Sunday, May 16, 2010


Do people make cultures, or do cultures make people? The obvious answer is both. Of course no culture can develop without the desires, the philosophies, the art, and the simple facts of day-to-day life that the people in that culture express in their very being. On the other hand, no person can develop without being surrounded by other people and the culture that they too were brought up in, or adapted to, or helped to forge. Indeed, the latter possibility - that cultures make people - seems all the stronger when you consider how few individuals are ever in a position to make culture, whereas all individuals exist in relation to others.

Consider the Nietzschian "ubermensch," who is so frustrated by the existence of an external world that shaped both his society and himself that he has to transcend the very basis of culture in order to even exist. Going "beyond good and evil" is little more than going beyond your very upbringing and existence, and while there is no doubt Nietzsche was in earnest in his conviction to do so, it remains an impossible - a frustratingly, maddeningly, utterly dispiriting impossible - dream.

The irony, then, when the culture we cannot escape is a culture that values, above all else, the heroic individual. Our reductionist stories about history, politics, art, and even our own lives turn us into individualists, bent on ignoring the vast and impenetrable backgrounds from which we emerge and in which we continue to exist. We do not celebrate or chastise, all told, the thousands or millions involved in some great accomplishment (landing on the moon) or some awful tragedy (a terrorist attack). The story of each becomes the story of one man: Neil Armstrong, Osama Bin Laden. Good and evil lurk behind our archetypal humans, all events, all people fit into some beautiful Biblical, cultural structure that remains unbending even when we criticize it most carefully.

It is all well and good to attack the seemingly deepest assumptions of a culture. Ideas like Good and Evil are the most obvious targets, after all. Examples abound of the awful practices of savage tribes which, when considered from the point of view of the particular tribe, cease to seem to awful. We cannot but feel moral outrage at a polygamous society, or the homosexuality of the ancient Greeks. We cannot but honor the European aristocracy that produced such wonderful artists as Leonardo Da Vinci. We cannot but stand in awe of Japanese temperance. In short, we reduce, reduce, reduce, and find the exemplars, the protagonists, the antagonists of the stories we wish to tell, all about the grandest and greatest of human problems.

More telling, to me, are the little things. "It is all well and good" is a cliche that says more about how we, as a culture, interact with good and evil than our reaction - or lack thereof - to ongoing war. In so small a phrase you see the grammatical stretching that cliche engenders, because we are a culture that loves and flaunts and loves to flaunt its rules. In so small a phrase you see "good," but ironic good. You see the desire to never say exactly what is meant, if only because such saying is impossible. But, in that the saying is a cliche, you see also our propensity for shared meanings and shared innuendos. There is no reason for utter individualism, even in the most individualistic culture, because it is impossible to communicate if letters, sounds, and words are strewn randomly about the page without sense.

I assume the page and letters, of course, but that is the proverbial rub (a phrase whose meaning has changed and grown thanks to the legend of Shakespeare, and despite the fact that almost no one knows its true meaning). Any and all resistance is couched within the thing resisted. Any and all analysis of culture - whether as deconstruction or reconstruction or simply an attempt to understand - is ruined at its outset by the mere fact of culture at all. One could say the same about language, which perhaps is the same thing as culture anyway, but is an even harder entity to attack because it is so much less tangible.

As with atomic particles, humanity is harder and harder to pin down the closer we zoom in. Likewise the further we zoom out. We get caught failing when we try to understand "humanity" as a grand class, and likewise fail with the individual. If we are to understand anything about the world, we are stuck doing it in categories. The prejudiced stereotype, it turns out, is just as correct as the academic categories we prefer, because ultimately both contain the same grains of falsehood and truth. The "red-neck," himself a stereotype, thinks of the awful moral shortcomings of other races, the terrible socialist liberalism of the intellectuals, and so on, but the academic classifies those other races instead by academic achievement, and talks about the need for affirmative action, and even the best multi-culturalist gets stuck in what boils down to stereotyping (even if it is data driven stereotyping).

Reality is more complicated. The interaction of culture to person and back is too nuanced for a tool as blunt as language. We have invented a whole system of unexamined gestures to convey even the simplest of our meanings (like hunger or the desire to be alone), so how much more would we need to invent to explain such ambiguous ideas as love, family, happiness, peace, war, good, beauty, and so on?

The problem arises when culture goes the other direction:
How many gangs are founded upon the vision and leadership of an individual? How many, instead, on some vague cultural acquisition?
How many failing students fail because they are truly stupid? How many are simply foisted into the stereotype of stupidity that they are forced to live up to?
How many women, indeed, implicitly desire high-heeled shoes, makeup, and perfume? How many men implicitly love sports and drinking beer? How much of the interaction, when it comes down to it, between a man and a woman is organized by a complex set of cultural and societal expectations?

And what is this thing called culture, to which we can broadly attribute so much of what we do, why we do it, and even who we are? Plunging into words is like plunging into people: the deeper we plunge, the messier it becomes. It is no accident, perhaps, that most every culture shares this: that people are turned into words. The name is a powerful thing, because it allows for us to try to understand what previously simply existed. Understanding, thought, consciousness... Do these things actually make any sense? Does culture? Does humanity? Or are those just words meant to signify, but which have turned in on themselves and now do much more than signify? How much of our reality is determined not by what it is, but by the very words - the very culture - we use to interact with it?

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