Africa / Civilization / Creativity / Incompleteness / Layers / Philosophy


I am currently washing the dust of Cameroon out of my clothes. Travelling there, you have the choice between dust and mud. Now, there is dry season, so it is dust. Back in Germany, I realize that the four seasons we used to have before have been replaced by just two: a warm rainy season and a cold rainy season. Now, we are in the cold one.

How to describe a place like Cameroon? Why is it so different from here? It is not just the weather or the seasons.

The following are just some tentative thoughts towards this question, work in progress from my philosophical work shop. But experience in my professional life as a computer programmer has taught me that it is often advantageous to throw half-baked thoughts into a discussion instead of working in isolation until everything is perfect.

In my first article in this blog (see Incompleteness) I suggested that our descriptions of things are always incomplete. There is one part that our theories or descriptions grasp and then there is an uncovered rest for which I suggested the term residuum. In my second article (see Car theory) I applied this idea to an example: cars.

On a quite bumpy ride in a rather old bus from Bamenda to Douala, I realized these concepts might help to understand what the difference between these places is, on an abstract level.

If we are talking about things created by humans, there are those aspects that are controlled or designed and those that are unplanned (and often undesired) side effects. So as the car-example showed, artifacts have a “layer” of controlled and known properties and a layer of uncontrolled or unknown properties. Beneath that are those aspects of reality that are not influenced by our activities. In an ad-hoc-manner, I will call the controlled or designed part of the artifacts the construct (suggestions for a better terminology are welcome).

Those concepts are not yet completely clear. As I sad, this is work in progress. It is probably helpful to distinguish artifacts from non-artifacts and description from design and so get a terminology with a finer granularity. However, the concepts so far developed are sufficient to make the point about the Africa-Europe-difference I want to make here.

Roughly speaking, the richer a place is the “thicker” is the construct. Culture is about pushing the residuum back or covering it with a thick layer of institutions and technology, making the ride through life less bumpy and less dusty.

In a poorer place, the construct is thinner and the residual components of life are more pervasive. Streets may be unpaved, bumpy and dusty. Light bulbs flicker and electricity sometimes goes off completely. Institutions are non-existent or small or do not work well (or their services might be and sometimes must be bent and stretched).

People patch the holes in the construct with creativity, with generosity, with patience, with humor, with faith. Showers are cold and people are warm. They have a kind of “savoir-vivre”, they know the real priorities of life, they network and help each other. They find solutions in most surprising ways. The result is chaotic and dirty and complicated and charming.

Where, on the other hand, institutions work well, you don’t rely on others as much. The aggregate state of the culture changes from a community to a society.

This distinction between community and society has been pointed out by Luciano De Crescenzo before – according to him, the phase transition between the two states runs through Italy, somewhere north of Naples. I don’t know if the interesting and funny books of De Crescenzo have been translated into English; if not, somebody should do so. De Crescenzo attributes the distinction to a difference of Greece and Roman traditions but I think it also has a lot to do with money.

In the richer societies, the residuum is less visible. The world looks cleaner, polished, orderly, well-organized, synchronized, but also colder and more hectic. It is to a large extent artificial. People become more isolated and – it seems to me – more selfish, egocentric and in a way childish.

This is, by far, not a complete analysis; it is just an attempt to understand the difference; an attempt to understand – on an abstract level – why I have brought so much dust home in my clothes. These thoughts might serve as a guideline in further articles about different aspects of the Africa-Europe-difference.

In Cameroon, our clothes where washed by hand. Here, I have a washing machine. It has just finished washing a batch. Let me take out the clothes. I’ll be back.

2 thoughts on “Dust

  1. “In the richer societies, the residuum is less visible. The world looks cleaner, polished, orderly, well-organized, synchronized, but also colder and more hectic. It is to a large extent artificial. People become more isolated and – it seems to me – more selfish, egocentric and in a way childish.”

    Surely the most significant conclusion to be taken from your observations.

    Is it possible to find a functional and pleasing blend between the residue, which is the foundation, and the construct? Can the “smoothing” just eliminate the jagged, jarring bumps and potholes, yet leave a pleasant, gently rolling contour rather than the brittle, deadening flatness of the “modern” construct?

    I rather like the idea of fine tuning descriptions, but then there is the problem of making sure that everyone is using the same definitions. We do need uniformity to communicate clearly. But how can we achieve that without sacrificing diversity?

    Can we have diverse “communities” that then make up a unified society?

    Surely the difference between a community and a society has much to do with the size of the population. The larger the population becomes, the more likely diversity will appear, even if the original community was completely uniform.

    This philosophical exercise / inquiry could produce volumes of literature if one were to pursue it at length. Which is why I stopped my comment with the previous paragraph. Had I continued, I might have gone on for a few thousand words without realising it.

  2. Pingback: Artificiality | The Asifoscope

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