Culture is the villain

I’ve had this sort of nebulous notion that culture itself is a problem. Not any particular culture, mind you, but rather the entire concept of culture.  The exclusivity of the group over the individual. A lot of people will hold up individualism against collectivism, but what if that’s just scratching the surface?

Culture is the thread we weave all our isms out of: tribalism, nationalism, and so forth. Identity culture is the nichification of culture writ large. It’s the perpetuation of the need to be aggrieved, oppressed, put-down, whatever.

So I wrote a piece about the whole Alex Knapp vs. The Oatmeal controversy that Ethan touched on earlier. I talk a bit about geek culture and this problem with being forever-aggrieved, forever prickly and defensive. But I’m not picking on the geeks – I am a geek, after all:

My blog is dedicated to all-thinks-geeky, whether we’re talking about fantasy novels, video games, or science fiction film. But I’ve never understood what it means to be part of a dedicated fan culture. I’m bad at being a partisan. Just lousy at it.

I’ll defend the things I love from critics, true, but I’ve never really understood why or how this is the basis for culture. Perhaps I’m simply antagonistic to the whole notion of culture, and especially identity culture, to begin with. Culture, after all, is rich soil for the spread of “isms.” And “isms” are bad weeds in Eden. That there remains such a partisan conflict between the Tesla tribe and the Edison army is something I was not particularly aware of before now. Perhaps this is merely evidence of my own ignorance. Perhaps I am not hip enough to be a geek.

Still, innovation, creativity, progress – half of it is happenstance, half of it is the collision of ideas, the upturned earth of serendipity and joyous conflict. The place where culture itself smashes like breakers on the craggy, inevitable shore of biology and human nature.

I’m not sure, but it seems that to truly propel humanity forward, to truly grapple with our progress, we need to overcome the premise that says culture is the be-all, end-all of everything human. Maybe there’s a certain danger there, maybe we disrupt important foundations in the process; maybe human nature is such that culture is inevitable, that cliques and tribes are the gravity we crumble under, coagulate beneath. Maybe lots and lots of good things come out of the slow crafting of culture as well: solidarity, custom, strength in numbers, etc.

Maybe culture is simply part of the story we tell ourselves in order to survive, a way to cast ourselves in the inevitable fiction we weave about ourselves. An armor against the unknown.

 

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13 thoughts on “Culture is the villain

  1. I think you need to think this through more to get anywhere. Humans are social animals. It is the tiniest percentage of humans who live truly alone and quite a few of them are sort of crackers. You put humans together and you will have some sort of culture. Culture, in the form of tools, crafts, agriculture, etc, is what made us who we are. But even if you go back to hunter gatherer societies 60000 years ago, they had culture.

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    • I think we’ve got a few definitions going on here, though, which is a very easy problem with a word like ‘culture’. The anthro meaning is something like all of the products of human creation, such as tools, crafts, and agriculture, but also symbols, languages, and myths. Then there’s “culture” as the totality of the ways that a group of people organizes their thoughts and experiences- i.e. “American culture”. Maybe you could call this “all of the things you can learn as a member of your society.” Finally, there’s a sort of Matthew Arnold idea of “culture” as the most elevating works of thought and art- culture as something that we achieve as individuals by coming up to its level.

      The idea of “culture as the problem” is interesting. I’m not actually sure that what the 19th century thinkers called culture exists any longer or is even possible any longer. That’s been my nebulous notion, but I think you might be getting at the same thing, Erik.

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  2. Erik, culture is only one of a pair of villains in this picture. Two great forces are at play in our lives: the diktat of culture and the diktat of the self. E. O. Wilson goes into this in some detail. We shall never escape from the tyranny of either. The best we can ever hope for is some harmonisation of both.

    Though culture is a great Bed of Procrustes, the tyranny of the self seems more cruel. We are our own worst judges.

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    • Dasein and mitsein.

      I suspect what Erik is thinking of as culture is in-groups (which, I think, is what hes’s referring to as “identity cultures). The existence if in-groups, and therefore out-groups, is a source of a lot of problems. Unfortunately, it’s just the way we are.

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      • Just so. Dasein and Mitsein. This is an era of self-service identity. We can transcend our little in-groups with surprising ease these days. Having watched the world for a while, I observe the greatness of the American Mitsein is this happy transcendence.

        As Erik correctly observes, there’s a certain danger in that transcendence. Maybe we do disrupt important foundations in the process. But I would argue human nature is more than the inevitability of die Unterdrückung der Kultur. We do not crumble under the weight of cliques and tribes. Those tribes now depend upon our membership and participation. Those tribes no longer have the power to shun. From this lack of power comes the current hysterical rants of the once-powerful arbiters of culture. Oh tempura, o morels.

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  3. Further to Blaise’s point, what you seem to recoil from is tribalism. “Culture” is not only tribal in nature and what we commonly refer to as culture contains non-tribal elements as well as the tribal ones.

    Question: given that cultural disagreements are inevitable, must all disagreements contain the seeds of inter-tribal conflict?

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  4. There’d be no problem with culture if people didn’t insist on forcing others to join theirs. That people persist in doing so suggests to me that they fear the extinction of theirs if people are allowed to pick others — which further strikes me as a sign that they define theirs in overly rigid terms and should try a bit more fluidity.

    That which refuses to move eventually dies. Yelling “stop!” doesn’t work, ever.

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  5. With no disrespect intended, I’m inclined to wonder about your use of the term geek with: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” At least for my decades in the tech world, geeks built stuff. There were hardware geeks and software geeks, who often warred with one another. I took great pride in being labeled a “renaissance geek” by my peers, because I did it all, from math to software to hardware, and could lecture and write about it as well as do the work. While geeks do tend towards certain tastes in popular culture, those tastes are not what makes them geeks. Feel free to tell me that I’m out of line and that language has passed me by (wouldn’t be the first time). Or tell me that your day job really does make you a geek and I’ve just missed that along the line.

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