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.