The keystones of Western culture

How does our modern culture define itself? This definition is the basis of how we think, how we act, and who we are.

I want to find one or two things that act as the pillars of the definition. I’ll start with the general thrust of our culture.

Western civilization is a supremely rational, materialistic, controlling and communicative culture. It must dominate in all things. All other ways will follow in its wake, or be crushed beneath its uncaring feet.

How is this way of life epitomized? Let’s look at things we do all day long, in a “average” Western life.

We work, then we don’t work. At work, we make things, we help make things, or we use things. When we’re not at work, we do things that give us pleasure, which is relative.

Where do we work? Usually not where we live. In the past we always worked where we lived, and work was not separate from the rest of our life. We approach the first keystone.

Work is now separate from “life”. We do work that has no relation to us as people, to who we are. There is distance between us and work. How do we express this distance? We drive to work.

The automobile is the first keystone. Without the auto, and its corollaries, we never travel more than one hundred miles from our home, and our place of birth, with exceptions, of course. We have no idea of other anything!

The automobile has many, many far-reaching effects. I will only mention a few here, and I leave it to you to discover how it affects your life and our culture.

The dominance of paved roads, parking lots. Air, water, land pollution, the loss of mineral resources. Inability to notice your surroundings, ignoring your surroundings. These are some but not all of the ways the car culture invisibly infiltrates our lives.

This culture has moved significantly in one other direction that affects all our lives. This direction can most easily be found by looking at the other focus of modern life, leisure time. What do most of do on our leisure time? Watch TV.

TV is ubiquitous. We cannot escape TV. TV is a keystone in our lives. If you try to avoid it, you will constantly be reminded of it by another who watches TV and wants to tell you what they just saw.

TV in its purest conception is a liberating medium. The ability to see something happening in a faraway place provides perspective, immediacy, and understanding that those far from us are in fact just like ourselves. Fear of others is an instinct-television allays that fear by showing us others who are as we are.

However, as most things rarely come in their purest form, television is no longer a medium to communicate images without extrinsic meaning, but a medium that broadcasts images that tell us who we are.

It has become how we see ourselves, others and the culture in which we are immersed. It has become the basis of our view of the world. It’s real if it’s on TV, not if not. The “electric fireplace”. Reality happens on TV. What happens on TV is reality. (see Ellison’s The Glass Teat I & II)

Finally, to make these artifacts true keystones, let’s see what would happen if these keystones are pulled from their places.

With no cars, our travel would be restricted to how far our own energy could take us. No more 60 mile commutes. No more trucked-in goods-what you can get within 100 miles is what you use.

With no TV, no news reaches us until it’s brought by someone from where the news happened. Nothing is sold to us unless someone comes to sell it. No entertainment is provided unless it’s live.

These changes would be far-reaching. Immense. Transforming. Our culture would not look like it does. Therefore these two objects are surely keystones.

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