Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Cultural Conservers

A few years back the American middle class indulged in another of the periodic orgies of self-congratulation in which it proclaims its opinion of its own historical importance. The inspiration for this particular outburst was a 2000 book entitled Cultural Creatives by Paul H. Ray and Sherry Ruth Anderson, which announced that the spread of certain fashionable ideas through the middle class meant nothing less than the imminent transformation of American society.

Apparently none of its more enthusiastic reviewers remembered that the same imminent transformation had been announced just as confidently in the pages of Marilyn Ferguson’s The Aquarian Conspiracy (1980), Charles Reich’s The Greening of America (1970), and a long line of predecessors reaching back well into the nineteenth century. Like so many of today’s new ideas, in other words, this one has been around for a good long time, just as the “new” attitudes Ray and Anderson identified as hallmarks of their “cultural creatives” have been widely accepted among a sizeable sector of the American intelligentsia since the heyday of the Transcendentalists in the 1820s.

Yet there’s more going on here than the simple failure of memory discussed in last week’s Archdruid Report post. What is at issue here touches on the meaning and value of culture itself.

Mind you, it’s difficult to talk meaningfully about that topic in America today, after decades of “culture wars” in which all sides redefined the very concept of culture to fit their own Utopian fantasies and political objectives. It’s doubly difficult because the last half century or so has witnessed the systematic destruction of America’s own national and regional cultures, their replacement with a manufactured pseudoculture based on the values of the American urban intelligentsia, and the consequent revolt of many working class Americans against the concept of culture altogether.

Culture is memory. An authentic culture roots into the collective experience of a community’s past, and from this source draws meaning for the present and tools for the future. Thus culture, like memory, is a constant negotiation between the living and the dead, as new conditions call for reinterpretation of past experience and redefine the meanings that are relevant and the tools that are useful. When a society gives up on these negotiations and abandons the link with its past, as last week’s post suggested, what remains is not originality but stasis, in which a persistent set of common assumptions and popular narratives are rediscovered and rehashed endlessly under a veneer of apparent novelty.

Woven into this process is the social schism Arnold Toynbee traced in his magisterial A Study of History. As each civilization enters its imperial stage, he showed, a split opens up between its privileged classes and the rest of the population. The latter becomes what Toynbee called an “internal proletariat,” expected to perform the work that maintains the civilization but deprived of participation in its benefits and, as the schism in society unfolds, increasingly alienated from its values. The internal proletariat is deprived of its folk cultures by the destruction of the economic basis of traditional lifeways, and barred from participation in elite culture by class and income barriers that grow steadily higher as the imperial stage proceeds.

In the bare ground that results, any number of strange seeds can sprout. Eventually, Toynbee suggests, what fills the cultural vacuum is religion – not the traditional religion of the imperial culture, but some exotic faith dissonant enough from the values of that culture to express the alienation felt by the internal proletariat. As the imperial stage ends in collapse and the privileged classes find themselves stripped of wealth and power by the upwardly mobile warlords of the ensuing dark age, the imperial society’s own cultural resources generally hit the scrap heap. The result is a curious feedback loop amplifying the process of catabolic collapse; pious hands tore down the temples of the Roman gods and recycled the mathematical papers of Archimedes to provide parchment for Christian homilies, for example, because most people in the postclassical world no longer felt any loyalty to the culture of their ancestors.

We are already well into that process in modern America. The schism in society outlined by Toynbee was clearly visible in his lifetime, and has widened since then. A parallel chasm now gapes down the center of American culture, and most other industrial cultures as well. It bears remembering that in the nineteenth century, opera counted as popular entertainment, and women in the privileged classes practiced most of the same handicrafts as their poorer sisters; nowadays very few such common factors connect, say, the university-educated middle classes of an east coast suburb with the rural poor of a Midwestern farm state. Folk cultures have guttered out or survive only as museum pieces, while elite culture withdraws behind walls of obscurantism – compare the accessible and deservedly popular fine art of the late nineteenth century with the deliberately unwelcoming and often offensive product served up by today’s art scene.

In a world lurching through economic crisis and the first wave of impacts from peak oil, it’s easy to dismiss the continuing implosion of American culture as a minor issue, but such a dismissal is as much a symptom of cultural collapse as anything I’ve cited already. Again, culture is memory, and among the things it holds in store are the tools, insights, and lifeways that served people well in the days before our civilization started chasing the suicidally addictive rush of empire. Again, Rome offers a useful example; by the time the Roman empire began coming apart at the seams and the grain ships no longer sailed from North African wheat fields to Ostia’s wharves, nobody remembered how things had worked in the days when the classical world consisted of independent city-states producing most of their own necessities at home.

Still, the Roman world lacked the extraordinary sense of historical time and change that, as John Lukács has pointed out, is one of modern industrial civilization’s most distinctive traits. Roman writers in the declining phase of the empire apparently never noticed that their experiences mirrored, say, the implosion of the Mycenean world in the 13th century BCE, nor did such Roman historians as Livy treat Rome’s own past as a guide to the future. Thus it seems never to have occurred to the Romans of the late Empire that their civilization might need to be handed on to a very different future. The task of salvage was left to Irish monks some centuries later, and by the time they got to work, a huge amount of material had already vanished forever. Nor did the monasteries preserve everything that came to them; the immense musical heritage of ancient Rome, for example, was not of interest to monastic scribes, and as a result, all that survives of it is one fragment of a single haunting melody, taking some 25 seconds to play.

