Monday, January 26, 2009

What is a culture?

I've been wondering aloud on this blog since, oh, well since Hector was a pup, what would be a good working definition of cultures. The reason for this is that I have a sense when discussing cultures throughout history that I'm not talking about anything I can really relate to. There's not really an American culture or a Western culture anymore, at least not in the sense that we talk about the 'Roman culture' or 'Greek culture' or 'the culture of Medieval Christiandom'. So what is a culture?

Let's see if this works as a definition:

A culture is a symbol system [i.e.- stories, art, literature, language, dance, music, etc.] that explains to a group of people how they relate to the world [i.e.- explains life, death, love, God, the afterlife, where each individual belongs, and how they should structure their life- in other words, it mediates their existence in the world] in order to protect them [psychologically].

5 comments:

Alex said...

What about science and technology. A "culture" (used here as a definition of a group of individuals) may choose to embrace or reject a set of technologies because it works for them. The choice might be linked not only to the environment, but also to a preference or tradition...

There's a whole chapter on this particular point in Guns, Germs and Steel by Jarred Diamond.

narrator said...

In a paper I wrote this fall I talked about how whole cultures have succeeded or failed on the issue of their embrace or failure to embrace certain technologies, including information and communications technologies. But that's for Alex.

Rufus's initial question is tougher. We talk so much about 'micro-cultures' these days ("the culture of Wall Street" etc), that I'm not sure we can find our own definitions anymore.

Rufus said...

I definitely think that small groups still have their own cultures. But when people talk about say, 'the dangers to American culture', I think 'what are you talking about? What American culture?'

And then there's 'pop culture', which is really just consumer culture-it mediates against culture- it valorizes narcissism as opposed to instructing what one's duty is to the larger group and, in a sense, the universe. It's an anti-culture.

I think of technology more in terms of physical survival instead of psychological survival, and more in terms of tools than works of art. In many ways, I think technologies are more important than cultures. I find it much harder to imagine a group of people surviving without any technology than without any culture.

Ira, you talk about success or failure based on embracing or failing to embrace technology- and I can certainly think of examples of that throughout history. But isn't it also possible to imagine a society failing because they embraced a certain technology? Partially, I'm just thinking of the A-bomb here, but certainly, after the highpoint of industrialism, and having had time to see the problems that went along with it, it's hard to know what constitutes success and failure.

Alex, I admire your dedication to bilingualism, incidentally. Miu, who posts comments here sometimes, also does dual blogs, and honestly, I can't imagine having the patience and dedication to keep it up.

Alex said...

Thanks Rufus... And Mui and I are actually good friends. Where do you think I got the idea for dual blogs... ;-)

As for dedication, I'm not so sure... She and I are from a "double culture" environment. Meaning, we have friends and family with French names who don't speak French... And the opposite is also true, people with English names who don't speak English. So in order to be read... You get the picture.

Ok, so when you write about "pop-culture", or what narrator describes as micro-cultures, I wouldn't really describe that as a culture per say, more like a sub-culture.

To me a culture is what, in a sense, unites the majority. And does so on a variety of different subjects: arts, culinary preferences, the manner in which individuals interact or more broadly social interactions in general, technology and so on...

I started reflecting on this during the last federal elections. There was a whole controversy in Quebec and people basically united against the Conservatives because of the budget cuts in culture (in regards to arts). Although I tried to, I couldn't get on board with it.

The arguments you'd hear were along the lines of: "If there's no funding for culture, our society will disappear..." While I do agree with that statement at face value, I refuse to boil down the problem to just that.

Artists, mainly actors and singers, would use their visibility to stir up public opinion, thus shadowing all other aspects, and this is where I had a problem.

In Canada, and more so in Quebec, we have a social-democratic culture, which was, in this case, being overshadowed by a singular aspect. And to me, in the case of the budget cuts, it was that social-democratic tradition that was threatened.

I felt as though the artistic culture had become a tool, to address a larger problem. Truthfully, I would have preferred to address the actual problems.

Rufus said...

It's true that they were sort of missing the point- but, for me, it was nice to see. I moved to Canada from a country where cuts to arts funding don't exactly provoke that sort of outcry.

On the other hand, it wasn't so long ago that the Conservatives were trying to paint Quebec as the element that threatened the rest of the country!

Incidentally, I have to visit Quebec sometimes. I'd imagine that my French pronunciation will be even worse there though!

I think the things you describe are cultural- maybe what's changed is that, instead of creating a complete narrative of who we are, they sort of add shading to a vaguer picture. Most of us are sort of straddling multiple subcultures now.