Little things that keep us together

By David Parkinson

Apricot, the first fruit tree to blossom in our yard.

In last week’s post I wittered vaguely on about the parallels between linguistic and cultural acquisition, considering the ways in which the patterns we acquire as children for understanding and creating our relationships with other people might be just as hard to shift in later life as the patterns we acquire for understanding and creating linguistic structures. I’m not familiar with any of the academic work in this area (although I know that there is some), so my speculations might be wildly off-base. (So what.) It’s easy to imagine that our cultural beliefs and behaviours are as much a mixture of innate species-specific predispositions with plenty of room for variation as are our linguistic behaviours. And although researchers disagree on the particular mix of nature and nurture, very few deny that both play some role in linguistics. It makes sense that the same deal applies in the acquisition and deployment of cultural knowledge.

Cultures, and the patterns of behaviours & beliefs that instantiate them, evolve as languages do: partly in order to stay viable in the circumstances of the real world and partly in order to find some kind of internal equilibrium. A shift in the role of one element or class of elements — the use of the past tense marker in language, or the perceived border between work and play in culture — might slowly set in motion a series of adjustments, the creation of new elements and the disappearance of old ones, new relations among this ever-changing constellation of rules, similarities, differences, tensions, and affiliations that make up the unimaginably complex system. And like any complex system, the outcomes are unpredictable and may hinge on unimaginably tiny events or patterns of behaviour which feed back into the system. For example, the belief that economic measures are the final arbiters or worth in human affairs is one that seems to have emerged in the late Renaissance along with a cluster of other beliefs, slowly gained ground over pre-economic visions of value, and created the conditions for greater freedom and individualism, which in turn strengthened the economics-centred view of humanity. We might be at an extreme point of this long arc, when the beliefs and behaviours remain but the real benefits are contracting to a vanishingly small number of high-status individuals. It’s not clear what new forms of social organization, if any, will come along soon to repair the gap between aspiration and reality. But the notion that individualistic striving is the only way to a happy life might be disappearing out the rear-view mirror, while countless tiny feckless experiments fail on the way to small successes which provide the launching-pad for better experiments, bigger successes, and on and on. All we need to do is stay awake, tune out the dumb rubbish, and plod on. Sounds easy, but isn’t.

We have no individual control over linguistic change. Generations of schoolteachers and self-appointed scolds like William Safire have done nothing to stanch the flow of split infinitives, “her and I”, and other frowned-on constructions. We may have more control over cultural change, but only at the cost of programs of social retraining involving massive doses of top-down propaganda necessarily benefiting the ones at the top sending it downward. We grow up speaking our culture as native speakers, so for us the cultural equivalents of the bizarre inexplicable linguistic patterns — let’s say, the idea that it’s more important for everyone to have a car than a close friend — don’t strike us as remotely odd… until we come into contact with another culture that organizes those elements differently.

We’re in the position of the speakers of the deadly language: not sure how to begin creating the rules of a new culture; worse, not even aware that such a thing is possible. All we know — and even then the message is slow to spread and vigorously resisted — is that our culture is causing harm. We might look to indigenous cultures for help finding the ways out of this predicament, as Wade Davis argues in The Wayfinders. We might hope that retreat and retrenchment will give us the space to build new and better cultural patterns, as seems to be the idea behind a variety of movements like eco-villages, anti-civ, peak-oil doomerism, and the new tribalism proposed by Daniel Quinn and others. We might argue that only actively working for the destruction of the present system will open up new possibilities.

The troublesome fact remains that culture cannot safely be created out of deliberate large-scale human intention; the only way to begin is to change the beliefs and the behaviours that result from and reflect those beliefs, in order that a coherent culture will ultimately emerge as those beliefs and behaviours pass from generations onward, evolve to adapt to changes in external circumstances and to competing cultural patterns, spawn new micro-cultures, and develop an internal complexity rich enough to freely generate new beliefs, behaviours, and adaptive strategies. And we can introduce only small changes, only in small doses. Maybe the only safe way to proceed is to use ourselves as guinea pigs. The trick is finding enough other guinea pigs on the same experimental cultural brew to see what happens when you combine forces and start to alchemize wayward individuals with weird ideas into a coherent cluster from which something cultural might emerge.

I’m lucky enough to have landed in a corner of the world which provides the right conditions for proper bottom-up random directionless experimentation; an isolated place with a relatively low cost of living, stunning natural beauty providing a sense of natural wealth and generosity, and a long history of self-reliance and regional coherence. Plenty of freaks. It ain’t paradise, but it has the makings of a good place to fail enough times to find the occasional success. And there are plenty more places like this hidden in plain sight, where the new trajectories are being brewed up and tested. Find the nearest one to you. Move there. Contribute.

Together we will nurture the small and embarrassing virtues, in defiance of a culture which makes us all slaves to bad ideas. We will work on projects which are small, non-economic, ill-fitting, sketchy, temporary; which don’t scale and won’t work elsewhere; which have no obvious hooks for monetization; which give us no faith in a better future but only (only!) make today more bearable. Nothing we do will catch  the attention of those who care most deeply about defending this culture’s values. Let them keep scanning the wrong horizons. And if we do enough pointless ignorant laughable things, someday we will be the tide that smooths the sands and shifts the pebbles on the beach. No great thing, but always rocking and swaying the small things of the world. That is not enough — never enough — but it will have to be enough.

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March 2011
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