Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Cultural Memory

I have this theory. I first started to form this idea after Bassler expressed to us his idea connecting developments in mathematics to cultural transformations. I explain it to myself this way.

You have the 1920s. Jazz music, physical sensuality, wild mathematics and science, expansion of vanity indulgence, money and buy-power access. Excesses of the mind and the body and the will. The Assertion of the Will to Creativity. Notice that: not a specific act of creating or class of creating, but the capability of creating, the ownership of making possibilities become actual. Or, making new worlds out of thin air.

You have the 1930s. Fascism; totalitarian societies in religion, philosophy, literature, politics, aesthetics [*hyperlink later*]; repression in thinking, depression in behavior; expansive power of all forms of regulation and control. Excesses of the imposing upon the mind and the body and the will. The Regulation of the Will to Excess. "Police your space" means: a polite society is a police society. Surveillance, the gaze, "God is watching you masturbate," The eyes on the billboard in The Great Gatsby, control is necessary to prevent an eruption of sensuality.

You have the 1940s. War; the eruption of material violence. Unable to turn the control system off, societies collide against one another to dissipate frustration and rage. Tribes. Sides. Allies, enemies. Only one shall survive ((victorious, that is. You'll live, but we will now lord it over you. "Desperate times call for desperate measures." Meaning, deadlier, more effective technologies for matter disruption and redistribution (so, also geoengineering and automated industry). In these days, men need a hero. Heroism and the glory of conflict, victories, triumphs. A stability upon which to fixate hope, a bronze serpent to hold one's gaze, since belief is lagging in the face of reality. Doubt.

You have the 1950s. Safety in numbers. Consolidation of people, ideas, politics, philosophies, into their groupings to preserve and sustain: purity and conformity. Declaring one's right to consolidate with others of the same group is a move to declare dissent to the power of another, and so the most powerful resist this declaration to not have its power denied. Thus, freedom to discriminate (the outsider) is the freedom to participate-with (the insider). Civil Rights struggle. Suburban life. White flight and black power. General will versus provincial will. Federal versus state. Consolidation is also building large projects. Suburbs, fungible consumables, mass production, Building onward and upward (since downward and inward are too technologically and too spiritually difficult, respectively).

It's about forty years. A quick and dirty glance at the history books for the United States, the cultural machine I am most familiar and intimate with, shows these dominant themes repeating themselves in roughly a 40 year cycle. As for the 1980s, there was material violence. There was a war. We call it a Cold War, but people were dying as a result of the actions, until the war could dissipate itself enough for a truce.

Why forty years? My guess is a little complicated. So, think of your life being self-aware. It starts at a point somewhere in the past, but before that you have no memories (or most of you have no memories). Not all of those moments since you've been self-aware are still with you. Memory is weak, recalling changes memories; memories just fade because the underlying proteins and firing patterns and biology for retaining information fall away, break down. At some point in a life, you stop being self-aware and don't come back. There is a gradual increase coming into influence. The going-out is sometimes sudden, sometimes gradual.

So, people are self-aware and self-creating and other-influencing for some number of years, and then they stop. I think if you have a population in contact with each other, they'll talk or communicate memories and information, garble or alter the information with deletion or addition. That region population will start to have its own rhythms based on whatever physical media for storing and transferring that information allow. I mean, think of a life being self-aware as something like a wave growing up from a flat surface, moving along and cresting, and fading away—or growing up from a flat surface, moving out wide, peaking very high, and falling precipitously to flat and vanishing. There is also a wave of influence moving outward from this wave of a life being self-aware: the effects of the influences. All these waves interact with each other, in a confined geographical region, and when you confine waves, you get harmonics, sometimes.

Human evolution has gotten quite good at having wave collisions turn into harmonic oscillators—ways of stably interacting with each other—that don't cause disruption of the size and number of lives being self-aware. If you end lives and shorten lives, human sustainability plummets, especially if those humans required extensive coordination with other humans for survival (moving food, forming shelter, talking and sharing). So, we have only been able to keep ahead of natural death and murder by being very good at coming together and consolidating better.

Once humans find those harmonic patterns, they sit there keeping the long harmony until disturbed, even though to the humans in those patterns, it likely feels like it just keeps changing. For us, it is. We remember what it was like a few years ago, and we feel a stability in ourselves but the world is so different than it was. But our cells and our proteins and our organs will tell you a different story, if we listen.

This whole story sounds plausible, but this doesn't mean it's true.

It is interesting, though. Expand out forty years before and after and think about large trends in the society. 1960s is the jazz. 1970s is the fascists. 1980s is the war. 1990s is the build. 2000s is jazz. 2010s is fascists. 2020s is war. 2030s is build. There are some clear outliers. It is not a thorough or precise theory. It's a low level resolution image. It has a kind of rightness to it. It's a little puzzling.

Of course, durable and accessible storage material is crucial to how culture works. It's only through storing my information in other formats that it comes back to me as memories seemingly mine, seemingly ours. "Oh, yeah, I know about the Civil War." But you can't, since you weren't there to make your own memories. Everything you know about is just what you've heard. Corroboration of stories is great. It is important to human flourishing, since it is likely exactly this, the capacity to form and receive story and not simply information, that makes us human. Not reason. Not imagination. Clearly both work together, neither one is singularly human. It's their combination together how we narrate our lives, individually, fictionally, historically, nationally, culturally, universally. The kinds of stories we like to hear and repeat say something about what level, order, layer you feel is how you share your humanity with others.

