Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Tea ceremony: Energy, replication and membranes

Fascinating column in the New Statesman (thanks, Kevin!) considers the structure of human society by, first, applying a very extended metaphor — comparing human civilization and culture to the simple complexity of a biological cell — and then using four cultural institutions as examples of the hypothesis.

One of the examples is the Japanese tea ceremony. The writer marvels at its survival over many centuries, wondering aloud and in context:

A quick glance at biology invites us to ask the following question: why hasn't the Japanese tea ceremony become extinct? What has sustained it over so many centuries? The system must in some sense keep reproducing itself, ensuring a supply of new officiants to serve as hosts and new participants to serve as guests, and maintaining and replacing all the exquisite equipment used. It requires a lot of energy to keep going. What is its metabolism and how does it work?
After analyzing the tea ceremony's component parts, its history, its system and support, a curious conclusion:

It may, like university education, be helping both society and the individual in all manner of ways. It may be nurturing the arts, instilling virtues, preserving knowledge and wisdom, stabilising the mores of society - or it may have had, but lost, these roles over time. It may survive today as a sort of self-perpetuating parasitical growth that reproduces itself because it can. It seems on the face of it, however, to be a benign - mutualist, not parasitic - element of society.
Read it here, over a good cup of sencha.

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