— Cultural Sources of Newness

Are we progressing from cathedrals to pancakes?

For an academic like me, reading the reflections of an artistic director on the way to work at the WZB in the morning is both stimulating and threatening. Richard Foreman is the founder and artistic director of the Ontological-Hysteric Theater in New York. He contributed reflections to the collection of essays I have been travelling around with for the past couple of weeks: Culture. Leading scientists explore societies, art, power, and technology (edited by John Brockman). He offers two images of himself as a knowing being:   “I come from a tradition of Western culture in which the ideal (my ideal) was the complex, dense, and “cathedral-like” structure of the highly educated and articulate personality—a man or woman who carried inside him- or herself a personally constructed and unique version of the entire heritage of the West.” (p.256)

As I read these lines, I looked up from the book and out at Berlin, passing the ruins of the Kaiser Wilhelm Gedächtniskirche and its modern addition, also under reconstruction.

I read on and learned that Richard Foreman has revised his image:

“But today, I see within us all (myself included) the replacement of complex inner density with a new kind of self evolving under the pressure of information overload and the technology of the ‘instantly available.’ A new self that needs to contain less and less of an inner repertory of dense cultural inheritance—as well all become ‘pancake people’—spread wide and thin as we connect with that vast network of information accessed by the mere touch of a button.” (p. 256).

What a choice I have to start my day with as a researcher: am I more like a complex, dense, cathedral-like structure or a pancake spread wide and thin? There is truth to both images, but neither feels right. To avoid falling into an identity crisis at this time in the morning, I will get back to my computer and write about artistic interventions in organizations other than my own.

I welcome all contributions of alternative images from colleagues! And, since Richard Foreman emphasizes the Western cultural roots of his images, maybe our friends from other corners of the earth can release me from his “philosophical dilemma” (p. 256) ?