Our situation differs from theirs only because the contemporary sense of history makes it possible to place our own experience beside that of the Romans, and any number of other fallen civilizations as well, and draw conclusions about the likely shape of our own future. We are arguably in much the same case as the Romans of the late Empire; we have, as they had, an immense cultural heritage, nearly all of which is disastrously vulnerable to the impacts of collapse; we have done our level best to abandon the heritage of local folk cultures at home and elsewhere in our empire, just as they did, and thus risk losing precious knowledge that might make it easier to weather the descent from today’s vertiginous imperial heights. The one difference is that it’s possible to talk in these terms today, and to propose concrete responses to what will be one of the most challenging features of the decline and fall of the industrial world.

In an ironic way, the “cultural creatives” whose specter I evoked at the beginning of this essay offer a glimpse at one of the most promising of these potential responses. Behind the inevitable rhetoric of innovation and originality was a very different reality: a sector of America’s middle-class intelligentsia discovered a set of ideas their parents, grandparents, and great-great-grandparents had valued in their time, and applied those ideas to the present day. True, most of the people involved in this rediscovery had no idea that this was what they were doing, and thus never made use of the rich heritage of the Transcendentalists, the Theosophists, the Beat generation, or any other expression of the same current of thought. Still, what they did half-unconsciously can be done in a more deliberate and conscious way.

Thus I’d like to suggest that one crucial need of our present predicament is the rise of a movement of cultural conservers – individuals who choose, for one reason or another, to take personal responsibility for the preservation of some part of the modern world’s cultural heritage. That’s a tall order, not least because the crises inseparable from the decline and fall of a civilization will leave many of us scrambling for bare survival in the face of soaring death rates and increasingly harsh conditions. Still, it’s not an insurmountable challenge.

Three themes, it seems to me, sketch out a basic frame on which cultural conservers can weave the individual patterns of their own work:

  • Focus. The cultural heritage of the modern world is far too vast for any one person even to encounter it all, much less to know enough about it to preserve significant elements of it in any meaningful way. Thus each cultural conserver will need to choose a handful of traditions at most, and focus his or her efforts on those. Since a consensus on what is worth saving is almost certainly impossible to reach, and might not even be a good idea, it seems to me that the best guide to the prospective cultural conserver in choosing a focus is sheer personal passion. The tradition that speaks to you most deeply – be it tablet weaving or Wordsworth’s poetry, mountain dulcimers or handbuilt radio technology, classical philosophy or the great American novels – is the one that will inspire you to the efforts necessary to pass it on to the future.
  • Simplicity. As the requirements needed to maintain a cultural tradition go up, the likelihood of its survival in a time of scarcity go down. Musical forms you can play yourself on an instrument of your own construction are thus more likely to survive as living traditions than musical forms that require a symphony orchestra and an opera company trained to today’s exacting vocal standards. More complex traditions can sometimes be stored in easily maintained forms; the intricate reasonings of Greek philosophers, for example, made it to the Renaissance because they were written down on durable parchment and left to gather dust in monastic libraries through the intervening centuries. In many cases, though, it’s possible to choose between simple and complex options for preserving a technology; if you want to preserve the technology of printing, for example, a hand-operated letterpress is much simpler to use, maintain, and build with hand tools and locally available resources than a computer and a laser printer. Technologies that are less efficient in the abstract, as this example suggests, may be more durable in the deindustrial future ahead of us.
  • Transmission. It takes more than one lifetime for a civilization to decline and fall, and so the flip side of preserving some bit of cultural heritage is the challenge of passing it on to a younger generation. Those traditions that will have obvious economic value in an age of decline and disintegration have a huge head start here; it’s unlikely in the extreme, for example, that today’s advances in intensive organic food production will be lost anytime soon, since the skills in question grant a huge survival advantage to those who know them and have the opportunity to put them to use. Still, cultural transmission does not always follow the economic line of least resistance. Those who know must be prepared to teach, and also to use their knowledge in ways that meet community needs.
These three themes sketch out only the first rough lines on a very broad canvas. In posts to come, I hope to develop these ideas in more detail. It’s worth noting that a significant number of people have already taken on some elements of the sort of project I am outlining here, some quite consciously, and I propose to draw on their experience as much as I can. Just as the “cultural creatives” could have benefited by placing their own projects in a historical context, too, I intend to offer some historical context to the mission of the cultural conservers, in the hope that a sense of what worked (and what didn’t work) in the past will help shape constructive responses to the immense challenges of our future.


Bill Pulliam said...

Wow, what a meaty posting this week. This one is going to warrant multiple re-readings and lengthy consideration. My comments are likely to come in several bursts, rather than all at once.

A first thought: Isn't the separation from traditional culture ushered along by the myth of progress, which will naturally lead to the belief that the past is past, outdated, and irrelevant to the glorious progressive future? I know a problem many modern progressives have with exploring backwards in culture is the collision with values that were once prevalent but are now anathema -- racism, sexism, slavery, etc. The gut reaction to these, combined with the myth of progress, perhaps leads too quickly to a rejection of the whole cultural thread and a refusal to even attempt to examine it in the context of the social norms of that period.

