What is Modern Culture?

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I found these characteristics of modern culture summarized in a book by Ryszard Kapuszcinsky – they are from 1996 and I am curious how accurate they feel seventeen years later, so I will attempt a brief analysis of each point.

First of all – everything is provisionary. Everything is fluid. Everything can be questioned, changed, put into brackets, disregarded or discarded. Nothing is stable, nothing lasts, nothing is final. Relativism is the dominant mode of thought – a tendency to question obvious truths, a pragmatism without principles.

Scarily accurate and we are so deep into this mode of thought that we do not realize its danger anymore. To moor along intellectually, to be able to change at will is a useful ability, certainly, but by it intellectuals run the danger of forgetting who they are, constantly engaged in endless debates about potential that are merely an exercise of the imagination or an intellectual distinction that has little to no effect on social realities.

Questioning obvious truths is certainly good, but we have to do it without self-aggrandizing spectacle. Turning Julian Assange or Edward Snowden, who are examples of people who radically shifted public perception to a more relativistic attitude, into cult heroes is perhaps counter propaganda.

Pragmatism without principles…filesharing is a good example of this. While filesharers abide by a certain codex of principles, those principles usually only extends to themselves and not to the group whose intellectual or artistic property they share. If those two groups were to enter into a fuller discourse, a large part of the market would change…crowdfunding and crowdsourcing are examples of the beginning of such a shift, but the question that remains is, if everything is relative whose rules do we follow?

The second characteristic is the conviction that everything needs to be perfected. Nothing is perfect, nothing ever will be perfect and that’s why everything constantly needs to be perfected. Behind this is the idea of endlessness. Perfection has no end, progress is infinite. The idea of progress has turned into a Golden Calf.

True as well, as we see in the larger market. Success does not end if we perfect something, upgrade it, rename it, reboot it, rebrand it. This can even be extended to personal aspects…we need to get better or we lose everything and since our identity is fluid, rebranding and reinvention of ourselves is not so difficult to attain.

“He who’s not busy being born is busy dying”, as Bob Dylan sang. We are busy in frantic proportions because we fear death, to stand still, lack of progress, regression, unable to reconcile ourselves with these integral and unavoidable aspects of life. By turning ourselves into machines, we attempt to forget our mortality, because we are busy becoming better.

The third characteristic: The place of culture in her former sense of something that was experienced in mind and body has been taken by the subculture of spectacle. The attitude of modern man is best characterized by calling him a passive watcher. Tourism has become a symbol of our time because of that very reason. One wants to look at things without knowing anything about them. Looking at replaces knowledge and understanding, even more, it becomes synonymous with them. Culture no longer is a form and expression of life, it has instead been reduced to specialized fields which are gladly left to its specialists – it has become a restricted territory of professionalists.

Boy, oh boy, does that ever hit the nail on the head. And this characteristic has only increased. Youtube videos of everything exist and news come streaming in images. Words, especially extensive and characteristic words have become a rarity, because due to our endless perfectionism we have no more time to deal with redundant words or, God forbid, someone else’s character.

We have become scavengers of information, capable of reducing everything to what we take as its essence. Bland sometimes, sometimes piercing, but to the point. Or so we believe. A reductionist relativism necessitated by an overload of information most of which is redundant.

By doing so we quite often parse the essential from the information, stripping it bare of what may once have been considered culture and is increasingly labeled as baggage.

We comfort ourselves with the (probably erroneous) idea that knowledge has become too difficult and diverse (perhaps due to endless perfectionism on part of the different branches) to grasp all of it and, in the end, cease even to grasp the tiniest bit. Culture as a transmitter of often unspoken information is being lost in a global community that shares a lot but reflects very little and is often tied together only by financial and virtual strings.

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Glühbirnen für den König – eine Parabel aus Marrakesch

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Glühbirnen für den König

Wie man (nicht) von Seiner Majestät in Marrakesch stiehlt…

Salman studiert in Marrakesch an der Fakultät für Literatur. Er hat zwei ältere Brüder. Der eine, der heute als Arzt für die Regierung arbeitet, hat lange Jahre in Saudi Arabien hadiths studiert, also die dem Propheten zugeschriebenen Aussprüche, die einen essentiellen Teil der islamischen Gesetzgebung darstellen. Der andere unterrichtet Philosophie an einer Schule in Marrakesch.

  Der zweite Bruder, der Philosophielehrer, hat einen tiefgreifenden Sinn für praktische Dilemmas. Eines Tages waren die beiden in Hypermarché von Marrakesch um einzukaufen. Es gibt zwei riesige Supermärkte in der Stadt, moderne, westliche Gebilde mit allen möglichen sinnvollen und nutzlosen Dingen. Der kleinere gehört dem Bruder des Königs. Der größere, der gehört natürlich Mohammed 6. höchstpersönlich.

