Pt. 1 on why modern secular intentional communities are poor excuses for utopias.

 

If an intentional community creates a utopia but limits itself to 100 people what good does it do? How limiting must it be to live in a community full of people that are all perfect and being content in that perfection. If you believe that you live in a utopia you either have to embrace cultural relativism or narcissism. If your way of life is most conducive to human flourishing and are content to keep it to yourself how are you not a narcissist? It is possible that someone devoted to cultural relativism would think that only their members would enjoy their community and that their perfection was shared with all other communities. Twin Oaks provides its member with many material benefits, but they are doing very little for the inner life of its residents. This inner life is what communities ought to help its members achieve if they wish to provide any sort of utopia.

Twin Oaks has provided its members with a decent quality of life separate from the rest of the world in many ways. They do not rely on the electrical grid a feat that is quite amazing. The citizens only work 42 hours a week doing activities that have some level of meaning. The community is small enough for all of the members to know each other, maintaining about 100 members. However, except as an example it has done little to help people outside its community. The history of twin Oaks is quite different from that of the Shakers. It might seem that Twin Oaks is the successful one but if all the success in Twin Oaks is simply living a life that avoids suffering and has a nice community how can it compare with a community that provided ultimate meaning for its people and shaped their very Being.

The Shakers may have believed in countless absurdities but they managed to recognize that simply waiting around for Jesus to come again is not what he taught his disciples. The Shakers realized that to follow his teachings was to put their hope into action and live as if God has made Heaven available to humans. From the outside the Shakers lived similar lives to New Harmony and that New Harmony is successful because it still exists. However, New Harmony relies on having the correct people live in it while the Shakers called everyone to live holy lives with them. The Shakers may have had practices that we do not agree with but their motivations were pure. Their attempt to rid themselves of the consequences of original sin, woman desiring for men to rule over them and men only working in order to survive, was successful. Their success is evident because their community did not make women inferior to men. The Shakers also managed to show how wondrous a Christian communist society could be. Even by the standards of capitalist society they were surely successful given the high rate of inventions that its members created and how many well made goods were created by them.

VSEC Reflections

For my post this week I thought I’d talk a little more in depth about the Virginia Student Environmental Coalition and how it connects to the communities we’re studying. Our class discussions feel important to me because of their relevance to the challenges VSEC faces with its own community.

VSEC is a statewide group of youth activists who mobilize around climate justice. Throughout the year, the Coalition has a house where four to six full-time organizers live and work together. For the past two summers, we’ve hosted a Summer Organizing Program at the house with around twelve people each year. These people put a tremendous amount of work into relational work, direct action organizing, and outreach. Here is VSEC’s theory behind collective living:

Volunteer organizing and collective movement living has been at the heart of social change as far back as our tradition of organizing goes. For the civil rights movement, churches and Freedom Houses spread throughout the Deep South supported young organizers with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. The ability to live and work together grew the nonviolent movement of sit-ins and moral confrontation that forced the segregated system to its end and won a right to vote for the Black community. Gandhi’s Ashram housed the commitment of the Indian Independence movement and launched the Great Salt March. Collective movement centers have served as incubators for resistance and sparks for building the new world we are fighting for. Collective living provides our foundation of trust, unity, and commitment to each other, as we build social movements rooted in the love of people.

I have not been a full member of the Summer Organizing Program or lived at the house for an extended period of time, but I definitely consider myself a part of the community. The house is a home I know I can return to; the people who live there are my family, the people I trust most deeply. I would strongly consider living there after I graduate. So the effort toward collective living is one that feels very near to my heart, and I want to understand how such a community can be sustained long-term.

-Sarah

It’s Official – We Have Chosen An Intentional Community

It’s an exciting time for Sarah and myself. We have decided to research Living Energy Farm!! Our decision came about over a meal at the on- campus Qdoba, a great way to end a delicious meal (See Above Photo). We decided on Living Energy Farm because it incorporated aspects that both Sarah and I were very interested in.  The community has ties with Virginia Organizing and functions as an education center and an all around community. They are totally off the grid, while generating 90% of renewable energy, producing over half of all their own food and sharing in nearly every other aspect. We are very excited to advance our research regarding this community and hopefully visit and interview the members involved.

