“From the crooked timber of humanity, nothing ever came out straight” — Immanuel Kant
“The Self is below, the Self is above, the Self is to the West, to the East, to the South, to the North. Truly the Self is this whole universe.
The man who sees and thinks and understands (Vijñā) in this way has pleasure in the Self, plays with the Self, lies with the Self and has his joy with the Self; he becomes an independent sovereign.” — Chandogya Upanishad, VII, xxv
When we remember things past, be it as a personal or collective attempt, we hardly ever solely depend upon one defining narrative. We instead thrive on the constancy of reshaping whatever needs, from our past, to accommodate whatever demands our present calls forth. In other words, we tend to our past with endless tendencies to edit and re-edit certain memories that we feel have shaped who we are as persons in the world. Here we think, first of all, say episodic memory, which is a category of long-term memory that enables us to travel back to our own past for particular experiences, like specific childhood events. For example, we may recall our very first days of school, or our first-ever visit to a museum, and so on. Secondly, whenever we can recall what we know, referring to parts of our long-term memories that belong to common knowledge, such as learning how to read, memorizing names of countries and their capitals, knowing the grass is green, noticing that the stop sign is red, and so on, all of which are identified as semantic memory. While we commonly acknowledge these two kinds of memory, both appeal to their own sense of time and to their own sense of the past. And that they both are inseparable from one another, we might experience what is known as emotional memory, especially an iteration that is a negative emotional memory, which we know can easily overwhelm any positive emotional memory in a heartbeat. Whatever references that are associated as positive emotions of love and admiration can be fratricidaly taken by bitterness, by resentment, and by humiliation that are undeniably products of negative emotion.
In our perpetual struggle to grasp the notion of what the renowned art historian, Barbara Novak, refers to as the “erasure of self,” which was so “prized by the early American Puritan culture,” we’re indeed coming to terms with the very fact that “diversity” in today’s context has a far different meaning than ever before in the history of the United States. For far too long, the systems of industrialization and distribution of labor that were created to produce, while reenforcing conformity and compliance, be it in politics and business, or in our education system, have proven to be the only effective mechanism for the one percent of the population, who understand, or shall we say are challenged by, the natural evolution of “diversity.” As we have already experienced the handshake-entrepreneurial assimilation between politicians and businessmen through the Trump presidency, we need to assertively reimagine and restructure the business industry of education, which has again, for far too long been failing our youth. The very concept of education, being based only on selection procedures through standardized testing, which has for the longest time conflated academic ability with intelligence in general. The very notion of having a degree being perceived as a higher accomplishment than having a practical or vocational skill has proven to be a calamity, as it has plagued tremendous consequences upon our political, social, and economic lives. Ever since China entered the World Trade Organization in 2001, which prompted thousands of large and small businesses, especially those in rural America to be sent overseas for cheaper labor, 6 million manufacturing jobs were taken away from working-class Americans between 1999 and 2011. It’s disheartening to know that among the few options for employment are varieties of maintenance capacities for private universities and colleges that are located in their respective neighborhoods and towns. Be it preparing food in the cafeteria, mopping the floors, cleaning the toilets, or mowing the lawns etc., one could only imagine such emotions of anger and resentment, which have been building up gradually over the last two decades, are inevitable. As we had barely survived the Trump administration, culminating in the boiling point of the now infamous 2021 insurrection at the Capitol, how are we to rethink the real generative philosophy of our education system, not based on conformist views of our students’ abilities? How will we ever be able to nourish, to foster the spirit of collaboration over competition?
While most, if not all of us have acknowledged that it’s been a detriment to the fragility of our democracy when we create artificial division between academic and vocational learning, for we should aspire to empathize with equal treatment and attention to both, as they represent the two sides of the same project, namely to advance democratic learning in general. Since we all know human intelligence is naturally characterized by diversity and learning from each other both individually and as a group, we must learn to embrace imperfection, even failure, for the cultivation of the self is imminent, more urgent at this moment than ever before. Education is therefore a personal process and a social process all at once. It is time for a new beginning indeed.
Onward and upward, with love and courage, as ever,
Phong H. Bui
P.S. This issue is dedicated to the remarkable life of Robert A. Haller, Anthology Film Archives Director of Libraries (1942-2021), whose commitment to the culture of avant-garde and experimental film will forever be associated with his diligent and caring labor of love. We’re grateful to the Rail’s designer par excellence, Tuan Quoc Pham, whose aesthetic contribution to the print issue of our journal has been unmatched by any standard. We send Tuan forth with warm wishes to his next journey. While Tuan remains a member of our family of mind, he passes on the baton to Nazli Ercan, who we look forward to working with on several exciting projects ahead. We also would like to welcome Charlotte Kent as a new Editor-at-Large. And lastly, we’d like to send our huge birthday salutes to our two friends: John Elderfield, the legendary curator, art historian, and writer, whose work continues to inspire us to look and see what lies between and below things. John’s latest curatorial undertaking Cézanne: The Rock and Quarry Paintings at the Princeton University Art Museum (March 7–October 18, 2020) along with the accompanying texts in the catalog were exemplary of his refined and incisive mind; Tony Bechara, painter and advocate for the arts and humanities extraordinaire, whose wisdom and long-view perspectives on art education and the cross-pollination among disciplines are deeply felt and appreciated by those who have worked with him in any capacity.