September 01, 2004

A moment of disperception on the train this morning

I had a moment of disperception this morning on the train. You know, a moment during which you feel suddenly weightless, no longer held to the bounds of the earth by bonds of rationality or ordered thought. I am not shocked by these moments now. I get them all the time while reading the NY Times. This one came whilst (I enjoyed sneaking that word in, pardon the digression) reading a book review concerning a book that holds that Europe is eclipsing the United States in the "good life". The Times surprised me by not giving the book a good review but that was not the disperceptive moment. Here's the quote that brought me up short:

It would be foolish, especially after the recent report of an increase in poverty in the United States, for even the most committed proponent of the American way not to admire much in Europe these days: its reduction of grinding poverty almost to a vestige, its low levels of violent crime, the quality of its culture.

It would be too much to fisk the whole thing, but one phrase jumped off the page at me: the quality of its culture. What the heck does that mean?

Firstly, is there such a thing as a European culture? Other than Yogurt? Europe, as we can all agree, is a CONTINENT, not a country, not a unitary social construct to which we can ascribe common beliefs and expressions such that we can call any expression by its citizens a manifestation of a culture. Even for the US, it's hard to do, considering we, too, are a continent and yet there are substantial cultural differences between the coasts and breaking down among the regions. So that blithe assumption bugged me.

Secondly, the quality? The quality? Is he kidding? Clearly not, I suppose since the reviewer thinks that this proposition is so self evident that it requires nothing more than a languid flip of the wrist to insert it in the article, then a pause as the cognoscenti silently concur, and then we continue on, all happily flattered to be considered in the know concerning the quality (superior, implied heavily) of European culture. Please. I think I need a drink.

How do you judge the quality? Do we have agreed upon standards? Is there a time period we are talking about? What is culture, exactly? Is it art, literature and music all by itself? If so, I'd say that Europe was hands down the home of quality culture during the Renaissance. That can't be too controversial, can it?

Is it the marketplace of new ideas? Well, Europe gave us Fascism, the Nazis, and Communism, some of the worst ideas ever. That ain't quality culture. And we have left plenty of dead Americans in Europe to prove it.

Is it architecture? Is it cooking? Food? Wine? What the hell is culture anyway?

I have no idea what the reviewer is talking about anymore. Are you all as confused as I am?

Posted by Random Penseur at September 1, 2004 08:56 AM

Disperception, huh? Cool!

I agree that it is much too arrogant for that reviewer, when speaking of Europe, to not follow up his statement concerning "the quality of its culture" with an explanation as to why he believes it to be so. He's either one of those people heavily influenced by european ideology or just one of those who simply believe that everything european is just plain better.

As the cradle of western thought, music and art, their culture is historically significant to us. But as to their current contributions to world culture I believe they leave a lot to be desired. The "quality" of their culture is archaic, so much that you might call it out of touch, and just because it's older than ours does not in itself make it better.

Posted by: Mick at September 1, 2004 10:19 AM

Breathe. This IS the NYT, right? Think of it as Paris Match with shoulder pads. I say that the reviewer should probably go to Europe and immerse himself in the "culture". Immediately.

What a lil' rodent.

Posted by: Emma at September 1, 2004 01:09 PM

That was a very good point. And a hell of an image: The Grey Lady in Shoulder Pads. How 80's.

Posted by: RP at September 1, 2004 01:17 PM

What can I say? Apparently, I'm stuck there. ;o)

Posted by: Emma at September 1, 2004 01:28 PM

Actually I think the western concept of what culture is varies tremendously from the eastern concepts. To North Americans culture is radio (music prescribed by the corporation), tv, newspaper, books, and the stuff that's active in yogurt. To Europeans culture is art, music (not prescribed by corporations), food, drink, language, ambience, history, etc.

I WISH I lived in a place that had buildings over 50 years old. In North America we tend to rip things down, blow them up, toss them aside as new more fandangled stuff comes along.

