How to Speak of Culture?

How to speak of culture? I’ve struggled to find a language that can capture the essence and form of culture, make visible what otherwise gets taken for granted.

Speaking about culture’s role in society is like trying to have public debate about racism after the ending of slavery and Jim Crow. You can point to the proven fact that racial prejudice is shown in psychological research and in analysis of the results of the justice system, but none of this will convince many people who aren’t already convinced because it isn’t part of their cultural reality. Racial prejudice isn’t so much an ideology as an implicit social system that pervades every aspect of life, with no conscious knowledge or intention being necessary.

Like racism, no single person or group is solely responsible for the culture that results. There is no plan behind culture, nothing that culture is trying to accomplish beyond its own continuation. Cultural narratives need no reason other than fulfilling the human need for being told a story about the world, about humanity.

Culture relates to ideology, ethnicity, religion, community, economics, ecology, to about anything you can think of. The complexity of it is that culture isn’t any single thing, rather is the glue that holds it all together and so allows it all to be enacted coherently within a society. This is essentially what is referred to as a reality tunnel, culture being how a reality tunnel plays out in the real world of societal action and social interaction. It is through culture that a reality tunnel manifests and maintains itself.

It is cultures within cultures, all the way down. Cultures overlap, merge, form confluences, and form new lifeways and mazeways. Cultures are amorphous when you try to grasp them, yet distinct enough to survive massive change over centuries and even millennia.

In some ways, a culture is a prison. It determines how and what we think, perceive and act. On the other hand, culture is what gives form to what freedom potentially can mean. A culture is a set of possibilities. Cultures, in clashing, form new cultures with new possibilities.

Multiculturalism is a nifty trick of trying to keep open as many possibilities as is possible.  However, a society will disintegrate if too many possibilities create incoherence. Americans have created a society where have been loosened the bonds between culture and social conditions, where the factors of culture can shift and realign.

This is why culture holds so much power over the American mind. The present-day culture wars are just skirmishes that only appear to be more central for the deeper underlying forces that incite them. The culture wars are superficial antagonisms compared to the battles of the Revolution and the Civil War.

It’s not like any single culture is going to win and annihilate all the others. The diverse cultures continue on in the world, albeit transformed in the process. Particular cultures may seem to disappear, but it is rare for a cultural tradition to completely die once established in the larger society, although it may become buried deep under layers of historical events and sociopolitical changes.

Cultures have memetic power. This is why regional cultures have such persistence. The first major establishment of a culture is a sociological imprinting, the duckling of society forever after following.

It gets frustrating. Culture isn’t a war, isn’t team sports, isn’t partisan politics. We underestimate culture as a social force. We think we control it when, in fact, it controls us. We are the products of culture. We aren’t just enculturated. We are culture itself in embodied form.

In bringing forth my thoughts on culture, I’m forced to use different ways of speaking. I sometimes refer to history as if outward forms can be definitive or at least descriptive of the underlying pattern. At other times, I mention ideas and data from the social sciences. More often than not, though, metaphor is the language that feels the closest to how culture operates in the human mind.

Metaphor is the language of story. In becoming conscious of the metaphors we are using, maybe we can become conscious of the stories being told. Stories aren’t just words. They are living things, the divine fire of the imagination that lights our vision of the world.

12 thoughts on “How to Speak of Culture?

  1. Some of the difficulty is just the elusiveness of culture itself, the near impossibility to take it on its own terms. What would it even mean to take culture on its own terms?

    Even if I could fully grasp culture in and of itself, I don’t know how to fully communicate my own understanding and experience. I have a sense of something deeper within our collective reality and the best term I’ve come up for it is that of culture, but I don’t feel that my writing ability is up to the task.

    It can seem so concrete at times. It’s impact on the world is certainly concrete. But the relationship between concrete causes and effects goes beyond the straightforward experience of the concrete.

    It’s like trying to study the pattern of eddies and flows in a river. The water is a real substance and it’s movement has real effects. Rock is slowly eroded. The water quenches your thirst and it can drown you. The water is there for anyone to see and experience. Our bodies are even mostly made up of water. The moving pattern seen in the river, however, is determined by contours of the stream bed, by rocks and limbs unseen below the surface.

    How does one speak of the unseen?

  2. Damn fine bit of analysis and pondering, Ben! One of the best things I’ve read on the subject which indeed is hard to write about, think about, even to identify. Comparison of cultures is not at all the same as a meta-view of culture itself, as you suggested,but it can serve as a first step out of immersion such that “culture” is invisible to a person..
    This line was especially worth pondering:
    “On the other hand, culture is what gives form to what freedom potentially can mean.”

