Monday, November 05, 2018

Culture - Tipping Points

We are told about tipping points in the environment, that at any moment an increase in CO2 or a decrease in the number of species will have catastrophic consequences.  This could be so, as there are many things in life that are slow, slow, slow, then sudden and irreversible. Yet I wonder if this is such a familiar concept to us, why we don't apply it to other phenomena.  Is there a tipping point for national debt, or for the economy in general? Is there a tipping point for political violence?

Is there a tipping point for culture? I have been envisioning it as a game of Jenga, with piece after piece removed, the structure still standing, until one piece too many is taken away and the whole structure falls. I think we all tend to picture it this way.  Even anti-traditionalists, who want the current status quo to fall, smuggle in the pieces to assemble a new structure (using many pulled from the old). We think of a culture as a set thing, or perhaps have some awareness that it does change slowly.

I have decided this is a false analogy. Culture changes quickly on an historical scale, and is not only perceptible but noticeable in the scale of a single lifetime. What we call Old Time Religion is quite new, just beyond our grandparents' time, perhaps.

I am very conscious of the founders effect of my Puritan ancestors on my region and can detect them in my personality even at this distance - so also the Swedish Lutherans (that even into my lifetime) and my Scots Presbyterians that came via a short stay in Ireland in the 18th C. Yet I would have found their church services and their daily habits unendurable, I am quite sure. In imagining this I recalled that I had done an adult Sunday School class years ago on the changes in the lyrics of Christian Hymnody over the ages. I located it under The Best of February 2007.* For those who like such things, the classes are summarised here:
Ancient Hymnody
Not-So-Ancient Hymnody
Hymns Get Ridiculously Complicated - 16th-18th C
19th C Hymnody - Jesus as Cosmic Pal
The People's Hymns - Spirituals, Camp Meeting, and a Little Bluegrass

There is a great deal to say about Christian music since 1950, but I am not the one to comment.  I am not in an mainstream on this subject, and so will lead you astray.  Perhaps The Devil's Music, which I have on my wishlist for someone-or-other, would be the place to check.

The point is, it all changes, even for the Catholics and the Orthodox, though more slowly and unevenly. This is true of every other part of the culture we wish to preserve. It is dynamic, not static.  I am strongly on the side of slower change, as it allows our ancestors to speak with us.  As CS Lewis notes in his admonition on the reading of old books  "To be sure, the books of the future would be just as good a corrective as the books of the past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them."
How then, shall we live? We cannot keep the good of the past, yet we must. We cannot prevent change, but we must take the Jenga sticks carefully and assemble them quickly, so there is a new structure before the old one falls. 

Most of all, we must bear testimony to what has changed, and point out that even the brand new is quickly out of fashion, yet clung to.  I was intrigued by this article that compared academia to a cult.  In the Washington Post, no less.

The culture is dead.  Long live the culture.

*In my early blogging I had a lifetime of interesting ideas I was eager to share, enough so that in every month a short summary of the high points was not out of place even a few years later.  I fear that is no longer so.  I have fewer new ideas now, though perhaps I have refined them and state them more clearly.


Jonathan said...

"Even anti-traditionalists, who want the current status quo to fall, smuggle in the pieces to assemble a new structure (using many pulled from the old). We think of a culture as a set thing, or perhaps have some awareness that it does change slowly."

People who want the current cultural status quo to fail, or who complain about the cultural imperialism of some dominant group or other, generally want to impose their own cultural preferences and become the dominant group. They are functionally similar to practitioners of identity politics, and rhetorically similar to people who try to impose their views by telling people they disagree with to keep their minds open.

Dan Patterson said...

Culture as a changing landscape depends on large portions of the past being either within sight and grasp, or easily repeatable; despite the wishes of the new-agers there has to be something to build on or a reference to draw upon. My days as a misfit teen (young adult, adult, now old dude) were spent opposing the crowd - what are you people protesting? Why does everybody look alike? Can you articulate points with which you disagree or are you just yelling? etc. Most of my disagreement was because I could not see a target the agitators were aiming for, so why waste ammunition?
Similarly the attraction of so many of my age group to lame-assed whine merchants like Joan Baez and the utterly odious Pete Seeger (notable featured above) never ceases to amaze me.
Cheers y'all.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

@ Dan Patterson - I named Seeger one of my ten worst Americans a decade ago.

james said...

The monks of the earliest days had not counted on the human ability to generate a new cultural inheritance in a couple of generations if an old one is utterly destroyed, to generate it by virtue of lawgivers and prophets, geniuses or maniacs; through a Moses, or through a Hitler, or an ignorant but tyrannical grandfather, a cultural inheritance may be acquired between dusk and dawn, and many have been so acquired. But the new "culture" was an inheritance of darkness, wherein "simpleton" meant the same thing as "citizen" meant the same thing as "slave."

A Canticle for Leibowitz

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I haven't reread that in years. I should.

Dan Patterson said...

Fascinating the way people sort themselves into groups, and further interesting is whether forced or self-selected. When directed by someone with a bigger stick or deeper voice the selection process is polluted by resistance, misfit, and incompetence as well as poor planning from the start. When self-selected the time-to-success may be too long.