Posted by: Oorgo at September 1, 2004 01:29 PM

Oorgo, I think you sell yourself and your countrymen waaay short. It might not make sense to try to do this based on your narrow definition of culture for North Americans, but, here goes: we gave the world music (jazz, blues, and the odd classical compositions of Philip Glass); theater (the Broadway musical, Eugene O'Neill etc.); some of the greatest painters ever (Singer; Winslow Homer; Rothko, the list goes on and on); we created the means to preserve great art that the Europeans destroyed in their pointless and barbaric internal wars; we have given the world a system of political culture with a stable and free and liberal democracy.

We may not have buildings that are 500 years old, excepting the fantastic structures of the Mesa Native Americans out West, but we have a vibrant creative bunch of people living in our newer buildings who need not bow their heads to any one in the world when it comes to matters creative.

(Please note that just because I left a statement unaddressed does not mean I agree with or concede the point. I disagree with just about every thing you said.)

Posted by: RP at September 1, 2004 01:39 PM

Two words: Georgia O'Keefe.

I have to agree with RP's disagreement. We gots us some culture!

Posted by: Emma at September 1, 2004 02:50 PM

A comment from Europe here. I think European culture is generally held in much higher regard around the world than America's. With Europe we associate high art, haute couture and thriving arts scenes. With America we associate Hollywood and Britney Spears. Not to say that USA doesn't have its fair share of artistic and cultural talent to rival Europe, but you guys just do a really hopeless job of promoting it :) The same could be said of my home country, Australia.

Also, the culture here, as in parts of Asia, comes from 100s and 1000s of years of restoring and immortalising great cultural institutions. A few years I had the pleasure of standing in a theatre built in 300BC (Taormina, Sicily). OK, it was in shabby condition. But the important thing is that it is preserved to remind everyone of the important of culture in European life.

I'm reminded of a tele doco I saw a few years ago about some Americans visiting a Euro themed casino in Vegas. After enjoying a gondola ride in 'Vienna' the Missus exclaimed with absolute conviction "no need to go to France now, I just had a ride on the Seine".

And finally RP, I detect a certain amount of envy and jealousy in your post. No worries mate, you live in one of the cultural beacon cities of the world.

ps. Life in Europe is fing fantastic :) So much tolerance and beauty and style and culture ... it's a little bit overwhelming :)

Posted by: mikeyinbarcelona at September 1, 2004 04:04 PM

I agree with you on the accomplishments, North Americans have created musical genres, architecture, and technology to rival almost any country. Unfortunately a good majority of the innovators in culture you listed created things in the past. The progressive lack of public care about anything cultural in our countries is astonishing.

I am a professional trumpet player (or I'd like to be if I could make a living at it), and I've seen firsthand the view of art, music, and culture in our countries. "If it isn't profitable don't bother", "If you can't make a bundle who cares", and "Why would you do that?" are questions I've had to answer and ask myself time and time again.

How can you create great works of art/music etc. when the main thing on your mind is trying to find money for food/bills etc. Or the other side, how can you do the above when you have limited time after your full time job/kids/house?

Consumerism, and capitalism eat away at creativity, that's my view, you are absolutely entitled to yours as well.

Posted by: Oorgo at September 1, 2004 04:15 PM

Mikey, thanks for your comment and your European perspective. You don't comment often enough. This time, however, I disagree with you.

First things first, you misread me if you detect envy or jealousy of Europe. It doesn't exist. I've lived in Europe, 2 different countries, and travelled extensively there. I do not envy or have jealous feelings about cultural life there. Not just because I live in NY, which is astonishingly vibrant culturally, but because I believe that America has culture and that Americans are cultured.

Second, the tale of the Vegas trip. I absolutely believe that happened. And why not? There are people on every continent who have never travelled, never been exposed to new ideas, never had to check their cultural value systems. I think we could say the same for blue collar types all over Europe or the lager louts who invade football pitches. None of us have a monopoly on that kind of small mindedness.

