|Photo collages by Bill Fulton|
|Photo collages by Bill Fulton|
The arts and crafts of the world, painted, carved, sung and enacted, unfold for the traveler. We stand rapt watching deft hands, snap photos with digital devices intended to replace the wonder we no longer create.
There is a profound sense of loss that I believe we experience as traditional arts and everyday skills disappear. I call it Dimastalgia, from the Greek diadikasía, meaning process, simasía, significant, and algia - pain. It is the loss of skills and techniques that provided utility and beauty and the feelings that generates, and I believe that this loss is a feature of our times. It may not be conscious until we suddenly have an experience that makes us aware of what has disappeared.
In the Netherlands, I had such an experience. Along the waterway in Groningen are the restored sailing barges that allowed the Dutch to trade along the Baltic as far as Russia. You are instantly aware of their grace and clever construction. In the marine museum I saw an exhibit of the myriad devices that made sailing possible, and, a sailor myself, I was suddenly filled with the knowledge, the nomenclature, the skills that building and sailing a ship required. It was a culture, a rich world, experienced now only as sport or pleasure. Our awareness of the lost beauty of this ancient form of transport is apparent when hundreds show up at a harbor to see the Tall Ships arrive under full sail.
|Bernardus Bueninck Loading quay for Hunze boats ,Groningen|
Of course you may respond that homo sapiens have always replaced one technology with another, presumably a better one. But the rate of change has accelerated dramatically since the industrial revolution, and now each generation may rely on new, different devices. The fact that we are quick learners does not mean there is no sense of loss.
You may also wonder if this is merely nostalgia I am describing. No, I would answer. Nostalgia is usually partial and one-sided. For example, there are those who miss the 1950s - Elvis, sock-hops, car-hops, be-bop. But what of the Cold War, the nuclear threat, McCarthyism, sexual repression? No one misses that darkness. To acknowledge dimastalgia does not mean that one ignores the disease, infant mortality rate, lack of social mobility, physical dangers, etc of the past - nor does it represent a desire to live at a different time.
Dimastalgia is the recognition that skills that sustained us for milennia are disappearing, and that loss is one of the vacuities of the present age, and a possible threat, as we shall see.
What is especially poignant is the attempt to maintain the arts. The situation in China is an example. The government, in order to create more consumers, is moving millions from the countryside to cities. The headline in the New York Times reads:
In China, ‘Once the Villages Are Gone, the Culture Is Gone’
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BEIJING - Once or twice a week, a dozen amateur
musicians meet under a highway overpass on the
outskirts of Beijing, carting with them drums,
cymbals and the collective memory of their destroyed
village. They set up quickly, then play music that
is almost never heard anymore, not even here, where
the steady drone of cars muffles the lyrics of love
and betrayal, deeds and kingdoms lost.
The musicians used to live in Lei Family Bridge,
a village of about 300 households near the overpass.
In 2009, the village was torn down to build a golf
course and residents were scattered among several
housing projects, some a dozen miles away.
Now, the musicians meet once a week under the
bridge. But the distances mean the number of
participants is dwindling. Young people, especially,
do not have the time.
I want to keep this going,” said Lei Peng, 27, who
inherited leadership of the group from his grandfather.
“When we play our music, I think of my grandfather.
When we play, he lives.”
Across China, cultural traditions like the Lei family’s
music are under threat. Rapid urbanization means village
life, the bedrock of Chinese culture, is disappearing, and
with it, traditions and history.
And we might add, a loss of meaning, significance and pleasure for the individuals who lived within those cultures. To learn a skill, an instrument, a dance is to experience mastery, and a powerful feeling of satisfaction. But what if there is no one to teach you, or the materials and tools are not available? Think of all the Native Americans on our own continent who have struggled to maintain their culture, and what happens to people whose place and heritage have been destroyed.
The loss of culture is the loss of diversity and adaptability. Human adaptability has been the key to the survival of our species. One marvels at the variety of shelter we have built, from igloo and tipi to the tongkonan of the Toraja in Sulawesi.
