The blog of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation
I read Ruth Benedict's “The Individual and the Pattern of Culture” while sipping iced coffee at Starbucks on the corner of Lincoln Road and Pennsylvania Avenue while I waited for the Knight Foundation's 1,000th and final Random Act of Culture to commence. As I read, I wrote down this line: “Sometimes we need a random act of culture to recognize no act of culture is ever random.”
“Society in its full sense,” Benedict writes, “...is never an entity separable from the individuals who compose it. No individual can arrive even at the threshold of his potentialities without a culture in which he participates. Conversely, no civilization has in it any element which in the last analysis is not the contribution of the individual.”
Pioneer Winter, who choreographed the final Random Act of Culture, noticed my Facebook “check-in” and tracked me down at Starbucks. “What's up,” he asked. “Just waiting for the final act of culture to begin,” I responded. “At 5:30,” he said. As he shuffled off at the human speed of light, I noticed a contingent of spry, wide-eyed youngsters—dancers, acrobats, tricksters—follow him toward the Euclid oval with huge smiley faces and happy feet. No act of culture is ever random, I thought again, and that's when dancer and choreographer Marissa Alma Nick, one of the dancers scheduled to perform, walked in and gave me a peck on the cheek. “I'll see you there,” she said and then disappeared.
Culture isn't random. It's an act of consciousness and concentration, choreography and organization, concept and execution. Winter can't arrive at the threshold of his potentialities without a culture in which he participates and culture — random or otherwise — can't flourish (or exist) without the contribution of the individuals of that culture.
Without Winter, there's no Marissa Alma Nick lifting off like a rocket ship over the the green turf of the Euclid oval reaching for heaven. Without Marissa Alma Nick, there's just the possibility of flight — the possibility of culture — and green turf. And without the Knight Foundation or civilization, there's no foundation from which to fly.
“No civilization,” Benedict writes, “has in it any element which in the last analysis is not the contribution of the individual.” Without the solitary conscious effort of the individual, there's no culture. And without culture, there's no consciousness. Maybe this is overly simplified logic, but I'm not a philosopher. I just know that when I see Nick free-floating — arms reaching for high heaven above Lincoln Road — I see Winter holding her up and getting her there. I see the crowd holding her up too and getting her there as we hold our collective breath. All of this made possible by a conscious act of culture and wholehearted individualism.