If European culture is held in higher regard, well, I couldn't say. Depends on how you define culture. I think that there are plenty of very smart people who hold American achievements in the high cultural field as high as they do European achievments. Maybe you're right about promotion. Or maybe it's the fault of the constant barage of anti-American writing put out by the top European newspapers and "intellectuals" who do their best to denigrate America and American culture at every turn.

I am woefully ignorant about Australian culture and world cultural contributions. Care to educate me a bit? I'm usually open to new experiences.

Was that theater perserved because of "culture" or because of a desire to attract tourists? You don't know and I don't either. Europe does not venerate culture historically. We do in the US because we have not grown up with the same ancient surroundings. But Europe? Europe invented total war and that included the destruction of "great cultural institutions". That even happened recently in Serbia where all of the old churches were put to the torch by one side and the other demolished the old mosques. Not to mention that beautiful old bridge.

Posted by: RP at September 1, 2004 04:21 PM

Interesting observations all around. I think it's much too emotional an issue to have it discussed with full objectivity. Everybody "feels" one way or another about it.

Thank you Random again, for providing such a wonderful topic and forum.

Posted by: Mick at September 1, 2004 04:39 PM

Mick, thanks for your comment. You are probably right that this is a good point to slow the discussion down. But first, . . .

Oorgo, I don't know that I agree. You make a very valid point about past achievements, though. Take theater, for instance. There are way too many revivals on Bway now. Still, there is sooo much avant garde and new stuff taking place all the time. Ditto for modern dance (which I loooove).

As for your point that capitalism eats away at creativity, what would you propose in its place? I note that communism was not good for art. Neither was fascism. Socialism, well, maybe but it tends to make artists very complacent since the handout is always there.

Either way, I wish you the best with the horn!

Posted by: RP at September 1, 2004 04:56 PM

I knew I had read about this just a few days ago. And without permission, I have copied from Helen's blog here, but you can read the whole post here

I thought lunch would be a welcoming break. I sat with my team and some others I really like, and across from me is a thoroughly pregnant woman I had never met before. She is pregnant. Really pregnant. Like, bursting. And she had just flown in from Chicago for this meeting, making me wonder if there was a restriction with airlines as to the dates you could fly when pregnant, or if I dreamt I had read about that.

She introduces herself as Teresa, from one of our suppliers to our contract. I heard the English accent right away, and asked her about it.

Her: Oh yes, I'm English. But I've lived in the US for over 15 years now.

I smile and sip my soup.

Her: But you Americans. You simply have no culture.
My spoon stops halfway to my mouth.

Me: I'm sorry?

Her: Yes, no culture whatsoever. It's sad really.

She's serious.
She's sitting in front of me, an American, and rubbishing my people?
What a bitch.

I hear that from time to time, that "Americans have no culture." To such people I want to tell them to trust me when I say that if you have a few generations of people under your belt as a society, then you have culture (there's that anthropology degree coming in handy finally!). Culture is the ability to pass knowledge, beliefs, traditions, rituals, and values through generations. Thanksgiving? An example of culture. High school prom? Yup, culture. Looking both ways before you cross the street? Bingo.

So when people say that, they mean another form of it-that Americans are lacking aesthetics, basically. That because we don't around watching Masterpiece Theatre or practice kabuki theatre on a bi-weekly basis, we are numbnuts on the culture scale. Because we don't have Renaissance painters hanging next to the Vermeers or American author's works written on onion skin paper in the vaults of Vatican City then we are lacking.

To which I say: wake up, and look at some of the other sparkly shiny things that America can produce. So were weren't painting in the 1600's? I offer Georgia O'Keefe or Rothko. And as far as authors go, we've given the world some great ones-Hemingway, Hurston, and Twain to name a few. So we're not without aesthetic culture either-you just have to appreciate that it's different to European culture.

And yes, I think that emotions come into play but wouldn't YOU feel that way if someone suggested that your family isn't quite "up to par" as compared to the rest of the block?

Gimme a break. (And that usage is what is considered pop culture.)

I'm sorry to use someone else's words, but I'm afraid I would throw too much invective -- left to my own vocabulary.