Intentional Communities – The Past And The Present

Within the past few weeks I feel that the main focuses of past intentional communities and current ones are centered around equality and sharing a common goal. Each community that has started or is created today both come together for the purpose of a specific goal, whether that be sustainability or a certain religion, these people come together because of their shared mentalities. Equality and understanding are, for the most part, a constant within communities. This ranges from gender, ethnicity, and even age. These communities were created because of a shared purpose and because of that, everyone involved is treated with the same amount of respect.

Milne Library Archives and Co-Op Dinner

I finally got to have an in-depth, one-on-one conversation with the archivist today after my class. Liz Argentieri pulled up a couple of documents about the Shakers, as I had informed her about our class text’s chapter on the community. She told me that, in a town ten minutes from my school, there existed our very own Shaker community, now the site of Groveland’s Correctional Facility. Funny how things turn out.

As we sat at a small desk in the room containing the Geneseo town archive, Argentieri explained to me the difference between the two rooms; the town archive in one room is more free to the public, where students and townspeople are able to browse after having the room unlocked by the librarian. The other archive, or what Argentieri was explaining as less of a legitimate archive, holds historical documents from SUNY Geneseo as a university. Here, documents like school newspapers or meeting minutes are kept and only in an extremely rare instance is anyone, besides the library’s staff, allowed to peruse its shelves. Those interested in particular documents should request them and a member of the staff will enter the room to remove the records for them. In general, she explains that neither of these rooms abide by the strict definition of an archive — if they did, she briefly explained the tedious process of removing records that have expired and are no longer necessary.

Argentieri also searched Geneseo’s online database with me, using particular keywords that might engage something within the archives. Using the search term “commun*,” we already found a lot of activity and I plan on looking into that further. Hey, if the Shakers set up a community close by, who’s to say that Geneseo doesn’t have a rich history of intentional communities? Who’s to say Livingston County’s intentional communities just haven’t been compiled into a book yet? This is why archival work is so interesting.

I left the library at 5pm today (I’m back again, making this my fourth stay here in the past 24 hours) with such an excitement about me. Recently, I’ve been going through old scrapbooks in my sorority house (founded in 1885), and although I’d love to see the old old records (I’m talking back in the day when we were founded as a literary society), I’m sure they’re long gone. The other day, I flipped through the pages of a 1988 binder where I found typewriter-printed pages full of meeting minutes, letters addressed to Governor Mario Cuomo (asking if he’d please be our commencement speaker — he rejected), and old court case files from when someone burglarized our home. Other than the thrill of looking through these blasts from the past, I feel a deep disappointment in myself, now Recording Secretary and Cabinet member in my sorority, that we don’t print things anymore. Actually, scratch that — that we don’t save things anymore. (Save trees). Funny enough, just today we were surprised to open the door to see two women in their late 50s, alumni. They told us they lived at the house in 1974! I remembered exactly where I had seen the scrapbook from that year and pulled it down from the shelf for them to look at. (Am I my own kind of archivist now?). Anyway, you can tell the meeting with the archivist went really well and I’m excited to be able to log our community’s documents in an orderly and accessible way.

Cody and I loved our dinner at the co-op. We enjoyed a delicious vegetarian taco meal and shared our “rose,” “thorn,” and “buds” of the day/week. The rose means you describe the best part of your day, the thorn the worst, and the bud is something you’re looking forward to. Many of us mentioned being done with schoolwork and enjoying the weekend as our “buds.” I felt like I was among a group of casual friends, and was invited to come hangout at the co-op anytime.

Later, on the walk home, Cody and I asked each other whether or not this was “the one,” the community we’d like to research. Cody mentioned wanting to check out the monastery down the road a bit before we decide which I agreed to. I think as far as accessibility and ability to archive data, the co-op seems like a great place to start this journey. In a way, I feel like I’m journeying with the co-op on their way toward hopeful success. Plus, one of their extremely impressive members has already transferred all of their documents onto Google Drive so that new members have a record of the group’s history and are given a working guideline of how to run the organization.

Here are some pictures of the outside of the co-op, and the amazing meal we enjoyed as a group:

 

 

Communal Living: Active Form of Resistance or Passive?

While reading Reece’s chapters for this week, it seems like there is a subtle conversation on the concept of activism and our roles as active or inactive catalysts for holistic change in the world. At Twin Oaks, Valerie tells Reece that she thinks of people who want to change the world as members of either “two streams” of thought (Reece 195). She sees being an activist as an “against energy” and commune members as taking part in creating a new world, a new alternative system that resists the “mainstream” (Reece 195). Is this nihilism, or maybe a less morbid version of it? I realize that some members of Twin Oaks are activists but are the others then just floating by, focused so much on their own happiness that they overlook those oppressed in the “outside” world?