    • I was hoping someone would comment on this post. I can’t get my mind off this topic. As I like to say, it’s caught in my craw.

      The strangest part of it is that it is mostly just academics, specifically historians and social scientists, who are seriously discussing culture. Some of these academics have managed to write a few more popular books that have managed to reach out beyond academia. But even these noble efforts haven’t been embraced by the mainstream media and the general public.

      There is a fundamental disconnect bhind this lack of wider interest. That is why I put forth my query about language and communication. I have this sense of culture, yet there is no way for me to directly cause another person to grasp what is real in my experience. So, I was thinking there needs to be a way to help people experience culture for themselves, experience not just its outer forms but the essence.

      We can speak of concretes. We can speak of abstracts. Culture, however, is between and beyond either category. To horribly oversimplify, culture is basically just our shared experience. It is everything and it is nothing in particular.

      I congratulate you on picking out that line on freedom. That is the crux of the issue. With unconsciusness and ignorance, culture is a prison. At the same time, culture is the key to the lock. A prison no longer is a prison when you are free to come and go as you please. All prisons open up to a mansion with many rooms.

  3. There is another line of thought related to this post.

    A while back, I came across the notion of capitalist realism and it is a compelling explanation of where we find ourselves now. What capitalist realism claims is that there are no other options. The defenders of it want to create a hermetically sealed reality tunnel that will ward off the evils of external reality, a self-enclosed system that will protect us from the consequences of our own actions or at least protect us from any larger awareness.

    Capitalist realism specifically defends the so-called American Way. We defeated the commies. We are the winners and the rulers at the end of history. Our system may not be perfect, so they say, but it’s the best game in town. According to the ideology, no other country comes close to the great achievements of America. We are the best at being the best, for all times, multiplied by infinity, no give-me-backs, they lived happily ever after, the end.

    If this were true, it would be a pathetic claim. It’s the death of cultural imagination and the murder weapon is a cynicism of low expectations. Our supposed free market is neither free nor conducive to freedom. Our supposed representative democracy is neither particularly representative or democratic.

    This is the best we have to offer? Really!?! I suppose the Romans made the same argument about the Roman Empire, but no one is arguing that civilization should have stuck with the Roman model. The Romans made good roads. And we Americans make good pop culture or whatever. Who cares? We are going full speed on a deadend road. The niceness of the vehicle we are in isn’t overly important at this point.

    If we aren’t aware of the story we are telling ourselves, then we are trapped within our own creation. It’s jst a story, one among many. The story is our reality tunnel, but it isn’t our entire reality.

    • A while back I think I recommended the philosophical novel “Ishmael” to you. I don’t recall whether or not you said you’ve read it? It certainly applies to what you’re saying here, though for someone who has their own strong ideas on culture, it might be a bit simplistic. He divides human cultures into two groups; the Takers and the Leavers. Capitalism is, or would be, viewed as the crowning achievement of Taker culture (although he more broadly points the finger at the invention and incorporation of money, and the rationing of necessities by the few as a means to attaining power over the many.) I think at the very least you’d find Quinn’s arguement that the Old Testament is in fact a critique by the ancient pre-Hebrews on this up and coming cultural shift, to be very entertaining. The sequels to “Ishmael” are “My Ishmael” and “The Story of B” both of which necessary to obtain the whole of Quinn’s philosophy.

      • Yep, I recollect you mentioning Ishmael, although I’ve forgotten the context that caused you to originally bring it up. Maybe it was in my first post about capitalist realism.

        And, yep, I’ve read it. I have a friend who is really into that author. Dredging my memory, it occurs to me that a decade or so has passed since I read it. I never got around to reading ny of the other books, but I understand the basic distinction of Takers and Leavers.

        You could fit Ishmael in with the work by Derrick Jensen. His distinction is between victimizers and non-victimizers. Both Quinn and Jensen, among others, are getting at a core criticism of modern civilization.

        I feel more focused on the capitalist aspect. I don’t see much point in criticizing all of civilization, as Jensen does. Either civiization will collapse or it won’t, but there isn’t much any of us can do about it.

        I suspect that future generations will look back on capitalism in the way we look back on slavery. Besides, the ugly truth of the matter is that much of present capitalism is dependent on something akin to slavery still being practiced in countries like China. There was recently a note smuggled out of China written by a worker who described the terrifying conditions of the factory including beatings.

