Some unfinished thoughts about change and tradition

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I find myself wondering about vanishing traditions and disappearing cultures every so often…one of my larger scale projects, Terranigma, deals with exactly this. But one does not have to go very far to see old and used to things disappearing in favour of new, shiny, glossy and comfortless elements. I’m simply wondering about how unwilling we often are to integrate new traditions into established worldviews…on a microscopic as well as a macroscopic scale.

Tradition, time honoured traditions have something solid, something absolutely not worrisome. They have stood the test of time, they aren’t shakey…and we live in a time when pretty much everything seems to be on very shakey ground. Tradition appeals to the security seeker and if we speak about vanishing traditions or willfully set out to change traditions, we upset this sense of security.

Suddenly the I, lonely naked I becomes concerned about its own vulnerability. No security, no fallback plans? Burn those heretics of the new and change-y!

A muddled sense of nostalgia seems so much better. The old is not yet gone, we feel it slipping, but it’s still there if we reach out far enough…

But we need to integrate new elements, pretty much constantly. As a society and as individuals. I do believe that as longs as we look with nostalgia and sadness at everything that disappears and look for blame and cause, reason and rescue, we are not inside of time, but very much outside of it. Some elements of traditions disappear, some travel along, some get reintegrated and used in different forms and combinations.

We are constantly evolving, constantly engaged with both our past and future. This is unavoidable as long as we live and breathe and it is not at all dramatic. We all do it, constantly. To look for purity or one fixed point where everything was perfect is to try to hammer a nail into a rapidly spinning globe.

Ultimately, change is just time made visible and while each of us has a very personal point where our time ends, change and newly formed elements and traditions will be ongoing. Lonely, naked I does not have to wear old clothes for fear of standing naked in the future.

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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.

Art and Buddhism or Killing the Ego by Letting it Be

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I am, as much as I can be anything, a Buddhist (I’m other things, too, of course, especially when it comes to faith, since I like reimagining myself but that doesn’t matter now). Now there is no chance of me being a Buddhist in the Asian sense…I have lived with Buddhists and seen that the rules and private laws that I follow are fundamentally different to those that they follow…their world hangs from a different frame.

Yet I do believe, not in the Buddha as an attainable transformation of self into superhero, neither in enlightenment, but in the sensual world as maya, as “malleable illusion” or magic. I also believe, following that thought, that the ego is one big illusion, a mindfuck that each of us has developed in order to deal with the external world.

I believe that beyond the personal, there is something transpersonal. That it is possible to see yourself as a tiny speck in a vast whole and not lose any sense of self or purpose, but come out of it stronger and more confident and less controlled by the ebb and flow of emotions. This does not mean that emotions are less keenly felt, quite often they are stronger, but they exist on their own terms and I have learned to swim in them and sometimes to build bridges over them.

Yet one thing bothers me, particularly.

Art in some sense, especially a modern sense, is an exaltation of the one thing that I think illusory: the ego. In simple terms, I wonder how one can be an artist without completely disappearing up one’s own ass.

In one sense one has to believe in the art one creates and to make things that are fundamentally unimportant appear grand and important. It’s a sleight of hand, a magician’s trick. Yet there must be a balance between treating it with too obvious disdain (for that is another sign of an out of control ego, only the other side) and between not caring about it at all. Not giving a fuck leads to bad art. Giving too much of a fuck does too.

So…what to do?

Believe without believing? I don’t know.

Writing makes this split easier. Not believing in the reality of the ego, I can simply make up a hundred more and let them go at each other. I don’t come out of this experiment with any change of heart and soul, but I understand more about the unreality of personality. It is play, maya at work.

Photography makes it hard. You see everything except for the photographer yet for some reason the photographer is all you see in a good picture. By making himself invisible, he becomes the most visible thing of all. It runs contrary to what I believe.

Essentially I think the answer is just doing it without much worry about the what, the why and the what after. Finding the act, the sense of the act and the communal sense of the act (the dharma of Buddhist thought, where an act needs to be connected to all beings in order to be considered an excellent act…of course this is often a gesture more than anything, another sleight of hand, perhaps) in the doing itself.

Perhaps it is also helpful to consider that what is obvious to you (the inside of your head) may be both mysterious and new to another. Why this may be so, I do not understand, but I suppose it is just so.

Hate the Sin, Love the Sinner or the Illusions of Morality

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Hate the sin but love the sinner. This is one of the Christian morals that I can attempt to understand. It is certainly better to despise an act and not a person, although in its more extreme form this view will lead to an utterly inflexible worldview where every act is considered separate from the circumstance necessitating it and where there is a hierarchy of sinful acts, each considered more atrocious than the one before and each deserving of a progressively prohibitive punishment.

In my view an act is not separate from the person acting. Cannot be. We’re not automatons that certain acts happen to according to a divine scale of retribution but we decide because of various interdependent motives and we can change our motives and our actions to better adapt to a situation and improve the chances of a positive outcome. We’re born improvisers. We’re born spontaneous and every mental construct is a burden to the natural expression of mind and spirit (yet, quite paradoxically, rather often the natural expression of the mind is the construction of such burdensome mental ballast out of spontaneous moments).

We’re variables, not constants. In fact, we’re a chain of variables so complex and diverse that the concept of “we” and “I” are probably no more than temporary illusions.

The Christian belief is that a sin creates an indelible tear in a permanent moral space. That is why it is so frightening. It is an intrusion of a demonic entity into otherwise pure space. Original sin changed the world utterly from a paradise into the occasionally hellish limbo that we find ourselves in. Yet we have a chance to return to it, to this childlike world of wonder and speaking animals. I like the second part from a purely psychological view. We all yearn to a certain degree to return to childhood and safety, so why not dream of Eden?