Somehow, earlier generations of Western scholars managed to get past the parts of Greek and Roman Culture that they found morally repugnant (polytheism, sexual license, etc.) to explore the overall richness of them. We may have lost this mindset.

the immense musical heritage of ancient Rome, for example, was not of interest to monastic scribes, and as a result, all that survives of it is one fragment of a single haunting melody, taking some 25 seconds to play.

That just makes me want to cry...

David said...

Thank you, JMG. Interesting connection between your post and today's post by Joe Bageant, concerning the loss of cultural traditions relevant to both the elite and the common folk.

Nitpick: Lukacz s/b Lukács.

Bill Pulliam said...

It seems indisputable that knowledge which is important for survival will be preserved, rediscovered, and transmitted. As I commented on your last posting, hunger is a great motivator for doing this. But, though it is not life-threatening, people also hunger for art, entertainment, music, sports, games, beauty, diversions, and all these other things. If the mass-media that cater to these needs now (i.e. TV, internet, etc.) begin to falter, I believe people will be driven to fill the void in ways that they can maintain and afford. So, once they get going, cultural traditions on beyond mere survival would be transmitted and elaborated as a natural part of society. I'd expect to see much blending of bits from the industrial media into "folk" forms that would be comical to us now -- live performances of the works of the great bard George Lucas, for instance.

But as with all of it, the key might be the first few generations that actually have to experience fully the loss of function of the affluent western world. I'm not sure that I will even be in one of these -- I won't be surprised if I live out my remaining few decades seeing no more than intermittent food, fuel, grid, communication, etc. shortages with no wholesale breakdown of the basic core functions. But somewhere on the line, there will be the last generation of people who grow up being entertained continuously and abundantly by mass media, getting whatever they want from the store whenever they want it, and flipping a switch whenever they need light, heat, or cooling. This generation will be utterly lost in the chaos of the ending of these things, and that will be the critical generation for all this transmission and conservation, I think. I suspect it will be the present-day kids and teenagers who will be the geezers of tomorrow, going on endlessly about how they used to just flip switches and go to stores and talk on iPhones; meanwhile their grandkids roll their eyes and say "that's nice grandma, now would you stoke up that fire while I go pick the corn for supper?" Somewhere in there is where this whole cultural transmission process will have to get rolling, or the continuity will be broken forever. There will be some really crucial decades. Will they be the 2010s or the 2080s? I sure as hell can't say.

John Michael Greer said...

Bill, yes, the myth of progress is an important factor in the current situation -- it's the downside to the awareness of historic change I mentioned, since it's precisely the fact that people are brought up thinking of the present as completely different from the past that allows the sense of historic time to unfold. As for Roman music, agreed -- and it's all too easy to imagine a future in which the only survival of today's musical legacy is, say, a dozen bars of one song by Frank Sinatra.

David, thanks for the link and the spelling nitpick, which I've corrected.

Bill, if I could pinpoint the crucial decades I'd have a much easier time making proposals. What makes me uncomfortable is the possibility that there may be two or more bottlenecks on the way down, as different aspects of industrial society break apart at different paces. More on this later.

Bill Pulliam said...

OK, so now about the religion bit, then I'll shut up and let other people talk for a while...

I'm curious to hear more of your thoughts on this "exotic faith dissonant enough from the values of that culture to express the alienation felt by the internal proletariat" that fills the cultural void. It seems to me this is central to the process of cultural conservation; as you noted many times, religion was critical in providing this function in Europe during the post-Roman "dark ages." Are you thinking of contemporary evangelical fundamentalist protestantism in contrast to catholicism-mainline protestantism? That doesn't seem to fit the bill of what you describe. I don't see it expressing proletarian alienation at all; more conformity with and aspiration to join the imperial elite. Indeed it seems to be becoming the very religion of the instutional elite itself. Or are you thinking more of some amalgamated christo-buddhi-hindu-newage mutt (jesus with reincarnation, yoga, chi, and crystals), such as has been floating around and evolving in fits and starts for decades, especially in America? That seems to cater to feelings of spiritual alienation, but as to material and political proletarian alienation, I'm not so sure. Perhaps it is still too early to really tell, as we proletarians are not feeling the alientation at full intensity yet?

Backing up even a bit farther, I might ask, what is the "traditional religion of the imperial culture" against which this "exotic faith" will be cast? Is it really the supposed mainline christian/catholic institutions? Or is it the true defacto religion of America (and increasingly Europe as well): the secular materialism in which we find our self identity, meaning, purpose, and comfort through our posessions and our occupations, regardless of whether we call ourselves witches, shamans, christians, or jews? The prospects of an "exotic proletarian faith" emerging that is in opposition to this institutionalized secular materialism is fascinating indeed, and would put a very different wrinkle on the future than I had generally envisioned!

