Thalweg

by Ben Perreira

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I write a lot about things I learned in college. When you’re in college it can seem like most of what you’re learning is sort of useless. I started at Mira Costa Community College in San Diego before transferring to UCSB and my first year consisted of courses that fit requirements, but tangentially rather than just Biology 101 or English 101. I write about college because I am interested in the production of knowledge (or epistemology, another subject I first encountered at Mira Costa). I find that the more different things we study the more they all gain clarity. For instance, patterns and logic in nature serve as metaphors of patterns in human behavior. Metaphors are themselves dependent on the understanding of multiple things. Epistemology is sort of like peeling an onion; the more you get into it the more realize how complicated it is, and the more you want to cry.

I signed up for a geography class my first year at Mira Costa because I love maps. I didn’t learn much about maps, but I learned a lot about how the earth shapes itself. I learned about something called a thalweg. A thalweg is the deepest, fastest part of a river. It is the force in the direction of the river, causing it to meander and carve out valleys over centuries. It is not alive or controlled by anything other than the water that enters the river upstream and the sediment or rocks on the riverbed that happen to be in its way. In many ways it is in a constant state of re-birth and change, influenced by the elements around it at any given time.

Knowledge of thalwegs may win you a couple bucks on Jeopardy one day, but swap out geographical terms for those related to culture and you have a framework for how culture is created. Culture is like a river. It is constantly changing and both influences and is influenced by everything around it at a given time. Culture’s thalweg consists of its most influential people, brands, entertainment and events. History matters, as does the source of the water that makes up the river, but there is certainly a bias toward recent history. These things move the fastest and cut the deepest, changing the direction of that culture.

Just like metaphors are how we develop deeper understanding, culture is how we contextualize the world. What enters the thalweg in the United States may only exist on a slow moving edge in Germany, Guatemala or Grenada.

Keep peeling that onion.

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