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Playing with fire?

Culture clearly goes back thousands of years, with all the ways civilisations have reflected upon and sought to shape their ways of life. It’s a fascinating thought: that stories have accompanied humans all along their path to the present day. How much that process has informed and altered society or individuals is presumably unfathomable to fully comprehend.

And I’ve talked of culture a few times here, musing over its functions within human society and for the individual discovery of meaning or purpose in life (see Notes One). The idea of this as a ‘tending’ of what’s required seems interesting to me, as if cultural forms are as seeds we plant or flames we fan to life in order to sustain what’s needed, productive or helpful.

In that light though, where’s this leading? How can we be sure that the ideas we’re entertaining are wise, the right way to go about resolving things or fostering the attitudes necessary for modern society? Can we trust that our current embodiment of this ancient practice is running along the same lines rather than accidentally enhancing what it’s hoping to eradicate?

We might argue that we’re simply reflecting realities: representing the trends or concerns of our times so others can consider them, make sense of life and form a reasonable response for the good of themselves and others. Maybe that’s true, maybe the thoughts we have in response to culture is where the important conversation needs to happen (Notes Two).

Because presumably ideas can act as seeds or flames, growing over time into something that will often change the course of events? Those words spoken or images seen that might lodge in your psyche, developing over the years into patterns or attitudes that affect how you are. If everything we’re taking in has that quality to it, then what exactly are we leaving ourselves open to these days?

If cultural life can help generate thoughts, attitudes, and values that might help us in how we live or teach us valuable lessons around the perils of paths we may not wish to take, then it must be serving an extremely valuable social function. Rather than seek to experience everything for ourselves, we could learn through the insights offered up to us by others – living vicariously through those other ways of being.

But then, how much can we truly trust modern culture to be offering us that? Are we right to simply go along with what’s offered, taking it all in and mulling it over? If the intentions behind a large proportion of such offerings are essentially commercial, is that a problem? How we might best discern what’s truly worthwhile and respond wisely to the rest of it isn’t so easy to figure out (Notes Three).

Might it not be that we’re effectively playing risky games? Depending on your metaphorical preference, we could end up with a nice warm fire and perfectly tended landscape, or something more closely resembling chaos. Not being sure of which seems troubling.

Notes and References:

Note 1: Culture, art & human activity
Note 1: Revisiting the question of culture
Note 1: Meaning in culture
Note 2: Culture selling us meaning
Note 2: Complicity and cultural attitudes
Note 2: Entertaining ideas & the matter of truth
Note 2: Cultural shifts & taking a backseat
Note 3: Dystopia as a powerful ideal
Note 3: Plato & “The Republic”

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