As both a religious leader and a cultural historian you must surely have quite a few thoughts about these particulars. Again, I believe (and suspect you will agree) that the shape this social movement takes will be absolutely central to many other aspects of cultural conservation and evolution. Of course I know you don't have any more crystal balls than I do (and ours are just dangling around the house redirecting chi rather than foretelling the future), and I would never expect an archdruidic oracular pronouncement of the shape of religions yet unborn, but I'd wager you have some favored hypotheses...

p.s. in reply to your reply... Frank Sinatra, oy that is frightening. And multiple cultural bottlenecks; indeed I hadn't thought of that very real possibility, that complicates the situation significantly.

nen said...

I have been reading for about a year and a half now, but have not posted before.

Superb post. It resonates very strongly with me.

I spent about two decades learning the skills required to operate at the top of the technological tree, before realizing that they were fragile in the extreme and setting out to re-educating myself - this time in skills requiring a minimum of technology - about 8 years ago.

So far I have developed fairly wide-ranging skills in building using a wide range of local materials, developed reasonable skill in personal health and survival techniques and am currently studying classical Chinese medicine. Next up is permaculture (ideally with a focus on growing medicinal herbs).

Most of my friends and relatives do not understand why I am following this path, seeing me as a drifter who threw away a "good career". I long ago gave up trying to convert others to my perspective, so it was good to come across your site...

I do wonder if we might experience a more rapid decline of our civilization than was experienced by previous civilizations due to our enormous reliance on complicated and fragile technological systems. I am very interested to see what you have to say regarding the "multiple bottlenecks"

Actually I am generally just quite interested to hear what you have to say....

"exotic faith dissonant enough from the values of that culture to express the alienation felt by the internal proletariat" - this makes me chuckle... I have been following a Daoist philosophy (the old form of Daoism, predating the more widespread neo-Daoist religious form) which I sort of got suckered into as a result of esoteric martial practices, and (for fun) am a member of an irreverent cult with a special fondness for pipes...

Ahavah said...

Thought you might find this interesting: Offbeat
Gas prices drive farmer to switch to mules
May. 21, 2008 01:18 PM
Associated Press

MCMINNVILLE, Tenn. - High gas prices have driven a Warren County farmer and his sons to hitch a tractor rake to a pair of mules to gather hay from their fields. T.R. Raymond bought Dolly and Molly at the Dixon mule sale last year. Son Danny Raymond trained them and also modified the tractor rake so the mules could pull it.

T.R. Raymond says the mules are slower than a petroleum-powered tractor, but there are benefits.

"This fuel's so high, you can't afford it," he said. "We can feed these mules cheaper than we can buy fuel. That's the truth."

And Danny Raymond says he just likes using the mules around the farm.

"We've been using them quite a bit," he said.

Brother Robert Raymond added, "It's the way of the future."

Baxter said...

Perhaps this is a minor point in the much broader scope of your post, but I think that the musical forms most likely to perish are heavily amplified, energy-intensive pop music extravaganzas. Symphony orchestras, opera, blues, country music and early jazz all evolved under pre-petroleum energy regimes, and could easily continue to evolve under the energy scarcity to come.

As you've suggested, an examination of what existed under previous times of energy scarcity can serve as a valuable guide. Opera, symphonic music and the like thrived in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries via the publication of sheet music and the touring of ensembles who got around via wind and horse power. While it may prove unlikely that our societies will be able to afford the degree of specialization or the concentrations of wealth required to support our current level of musical culture, my guess is that acoustic forms of music will continue to thrive.

What is destined to die -- and indeed has already been showing signs of considerable economic stress -- is the petroleum intensive corporate pop machine, with its tour buses, private jets, massive amplification and expensive promotion. Thus we'll be missing both the latest Rolling Stones tour as well as the thug rolling through the neighborhood in a gas-guzzling, sub-woofered donkmobile blaring misogynistic rap.

A mixed blessing, that.

John Michael Greer said...

Bill, today's Christian fundamentalism started off as a proletarian reaction against the elite-dominated mainstream Protestant denominations, but sold out too soon; one of the most interesting news tidbits of the last couple of years has been the ebbing of the fundamentalist wave. My own guess is that the prophetic religion(s) of the deindustrial dark ages haven't shown up yet, or are tiny little fringe groups with a charismatic leader just now.

Nen, good for you. This is exactly the sort of lifestyle change I tend to recommend to people these days. But I admit the concept of a Taoist Sub-Genius makes my head hurt!

Ahavah, many thanks. There's one farmer who's ahead of the curve.

Baxter, while it's true that most musical genres evolved before the fossil fuel economy crested, many of them -- such as symphony orchestras -- have become dependent on economic arrangements that are brutally fragile just now. If anybody wants to keep Mozart alive as a living tradition, they've got their work cut out for them -- though I think it's still possible, and I'd like to see it happen.

Much depends on whether people have enough of a passion for a given musical form to keep it going even when there's no money in it and practice and performance has to fit around a day job. For that matter, the same thing is true of most of our current cultural heritage.

Maeve said...

the flip side of preserving some bit of cultural heritage is the challenge of passing it on to a younger generation

This really struck me. My grandfather is in his late 80s, and the rest have all passed on. The scraps and fragments I have from the older generation of my family are priceless treasures now, but when I was a teenager there wasn't any sense of urgency or importance to make learning from them a priority.

