culture, i once was told, is what remains once you’ve forgotten everything. i could not agree more but i have little choice since i have actually forgotten everything. it is a burden i have carried for as long as i can remember. from the benches of grade school to the last lecture given, a couple of weeks ago, i feel as if i have retained no factual information in my entire life and could not, with any accuracy, relate the dates of even the most famous of historical milestones. napoleon’s century? no idea. balzac’s first book? nothing. lennon’s death? zero. i have always been so envious of those who can count on their own neurons to preserve such particulars so at least to be able to participate in conversations with a wide range of knowledge at hand, ready to go. alas, said neurons are not to be found in the porridge that fills my cranial cavity. what is there, however, is a seemingly endless well of useless information which has helped me lie through forty years of diatribic exchange with my kind as well as write a book in which i damn well sound as if i know what i’m talking about. i assure you, i do not. it just seems that at the drop of a gigantic hat, i seem to be able to meander my way down the vast and disorganized lane of my intellect and retrieve approximations, patterns and flatulent emotions that sound pertinent enough to allow me to appear that which i do not consider myself to be, cultured.
indeed, that is actually what i found myself in agreement with at the beginning of this column, with the idea that knowledge, once heard, can be forgotten consciously but still lives, somewhere within the folds of the cerebrum allowing us not just to revel in the joy of repetition but assimilation. perhaps that is culture.
not quite sure how to correctly define it, culture is a moving target of sorts, more than a collection of dates and places that we happen to remember and are able to regurgitate at cocktail parties. of course different cultures, in the ethnocentric sense of the word, practice different customs in assembling their culture, in the intellectual sense of the word, and, as such, make for an almost infinite array of understanding of what constitutes Culture as a whole. still, the principle remains the same, no matter how many books on your shelf, what league the school you attended springs from or even how amazingly inclusive your parents might have been during long, nixon-era discussions, who you are is concocted from a witches’ brew made up of small parts of all that surrounds you, which, if you let it, eventually turns into mysterious culture. when you shine in aforementioned society and are able to make well-timed, skillful and appropriate references to gordon e.’s late-night caltech partying in a conversation about moore’s law, you feel proud and exhilarated by the fact that you were naturally able to place something others could not. is that culture or is that regurgitated wiki-knowledge? i think culture might ultimately be about the understanding and use of the world one inhabits and less about knowledge of the past. our brains, even if lacking in letting us quickly compute cures for all that ails us, are still quite formidable little machines that allow us to not only rewind, fast-forward and auto-reverse our memories but also to draw conclusions from them. if we applied ourselves and dedicated our lives to knowledge, and i believe bernard-henry lévy alone has, we may be able to know everything, or at the least enough about everything to then be free to draw from the bribes of information, potent conclusions. still, the questions persists, how does one use that knowledge, those conclusions? perhaps culture is more a function of use than it is stagnant knowledge because it provides us with an insight into behaviour, perhaps even into the way things are supposed to work, the way people said things should work which provides us with the tools to grasp how it does work in the present and might work in the future. really, culture is a tool, a way for us to seize upon knowledge of ourselves and others in order to make our own minds up.
culture is, as a matter of fact, the cornerstone of a life considered.
culture supplies you with the tools for self-knowledge because, ironically, it opens the door to just about everything except you; it luxuriously seats you in the first row, center of your context, past and present, that of your parents, of their parents, of history, of geography, of human behavior, et cetera. it is all there, waiting for you to wake up to and study. when your culture is said, by some people, to be well rounded, what you should hear, after feeling appropriately flattered, is that you have at your disposal everything you need to find out about yourself. and such opportunity is not predicated upon access, you do not have to live in new york, paris or shanghai to participate in culture. as usual, meaning has been carelessly taken away from the words. culture has always, ever since the days of augustine, meant cultivation, not broadway shows, it has always symbolized the digging of soils, whether dirty or mindful, for the exclusive purpose of blooming. and that can be achieved anywhere on earth, in any language, by any peoples without the help the disney or time/life corporations. in fact, the members of an barely disturbed amazon tribe, who will know exactly how to suck the poison out of your big toe after you have been nastily stung by the beautiful but deadly phyllobates terribilis stands in contrast to our need for color-codes and foreign language in order to purchase coffee at starbucks. undoubtedly more mindful of their context than we are of ours simply because they are more attentive, the members of the amazon tribe have achieved a culture not based on entertainment value but functional ethics.
culture is not a value judgment and certainly not something that should be standardized across nations and heritage as we tend to bland everything around to achieve comfort, rather merely attained through observation and subsequent interpretation. and if what surrounds you is the kalahari desert, at the edge of which you have made it your mission to throw a bottle of coke back to the gods, then that is your cultural sphere, no better or lacking in comparison to any other. wherever and whoever you are, if you are curious about your world, you are fertile and should never waste such a gift. curiosity may have killed a cat but if culture has a place of honor within a life considered then curiosity is its fuel.
i remembered david byrne and how, among other things, he had set up on a dock in new york a couple of years ago and turned an abandoned building into a musical instrument. how extraordinary is that man? how easy it is for us non-byrnes, whether it be out of bitterness, out of life beating us down or out of boredom, to lose our curiosity for life, for all that swirls around, for all that we could start, if only we knew how… sometimes it’s age, sometimes it’s a spouse, whatever it may be, so easy it seems to lose the will to take risks at adventures untried. and here is a man who, every day i assume, finds himself curious about something else, something new, a man who probably understands my world and era better than i do for he dares experiment with it. is he smarter than i am? certainly not. is it easier for him because he is wealthier? perhaps, but i doubt it. i think, simply, that he was able to retain the youthful curiosity which made him ponder himself, decades later in his journal, as “a peculiar young man” and use his perceived oddness to his advantage, with no shame or needed excuses which led him to take action upon his curiosity. throughout history, there have been a handful of such inquisitors, the crazy ones, as chiat/day once dubbed them on behalf of the apple computer company, the ones who weren’t content to be merely curious or good but dove right int to fulfill their ideals.