Yet safety and the childhood dreams are all illusion and if taken as literally real become prisons of thought. The pain and the moral anguish that we suffer as we grow older is equally an illusion. It is a drama of the senses and the intellect that has very little, if anything, to do with our actual experience.

Of course it is frightening for a devout Christian to consider that sin is not real and that an act, kind or awful, really makes very little impression on the universe. It may make a lot of impression on another person, equally inhibited in their eternity of morals or entirely free of them, but the universe really couldn’t care less. Whatever you do, it will just continue being the universe and that is being naturally spontaneous in infinite variations.

In the mind of some people declaring sin unreal equals declaring salvation unreal. Declaring the most trivial aspect of god unreal equals declaring god’s most essential aspect unreal for a mind trained in literal rigidity or for a person who has quite a lot invested in the hope of personal salvation by an ultimately benevolent deity.  

Of course most of us fall right in the middle. Between childlike faith and existential reason. We fluctuate and that is a very good state to be in.

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?

Art Can Happen to All of Us

henri_cartier_bresson011Henri Matisse, by another Henri (Cartier-Bresson)

  Art is a fundamentally undemocratic process. It can be deliberate, raw, tortured, beautiful, cynical, strange, stunning, gorgeous, contradictory, but it is not decided by committee.

  Maybe that’s an old-fashioned view – the world after all is connected now and everything seems designed by a collective or at least that’s the utopian idea behind the society many people wish to see.

  However, art as such is not a part of the collective realm of commerce, economy, society, politics or religion, but a voice and a place that stands – by its very necessity – apart from all that. It is what allows a work of art to comment or reflect on any other of the elements of our existence. It stands at a remove.

  It may be a Utopian remove, a locked ivory tower of the senses and perceptions, or it may be the cold and harsh voice of a hermit or the unconcerned voice of a self-absorbed wanderer, but it is a deeply necessary aspect of life, this remove from the bustle and self-importance.

  It’s a playground of the imagination, but it’s also a hall of sometimes distorting, sometimes deeply truthful mirrors. A necessary mystery, because it allows for quiet and reflection.

  From a very regular and normal point of view it certainly seems superfluous, especially if it doesn’t sell, but that is missing the point completely. It is superfluous, but at the same time it is our own greatest achievement, because it is a reflection of self-awareness and presence, of what we like to call out own humanity.

  Art creates a place where we can reflect on our own actions, as an individual or a species, look for answers and alternatives or simply amuse or scare ourselves by those puzzling mirages that we observe, forgetting that they are ourselves.

  Art is not defined, it happens sometimes and sometimes fails to happen. It can appear for moments in a soap opera or in any circumstance of our lives or it can be there permanently, for a mind open to watch out for it.

  To decide by committee what art is and what not, to imagine that any label would turn something into art or turn something away from being art is a ridiculous notion. To teach somebody what is art and what not is equally ridiculous. To imagine that something is and always remains art, ridiculous.

  But a moment of openness can turn errors into art, mistakes into fantasies, small moments into something meaningful.

  Art, in short, is something that happens to all of us, but is not something that we can get together and nominate to appear.

I Do Not Own You

The model of relationships that we in Europe – or more broadly, the Christian world – follow is relatively peculiar because I can see in it no advantage except from the point of view of commercial relationships.

  I think it was instituted in an old patriarchal society where you would marry into money (the girl’s family having the initial disadvantage of fielding all the cash) or use marriages increasingly as a means to do nothing but cement relationships between powerful and wealthy families. Why two individuals would decide on a marriage, that is an exclusive union that brings with it unnatural strains and few advantages except perhaps the illusion of permanence, is a puzzle to me.

  There is love, of course, and love binds, as people say. But I consider love to be better expressed in acceptance than in acquisitiveness. To allow someone to be who they want to be is a greater expression of love than saying I want to own you.

  So why enter into an agreement of mutual ownership? Business and tax reasons? Comfort? Laziness? Or actually Love? Puzzling, isn’t it?

  I’m not saying that it is an unnatural thing for two people to decide they want to spend their life with each other – this is a wonderfully beautiful thing – but to artificially limit this by inflexible borders is what I find unnatural. Perhaps it is my nature as a traveler, but I find borders to be woefully artificial things.

  I also wonder how much of a role egoism plays in creating relationships that consist of mutual contracts of ownership. I believe that it is true that I define myself through you, that is, through all the yous that I meet in my life. If you are an expansive and free-willed person, so will I be. If you are tied down by my own wishes and desires, what will you be?

  Also, there is a purely mathematical element involved here. If it is possible for two people to coexist and cohabit, it is possible for three people to coexist and cohabit. If it is possible for three people to coexist and cohabit, it is possible for four people and so on. The variables increase, but the essence remains the same.

  I do not simply mean a collection of sexual affairs – that is something that is possible within or without any framework of relationships and requires very little imagination (it helps if you’re moving around, though). I am thinking about alternative models of human and also sexual relationships.

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  Of course that is complicated, requires a lot of investment and understanding and imagination. It also requires you to think differently about ideas of ownership, especially about the strange concept that you can own another person and make decisions for them. It requires you to water down your own ego quite a bit and accept the presence of other people in your mind and heart.

  I am simply ruminating here – when we are young we are implanted with these ideas of ideal relationships and unfortunately it is almost always the same model that causes lots of heartache, guilt and secrecy and suppression of desires while wanting nothing but exclusive happiness. But ideally, I think, the world is full of possibilities for relationships in all forms, shapes and colours. Some might be brief and highly sexual, others slow and deep, others friendly, light and puzzling.

  Permanence or something lasting might develop out of some, but not because we cast the image of permanence on top of them, but because we look back and forward and realize that there are trails in both directions.