I think something important for people conserving culture and passing it on to remember, is that those who come after will adapt it to suit their circumstances and desires. Being able to accept that what I do or how I might do things may be done differently by others or changed beyond all recognition is important. If I cling to a requirement that it not change, then it will be much more difficult to find someone who wishes to learn it and include it in their life and pass it on to someone else.

Isis said...


I've been reading your blog for quite some time now. (A year and a half? When was it that you posted that series about three generations' celebration of Christmas/Solstice?) This is, however, my first comment here.

There is a lot of talk about reviving various pre-industrial traditions, and this for a very good reason. However, it isn't clear how all of this translates to the problem of conserving things such as classical literature, music, science...

I, for instance, am currently a math graduate student, and intend to become a high school teacher. I understand that huge chunks of mathematics (and science) are bound to disappear, for the very simple reason that many (majority?) of the advances that we have seen in the past few decades or longer are completely and utterly inaccessible to people lacking graduate education in the field; and by 'field', I don't mean 'mathematics', I mean a subfield such as 'algebraic geometry' (not to be confused with the analytic geometry that we all studied in high school), or even a subfield of that subfield. Once funding becomes scarce, it is hard to imagine that this kind of material will not go down the drain.

But the above is not something that I'll be losing any sleep over. If anyone wants to conserve those, then I wish those people the best of luck, as long as they don't ask for my help. I am also not concerned about the loss of basic math (i.e. arithmetic): that's going to be around for as long as any kind of semi-sophisticated trade is around.

My concern is with those classical results that are (or could easily become) a part of the high school and undergraduate curriculum. I am talking about Euclidean geometry, about classical number theory, about calculus (and the more accessible parts of analysis), about group theory... These things would, I think, be possible to conserve, but under the wrong set of circumstances, given the fact that (unlike basic arithmetic) they are unnecessary for the maintenance of a somewhat complex society, they could quite unnecessarily go down the drain. So how does one go about conserving those? Is it too early to be thinking about this? After all, these things are not in any immediate danger of disappearing.

Any thoughts on the subject would be very much appreciated.

John Michael Greer said...

Maeve, very well put. I've learned a huge amount from people in my grandparents' generation, and listening to our elders is a skill well worth developing just now.

Isis, you've put your finger on a very important point, one that I hope to develop in detail in future posts. The less immediately practical side of our cultural heritage is the side at greatest risk of loss -- people are already getting into organic gardening, say, and knitting, because those have obvious value at a time when the mass manufacture and marketing of food, clothing, and other necessities are showing signs of coming apart.

Euclid's Elements, though, is another matter. It's one of the supreme triumphs of human thought, and if we could only save 20 books from all of humanity's heritage it would deserve a place, but how many people own a copy or would even recognize its value these days? Making sure that it survives its second dark age may be a tall order. As for the rest of today's fundamental mathematics, that's arguably an even greater challenge.

I do have some ideas for meeting it, though it's going to take several posts to develop them. Stay tuned...

hapibeli said...

As a jazz fan, I have to say to Bill that there could be far worse musical snippets remaining than "Old Blue eyes" LOL How about, " You'll wonder where the yellow went, when you brush your teeth with Pepsodent!" Who will know what pepsodent was? Who will know what many of the remaining advertising slogans on old media that is laying around means and how much of that should be a part of cultural heritage to be maintained? Jazz may be lost fairly quickly as its relevance to life could be nill.

Isis said...

I had some thoughts on the subject of elite (vs. popular) culture as it relates to mathematics. (I am focusing on mathematics here, not because I think that it is unique in this respect, but quite simply because it happens to be my field, and I therefore know more about it than I do about other fields.)

Simply put, the mathematical community today strikes me as horribly elitist, and this elitism goes way deeper than the distinction, made in this blog post, between the cultures of the university-educated middle-classes of an East coast suburb and the rural poor of a Midwestern farm state.

To give you a telling example: I've had a faculty member at my school describe a certain subfield of mathematics (and I'm not making this up) as being 'doomed by its accessibility.' What he meant, of course, was that, as a result of the fact that one could (gasp!) make a decent amount of sense of this field before starting graduate school, there aren't very many open questions left in the field (or at least, not many open question that one could reasonably hope to be able to solve). And since it is a well-known fact that the main goal of any self-respecting mathematician is to prove new theorems (regardless of how inaccessible, and therefore all but worthless, they may be to the non-specialists), a mathematician-apprentice (i.e. a graduate student) would be better off choosing a newer (and more obscure) field to which s/he could actually make a contribution (by proving new theorems, of course). Needless to say, I didn't bother bringing up the fact that the results in those fields that aren't 'doomed by their accessibility' are hopelessly vulnerable to the collapse of the industrial civilization and are highly unlikely to survive the next few centuries, even if someone made a real effort to conserve them. Had I bothered to bring this up, the said faculty member would probably have dismissed it as poor attempt at a joke (unless he got the suspicion that I was actually serious, in which case he would most likely have concluded I didn't belong in the program to begin with).

