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.


The many cradles of civilizations (list)

Civilizations and natures

From time to time, I am tempted to be a prophet of a doom, and like Cassandra abandon myself to “the awful pains of prophecy… maddening as they fall” (Agamemnon); but something in my temperament, holds me back to a more tempered and sane view. History is neither progress nor complete decay. In some times, the archives do burn; but manuscripts are saved from the fire, and cultural life finds a way to go on. There are always losses, which I mourn, and there are so many splendours to celebrate and gardens to cultivate.

My favourite wise companion in maintaining a sane and generous view of our global history is Felipe Fernandez-Armesto. In people and in civilizations, he writes:

“vices and virtues mingle, in the greatest saints, and in the most politically-correct common rooms. For every good intention, there is a frail deed: each provides the standard by which the other is measured. Civilizations, compared with other types of society, certainly have no monopoly of virtue. But a true pluralist has to relish the diversity they add to life.” (Civilizations (2000), p 30)

His experiment in a new way of writing a universal history of civilizations is remarkable for its wit, the range of its allusiveness, and its compelling experiment: to write all history as historical ecology. Civilizations have no common characteristics, but share a process: the effort to transform the natural environment. Humans, unusually, if not uniquely, among animals, have populated all parts of the earth, all types of environment and climates. Our history is inseparable from these many natures – and here too Felipe Fernandez-Armesto insists food is central to the human story, as our most daily and intimate encounter with nature. And, “wherever humans can survive, civilization can happen.” (p 27)

The list: 17 cradles of civilizations

So, in CivilizationsFernandez-Armesto tells the story of how civilizations have adapted, transformed, and remade 17 natural environments. Only a few of these belong to the classic story of the cradles of civilization, and in many of these environments, he celebrates many little-known treasures worth preserving from destructive fire. Here they are complete with his evocative chapter titles, and some brief illustrations of how the world can be explored with this enigmatic balloonist.

The Waste Land (Desert, Tundra, Ice)

1. Ice Worlds and Tundra (The Helm of Ice). The Sami of Arctic Scandinavia created a civilization from the great herds of reindeer. The reindeer supplied most of the needs of life, and indeed their name, jil’ep, in the Nenet language means life. These ways of life were recorded in Olaus Magnus’ Description of the Northern People (1555), the “unacknowledged work of genius” of a Christian bishop who, in voluntary exile from protestant Sweden, travelled to the North to convert pagan souls but still stooped to understand the twenty forms of snow described by the sami.

2. Deserts of Sand (The death of Earth). There is the tantalising mystery of the Garamantes in ancient times in the Fezzan in the Libyan interior, and speculation that the modern day nomads of the Sahara, the Tuareg are their successors. The Tuareg use an alphabet which is very similar to an ancient Libyan writing system, and is used magically, transmitted by women, and to cast spells on household objects, but not to record the ballads and stories of war spoken by the men. Tuareg is an Arabic term meaning abandoned by God; they call themselves Imohag or free men. They continue to practise their martial code,  fighting for Qadaffi and in Mali.

Leaves of Grass (Grasslands)

3. Prairie and Savannah (The sweeping of the wind). Where we learn of old Mali, near the upper reaches of the Niger, and headwaters of the Gambia and Senegal Rivers, a great trading state controlling the passage of gold, and access to the great market and scholarly city of Timbuktu. Here Ibn Battuta described the majesty of Mansa Musa’s court.

atlas catalan image with mansa musa

Image from The Catlan Atlas (1375) showing Mansa Musa holding a globe made of gold. Biblioteque National, Paris

4. Eurasian Steppe (The highway of civilizations). In 1034 the scholar-administrator and poet, Ou-Yang Hsiu, advocated standards of merit, and, in response received the reward that was at hand for the powerful who ran patronage networks in the bureaucracy. He was exiled to Yi-Ling at the mouth of the Yangtze gorges, where he observed the remoulding of Szechwan. He sought a conservative revolution by instilling the “perfection of ancient times” through reforms to the examination system, and he and his like advocated the true, humane diplomat’s policy – “If indeed Heaven… causes the rogues to accept our humaneness and they … extinguish the beacons on the frontiers, that will be a great fortune to our ancestral altars.” (p. 120)

Under the Rain (Tropical Lowlands and Post-Glacial Forests)

5. Post-Glacial and Temperate Woodlands (The Wild Woods). On the Northern shores of the Great Lakes, the Iroquois built distinctive social spaces, the longhouse. The Iroquois built these longhouses, Fernandez-Armesto notes in a small piece of efflorescence of the cultural drive, out of elm, not for practical but aesthetic reasons.


6. Tropical Lowlands (Hearts of Darkness). In the jungle or rainforest of the Peten region of Guatemala was the great Mayan city of Tikal, in which despite the profuse growth there was monumental building from about 400 BC, and inscribed names and memorials of kings from AD 292.

Image source: UNESCO

The Shining Fields of Mud (alluvial soils in drying climates)

7. The Near East [if you live in Europe] (the lone and level sands) Where Fernandez-Armesto takes us to the “the garden of the Lord” that used to exist at the ancient city of Jericho, back eleven millennia ago when it looked over an alluvial plain and not a salted sulphured desert.

