Cultural bulimia

Published Opinion page, saturday Age, 1999

"Did you read this? Did you see that? Have you been following that story? Have you heard that song?"


No. I'm on a diet.


A great yoga teacher, Takeo Nakazawa,  once said that 90 per cent of physical disease in the west was caused by over eating and over drinking. I believe that a large part of our spiritual disease is caused by too much reading, too much listening and too much looking.


Too much information prevents us from seeing simple solutions.   Too much advertising causes us to see nothing but products for sale (and ways to make a buck). Too much B grade art turns us all into B grade critics.


Every day we are forced to contest and compete with messages.  We ingest so much information, media, advertising and art that we have trouble keeping it down. Whenever we see an ad, a show, or a news item, we become involuntary commentators. We talk of how it could have been better or more accurate or more politically correct. Or how the last thing we saw was better.


It becomes harder and harder to be inspired by art or moved by media because we ingest so much that is of inferior quality. And like tired art reviewers, our criticism verges on cynicism.


The Liver Cleansing Diet was an international best seller but I'm convinced my  imagination needs more cleansing than my liver. 


One solution is cultural dieting. Art fasting. Media rationing. Whole weeks without advertising.


One of the first principles of dieting is to watch what you put in your mouth.


Try writing a list of all the reproduced media inputs you consumed in the last week. Include what you digested from letter boxes, billboards, TV, radio, stereo, video, computers, the web, the papers, the magazines, the books, and the advertisements in between (and wrapped around) everything. A friend calls much of it "mind candy".


My guess is that most of us could not remember every item we digested last week, let alone count the calories.  And yet we still feel we should be taking in more.


We are like junkies looking for a perfect score.  The more mundane  media and average art we ingest, the more we hunger for pieces that inspire us.


This is culture stress - an anxiety for cultural content that can no longer be nourished.  We become addicted to media with a quiet desperation, a critical and emotional hunger for meaning that we can no longer satisfy. It's a vicious cycle - and both the cause and the effect are media overload.


There are several ways people deal with  media overload and each says a lot about contemporary society.


An extreme response is to get out of media town, and live in the country, one or two hours from the city, (in case we need an occasional hit). Although for this geographical diet to be entirely effective, one would have to live without telephone lines or antennae.


The most common response to cultural overload is to go with the flow. Hounded by media and information all day, we get home and turn on the television to relax.


A third response is to attempt to create a balanced diet. Surrounded by media and information all day, we get home and refuse to watch TV but try to squeeze in some quality media -  an arthouse video for example. But this is still a recipe for cultural obesity.


A fourth reaction is the desire to respond to the inputs - to have a say.  Cultural overload is one reason so many people today want  a more creative or expressive job. It's why so many of us want to practise art or get work in the media, or public relations,  or get onto the net. We just want to make a statement somehow. Our very own voice in the (electronic) wilderness...


But we are so clogged by foreign word bites and pixels that we cannot find the silent space to be creative. At least not without regurgitating some one else's media or art. We quote other writers, refer to current media to create more media, sample art works, and absorb foreign and local advertising as if it were one. With the aiding and abetting of computers we become masters of cut and paste - but not of original expression.


Social commentators argue that such is life - a daily cacophony of consciousness, of sounds, images and ideas. And in the cities particularly, this multicoloured noise forms our environment more completely than architecture, gardens and roads.


But when the arteries are clogged, no matter how aesthetically, surely it is time to go on a diet.


The rewards for even a little fasting and a good diet are revealing.


Firstly, reception and resonance both improve. Recently, my old colour television suddenly turned black and white. I decided to let it stay grey for a while. I watched less and less television. Some weeks later, my dreams began to have more colour and presence.


I once had a friend blindfold me and lead me around the streets for two hours. My hearing and my sense of smell became three dimensional. On vacation,  I spent weeks without recorded music and I began to hum and then to sing - and I never sing. In Tibet, ten years ago, I walked three days in silence and then came across a musician strumming a single-stringed instrument. I can still remember the timbre of those notes but I struggle to remember the songs I heard yesterday.


After even a short break from media, art and advertising, it becomes easier to discriminate between the good, the bad and the ugly.


Secondly, a fast or even a diet improves self awareness. The voices inside are no longer drowned by the voices outside. 


A third benefit may come in the form of social interaction. In our own ways, we all use the media as a barrier against loneliness. Even if it's only to turn on the music while driving. The media also becomes a form of virtual interaction.  Fasting even a little is likely to force us to find other ways to interact with people and our community.


A fourth reason to diet is that without too many inputs, we become more relaxed and  more present. And in a relaxed state we tend to have a morecreative output and fresher ideas. 


Perhaps the simplest reward is that the more we ingest biased media or average art, the less energy and time we have for the media and art that inspires us.


Over ten years ago, David Byrne suggested we do without television and begin to make our own movies.  But fasting is hard and dieting is easier - which is why we like it. (The first principle of dieting is that we can still have all the evil we like as long as we only have a little.)


In the future there may be books about "mind cleansing diets" but for now, we must design our own diets. 


We can be much more selective and include short fasts in our monthly diet. We can learn to distinguish between the media we love and the media we feel we should digest or can't help digesting.


Even while writing this article I had to fight off inputs. The desk in my study was surrounded by paper and books, so I moved into my lounge room. A newspaper lay open on the dining room table so I cleared the table. An article caught my eye as I put the paper in the recycling bin. And then another. I twice turned on music, for a little respite and inspiration. But each time I sat down to write I had to turn the music off.


Which is what cultural dieting is all about. Turning off the compulsion to turn something on.


Then, finally, we might find what we have really been looking for. A relaxed  mind.


A blank slate.




© Copyright Andrew Bock 2010. All rights protected.