Friday, April 30, 2004

Tribes Tripes Tropes

Richard Brookhiser has some pithy words about the difficult project of modernity. It would be nice to think that local advocates of 'da Tribe' should read them and pause. A little teaser:

"More and more, everyone in the world wants self-esteem; less and less, everyone gets it from the kinship group and village customs. For the missing extra jolt, they turn to totalist simplifying ideologies, or they begin the long slog into modernity."

It ain't easy being modern - all those choices! And it's very easy, as RB notes, to delegate the task to a 'simplifying ideology' - religion (think, Islam, where man is specifically regarded as unable to formulate new, let alone criticise existing, prescriptions), a State (think, Stalinist Russia or France), or a Tribe (you have a wide choice here, in NZ, some State subsidised). In all these cases, the burden of choice falls away.

Of course, it's a form of enslavement (something historically closer to many groups' actual practises than any would admit), a brake on innovation, and an economic dead end (read anything by Gareth Morgan). But it's a price that historically many or most have been willing to pay.

An aspect of the price is the group rituals which are needed to cement the 'us' against all 'others', which provide a certain surveillance to ensure that members do not develop seccessionist tendencies, which act to replace the ever-present danger of individual thought, and which provide a pleasing pattern or sequence to a day.

I have always had an aversion to these rituals without really knowing why - apart from the obvious anti-intellectual aspects. The ones that come closest to hooking me are the traditional church services we struck in England: but even there, the religion was a much watered-down version of high-church Anglican, and it was a visible triumph of faith over actuality for even the in-group participants. But certainly the pleasing rituals had a pull at the time.

As Jared Diamond notes in "Guns, Germs and Steel", one formative reason for religions is that they can regulate behaviours which cannot be left to chance - Hardin's 'tragedy of the commons' amongst them. By simply stipulating a prohibition, group outcomes are enhanced. Diamond's example is the prohibition on pig meat common to both Judaism and Islam: it solved a pressing issue in the newly-deforested and rapidly degrading Middle East of the time, as pigs' needs for forage in general and water in particular, competed directly with humans'. No eating them. No point in owning them. Problem solved.

But a growing issue is the reversion to tribal and religious thinking which accompanies the current exaltation of tribes in funny little NZ: a sort of mental irredentism. While the more risible forms (taniwha - monsters - which have impeded the planning for a major highway - you can't make this stuff up) can be dismissed, the underlying tendency towards 'magical thinking' is no laughing matter. Any abandonment of the intellect, in the sense of scientific thought, repeatedly demonstrable causes and effects and so on - is bound to undercut the very reasons for and energy of our current state of civilisation, however that's defined.

And this trend is not much better for art: which thrives at the edge of, or in the whirlpools between, great currents of thought. Ask yourself: how much good art over the past 300 years was produced by tribes, as opposed to by lonely outcasts, 'canaries in the coal mines' (as Kurt Vonnegut characterised the role of an artist), existential despair, war, love lost, alcohol and other chemical propellants, and some proportion at least, by individuals with certifiable mental illness?

Oh, there's that word again. Yes, Art is produced by Individuals. Hold that thought.

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