Plate XXII: “[The Milky Way] a vast Gulph, or Medium, every way extended like a Plane, and inclosed between two surfaces.” From Thomas Wright of Durham’s An Original Theory or New Hypothesis of the Universe (1750). The Warder Collection

Michael Kimmelman’s piece in the Sunday Times, D.I.Y. Culture, touches on themes that I have been mulling over for a number of years. First there were the concerns that world cultures were being mowed down by the homogenization of the American consumer machine that co-opted everything in its path, from music to food to jeans. In that scenario, the internet was seen as just one more invasive agent destroying cultural distinctions.

Then there was the backlash view, one that pointed out that the internet has actually served to enhance subgroups and microcultures, allowing them to create a presence with a virtual footprint (which, in some cases, is the only footprint possible.)

Kimmelman places his bet on the latter point of view:

Nationalism, regionalism and tribalism are all on the rise. Societies are splitting even as they share more common goods and attributes than ever before. Culture is increasingly an instrument to divide and differentiate communities. And the leveling pressures of globalization have at the same time provided more and more people with the technological resources to decide for themselves, culturally speaking, who they are and how they choose to be known, seen, distinguished from others.

Culture means many things in this context, but at heart it is a suite of traits we inherit and also choose to disavow or to stress. It consists in part of the arts. It is something made and consumed, in socially revealing ways.. Anyone may now pick through the marketplace of global culture.

This may sound like the essence of globalization, but the fact that everybody from Yerevan to Brasilia, Jakarta to Jerusalem, knows songs by the Black Eyed Peas or wears New York Yankees caps doesn’t mean that culture is the same everywhere.

The common denominator of popular culture — which these days encompasses so many things that you could even include all sorts of high culture — seems to have just intensified the need people now feel to distinguish themselves from it. And global technology has made this easier by providing countless individuals, microcultures and larger groups and movements with cheap and convenient means to preserve and disseminate themselves.

Kimmelman’s article features his personal observations of differences in the culture of his new home town, Berlin, as well as insights from time he spent in Gaza. Because he is primarily an art critic, he also has strong words about how art functions as an element of the cultural mix. (I liked this line a lot—“Art may challenge authority; and popular culture…but art doesn’t actually overthrow anything except itself, and never has.”) This concluding thought was a poetic and useful way to think about things:

Hollywood and Broadway, the major museums and art fairs and biennials and galleries, buildings designed by celebrity architects and the music business are all the traditional focus of big media, and they tell us a lot about ourselves. They constitute our cultural firmament, the constellation of our stars. But scientists say most of the universe is composed not of stars but of dark matter. It is the powerful but invisible force that exists everywhere and requires some leap of imagination on our part, some effort, to identify.

Most culture is dark matter.

This seems timely given the recent claims that our universe just may be sitting inside a wormhole which sits inside a black hole which sits inside another larger universe. A Russian doll scenario that can hurt the head to unravel. Maybe it is just a call to pay more attention to dark matter, to the great unseen, to the stealthish realities that we cannot fathom with our every day senses. All so deliciously mysterious IMHO.