The arts are no exception (Yurugu series #7)

The Yurugu blog series attempts to uncover some of the myths the dominant culture is based upon. As we have a hard time seeing the things we take for granted the view from outside, through the eyes of a different culture, may help with discovering our biases and enable us to act more consciously.
Marimba Ani, the author of the book "Yurugu. An African-centered critique of European cultural thought and behavior," is not involved in putting up the series and does not necessarily agree to its contents. The series is also not meant to present the book's central thesis, or to agree one-hundred percent with it; rather the blogs are inspired by the deep thoughts Marimba Ani has put forward, and offer some of them for consideration.

[previous article]

As my readers, by now, may assume – and rightly so – that no part of European thought, life, and culture has escaped Yurugu’s influence, it is safe to say that the arts do have a role to play in exerting power over the “Other.” The forms of expression and the institutions of our civilization are thoroughly shaped in the image of Yurugu.

John Zerzan writes about the origins of art,
Art, like religion, arose from the original sense of disquiet, no doubt subtly but powerfully disturbing in its newness and its encroaching gradualness. In 1900 [Yrgo] Hirn wrote of an early dissatisfaction that motivated the artistic search for a "fuller and deeper expression" as "compensation for new deficiencies of life." Cultural solutions, however, do not address the deeper dislocations that cultural "solutions" are themselves part of. Conversely, as commentators as diverse as Henry Miller and Theodor Adorno have concluded, there would be no need of art in a disalienated world. What art has ineffectively striven to capture and express would once again be a reality, the false antidote of culture forgotten. – Running on Emptiness: the Failure of Symbolic Thought

As art must reflect the nature of the asili we can expect a society deeply split into the haves and have-nots, to produce an equally split-up arts scene. Indeed, observing developments over the millennia, we can see a clear division between an elitist “sophisticated” conception of arts on the one hand, and the “kitsch” items that ordinary folks create on the other. Of folk music, I once heard somebody say that, “Pigs can't help oinking.”
While professional forms of art historically often served to establish a certain story of people's nature and place in the (hostile) Universe, namely their position in a society's hierarchy, today's arts degrade the vast majority of people to consumers. The artist, though, cannot perceive herself as a pure dominator. She, in turn, is subject to the overarching power of economy, and she is, thanks to the strong premise of separation, fundamentally alone with herself. When she expresses her visions in her art she will help to proliferate that premise. Her expression is perceived as uniquely hers. Whether she can reach anybody else, and whether anybody else is able to deeply relate to what she expresses, cannot be made sure. Following the fashion of the day is the only way how she has a chance that she can make a living from her work. Marimba Ani writes,
European art becomes increasingly “a commodity manufactured for the market” tending toward the vulgar. We should point out that the interesting contradiction in European culture is that its art may be commercially inspired (“the artist must live, after all”), geared to consumption, inspired by the desire for recognition, and at the same time remain an elitist form, that is, essentially separated from the people, because the art, like culture, creates (controls) the people, rather than the reverse. According to Sorokin, in the artist's tendency to disregard religious and moral values, the art itself
“comes to be more and more divorced from truly cultural values and turns into an empty art known euphemistically as 'art for art's sake,' at once amoral, nonreligious, and nonsocial, and often antimoral, antireligious, and antisocial.” [Pitirim Sorokin, The Crisis of our Age, 1941, p56]
(Marimba Ani: Yurugu. An African-centered critique of European cultural thought and behavior, 1994, p205)
Strolling through Indian villages, the only obvious kind of art we can see consists of expressions of the religious. The notion that people, nature, and gods are closely interrelated, is still very strong in rural areas. Yet in the cities – the gates through which the floodwaters of Western civilization press into the lives of average Indians – the scenery has become overgrown by a jungle of industrial design – advertisements, economic buildings of concrete, steel and glass, and political monuments – to which the spectator is no one but a subject to power: the power to dictate order, and the power to trigger desire. Bearing only few reminiscences to India’s pre-colonial culture, the form which art, music and design take are dictated by international standards nowadays.
It sometimes seems impossible to escape the omnipresent public cacophony of such products, and I wonder why all these people here simply accept the violation of their mind space. Perhaps they cannot stand the emptiness of a plain surface, or the loudness of silence any longer. Perhaps the lack of attention-grabbing artifacts would make them aware of that other gaping, hurtful void – the one inside. So, “It’s got to be Rock’n’Roll to fill the hole in your soul.” (ABBA). When the flooding of the senses ceases to work, when one day it “doesn’t bring the same reaction from inside your brain” (Savatage), it’s time to end that specific kind of division of labour which condemns the majority of people to stay passive consumers of the arts.
Let music, fine arts, sculpture, architecture, theatrical play, and storytelling come into existence by using your own imagination. What are the values of your community, what are the stories that connect and empower people in your place, and what is the fertile ground on which humanity's purpose in the Universe can grow? Wouldn’t you like to express, for once, something that is truly important to you? What would art look like when it works towards the ending of the need for art?

[next article in the series]


What is intelligence?

Regarding the topic of abstraction which was of central importance in the last Yurugu essay I would like to point out today some of its greater ramifications. To be precise, this is about intelligence and the difference between humans and animals.

Discussing the latter – what it supposedly is that makes the human species so special among the world’s species – you will always hear someone say that, “(a) Humans got a bigger brain, (b) which makes them more intelligent, (c) and this is the reason why humans are more successful survivors than any other living being.”

None of these three assertions is true.

The human brain has a volume of 1050-1500 ccm and weighs ~1.3 kg, the sperm whale’s has a volume of up to 8000 ccm and weighs up to 9.5 kg.
The assertion that humans have the best relative brain size is also false; our brain-to-body mass ratio is 1:40; mice or songbirds have a much better ratio. Insects seem best equipped, with brain mass measuring up to one seventh of the total body mass.

