Saturday, January 23, 2016

Saturday Morning Musings - Updating Australia's cultural decline following a dash of prehistory

The discovery of an apparent human massacre dating to some 10,000 years ago (Archaeologists unearth the earliest evidence of warfare between hunter-gatherers) has attracted some interest.

There has been something of an apparent running debate between those who argue that hunter-gatherer societies were essentially violent, while others argue that warfare as such came with farming and state power. You see the second in some of the discussion on traditional Aboriginal life where it is argued that Aboriginal society was essentially peaceful. A contrast is then made with the European invaders. I have always thought that this debate was a little a-historical with a fair degree of semantic confusion. For example, what is meant by peaceful or warfare?

Meantime, since I wrote The Sulawesi discoveries: where does Australian prehistory fit? John Hawks has had a useful perspective piece, Somebody was on Sulawesi before 118,000 years ago, while University of New England's Dr Mark Moore who analysed the stone tools recovered from the excavation, reports that the tools were finely crafted with a high degree of skill involved.

Neil Whitfield had an interesting companion post, The state of Australian culture, to my last post, That Australian Life - has Australian culture entered into decline? There he quotes Myf Warhurst's review of Brilliant Creatures:
When the small screen and broader media only reflects back at us who we already are rather than challenging or educating us, surely we’re in a spot of bother? If Brilliant Creatures has a message, it’s that ruffling of feathers and robust viewpoints will be remembered. The rest is wallpaper. And currently, we’ve got plenty of that.
Australians are in danger of disappearing up their own self-reflexive, but thoughtfully designed and padded, backsides. Sadly we’re all too high on the paint fumes of home renovation to give much of a toss.
In discussion, kvd accused me of reverse myopia. There is some truth in that. Although my views have changed over time, I am in part a captive of my own past. We all are.

As part of my train reading, I am reading Clive James Cultural Amnesia.  It's a very good book but also very large! Consequently, I am reading it in bits, mainly delving just before I go to bed. The characters selected and especially the arguments presented reflect the author's times and especially European history and thought before, during and in the decades immediately after the Second World War. This covers the period when his views were formed and when he rose to prominence, something clearly indicated by the subtitle on the English edition of the book, notes in the margin of my time.

Early in the book, Clive James refers to common language that used to provide a degree of unity in intellectual traditions across European cultures. He had poetry especially in mind, the way that memorised poetry provided a linking from Australia to Germany to England to the US to Italy, but it is also a broader point. As sharing declines, understanding becomes more difficult. Reading Cultural Amnesia, I actually wondered how many people in 2016 might understand some of the essays without a knowledge of history and culture.

I digress, but this is a muse. Considering the discussion, I concluded that I had been guilty of sloppy wording, a heinous sin for one who strives if unsuccessfully for clarity in English. I have previously argued in a different context that Australian culture has not declined, that it remains as strong as ever as a unifying element despite growing diversity in Australian society. I am using the term culture here in its broadest sense. What I really meant to say, I think, is that certain aspects of Australian culture have lost their influence in Australia and beyond.

Even here, I could be (and indeed was) challenged. Part of the problem lies in time and overlap effects. If the genesis of something lies in the 1960s and 1970s but continues into the 1980s or beyond, then how do you attribute it? Pub rock is an example. This clearly dates to the 1970s, but peaked in the 1980s. How, then, do you classify it?

I will continue this discussion in a later post. For the moment, I have run out of time.


Since I  wrote this post, Legal Eagle has pointed me to this Economist piece that bears upon  the discussion of the peacefulness or otherwise of hunter gatherer societies as  compared to farming communities.


Anonymous said...

I didn't "accuse" you of anything. I merely observed that perhaps the smoking jacket view of "wot the young are up to" has gone out of style, Steven Fry not excepted.

Australians are in danger of disappearing up their own self-reflexive, but thoughtfully designed and padded, backsides

Young Myffy writes a good Guardian piece, doesn't she? Never use two plain words if there's a chance to deploy fifteen in sheer self-indulgence.


Jim Belshaw said...

Just as well I wasn't reading the last sentence while drinking coffee or wine, kvd. I snorted. I had a smoking jacket. Belonged to my grandfather

2 tanners said...

I'm still not quite sure where you are going with on this, Jim. Some pointers - "celebrities" still appear to be the show ponies of our cultural impact and there are quite a few still going strong, even when some of them have changed nationalities for whatever reason. I'd say that Rupert Murdoch is one of the most culturally powerful people on the planet, formulating, encapsulating and providing stands for particular coherent viewpoints which go well beyond the political. Nicole Kidman is, I think, Australian and our cricketers and tennis players make cultural impacts as well as bad headlines.

