In the class The Personal is Even More Political, we have engaged with literary texts and different types of visual material; we have had discussions with artists and performed in-class social experiments like watching each other relax for about fifteen minutes or walking around a shopping mall in silence.
As a theater major, I am used to doing strange and vulnerable things in front of an audience: I have previously been tasked with embodying a chicken and singing five songs in a show while stricken with laryngitis, among other things. However, none of that compared to the discomfort I and my fellow classmates felt at the very first session of The Personal is Even More Political. My experience with placing intimate parts of my life on a stage didn’t make the first day of this class any less terrifying when some of us were asked to answer private questions like “what is the biggest challenge you’ve faced?” Not only did we answer, “do you like the family you have?” but we also had to have the person who had just interviewed us introduce us and relay these private details to the rest of the class! We then proceeded to reflect on the multiple layers of filtering that took place in the exercise and what the exercise taught us about communication and perspective.
The positive reception of the class is largely due to our innovative and thoughtful professors, the practicing artist duo plan b. Having worked together creatively for many years, Sophia New and Daniel Belasco Rogers have a synergy that drives the class. The theoretical aim of the class was to engage with how our personal life connects to the political sphere. Our instructors wanted us to consider this question within the context of the modern age wherein personal data is transmitted and monetized by the government and corporations. By engaging with carefully chosen literary texts and different types of visual materials, as well as through discussions with artists and participation in experimental performances in class, we continue to learn about art and ourselves. Sophia and Daniel foster discussion that doesn’t privilege their personal opinions, which carves out a safe space for everyone to think critically about the education that they are partaking in. Often, I feel as if I leave this class with more questions than answers.
The exercises that we did in the following classes were as exhilarating as the first one. One especially memorable exercise was a writing activity: First, we had to write without stopping, producing a completely unfiltered stream of consciousness à la L&T. Then we had to take a detail from this text with which to write a fairytale, a science fiction piece, and a manifesto — one after the other, in a short time frame — all drawing from our initially muddled thoughts. With each piece, we had to get more and more specific with the idea and then write from there. The restrictions of the exercise helped me spark more creative ideas than in other class settings where I am told I can write anything. Specificity, in this way, became a tool for release as opposed to limitation.
This political-academic experience was not always a focused one, but this came with its own set of advantages. The class discussions occasionally went off on tangents that often proved to be an invaluable part of the learning process. For example, the other week we discussed the show Wild Wild Country at length. It is a docu-series about the controversy surrounding the Rajneeshpuram Commune in the Oregon desert and how the escalating tension between the small pre-existing population and the much larger population of Rajneeshees led to the first bioterror attack in the United States. Every member of the cult wore maroon and orange and idolized their guru, known as Osho or Bhagwan. Osho is often seen with a long beard and dressed in a long, white robe. His syncretic teachings emphasize the importance of meditation, courage, love, humor, creativity and sexuality. He is a critic of the repression demanded of strict adherence to most religious practices. The plan for the bioterror attack, which was led by the commune’s administrative leader, Sheela, was to keep people home during election season so that the commune would be able to gain political power in the local government to protect the community they built. A concoction of microbes, salmonella being the main ingredient, was put into salad bars, coffee creamers, and blue cheese dressing in various local restaurants and cafes in The Dalles, Oregon. No one died from the incident, but 751 people became very ill.
Even though it wasn’t a part of the original class plan, we allowed ourselves the time to explore the topic in depth. We ended up asking many critical questions: This event happened recently, in the 1980s, so why had most of us never heard of this act of terrorism before? Why would a community that advocates for free-love, meditation, mindfulness, and innovation participate in plotting murder and drugging? Why would a community that reclaimed nature and brought wildlife back to infertile ground then commit bio-terrorism? What institutions are we possibly involved with that feed and thrive on this cult mentality?
While walking to lunch after this class, I continued to think about cults and what my own values are when it comes to the use of violence to bring about radical political change. I believe in radical self-love, communal support, softness, and bringing life back to the Earth, like this cult did. I believe in experimenting with self-expression and identity in public, countering societally imposed shame and the belief that identity is fixed from birth. How do I engage with others who refuse to listen to and accept my beliefs and values? How far am I willing to go to protect my values? To fight for them? Like I said, this class gave me more questions than answers, and I am incredibly grateful for this as it formed part of what I’d consider an alternative education.
My experience of a traditional class setting is one where the teacher asks a question and expects us to come to some sort of a conclusion based on the text and ideas they present to us.
For me and my classmates, The Personal Is Even More Political class acted as an alternative education in the sense that we were given guidance but also the freedom to take our education in the direction we wanted. The class valued process over product. We would come to discover personal aspects of ourselves that spoke to a larger, political question. To echo Carole Pateman [*1], we would come to understand that there was no real separation between the private and the public sphere. Our private, personal experiences were always a reflection of and influenced by a larger socio-political structure. The private sphere is really just the public sphere’s ideology manifesting itself in our homes when no one was looking. Indeed, the personal is undoubtedly always political.
[*1] Pateman, Carole. The Sexual Contract. Chapter 1: Contracting In. Stanford University Press. Stanford, California. 1988. Print.