Photo credits: Young Girl, Dhaka, Bangladesh

Learning from Dhaka: A communal era?

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We live in many worlds. Our inner worlds are rich and mystical, relating sometimes only barely to our outer worlds, the worlds inhabited by our friends, our community, societies, families and the broader diaspora of our ethnic connections. All these worlds interact and all interact with our media world, the world of ideas and stories that define our broader perspective on humanity. Our media world has been critical to our growth, it is books and poetry, songs and dance. But lately it has been television, a particularly powerful media that has influenced the way we relate to each other, or not, defined the degree to which we are knowledgable, or not, and how we feel we should be as a political society. In this media world there seems to be a decreasing number of stories, focussing us on an ever tightening knot of perceptions, namely that the world is in a slow mad descent into chaos, everyone is a threat to everyone, dire consequences emerge from medieval philosophies empowered by networks, terror is everywhere and our humanity is being stolen by our technology. To immerse oneself for a while in our media is to descend into a dark place, rhetorically repugnant, desperate and clinging to a single false assumption: that there is happiness in successful materialism.

The narrative goes something like this: The rich deserve to be rich and the poor would be rich if they were like us.

In our media world there are two gods: hate and fear, they are worshipped daily by the toned and surgically altered television anchors who anchor us to … what? A failed ethic that, for a while, made us feel good about our capitalism, good about the success of the few and kept us ignorant about the plight of the rest. We bathed in our happiness and indulged in our euphoric fantasies, our government supported dictators and avoided the responsibility of being the democratic superpower. All was good, American Idols were found, the entitled were voted into office and royals were married in public. Yet year on year, we became less happy. The shocking truth about returning to the UK or USA is that when you return you confront depression, a bleak sadness and a society increasingly alienated by itself.

This is in total and absolute contrast to a trip into the slums of Dhaka. The first impression is of disorder but gradually the order emerges. Not the engineered order of modern urban life but a human order emerging from well trodden paths, important relationships and a shared energetic will to thrive. From the perspective of an urban westerner they have nothing, they are the poorest of the poor, yet rapidly you see that they have very little property and a whole world of goodness. These are people progressing. Their surroundings are harsh and their conditions unsanitary. But the schoolroom is full of the brightest energy you could imagine; kids learning because they want to learn, teachers teaching because they want to teach. The maternity clinic, a small hut with a clean room partly funded by The Gates Foundation, is efficient and effective. Rural communities are destroyed as people come to the city so other communities form around essential needs. Women are borrowing tiny amounts of money and starting essential businesses, for food, clothing and communication. The place is teeming with action, creativity and the constant hum of human scale commerce, from rickshaw drivers to casual cooks making fragrant dishes from simple ingredients.

Life here is harsh, life expectancy is low. The open sewers are testament to how low on the ladder of modern life these amazing and colorful people are. The colors are stunning, everyone is dressed  joyfully and stylishly, the children scatter and congregate in flocks of reds, blues and golds. The noise is a shock and then reveals itself to be what it is: a bedlam of industrious people slowly slowly dragging their community out of poverty and into something better. I am struck by the thought that here in the Dhaka slum people are colorful but in the capital of capitalism, New York,  black is the new black, a lack of color, an absence of everything. After about an hour the joy is mesmerizing and the insight is clear. Humanity is joyful. The rich need the poor and that has been the truth of societies down the millennia. But being rich and being happy are not correlated. Recent studies have shown clearly that there is a happiness barrier beyond which accrued wealth fails to make the individual more happy, rather it adds to the burden of life. When you feel the power of real human joy it is hard to accept the miserable anxieties of the industrialized rich.

Our worlds are interconnected and thanks to modern media technology they are becoming more so. As we connect one on one rather than through the mediation of News International or Al Jazeera, we discover each other’s core humanity and begin to realize that this change we are going through is huge. It is hard to accept a society as stratified as the one created by modern capitalism when one experiences the most powerful of human emotions in one of its most impoverished places. What do we mean by “rich” anyway? Pretty much all politics and marketing have, for generations relied on two notions. The first is that we are all individuals, unique creatures, able to experience self actualization as we sit atop Maslow’s Heirachy. The second is that we are driven by aspirations to have the things we currently do not have, to be the person we are currently not, a little sexier, a little richer, a little thinner or faster or knowledgable.  These two constructs are the products of psychology and sociology, they were emergent disciplines a hundred years ago and shaped the way the west thought of the world. Capitalism has framed these structures in the context of materialism. As individuals our identity is framed by what we have. Increasingly more so than where we are from, for example. Our aspirations tend to be material. Even articulations of the intangible, for example health, are framed as the tangible; the suit we can wear, the holiday we can enjoy or the partner we can seduce on line. We literally wear our selves on the outside of our bodies, externalized and in contrast to the mass. I recall Laurie Anderson discussing George Trow’s concept of a loss of “middle distance”, leaving only the self and the mass:

