It’s easy to criticize the theories and interpretations of a society long gone– not because we know more, but because our context is radically different. Regardless of what you think you know, the “language” of our culture makes previous cultures’ understandings just sound… stupid.
Every paradigm is informed by its contemporary society, even if they seem unrelated. The go-to example of this is Freud’s theories, from which we derive “pent up” and “release” and “drives” and “pressures”– all of which are the language of the turn-of-the century steam industrial world. Whether Freud was right or not isn’t the point– he just sounds wrong because we don’t use steam engines and the brain doesn’t look like an engine anymore.
The point here is that we acknowledge the ideas of prior cultures relied on their context, but we willfully ignore our own immersion in our context. I read this in The Economist (which, BTW, features this ad on the back cover:)
However, unlike Freud’s unconscious (a hot, claustrophobic place full of repressed memories and inappropriate sexual fantasies about one’s parents) the modern unconscious is a place of super-fast data processing, useful survival mechanisms and rules of thumb about the world that have been honed by millions of years of evolution. It is the unconscious, for instance, that stitches together data on colour, shape, movement…
Note that this isn’t merely a metaphor or analogy to modern computers– it is an earnest but uncritical assumption of an actual similarity.
I’m often asked what books I draw inspiration from, and I regularly refer to Notes From The Underground, Fear And Trembling, and, of course, Interpretation Of Dreams– but the reason I rely on them for the blog is because they are so “wrong” for our contemporary society. They don’t fit our language, our science, our values or our desires, they are anachronistic– and so applying them to today is bound to either be insane or insightful.
This is the problem with omnivores of contemporary media, the people who are constantly reading every magazine that comes out or every new book on X. Even the best stuff still suffers from its immersion in 2012. If you want to see things differently, you have to approach them from radically different contexts.
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