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Arts and Culture

Americanface, Episodes 41-44

The story so far: I have decided to conquer Mount Everest despite my bad back.

By Andrew Struthers 2 Feb 2010 |

Andrew Struthers is a filmmaker and writer in Victoria.


The frustrating thing about the so-called New Physics is that stringently scientific concepts behind tropes like Schrodinger's Cat and Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle have been stripped of their math and appropriated by New Age chuckleheads like Arguilles in an attempt to provide what my scientifically-minded friend Greg Lang calls "wiggle room for ghosts."

I suppose I was looking for wiggle room, too, but not so that I could claim for my half-baked theories the mantle of science. That would be unfair. We moderns put our faith in science precisely because we've lost our faith, and with science none is needed. "Science, after all, works," wrote Nietzsche. But using unsound science to back up irrational faith is doubly misleading.

I didn't want to prove the existence of anything supernatural. All I wanted was a safety valve, like the ancient Greeks with their paradoxes. Actual scientists, like my astrophysics prof, Anne Gower, have no problem with this approach because science doesn't deal with truth so much as with facts, and not with facts so much as with data and repeatable experiments. It's simply a way of getting triangulation on reality, a triangulation visible even in the authorship of scientific papers: "Two of us (Curie, Becquerel) then observed a white flash inside the test tube, while the third (Mme. Curie) was sent for coffee."

The great hope is that, freed of metaphysical fuzziness, science will provide exact solutions to human problems, and save us from the tyranny of the irrational. Yet without a safety valve, or a region of mystery, science itself becomes the tyrant.

I first encountered this monstrous aspect of science when I was 12, during a visit to Dounreay beach in Scotland: miles of sand and waves, gorgeous and pristine as Chestermans, except for the great white dome of the Dounray experimental nuclear reactor, which bulged from the sedge like a Gaia-sized tumor.

For a kid in love with the future, Dounreay was a kind of paradise, holy as a cathedral with its crisp backlit diagrams and cleanly ringing metal stairs. But outside the visitors' cafe, in a glass case like the one displaying the glazed doughnuts, stood the Bronze Age skeleton of a local that the builders had unearthed while digging the foundations. This tiny, enshrined prehistoric man stared out over the footlights of eternity at me, an incomprehensible creature from tomorrow's world. It seemed somehow sacrilegious to prop up the remains of this fellow's earthly temple next to the doughnuts, chilly, naked and exposed as a specimen slide. And how did I know this wouldn't happen to me?

But the Bronze Age local got the last laugh. Years later it came out that, at the very time of my visit, the government workers running the reactor had cut corners by disposing of nuclear waste in a nearby landfill, whence radiation flowed to the sea, and that beautiful pristine beach will now be radioactive until the end of time.


Culture is very deep. The fish of other concepts swim in its depths.

Science can only take us so far down. At a certain point, we need a good strong metaphor. For example, we might think of culture in terms of chemistry: Japan, with its rigid customs, is in a solid state. Europe, where the future began to bubble up, is a liquid. The New World is a gas.

Or we might imagine different cultures as members of a family. Britain and her children display something akin to John Bradshaw's family dynamics. America would be the oldest child, whose violent separation from the parent still manifests in its right to bare arms; Australia, the youngest, whose morbid connection is exposed in its retention of English slang, such as jumper and gym shoe. Which would make Canada the middle child. 'Nuff said. But where does New Zealand fit in? Apart from Flight of the Conchords -- the finest two-man novelty band on the planet -- who cares?

The extent to which Britain has lived on through its children in the New World is almost comical. Every one of the founding fathers traced his lineage back to England; the first two Canadian prime ministers were both from Scotland. Each region comprises a world-dominating culture bordered on the north by another with one-tenth its population that rides on its global coat tails. But where does Wales fit in? Apart from Gwen -- the mother of my child -- who cares?

What really makes me laugh is when Canadians bemoan their lack of culture. Nothing could be further from the truth. The entire population sits within 50 miles of the longest unprotected border on the planet, beneath which lies the biggest, fastest and most aggressive culture the world has ever seen. If Canada were not completely centred in its own cultural identity, it could not exist.

And if Canada did not exist, it would be necessary to invent it. Where would Yankee draft dodgers run to, were it not for the region of mystery beyond the 49th? And where would that almost pathologically self-unaware crew find its comedians? You think an America without the safe release of a good laugh is a good idea? Bereft of chuckles, their take-no-prisoners attitude recalls the Tamil Tigers.

And they still have 5,500 nuclear bombs. Nothing funny about that.

(I was only kidding about Wales and New Zealand.)


Another way of looking at all of this is that there's some sort of problem with the connection between the two hemispheres of my brain.

For years I was confused by the separation of writing, which is a left hemisphere skill, from drawing, which happens on the right side of the brain. I was also unable to perceive time lineally (there is no ability to perceive time in the right hemisphere) and unable to distinguish left from right (diagnosed as a form of dyslexia). I didn't get my driver's license until I was 28 because I was never certain which side of the road I should be on.

Not that the connection is faulty. On the contrary, it seems to work too well. Perhaps there's a wall missing in the middle of my corpus callosum, which acts as a sort of border guard in the longitudinal fissure that connects the two hemispheres.

You'd think two minds would be better than one, but this is not the case. In Western culture almost everything happens in the left hemisphere. The right hemisphere lies behind a sort of iron curtain. Perhaps growing up in different cultures predisposed me towards an open border policy. Perhaps, in the interest of making me a functional member, society had to impose a dividing wall on my psyche, like the one imposed by MacArthur on Japanese bathers.

And perhaps my natural open border state is not such a bad thing.


582px version of Chinese propaganda poster, department store

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