Tag Archives: Culture

Notes for an Epilogue


Lens Culture is featuring a brilliant photo essay by Tamas Deszo on the loss of traditional culture in Romania. Above is the flooded village of Geamana.

Spiritual tradition and physical heritage are simultaneously disintegrating in Romania.

Time and modernization are beginning to undermine centuries-old traditions preserved in tiny villages, in communities of only a few houses, as well as the bastions of the communist era’s enforced industrialization, which became part and parcel of Romania’s recent history.

Those living in the ‘reservations of forgetting’ blend with nature, exhibiting a humility inherited through generations. They are living out their last days in evident equality of closeness to nature. Helped by time’s decay, they are diligently pulling down the absurd edifices of the environment that was inflicted on them. In the manner of termites, they carry away small pieces of immense concrete constructions on the rickety carts of poverty.

Notes for an Epilogue   [Tomas Dezso]


World’s Smallest Museum


Collector’s Weekly has a fascinating article about the world’s smallest museum, called Museum, in Manhattan. It’s only open 16 days a week, but you can look through the windows on weekends, and call a toll-free number to get an audio tour through your mobile.

Most of the items in the museum would seem like junk on their own, like a collection of money so mutilated is has been taken out of circulation, or a collection of toothpaste tubes from around the world. However, Alex Kalman, one of the curators, says that while things like newspapers and films are one way to learn about a culture, it’s possible to get a great insight from looking at “the smallest things that cultures create and seeing the similarities and differences between them.”

Here’s a snippet from the interview:

Of course, there’s that fine line between collecting and hoarding. It’s important to understanding where you stand on that and to make sure to limit yourself as well as others. But most of these collections don’t come from an endless desire to have. The Museum comes from a desire to create narratives through the collections. Definitely, when you think about the items individually, you can say, “Oh, this is junk.” But if you take a step back and view the collection as a whole, then suddenly it becomes easy to find meaning. Once you start looking at the packaging of Japanese toothpaste versus Italian toothpaste versus Russian toothpaste, it becomes very interesting quickly.

Another point is the way the collections are presented, the way we display them. Right now, we have 15 collections in the Museum, making up a total of about 200 objects. Each one has a story posted on the wall behind it. When the museum is closed, you can access the story via the audio guide. And when you enter the space, even though it’s in an unexpected place and at an unexpected scale, it feels like a museum. It feels as though you’re walking in the Louvre, expecting to see the “Mona Lisa,” but instead you’re presented with this toothpaste collection. And that’s to impose the clear value that we see in these objects, and that we treat them as seriously as one might a historical piece of art.

We’re trying to remind people to see the inspiration or the absurdity or the beauty in the everyday, and to be able to see it when you walk to work. Or when you go to the deli, the way someone has displayed sodas in the refrigerator can be meaningful and beautiful. After all, somebody spent time and energy to think of a considerate way to display those sodas, the same way somebody thought about, “How do we display the Queen’s jewels?”

World’s Smallest Museum Finds the Wonder in Everyday Objects   [Collector’s Weekly]

Leaving Goldman Sachs

After almost 12 years at the firm, Greg Smith left Goldman Sachs today. He wrote an open letter explaining his motivations for doing so and his issues with the ethics – or lack thereof – of the company.

How did we get here? The firm changed the way it thought about leadership. Leadership used to be about ideas, setting an example and doing the right thing. Today, if you make enough money for the firm (and are not currently an ax murderer) you will be promoted into a position of influence.

What are three quick ways to become a leader? a) Execute on the firm’s “axes,” which is Goldman-speak for persuading your clients to invest in the stocks or other products that we are trying to get rid of because they are not seen as having a lot of potential profit. b) “Hunt Elephants.” In English: get your clients — some of whom are sophisticated, and some of whom aren’t — to trade whatever will bring the biggest profit to Goldman. Call me old-fashioned, but I don’t like selling my clients a product that is wrong for them. c) Find yourself sitting in a seat where your job is to trade any illiquid, opaque product with a three-letter acronym.

Today, many of these leaders display a Goldman Sachs culture quotient of exactly zero percent. I attend derivatives sales meetings where not one single minute is spent asking questions about how we can help clients. It’s purely about how we can make the most possible money off of them. If you were an alien from Mars and sat in on one of these meetings, you would believe that a client’s success or progress was not part of the thought process at all.

Why I Am Leaving Goldman Sachs   [NYTimes]

Beyond Borders

Photographer Frederic Lemzi is interested in the transition from the West to the East, specifically those geographical and cultural “in-betweens” from Europe to the Middle and Near East. Above is Bucharest, Romania and below is Kfar Khilfah, Syria.