But I've really sidetracked myself. Cultural impact is what impacts the culture and as Myf didn't quite say, the not-smell of house paint fumes on TV beggars the cultural damage done by petrol sniffing in the NT. It's all about the instant, and if you aren't monitoring FaceBook and trending Twitter topics then you aren't talking the same culture as most of Western civilisation.

And that, after at least a millisecond's reflection, is a good thing.

But it also shows that you need to really rethink your proposition in either a modern frame of reference (for impact) or a values frame of reference (for 'good').

Jim Belshaw said...

You know, 2t, I am beginning to wonder that myself!

Anonymous said...

It's all about the instant, and if you aren't monitoring FaceBook and trending Twitter topics then you aren't talking the same culture as most of Western civilisation.

I wonder about that. Twitter has maybe 230 million 'active users', while The World has 7.6 bn 'active users' (sometimes called 'people').

I like the concept of a "global village" but what would that village look like? See here for one attempt (based upon 100 villagers) - - and in particular, 33 would be Internet users, 15 would have Internet access from home and 12 would be active users of Facebook.

To extend this analogy, there would be approximately 2 villagers on Twitter, and those brilliant icons of Australia's contribution to 'culture' would maybe be the third dust mote from the left, near the village well.

Is that a reasonable 'frame of reference' for 'our cultural impact'?


Jim Belshaw said...

Good morning, kvd. I have been working on a summary post that was meant to come up yesterday. Maybe today?

I agree that the global village is a useful device, although 2t might argue that you are not comparing like to like; he referred to "most of Western civilisation". In this context, there is an argument around (one that I find unpersuasive)that social media in particular is bringing a degree of cultural convergence at least among city dwelling educated middle class people. It's there, but its grossly over-stated. In this context, the World Bank recently released a report (I haven't had time to find it again) suggesting that the economic effects of the new technology were overstated and that it nay in fact accentuate economic divides.

On the basis of your global village, Australia has 0.3% of the global population, around 2.6% of world wealth. You might therefore expect the country's cultural impact however defined to fall within the range 0.3% to 2.6%. However, its by no means as clear cut as that!

Anonymous said...

Hi Jim - yes, was aware that tanners was talking about 'western civilisation/culture', but I could not actually find a quick estimate for that population. An uneducated sheer guess is maybe a bit less than a billion - so, maybe 12 villagers?

And the other thing I should add is that a re-read of my post possibly suggests a lack of respect for the famous four? Quite the contrary: I think the influence of those four on 'western culture' is quite remarkable, and that we, as Australians, should be quietly pleased to have 'produced' such a number from our very small population.


2 tanners said...

The best estimate I've seen is from Hans Rosling who puts it at 1-2 billion. With our miniscule population, I'd say we're batting above average, with our massive per capita resources, perhaps less so.

I also didn't address the quality vs quantity aspect. Murdoch has, IMO, added little to the quality of Australian impact. The late Chrissie Amphlett, both through her own work in the Divinyls and both a role model and as a voice coach has been quietly (and not so quietly) impacting the world of music even after her death.

Anonymous said...

On things cultural, and this being Australia Day, I would quote with approval this article by Terry McRann

(Actually wasn't aware that a person of the year was (yet another!) Australian invention :)


Jim Belshaw said...

Hi kvd. I didn't think that you were being in any way disrespectful! I do remember your previous comments on, for example, G. I think that one could define the estimate better than 1-2 billion, but I'm not sure that it matters.

In terms of global impact relative to population size, I think that I would nominate Christchurch, more broadly Canterbury, as having had the greatest impact on global intellectual life in the twentieth century. Relative to population size, I think that NZ outpulls Oz. Looking at a longer term horizon, its hard to go past Athens!

Quality v quantity? Another variable. Chrissie Amphlett. I really like the way comments take me in different directions. I have "wasted" the lats hour following CA on youtube!

Jim Belshaw said...

Couldn't access that link kvd. Behind paywall

Anonymous said...

Yes, sorry about the McRann link. I got to the text via a google search so bypassed the paywall. But it is well worth a read, and on topic, so when it comes out of the wall I'll relink.

Briefly he is saying that if you look at the list of AOTY recipients, it has moved from a national recognition of significant achievement (Nobel Prizes, Writers, etc.) thru sportsmen and 'celebs', to now more recently 'people with a cause' - Flannery, Batty and now the General - to which we are supposed to subscribe for our betterment. And that's all aside from the fact that (according to him) we are one of the few countries who indulge in an OfTheYear award.

Here's the list anyway, just for interest -


Jim Belshaw said...

Thanks, kvd.