What is culture? (Or, more precisely, what it isn’t) (archive 2012)

I am obsessed with culture as a integrated unit but a culture cannot be a revolutionary subject, but only an aggregate development of the way people relate to their common history and their imagined future: most people use human morphology as a proxy for culture.  Hence the strange ideas that culture tracks with race as either essential or as a “social construct” (which is a fairly meaningless phrase). It is not that population differences between humans do not exist, clearly, they do.  But the interbreeding, particularly in the last 2000 years, between genetic different populations effectively renders too complex to map simply in homo sapien sapien.  Yet, there is truth to the idea that relatively homogeneous cultures experience less social conflict than “multicultural” culture but this seems only partly related to phenotype difference and more do “Race” as a 19th century “myth” (in the psychological sense) required of forms of nationalism both colonial and counter-colonial.

Note that I say that our current and unsophisticated view of race as it was understood in the early 20th century is a myth of nationalism.  I also said that genetic population groups we roughly call race is, clearly,a  taxonomy based on morphological differences that do not map neatly unto our prior racial notions of the three prime racial categories (African, Asian, Caucasian) established in the late 19th century. However, saying that “race” is just a social construct would be true of any taxonomic classification with a complex history and multiple uses in common speech: race has social and morphological characteristics as a result of both genetic drift and epigenetic inheritance and as such is tied into culture in such a way as to make the distinction difficult. In this sense, the entire discourse on “both sides of the dialectic” seem completely skewed.

It’s repeat this to make it clear: Genetic variance, however, between groups is more than a social construct and is reflected population distributions of specific genetic alleles.Iit is true that if you look at the anthropological data it does not map clearly unto race nor could be said that race describes nothing in relationship to genetic variance but is complicated by inter-marriage and since morphology as well as environmental triggers within genes do change from environmental registers manifestation of genetic traits will vary by region and social class even within relatively genetically homogeneous groups.  So race as it understood in popular parlance simply muddles the issue.   One can see this as a reply to an racial nationalist here as to the problems of most of the appeals of a clean classification. The following two youtube videos get at what is at hand here (and both videos have generalization problems as well as real information in them as well as this refutation of the morality in some of the arguments at Crommunist Manifesto. So watch as part of a skewed dialectic):

Ethnic groups, however, are not defined solely or even primarily on these genetic relationships. Furthermore, cultural and ethnic diversity within a community between ethnic groups does seem to directly correlate to both higher stress levels and decreased social trust.  Why?   It is not clearly genetic nor does a prior constrains map to a genetic map.  But it does seem that cultural homogeneity and relative social equity actually map onto each other ( see: Putnam, Robert D., “E Pluribus Unum: Diversity and Community in the Twenty-first Century — The 2006 Johan Skytte Prize,” Scandinavian Political Studies 30 (2), June 2007)  and such views are not just seen in the US? How are we supposed to view this?

One it is clear that cultural diversity actually cannot be predicated on co-existing without common identities and goals.  This is true not only for ethnicity, but also for class.  . Furthermore, the existence of these differences seems to be eased, as Robert Putnam points out, by intentional communities or other forms of identification that reduce out-group/in-group in a “real” way. Ideological consciousnesses would not be enough to relax the problem. In other words, consciousnesses must be aligned. (In this I am echoing W. E. B.  Du Bois’s layering of consciousness and how “double consciousness,” like double think, causes negative internalization.  I take this further that Du Bois in suggesting that double consciousness affects all people of layered identity, although it takes those under the false aegis of imperialism, separated from their integrated community and forced into another as having the most self-violent form of this consciousness misalignment).

The attraction of nationalism makes total sense from this point of view as does the conflation with race, but the key seems to be culture.  Yet culture is a thought gap:  as a concept includes language, traditions (real and invented), class, aspirations, hierarchies (or lack thereof), technologies,  and unstated ethical assumptions.  So the field of culture, like the field of economics, is almost impossible to clearly identify since in encompasses multiple systems of both identification and mystification. But after all this going through the identity politics–which all politics are ultimately–is that a sense of community is NECESSARY for social relations to function in a less alienated way.  This community can only be created by rupture with the past, and ruptures do happen. But for culture to be ruptured, for hegemony to be undone and understood, we must know what culture is?  If a community is to be in place of seemingly “natural” ones  that community must be based on shared interest and, so far, clear demarcations from an integrated whole of humanity. In other words, some characteristic or character is necessarily excluded or excepted in some way. This function cannot be simply reduced to race or class, nor could factors such as aggregate genetic drift nor environmental features nor technological features nor economic distortions be left out of the picture. In short, the concept of culture seems overfull and yet necessary.

This is one of things that led me a way from traditional Marxism which seems to overdetermine culture as a reflection solely of the means of production and not in several spheres of prior social relationships and conflicts:  The dialectic of culture has both the thesis and anti-thesis unrefined. The statistics on social harmony indicate that it requires more than economic definitions. Furthermore, how could this develop within coerced social hegemony or explicit accumulation of cultural capital?  How could it not be a form of cultural imperialism itself? Intentional communities as a rupture?    The contradictions in this dialectic are clearer than the definitions it posses. Liberalism in its current form, as in the economic arrangement of modernity as its corresponding nation-state, prevents and obscures us from looking at this seriously for political and economic reasons.   Social divisions as well as lose group loyalty is useful as a means of control and management.  Alternative forms of social organization that have differing degrees of inclusion or exclusion within a larger social totality cannot be experimented with easily or in large scale without destabilizing either the means of production or a way of life.  Traditional life ways as well as DIFFERENT uses of technological and social process must remain superficial, and in service to consumptive instead of productive forces within the society and as technological efficiency pushes along: unemployment will rise without necessarily the social structures to allow for a society with more leisure time.

We must remember that our culture wars are not the same soft identity pseudo-culture wars of the nation state nor could they be limited to “class war.”  The ruptures that would allow for a more integrated set of self-identities would will be more pluralistic than any outside of anarchists would have thought, but can only emerge when forms of identity emerge that allow us to be less alienated in our relationships and more productive in our capacities.  The truth of the matter is the traditionalist and anarchist, in this context, is more radical than the modern liberal is who is now the current traditionalist, read conservative.   Liberalism enabling of science unlocked the powers to bring into being our dreams, but it shows us the reality of our nightmares. Maybe culture’s gap is where we can see how to re-integrate into communities.

At the moment most of us cannot ask this: in North America we are too concerned with political tribalism of party politics, with identity movements, with the individual as an alienated context, with pseudo-diversity with leads to increasing social pathology (which is manifestly tied to socio-economic status as well).   It’s time to look at culture: the rupture it implies, and the hard truths we may uncover and if do this honestly I doubt either variety of liberal  (conservative classical liberals and left liberals) will like what we turn up.


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