Thursday, February 6, 2014

Dimastalgia: On The Loss of Traditional Skills

Photo collages by Bill Fulton
       Last year in Myanmar I watched an elderly woman snap the stem of a lotus, pluck the minuscule fibers and spin the sheerest silk. I watched a man paint tiny stylized elephants on a vase that would receive 14 layers of lacquer. (He was carrying on a tradition that goes back to the Shang Dynasty - 1400 years B.C.E. ) Travelers stopped at the workshop of a family who make  graceful wooden umbrellas with hand-painted canopies. We watched them carve the handle, ribs and finial, and paint the colorful designs. 
Photo collages by Bill Fulton
We saw the fishermens' "ballet" on Inle lake - one leg wrapped around a paddle, steering, hands free to hold the conical net. Later there was the gifted flutter of a dancer’s hand miming flight. We saw the old ways of building ships and making cabinets, aware of the co-operation required.  One European shook his head and muttered how it was worth all the money to come this far just to see what his countrymen no longer did.

      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












  1. Beautifully realized, dear poet of time passing and gifts being lost!
    It occurs to me that part of my personal dislocations - and those of many people my age that I know, including patients - our memory glitches, placing items and then not finding them, is at least in part connected with our falling between two cultures. Thoughts we used to “file” one way, we now file in the new way, but it is not automatic and taken for granted by us, this new way. And when we aren’t consciously thinking about it, we slip into old ways. And then we are lost.

  2. Dawn, interesting! As though there is no smooth transition between cultures, and we literally fall through the crack in our "filing system."

  3. So very profound. Thank you, Leah. I won't be a curmudgeon and take my "yes, but..." role this time. Most impressive is what you write about the danger of losing options, losing alternate paths and procedures. Losing the worldviews embodied in other languages. Still, as long as the old skills, the arts and crafts and musics and languages, are still available, new generations do take pleasure in reviving them, mastering them, maybe turning them to new ends. Let's at least to strive for reviving and mastering, even as we regret the fading away of earlier contexts. Good to have "dimastalgia" to add to our lexicon.

  4. Dan, thanks for not including "Yes, buts"! I hope you are right that future generations will take pride and pleasure in continuing the old skills, for I think we not only lost options, but are deprived of our humanity without the arts and crafts that go back to the cave-painters.

    1. I quite agree with what you just said about humanity, Leah. Maybe that's why people keep trying to learn and practice old skills. It also provides a bridge that surpasses time--extending one's own limited span by also living in the practices of peoples from faraway and long ago. Think of how, in music, we take such pleasure in trying to use old instruments and performance practices to put ourselves into what we would like to think is, say, an 18th century space.

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  6. I think that among our friends, colleagues and acquaintances there is definitely an interest in traditional arts and music - but I don't at all think it's true of the wider population!

  7. Leah, This is beautiful, if chilling. There is so much we can do for which we have no ethical matrix or understanding of the whole. Perhaps only in beauty can we suffer consequences. May our culture learn to count to ten before eliminating such things as handwriting, crafts, the direct experience with the written and created world.

  8. Patricia, I'm always so happy to receive your insightful, original comments!
    No ethical matrix indeed!

  9. Thank you, Leah... thank you... so agree.