From August to December 2008 I traveled between Vienna and Beirut. I encountered people in versatile worlds, inside or in front of architectural places, both real and artificial, public and private. In my photographs, people emerge either as just passers-by or while waiting, as subjects and objects of the viewer’s eye, moving about in their urban or rural environment.

Frederic Lemzi [Lensculture]

The Americanization of Mental Illness

Colonial powers have always forced their particular views of the world on the people they dominate, secure in the knowledge that, since they are right and the ‘savages’ are wrong, their  actions are more than justified: they’re noble and charitable. Years later, with a different worldview in vogue, they look back in shame on the cruelty and closed-mindedness of their past. They often do this as they force their current beliefs on people around the world in the name of development and without a hint of irony, because this time they’re absolutely certain that what they believe is right.

Ethan Watters, writing in the New York Times, discusses the unfortunate exportation of American views on mental illness around the world:

AMERICANS, particularly if they are of a certain leftward-leaning, college-educated type, worry about our country’s blunders into other cultures. In some circles, it is easy to make friends with a rousing rant about the McDonald’s near Tiananmen Square, the Nike factory in Malaysia or the latest blowback from our political or military interventions abroad. For all our self-recrimination, however, we may have yet to face one of the most remarkable effects of American-led globalization. We have for many years been busily engaged in a grand project of Americanizing the world’s understanding of mental health and illness. We may indeed be far along in homogenizing the way the world goes mad.

This unnerving possibility springs from recent research by a loose group of anthropologists and cross-cultural psychiatrists. Swimming against the biomedical currents of the time, they have argued that mental illnesses are not discrete entities like the polio virus with their own natural histories. These researchers have amassed an impressive body of evidence suggesting that mental illnesses have never been the same the world over (either in prevalence or in form) but are inevitably sparked and shaped by the ethos of particular times and places. In some Southeast Asian cultures, men have been known to experience what is called amok, an episode of murderous rage followed by amnesia; men in the region also suffer from koro, which is characterized by the debilitating certainty that their genitals are retracting into their bodies. Across the fertile crescent of the Middle East there is zar, a condition related to spirit-possession beliefs that brings forth dissociative episodes of laughing, shouting and singing.

Among the mental illnesses considered by many American psychologists to be universal are depression and anorexia, although all historical evidence has shown that these illnesses have only appeared in areas where the Western influence had reached a certain level. Watters goes on to discuss the different views of mental illness in societies where it is thought of scientifically to the ones where it is thought of as a spiritual illness, like demonic posession. Interestingly, schizophrenics in cultures where it is seen as demonic posession tend to have more stable lives and less severe episodes of the illness. This is because of the different ways in which their family members and friends treat them. Having just finished reading The Wayfinders, the most recent Massey Lecture by Wade Davies, it tied in well with what I was reading:

For several centuries the rational mind has been ascendant, even though science, its finest expression, can still in all its brilliance only answer the question how, but never come close to addressing the ultimate question: why. The inherent limitation of the scientific model has long provoked a certain existential dilemma, familiar to many of us taught since childhood that the universe can only be understood as the random action of minute atomic particles spinning and interacting in space. But more significantly, the reduction of the world to a mechanism, with nature but an obstacle to overcome, a resource to be exploited, has in good measure determined the manner in which our cultural tradition has blindly interacted with the living planet.

The Americanization of Mental Illness [NYTimes]

[via Boing Boing]

Journey Into Silence


There’s a beautiful, if short, piece on Resurgence magazine about a three-day solitary fast on Mt. Sinai on the Sinai Peninsula. An excerpt:

Throughout history fasting has been a central ritual in many of the world’s major religions, but in today’s secular society it seems out of place.We live in an age where we are defined not so much as people but as ‘consumers’, and as such are encouraged to consume endlessly, whether it be holidays, cars, cosmetics, alcohol or food, because – as the advertisement proclaims – we’re “worth it”.

Yet the more we consume, the more worthless we feel. Consumption, it seems, doesn’t make us happy. It certainly did not make me happy, so perhaps the opposite would: a period of non-consumption, of privation, of fasting. As someone who beyond skipping the odd meal had never fasted, who even finds it impossible to give up chocolate for Lent, this would be a challenge.

Journey Into Silence [Resurgence]

If the Aliens are Watching our TV…

Poor Aliens

When radio waves leave Earth they fly out into the cosmos at the speed of light. This lets anybody (or anything) who wants to monitor us do just that. The only catch is that there’s a delay due to the finite speed of light, with the result being that all of our TV programming is out there in space in concentric spheres around Earth (so to speak) with the oldest stuff the farthest out. This is a great image that shows what the aliens can see depending on which star system they’re closest to. I’ve got an edited version above, the full version is here: