Culture what?

Sometimes there’s just no reason why. There’s no reason you can figure out, and there’s something sad and heavy pressing down upon you.

I am on a train trundling down the length of my country. Not the whole way, I’m only going till Pune.

When you’re on a train, and have got fairly used to the idea that it is pretty natural for everything outside the window to be moving, it sometimes confuses you when there’s, say, another train moving outside the window, and you cannot figure out who’s actually in motion.

I wanted to think up a stunning analogy of this with life, but it’s not working.

There’s some reason somewhere why I’m feeling like this. I’m feeling kind of sad, and quiet, and there’s absolutely no reason in sight.

Oh yes, I had something real to say, about talents and abilities.

You know, most people have something or the other that they can do pretty well, better than those around them. Like singing, or painting, or literature or designing web pages. It’s called a gift, and it’s treated as something pure and undiluted. Something fundamental and true, as if it came from a higher plane, something which makes sense by itself. But I suddenly developed a problem with this idea.

My problem is the undeniable necessity of context. These gifts, feats, talents, make sense only in the framework of the civilization, culture, and invention that we have come up with. Just us, this species, as a chance we were born and grew on this fortunately optimum planet, optimum for life. And the particular chemical and physical conditions shaped what is life, and hence shaped evolution, and it is a peculiar accident that we ended up being such creatures, with such a history, civilization, technology and culture. And only inside this particular framework do those ‘pure’ gifts make any sense. What is the meaning of writing without the discovery of media in which we could scratch to make marks, without our particular peculiar appreciation for literature that is the result of our particular history, and without the invention of language? What even is singing? It means nothing to the universe. It only makes sense to us. What would be web-designing without, you know, a hundred necessary inventions? What is fundamental about these talents, any talent? What is pure and beautiful and true, and meaningful without the context of our particular set-up? Is there anything deep or pure or even remotely useful about these things, that transcends the ideas, values and needs of humans, and becomes ‘true art’? I don’t know, I don’t think there is any. These ‘gifts’, they are just the act of doing certain peculiar things in peculiar patterns which make sense to our particular decoding machine, and produce a weird thing called ‘aesthetic pleasure’ which is itself definable only in a circular way.

An alien population could have its own culture which is meaningless, nonsensical, or even downright hilarious to us.  Consider a population of alien sucker things on a distant planet which hang on to the surface with their suckers, and have a little vestigial antenna on top that they can move with muscles, to no useful end. Maybe one day we land men on that planet. We observe the suckers without treading on them, and we notice that some of them keep swinging around their useless antennae in circles. Some of them can do approximate circles, and their swinging speeds up and slows down. Others might make better circles, and there are a few which can do this swinging perfectly uniformly over time in near-perfect circles, and there’s always a small crowd of suckers around these last guys. And there’s absolutely no visible good coming out of it, but they’re spending a lot of their time and resources doing this swinging.

Maybe it is their culture. Their tradition, their beauty, what defines their species, what tells them apart from the other biota on the planet and makes them the perfect end-product of evolution, this antenna-swinging. And we cannot make head or tail of it. It is funny in an almost vulgar way. I mean, it’s fine to achieve perfection even in swinging around an antenna, because it is a demanding task. Achieving perfection in, or even being good at, anything, no matter how useless or stupid and non-benefitting it may be,  requires practice, dedication and concentration. But that’s about all you can say about it. You’re just doing such stuff because you have time to spare.

It just occurred to me that singing, art, BMX riding, juggling feats, are all as stupid as that. There is no good logic you can give me that preserves the purity or whatever of these talents.

So maybe our culture and traditions and human achievements are just like that. They don’t do any good outside their own sphere, that’s for sure. And they don’t mean anything and carry no beauty and has no fundamental truth outside our own narrow sphere of chance that is the present time and social structure, a highly specific scenario. We have ‘culture’ because we had time to spare.

So, I think this calls for a re-evaluation, a need to see our oh-so-great-human-culture with a fresh, down-to-earth alien view. That’s all I’m saying.

One thought on “Culture what?

  1. Pingback: Culture What? « Literary Club, IISER-K

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