The Rachel Carson Effect

By Lynne Conner, Chair and Associate Professor, Colby College

Doug challenges us to identify "the biggest policy threat or potentially transformative initiative currently facing our culture."  I keep coming back to Bill Ivey's meta question about the concept of cultural vibrancy as a public good.  How do we create a new norm that encourages cultural rights for all?  Jean and others note that cultural workers tend to talk only to (and listen only to and care only about the opinions of) their particular cohort--artists to artists, academics to academics, policy wonks to . . .  


Where does that particular calculus leave the audience? 


In my work studying audience behavior and facilitating audience engagement practices, the single most prevalent (and telling) audience commentary has to do with the excitement people feel when they are invited into the interpretive process.  "You want to know what I think that dance (play, symphony, painting) means?"  "You'll sit listen while I tell you how it made me feel?" 


As many have noted, the democratization of access brought on by digital technology has profoundly altered our "arts and culture" landscape.  But what about the democratization of interpretation?  Have we cultural workers really changed our behavior when it comes to listening to our audiences?  I mean, really listening?  Ten years or so into the "Audience Engagement" era, have we actually stopped objectifying audiences (butts in seats)?


How do we create a new norm in which the audience is not object but subject?  Bill suggests that "perhaps we can learn some things from the environmental movement."  I don't know much about biology, but I do know something about how Rachel Carson launched the environmental movement (I wrote a play about the process of writing Silent Spring). Carson changed the world by inviting the average citizen into her scientific process; she invented a narrative structure for Silent Spring (and her other books) that was both intelligible to lay readers and utterly emotionally engaging.  Carson didn't conduct a literal dialogue with her audience, of course, but she did in effect "listen" to them. 


Are we listening?

July 23, 2010 7:49 AM | | Comments (0) |

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