Sunday, September 18, 2022

"Lost Knowledge" Found!

I recently wrote about lost knowledge, the disheartening fact that while civilization appears to be on a broadly smooth uphill curve, loads of useful knowledge, technology, and general know-how have been (and continue to be) lost to the ages.

I linked to an informational page about Benjamin Olshin's "Lost Knowledge" ("The Concept of Vanished Technologies and Other Human Histories"), which goes much broader, examining the evergreen proposition that early civilizations with sophisticated tech may have vanished tracelessly ("All this has happened before, and all of it will happen again").

For what it's worth, while one can't dispute that progress is jagged - i.e. often retrograde - and that earlier civilizations were well on their way with certain  notions and methods and contraptions we've only recently begun to regenerate (or have missed entirely), I seriously doubt there was ever a Shangri-La or Atlantis with laser scanners and mopeds that receded into the dust before history’s dawn.

But it's still a fascinating topic, and Olshin's book costs well over $100 practically everywhere, and keeps coming up in conversations of smart people, and I'm delighted to have found a free PDF download (hit "Download Original PDF")!

Another postscript: When we speak of technology, we mostly refer to gadgety/sciency tech, but creativity and spirituality might be thought of as an inner technology. That sounds funny to modern ears, but only because we've sunk so far from the ancients, and even more so from the primitives. I wrote about it years ago, in a posting about Werner Herzog's film, "The Cave of Forgotten Dreams":
[The film] takes us inside a French cave, discovered in 1994, containing the oldest known art, from some 32,000 years ago. The obvious surprise is that these ravishingly beautiful drawings are far more sophisticated than we'd have expected. The most skilled modern artists could respect them without condescension. The less obvious surprise, spoken of only indirectly, is the nature of their power. Herzog, the investigating scientists, and the cavern's discoverers all report a vivid and very chilling impression of presence in the cave.

You may squint and study the drawings as closely as you'd like, trying to pinpoint the magic, but, of course you will fail, because a lasagna's magic is never about the noodles, tomato sauce, meat, or cheese. As we analyze the art, trying to define it and conceptualize it, we miss everything. It's what's missed when our own art is viewed literally and technically. The thing our ancient forebears excelled at is the thing we've mostly lost - to the point where we can't even recognize it when it's in front of our face - or, more to the point, under our skin. We can only chatter in confusion and fear, like the cavemen probing the monolith in "2001".


Anonymous said...

Emotional & spiritual “technology” is receding in the review mirror of gadgetry. Like chimps, we can learn, but we begin by toying with new ideas or items. We’ve become short sighted, and limited in our concentration. If something doesn’t elicit an amusing, or horrifying response, we become easily distracted. The mildly interesting doesn’t hold our attention for long.
Sometimes, it’s the initial low key “Hmmm?” that drives me deeper or sideways into a topic. Rarely do I feel I can successfully express what I find fascinating to another person. So I wonder alone, without a sounding board.
I simply think, and I enjoy and I am amused by thinking. Sharing my thoughts has become disheartening.
I teach about history and literature to very under-educated students. Their lack of knowledge about events surrounding them now, and how closely these events compare to history, both ancient and less recent, astounds me. I can’t teach because there is no place to begin. Celebrities are all they know. But, damn; they know everything about them. The ability to learn useful knowledge is there, but students don’t want to learn anything that isn’t trending. Socrates said exactly this. So, here we are again. The empire is falling & this time it is impacting the health of the planet. How many more chances do we have left?

Jim Leff said...

My visceral impulse is to agree completely on the short term dissolution of "the kids these days", but I've taught myself to be extremely cautious about that impulse.

For 5000 years, elders have complained about the new generation going all to hell, forsaking virtuous qualities, etc.. Yet after millennia of dismaying decline, we've put men on the moon, fit all of human knowledge, communication, and entertainment onto a slab of glass in everyone's pocket, and produced Jimi Hendryx.

Similarly, language buffs have decried bastardization for all millennia. Not one generation has passed without pedants ruing the destruction of language via lazy usage. And yet we manage to speak and write and compose poetry in all these long-ruined languages.

So there's fallacy at work in those short-term assessments. Not sure of the mechanics of how we go wrong on that, but I fall into the same fallacy more and more as I age. I suspect it's about new generations finding new ways to "get there". I had no interest in sitting stiffly in my school chair and diligently rotely learning shit like my parents/teachers had. I seemed, to them, sloppy and aimless, but I just needed to learn in a more informal way, sloppily refining rather than crisply incremental.

I'm far less restrained in pointing to longer-term declines, such as our disconnection with creativity and spirituality, which has unfolded over centuries, yielding a contemporary reality where even basic elements are completely mysterious to people. I don't think that's fallacious.

And that's where I'm coming from here. I'm not talking about "kids today", I'm talking a much longer view. I guess you missed this because you're focused on issues which are top-of-mind for you, and forcibly grafting them into unrelated conversation. Which is precisely what you say your students are doing. So, in your own framing, you're more like them, while, in my framing, you're more like me. You're "getting there" in your way, clearly highly intelligent, articulate and accomplished. However, you also exhibit a longer-arcing self-occupation, with less hooks into the framing of interlocutors. You say what you've got to say, unconsciously deeming your thought stream primary ( That's new, but it's been building for centuries.

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