Tools have been carved from bone and bamboo. Clothes fashioned from hide, bark and wool. Non-specificity in diet meant food could be sourced from whatever plants and animals were available.
The hand shaping the brain, the brain shaping direction. Each culture, each adaptation represented a solution to the conditions in a specific locale, and in some cases there were variations within the same region. For example, the cultural variants of the Hopi, Zuni, Acoma and Diné (Navaho) peoples in the Southwestern deserts. All of these models represented sustainable life styles that did not permanently harm the environment.
|Vintage postcard Hopi village of Oraibi Founded in 1120 C.E.|
One of the major problems of globalization and industrialization may be the loss of this diversity - what if we have only one set of solutions available, and if/when that fails - if climate change or another disaster ends our current civilization, and survivors must restart - we will have lost the skills and knowledge our species depended on prior to machinery. The loss of farming and food gathering techniques may be especially crucial.
Alternatives become difficult to imagine when there are so many basic skills we no longer have - and believe we no longer need. What would be left for inscription if electronics failed, and handwriting is no longer practiced?
Our daughter-in-law Natalie Grant, a fourth grade teacher, informs us that under the new Common Core guidelines her students will do all their work on ipads. There doesn’t seem to be a need to teach handwriting any more, when we rely on keyboards. But it takes a special mental and physical conjoined process to symbolize thought in letters, and connect those letters smoothly - a neuroscientist would call it an « intrahemispheric specialization ». We know a child’s brain is actually changed while acquiring this new skill. What will it mean for the development of the brain if we give up handwriting for keyboards and clicks? How does the act of writing effect the brain?
« Writing no longer means only using pencil and
paper, but using computer word processing programs.
Writing using paper and pencil does not require the
same cognitive, motor, and spatial tasks as those
required when using a computer keyboard. Although
the conceptual knowledge of written language can be
the same, the motor activity and the spatial abilities
that are used are rather different. » Which implies that
our brains are going to develop differently.
Alfredo Ardila, "There is not any specific brain area for writing: From
cave‐paintings to computers." International Journal of Psychology,
Vol. 39, Issue 1 - Can Literacy Change Brain Anatomy?
The author of The Hand: How its Use Shapes the Brain, Language and Human Culture expresses his personal opinion:
"There really is something quite new about bonding
very early in life with keyboard, mouse, and 3-D
graphics, and it will be very interesting to see what it
produces by way of new heuristics (problem-solving
behaviors) in adult life. I am not surprised that we are
so eager as a society to welcome the Internet into our
public schools. I am a little surprised that we are so
ready to say goodbye…….to the books in the school
library. And I am actually stunned that we imagine that
commercial sponsors of in-school computer networks
will not take their lesson from the tobacco companies
as they eagerly underwrite the development of more
appealing ways to help children learn how to be happy
and successful adults."
Wilson, Frank R. (2010-10-27). The Hand: How Its Use Shapes
the Brain, Language, and Human Culture (Vintage) (Kindle Locations
5635-5640). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Ah humans! We move into brave new worlds brought about by technology without even considering the implications until its use is established. Will we one day experience dimastalgia for beautiful penmanship & calligraphy as we do for the arts and skills we lose every day?
|Poem by Du Mu Tang Dynasty 9th Century C.E.|
Finally, what might Darwin say about Dimastalgia?
What Darwin Never Dreamed
Hold on! Hold on Old Ways!
Hold fast as if you were deeprooted in Time’s cliff
What if we only knew this one way to live this one
click here of a world and what if it founders floods
turns dark sudden as a Florida sinkhole
I watched 3 men in Burma lift their steel mallets in turn
and pound fireforged metal to the shape of need
and I watched the very old woman pull
the secret fiber at the center of a lotus stem
spin it into weaver's yarn
and I say we need to know what the Buddha knew:
There is treasure in the lotus
and we need to play the music of the blacksmith’s dance
and someone must know how to how to Do
what the milennia taught us at all the separate sites we
...Is it to late to say if this flash of an era ends
or is it already when the sun and fire and wind
and what remains of sweetwaterflow
are all that is left