Once paintings on walls were lessons. Maybe symbolic stories that told a people who they were. The Cro-Magnon were thought to have ritual burials. To say goodbye to their dead. They had ornaments, jewelry. This speaks of a people who had a sense of identity. A culture. 1
Early humans ran in groups, solving the problems of the wild between themselves. Early language for those groups was likely vocally gestural. What is important is that people understood each other. Language embodied meaning which carried use between them. 2
The statue of Venus like a ritual to Demeter in a slightly earlier time also had meanings that neither Demeter nor Venus carry today. Then however, reverence and symbolic meaning were two and one and they were shared wide. 3
Externally culture in these senses set structure for meaning, action and identity that made a group a whole. People were bound by a world they shared between themselves; a world that ran deeper than the objects that gave significance and place in the universe. One’s place was personal, interpersonal and global through the artifacts of their culture. 4
Many pass over the medieval period as bleak. However, many also forget that in the medieval period in the West people lived harmoniously together in villages whose common cause was life. Guilds supported each other and a church gave focus to a community. Between villages products were exchanged with the ideas that they bore, just as in Greece and Persia or Venice and the East. 5
Barter in the Champagne Fairs in the 13th century is an example. They saw early forms of modern capitalism. Promissory notes stood like ideas. Exchange became symbolic like the ideas that were exchanged as the gold that the notes stood for. 6
All of this is possible because something is shared; understanding and meaning. These two acts, reciprocal in essence form a pact of meaning that is the heart of what gives culture to a group of people. Implied in acts of shared understanding are the things that are possible, the very scope of human possibility exist at the lines of understanding; we are anchored as individuals. 7
At times in human history cultures have ossified. Sometimes through the impossible weight of their promise (the weight of the Soviet Union might be an example). At other times decay has taken much longer as a cultures relevance is replaced by newer forms of living and its borders fray. One only needs to consider class culture as an example of a progress toward irrelevance. 8
Whatever the reasons a culture has limits set by an environment in which it lives. The French or American revolutions tore at schisms and new societies were made. We should not think that history is an abstract lesson for people past. We too can be as irrelevant as the fashions of the world decide. 9
In our world we have little use for culture as an object of reverence. However, we have as much need for significance as ever.
With the ability to reproduce at the scales we do we’ve achieved a feat that has called into question how we express what the world means to us. The artifacts we create aren’t rooted in a bedrock of meaning. Mass production means we can do away with what was meant. We’ve become cheap that way. When what matters is what’s new it’s of little surprise so many people complain that they find little meaning in the works of art culture produces. 10
But, that should not surprise us at all for in a strong sense culture is split between two worlds, a high culture who’s object is not to be reverent in an irreverent world but, to masturbate in a languidly Baroque spasm. The Dada movement is much like this for what of human life except an exposition of vulgar chaos can Dada say about the meaning and state of man and his life? 11
On the other hand we have sub-cultures who are larger society’s individuals. With no use for either reverence or irreverence except for themselves they sit quiet until disturbed. The last riots in Paris of 2007 are a case in point. 12
In this is a gap of meaning that leaves void the significance of every person’s relationship with the an absent whole? For there is no whole to speak of. Not in the Western World.
After Luther the Occidental World saw a shift from congregations led by a center piece to a world of existentialism and individual meaning. The ball started to roll for an inward-facing society Socrates “know thyself” could not predict. This is made most explicit in any discussion of Descartes and the focus of the mind inside our person, a focus that betrays as much by what it excludes from the individual experience as it includes. 13
My fear for culture is that we are in a state of hyper-culture, spitting metaphors out on a production scale. We are in danger of spitting out a culture that doesn’t improve us as people; its object is to consume and dull; it is not a culture integral and owned; its job is not edifying. It is a culture with only one function… increasing the revenue of a few people at the expense of humanities better ability to realize itself.
This sounds surely grandiose but, the ability to feel part of something greater, be that through education, participation or gardening leaves a mark of meaning in life. Activities which leave one connected. 14
Culture, that most contested of words. So broad in scope. It tells us who we are, what we should be doing. It defines what is and what matters. It exists between us; an object that we understand is understood because in part it’s affordances are determined by what we find already in the world around us. 15
But, when culture becomes a product a relationship brakes. Culture in mass is not culture. It is the absence of it. It’s a cheap knock off that is pawned off but, it’s not a reflection of who or what we are.
Culture is a context that sets the stage for how we look in the mirror, how we look at others and what the world means to us as agents in it. It’s also the pinnacle of all that we are at any one time. If we point to the objects of culture today then we are pointing to the best that we are. These are separate things from our achievements. Looking at what we regard as our heights where would we look?
But, this is only half a picture. On the one hand the sheer distance between the political elite and us is exemplary ossification. It is a sign post to the growing irrelevance of modern democracy. On the other hand our life is more permeated by ideas than at any other time. There is more information at our fingertips than someone in the 15th century could discover in their lifetime.
This leaves a dizzying world of possibility in front of us. Culture is forming beneath our feet. It is a culture of increasing self organization between individuals who want to find significance, voice and meaning in a world that wasn’t ready with it at the table.
Citizen journalism is only one form of this. But journalism is a form of reporting what has happened. What is most interesting about the present is the anarchy of ideas forming and to be reported. It harks back to a time when anarchists and communists were still sub-cultures, far from mainstream; a time when a new way to live was being asked by people frustrated by the life they saw.
