Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Bedrock of Civilization

Cities are collections -- assortments, really -- of individual neighborhoods. At least, the kinds of cities that exude some special sense of "citiness," like NYC or SF, for instance. For me, this has to do with a lack of homogeneity, where individual districts and neighborhoods are self-defining cultural nodes, with distinct history, architecture, ethnicity and culture.

It has been my observation that older cities, those with centuries of history, seem to have been formed in a more organic fashion than the pre-programmed yet ill-conceived urban planning of the contemporary period. There are some notable historic exceptions, Washington, D.C. for example.

The most notable change to city growth has been caused by the rise of personal motorized transport, the automobile. Since the mid-20th century's period of rapid suburban sprawl, whole communities have arisen out of nothing at all, lacking the context of some historic period of prior settlement.

Lacking an historic context, such recently invented cities only possess the genetic heritage of the commercial strip, mile after mile of nearly identical assortments of chain stores, restaurants and services that lack the context of an individual physical locale. One could be dropped, as if by parachute, into any commercial strip in America, chosen as if at random, and one would have little inkling as to one's whereabouts as revealed strictly by cultural clues such as local architecture, language and history.

Within the recent turmoil surrounding the immigration issues along America's southern border (interestingly, an influx of illegal Canadians seems comically unlikely), we are reminded by pundits of the conservative bent that language defines the nature of the resulting culture at large, the implicit logic being that the teaching of English and American History within the nation's schools should therefore be of paramount importance to the exclusion of other cultures. While I cannot deny that language is inextricably intertwined within both history and culture, it is disingenuous to ignore the affects that commercialism has also had on mass culture within the post-WWII period in America, even to include the structure of our built environments, the town, cities, roads and highways, whose permanence we all-too-often take for granted. The sad irony is that the political party which has yelled the loudest and most incessant about conservation of traditional American values has instead brazenly embraced those very corporate commercial interests which have exacted the greatest toll upon the culture of the local community.

This is not to imply that the other major political party is free from guilt. Most notable is their continued support of a corporate-controlled indoctrination system known as public education. It is incomplete to base the entirely of language and history merely upon the commercially-produced textbooks found within the American classroom. Culture is more than indoctrination to some national mean; it is living and breathing, ever-changing and ongoing. It is local. What happens within the walls of one's home and around one's community, outside of school hours, defines one's local culture. We are the product of the sum total of hundreds of millions of individual and family histories, pieced together like a patchwork quilt.

Culture is not only a byproduct of our built environment, and common and personal histories, but is constantly being corrupted and mutated via mass-media. So-called popular culture is akin to one's short-term memory, wherein a cacophony of competing voices, viewpoints and fads are in constant flux. In the short term, the common culture changes little because of these various influences. It is only in the aggregate, over a longer span of time, that we come to observe real cultural change brought about by these temporal influences, like something being burned into one's long-term memory, inducing a more permanent change.

A common misconception is assuming that popular culture is somehow synonymous with local culture. Popular culture through mass mediation is observational and manipulative in nature, yet merely temporal. Yesterday's fad is as easily forgotten as today's and tomorrow's will certainly be. The power of media is as the hypnotist's gaze, which holds little affect outside of one's volitional complicity. We volunteer our wills to the power of mass mediation by our participation in the consumption of popular culture. The erosion of local culture is volitional, and we are mutually complicit.

However temporary, the result is that, inexorably, our local culture is slowly being subsumed into the temporal soup, leaving us with little or no true history. Popular culture hates history, unless it, too, can be repackaged and marketed as a commercial product.

Even as our volitional participation in popular culture undermines local culture, a passive approach to our local community does nothing to repair and rebuild. A passive community is an oxymoron. There is the implicit requirement that local communities be repaired and rebuilt through local interaction on the part of the common people. It must be self-initiated and self-realized. The growth of a community progresses organically, as one would cultivate the land of one's personal domicile. Active participation, getting one's hands dirty, getting so close to the soil that you can smell its richness, becomes a prerequisite to the planting, fertilization and harvest of later. Decline and decay seem inexorable, like the exercise of some hidden natural law, which the caretaker works constantly to overcome.

Globalism, at its most essential affect, tends to destroy local culture and history, substituting instead a monoculture of corporate consumerism through mass media. As the power wielded by media through the advance of technology continues to consolidate, local language, history and culture must instead thrive through the local resistance offered by the telling of stories, the sharing of family and community tradition. Culture is the end result of an unbroken lineage of tradition, the process involving a handing-down, from the old to the young, of that most cherished by our predecessors.

All of this is preamble to the notion that we need to rediscover the art of personal story-telling. "We," as in you and I, the common person, rather than the professional story-teller hirelings of our age. It is through the telling and retelling of personal history that myth, legend and fable are born. The legacy of entire civilizations are based, in large measure, on the affects of a shared history, derived from generations of oral tradition.

The potential offered by contemporary technology is not just in the destruction of local culture, but that we now have available a multitude of new methods of story-telling, in a variety of media, figuratively etched in silicon rather than carved in stone; media-jamming the popular culture by turning its tools back onto itself, swords into plowshares.

In my personal life, I have attempted to pass the stories of pioneering struggles, of war and peace, that I received from my dad, down to my grandson, who now remembers many of these stories, and can begin to retell them himself. He remembers my dad, his great-grandpa, late in life, and the stories he would tell, a personal connection going back at least three generations. I don't expect, within the days or years left of me on this earth, to achieve fame and fortune; but I do expect that a bit of myself, and my lineage, will succeed my passing, slowly but inexorably resolving into a furtherance of personal history and family culture, which remains the bedrock of civilization.

(From fountain pen on composition book via Alphasmart Neo)


Blogger Strikethru said...

There is a big emphasis on personal storytelling using digital media these days and I wonder if, after reading your post, the point is to add local culture/perspective to a homogenizing technological force.

10:41 PM  

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