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February 2010
 
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Sat, Nov. 29th, 2008 12:12 pm
Progress towards the past

It seems to be one of my recurrent themes that traditional things are often more radical than modern things. Just this week I was championing Georges Brassens over rock and roll music, and 93 year-old Mimi Weddell as the most advanced street style icon I'd seen in a while.



It would be easy to suggest that I say these things because I'm getting on myself, but if you check my track record I've been saying this ever since my twenties. In my very first New Musical Express interview I told the journalist that rock was the most conservative artform, and that Juvenal and Catullus impressed me more than any contemporary rock lyricists. When I pitched features ideas to NME editor Danny Kelly circa 1986, it was to write about old men who were more radical than young men: Jacques Brel, Serge Gainsbourg and Jake Thackray. I was 26.



Okay, could it be this has become one of my messages not because I'm old, but because I'm conservative? And do I turn the accusation around and suggest that supposedly-radical youth culture is conservative precisely to rebuff this accusation (conservative is, after all, one of my favourite insults)? Possibly, but I don't think that's the case. I think, rather, that I see the cultures of the past as parallel worlds, little instances of science fiction. Very often, I prefer what I see in those bubbles to what I see in the bubble of my own culture, the culture of here and now. I prefer it because it seems more advanced. And that contains the possibility that the culture we have now took a wrong turn at some point -- a possibility I've always been very willing to entertain, because it would be tautological to say that progress was just whatever led us to the place we happen to be in.



Many Berlin residents would take visiting friends to the Panorama Bar at Berghain, a techno club with a strict door policy, beats that go on for days, and a certain amount of sex going on in the shadows. I take them out to the ethnographic museums at Dahlem-Dorf. That's far-and-away my favourite Berlin place, because its vast rooms can take you thousands of years away, to Oceanic and Asian and Indic civilisations which boggle the mind by their difference to the world we know. Here, women walk bare-breasted, intercontinental journeys are made on wooden rafts, and people dedicate months of their lives to decorating a screen with a scene of pilgrims walking through a gorge.



I'll visit Dahlem's Botanical museum, hothouses and ethnographic museums this Sunday with a group of friends (two groups, actually, a hardcore group who are prepared to get up early, and a softcore group who'll join us later), and I fully expect to experience the sort of joys that fuelled Click Opera pieces like Museums are better than clubs and What are you wearing, living national treasure?



Since this is -- and always has been -- my big message, you won't be surprised when I tell you that my favourite magazine at the moment is Kateigaho International Edition (KIE), a magazine about traditional Japanese culture which comes out four times a year. I was reading it last week at Cha No Ma in Vienna, and thinking that it gives me more pleasure than, say, defunct youth culture mag Relax ever did. With Relax I always had to put up with features on graffiti and skateboarding and the pretense that Californian culture was the most beautiful anywhere -- something I knew to be a lie.



Relax is dead, and Spike Jonze isn't as young as he used to be. Meanwhile KIE continues to serve up features on traditional Japanese culture which look -- shockingly -- as fresh as a daisy, as if this stuff -- trad Japanese sweets, or bathing, or jewelry -- were something happening in the future rather than the past. I recently learned that the sexiest of my ex-girlfriends is now studying to be a museum curator. It doesn't surprise me in the least; she was always forward-looking.

30CommentReply

electricwitch
electricwitch
For anything, oh! she´ll bust her elastic
Sat, Nov. 29th, 2008 11:26 am (UTC)

Haha, oh bb, that isn't a recurring theme, that's just the Zeitgeist.

I was just thinking about The Ugly Sister the other day, you know, and it made me laugh.


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(Anonymous)
Sun, Nov. 30th, 2008 07:24 pm (UTC)
absolutely

Clubs aren't sexy - are boring. Museums are sexy - aren't boring. I agree.


ReplyThread Parent
qscrisp
qscrisp
Sat, Nov. 29th, 2008 11:46 am (UTC)
The gift of a golden voice

I went to see Leonard Cohen recently. To me, and to many others, he is some workly - loosely speaking - in the world of pop music who has both dignity and credibility, and has retained them into his seventies with what appears - when compared to most others working in popular music - to be a complete lack of effort. Personally, I like to think that he has done this because he is first and foremost a writer, and writers, unlike most pop stars, age well, even improving with age. Leonard Cohen wrote poetry before he wrote songs. His poetry is good. I've read it. The other way round - when pop stars try to become writers or poets - is usually just embarrassing.


