center, periphery, community

A rather classical way to describe civilization and society is to use a center-periphery model. This is the “all roads lead to Paris” idea wherein Paris is understood to be the cultural, economic, and political center of the nation-state. Anything that happens in the periphery is understood to be happening in relation or reaction to the center, and it is only deemed “high culture” or “important” once it has reached and been accepted by the cultural elites in the center. Otherwise, it remains hidden and obscured in the world of “folk.”

It goes without saying that there are problems with this model of culture, not the least of which is that there is no one center in the world anymore. Rather, there are multiple and overlapping centers and peripheries. In the United States, for example, while arguably Washington D.C. is the political center of the country, there are numerous cultural and economic centers on both the east and west coasts, not to mention America’s third coast on the banks of Lake Michigan. Moreover, the assumption that all roads lead to Paris and that the direction of influence is from center to periphery is naive at best. In 2008, two politicians who come from the most peripheral of peripheral states — Alaska and Hawaii — had a profound impact on the political (not to mention cultural) center of these United States.

So I’m not convinced that this model is particularly useful when describing reality. Then again, I haven’t done a ton of research on this subject, so I’m willing to be swayed, one way or the other. But I do think that, as a metaphor, this way of looking at culture might be useful. It might be an illustrative way to examine relationships between individuals within communities and between communities, revealing points of convergence and influence, fractures and dissidents.

If we posit that there is a community of “American Buddhism” (leaving aside for the time being the debates on what the hell that means), it is arguable that one of the centers of this community is in New York. This should not be surprising given the fact that New York is a cultural and economic center in a lot of ways more generally, thus the Buddhists who happen to live there have ready access to economic resources and can easily tap into media communication networks in ways that Buddhists who happen to live in, say, Alabama do not.

When someone writes something particularly ridiculous for a magazine like Tricycle or a blog like One City, they’re sure to ruffle the feathers of those who do not live in the center. The Smiling Buddha Cabaret is a good case in point. NellaLou is, in a traditional sense, very much on the periphery living, as she does, in India. Interestingly, though, when she (and numerous other bloggers) voiced her concerns about what was written on behalf of American Buddhists by those in the center, those in the center actually paid attention. Rather than merely looking down their smug, cultural-center noses at those living in the American Buddhist hinterland, they actually reached out (not always in particularly helpful or mindful ways to be sure) to those not in the center. In the case of Once City, Jerry Kobler asked NellaLou and other bloggers (full disclosure: including me) to write for his blog thus adding “outsider” voices to a blog that is produced squarely from the center.

All of which attests to the power of the Internet here in the globally interconnected future. Because of our ability to communicate with one another at the speed of light, the boundaries between center and periphery are more permeable than they have been at any time in history. In times past, an editor at a New York based magazine such as Tricycle could have written whatever she or he wanted with the knowledge that only a handful of people restricted to a limited geo-political region would read it. And those in the periphery, well, maybe they would read it but only after the steamship reached their distant shores. But now, that same editorial reaches the world the moment someone foolishly hits “publish” on their desktop. And those in the periphery have an easy way to let the editors know when they’ve said something spectacularly ridiculous.

Of course, the Internet itself has fostered the creation of a new type of community. Whereas old media Buddhist magazines may represent the views of one particular cultural center, a collection of Buddhist blogs may represent a different cultural center. Ay, there’s the rub. Once we create a new cultural center, we also create new peripheries.

The center-periphery model, while not accurately reflecting reality, can nevertheless be a useful tool when discussing community. Any community is itself a type of center; those not in the center, not a part of said community, are necessarily on the periphery. Communities, then, are composed of insiders and outsiders, two groups who are constantly negotiating their relationship. Whether outsiders want membership, whether insiders want to allow new members, whether either insiders or outsiders want to deconstruct the whole damn system, communities are perpetually in flux.

One could make the case that the online Buddhist community is a type of community of outsiders. Many of the folks writing many of the most popular blogs do not live in traditionally defined cultural center; many of these folks are not employed by traditional media outlets; many of these folks are not traditionally trained or ordained teachers or priests or monks. Regardless, even if they are outsiders of old-media communities, they are nevertheless insiders of their own community.

Moreover, within any large community, there will always be dissent and thus there will always be sub-communities and subcultures. This is true in the real world, and it is no less true within the larger online Buddhist community. We create, perpetuate, subvert, and transcend these sub-communities and subcultures every time we add (or delete) a link to our blog rolls, every time we choose to follow someone new on Twitter, join a Facebook group, an email list or discussion forum, or comment on one another’s blog posts. With each click, we are implying that this person is (or is not) a part of the community.

The formation of a community is often an organic or even spontaneous thing, happening as if by chance. And just as often attempts to construct artificial community á la a marketing or advertising campaign will be viewed as inauthentic. Nevertheless, it seems to me that we can still construct communities mindfully, that we can create mindful communities, communities that are attentive to the fact that they have borders — all communities do. Which forces us to ask, what are our borders? What lines are we drawing in the sand and claiming that this is where my community ends and yours begins? What borders aid in preserving and strengthening a community? And at what cost? What might we loose by clinging too tightly to our borders?

Now, please don’t mistake this observation for judgement. Creating communities and determining insiders and outsiders is something that humans have been doing since cave 76 told all the other caves to go to hell. Here I am merely reflecting on one particular aspect of community, of community building and creating, and making observations. I am fresh out of conclusions today.

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2 thoughts on “center, periphery, community

  1. Centers tend to shift as you’ve mentioned. There’s always some kind of power struggle the closer one gets to the perceived center. I find the view is much clearer from the periphery.

    Of late I’ve been considering the basis of community as common interest. That is hard to reconcile in communities where the participants are principally involved in and actively pursuing and defending individual self-interest. Defending from what I’m not sure but there is certainly a lot of defensiveness in it. Is it still a community then? Or a similarly related category of individuals without cohesion? Loose cannons as it were. Common interest is a paradigm shift that a lot of people are apparently allergic to even if, in the big picture, there is significant benefit to be had. Although I think in the case of the OneCity blog they, and particularly Jerry were ready and able to walk the talk. It just took a little nudge. Speaks well then of their Buddhist practice and the teaching there.

    As for your other example, rather than welcoming, it appears that a corporate takeover of the Buddhoblogosphere is in progress. Good luck with that!

    In all being one of the “folk” (or “Marxist” or “provincials” or “uncool” or whatever the choice epithet of the moment is) remains preferable. And a lot less stressful.

    Yet there is a contradiction involved. Those who disengage from the centers particularly those centers that advocate strong individualism are also expressing strong individualism. Look for a blog post on that possibly.

    Plenty to think over here Scott. Thanks.

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