Monday, October 11, 2004

Vernacular Zen

Vernacular Zen: Glimpses of "The Original Affluent Society"

I am an advocate of localization, simplification, self-sufficiency and fulfilled ontogeny. Slow food. Tribalism. A thousand other catch-phrases that, above all else, raise a singular objection from friends and critics alike: isn't your idealized vision starkly juxtaposed to your professed enjoyment of the finer things in life?

My response: on the contrary, my good friend...these worlds are in fact one in the same, only separated by the disinformation of the consumer economy.

Povero o Rico??
Is this an image of a "poor" fishing village or one of the worlds most exclusive resort islands? Actually, it's both--a picture of the idyllic island of Panarea (just North of Sicily) taken by the author while sailing away aboard the 38' sailboat "Fandango."

I have spent, to be perfectly honest, more than my fair share of mornings slowly enjoying an espresso as the fog burns off the slopes of Mount Etna in the distance, the scent of blood orange blossoms mingling with the sharp aroma of coffee. This is the kind of perfect moment that embodies our cultural ethos: sacrifice enough of what you love now, and you'll make enough money that some day you'll be able to buy back those priceless experiences in the form of a luxury cruise, a meal at that new bistro or a beach house in Florida. The irony is that this perfect moment cost about 65 cents--that's less than 8 minutes wage for a cashier at McDonald's, and yet it's enough to make highly paid executives and professionals alike salivate. This should tell us something...

The finer things in life can generally be divided into two categories: material and experiential. Despite the relentless psychological barrage of advertising, most of us can readily admit that it is the experiential that is truly rewarding and fulfilling. Many even recognize their own predilection to fulfill their desire for the experiential by compensating with an excess of the material. Commercialism tells us that the experiential--that which requires time--is too costly, out of our reach. Our time, we are led to believe, must be sacrificed to meet the demands of the economy. But time is free for all of us. It is the great equalizer, something to which we all have equally random access. But in the modern economy, where average individuals cannot directly provide for themselves, they are duped into trading time for the basic necessities of life--necessities that are directly available to the poorest of the Earth. As this economic hierarchy has intensified over time, we continue to be duped into trading our time for material possessions--far beyond those required to survive. The memes of our economic culture have convinced us that the material is a fine substitute for the experiential. A nagging doubt, dissatisfaction with our own suburbanization, some unknown, unfulfilled yearning tells us that, despire the overtures of mass-media, even the materially rich among us still long for the experiential.

The sun on your face, playing with your children, staring at a fire until late into the night, sitting still in the forest listening to the wind rush through aspen leaves, talking with friends, laying on your back in a meadow and watching the clouds pass above you. All of these things are free--they require only time. Hunter-gatherers around the world spend, on average, less than 20 hours a week "working". The rest of their time was available for the experiential, the "finer things" in life. Perhaps this is why anthropologist Marshal Sahlins calls them "The Original Affluent Society", or why Paul Shepard says that humanity's time in the "hamlet economy" was the best it ever had.

The finer things in life are nothing more than a connection and a oneness with those things that modern culture insists remain separate or "sacred". This connection is available to all of us. Reconnecting to the finer things in life is not dependent on success within the modern commercial economy...on the contrary, my good friend, this reconnection requires that we take a new--or is it old?--approach to life. This is vernacular zen.


Anonymous said...

One of my favorite experiences is cooking a meal. It combines creativity with cooking skill and produces an enjoyable result, along with a sense of accomplishment. But I wonder how this experience would translate into a more local/subsistence type of lifestyle. Certainly the growing/finding/purchasing food and cooking it will still carry all the benefits of a good experience, but will the experience be limited? While there is something to be said for making a meal out of foodstuffs you have personally grown or acquired locally, the variety of foodstuffs is necessarily much more limited. And to me, part of the satisfaction of cooking is the skillful combining of a variety of ingredients. Would this experience be lost? Was "cooking" as I think of it even a concept in more localized cultures?

Jeff Vail said...

I think that "local" cultures have produced--and continue to exemplify--the kind of cooking that I most admire: fresh, seasonally varying, largely locally produced and unique to the climate and lifestyle of a particular area. Take Italian food, for example. The cuisines of Tuscany or the Veneto or Puglia are each unique, are based on what grows best in the local area, and have existed for ages. Or the food of Provence, or Bavaria, or Japan, Thailand, Indonesia, Lebanon, etc. By far my favorite foods are these local cuisines--even if I must normally enjoy them out of their natural environment (and they aren't as good that way...). Look at the "Slow Food" movement that is growing out of Italy into the rest of the world: traditional, locally grown, peasant meals are appreciated for their true value. In my opinion, the post-modern art-food of a pretentious few can't hold a candle to a bowl of penne carbonara and a glass of simple red wine enjoyed in a tuscan hill-town.

This isn't a prohibition to creativity or innovation. In America, many areas have strong local culinary traditions. Combine that with a broader theme of localization, and the possibilities for American local-food and slow-food are very exciting.

Also, read Marshall Sahlins' "Stone Age Economics". The wide variety of ingredients available to modern chefs is certainly not a new development... if anything, we've reduced the variety in our food over the last 10,000 years. The San tribes of Africa regularly use over 50 different ingredients in their cooking--including over a dozen used just as spices. And that's in a very harsh natural environment...

mjaroneski said...

I am currently reading a summary history on england before, during, and after Cromwell. Before Cromwell, there were 100 feast days a year when the poor did not work. I think I could handle working 2 days on and 1 off. Less profit was made then.

ryan said...

great writing.

it seems to me that the antidote to the psychological foundation at the base of "the problem of growth" is in experience-oriented behavior. problem is right now culture is still dominated by goal-orientation... but the goal is unclear: world domination? endless use of energy? violent competition for resources? economic growth? these are surrogate activities for dull people with little care for life.

we need the equivalent of DARPA but working in the opposite direction. a team of mad scientists/cultural engineers devoted to creating sustainable lifestyles (not just technology) but behavioral adaptations which harness the innate desires of humans to chill out as hard as possible.

chiinook said...

When I first arrived in Estonia in 1998, I remember only one or two large supermarkets and the concept had not yet caught on. Much more prevalent and busy were little corner shops and the open air markets in every large neighborhood.

Now supermarket conglomerates have all but eradicated the corner shops and only a few markets remain open. Those that have been able to stay have had to rebrand as artifacts of a bygone era.

When we entered the EU at first it was great to see pineapples, mangos and fresh lettuce year round. But when local meats and vegetables were replaced by cheaper imports, people started to fuss.

Thankfully there is a move to return to local produce, even if it means a little more expense. Also a few of our older neighborhoods in Tallinn are making a real effort to make a concerted return to the experiential "good life". I sure hope the trend continues.