Turn and face the strange…

Turn and face the strange…

About a year ago I wrote a post Time might change me, but I can’t change time. It was prompted by Felipe Fernandez-Armesto’s A foot in the river: why our lives change and the limits of evolution, and frustration with a dose of bland management rhetoric about change.

Today I finished rereading Fernandez-Armesto’s book, again prompted to reflect more deeply on change by a defiant reaction to urgings from senior bureaucrats to change with change. I also learnt that I had misheard the refrain from Bowie’s song, and substituted one “change” for the more mysterious “trace”.

What more might I say about change beyond the slightly dyspeptic remarks of a year ago?

Fernandez-Armesto’s book is valuable because it is a deep reflection on what is really meant by change, and how change happens, especially in the realm of culture. Organic change occurs through evolution, selection and inheritance. But cultures do not evolve. The changes that occur in cultures follow no uniform pattern of descent, progress, or adaptation for survival., He rejects the common stock of metaphors that give shape to changes in cultures over time, and in their place portrays a chaotic, pluralistic world, with vectors of change shooting in all sorts of direction.

But he does agree with our bureaucratic leader friends that the speed of change is quickening. He speculates however, that these changes may slow or even cease. The great successful cultures, he remarks, are those that have endured with little change for thousands of years. Those cultures that have run furiously after the lure of change have brought on their own collapse. Today’s innovation is tomorrow’s ruin.

The striking thing about these reflections is how they emerge from a deep reflection on biology and culture, and an attempt to think on change across those disciplines, so long divided. He presents the now well-established evidence that culture is not a uniquely human treasure. Other creates have culture, especially our fellow primates. No other species has yet imagined such a bewildering diversity of cultures. And to differentiate in culture is to change chultures.

It might interest readers to note the chain of propositions that Fernandez-Armesto sets down so helpfully at the outset of his book.

  1. “culture is a by-product of faculties of memory and anticipation evolved in some species”
  2. “those faculties predispose cultures to change”
  3. “humans’ faculty of anticipation is exceptionally developed and contributes to making them highly imaginative”
  4. “humans are the most mutable of cultural creatures because in their case peculiar features of memory and imagination make them fertile in ideas (which I understand as ways of re-imagining the world)
  5. “ideas are the main motors of change in human cultures”
  6. “the pace of change is a function of the mutual accessibility of ideas: the more that ideas are exchanged, the more new ideas ensue; and cultural instability increases accordingly.”

Our biology, especially our brains, bestow on us a faculty of imagination; and with that imagination we unleash a crowd of change on the world. Imagination feeds on its own artefacts, its misprisions, its deceits, its delusions, its random deviations. Change is not a driver. It is not the final cause of external reality. It is culture’s wild child.

“Culture stimulates imagination further still, partly by rewarding it and partly by enhancing it with psychotropic behaviour. We praise the bard, pay the piper, fear the shaman, obey the priest, revere the artist. We unlock visions with dance and drums and music and alcohol and excitants and narcotics.”

Change is not an external necessity, to which we must loyally submit, but the coils of the “imaginative animal.”

Imagination is the motor of culture. We look around us. We see the world. In our mind’s eye we see it differently – improved or made more conformable to some imagined model or pattern ideal of order; or, if our taste so inclines us, we envision its destruction or reduction to chaos. Either way, we recraft our world imaginatively. We act to realise the world we have re-imagined. That is how and why cultures change.”

So we come to a more genial response to the stern lectures from managers on changing with the change that beset us. These changes are so often so petty, and yet insisted upon like a martinet commander demanding conformity with some new marching order. But they are but one imaginative reordering of the world. I choose another dream with less fury, less tempest, and deep roots in the great world-tree.



Time may change me but I can’t change time

Roger Scruton writes, in How to be a Conservative:

Whatever our religion and our private convictions, we are the collective inheritors of things both excellent and rare, and political life, for us, ought to have one overriding goal, which is to hold fast to those things, in order to pass them on to our children

A fair and elegant summation of a true conservative view. And one that increasingly I hold dear. In the task of governing, which Oakeshott compared to steering a ship across a shoreless ocean, this guide is more reliable than any substantial aim, any goal of an enterprise, and any hollow rhetoric about change.

