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Cultural shifts & taking a backseat

Cultural forms are interesting to consider, in the sense that surely what we engage with will inform our views on self, on life, and on the meaning held within society. Writing about it this last year (see Notes One), I’ve come to see culture as the ideas we tend that then shape our actions, attitudes, assumptions and conclusions about what matters and why (Notes Two).

That’s clearly an important function as the thoughts we hold will undoubtedly guide our behaviour, rippling out into the various worlds we inhabit throughout our lives (Note Three). How all that’s worked in different times and places – ways communities have sought to influence the ideas at their heart – having given us the wealth of characters, outlooks and beliefs we in modern society are able to draw upon so freely.

In the past, it seems there were often treasured stories and practices, alongside social rituals for sharing their meanings with a regularity that reminded each person of their place and the passing of time. These cycles providing a certain stability in reiterating the values needed within society, welcoming new members into its ways, and uniting its people with common sentiment or intention.

While it might be fascinating to dip into such histories – even look to them for inspiration within our own culture – and also tempting to dismiss their ways of thinking as limited or constrictive compared with our times, I do wonder if they had something we might have lost.

Glancing back, culture seems to have been this very active sense of recollection, participation and ownership: people would memorise entire bodies of work and perform them as a valued service; others would gather together to experience these moments and draw sustenance from what they offered; communities could be defined by their practices and ideas.

Maybe that’s not so entirely different from modern culture, in some ways: instead of memorising and performing, we have technology; cultural moments are flagged up on social media, dissected, then filed away somewhere; all serving as reference points for crafting an identity and signalling our sense of belonging. These days we just have far more on offer, much faster turnover, and a freer flow of ideas.

That said; it is different. Rather than uniting it tends to divide. Maybe because, itself the product of a competitive marketplace, it seeks a target audience? Pricing and exclusivity must inevitably alter the universality of what’s represented and how accessible it’s made to be (Note Four). And ways we now ‘consume’ are more passive and isolating; social participation mainly happening online along lines of polarised opinion (Note Five).

While we might complain and compare, pointing out what was lost then what’s been gained, I find myself wondering if it even helps. Times change, but what does seem important is to understand: to see what culture was and the functions it performed; to grasp the nature of the shifts within our times; and then ensure that nothing essential to our personal or social lives is irretrievably lost.

Notes and References:

Note 1: Culture, art & human activity
Note 1: Revisiting the question of culture
Note 1: Culture and the passing of time
Note 1: Meaning in culture
Note 2: How many aren’t well represented?
Note 2: Missing something with modern culture?
Note 2: The worth of each life
Note 3: What is real?
Note 4: Culture selling us meaning
Note 5: The potential of technology

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