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qscrisp
qscrisp
Sat, Nov. 29th, 2008 11:46 am (UTC)
Re: The gift of a golden voice

'Working' I mean, not 'workly', whatever that is.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Sat, Nov. 29th, 2008 12:01 pm (UTC)

It's a bit problematical to say we're not the most advanced culture that has ever existed. In technology and science we undoubtedly are, so you'd have to say something like "We have the most advanced science, but not the most advanced art and lifestyle". And probably a lot of scientists would agree that our technical capability far outstrips our maturity of judgement on what to do with it.

You could also find some moralistic people who would say that it's precisely convenient, corner-cutting technology which deprives us of the painstaking, lifetime-dedication quality which helped make parts of past culture so great. Not to mention the religious fervour behind a lot of it, and the aristocratic (therefore profoundly undemocratic) social organisation it often required.


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subalpine
subalpine
subalpine
Sun, Nov. 30th, 2008 07:43 am (UTC)

G.Snyder on lack of "progress" in art re: late-Pleistocene cave paintings, from "Entering the Fiftieth Millennium":

What was the future? One answer might be, "The future was to have been further progress, an improvement over our present condition." This is more in question now. The deep past also confounds the future by suggesting how little we can agree on what is good.


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cap_scaleman
cap_scaleman
cap_scaleman
Sat, Nov. 29th, 2008 12:38 pm (UTC)

Old cultivars of cereals and peas are getting popular again. Especially since organic farming requires you to grow something with a minimal to zero use of fertilizers.

And I agree, somewhere things went wrong!... It must've been the car.


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serg0007
serg0007
serg0007
Sat, Nov. 29th, 2008 08:32 pm (UTC)

Old cultivars of cereals and peas are getting popular again - it is true. It will enable to decrease the use of chemical fertilizers


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(Anonymous)
Sat, Nov. 29th, 2008 01:23 pm (UTC)
clusters

hallo Nick,

as a fellow maturing berliner i would love to join one of your museum outings sometime - where does one register? and if you haven't seen it yet - you might enjoy the totentanz exhibition at the charite's medical history museum - mortality hasn't seemed so alive in a long time.

cheers,
William Thirteen
http://www.squirm.com


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(no subject) - (Anonymous)

(Anonymous)
Sat, Nov. 29th, 2008 06:42 pm (UTC)

I think the closest parallel to Momus's thoughts on here are the Medievalists of the 19th century. In the face of the technological advances and democracy of the 19th century, they wanted to return to old, traditional ways, the simple life, aristocracy, etc. etc. Even the ancient Greeks longed for simpler days.


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(Anonymous)
Sat, Nov. 29th, 2008 03:14 pm (UTC)
KIE

Where can I pick up a copy of KIE in Berlin?


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Sat, Nov. 29th, 2008 04:32 pm (UTC)
Re: KIE

They may have it at Yamashina.


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(no subject) - (Anonymous)
imomus
imomus
imomus
Sat, Nov. 29th, 2008 04:33 pm (UTC)

You have a better memory than I do, Your Lordship!


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count_vronsky
count_vronsky
Sat, Nov. 29th, 2008 05:46 pm (UTC)


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Sat, Nov. 29th, 2008 05:54 pm (UTC)

And they say the Japanese have no sense of humour!


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peripherus_max
peripherus_max
peripherus_max
Sat, Nov. 29th, 2008 09:38 pm (UTC)
日. 夜. 夢を見ること




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subalpine
subalpine
subalpine
Sun, Nov. 30th, 2008 08:17 am (UTC)

i'm curious if you've noticed that you tend to be drawn to some eras more than others?
having just spent almost the whole fall working on translations related to the Heian, it's something i've been thinking about lately.

i'm always interested to imagine life, find aesthetic connections, etc. from certain periods: the Heian, the Paleolithic, the late 50s/early 60s that i imagine from the Beat Gen.&Nouvelle Vague...
and yet, there is hardly an activity to be found in all of Japan that i enjoy less than being taken sightseeing at a castle... (nor a genre on Japanese TV that i enjoy less than the average jidai-geki - and i usually like Japanese TV very much!)
the world of the Edo Period shogun and samurai just holds no interest for me at all.

not sure what i want to say about that - it might just be my personal preference - but it feels like there must be something more to it. probably it's not the eras themselves so much as what aspect of them we're thinking about - Buddh.temples of any era are interesting to visit.

just curious.. any thoughts on selectivity in your appreciation of the past?


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(Anonymous)
Sun, Nov. 30th, 2008 09:12 am (UTC)

This thesis is based on the erroneous premise that things are actually "going somewhere" in the first place. Merely inverting that idea is not what I'd call creative thinking.


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