Change is the moral imperative of the consultocratic courtier. It is the restless impatience to make a difference, and then to move onto the next lucrative contract, that is entombing real life in so-called system reforms. Change is touted to conceal the empty slogans, the ignorance of even the quite recent past, and the hussling, bullying promotion of fellow courtiers. Speeches are ornamented, after a search of a quote book, with Benjamin Franklin’s “when you are finished changing, then you are finished!” And this piece of all-American bunkum is really meant as a threat. In the same way, Malcolm Turnbull’s evocation of the pentecost in an Armani suit – “there has never been a more exciting time to be alive” – is an advertisement of profound neglect of the human heritage, wrapped in recycled McKinsey powerpoints, and concealing the true and insolent threat to  ceaselessly redesign free and responsible lives into agile agitprop. You wonder if the only constant is change, whether the changes that mesmerise the courtiers are really change at all.

It is all a far cry from the deeper argument about change set out in Felipe Fernandez-Armesto’s A foot in the river: why our lives change and the limits of evolution. Humans, Fernandez-Armesto explains with vivacity and wit, are cultural animals; not by any means the only cultural animals, but surely the most splendidly and chaotically various in our ever-shifting cultures. Our faculties of imperfect memory and exceptional anticipation give us gifts greater than hunting in packs, or farming, or the modern curse of the project plan. They give us imagination; and when imagination sets to work on human culture it creates, fissures, imitates, errs, develops: it makes lives change. Driving all this cultural change is a reworking of Girard’s theory of mimetic desire and the simple observation that the more opportunities for exchange of errant, new and traditional ideas, the more cultures change. So in today’s circumstances of exceptional ease of exchanging ideas, good and bad, there has never been a sustained time of more rapid cultural change.

But unlike the consultocrat courtiers, Fernandez-Armesto does not mistake all change for good. Some changes bring blessings; some birth rare and excellent things. But some change brings burdens, losses and a dark tide of sorrow. Change brings excitement, and it brings deep unsettling threats to loved lives and cherished institutions. The quickened pace and chaotic form of change in our times stands opposed to most of human experience, and perhaps frays the edges of our evolved brains and instinctual hearts. So A foot in the river helps us move beyond the cheap tricks of the courtiers and Malcolm’s civic religion of investors.

The excitement of innovation is but one emotion evoked by this annual collapse of the Tower of Babel. “Within living memory the world seems to have transformed over and over again, inducing ‘future shock’, fear, bewilderment, and resentment. Meanwhile the increasing urgency of the accelerations of change and the ever more disturbing effects on people’s sense of security, well-being, and confidence in the future have glared through the headlines.” So among us all the restless search for some new kind of kick fights an instinct in favour of the familiar.

When people feel the threat of change, they reach for security, like a child clenching its grip on a comforter. When they do not understand what is happening to them, they panic. Grandes peurs lash society like a flagellant’s scourge. Intellectuals take refuge in ‘postmodern’ strategies: indifference, anomie, moral relativism and scientific indeterminacy, the embrace of chaos, je m’enfoutisme.

Being done with change, in this more subtle view, is never finished with; but more like the moon following the sun. These words from a true sage are not a counsel of despair, nor a retreat to the mysterious, as in Heraclitus’ runic phrase, all things change. Fernandez-Armesto’s book helps us to understand change; not to stop fearing it – in characteristically wise words, he says, after all, there is plenty to fear – but to begin to respond intelligently, with the faculty that is the source of the change itself, our imaginations.

So this history of change, and of how time changes me, but I can’t change time, might guide those of us who want to govern our communities with those rare and excellent things in our culture that are cherished by those with affection for civic life, but despised by reformers, consultocrats and courtiers. Those things can be destroyed in a day, and are worth fighting to preserve against the depredations of folly. Of the callow champions of change, Heraclitus also spoke: “People dull their wits with gibberish, and cannot use their ears and eyes.”