I guess what I’m getting at is that no matter how utopian or idealistic or romantic an idea is that excites me, when the idea is actualized, I usually set the dial back to realistic mode. Throughout this post I surround the word outside in quotation marks because although Twin Oaks and communities like it have set up their own micro-societies, we are all still citizens of the same country. Not to mention, most of their members have had experience living in this mainstream society, maybe aside from the children who were born here. Unless perhaps on a different planetary body all together, I’m suggesting that we still have a natural obligation to our fellow humans who live in a society separate from our own. Thinking more globally, I may share almost nothing ostensibly in common with a woman in the Middle East; we might have completely different understandings of the way the world works, different economic systems, different political backgrounds. And yet, we share a human bond, so innately protective and compassionate that it makes ignoring one another’s struggles an actively passive move.

As someone who was raised with the notion that we have an obligation to speak for those whose voices are silenced, it irks me to think that other people see Twin Oaks as a justified escape from all of this country’s problems, that activism is simply negative energy when it attempts to lift all people out of unjust situations. I understand that even those in this “outside” world can, and often do, choose to ignore the problems around them. But as members of an intentional community, who to create a world of peace and fairness, I’d expect more. It also makes me consider the luxury of having the choice to abandon civilization and all personal possessions in order to live on a commune (as was prevalent in 1960s drop cities). Are less fortunate people able to make that decision for themselves and their families?

I appreciated Reece’s chapter on Thoreau, which just touches lightly on Thoreau’s political beliefs (especially on slavery, industrialism’s damage to the environment). Reece writes, “Years later, the leader of Concord’s Underground Railroad remember that Thoreau…had done more to help fugitive slaves than anyone else in the town” (Reece 276). Even though he understood that change comes from within before it can be activated throughout the larger community, he was able to accomplish both without sacrificing his internal journey. After all, it was apparently a woman who led him out of the woods and not his stance on American imperialism and slave labor.

I hope this wasn’t too critical a blog post but I feel really passionately about what I’ve read in the chapters and what I’ve written in the post and wanted to make sure I jotted down some ideas before I keep reading Utopia Drive.

Visiting the NCF Archives

I made a visit to the archivist this morning to find out more about the New College archives – what goes into them, how one accesses them, how they are managed on a daily basis, and their relationship to the digital world. The archivist, Ana, let me into one of the rooms to see the shelves lined with large, light blue folders. The folders contain various forms of insight into New College intellectual and cultural history – meeting minutes, photos, commencement programs. You can even find out about previous college presidents and conferences that took place at the school.

She pointed out two distinct ways that information usually makes its way into the archive – by  the will of the archivist or community member or simply by donation. For example, there is a difference between a professor donating their work upon retirement and the archivist getting a hold of it because they’ve decided it would be a valuable addition. A large part of the job of the archivist is to use their judgement in determining the content of the archive. What is important? What makes sense?

For access to the archive, a student simply has to email the archivist and make an appointment. Rather than letting the student into one of the two (exceedingly cold) archive rooms, the archivist typically brings to them what the material they are looking for. Usually people have questions on building history. With buildings built by the Ringling brothers and I.M. Pei, New College has a unique architectural history.

Only a portion of the physical collection is translated into a digital format available online. Things like newspaper articles and old journals cannot be found online because of copyright laws, but you can find a large range of collections. Titles include: Office of Public Affairs, Alumnae Association, Fine Arts Institute, Library Records, Students Publications. While these resources are not useful for finding out more about local intentional communities, they are a resource for how to study and record culture. Assessing what parts of the New College community are emphasized in these collections will give us insight on what information is useful to gaining a full understanding of a community. The types of documents and forms saved in both the physical and digital archive can help us determine what topics to ask questions on. Whether or not these same forms of information are available in the intentional community of study, memory and word of mouth can serve as a medium of cultural knowledge. The goal of our project is to accurately record and represent this cultural knowledge to preserve it in an archival website. Just like the NCF digital archives, this site will be available to anyone with a computer and internet access, bringing an understanding of a unique intentional community into the larger world.

