Delfest, Participatory Culture, and Life as Data

Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.
-Rilke

Photo from Magic Hat BreweryI spent this past weekend with a great group of friends in the Cumberland Water Gap, a rural area in Western Maryland where we were attending a Bluegrass music festival called Delfest. I’ve never actually been to a music festival of any sort (crazy it’s taken me this long!), so I didn’t have a lot of expectations coming into the weekend save having a good time and spending time outdoors.

The festival, in short, rocked, totally going beyond the pretty basic things I’d hoped for. It was pure summertime goodness; we saw great music, camped out at the foot of a mountain, went tubing down a river that looped around the grounds, made friends with strangers, and lost our sense of time for two days. (The answer to “What time is it?” was invariably: “it’s Del o’clock.”, or, every so often “ten to Del.”, and occasionally, “half past Del.”) And so a big part of being there was just about enjoying myself – getting some space from an increasingly busy, stressful and packed upcoming month, spending time with friends, soaking in the good vibes and remembering the spontaneity and adventure that can come with arriving in an open space with no real plans.

At the same time, the budding learning scientist in me was having a whole other experience of the festival. As someone planning on studying the learning that happens in informal environments, those outside of school and not traditionally thought of as ‘educational’, I was also viewing the event as part of what media scholar Henry Jenkins would call a Participatory Culture, and as what learning theorist Jim Gee calls a Semiotic Domain with an associated Affinity Space. All pretty high concepts for sure, each with their own useful nuances, but in the most basic sense I was seeing an open community of people dedicated to a particular idea or practice, in this case Bluegrass music, come together to do their thing, share and learn from each other (though likely not framing it as such) and in doing so define and redefine what that space means both in terms of its core practices as well as its broader culture and associated quirks.

Photo from Magic Hat BreweryI saw amateurs working with experts – small jam circles of musicians with varied levels of talent playing around campfires with assorted string instruments where anybody could come and join in, contributing whatever they could even if it was just singing along or playing some simple chords, along with main-stage shows featuring artists recognized as being at the top of their trade, setting a (perhaps contested) standard for what good practice looks like in the community.

I saw plenty of things not immediately related to the musical practice itself but that emerged around it; the throwing of small, soft glowsticks amongst a concert-going crowd, each landing and then getting hurled up into the air again, fans dancing with wanton abandon in varied styles, substance use and perhaps abuse, and a do-it-yourself camping culture where people constructed elaborate tents, fires and meals. These are the sorts of things that give nuance, character and attitude to these kinds of informal spaces, and are an expression of the underlying values of the community – each points to a certain ethos or narrative endemic to the larger whole.

I noted various demographic groups as they became visible; low income local white folks from Appalachia that I’d associate with NASCAR and country music, “hippy” types in tie-die and dreadlocks, young professionals from DC, New York and other metropolitan areas, often working in politics, journalism or education (forgive the heuristics here) – as well as noticing those that were absent. I counted about 15 people of color and no one that was easily identifiable to me as queer while I was there out of what was easily over a thousand people.

And I reflected on what it meant for me to be doing pretty much all of this observation and analysis automatically, remembering a line that references Rilke from a great short piece by Mark Federman called The Tao of Thesis [pdf], about how one engages in thesis-level work:

“You will view the world and your entire existence through research-coloured glasses. The thesis process becomes less an effort to find answers, and more a vehicle through which you can live your question.”

My time at Delfest is interesting because it is one of several experiences that I’ve had as I near the beginning of my doctoral work where I started to consistently notice the world as data parsed by a particular lens, and it’s prompting me to wonder what it will be like to put on these glasses full time when I enter graduate school – what’s gained, what’s lost, and what the edges are to look out for when doing this strange exercise while still trying to live an integral life, one viewed through many lenses and that acknowledges the limitations of a singular viewpoint. I’m excited to find out.

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2 Responses to “Delfest, Participatory Culture, and Life as Data”


  1. 1 Jenna McWilliams June 1, 2010 at 4:06 pm

    I absolutely sympathize with the ideas you present here, though I think there’s this strange tendency in our culture to treat “intellectualizing” as somehow separate from the work of being alive. Thinking IS experience, as long as it doesn’t get in the way of other thinking experiences–in other words, thinking ABOUT Delfest while being AT Delfest is an experience in its own right, just like simply being AT Delfest is an experience. It’s turtles all the way down, is what I guess I’m trying to say.

    I also want to point out that a region of this country that has a vibrant bluegrass culture is Southeast Indiana, which is smackdab in between Louisville, Nashville, and St. Louis. That is all.

    • 2 Rafi Santo June 2, 2010 at 10:31 pm

      I definitely hear you on the false dichotomy between intellectualizing and being alive, just as I don’t believe that it’s impossible to be both planning for the future and be present in the moment. Turtles all the way down, indeed (this is a *huge* theme in mindfulness meditation).

      I was actually expressing a little consternation and perhaps curiosity not at the prospect of moving from “non-intellectualizing” life to “intellectualizing” it (pretty much not a question that I usually fall in the latter category), but rather at the idea of moving from cultivating a broad ranging holistic (integral) paradigm for all subjects and phenomena to now applying that holistic approach to a narrower set questions. (Which is basically what I’m coming to grad school to do.)


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