Navigating Life and Living with Culture

I sometimes imagine the life of an early hominid. Maybe Homo Erectus or one of their descendents. Life for those early peoples can’t have been much more straightforward than ours in many ways. We imagine it would be. We have a history of looking at a simpler time, a romanticism. Time couldn’t have been simpler then. Technology, for what it was would have been a better weapon or warmer shelter. Groups didn’t congregate in millions, though I’m sure some sense of etiquette helped life. There’s wasn’t the abundance of ideas to choose better solutions from. You had what you learned and hoped that was good enough to survive.

Two comparisons make early hominid life interesting; what it meant to be engaged with life and how people navigated life in a world seemingly more uncertain. These peoples offer direct comparison with urban life today.

Mark Pagel in ‘Wired For Culture’ notes (from the OED) that 25% of all words spoken today are made up of 25 words. These 25 words are used something like 30,000 times for every million or so expressions. The same statistic holds true for speakers of other cultures and languages. These words tend to be made up of pronouns and prepositions.

This is too surprising an observation to be wasted. It says something fundamental about what we, as people need to navigate the world. That’s not just the ability to find landmarks but, a system through which we can navigate living with other people. Life is not just the way to the supermarket; it’s the way we find the way to that supermarket with other people. That way requires us to have a shared set of tools we can use and those tools are the ideas we have and share through language.

Beyond language culture is reflected in how we see the world. How many pictures of someone’s meal can we possibly want to consume on Instgram. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t intend to slam the platform but, the phenomenon is interesting. In a study conducted at CUNY 79 million photos were identified with the hashtag #selfie. That doesn’t include pistures with related hashtags. Graphical analysis also revealed that most of these selfies were by people in the 20’s. This tells us something about what people are interested in. It says something about an outlook on the world and what, in it is deemed important. It says something about culture. It is relationship between culture and our interest in the world that is of importance.

Going back to those early versions of us tens of thousands of years ago, imagine the challenges. Most likely you were part of a group; a small group living in an environment that wasn’t designed to support you. There weren’t local authorities and information centers, less the internet. There was however, wildebeest, caber tooth tigers, a lack of roofing and an uncertain supply of food. What’s more there weren’t schools where you were taught how to live, trade or otherwise make your way in the world. But, there were customs and shared needs; both for you and for your group. There were also traditions passed on from one generation to the next, traditions that taught you how to interact with the world and make your way in it so that another generation afterwards could do the same.

The ability for a group to organize itself around the basic needs of life, to share skills, food and to coöperate, these not only form the basis for culture but, the basis for a shared set of ideas that spell out what life is. They’re the rule book we’re told never existed. Ritual, if there were any in those early days would have centered on the needs of small societies able to act together, share their knowledge and skills and the profits of reciprocity.

In this respect it’s not hard to imagine two worlds. One, the world we are faced with as a physical reality. The second, a world of language and the ritual behaviors that act as place holders for culture its schema for life. Those are the two worlds that we, as decedents of a long line of peoples have as a fundamental feature of our make-up.

That’s not to say that we have dual natures. But, it does say something about what it means to live as human beings. Our surroundings have changed but, we share a cultural jungle. Maybe an even a more ambiguous one than those of our ancestors. Culture shifts with the pace of technology, the economy and the relationships we have with other cultures. Those are all fast moving objects today. Faster moving than they were at the start of the 20th century.

Now imagine your life stripped of the routine you know, place yourself in a city without the language to speak to the people around you and imagine that you are there, on your own without the option to call a friend and seek advice. Where would you start? Shop-signs might point the way to goods, they may satisfy a certain immediacy for subsistence but, without the coöperation and connections of a group to guide you you’re no better off than a nomad in a new land. The space is just as open, just as sparse and just as vacant.

The point is this; surviving is one thing, living is something else. Culture, especially a new one in a new place is an unknown, a brick wall that we have to cross. In the words of Randy Newman:

It’s a jungle out there
Disorder and confusion everywhere
No one seems to care
Well I do
Hey, who’s in charge here?
It’s a jungle out there
Poison in the very air we breathe
Do you know what’s in the water that you drink?
Well I do, and it’s amazing
People think I’m crazy, ’cause I worry all the time
If you paid attention, you’d be worried too
You better pay attention

But, it’s not all quite so bad. Culture in this respect is a framework and the culture that we inhabit has evolved institutions that are designed to support and sign-post our way through it. Culture at the largest scale has realized that for every one of us subsisting there’s less in the social pot for everyone else. It’s a system that has evolved to support the needs of life as living evolves.

