Brain Pickings

Monoculture: How Our Era’s Dominant Story Shapes Our Lives

By:

What Galileo has to do with the economy, or how Wall Street is moulding your taste in art.

“The universe is made of stories, not atoms,” poet Muriel Rukeyser famously proclaimed. The stories we tell ourselves and each other are how we make sense of the world and our place in it. Some stories become so sticky, so pervasive that we internalize them to a point where we no longer see their storiness — they become not one of many lenses on reality, but reality itself. And breaking through them becomes exponentially difficult because part of our shared human downfall is our ego’s blind conviction that we’re autonomous agents acting solely on our own volition, rolling our eyes at any insinuation we might be influenced by something external to our selves. Yet we are — we’re infinitely influenced by these stories we’ve come to internalize, stories we’ve heard and repeated so many times they’ve become the invisible underpinning of our entire lived experience.

That’s exactly what F. S. Michaels explores in Monoculture: How One Story Is Changing Everything — a provocative investigation of the dominant story of our time and how it’s shaping six key areas of our lives: our work, our relationships with others and the natural world, our education, our physical and mental health, our communities, and our creativity.

The governing pattern a culture obeys is a master story– one narrative in society that takes over the others, shrinking diversity and forming a monoculture. When you’re inside a master story at a particular time in history, you tend to accept its definition of reality. You unconsciously believe and act on certain things, and disbelieve and fail to act on other things. That’s the power of the monoculture; it’s able to direct us without us knowing too much about it.” ~ F. S. Michaels

During the Middle Ages, the dominant monoculture was one of religion and superstition. When Galileo challenged the Catholic Church’s geocentricity with his heliocentric model of the universe, he was accused of heresy and punished accordingly, but he did spark the drawn of the next monoculture, which reached a tipping point in the seventeenth century as humanity came to believe the world was fully knowable and discoverable through science, machines and mathematics — the scientific monoculture was born.

Ours, Micheals demonstrates, is a monoculture shaped by economic values and assumptions, and it shapes everything from the obvious things (our consumer habits, the music we listen to, the clothes we wear) to the less obvious and more uncomfortable to relinquish the belief of autonomy over (our relationships, our religion, our appreciation of art).

A monoculture doesn’t mean that everyone believes exactly the same thing or acts in exactly the same way, but that we end up sharing key beliefs and assumptions that direct our lives. Because a monoculture is mostly left unarticulated until it has been displaced years later, we learn its boundaries by trial and error. We somehow come to know how the master story goes, though no one tells us exactly what the story is or what its rules are. We develop a strong sense of what’s expected of us at work, in our families and communities — even if we sometimes choose not to meet those expectations. We usually don’t ask ourselves where those expectations came from in the first place. They just exist — or they do until we find ourselves wishing things were different somehow, though we can’t say exactly what we would change, or how.” ~ F. S. Michaels

Neither a dreary observation of all the ways in which our economic monoculture has thwarted our ability to live life fully and authentically nor a blindly optimistic sticking-it-to-the-man kumbaya, Michaels offers a smart and realistic guide to first recognizing the monoculture and the challenges of transcending its limitations, then considering ways in which we, as sentient and autonomous individuals, can move past its confines to live a more authentic life within a broader spectrum of human values.

The independent life begins with discovering what it means to live alongside the monoculture, given your particular circumstances, in your particular life and time, which will not be duplicated for anyone else. Out of your own struggle to live an independent life, a parallel structure may eventually be birthed. But the development and visibility of that parallel structure is not the goal — the goal is to live many stories, within a wider spectrum of human values.” ~ F. S. Michaels

We’ve previously examined various aspects of this dominant story — why we choose what we choose, how the media’s filter bubble shapes our worldview, why we love whom and how we love, how money came to rule the world — but Monoculture, which comes from the lovely Red Clover, weaves these threads and many more into a single lucid narrative that’s bound to first make you somewhat uncomfortable and insecure, then give you the kind of pause from which you can step back and move forward with more autonomy, authenticity and mindfulness than ever.