8. China and India (Of Shoes and Rice) Where we meet the gentleman archaeologist, Charles Masson, stumbling on the ruins of the Harrapan civilization in 1826, and fooling himself he had rediscovered one of the lost cities of Alexander the Greek.

The Mirrors of Sky (Highlands)

9. Highlands of the New World (The Gardens of the Clouds). Before the Incas, at a vast height, fed by maize and potatoes, lay Tiahuanaco and Chavin de Huantar, a place of pilgrimage thousands of years old.

10. Highlands of the Old World (The Climb to Paradise). We encounter the isolation and the martial culture of the New Guinea Highlands, itself an independently evolved place of agriculture. Here in the 1980s a Kerowagi elder tells an anthropologist interviewer: “We thought no one existed apart from ourselves and our enemies.”

The Water Margins (Seas)

11. Small Islands (The allotments of the Gods) The wonder of Polynesian navigation is told, including the remarkable map produced by the navigator and holy man, Tupaia, who sailed with Captain Cook.

12. Seaboards (The View from the Shore) Here we learn of the mystery of the sea peoples who raided Ancient Egypt, the Vikings and Phoenicians, and navigators of the Atlantic Rim, including the old Celts who edged out to the outer British Isles.

13. Maritime Asia (Chasing the Monsoon) We rediscover Palembang on Srivijaya, which prospered on Chinese trade for sandalwood and frankincense. Surely proof that wealth has always been built on “experiences”, and the material economy has always been saturated with symbolic significance.

14. Greek and Roman Seaboards (The Tradition of Ulysses) “In spite of the unique contribution made by the ancient Greeks to the rest of the world, we should beware of idealizing them, as so many historians have done in the past. What was most enduring in their heritage was, in its day, the most eccentric: Socrates was condemned to suicide; Aristotle was driven from Athens and died in exile.” (p 425) So true; we create legends from shadows.

Breaking the Waves (Oceans)

15. Oceanic Civilizations (Almost the Last Environment). Fernandez-Armesto retells Ibn Battuta’s travels across the Muslim Lake of the Indian Ocean, and points to the regularity of the monsoonal wind-system as the basis, if such a metaphor is possible for a wind system, of the seafaring traditions of the Indian Ocean. His awareness of the direct effects of varied wind systems on the history of exploration and global exchange is also the basis of one of his many aphorisms: that in the history of the world there should be less hot air, and more wind.

16. Making of Atlantic Civilizations (Refloating Atlantis). Where with deep scholarship of exploration and navigation, he points to the many attempts to launch sea-borne empires in the fifteenth century. What distinguished the Western European seaboard’s creation of the Atlantic civilization was, despite all the founding myths of Western civilization, the accident of being in the right place, so having access to favourable winds and currents.

17. Atlantic Supremacy and Global Outlook (Atlantic and After) In this last chapter, he contemplates the limits and limitations of the Western Civilization floated on this Atlantic environment. So, he zeroes in on the “bewilderingly paradoxical” twentieth century, with superb flowering of culture, creativity and freedom, matched by the most terrifying destructiveness. “It promised so much and betrayed so many. The big mystery of the twentieth century is: why did civilization yield? Why, in other words, did progress fail?” (p 543)

It is an awkward question to end on, and the basis for what may be a true conservative argument, that our values can never be firmly based in progressive beliefs, since progress is an illusion. They all misrepresent a more chaotic experience of change, full of loss and gain. And this means that faced with the many difficulties that our societies and cultures encounter we need to avoid the willing delusion that we are moving with the spirit of the times, and turn to our homes and gardens, and flawed traditions and treasured archives, and take care of them.

So Fernandez-Armesto concludes Civilizations, in a paragraph that resonates with the themes of this blog:

“After all the disillusionments with which the history of civilizations is studded – the triumphs of savagery, the bloodlettings of barbarism, the reversals of progress, the reconquests by nature, our failure to improve – there is no remedy except to go on trying, and keeping civilized traditions alive. Even on the beach and in the shingle, il faut cultiver notre jardin.” ( p. 566)



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.”

Final millennial prediction: initiative will continue to shift

Fernandez-Armesto’s final prediction is almost too mild. It would seem like stating the obvious until you recall how often the obvious is ignored. Cultures freeze their minds at the moment of their triumph, and continue to regard themselves as global leaders while decay is obvious to all. The United States with its eternally replenishing liberal fantasy of itself as the indispensable nation is the most blatant example. The rest of the world moves on as this wounded giant thrashes in its death throes, unable to project authority abroad, paralysed by ideology in protecting its own citizens from random gun violence at home.

Fernandez-Armesto sees these shifts gathering pace, with the rapid decline of the Atlantic century, and a possible brief passage of initiative through California and Japan. Even Australia is mentioned as a possible source of future initiative, as a nation of under-exploited resources – minerals, minds and mores, I would add.

But future initiative may not settle in regions, and here Fernandez-Armesto goes against the grain of his otherwise localised thought. “Collective self-perceptions can be shared by very widespread groups; and the shifts of initiative in the next millennium may be in the hands of worldwide elites or of a few masters of cybernetics , mouldings world culture from a specific location through millions of modems.” Fernandez-Armesto did not anticipate the blow to national identities and indeed to elite culture with the shift of initiative to collective selfies or hesitated through empty agit-prop in social media. Billions of cell phones have provoked an implosion of world culture and an outbreak of narcissistic idiocy.