  Salmans Bruder sah ein Regal voller Glühbirnen. Kleine Dinge, kaum teuer. Eine für vielleicht zehn Dirham (einen Euro). „Was denkst du passiert, wenn ich eine von den Glühbirnen stehle?“ fragte er seinen Bruder und steckte sie in seine Tasche. Nur um es auszuprobieren. Es war kein böswillig motivierter Diebstahl, sondern ein philosophisch motivierter. Ein Experiment.

  Die beiden kauften weiter ein. Salmans Bruder wollte seine neue Wohnung einrichten, also kauften die beiden sehr viel. Gut zweitausend Dirham, also ein wirklich stattlicher Betrag. Über die Fragen, was denn alles zu kaufen war, vergaßen die beiden vollkommen, dass in einer der Hemdtaschen noch die Glühbirne steckte.

  Die zahlten, gingen aus dem Hypermarché und als sie ihren Einkauf in ihren Wagen luden, traten prompt zwei Männer an Salmans Bruder heran und baten ihn mit ihnen zu kommen. Salman wartete beim Wagen und fragte sich, was für eine Antwort sein Bruder wohl auf sein Experiment bekommen würde.

  Knapp eine Stunde später kam auch der Bruder wieder aus dem Supermarkt. „Die Reichen,“ so seine Antwort, „die achten sehr sorgsam auf ihren Besitz.“

  Man hatte ihn in einen kleinen Raum geführt, wo der Chef der Supermarktsicherheit auf ihn wartete. Die Glühbirne lag zwischen ihnen auf einem Tisch. Salmans Bruder hatte zu sprechen begonnen. „Ja, ich habe diese Glühbirne gestohlen. Ich übernehme die Verantwortung dafür. Ich wollte wissen, was passiert.“

  „Weißt du, wen du bestohlen hast?“ entgegnete ihm der Sicherheitschef. Er pausierte einen Moment für den dramatischen Effekt, rückte mit seinem Sessel zur Seite und drehte sich halb zur Wand hinter ihm. Dort hang, wie beinahe überall, ein Portrait seiner Majestät.

  „Ich habe in diesem Supermarkt für gut zweitausend Dirham eingekauft,“ sagte Salmans Bruder. „Diese Glühbirne, wie viel kostet sie? Zehn Dirham.“ Auf dem Markt in der Medina hätte ihm jeder Händler diese Glühbirne und wohl noch mehr geschenkt, wenn er für so einen Betrag eingekauft hätte.

  Er traf nur auf den kalten, überheblichen Blick des Sicherheitschefs. Du gehörst dem König, sagte dieser Blick. Du gehörst uns. „Die Strafe für Diebstahl beträgt dreihundert Dirham.“

  So einfach hatte sich eine Glühbirne um zehn Dirham in eine um dreihundert Dirham verwandelt. Die Glühbirnen des Königs müssen schließlich einen königlichen Preis haben. Salmans Bruder hatte das Resultat seines Experimentes bekommen. „Die Reichen, die achten wirklich sehr sorgsam auf ihren Besitz.“

Conversations with a Nomad

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I am a nomad. It’s a perfectly normal thing for me to change places every other day. Pack my bags and go. I spend the summer touring for work and visits and, even though I suffer from a certain fatigue after a while of working unpredictable hours, I enjoy it a lot.

For the past years I needed to balance this with friends and family. I have very close bonds to my friends and my family, so the time I spend with them is (as perceived by me) rather intense and important. Because I know I will be going away again.

I have very rarely entertained serious thoughts of settling down. In my mind and heart I am very settled down. I have a clear idea of where I want my life to head and I am working on it. I don’t think there is a better idea of home than this. That’s why I am a nomad.

Now while I am settling down in the most impermanent of fashions – looking for a job to tide me over the winter months – I still feel this to be an unnatural strain. Or rather, I cannot quite understand the priorities and principles of settled people. My backpack is still packed after six weeks at home.

When I am travelling I realize how large and how interesting the world is. You don’t even need to travel to understand this. Walk for ten minutes and it has changed. Turn around and talk to someone else and it has changed.

The most important topic of conversation for a nomad is this: Who are you and where are you going?

Now the answer to this is not necessarily, I’m Dave and I’m going to get some beer.

What I am asking is, In your head and heart, who are you at this moment and what is your goal, be that spiritual, physical, emotional or financial?

You see, I assume that these things change, after all you are human not static. That’s why I want to know them. They are, truthfully, the only questions that interest me. If you are someone interesting and if you’re going to a nice place, I might come along. Or I might invite you to come along because I am heading to a similar place.

I don’t want to talk to show off how clever or funny I am. I’m not interested in a contract or an agreement or a plan for my future. I have all these things, as much as anyone can have them.

I’m not interested in hearing how hard life is for you or what you dislike. This does not turn you into a deeper person for me. If you are sad, show me the depth of your sadness and if you are happy I want to see the depth of your joy. I want to see you be a human being.

I think there’s a secret world behind even the most ordinary things – one of strong emotions, the imagination, of occasional madness and passion – but this world or these worlds, for there are many, only work when contrasted, merged or shared with each other. If the worlds are as different as possible to your own, it becomes much more intriguing and rewarding to share and so I like to move around and talk to people from walks of life and from backgrounds that are utterly removed from my own. This is much easier if I am a nomad.