        I don’t know what might replace capitalism. It’s just for the sake of not falling into hopeless despair I like to think we humans are capable of more than this. Also, beyond mere capitalism, there is so much more to humanity. Capitalist realism makes us into moral midgets. It’s not necessarily an issue of what alternative is envisioned, rather regaining our ability to envision something radically new.

        Capitalist realism seems to be based on the idea that culture is dead. All of culture, like all of the earth, is reduced to its monetary value. Culture no longer matters, except as notalgia used to sell products. Well, I beg to differ.

  4. The issue I’m discussing here isn’t specifically about capitalism. It’s not about particular social systems and ideoogies, rather what precedes all of that. I wanted to discuss foundations.

    As a society, we rarely discuss culture in a deep and meaningful way. This means we don’t spend much time talking about root causes, instead obsessing over superficialities and symptoms.

    That is what I was trying to get at in my previous post about guns and culture. None of the problems or proposed solutions makes any sense outside the context of culture. I sense many people realize there is a cultural difference at the heart of the matter, but this usually just gets portayed in the simplistic narrative of culture wars.

    The culture of guns and militarization. The culture of honor and vigilante justice. The culture of violence and aggression. The culture of small government and weak regulation. The culture of dismissing public good and social responsibility. The culture of poverty and desperation. The culture of devaluing education and intellectuality. The culture of privatization and hyper-individualism. Et Cetera.

    All of this goes together. All of it is fundamentally the same culture. There is no way to talk about one without discussing all of them and thus discussing the culture that underlies all of them. It’s a systemic issue, systemic not just to political institutions but within individuals, families, churches and communities.

    What people don’t grasp is our present problems have roots that go back centuries. Culture seems to be the only way of explaining this phenomenon.

    • I guess I need some help understanding this one. Daniel Quinn would agree that all of the “this vs. that” examples you listed are part of one culture, and this culture is the one that all modern societies, movements, and economic systems function within, however diverse they may appear to be on the surface. His point is that there are only two fundamental cultures, the Takers and the Leavers, and the Leaver culture became so marginalized long before the rise of modern civilization, that it is questionable to claim that it even continues to exist. The “can’t see the forest” analogy certainly applies – we are currently mostly arguing about essentially trivial details about the only worldview we know, and not about whether or not that worldview is flawed, and if so, how might we go about changing it.

      Once again, I have to return to evolutionary biology. The human orgainism seems to me to have undergone evolution in response to this culture, so that now we are in a sense symbiotic with it (for better or worse.) If you share my belief (and Quinn’s) that this culture is flawed and doomed to extinction, then we need more than just a philosophical or ethical solution to provide for our future existence, because these are just re-arranging the deck chairs, so to speak. When I say that a fundamental change is necessary in the default genetics of the human mind, this is what I’m trying to get at. We need a brain that is able to step back and take a look at the larger picture. The Neanderthals, or Cro Magnons, being pre-Wetiko humans, may have possessed this trait, though it may never have been realized in a cultural form, unless you believe that they purposefully chose to follow a Leaver lifestyle. (Quinn takes the position that this is the default lifestyle, followed not just by early humans, but by all living creatures.) At any rate, modern humans HAVE realized the culture that corresponds to our mental genetics, and we may not be able to “think” our way out of our dead end; rather we need to evolve out of it. What gives me hope is that we still may retain the genes for both the non-Taker worldview, and for the evolutionary flexibility to implement it (through both teaching and natural selection) before we manage to destroy the Earth.

      • With the comment you’ve responded to here, I wasn’t thinking in terms of Quinn’s Takers vs Leavers. I was bringing my own thinking back to the framework of North vs South.

        There is a point to be made that the problems we face involve and implcate all of society, no matter the region or country or ethnicity. However, looking at specific examples gives form and substance to insights that can otherwise get lost in abstractions and generalizations.

        Yes, America’s problems are part and parcel of the world’s problems and the problems of the entire history of civilization. And yes, America’s problems are as much about the North as the South. But distinctions are still important. Almost any problem you see in the American North is far worse in the American South. I don’t know if it is that the South embraces more fully the Taker culture or what, but there is some fundamental difference. Maybe the North is merely less worse.

        All I know is that conservatives politics has made the South extremely dysfunctional and this seems to play out on the national stage whenever the Republicans gain power in the federal government: unemployment rates increase, economic inequality increases, homicides and suicides increase, etc. I find this mind-blowing.

        Maybe civilization will collapse, but maybe not. Maybe human nature will be radically transformed through evolution, but maybe not. Maybe an infinity of things, but maybe the world will go on much the same for centuries or millennia. The world is mostly an unpredictable place where all kinds of crazy things are possible.