The book’s epilogue captures Michaels’ central premise in the most poetic and beautiful way possible:

Once we’ve thrown off our habitual paths, we think all is lost; but it’s only here that the new and the good begins.” ~ Leo Tolstoy

Public domain images via Flickr Commons

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

Believing Is Seeing: Errol Morris Unravels the Greatest Mysteries of Photojournalism

By:

What Susan Sontag has to do with Twitter hoaxes and the untold stories of WPA propaganda.

Besides being an Academy-Award-winning filmmaker and a MacArthur “Genius,” Errol Morris is also one of the keenest observers of contemporary culture and human nature. Believing Is Seeing (Observations on the Mysteries of Photography), out today, brings together his great gifts in an extraordinary effort to untangle the mysteries behind some of the world’s most iconic documentary photographs, inviting you on “an excursion into the labyrinth of the past and into the fabric of reality.”

The title of the book comes from Morris’s 2008 New York Times story, in which he first took a close look at the history and future of doctored photographs in the digital age.

From the Civil War to Abu Ghraib to WPA-era propaganda, Morris approached each photograph like a mystery story and went to remarkable lengths to get to its bottom. More than a mere curiosity-tickler for history buffs, his findings and insights are both timeless and timelier than ever when the same issues — manipulation, censorship, authenticity, journalistic ethics — ebb to the forefront of our collective conscience in an age when photojournalism is both more accessible and messier than ever before.

Susan Sontag famously accused Roger Fenton of staging the cannonballs in The Valley of the Shadow of Death, his iconic photograph of the Crimean War. In the age of Photoshop, even staging is too big a bother — all it takes are a few clicks of the mouse, or maybe just a misleading tweet. (Thousands of people duped by faux Irene shark photo last weekend, I’m looking at you.)

Kathryn Schulz has a fantastic, thoughtful review in The New York Times — highly recommended.

A feat of investigative inquiry woven together by Morris’s delicate but cunning threads of cultural criticism, Believing Is Seeing is an absolute masterpiece of rigorous nonfiction that pulls you in like the best of mystery fiction.

Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter and people say it’s cool. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s an example. Like? Sign up.

Arnold Schoenberg’s Music Notation Based on Tennis: A Tribute to George Gershwin

By:

What the U.S. Open has to do with atonality and one of the great losses of twentieth-century music.

Austrian-American composer Arnold Schoenberg is best-known as the inventor of the twelve-tone technique and a pioneer of atonality, but he was also a man of many curiosities and passions. A lover of tennis, which he famously played with his tennis partner George Gershwin, Schoenberg channeled his enthusiasm for the sport into a new system of music notation, based on a transcription of the events in a tennis match — one of the many gems in the phenomenal anthology of innovation in notation systems, Notations 21.

In 1937, mere months before his tragic death at the unfair age of 38, Gershwin shot this home movie on his tennis court at Roxbury Drive, Beverly Hills, featuring Schoenberg and his wife Gertrud, along with some brief glimpses of Gershwin himself. The film is scored with Schoenberg’s String Quartet No. 4 Op.37, written in 1936 and recorded in 1937 by the Kolisch Quartet, which was sponsored by Gershwin. The video ends with a photograph of Gershwin painting his famous portrait of Schoenberg mashed up with audio of Schoenberg’s moving tribute to Gershwin, recorded on July 12th, 1937, the day after Gershwin’s death.

George Gershwin was one of these rare kind of musicians to whom music is not a matter of more or less ability. Music, to him, was the air he breathed, the food which nourished him, the drink that refreshed him. Music was what made him feel and music was the feeling he expressed. Directness of this kind is given only to great men. And there is no doubt that he was a great composer. What he has achieved was not only to the benefit of a national American music but also a contribution to the music of the whole world. In this meaning I want to express the deepest grief for the deplorable loss to music. But may I mention that I lose also a friend whose amiable personality was very dear to me.” ~ Arnold Schoenberg

Thanks, Ruth

Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter and people say it’s cool. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s an example. Like? Sign up.