“The middle distance fell away, so the grids (from small to large) that had supported the middle distance fell into disuse and ceased to be understandable. Two grids remained. The grid of the two hundred million and the grid of intimacy. Everything else fell into disuse. There was a national life—a shimmer of national life—and intimate life. The distance between these two grids was very great. The distance was very frightening.” – Within the context of no context, 1980, New Yorker Magazine.

Trow, an essayist for The New Yorker, accurately captured the Western cultural experience when he wrote this in 1980. It is a description of a culture that has lost its communal feeling. Individuals can only emulate the mass or the segments of the mass presented in media. There is no real communal experience for them. Sports is mediated by TV, politics become about Red and Blue states. This is the lasting impact of a televisual culture.

There are signs that this period is coming to an end. Social media and the rise of a new inner city communalism are a couple of indicators. Independent coffee brands are supplanting global brands by offering a real communal experience not simply a media articulated “third place”. What is interesting to me is the fact that cultures now emerging into the global economy do not tend to come from televisual societies. Television in places like Bangladesh is very limited. Television in places like Egypt, bursting onto the global economic stage right this very minute, has been very restricted. This is also true for India, China and all of Africa. These cultures are hurtling towards two futures: a post industrial economy and a post televisual culture. These two factors are making the world look very chaotic from the comfort of our industrial economy and televisual culture. We see only in terms of the individual and the mass whereas the rest of the world sees things in terms of the communal experience within which individuals exist. As I was walking the streets of Dhaka you could feel this. Fastidiously dressed people were clearly part of an industrious community. The distance, to use Trow’s analogy, between the mass and the individual was very short. In other words, the experience of intimacy was everyday, something that has been absent from Western society for generations.

Walking the streets of Dhaka and talking to photography students and journalists alike revealed a culture of people all fused into a common historical identity on a shared journey to a future they were uncertain of. One way of thinking about places like Banglasdesh is that they are emerging economies. We mean, of course, that they are emerging to our Western view within the context of a global economy. Another way of thinking is that the West is re-emerging, into a communal world where the ascendence of the individual at the expense of the community is intolerable. The difference this time, versus the communal world of the agrarian age, is that communities are global.

So who is best equipped for a communal age?

The noise of Dhaka was left behind as I flew first to Tokyo, for a week, and then to The United States. The three places could not have been more clearly different. The chaos of Dhaka versus the sublime Tokyo. The irresistible excitement of Bangladeshis versus the anxiety and depression of Americans and their media. The communal nature of Japanese Society seemed perfectly in sync with the communal nature of Bangladesh. The lack of communal nature in The United States was at odds with the other two. In The United States the idea of a “Social Network” is a novelty still, filled with disapproval, it is seen through the lens of the individual’s struggle to climb society’s ladders. In Asia, however, it is a natural extension of a society that lives and aspires communally. A very different context for the future.

In the poorest areas of Dhaka people have access to cell phones. We can learn from them. We can begin to understand that our fundamental cultural precepts are dissolving as technology erodes televisual culture and ushers in a communal age. The founders of Facebook, people like Chris Hughes who now offers Jumo as a way of capturing and focusing communal energy, or the founders of Twitter who are embroiled in uprisings in Tunisia, Iran, Egypt and Myanmar, have a ringside seat to these changes. Communal psychology is different to individualism. Michael Jordan reflected individualism, Arcade Fire and Sigor Ross indicate communalism. It is a mistake to see Facebook as a network, like NBC, it is multilayered communities defining a new multicultural society that is as global as it is local. Every photographer at Chobi Mela VI in Dhaka, Bangladesh, used Facebook and Twitter. It is technology perfectly in tune with their cultural identities. In the slums people are aspiring to improve their communities, to bring them from rural poverty and low life expectancy, to urban comfort and long lives. It was more inspiring to be among them than to be in the big urban centers of a depressed Western world. Over here in Dhaka there is boundless optimism because hope is not a slogan it is an everyday communal feeling.