I don't know whose (if anyone's) fault it is, but here we are, with thousands upon thousands of mathematicians tirelessly working on furthering those fields that aren't 'doomed by their accessibility', while at the same time you'd have to look really hard in order to find a lawyer or a journalist who relaxes after work by solving a geometry problem or two (and finding an auto-mechanic who engages in such an activity would be all but unimaginable). Certainly, the academia doesn't see it as its role to enable people to study mathematics as a hobby. I mean, just go to a faculty meeting at any respectable university, and suggest that a tenure position or three be created for 'walking encyclopedias of accessible mathematics', people who cannot contribute much in the way of research but who could inspire students to continue studying mathematics as a hobby, long after completing their formal education. Well, go ahead and do it. And do let us all know how long it took you to get laughed out of the room.

Today, one is expected to study mathematics either in order to make a contribution to the field (which has come to mean only one thing: to prove new theorems), or in order to apply the knowledge of mathematics to more practical matters (which in practice means making a killing on the Wall Street, or coming up with ever more complex industrial/electronic gimmicks, frequently of use to the military). Neither of these reasons is likely to remain viable as the industrial civilization collapses. The only reason we'll be likely to have for conserving the subject is its sheer beauty. And studying it for its sheer beauty (without necessarily attempting to prove new theorems) is something that would seem, at best, kinda weird to most people.

All of this makes me worry. As funding becomes scarce for the universities in general, and mathematics departments in particular, is there any reason to believe that what is left of the mathematics community at that point will be able to motivate a sufficient number of people to pass on what can be passed on? Will even professional mathematicians, once they see that their own little subfields are destined for the compost bin, see the value in preserving those classical results that they had earlier dismissed as being 'doomed by their accessibility'? I don't know. But I worry.

(And again, I am focusing on mathematics here simply because that happens to be my field. I'd be astonished to learn that mathematics is an exception in this respect. Also... I realize this comment is extremely long. I hope you won't mind posting it in the Comments Section anyway.)

Panidaho said...

David, thank you for the link to Joe Bageant - I've never been lucky enough to travel outside the US (except for one junior high trip to Tijuana, which I don't think really counts - I may be naive, however I do know that's NOT the real Mexico.) However, in spite of this lack of exposure I've long suspected that we here are just as insular and blinkered as we used to accuse the communist Russians of being when it comes to our real quality of life compared to other countries in the world. I also strongly suspect we've actually been in cultural decline for a lot longer than we would care to admit.

So, again, this begs the question of what, precisely, should we be trying to save from what culture we do have? I think JMGs post this week and that letter to Joe Bageant have a point - perhaps one thing that should be given some priority is music that hits the heart, music that can be made without electric guitars and synthesizers and expensive wind instruments. Music that can move ordinary people to tears or laughter, and make them feel alive, even when times are hard.

I suspect every person on here would have a different idea about what sort of music should make that list - but I suspect every person on here could, without too much thought, come up with at least a few songs that really mean something to them or haunt their memories in the middle of the night when the lonelies strike.

Down in the valley, valley so low
Hang your head over, hear the wind blow
Hear the wind blow, dear, hear the wind blow
Hang your head over, hear the wind blow.

Anthony said...


In regards to modern music not surviving because it is dependent on electrical amplification and huge light shows and stages I present the counter argument. The growing popularity of the "unplugged' sets

Not only does MTV do these shows but at least two of my local radio stations put on and record regular unplugged shows from various national and local artists.

I am reminded of a small piece in Kunstler's new novel "World Made by Hand" in which the hero strains to remember the name of a song being played on an acoustic guitar. He finally has it - "Smells Like Teen Spirit" by Nirvana - after which he grouses, "I always hated that song."


scintillatingspeck said...

Hello JMG,
as a librarian, your focus on cultural conservers is especially compelling to me. I have been dismayed at various trends in library science, including swapping older formats (paper, microfilm/fiche) for newer digital formats and destroying the originals. Will digital formats survive? How can librarians best be engaged to participate in the effort of cultural conservation? Most librarians I know are obsessed with technology and about as aware of collapse issues as the average person, so not much. Librarians and archivists are some of the most interesting and passionate people I know, however, and their energy and skills should be tapped. I'd love to hear your thoughts on this.

Seaweed Shark said...

Dear JMG,

Another fine post. As an archivist, I am of course in sympathy with your purposes. I have two questions/suggestions that might be advanced in further postings:

1. What does the ArchDruid think about the role of religion in cultural conservation today? This subject is significantly absent from your post, though I suspect only because to do it justice would require a post of its own, or more.

2. Your references to Spengler and now Toynbee, as well as your avocation of conservation-oriented, local sufficiency and cultural preservation suggest a high likelihood that you also have an acquaintance with the later writings of John Ruskin such as "Unto This Last" and "Fors Clavigera." Your thoughts on his work would be of interest.

All the best!

John Michael Greer said...

Hapibeli, as long as jazz remains a living musical idiom I think its chances are fairly good -- it doesn't take much in the way of high technology to play, many people enjoy it, and inexpensive, locally produced entertainment will likely find a much larger audience in the future as the mass-market pablum available today fades to black. Certainly I hope jazz makes it!

Isis, you and Scintillating both have raised some absolutely crucial questions, which deserve a longer response than I want to put in the comments field. Expect a detailed discussion in the next post, because the question of how to preserve elite culture is one that needs very serious consideration.

Teresa, your point can be made more broadly. Each person who chooses to take on the challenge of becoming a cultural conserver needs to decide what cultural treasures have to be saved, and then get to work saving them. Personal passion, as I suggested in the post, is probably the best guide. If the folk music of the American west calls to you, answer that call!