Cultures in this respect are sets of ideas; schema or plans for living effectively. In modern societies those schema are manifest in institutions that are designed to do nothing other than support the people that make up a society. Plans may prove wrong; we’ve all heard about what happens to the best plans. But, at least when we step out into the world there is a framework for engaging with it.

It’s the ability to engage with a world of others, to make more life than a supermarket trip that makes life living. Culture provides us with disambiguation through regularities. It doesn’t just carry ideas, values and morals. It quite literally tells us what it means to be engaged with the life.

The blockers that stand in the way of a life culturally shared are those elements that create peripheries for cultures. They may come in the form of the cost of living or the value sets that makes access to culture prohibitive for one group or another. The value sets that set one group of people above another. They are the abnormalities and byproducts of a body that has to produce excrement. We just happen to be attracted to the excrements of our own societies. But, then that’s a hangover from the Baroque.

To live then, to be part of the life you inhabit is to be a member of its culture, to have access to its ideas and to be able to share in them with the world around you. Subsistence isn’t living even if it keeps you alive. There’s more than enough evidence to show that ostracizing is not only painful; it’s a punishment for who you are. It’s the world’s way of saying that you can’t have life even though you’re alive; that is an irony and failure of our time. In our time there’s little excuse given the values we’ve come to learn to ostracize anyone. We ought to be a little more understanding.

In the medieval world people were forced to leave towns for bad behavior. In more recent times, as Foucault points out, behaviors that weren’t deemed fit would put you in the madhouse. We do similar things today. In the modern world the world will find a way to push you to its edges if it sees fit. It’s not one man’s decision, it’s a collective action of a society that pushes people to the edges of life. Today we value loud speakers and self-promotion, introverts aren’t for the world today as Susan Cain aptly describes in her book Quiet.

That’s not to speak of the inherent xenophobia in all of us. We only need to think about how we use words like ‘Jew’; still today an out-group term, or how we think about Poles or Mexicans (if we live in England or America respectively) to see that the most liberal of us are implicitly guilty of cultural protectionism as the next man. (Question Time on the BBC is often a great example of the temperament in England as this example so aptly demonstrates.)

We’re not the open minded, culturally tolerant and liberally minded people we believe we are. A study at Harvard (The Implicit Association Test) has collected an unfathomable amount of data that shows that those of us who rate ourselves as open to other cultures hold, at least implicitly, racial prejudice. It’s these kinds of implicit behaviors that impact decisions we make every day, even if we are unaware we’re making them.

It’s also one of the reasons Zizek, in his book ‘Violence’ points directly at the violence that comes hand in hand with culture and language; the absolute tendency of culture to be act against the interests of those who don’t belong to it, not through explicit acts of aggression but, in it’s favors for itself and its members. By organizing ourselves in ways that exclude the non-members we are all engaged in a form of cultural violence. (In this video Zizek describes the central theses of his book.)

Human behavior hasn’t changed in this respect in some time, it was once certainly an adaptive trait in an uncertain world. It’s in our DNA. That’s not a judgment, it’s a fact. In the modern jungle we still need to know who we can trust, who will and won’t cooperate with us and whose behaviors we can rely on.

It is just that these very basic features of life juxtapose very neatly with the institutions that have come to frame our society. Institutions that have, over time worked to bring societies together.

Immigration laws and protectionist politics aside, the urban world is a meta-society. One in which we are literally all in the survival game together. We all have something to gain from being part of this meta-world. On an individual basis that gain is a happier life. But, on a larger level it’s the basic functioning of the world in which we live. We may not be thrilled that Greece got paid a lot of money by the European Union but, its failure would also have been our disaster.

My personal concern is how it is that we can prosper from living. How we, as a people can feel, not disenfranchised by our own existence but, experience membership within the world in which we live.

Undoubtedly that comes, for many of us, from friends and family. The immediacy we experience in a moment of laughter are the moments of life. But, on a larger scale, beyond the immediate groups with which we belong there is a social world that decides for us, by virtue of our memberships to those smaller groups, how valuable we are. It’s that decision, one that is out of our hands that separates us in a world that is increasingly designed to be meritorious and connected. That separation, through language, culture, wealth and fashion is at the heart of a lie that is deeply embedded in our world and our lives. One that propagates some of the unhappiest of all of our experiences.

Communication betrays something fundamental about our nature. That we as social beings have concepts we share to live, they come coded in the form of words that help us engage with life and survive it. Words in this respect are like the mid-point between us and a culture that, beyond the brick and mortar of the world, make up a reality we must navigate.


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