiohead. If you don't know, Jaydiohead is a quite fantastic mash-up of Jay-Z and Radiohead.

Jay-Z is from the world of rap, and in the world of rap, legitimacy is currency. They work on a legitimacy-currency system called "cred," which is a measure of how "legit" they are. You get your cred on the street, and that's what makes you legit.

If I sound like the whitest person alive in that last paragraph, it's for obvious reasons. I am not from that background, so I don't know what in that phraseology was legitimate and what was absolute horse-crackers. When I talk the talk of art-bloggers, I know the language. I know how to judge "legitimacy." Although I might disagree with my fellow art-community folks, I feel fairly confident of my ability to smell bullshit.

When I listen to Jay-Z, it often sounds to me patently ridiculous--especially the ones where he's talking about his life as "hustler" (a word whose meaning I can't ever hope to grasp in a non-superficial way). One line in one of his songs is "This is black superhero music." I was listening to this at work, and it caused laughter amongst my workmates.

I am not condemning Jay-Z. I'm just showing that legitimacy is highly relative, very localized. It draws upon your knowledge of the world around you, and it's 100% perceptive.

William James, philosopher, spoke in his series of lectures on Pragmatism (collected in a volume called Pragmatism which is one of the books that defined who I am) of how we create and collect worldview. His theory of worldview is that we basically start with a supposition, and then test it in our local world, and if it accurately predicts the environment we live in, we keep it. These beliefs remain in our world-view until something comes along that challenges it, and then we make the simplest reshuffling possible to adjust.

This creates a barrier not of language, but of experience. Because the things I do will not resonate as "legitimate" in the world of "hustlers" and the things that hustlers do seem, well, foreign and strange in the world of an upper-middle-class art-blogger.

If an arts organization wants to be legitimate, they have to understand the experiences that have shaped the local worldview. If you want to change their worldview, you have to figure out what will be legitimate, but will challenge their current worldview.

It's also important to note that those things that you hold to be true will not strike people to be true just because you insist on it. You have to speak their language, and then challenge their notions.

One powerful example of this to me is a report I heard once from Iraq, in which they discussed that part of the reasons Sunnis feel disenfranchised in the current (at the time of the report, illegitimate from their perspective) government is because in the Saddam Hussein era, Sunnis were told that they were 50% of the population, and now the new government tells them they are only 20% of the population. The fact that the Sunni population is objectively 20% of the population doesn't change the social fact that Sunnis believe they are half of the population. This is a huge challenge that I don't have an answer for, but this was an example of legitimacy problems in action.