Digital Whisky

13 Oct

It is impossible at some levels for cultures as different as East and West to comprehend the real, true essence of each other.  We can approach a general understanding or gain a sense of it, but never can we actually understand what it is at heart.

One extremely obvious case of this is Westerners becoming very ‘into’ Buddhism.  They think they understand what it is, they categorize and define its aspects and principles, and find its spiritual practices ‘really, like, you know, revealing and inspiring, man.’  But as much as they try, they will never (and indeed cannot) actually reach a full understanding of what such things mean to a person.  For they have not grown up internalizing such understanding in their every waking moment.  I’m not talking about mere tenets or ideals or individual experience; I’m talking about how the whole messy thing of a religion plays out on a human and cultural scale.  They don’t get it because they can’t get it.  They might understand the cyclical nature of Buddhist thought, but unless their own worldview, their thoughts’ unconscious prism, is cyclical in nature, they will never really get at what Buddhism is.

In the same way, though I write occasionally about Confucian aspects of Korean society, I really have no idea what I’m talking about.  I have an idea of Confucianism, its Korean variant, and I can see it in action every day around me.  I can have a view into how it affects people’s thought and behavior, as I find out my girlfriend’s reactions to everyday occurrences or relationships with people.  Yet I will never know what it actually means because I am constantly forcing myself out of my own frame of thought, attempting to adopt that of another.  I may almost touch it, like Adam nearly touching the hand of God on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, but I will never actually, completely know it.  For I do not understand the unspoken meaning of words here, the ideas intrinsic and unuttered, understood intuitively.

Yet in the same way, one can run into Eastern assumptions about the West.  They assume that values they assign to something would be reciprocated by Westerners.

What made me think of this?  A bottle of Johnny Walker.

I grabbed it off the shelf and only looked at the box when I got home.  ‘Limited Edition’ it said, though the price was no less than a normal bottle.  Basically they’re luring you in with a fancy box.  I took a look at the fancy box and saw this design:

A damn digital Striding Man

Yes, that it the Striding Man silhouette, but done as a lit-up telecommunications network, glowing in all its technological glory.

Seriously?

The artist, though, was completely earnest.  “Ji Hoon Byun,” the box interior read, “has been seeking for the aesthetic value in digital media art.  He uses engineering technique like programming languages as his primary method to create his work.  His works that respond to the movement of the beholders and to the nature have been invited to many local overseas exhibitions.”

This artist clearly has no idea of the essence of this important Western artifact, whisky.  He’s doing up the Striding Man to represent how cool and cutting edge whisky is, how digital technology represents the same level of excellence, etc, ad nauseam.

Except that the point of whisky is that it’s not digital, dammit.  It’s not immediate, instantaneous, available on your smartphone.  You can’t make it better by making it faster or in larger quantities or with brushed aluminum paneling or by live tweeting.  It takes lots of time, nature, and tough men in cold, lonely places doing things in the exact damn way they have been for as long as anyone can remember.  Whisky is the enemy of innovation and the antichrist of efficiency.

But Ji Hoon Byun doesn’t understand that.  The Audi-driving Samsung Men who shell out bucks for this stuff don’t understand it.  They may understand part of the whisky culture, that sense of connoisseurship fostered by men with too much money and sense of self-worth.  But they confuse that with the reason why whisky is sought after, enjoyed: it is not easily made or readily available; it can only be made by a old and insular tradition; and its taste can only in a certain sense be appreciated when you understand the physical environment from which it comes.  Go north up the coast from the Clyde and set your feet in Oban and you can see how that town’s whisky has both the sea and the hills in its taste.

But they wouldn’t want it even if they tried.  Because those Korean whisky connoisseurs, like secular Westerners dabbling in Buddhism, don’t want to actually understand.  Because that might mean coming up against the possibility that one can’t fully understand.  No, they’re looking for their own perceptions to be confirmed, perceptions rooted in the identity they have but try to escape.  Koreans drink whisky because they think rich, successful Westerners drink whisky.  They drink not to appreciate, but to socially distinguish.  And to be distinguished in Korea is to be ensconced in their worship of technology — hence the digital Striding Man.  Similarly, Western dilettantes like Buddhism because it doesn’t judge them.  They’re not interested in wholeheartedly embracing a different worldview, a whole new set of eyes, a real religion that requires commitment.  No, they’re interested in a perceived refuge from the moral and existential demands of Judeo-Christian culture.  Embracing Buddhism, they will be different, yes, but not in any objective sense, only relative to what they were before.

No matter what they do the box, those well-intentioned but meddling Koreans can’t change what’s inside the bottle.  Pure gold, and it only got there one way, a way not even Samsung can reverse engineer.  That is the lesson for our very selves when we look in the mirror.

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