Among humans, the Neanderthals had a 25-30% bigger brain than modern sapiens, so brain size doesn’t necessarily help with survival.

Whether humans possess the highest intelligence depends on how you define intelligence, and how you measure it. I would hold that we – ie. civilized man – are not performing well in this category either: From a look at the Wikipedia we learn that there are “many ways” how intelligence has been defined, namely “logic, understanding, self-awareness, learning, emotional knowledge, reasoning, planning, creativity, critical thinking, and problem solving,” most of which belong into the realm of abstract thinking. We’ll come to that in a minute.

Emotional knowledge, also called emotional intelligence or EQ – “the capability of individuals to recognize their own emotions and those of others, discern between different feelings and label them appropriately, use emotional information to guide thinking and behavior, and manage and/or adjust emotions to adapt to environments or achieve one's goal(s)” – belongs to a totally different category.
Working with domestic animals, but also through observation of wildlife in India, I perceive animals as being extremely aware of each other’s moods. And while civilized codes of conduct usually expect of us that we suppress the showing, expressing, or reacting to emotions, animals often perfectly mirror, or respond to what the human beings nearby are up to. This is not to be confused with techniques like “Non-violent communication” or “Neuro-Linguistic Programming” (how telling!), by which a person’s needs, or their conscious or subconscious thoughts and emotions may become accessible, and – by civilized mindsets – misused for personal gain.
Like with the loss of much of our potential for sensual perception – we see, hear, taste, smell, and feel way less than our tribal sisters/brothers and ancestors – the loss of EQ results in a reduced ability to react intelligently to challenges.

Regarding the ability to think (abstractly), I came to the following understanding.

  1. If the theory of evolution (or some similar process) holds true, the human capacity to think (abstractly) must be present in other living beings, and certainly among our mammalian ancestry as well. In fact, if you look out for it, you will find it most obviously among corvidae, canidae, felidae, elephantidae, cetaceae and many more.
  2. That animals (or plants) are able to think (abstractly), or to develop consciousness of self, cannot be disproven in general.
  3. So-called “primitive” tribal human cultures often do not apply time measuring, maths, arts, or rational logic, nor do they develop complex societies and languages. Most of the times you will find a lack of most abstract concepts with them, concepts that civilized people completely base their behaviour upon. This does not mean tribal humans were incapable of abstract thinking: Abducted tribal babies raised in civilized societies developed just like any of our children. Thanks to Thomas Wynn (The Evolution of Spatial Competence, 1989) we know that at least a million years ago, our ancestors had an intelligence equalling that of the adult human today.
  4. So (abstract) thinking is a faculty available to a large number of species, it seems, certainly vertebrate species, and the use of abstraction is culturally determined, which means it is a choice made by each creature or culture. Tribal cultures must have deliberately refused to apply most kinds of abstract thinking for two to three million years of the genus homo, and continue to do so – on purpose, according to anthropological records from all over the world.
  5. The use of abstract thinking on the scale that civilizations apply may not be found in non-human species and tribal human cultures because it is counterproductive to the survival of the species / culture... The omnicidal (implicitly suicidal) behaviour of civilized cultures – especially our own, I would say with a side glance to the convergence of existential crises we are witnessing today – is proving this point best. On “falling back into savagery,” as the figure of speech has it, civilized man defaults on his true modus operandi; it is himself who is a real savage, not the tribal humans he continues to dismiss as unintelligent brutes and who declare him a sick person, a madman, because he is destroying himself along with everyone else.
pic: Saksham Choudhary, / pexels

IQ tests check a person’s ability to juggle with symbols, ie. to think abstractly. Despite what the phrase suggests, they do not actually measure intelligence. And neither do book reading, chess playing,  academic careers, or working with computers indicate higher levels of intelligence. 

Intelligence, as Jiddu Krishnamurti, in a public discussion held in Ojai, CA, on April 14, 1977, said, “is the capacity to see the truth that thought is limited. It can only come into being when thought has its right place. When there is no ‘me’, attention is intelligence.” And it is this attention that improves a being’s ability to survive. According to Krishnamurti, it requires an integration of reason and love. Cultures based on love and empathy for other living beings, including “inanimate objects” such as the world as a whole, often times perfectly merge with what civilized people call “environment”. Egocentrism and perceived separation, on the other hand, reduce our perceptions, narrow their processing according to personal interest, twist our understanding through the application of dysfunctional illusory concepts, and thus diminish intelligence.

I don’t know whether you, my dear reader, possess the willingness to consider the nature of intelligence from such a point of view. We may not come to a common understanding of what that thing is, or whether it has any existence outside philosophical pondering at all; so the question which makes up the title of my essay may not have an answer to it. But perhaps we might agree on what intelligence is not. Considering where it has led us it cannot be the kind of abstract thinking which is tearing the world into separate, standardized, measurable, lifeless bits and pieces, reduces them to words and symbols, and assumes that these represent the truth accurately enough to derive predictability of the world’s phenomena.

I also don’t know why or how our ancestors began their path towards civilization – the social manifestation of abstract thinking – but I sure know that it helped us to learn a whole lot about self-deception, violence, disconnection, and virtual reality. If our culture were a book, it’s title might run something like, “Civilization, or, How to Wreck Your Habitat As Fast As Possible.” Mistakes, though, are among the most powerful teachers we have. The things which don’t work can give us valuable hints at what might. Let’s take those ten thousand years of misery as a warning. To end our experiment in abstract, platonic living in favour of the return to an empathic relationship with the world would be the most intelligent decision this culture has ever taken.


Getting the goat (5)

If you got no time,
pic by J. Bariyanga. source: Pixnio (pd)
time got you.