Anthony, I hope you're right.

Shark, the role of religion in cultural conservation is going to get two or three posts to itself, because it's of massive importance -- historically, it has been able to motivate projects of this sort, and probably has the best chance of doing so again; it's also typical of ages of decline that the importance of religion increases dramatically, not least because salvation is a renewable resource.

As for Ruskin, I had no idea he'd written on this theme. Many thanks! I'll look up the essays you've named as soon as time permits.

Zach said...

The thoughts on mathematics reminds me of the time I was working summers in college as a lowly factory maintenance tech.

There was one day when the guys I was working with needed to reduce some ductwork from diameter A to diameter B -- and their cheatsheet of how to cut the sheet metal to bend didn't cover that particular one.

After watching them hem and haw for five or ten minutes, I finally decided that being an engineer-to-be (and a high school math whiz) ought to be of some value. So, I finally said "just a minute - give me some paper and that pencil."

So, I sketched out the shape, started filling in numbers, and began the magic incantation under my breath ... "let's see ... oh, drat, it's trig, I'd need to do cosine here ... wait, it's simpler than that, that's a 30-60-90 triangle ... square root of three is about 1.7 ... add an inch for overlap ... here guys, cut it like this."

They looked at me like I'd just grown a second head.

But they got the job done.

And I'm not telling this story to boast about what a great applied mathematician I am -- but it was interesting to me that some very practically skilled and experienced men (with at least high school educations), didn't recognize a simple geometrical application. Not that they couldn't solve it, but that they didn't recognize the category of the problem, and think "hey, let's ask the engineer in the cubicle over there and see if he knows this stuff."

Nope, it was just magic from the cheatsheet that Somebody Else™ had generated. And when the cheatsheet failed, they were up against a brick wall, without understanding the resources available.


FARfetched said...

I had to give this one a little time to sink in before commenting.

In the end, I believe culture is about choices, economics, and above all, relevance. Those are all functions that influence what we remember.

Choice: If the choices are an opera written in the 1600s in a language that few (if any) in the area understand (and probably wouldn't relate to if they did); or a film in the local language with themes easily recognizable by the audience, they're going to flock to the movie house. But if the choices are the same opera or sitting at home again, perhaps they'll take the opera.

Economics: Sure, a movie costs a bunch of money to produce, compared to the setup costs to performing an opera. But once it's "in the can," the costs of making and distributing it are relatively nil. An opera company has to schlep cast, props, and costumes, from venue to venue — no small undertaking, and that assumes locals are stagehands and musicians. Chautauquas were a popular form of traveling entertainment until recording & broadcasting technology brought entertainment on demand to people's homes. Circuses used to travel to small towns in the same way; the circus is still around but is usually found only in large indoor venues nowadays (the people travel to the circus rather than vice versa).

Relevance: As I implied above, the opera is of interest primarily as an art form. On the other hand, "Jesus Christ Superstar" and "Tommy" were very popular modern operas, using the language and music of the time… so perhaps there's hope for operas (and plays) that people can relate to. OTOH, physical humor (aka slapstick) never goes out of style; people still roll in the aisles at the Three Stooges or A Midsummer Night's Dream. Everyone can relate to a good pratfall.

Perhaps the goal should be not so much preserving the past, but adapting the past to the future we all see coming — keeping in mind the choices, economics, and relevance that will likely apply. I'll miss trance, especially Goa trance, but my great-grandchildren won't even know what it is… like Roman music. Although I remember reading that the tune to Yankee Doodle dates back to Roman times, which makes you wonder what other traditional music is a bit older than we think. Then again, trance music could be entirely acoustic, given enough people to replace synthesizers…

John Michael Greer said...

Kazuko, thanks for your note -- please send me an email at jmg (at) aoda (dot) org, so I can respond.

conundrummer said...

JMG said "Musical forms you can play yourself on an instrument of your own construction are thus more likely to survive as living traditions than musical forms that require a symphony orchestra..."

I play a musical form that meets this criteria-percussion/drumming. I study and play traditional West African drumming and it's musical origins stretch back almost 1,000 years. Drumming and music from Mali, Guinea, Benin and Ivory Coast and other countries in the region formed the backbone of modern African American inspired music styles-jazz, blues and hip hop.

I also know some belly dance rhythms and latin rhythms. All these musical forms can be played without amplification and with the barest of materials-wood or clay for the body, animal skin for the drum head and metal and rope for the drum head tension. Metal and rope are not required for the tension if you can improvise with using animal skins as rope, as Africans originally did.

Percussion has and will stand the test of time, in one form or another. It was the first physical instrument developed, probably a close third to voice and hand clapping for the first instruments overall. Given a object that has at least 2 or 3 different pitches and using my hands or sticks, I can play and teach rhythms to others and keep the traditions alive.

Farfetched said "Then again, trance music could be entirely acoustic, given enough people to replace synthesizers…"

Farfetched, listen to West African drumming sometime, one of the original trancey music styles. I'm sure you will like it :)

Castanea_d said...

