Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The Stars Less Vivid: Experience and Evolution

Last week I wrote of an experience watching the sunrise over a jetty at the edge of the Lake Ontario. I was taken by the question of how this experience is conditioned by the dominant technologies a human lives with: a clearing in the trees, a wharf lined with wooden sailing ships, a parking lot leading to a concrete jetty. In the comments to the piece both Occasional Reporter and Mike Gottschalk raised issues which have dovetailed with some of my own continued meditations on the subject and so are worth a few more words. The question can be posed simply as follows:

What aspects of human being are unmediated by culture and time?

In other words how much of our day to day perception, how much of our abstract thinking, how much of our sense of a sacred or even an absolute, is given form through the prism of our culture's "facts on the ground". Some answers to this are obvious as in "no twitter, no tweeting". But the deeper issues lay in what has been constant and what has changed across the 1000+ generations since we became cultural modern in action and symbol.

I have been concerned with Mythologies for a long time because they might to carry some trans-historical constants in them, at least in our need for certain kinds of stories to set our lives and their transitions into meaning. Is this true or just wishful thinking? Our powers of reason seem to be an ingrained aspect of human being and their gradual refinement has led to ever increasing degrees of "sophistication" in the social structures we create. And what of the Sciences that our reason have bestowed to us? It is exactly the promise that Science stands above history (and Time entire) that makes it so alluring.

So there are ways to argue for continuity - for a direct link between the hunter-gather stepping out from the trees before the infinite horizon of the shoreline and my stepping from a 1999 Subaru Outback to walk past the Port-O-Potties out to the jetty.

And yet, and yet... Somehow something feels different. Somehow I get the sense, deep in the artificially illuminated night, that there is a profound difference. I get a sense that there are profound differences. In the plasticity of our brains we adapt to our physically structured cultures and that changes experience itself. Do the stars in our satellite girdled world shine less vividly? Does distance lose an essential extension when vaulted by combustion engines and electromagnetic signalling? It may work the other way as well. Are we closer to a whole when news of Iranian's struggling for voice flashes around the planet in quick succession with Micheal Jackson's global superstar demise?

What explicitly is lost? What explicitly is gained? What, if anything, remains constant?