May 27, 2017 3 min read
Exploring a whole new culture and its history, its evolution and the reasons that make it what it is today … is like taking a journey with imperfect lenses not knowing exactly what these imperfections are. Since we look at everything from our own perspective and not from within the culture, all that we can say is that what we make of what we can see and hear, here and now, is some image of the reality. And how true that image is or isn’t cannot be found out on our own.
As I describe a simple conversation with an associate to my 25 year old, there are so many back-and-forth turns that he takes in his reading of the matter … with every question I realise that I have not explained this aspect of the context or a previous conversation or the cultural paradigm within which the conversation is set… and it takes several explanatory notes for him to finally ‘get’ the whole story. More or less. So in spite of knowing me for his whole life, it still takes several explanatory notes for him to get a grip on the narrative.
Now imagine if he had not met me at all. Or had been from an Inuit tribe and had met me and my life context for the first time…. then the explanatory notes would run into pages before I could feel assured that the complete message had been transmitted. Taking this one step further, imagine that the Inuit researcher is visiting my life context 50 years from now – by which time I shall certainly have met my sad demise. And NO explanatory notes had been left for him. He would just look and see and interpret it all through his own context.
Is it at all likely that the model he built would be a true representation of my real life? 100 %? Or a 80% match? or even a 50%?
It seems to me that it is impossible to know the other. Not even if we stood in front of each other and talked for days. And certainly not if our worldlines missed each other by a few kilometers and a few centuries. And all we had is some remnant objects of their material culture and some narratives told by other foreigners whose powers were exactly as limited as ours.
Completeness, exactness, true representation and unequivocal assertion about the nature of our own culture – is already difficult…. such an assertion about the cultures of others is just impossible.
Along the way, if we believe something to be true about anyone other than oneself and one’s own experiences, the only claim we can make about such a conclusion is that the new hypotheses and conjectures are consistent with the other hypotheses and conjectures that we hold and they fit the mental model that we have built thought by thought.
More than that we shall never know for sure. Not because we are inadequate – but just because that uncertainty is the built in to the problem of ‘knowing’.
These are all triggered as my exploration led me to Myanmar through some fantastic manuscripts …. more about them later.
And it took me to look at some pretty pictures I took on a trip a few years ago.
Pictures from Yangon & Mon, Myanmar.
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