        One aspect of culture that interests me is how it manages to resist change. Cultural traditions adapt to new conditions which is how certin strains or memes of culture have persisted across vast spans of time, even as empires collapse and new societies form. People have been predicting doom and apocalypse since the beginning of civilization, yet here we are.

        I definitely can say that I’m not interested in the job of prophet. I haven’t a clue where civilization is heading and how it all will end. I’m focused on what I can know which may not be much in the big picture, but I feel more comfortable speculating on what I feel more certain about. I just have my books to read, my thoughts to consider and my observations to make.

      • I was thinking more about your comment.

        The inquiry of my post is more general and open-ended. I really had no particular paradigm in mind, certainly not Takers vs Leavers, but not even so much North vs South either.

        My post and my comments here are my thinking out loud. I have nothing figured out. I didn’t come up with any answers and conclusions that I was hoping to communicate. I was simply wondering about the process of communication itself as it relates the process of culture.

        I get these intuitions and inklings at times, but they are hard to form in my mind and even harder to form into a shared language. Culture feels mysterious to me and resistant to analysis. In my mind, various dualisms (whether Takers vs Leavers or North vs South) ultimately don’t satisfy. They can be helpful if used carefully, but even then their limitations are too constraining for capturing the complexities of the world and of human nature.

        What I was wondering about is how to get at that deeper level of complexity that can’t be limited to this vs that. I want to dive down into the muck and mud of our collective psyche, not to find what I already believed but to find what is there, not to dissect it but to bring it up still living and breathing.

        Or maybe I’m just ranting about nothing, imagining every sound in the dark is a lurking beast.

  5. I think maybe Quinn’s choice of “Leavers” and “Takers” was not a good one, because it does lend itself to a dualistic comparison. But I don’t think they were opposites or warring paradigms. I think we just evolved. There was a huge, resource-filled world out there, and humans adapted to exploit it in the most efficient manner for increasing our speices (or genes, if you prefer Dawkins.) Only in hindsight does it look like a dead end, but those things happen all the time. To me, the question is, do we accept extinction, or do we have the capacity to change, as we did at least once before. Culture is unique, and mysterious, and one of the mysteries is that we don’t know everything it’s capable of.

    Maybe what you call a collective psyche, and to which I would add (without implying a dualism) an ability to apprehend a pattern, and a being behind that pattern, are one of the things that we lost when we evolved. Maybe that is the crux of the evolutionary dead end. Humans with modern-sized brains have been on Earth for several hundred thousand years at least. What were they doing before our recent major shift in culture came along? Why didn’t they overrun the place? Was it simply an accumulation of technical knowledge that suddenly made the human explosion possible? What did we leave behind when logical thinking and technical advancement became the most important forces in our culture?

    Did we have this discussion before? Maybe in a cave somewhere in France? I’m feeling some serious deja vu here…

    • I don’t have any ultimate problem of dualistic comparisons. They have their place and their uses, but I am acutely aware of their limitations and dangers.

      The moment you posit anything, its opposite is implied, even if only as a hypothetical. Its how the human mind operates… or is it just how the modern mind operates? See how simple the game is to play. We can add another layer of dualistic comparison by adding modern mind vs premodern mind… or if you prefer, human mind vs neanderthal mind.

      Of course, as you point out, although such sets of this vs that lend themselves to dualistic comparison, they can be used as well for more nuanced analysis. We should use every tool within our reach when trying to get at the mysteries of existence, cultural or otherwise. But mysteries tend to remain mysteries. Methinks there is good reason why mere mortals are wont to ignore the conundrum of culture. Maybe it takes a fool try to crack that nut… and I’d like to think I’m the fool for the job.

      Patterns, you say. Patterns, patterns, patterns, endless patterns within patterns. You say patterns are made by a pattern-maker. But I wonder if patterns might be their own maker. Without implying dualism, eh? Well, as far as that goes, maybe without implying anything else at all. I sometimes doubt that the pattern of my own thinking implies that I exist. Whatever may or may not be implied, patterns can be taken on their own terms and the truth therein grasped.

      To be philosophcal for a moment…

      If this is a world of karma, then every discussion has been had before. There would have been many yous and many Is having had many discussions over many lifetimes. Thoughts echoing across the eons, ripples disturbing the surface of the collective depths.

      Or to put it more mundanely: No thought is original. No event is without precedent. All of life is already familiar the moment you’re born. We carry the past with us in our genetics.

      Either way, deja vu is just the state of being aware… if that makes sense.

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