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COMMENT: Don't understand me too quickly -Munir Attaullah.

Pakistan, Aug. 4 -- Even after 50 years of conscious mental struggle I have still not fully understood all the delicate shades of meaning of such conceptually wonderful omnibus words as 'culture'

The words of the title are borrowed from Andre Gide. Such a plea, from one sophisticated mind to another - like other pleas requiring a modicum of introspection - would get short shrift from most Pakistanis. For, confident we already know everything worth knowing, not only do we understand everything quickly but are also masters at unearthing hidden meanings not apparent to anyone else.

That last sentence reminds me of those famous words of Donald Rumsfeld about 'known knowns', 'known unknowns', and 'unknown unknowns' that, a few years ago, were the subject of universal hilarity (except, that is, for Fox News, who were simply dazzled by their obvious intellectual content). The lack of humility is a characteristic we share with the Americans. And, in a raucous age, instant mass communication is helping to rapidly spread the disease to others. I therefore think it entirely appropriate to begin this column by echoing Gide's plea. For, what I plan to say today may - very likely - quickly be understood as so much confused rubbish (which it may well be). Alternatively, it may not be understood at all.

That is a pretty convoluted preamble to what I plan to discuss today (and next week, for, given my deliberately rambling discursive style, one column is likely insufficient). Also, the subject I have in mind -'culture' - is a slippery customer, especially if the intention is to get away from the obvious aspects when discussing it.

And I am not going to make matters any easier for readers by kicking off with an apparently irrelevant (contextually) observation about nature. It is inherently lazy. Physicists describe this ubiquitous reality in a precise manner as 'the principle of least action'.

Now I am going to hazard a guess that even the average non-scientific Daily Times reader vaguely understands whatever that last sentence means. And that is so even though the word 'action' as used by physicists has a mathematically well-defined technical meaning he is probably wholly unaware of. But a sort of fuzzy logic comes to his rescue and helps him naturally understand quickly.

How is this possible? Darwinian Evolution provides the explanation. In a hostile natural world, the ability to react promptly and make quick decisions obviously has great survival value. Therefore, over eons, the process of differential reproduction over millions of generations will eventually result in the survival of those species whose brains are increasingly so adapted.

But Darwinian Evolution, being a natural process, is itself subject to the principle of least action. For most practical survival purposes, the vital requirement is a quick assessment of the situation, not a scrupulously accurate one. Our brains therefore have evolved structurally to deal in reasonable approximations rather than absolutes, and fuzzy logic rather than mathematical precision. For survival purposes, that is more than adequate.

The same argument applies to our use of language. More often than not, we communicate adequately rather than accurately, because that suffices. So, I am not going to waste your time and mine by first struggling to define 'culture'. Many such omnibus words - 'justice' and 'art' being two other obvious ones that immediately come to mind - are best left alone, for no great purpose is served by analysing them too critically. Such words are creatures of fuzzy logic. They are best felt rather than thought about.

Have you understood - quickly or otherwise - what I have said so far? For myself, I will make a confession. Even after 50 years of conscious mental struggle I have still not fully understood all the delicate shades of meaning of such conceptually wonderful omnibus words as 'culture'.

Besides, I take the advice ("Don't define, describe") of that great 20th century philosopher, Wittgenstein, seriously. So, in seeking to understand today what exactly is the basis of our culture - a question some of us seem to be at great pains to answer in that agenda-driven specific manner that might be termed 'Islamic' - I will consider some examples that should help the reader make up his own mind about the validity or otherwise of such cultural conceits.

Here I cannot resist another digression. Talking about omnibus words such as 'art', reminds of a well known story that may or may not have a moral. It is about that celebrated surrealist artist Marcel Duchamp. In his first New York exhibition immediately after World War I, the centre of attraction that had Manhattan art lovers in a scandalised tizzy was a real-life white porcelain urinal Duchamp hung upside down on the wall, called it 'Fountain', and triumphantly declared to the assembled critics: "It is art because I say it is art." The original, signed, urinal is lost - a fortune awaits the person who finds it - but a replica, authorised by Duchamp some 30 years later, hangs in the Tate Gallery in London.

The fitting denouement to this story came some eight decades later in 2004 when some 500 or so of the top art historians, critics, and museum curators were each asked to list, in order, the 10 most influential works of art of the 20th century. Yes, Picasso's two magnificent paintings - 'Les Demoiselles d'Avignon' and 'Guernica' - figured prominently on everyone's list, as did the work of many a famous other name. But the overwhelming vote for the top spot went to the 'Fountain'.

What conclusions the likes of our Qazi sahib, Imran Khan, and Dr D&G would draw from this story, I cannot say. Another fine illustrative example of the effete, debauched, bankrupt and utterly unworthy nature of western culture, do you think? Or does it all simply have to do with the relative rather than the absolute nature of values?

I know we cannot help discriminate (because of the inbuilt bias that uses one's own cultural upbringing as a yardstick), but must we judge? In this context, is the simple and neutral philosophy of 'to each his own' not a saner option? "Let a thousand flowers bloom," I say, along with the Chinese. We are all thereby probably enriched indirectly in some way.

I note that I have managed to complete my allotted quota of words for today by skillfully skirting around the periphery of the subject I had intended to discuss. Could the reason be I really need at least another week to myself to understand properly what I had intended to write? Wait till next week to find out.

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Publication:Daily Times (Lahore, Pakistan)
Date:Aug 4, 2010
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