that is an extraordinary trait, the principle behind which may easily get some of us into trouble with substances disapproved by federal governments, but should not, for this is a thirst that should never be quenched. it is the lifeblood of culture. it is the foundation of learning, of education. it is the beginning of the search for a considered life. if you are not curious about yourself, then you will probably never step foot on this path, you will probably never care to because you are comfortable where you are, how you are, with who you are. if there is one incentive you might comprehend, it may be that, perhaps most of all, curiosity is fun. i know the word itself seems misplaced among multi-syllabic peers but here it is. how fun is it to dig around context, world, habits, tastes, all of which is about you? that is where the reward awaits, in a task that at first seems daunting because inaccurately believed to be too time-consuming as the same time that we, strangely enough, do not seem to mind wasting time and trillions of dollars, collectively, on numbing cocktail parties and the best that cameron diaz has to offer. obviously, we as a species, rely on entertainment to minimize the daily pressures that we have built for ourselves, seemingly every part of our lives having been invaded by a form of distraction hatched by marketers who think themselves clever at the behest of clients who think themselves important. these are activities often confused with culture but so be it for considering one’s life is a form of entertainment in its own right, one that needs no other producer than you, no other writer or director, no other actor. and yet we rarely think of such a production as the opportunity for amusement that it is, rather mostly consider it learning. and, apparently, we have come to believe that any form of learning is work, even if it is an investment in yourself and, fundamentally, we don’t want to work. we would preferably think of fun times as mindless, undemanding, easy. such as the best cameron diaz has to offer.
what we need to do is widen our definition of fun, here, now. the considered life is fun with your eyes wide open and brain fully functioning, available for expansion without any pharmacological stimulation, simply on the basis of its own ability to learn and modify knowledge. the only problem i have with drugs in this context is that they are lazy. i have taken drugs but once in my life and i have absolutely nothing against the selling or using of them but i do object to their functional nature, that of a shortcut. sure, i have a hand, i could grab that cup of coffee by myself, but look, i have a robot, i paid a thousand dollars for that robot and he’s going to grab it and pour the coffee in my mouth. that, to me, is, or has become, the function of drugs in society, that of an assist. how fucked up is that? did anyone else see wall-e?! it is the threat of sloth brought on by technology which is exactly how drugs came into existence. what if i advanced the theory that there is nothing drugs can do to you that you cannot do to yourself, that all a drug does is put a sequence of events in motion that makes a chemical avalanche possible in your brain but that all you need is the switch to start it all. for some it is a chemical but might it also just be internal acquaintance with the trigger? when we’re talking about culture, we are talking about being responsible for that culture, not about somebody else reading a book and telling us about it and it is important that this be self-perpetuated, or else we have culture by proxy, or, if i may
coin appropriate a term, a placebo culture.
placebo culture is one way to talk about the times we live in now, which are very much tied back to the incompetent education that we received as children because of the fact that we live through customs and traditions that are no longer our own. we live in a people’s republic of culture. we have created a magma of ideas that resembles culture, smells like culture but is not quite. we need a new template. and i don’t say this kind of shit lightly for i have an inveterate hatred of new paradigms, models, templates, patterns, blueprints, molds and other archetypes. usually used as meaningless boasts by people with a lot to prove and little to say, these concepts and their oft-prescribed obsolescence are yet another shortcut meant to show off the presumed wisdom of the one speaking them. but much like obama found out after unlocking the president badge at the white house, change is much easier promoted than accomplished. and so i do not mean to add to the trash pile by suggesting that we must rethink all that has already been thought, but simply let one of our most cherished inventions do its usually marvelous job: time. devised who knows when by people more organized than i, time thankfully still passes and allows us to look at the risks and revolutions attempted in the present in a very different way, a way much less chaotic, as seen from the future… once affected by time, the present becomes the past and the templates old and new no longer change. confusion felt during disappears after because you are now are able to reflect. time, and subsequently her twin sister history, have a curious yet altogether welcomed habit of flattening everything. the best parts of history and the worst parts of history are now simply pages in a book that we can refer to and, wishful-thinkingly, learn from. and so in five years, what we are now living will be links on the exabit internet to which we will fondly click back, in between ripping a torrent of michael jackson’s youngest son’s album retrospective, blanket’s best and instant-(re)watching the ewok trilogy, special edition. to know that this process is inevitable makes it a lot easier to tackle changes to the way we build and perceive culture for it lessens some of the risk for us shy folk.
that is the amazing dichotomous power of culture, to be malleable yet remain a constant. to us, today’s culture is of course very much alive but tomorrow, today’s culture will be uniform, the day after that, it will be boring and another day later, finally forgotten. that is why we must keep it evolving at all cost, why we must fight every day not to waste a brain cell, an ounce of saliva, a word or a keyboard stroke on trifle. culture is there to put us in our place, literally, there to point the way to a more specific grasp of our surroundings, there to advise us when we make decisions and, as we know, decisions are the main tool of the considered life. since we take over five thousand decisions, large and small, every day, each the result of choices, conscious or unconscious of the process at work, we must be able to place these decisions within a cultural context, a sense of where we belong. otherwise, how can we ever hope to make good decisions for ourselves or the people we care about? which begs the question: if it is paramount to decision-making, where do we find it? how is culture dispensed?
not on the mtv video music awards, that’s for damn sure… have a wonderfully interesting week!