Today there is an abundance of energy going into a creative exploration of who we are. There may be no central focus and the direction of travel is the obverse of traditional cultural transport. However, that is because the modes of creation are still so new and evolve at the pace they are created. It is reminiscent of early photography and film. we just need to know what to do with it. 16
What is so exciting about these movements is that they are detached from the superstructure. They are ground up. It is as if we were young humans again,finding our feet in a landscape so measurably different from the one we inherited.
The issue that faces us as the world evolves is twofold: the relevance of the evolution of technology to human life and its ability to support interstices for the formation of ideas that are shared solutions to the meaning of human life. Without these criteria met there won’t be an opportunity for an identity for our culture. We will be like small villages of craftsmen in a decaying Roman Empire.
But, the story is unfolding. In some sense graph data techniques represent a method for finding relations that identify those interstices. Not dissimilar to a painting in a wall, albeit one that maps from the ground and not from memory.
Human history in the West has been beset by two forces. One force has been the rational. The Athenian Gods represented structure. The other irrational, the cult of Dionysos would be the counter. Those two forces have remained constant in history.
The Romantics in the Age of Enlightenment, the poets of the Roman Empire writing concurrent to Stoics, in more recent history Empirical, Pragmatist and Phenomenological/Existential traditions have equally juxtaposed as have literary traditions from Hesse to Steinbeck.
But, what makes anyone movement significant is its ability to relate either to us or from us a narrative of who we are. We are in a point zenith of absence and at risk of a nadir. This is typified by a world that is mechanically superior to any other but, offers no solace in its sophistication. What makes the present interesting is that we have the tools to organize ourselves and our story. The question that looms is the story that will be told and the wisdom it will leave.
- In the book ‘The Gate of Horn: A Study of the Religious Conceptions of the Stone age, and Their Influence Upon European Thought’ Gertrude Levy explores through artifacts the life and possible spiritual elements of Cro-Magnon life ↩
- Mark Pagel in ‘Wired for Culture’ explores how early intersubjective theory of mind could have evolved from gestures to language in pre-agrarian societies. In the book he carefully explores the stages at which gestures could come to have a shared signification as a precursor to a shared language and later culture ↩
- Walter Benjamin and Jung both make reference to the significance of symbols at a time and place as making reference points for people that transcend the objects or the acts. For Benjamin the question of how easily an object is produced and its authenticity as an object of culture is discussed in relation to the relative meaning the object has at different times. In The Science of Mythology Essays on the Myth of the Divine Child and the Mysteries of Eleusis Jung describes a shared level of meaning in cultural acts such as the worship that shapes our view of the world ↩
- Jung ibid. See also Durkheim ‘On Suicide’ in which Durkheim explores the cultural significance of suicide and the role culture plays in motivating different kinds of suicide. For Durkheim suicidal acts were determined by the meaning that culture places on suicidal acts and the value of ones life in a culture ↩
- Lewis Mumford in in ‘The Culture of Cities’ carefully describes the structure of Medieval villages and how villages acted as cultural units supporting themselves. His focus is on the plan of the village and how through that plan a cultural landscape could be described that supported itself ↩
- In ‘A History of Capitalism, 1500-2000’ Michel Beaud describes the early development of symbolic currency and its later development through to the modern era ↩
- in ‘The Metaphors we Live By’ Mark Jonson and George Lakoff describe how cultural metaphors, embodied in our physical structure determine how we use language as a system to communicate. In the book they describe rules for the transformation of metaphors into new cultural structures that open new ways of thinking about the world ↩
- Jacques Barzun ibid. Barzun’s focus in the book are the cultural patterns from the creation of a cultural paradigm to its eventual decline as it decays ↩
- Robert Wilson in ‘Boundaries of the mind makes an extensive discussion of how it is that the ‘nature’ of any creature or system is determined in part by the external conditions that make it significant in its environment (also see my post Culture a Perspective on Individuals and Meaning ↩
- Walter Benjamin ibid. The essay to read of Benjamin’s is ‘The Work of Art in The Age of Mechanical Reproduction‘ ↩
- Benjamin ibid ↩
- Zizek in ‘On Violence’ describes the role that societies play in subverting people and excluding them as ‘other’. For him the lack of significance within a French society is an example of the backlash that such an exclusion can have. See also Ernest Becker ‘The Structure of Evil; An Essay on the Unification of the Science of Man’ in this book Becker describes Evil as the result of a loss of meaning for mankind in part due to the fractured nature of the human sciences ↩
- In ‘The Passion of the Western Mind’ by Richard Tarnas as well as in Bertrand Russell’s ‘History of Western Philosophy’ the course of cultural and ideological focus is traced. Both books take a different perspective but, see the Reformation as a significant shift in the Western World’s cultural focus, primarily onto the individual ↩
- In his ‘Critique of Everyday Life’ Lefebvre makes the case that being able to have direct contact with the world and what we create in a way that gives us a sense of ownership is critical for the satisfaction and meaning that we derive from the world ↩
- Edward O. Wilson in ‘On Human Nature’ describes how we see affordances, hooks, through which we can understand how an object is to be used. The same can be thought for cultural artifacts including ideas. In this sense it can easily be argued that culture has a role in shaping how it is that we perceive our own selves as agents in the world ↩
- I am thinking primarily of the maker movement but, the same can be thought of platforms such as Behance, Flickrand other digital vehicles of creative expression. It is also worth noting that there is an increasing trend toward gathering people together in spaces where they can find creative support from each other ↩