Musings on “Curating Consciousness”

            I had occasion in recent days to attend a talk on campus by a noted expert on digital storytelling who is assisting the Institute that I serve and our local Planning District Commission with a sustainability planning initiative. In describing the role of those who facilitate the efforts of individuals offering, or sometimes developing, their own voice through digital narratives, Thenmozhi Soundararajan observed that they serve as “curators of consciousness.” I found the phrase arresting and have been reflecting on it since. In particular, I have found myself pondering how this term of art might be applied to those engaged in grassroots peacebuilding efforts and in leading change efforts at any scale.

            When one thinks of curators, one imagines individuals who are responsible for assembling museum collections or selecting acts for music festivals or developing specific displays of art for public view and consideration. These exhibitions or events usually have a focus developed by the responsible curator. That is, they reflect that individual’s vision or intentionality. In this sense, curators may be said to be involved in deliberate efforts to touch the consciousness of the publics they seek to engage, but they cannot be said to be doing so solely to allow those “others” to react and frame the works on offer as they will. That is, the curator cannot control how efforts may be received, however cleverly they may shape their endeavors. But he or she is nonetheless offering a vision, explicitly or implicitly. While the curator’s work may not ordain a specific response, it nonetheless reflects its author’s own epistemic understanding and aspirations for the exhibit or show.

            Notably, such constructions are not generally developed in tandem with the effort’s proposed audiences. Instead, the curator brings their work forward and whatever its origins, deliberative or instinctual, prudent or wildly emotive, the show or collection or festival, will reflect those animating claims.

            So, given these realities, what does it mean to serve as the facilitator of another’s consciousness? For literary artists, at least, Joseph Conrad famously argued:

Confronted by the same enigmatical spectacle the artist descends within himself, and in that lonely region of stress and strife, if he be deserving and fortunate, he finds the terms of his appeal. His appeal is made to our less obvious capacities: to that part of our nature which, because of the warlike conditions of existence, is necessarily kept out of sight within the more resisting and hard qualities–like the vulnerable body within a steel armor. His appeal is less loud, more profound, less distinct, more stirring–and sooner forgotten. Yet its effect endures forever. The changing wisdom of successive generations discards ideas, questions facts, demolishes theories. But the artist appeals to that part of our being which is not dependent on wisdom, to that in us which is a gift and not an acquisition–and, therefore, more permanently enduring. He speaks to our capacity for delight and wonder, to the sense of mystery surrounding our lives; to our sense of pity, and beauty, and pain; to the latent feeling of fellowship with all creation–and to the subtle but invincible conviction of solidarity that knits together the loneliness of innumerable hearts, to the solidarity in dreams, in joy, in sorrow, in aspirations, in illusions, in hope, in fear, which binds men to each other, which binds together all humanity–the dead to the living and the living to the unborn. (Joseph Conrad, Preface, … The Narcissus: A Tale of the Sea 1897).

            I find myself wondering if such, too, is the aim of peacebuilders working at the grassroots who need, they know, to foment conditions in which those with whom they deal may themselves surface and consider anew the latent norms and values that quicken their animosity and ensure their “othering” of the hated or dreaded enemy who is the purported source of the social conflict in play. No one can ordain of the free man or woman such a process of consciousness-raising. Instead, the peacebuilder, who surely very often devoutly wishes to see just such occur, must continuously curate opportunities for those involved to come to such realizations themselves and hope that these are adopted and become the new agential norms on which different shared social and political relationships among groups may be constructed. In this sense, peacebuilders are not “neutral.” They possess not only aims, but also (and often) a desire for broad epistemic-scale shifts in the beliefs or values of the populations or groups with whom they are working. Paradoxically, however, if peacebuilders daily facilitate consciousness, the speed and character of the change that results from their efforts is beyond their control, just as it is likewise beyond the capacity of artists to define how their efforts will be received. Social and political change may or may not occur when and as peacebuilders would have it, and it may require generations to complete. Peacebuilders must be content to find their meaning in the doing and in the hope to which Conrad pointed, even if or when their efforts do not yield immediate change in population self-awareness or values. Change may only come from those ultimately responsible and effective peacebuilding curators must be both patient and forbearing as these possibilities are considered and accepted (or not) by those ultimately arbitrating social change.

            If this is so for arts curators and peacebuilders, it seems to me to be true generally, too, for leaders seeking change. Whether wishing to catalyze institution-scale shifts or more broadly tectonic social changes, leaders are daily enmeshed in the illogicality of curating the consciousness of those whom they most devoutly wish to reach and whose dignity they ethically, at least, should aim to protect. They are enmeshed in the same paradox that confronts the artist and would-be peacebuilder. If they are to honor the freedom of those with whom they work, leaders too must be content to create possibilities while never falling prey to the hubris that their own vision should hold sway.

            Simply sketching these conditions suggests how difficult they are to realize, and yet artists, peacebuilders and leaders daily press ahead to secure just such possibilities. Their task is not for the faint of heart and the hard-won disciplined determination of these individuals to move ahead in full view of the often-daunting obstacles confronting them is at once humbling and deeply admirable.