Respectfully submitted,
Emma Apropos

Posted by: Emma at September 1, 2004 06:14 PM

RP - You'll like the article I blogged about on July 4th:
Credit for pointing me to the article goes to Linda at Auteriffic. Also, is "disperception" really a word? Something else you might enjoy is a book by one Lynne Truss entitled "Eats, Shoots and Leaves". It's a grammatical treatise.

Posted by: Mark D. Firestone at September 2, 2004 06:56 AM

Emma, I read that on Helen's blog, too. It was entirely appropriate.

Mark, disperception is a word a friend of mine coined. We made it up because we felt it was needed, badly, in the language. It works. I'll go check out your piece today. Thanks for the reference.

Posted by: RP at September 2, 2004 07:52 AM

I got quoted!

I am being thrown up in literary circles!

I am awed! :)

Truthfully, I heard it again yesterday in the office-the whole culture/no culture issue. And you know? I have come to the following conclusion:

Culture is for yogurt.
People are just people.

Posted by: Helen at September 2, 2004 12:36 PM

Well, as long as you are not being thrown up ON, you are probably doing just fine!

Posted by: RP at September 2, 2004 12:37 PM

The word "disperception" has been used by orthomolecular physicians in the United States since the 1950s. It is not a new word. RP's claim to have made the word up is uninformed.

Posted by: Em at June 8, 2005 11:50 PM

Thank you, Em, for your comment. I had never heard of orthomolecular physicians before. Having not lived in the 50's, I couldn't really say.

Posted by: rp at June 9, 2005 09:36 AM

Odd..I just did a search for "disperception" and there were all of 47 instances in all of 8,058,044,651 web pages. Every single one (that wasn't an obvious spelling error) referred to a state of sensory misinformation. Not a single bit about orthopedic sciences, molecular or otherwise.

Even more oddly, despite the fact that it has sporadic (yet common) usage, it does not appear in the Cambridge or Oxford unabridged dictionaries or the International Dictionary of Medicine and Biology. Why, it's almost like it hasn't been used in even an inconsistent fashion by the orthomolecular physicians in the United States since the 1950s.

How very, very odd.

Posted by: Jim at June 9, 2005 11:53 AM

Type in the following terms in Google for more specific results:
disperception + orthomolecular
dispercetpion + copper

Try looking up the author Abram Hoffer in the library or at health food stores. He is a popular author who practices and writes about orthomolecular medicine. As Jim has found there is very little on the Web still. In fact, I came upon this site/blog after typing in "disperception" as the search term in Google, and I was surprised to see this as the first result.

I periodically search for this term precisely because so little of the word is used on the Web. I am working on an article theorizing that a filmmaker's work centers on his characters' experimenting with disperception as a means of solving their life problems. Sometimes this method deepens a character's troubles. Having a stake in introducing the word to film criticism, I was dismayed to see the word misused so flagrantly here by RP.

I do not believe ignorance to be bliss. But having not lived in the 50s either, I guess I shouldn't know anything culturally significant from that era that have become anachronisms in our time. Consequently, bomb shelters and hula hoops should be beyond my grasp.

The term "disperception" was not coined by orthomolecular doctors. I don't know how the word originated, but it was used by early psychoanalysts and neurologists to describe symptoms experienced by schizophrenics. I am guessing that the word's lack of use now has something to do with the pre-eminence of the DSM in the psychological field.

Posted by: Em at June 16, 2005 05:46 AM

Em, as fun as this may be for you, you kind of come across as a jerk so I'm gonna just cut you off. Since this is my blog, I get to decide that I don't wish to bothered by your subtle digs. I will close with this: how can I be "uninformed" and at the same time misuse the word so "flagrantly" when by your own admission, the only way to have turned up your specialized knowledge would have been to conduct a google search with such great specificity that it presupposes the very knowledge that the search is designed to discover? No need to answer, I'm just pointing out that you may need to brush up on your logical reasoning. It's a pretty flagrant mistake.

Posted by: RP at June 16, 2005 06:39 PM
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