History Society

Enduring Tradition as Satisfaction

Bookmarked The Convivial Society, No. 23 by L.M. Sacasas (TinyLetter)

A few years back, in a post that is no longer available as far as I can tell, Ross Andersen addressed the question of the pace of technological change. “I used to think this rapid pace of change was uncontroversially a good thing,” Andersen wrote, “but a few years ago, I read a long New Yorker piece about Paleolithic cave art that made me think twice.” He went on to explain how paleoanthropologists had concluded that cave paintings discovered in the mid-1990s, which closely resembled the most famous cave paintings found at Lascaux, in fact dated from nearly 15,000 years earlier.

Paleolithic cave art

“What emerged with that revelation was an image of Paleolithic artists transmitting their techniques from generation to generation for twenty-five millennia with almost no innovation or revolt. A profound conservatism in art, Curtis notes, is one of the hallmarks of a ‘classical civilization.’ For the conventions of cave painting to have endured four times as long as recorded history, the culture it served, he concludes, must have been ‘deeply satisfying’—and stable to a degree it is hard for modern humans to imagine.” — New Yorker

This is an interesting new perspective for me, with my fear of stagnation and lack of progress and growth. That things lasting without change isn’t a bad thing persay, that a consistency in culture could indicate satisfaction rather than incuriosity or repression. And, that “progress” is inherently rooted in dissatisfaction.

It is useful to consider how often it is the case that we turn to technology out of a sense of dissatisfaction… With what exactly are we dissatisfied? What precisely is the character of the discontent that we seek to overcome? …Even if our dissatisfaction is justified, are we justified in seeking to alleviate it by technical means?