Culture is hard to specify. Andy Clark in Being There conceives of it as knowledge offloaded to the environment – in the form of language, books and videos, street signs, maps, art, music, files, etc. – by limited individual brains. Christian Smith in Moral, Believing Animals describes culture as moral order, structuring the environment to ellicit right belief and right behavior from the individual.
In this blog, I have endorsed both views.
What is culture? Because the concept is itself an artifact, it can have any number of meanings, or none. For my purpose, culture appears as a series of nested narratives which explain the world and how to behave in it. Clark and Smith analyzed different aspects of the same process. Culture is both knowledge and morality.
The most striking thing about culture is that it is virtual. It exists only in the human mind – a kind of waking dream imposed on hard reality. Cultural monuments, like the pyramids, may endure for thousands of years, but once the minds which built them lose the dream, the culture dies.
We are not singular in the production of culture, but we are the first symbolic animals, the first to weave a virtual world around ourselves. The simplest, most isolated human cultures – the hunter gatherers of Australia, for example – are fantastically complex in their imaginings.
That was not the case with our pre-human ancestors, whose toolkit scarcely changed over a million years. Whatever virtual baggage those reactionary hominids carried, I suppose could fit comfortably inside their smallish brains. Theirs was less a dreamtime among totemic spirits than a brief doze in an unchanging world.
Around 50,000 years ago, something happened. Cultural creativity exploded like fireworks. Change became the norm, variety proliferated across time and geography. No individual could be expected to absorb such a mass of variegated information.
To cheat the oblivion which paralyzed our ancestors, knowledge was offloaded to the environment in the manner Clark described. To forge bonds beyond kinship, structures of moral order were assembled by human groups. In the complex narratives of culture, information and affirmation often became impossible to separate.
I don’t know whether pre-literate peoples understood the difference between virtual and real – between their morals, politics, and religion and the brute facts of nature. Karl Popper thought not. Tribal societies, he wrote, were closed societies, impermeable to change. Tribal people were thus slaves of culture, caught in its reactionary grip like our pre-human ancestors.
It was the ancient Greeks who first remarked on the virtual quality of culture. A restless and observant people, they noticed that good and evil in Persia and Egypt differed from that in Athens and Sparta. A portentous conclusion was reached. Certain facts, like fire and mathematical formulas, were natural, rational, and thus universal. Others, like clothing styles and political institutions, were conventional and thus arbitrary.
A wound was opened that has yet to heal. For reasons I can’t explain, rationalists crave universality. Because culture is a virtual dream, they have been convinced, through the ages, that is is some sort of trick perpetrated on society by a devilishly clever group.
Callicles, in the Gorgias, maintained that the laws were a conspiracy by weaklings to hold down the strong. Marx, writing 2,400 years later, arrived at a diametrically opposite conclusion: the dream of culture was really an opiate-induced hallucination, pushed by economic elites the better to control the working class. The postmodernists have followed Marx, but aimed their fire at those who derive authority from modern science and Enlightenment ideas.
Such critiques of culture presume a place outside the virtual world – a wakefulness beyond the dreamtime – from which the thinker, unlike the slumbering herd, can survey universal truth. Finding this magic place has exercised rationalists for thousands of years. The search has yielded little more than frustration.
Plato was forced to reject the objective world, and posit a realm of perfect forms. Marx downplayed immediate reality while appealing to abstract “laws of history.” Rationalists, seeking to escape convention, instead plunge deeper into a fog of opaque symbols. This has been their tragic fate.
I don’t believe there is a place outside our virtual world. I don’t believe the human mind can transcend culture. (If we could, I suspect we’d be less like god-like rationalists and more like my clueless dog.)
If I’m right, then we can only deal with with our virtual existence on terms fixed by that existence. We can only discuss the dream from within the dream. Culture sets the rules even for attacks on culture – surely true of Plato and Marx, who hungered after universal justice but succumbed, as all must, to the particulars of their time and place.
All the thinkers and schools of thought I have cited were concerned with the problem of culture and freedom. Unfortunately, the subject has long been muddled by the rationalists’ obsessive suspicions of our virtual life. We must move beyond that, to encompass reality. Rather than demand universality, we should ask whether our symbolic nature has helped or hindered us in the struggle for survival.
Posed in those terms, I believe the question answers itself.
Culture can’t be a trick, because the tricksters must dwell within it. If it is an opiate, all classes smoke it. Some may benefit more than others from the rules of the virtual world, but that is true of the natural environment as well. As Callicles observed, inequality is inherent to nature. Those who benefit least from culture would suffer most grievously without it.
This is a good place to recall Clarke’s idea that culture is offloaded knowledge. It is finite and imperfect – that’s the human condition. It is conventional and arbitrary, though not in the sense that so offends rationalists.
Consider the most powerful tool of culture: language. The sounds are arbitrary, but not even a philosopher would say, “I refuse to communicate until I do so universally.”
Similarly, there are an infinite number of possible musical instruments, and and infinite number of ways to play each. Culture delivers one method for learning the violin. It increases enormously the totality of human experience, while simplifying access to each experience.
The same principle applies to Smith’s account of culture as moral order. There’s an infinite number of possible human interactions, but if we attempt them all, we’ll remain strangers to each other. Culture familiarizes. It reduces the number of sounds, gestures, expressions, and situations, so we can recognize and understand one another.
Every culture tags behaviors differentially – some are demanded, some approved, some condemned. Individuals and entire classes of people also get treated differentially. Sharp virtual distinctions exist between good and evil, strong and weak, them and us.
This is the “order” in moral order: without boundaries and hierarchies, there can be no form. Profound inequities sometimes result.
The dream is unequal but far less so than an honest marketplace. More to the point, cultures are unequal when it comes to equality, freedom, and every other value. Popper was probably wrong to imagine an absolutely closed society: every surviving culture was open to the changes necessary to survive. But in relative terms, he was correct.
Freedom depends on biology but also on culture – on the quality of the culture. In the end, the content of the dream is everything.