It's also how we find each other and keep each other alive. Or, I guess, how we keep the larger body of thinking members alive. A foot looking for a spleen, a liver looking for a lung, an eye looking for a hand, hoping to find all of one another in just that way where they work together as one body. I like the bottom-up idea, since it makes me feel special, but I know, so far as nature shows, it's always from the larger totality that the smaller units have their composition as a single body. I am what keeps my body largely together, and that guy who wrote that is also made up of all these bits and pieces, especially the mind parts, and using a single phoneme, even a single letter, is just a neat device of summation. But it is real magic. Not a trick, an illusion. It is my own illusion, and just like those optical illusions, even knowing it's an illusion doesn't make it go away. If anything, just like those optical illusions, learning how it works provokes fascination and contemplation.

And then you're off: fascination leads to making models of model-making leads to all kinds of nested processes leads to greater resolutions and more reflective consciousness leads to better and more engaging and more complex story-telling, just like my writing reveals how convoluted, nested, encased in varieties and proofs by cases, sensuality and abstraction, my thinking is. Our thinking, since I think everyone does this to many degrees, and some are far more capable of depth and virtualizing than I am.

Of course, if you also feel nature narrates, telling stories and listening to yours, then you will feel human with nature, too. Nature's information storage lasts as long as itself, so its memories are all as transient as her. Of course, this relative storage will be true for every layer along the way, except humans have managed to use other means than themselves to store memories. Books, disks, signs, warning labels, metaphors, fables, brochures, skin...

Discourse is about the retrieval, sharing/storing, and permutation or recombination of information; or, a very different description: discourse is the collision of waves, perturbing all the layers of harmonic oscillations. Narratives present information as a machine to a machine for memorization or successful reconstruction; or, a very different description: narratives present information as a machine for generating harmonic oscillation in a human among other humans. Stories help things to "make sense" and "click" just right so that it does two things: associate the "I got it" feeling of understanding with the know-how of the story. That is, knowing how it works, knowing how it turns out, knowing how one follows from another, knowing how we got here. A good story is a compelling story that gives a really intense I-got-it. Math and logic, for example, strongly reinforce the I-got-it because the rules severely constrain what one is free to do in speaking in mathematical or logical languages—you cannot even accidentally the whole atomic sentence—so, people feel the I-got-it because they are compelled by the language to speak only what it allows you to say in it. And since it's the language's rules and not some dude's rules, it's even more authoritative because impartial. This doesn't show us that mathematics or logic are definitive for correct understanding (you got it exactly where and when it's to be gotten), but this is how people accept it. It does show us that the I-got-it feeling is so strong a motivator for thinking one's story is right that even in a total lack of understanding about how the story works, people will still feel they know what they're talking about. The forms compel, even without any content at all.

This is, of course, Plato's point in the Phaedrus about writing, but I think today with Google and Wikipedia and short summary articles on any information you'd like to access, it's the entire Internet. Follow along aroundabouts Stephanus 274E: (I'm quoting my Nehamas & Woodruff translation, which I like)

Now the king of all Egypt at that time was Thamus, who lived in the great city in the upper region that the Greeks call Egyptian Thebes; Thamus they call Ammon. Theuth came to exhibit his arts to him and urged him to disseminate them to all the Egyptians. Thamus asked him about the usefulness of each art, and while Theuth was explaining it, Thamus praised him for whatever he thought was right in his explanations and criticized him for whatever he thought was wrong.
The story goes that Thamus said much to Theuth, both for and against each art, which it would take too long to repeat. But when they came to writing, Theuth said: "O King, here is something that, once learned, will make the Egyptians wiser and will improve their memory; I have discovered a potion for memory and for wisdom." Thamus, however, replied: "O most expert Theuth, one man can give birth to the elements of an art, but only another can judge how they can benefit or harm those who will use them. And now, since you are the father of writing, your affection for it has made you describe its effects as the opposite of what they really are. In fact, it will introduce forgetfulness into the soul of those who learn it: they will not practice using their memory because they will put their trust in writing, which is external and depends on signs that belong to others, instead of trying to remember from the inside, completely on their own. You have not discovered a potion for remembering, but for reminding; you provide your students with the appearance of wisdom, not with its reality. Your invention will enable them to hear many things without being properly taught, and they will imagine that they have come to know much while for the most part they will know nothing. And they will be difficult to get along with, since they will merely appear to be wise instead of really being so."

I have watched online fora degenerate into shit. I have watched the simplicity of web design become a captivating mess of advertisements, flash, and fashion. And I have watched as people turn armchair philosophizing into cutting and pasting links and phrases, openly declare all they are doing is moving 'memes' along and being nothing but nodes for the transmission of intentionally-purposeless information. A second nature has formed, and it will follow the same evolutionary rules but in a wholly different modality: all the information so accessible for the purpose of learning to think the patterns and none of the self-directed shaping needed to slow down, work through things, think and philosophize one's way to knowledge. To read books. To have challenging conversation. To feel the ebb and flow of mutual loves. We cannot have endurance if we do not work at our own memories. All that bullshit will not start a garden if there is no sweating work to turn it over, mix it in, pick the invasive weeds, fertilize the flowers, match the patterns of the local and connected environments. That's all hard work, slow work, and thinks in long time scales. Real cultural memory.

So, with all this submersion into the flow of the control-machine—the attempt to place the reality of contradiction into a value system that does not admit contradiction—the lives of being self-aware get shorter, and the turnover sooner, and the jazz, the fascism, the war, the build will come quicker, and quicker, and quicker, until it just turns off.

Cultures do die. That might give hope to some people who think the present circumstances are the result of 'capitalism' or 'religion' or 'anti-my-religion' and want the world to change. I am not sure.

But it's a compelling story.

Me, I'm finding it worthwhile to read more slowly, more closely, and more often.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Is this wise?
Is this yours?
Is this love?

Real Time Web Analytics