Scholars trace the roots of western civilization to Greece; to some honest students, a stretch of the academic imagination. Though Greek civilization did bequeath many things to the west, the direct link described by many historians is misleading at best. Greek knowledge was diffused into Europe already filtered through the ‘lens’ of other civilizations. Despite the politics of academia or the ideological directives of those who finance it, western civilization is a much newer phenomenon.
But how useful is the term ‘western civilization’ to define our current cultural paradigm?
Oswald Spengler wrote extensively about what he believed to be the a-priori demise of western civilization nearly a century ago; Neitzche, the last of the west’s great thinkers, arrived at roughly the same conclusion, offering us his tenuously constructed ubermenchen, itself a projection into a future that escaped purely western thought and a testimonial to the basic thrust of western civilization, which exalted the individual above and beyond any other value.
In a burgeoning global culture, can such a thing as ‘western’ civilization even exist? Some will rightly question whether we are, in fact, building a global culture or simply consolidating corporations across international boundaries, perpetuating the hyper-individualistic, market-based economy and ignoring expressions of true global interaction between different economic and social groups.
The market is both the motor for globalization as well as its greatest nemesis, the former a consequence of its essence, exchange, and the latter caused by the exclusive and repressive models used to actualize it. Trade in goods and services connects people on a level which should allow for the germination of richer cultural expressions, but at the same time the homogenizing tendencies of the ‘western’ or ‘individualistic’ market, i.e. the concentration of wealth and means of production in few hands, constantly subverts any possibility of open-ended cultural exchange.
Nevertheless, things have a way of evening out, and at some point a time will have to arrive when people will have to walk upon the bridges that have been built.
Civilizations are love affairs of the collective unconscious. A shape is drawn and slowly people begin to dance around it, eventually becoming the shape itself. They are inorganic entities and as such have the ability to exist indefinitely or until a new shape becomes visible over the horizon.
We have seen a new shape emerge over the last century and a half as the sun has set on western civilization. We are on the shoulders of a giant, as the saying goes.
Pictograms, characters and vocalizations were developed to allow human beings to communicate with each other. Our power of conceptualization, and consequently our ability to perceive time can be traced directly to our use of oral and written language. Hence the opening salvo of the gospel of John, “In the beginning was the word…”
All civilizations have one thing in common, just like all men and women, they are born in the same way.
Civilizations’ mother is language and we might define language as any self-contained collection of symbols agreed upon by those expressing themselves through it. The temperament of each civilization is defined by the meaning of those symbols.
For the West, the emergence of Christianity marks the ideological period of germination, through a process of individuation of ‘beliefs’ which set the stage for European culture, still centuries away on the other side of the dark ages.
An inherent paradox is contained in the social effect of Catholic dogma and its message. Catholicism hijacked all belief systems within its sphere of influence* and declared its own as the only means to achieving fulfillment –after death. Safe passage into the next life required only one condition: believe it to the exclusion of everything else. The other side of that coin is that the believer will not be rewarded in ‘this’ life and it forms the basis of the Church’s discourse. This effectively removes the ‘gods’ from the world, leaving people to their own devices – almost.
Following Christian doctrine ultimately leads to the elimination of reliance on external or other worldly forces, in favor of the individual, albeit vicariously through a particular symbol, Jesus – a living symbol that serves as the model which a believer must follow to reap the rewards of heaven. Christianity was a half-way point between paganism and the need for man to stand on his own, enough to lead men away from dissipating energy through an endless pantheon of gods and demi-gods, neglecting their own power.
But the most significant and overlooked, perhaps even completely ignored contribution of Christianity to the world is the invention of mass media.
Jesus on the cross was the first full-fledged logotype. The campaign to burn this image into people’s minds was so great that it spawned a counter movement known as Iconoclasm.
Two thousand and some odd years later you may still find an iconoclast somewhere, but you can bet he watches TV.
A NEW LANGUAGE
The new shape that is emerging, the new civilization comes to us from our newest ‘alphabetized’ form of communication: images.
Words are easily distinguished from our perceptions, but TV and film have blurred the line considerably, to the point that some of the most vulnerable psyches in our society struggle to tell the difference*, and it might not be farfetched to state that, in a much broader sense, this is true for most people as well, though in a less obvious form.
When speaking of people’s growing threshold for ‘violence’, it is said that we are ‘de-sensitized’. Repeated viewing of violent images dulls our response to ‘violence’ whether we encounter it on a screen or in our actual lives. The point to make here is that so-called ‘de-sensitization’ is an example of how we as human beings process and assimilate the new visual language.
We are naturally wired to perceive visual information (closely aided by audible cues) as the supreme source of fact and truth – “I’ll believe it when I see it” is a phrase that bluntly expresses the ultimate distrust we have in words and the ultimate faith we have in images.
A feature film can be a powerful experience precisely because it tricks us into suspending our belief, allowing us to accept what we see as if actually occurring. A general understanding of this new language is still in its infancy, most people don’t know the ‘alphabet’ of images. There are, however, people who understand the new language quite well. You can find plenty in Hollywood, but the true masters are found in a handful of Advertising firms.
THE ART DIRECTORS
The power of advertising is largely misunderstood by those who are exposed to it. It has been tasked with changing cultural idiosyncrasies and has performed flawlessly almost every time. In the 1950’s DeBeers, the diamond cartel, decided to create a market in Japan. The J. Walter Thompson advertising firm was hired to change the traditional Japanese engagement ritual of exchanging wooden cups in favor of a diamond ring. The campaign was a total success and only took a few years.
Today, there are a lot of people trying to make us believe something, anything, it seems.
We have crossed that threshold where belief is only a ‘click’ away and the logotypes etched in our ‘corneas’ are so many that everyday is a buffet of sorts. No longer is belief a matter of survival, only a matter of choice.
We’ve come a long way, Baby – Slogan for Virginia Slims cigarettes