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.

Pacifiers, Individualism & Enculturation

I was visiting my brother and his family up in Minnesota. My sister-in-law at one point brought up the topic of pacifiers. She had taken the pacifier away from her daughter a while back because there can be problems if pacifiers are used for too long. I commented that pacifiers aren’t even necessary since babies have been fine without them for millennia.

My sister-in-law gave a response that got me thinking. She said that it helps babies to learn self-soothing. It instantly hit me that the pacifier is a tool of enculturation. It is used to create self-independence and thus create the sense of individualism that is so highly prized here in the West, especially the US.

I’ve often thought that individualism, in particular hyper-individualism, isn’t the natural state of human nature. By this, I mean that it isn’t how human nature manifested for the hundreds of thosands of years prior to modern Western civilization. Julian Jaynes theorizes that, even in early Western civilization, humans didn’t have a clear sense of separate individuality. He points out that in the earliest literature humans were all the time hearing voices outside of themselves (giving them advice, telling them what to do, making declarations, chastising them, etc), maybe not unlike in the way we hear a voice in our head.

We moderns have internalized those external voices of collective culture. This seems normal to us. This is not just about pacifiers. It’s about technology in general. The most profound technology ever invented was written text (along with the binding of books and the printing press). All the time I see my little niece absorbed in a book, even though she can’t yet read. Like pacifiers, books are tools of enculturation that help create the individual self. Instead of mommy’s nipple, the baby soothes themselves. Instead of voices in the world, the child becomes focused on text. In both cases, it is a process of internalizing.

All modern civilization is built on this process of individualization. I don’t know if it is overall good or bad. I’m sure much of our destructive tendencies are caused by the relationship between individualization and objectification. Nature as a living world that could speak to us has become mere matter without mind or soul. So, the cost of this process has been high… but then again, the innovative creativeness has exploded as this individualizing process has increasingly taken hold in recent centuries.