Diversity and contradiction keeps my mind alive and my interest in everything intact.

So…who are you and where are you going?

Terranigma

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Welcome to our mysterious home – I would like to introduce all of you to a project of mine. This is an introduction, but also an attempt to raise funds, so if you are allergic to such requests, stop reading right now 😉

Terranigma (terra = earth, enigma = riddle, terranigma – the earth as an eternal riddle) is a project that I conceived of in 2013, inspired by a preceding visit to the Himalaya region of Spiti in Northwestern India and by conversations and work with fellow travellers, photographers and filmmakers. My goal is to create a platform to preserve and document some of the most remote, strange and culturally valuable places and traditions on our planet through photography and writing.

After seeing ancient monasteries and thousand year old traditions in the valleys of the High Himalaya I came to realize that much of this wealth might be – and probably will be gone from the face of the earth forever in five to ten years time.

The world changes at a breakneck pace. Change, as a matter of fact, is the only thing that is constant in our existence. I want to record and show the world in the way I percieve it while I am travelling: as a deeply fascinating, fragile place full of mysteries and riddles, full of life, of traditions and also of change.

Do you consider such a project worthwhile? If you do, I am asking you to seriously consider supporting it. I aim to create a platform for various photographers and independent documentary filmmakers to collect knowledge of disappearing things. This must – out of necessity – start with my own photography.

This is what I am asking you: If you think it worthwhile, go to my website (http://www.sebastianbuchner.weebly.com/terranigma.html) and have a look at the PDF file. I am offering all of these images for sale in various formats, from very large to very small, from expensive to really cheap.

All money raised this way goes directly into funding further travels and to help create an online platform for photography, documentary film and independent cultural or anthropological reporting. I don’t expect this will be easy or that anything at all will happen without a serious amount of work – I am thankful for anyone who takes enough time to look at it and perhaps is willing to share it as well.

Thank you,
Sebastian Buchner.

How to Start a Journey

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I love the view from a plane. Details disappear, faces, bodies, houses, villages – making way for the features of the land: rivers, forests, fields, mountains, clouds. The world becomes both smaller and larger and I become very quiet.

  This is when I realize that I am starting something new. The world, my world, with its clear details and inimitable instances becomes one of many similar worlds. I learn what – in my life – is similar to hundred other lives, when I watch the landscape and its repetitions. And I learn what – in my life – is unique.

  The distance takes away all the needless clutter of my life, leaving the few essentials – of love, of friendship, of trust – burning in me.

  This is when I realize that I can leave for a long time. The world seems open, an endless patterned thing of repetitions and uniqueness. I feel some fear, but it is refreshing. This merely wakes me up.

  When I get back down, all those many dreams of leaving and of travelling, they will become solid instances of life. The world is large indeed and just the right kind of the same everywhere.

Book Review: Patrick French, India

India, India

  I picked up Patrick French’s book on India with quite some joy, having read his excellent and disillusioned book on Tibet and the slightly dusty, but remarkably detailed biography of Francis Younghusband and come away with information that I had not held before and a new, if slightly darker view of his topics. At the time I held this thought to be more mature – after all I did not want to be one of the people who know next to nothing about the places they visit, travelling only out of a sense of hedonistic adventure.

  But India, French’s book, proved to be a massive disappointment to me. This time I knew the subject matter quite intimately and French struck me as unbearably posh and conceited. An ivory tower wannabe mover and shaker who, the one or two times he stoops down to touch something a little more low brow, comes across as prejudiced and completely uniformed about the nature of the people he writes about. There is no humor and only the most rigid self awareness in his writing. His gift to render history clear and lucid is still there, but his endless focus on politics and economy is very wearying to me, because he possesses no real human understanding of his characters…the book is called The Biography of a Billion people, but the only people French is interested in are the high politicos. Yet the allure of India is that these politicians cannot lead as separate an existence as their ounterparts might be able to in other parts of the world. One cannot write about the rulers of a country without understanding the motivations of the people that are being ruled. The myriad of common fates that make India what it is are simply being ignored by French because he finds the few people who move mountains of money and wield power much more interesting.

  He seems to treat them with the same disdain of invisibility that he employed to write about the Western visitors to MacLeod Ganj who seemed so much beneath his notice and beneath him when he had returned from Tibet, where he had worked himself into disillusionment. The tragedy that he described in Tibet, Tibet seems now much more his own illusion of grandeur, less the despairing realization that Tibet was, in a manner, doomed. French’s self-importance starts at little things – speaking about Christopher Lee acting in a film about Jinnah without having seen it as if the casting choice could only have been a political decision – to his unerring belief that his interpretations are the only true and valid that makes his writing a guideline, perhaps, but a very unreliable one.

  Overall French’s book is very disappointing to me. Highbrow and unpleasantly British – perhaps it would have been fun bedside reading for Governor General Curzon, but for me it was uninvolving and presented a very slanted and unrealistic view of multifaceted India.