Reactions to communities

I was not surprised to hear about the failure of the working cooperative for the mine in West Virginia. However, I am surprised that such an idea would matter when it comes to intentional communities. I think the idea of worker owned businesses is a good idea that can achieve many positive results such as lower levels of pollution, better treatment of workers, and better wages. This is similar to socialist ideas of what society should look like. However, this brand of socialism has almost never been practiced in a socialist society, only in capitalist societies have these socialist enclaves happened. It would make sense for ideas such as this to take hold in a communist country that believes in workers owning the means of production but unfortunately it almost always turns out to be some detached government employee running mines and factories like this instead of the workers themselves.

It is quite ironic that communities that plan on dominating member’s lives and actions are easiest to set up in the most libertarian places. On one hand you have the laws that come into place because of the idea that individualism is the most important value and on the other hand the people most utilizing those laws want to be a part of a community that exercises strong control over their lives and how they live. However, both groups do have the same idea that they probably do not want the government telling them what they can or cannot do.

The hunger to Be and not to Have seems to be very healthy for humans to have. This desire is probably the main reason Twin Oaks has been able to be so successful. This idea is quite common in the mystical aspects of religious traditions such as Christian mystics or Muslim Sufis or some Buddhist monks. It is surprising that this idea would be found in a secular community that had no real religion of their own except of their own philosophy.

The Maintenance of Existence

The common theme that I’ve found in the communities of Twin Oaks and Acorn is that they need to be small and like minded. Maybe this is obvious, but egalitarianism seems hard to maintain if there isn’t a smaller population, as well as an egalitarian form of government.

Here is a photo of the Twin Oaks village and some of the (very happy) residents:

What I found most interesting is when Reece is in Twin Oaks and Adder explains to him their socialist philosophy and how it works. At Twin Oaks, there is “zero motivation to work hard, perform well, or to be innovative or creative” (167), yet the commune members all engage in art making, personal growth, creating/maintaining business. The motivation at Twin Oaks is intrinsic, and springs from the concept of that a positive, healthy environment will maintain positive, healthy people that will sustain the environment.

At both Twin Oaks and Acorn, however, they rely on the American capitalist system by selling a company hammocks, tofu, or seeds.

I wonder if the people of these communes generally live under a utopian illusion where their commune is entirely self sustaining, or if they are okay with their minimal participation in the capitalist economy.

Something Reece says, in part, answers my question; “their purpose seems more about honoring the blueprint for a cooperative, nonexploitive living, not taking down the system they have fled” (175). The mission of these communes appears to be to coexist quietly and humbly within the frame of American society, not to detest it and exist separately as many would think of when hearing of a “hippy commune”.

I think the ideas of Thoreau’s self reliance and his emphasis on minimalism provides a sustainable philosophy for intentional communities. If one takes his or herself away from desires of luxury and focuses on basic needs from himself then people can maintain themselves, by themselves, with the company of nature.

How Do We Govern a Commune

While reading Reece’s chapter on Twin Oaks, I can’t help but think that the only way we as people can develop important connections with one another while attempting to produce or contribute in some way to the community, is through small groups run like Twin Oaks. And I think Reece is suggesting that, too. The problem with Acorn is that it relies on the community’s consensus on decision-making rather than relying on those who serve as planner-managers. There isn’t enough accountability for those who’d like to sit around all day smoking cigarettes and not performing the 42 hours of work per week. I really like that Twin Oaks helps subsidize other small groups like it in order to encourage this micro-society based on egalitarian values. However I understand the problem Reece runs into when he tries to imagine the “perfected” society. Once Twin Oaks starts mandating that its sister community, Acorn, adopt the same governing ideals that they possess, there is a totalitarian force creeping up on the group. The best thing we can do as community members is communicate our grievances with one another and try to be considerate and active members for each other and for ourselves. Those guys smoking in Acorn may or may not realize that their laziness damages the community as a whole. If they are asked to work on these issues by council members or else they will be asked to leave, it might make them realize that they are not cut out for dedicated communal living of this sort. Let them start their own community and realize that in order to live sustainably based on egalitarian principles, work must shared by each member of the community.

Something I find very important in Reece’s observations of Acorn is his description of the aesthetics of the community. He describes the “feel of 1960s ‘drop cities’ ” and the dingy “sag” feeling he experiences (Reece 176). There is a general sense of lack of upkeep here. Even simple issues that could be improved in order to make the community look more attractive are ignored. If we look at these communities in the same way that Acorn sees itself (externally capitalist), then membership demand would likely be greater if the desires to live in a happy, clean, and fair community were aspects that they could easily recognize on a visit to the commune. Then the greater demand causes more communities of shared values begin to spring up around them and more people are able to engage in this type of living concept. – Dana