(continued from the previous)

In my experience, most classical musicians already work a "day job," and make music around the edges -- jazz musicians, too, and doubtless others. And most of them care enough about it that they will continue to do so. And, crucially, there will continue to be youngsters who hear that Mozart piano sonata -- or that saxophonist sitting under a tree and playing unbelievable riffs, or that lady playing the fiddle on her porch -- and who will have a burning passion to learn how to play like that themselves.

The necessary infrastructure for this to be possible has at least two parts: (1) instruments. The two instruments that I play, piano and organ, are problematic in this regard, but not impossibly so. Although it is larger and in many ways more complex, I give the pipe organ a better chance than the piano; it is essentially a medieval technology. The modern pianoforte is a nineteenth-century technology, depending on high-quality steel wire and the precise casting of iron, but the "forte-pianos" familiar to Mozart and Haydn could be built with a lower level of technology. As part of my small contribution to the preservation of culture, I not only play piano and organ; I repair them. My wife is a maker of stringed instruments. It is exacting work, but it, too, can be done without high technology.

And (2) the musical scores. This relates to the preservation of books and libraries. That Mozart symphony played by the community orchestra can only happen if they have the score and parts in hand. Much of the classical repertoire will disappear, but I suspect that a goodly part of it will survive. Further, musical scores and parts can be reproduced by hand -- the art of writing good, clean music notation without a computer has almost disappeared in the last couple of decades, but it can be re-learned, by trial and error if nothing else.

One thing that will radically change is access to music, and the larger forms of classical music perhaps most of all. Right now, one can hear something like the Ninth Symphony of Beethoven with almost no effort; it is readily available in hundreds of recordings, and one can even, with a bit more effort, probably find a live performance of it sometime in the year in most major cities. In a post-collapse world, one might encounter the Ninth Symphony once in a lifetime, when that community orchestra and the local community choir gets enough nerve to commit their all to it, and most of the people who hear it for the first time will have no idea what they are getting into. But it will be all the more precious to the community, and I submit it is a part of our cultural legacy that is worth keeping.

The other part of my work is with choirs. That, in some ways, is easier to carry forward; everyone comes with a built-in instrument, and choral singing can prosper in the most miserable of conditions, such as the Welsh coal mining towns of the nineteenth century, the Baltic republics under Soviet rule, or parts of sub-Saharan Africa today. But people will not have a lot of leisure to devote to it, and they certainly won't be driving thirty miles to rehearsals. Nonetheless, choral singing has a long tradition of helping to build and maintain communities, and we will need that.

I will not speak here of Christian liturgy except to note that the musical traditions of Christianity are more of its lifeblood than most clergy and theologians would admit. A large part of the tradition -- Gregorian chant, Renaissance polyphony, Lutheran chorales, Psalter tunes, African-American spirituals, shape-note singing, and much more -- does not require much infrastructure, or any more than a handful of people. But they have to care about it enough to keep doing it, and teach it to their children. And create new words and music to speak to the times and places that lie ahead.

Castanea_d said...

I am about two years late in coming to this discussion, but will chime in anyway (whether or not much of anyone will ever see it), after thanking Mr. Greer for his thought-provoking writings. I have recently discovered the Archdruid Report, and am greatly enjoying a traversal of the "back issues."

Mostly, I will respond to something Mr. Greer said in the comments about classical music, responding to Baxter, and the later exchange between Isis and Mr. Greer about "the less immediately practical side of our cultural heritage," which probably includes classical music. Even the people who envision the desirability of music in a post-collapse culture usually mean something closer to folk music. This is certainly important, and others have written eloquently about aspects of it here in these comments, but I think that the more "esoteric" music of the classical tradition is, too. And not just the Western tradition; there are traditions of classical music in India, China, and elsewhere that face similar challenges.

Anyway, here's the quote that started me on this:

[John Michael Greer wrote] "Baxter, while it's true that most musical genres evolved before the fossil fuel economy crested, many of them -- such as symphony orchestras -- have become dependent on economic arrangements that are brutally fragile just now. If anybody wants to keep Mozart alive as a living tradition, they've got their work cut out for them -- though I think it's still possible, and I'd like to see it happen.

Much depends on whether people have enough of a passion for a given musical form to keep it going even when there's no money in it and practice and performance has to fit around a day job. For that matter, the same thing is true of most of our current cultural heritage."

I am a church musician in the classical tradition. I make my living playing Bach on the organ, and teaching children (and others) to sing, and doing what I can to keep Christian liturgy alive and connected to the aspects of it that are genuine.

I agree that the larger and currently more visible forms of classical music are fragile: professional symphony orchestras, opera companies, and the like. Even now, they are barely hanging on. But the underlying music can still survive, so long as enough people care about it. JMG, you have it exactly right; it depends on whether the musicians will keep working at it in the spare moments left around a day job. If all goes well, one might still hear a Mozart symphony. But it will be played by a community orchestra, at considerably lower standard of performance than what we have grown accustomed to. And one might have a better chance of hearing a Mozart string quartet, or piano sonata; the logistics are simpler.
(more in the next comment)

David Kelley said...

You suggest in your article which I found deeply insightful a mention about a need for cultural conservers... a friend pointed your article out to me as we are putting a 'group' together todo this kind of thing. see in any case. After reading the article It will probably take me a few days to digest it and respond more in depth and or decide on what insight I'll really gain from it.