The following was written as part of the application for a month-long art residency, my medium being performance art. For this reason, it leaves out my encounter with Daoism and my commitment to Zen Buddhism. Big lacunas these!
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I grew up in a small town in southwestern Wisconsin, a region not swept flat by glaciers during the last ice age. The Driftless Area, as it’s now called, is perhaps a fitting name since, from a young age, I tended to be solitary and contemplative. “You were always a quiet boy,” my mother recounts.
I discovered the liberal arts as a senior in high school. Before then, I thought I’d be a journalist. This was because from the time I was a freshman, I’d written for our town newspaper The Platteville Journal not because I thought of “building my CV” but simply because I loved to write. I still do, though my encounter with the liberal arts opened me up to a depth in the human experience that was, to that point, rarely felt and never expressed.
In truth, going to college was an alienating experience for me since while I was reading and thinking, fellow classmates were hooking up. Consequently, I tended to gravitate toward older friends–I still do–and when I graduated, all I knew was that I knew little. I was accepted into a graduate program and was immediately surprised when I came to discover what it was really like.
I hadn’t realized that the process of finishing a Ph.D. is largely a process of professionalization. Prestige, specialization, and positioning matter. Naively, I’d presumed that I was going there to learn, at least primarily, about matters of ultimate concern.
I was quite fortunate, though, in that English departments in the last 40-odd years have undergone dramatic shifts. By the early 2000s, no set curriculum remained, so one could, in principle, study whatever one liked. I took full advantage, registering for courses in geography, aesthetics, ethics, and Classical Greek philosophy. And when it came time to write my dissertation, I read deeply in intellectual history, sociology, moral theory, and political philosophy. Though it was clear to me that I wasn’t fit to be an academic specialist, I was grateful that I’d written about the nature of the good life in the modern world because the subject formed me in ways then unimaginable.
Leaving the Midwest and academia, I moved, sight unseen, to New York City. I figured: “If I can make it here, I can make it anywhere.” I thought too: “I want to lead a wise life, though I have no clue what this means.”
Besides, I was ready to feel deep in my bones what I was capable of. Somehow, I found myself well suited for living in what, in 2009, was only then being called “the gig economy,” doing all manner of things to make a living. And I liked it!
What makes New York City such a magical place is that it improves–by spades–your chances of getting lucky. And lucky I was: in 2010, a friend offhandedly told me about training to be a philosophical counselor. The thing sounded right up my alley–and best yet–after seven years in grad school, this training was only three days long! I did it, I loved it, and, in 2011, I started philosophizing with others.
I’ve never looked back. By a very rough estimate, I’ve now been philosophizing with people around the world–in North America, South America, Europe, and Australia–for some 20,000-25,000 hours for nearly 10 years. It’s been wonderful. Who knew there were so many delightful oddballs, individuals who were pining to contemplate matters of ultimate concern like the nature of reality, goodness, and beauty, in the world today?
It was no doubt my contact with Kaos Pilots , an experiential-learning school in Denmark, that led me to fall in love with performance art. The first time I taught at the school I was slightly unnerved when I learned that we wouldn’t be using any texts. Much to my surprise, I took to it, learning the art of improvisation through various live experiments.
For the past six years, I’ve tried to bring philosophy to life through dramatic expression. Seen in a certain light, life is, after all, very mysterious–and did not Parmenides, Empedocles, and Socrates in their persistent questioning reveal just this? And was not Plato partly a dramatist? In recent years, one piece of performance art, “The Philosopher is Present,” has had as its explicit intention that of putting participants in touch with the vibrant, and very real, mystery of existence; of helping them to probe the deep unthought; of enabling them to wake up to all this. The experiment continues.