This past weekend, Drury University contributed its dutiful share to the general “corruption of the youth” by hosting the third Subverting the Norm conference. A gathering of contemporary philosophers, theologians, sociologists, and broadly interested individuals alike, the conference summoned a large community of passionate thinkers and joined them under the common objective of investigating postmodern theologies and their present-day implications. Presenters worked to reexamine commonly accepted norms as they shared alternative perspectives on humanity’s relational nature and even critiqued the substance of the conference itself. Considering the participants’ intrigue with “subversion,” it’s a wonder that the event ran so smoothly!
I cannot begin to adequately summarize the full contents of the conference within this entry, and I am convinced that the ability to do so would only indicate an inadequate appreciation of the event as a whole. Still, in a small observation of this weekend’s promotion of the impossible, I thought I might use this space to cover a couple of the trends that stood out to me as embodiments of the conference’s key components.
One particularly popular theme throughout the weekend was the foundational relationality of humanity. The conference worked to illuminate and dissuade social indifference by demonstrating the essential connectedness (or, as Catherine Keller put it, “entanglement”) of every human being with every other human being. In response to contemporary emphases of radical individualism and personal attainment, Subverting the Norm drew from themes of mutual connection and responsibility. From this baseline, presentational speakers jumped into various modes of theoretical deconstruction which aimed to expose and eventually dismantle hidden (and many times not-so-hidden) systems of oppression within theologies, philosophies, and other dimensions of social import. Racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, and active indifference were all brought into the spotlight and candidly discussed as proponents of human separation. As speakers discredited these systems and raised awareness of their contemporary effects, paths toward justice and healing were proposed.
At the same time, many participants made it stridently clear that such discussions of oppressive systems, while providing a beneficial starting point for change, ultimately divert attention rather than subvert oppression if they do not inspire action or “practice.” In this way, the conference engaged in an interesting action of constant self-critique. As soon as any social monstrosity of privilege or abusive “otherness” was disclosed and chastised, its conferential consideration was quickly recognized to be a preliminary response rather than a comprehensive solution. This expression of ultimate inadequacy amid essential necessity colored many aspects of Subverting the Norm. Commonly referenced statements like “Be realistic—Demand the impossible,” and “Mustard seeds, not metaphysics,” constantly reminded the gathering that its aim of holistic justice could not be wholly achieved through scholastic debate, but that it must be pursued through a powerful accumulation of acts. Additionally, this accumulation must necessarily be supported by those acts which initially appear to be small or inconsequential. If, after all, humanity is radically interrelated and interconnected, our normal daily interactions are wonderfully and terribly powerful. According to the conclusions of the conference, we must work to identify the power which resides in the simple recognition of each other’s shared humanity, and then find ways to practice this recognition if we hope to foster human connection and understanding.
How, then, might we begin to engage in such practice? The beauty and the frustration of Subverting the Norm lies in the fact that it did not present any one universally outlined and readily applicable method which might address the issues it rose. To do so would have been to publish yet another step-by-step solution manual to the world’s problems, and to consequently create additional norms through the very attempt to subvert them. Instead, the conference advised that the adoption of a continuously adaptive way of being might better exemplify the constructive response required by systemic issues than would the completion of any specified act or action plan.
In this way, the event lived up to its recognizably postmodern roots. Critiquing metanarratives, many presenters assumed existential styles in their ethical models and suggestions. They stressed the need for each individual to constantly address injustice contextually, sincerely, and as completely as possible, with a consistent eye towards both human creativity and human fallibility. The participants in Subverting the Norm suggested that ultimately inclusive, relation-oriented, self-evaluating, and creative attitudes provide the best conditions for the pursuit of justice in contemporary society. Such practices encourage individuals to appreciate and live into the tensions of an “entangled” humanity rather than to recognize difference as justification for separation and indifference. When trying to explain some everyday manifestations of justice-seeking attitudes, Namsoon Kang admitted that she does not believe in justice without a smile. This reminded the conference that justice-talk (and even action!) can be ineffectual if it loses its relational humanity.
While I recognize that this entry on Subverting the Norm has largely been an extension of a scholastic discussion, and that it can therefore fall to the same critique as other purely analytical approaches, I hope that it also contributes to a larger call for actual practice and a renewed sense of social interrelation. If nothing else, this post’s very existence shows that interest can be transmitted and mobilized by dialogue. Perhaps discussion is not an ultimate solution, but I seriously doubt its futility as a beginning.