Thursday, May 17, 2007

The Cult of Culture: 5/17/2007 Edition

I'm about to complain about a minor and incidental comment made by an artist I never heard of. But I'm going to do so because it is representative of a widespread confusion that bugs me. Call it nit-picking if you want, but keep an eye out for it and I predict you'll see it all over.

I link to an excerpt (at Metafilter) from an interview with an artist who got six people to live in an extremely narrow, transparent, 4-story vinyl sort of apartmenty-thing for three weeks.

Now, the discussions of this project are surrounded by the normal kinds of silly but inconsequential confusions that normally come with this kind of art--the space is said to be 2-dimensional, but, of course, it isn't. And it's said to be an "experiment," but it isn't exactly. Still, it's kinda sorta cool and at least moderately interesting, so, hey, cut 'em some slack.

What I wanted to complain about was this quote:

"The design of the space constructs us in a way that departs from how we culturally understand ourselves (autonomous, private, and with options for movement). After six days in Flatland I feel more like a pet than a person."

O.k., first the space does not "construct us." This is just silly Po-Mo lingo that people pick up in art school. What he probably means is something like this: living in this kind of space is really different than what we're used to, and it makes us live differently; it also makes us think of ourselves differently, and makes others think about us--and maybe even themselves--differently, too.

But the space does not "construct us."

But anyway, that's not what I'm going to complain about. What I'm going to complain about is the claim that what's interesting here (if anything) is that living like this (or seeing others do so) gets us to "depart from how we culturally understand ourselves." Again, this is just Po-Mo cant. There's nothing particularly cultural about the relevant ways of understanding ourselves.

See, as a matter of fact, we don't ordinarily live in very narrow, transparent apartments. The reason living this way might make you feel different is because you're--as an actual matter of fact--living in a vastly different way than you--as an actual matter of fact--usually do. You normally have much more freedom of movement, you normally have lots more privacy, you don't ordinarily live with five strangers, etc.

So the question isn't "how might this change our cultural understanding [whatever that is] of ourselves," but, rather, "how might living in a narrow, transparent environment be different than living in some more ordinary way?"

The more disreputable reaches of the humanities and social sciences have adopted references to culture almost as a kind of verbal tic. You can insert 'culture' or 'cultural' almost anywhere in their discussions and few of them will bat an eye. But that's a mistake. Some things are cultural and some things aren't. Some things about us are caused by culture and some aren't. The old lesson of the social sciences was that it's important to know which is which. And they were right about that.

In the case at hand, what's at issue isn't anything particularly cultural, but rather a question about how a change in physical (i.e. non-cultural) environment might change us.

End pet peevishness here.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Not to defend pomo rhetoric-as-art, but...

Couldn't you legitimately say that you were taking a camping trip to get away from your routine life in a house or apartment? Wouldn't it be reasonable to ask what you might learn about yourself in the woods and thus outside of society that could change what you know about your own life?

So, isn't this artist trying to provide that experience in the minds of his audience? This in fact seems to be what you're saying at the beginning, WS.

Cultural self-understanding is pretty thoroughgoing and can easily mask reality. How else could Thomas Jefferson own slaves?

Isn't one key purpose of the solitude of the mountains an escape from culture? Isn't that the main point of Walden? (And Thoreau could be pretty annoying, too, just like the pomos.)

We construct our physical environment. Our living arrangements are fundamentally cultural.

Even though I fundamentally agree that substituting cant-laden verbal justification for thought-provoking visual experience is bad for art, I think you've made the wrong argument.

11:55 AM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Well, perhaps our disagreement here can be summarized by focusing on this sentence of yours:

"We construct our physical environment. Our living arrangements are fundamentally cultural."

'cultural' is a vague term. In the sense I take to be its most fundamental one, it contrasts with 'natural' or 'physical.'

My HOUSE isn't cultural--it's physical, and much of my environment isn't cultural--it's physical and natural.

And, though I might learn something about myself by going into a different physical environment, what I thereby achieve (if anything) won't be "cultural" understanding, but just plain old understanding.

Anyway, I don't think you're off-base by poking around in this area. I think there are intersting issue here.

12:49 PM  
Blogger The Mystic said...

You say that your house isn't cultural, and that "cultural" contrasts with "natural" or "physical".

I don't know how "cultural" really contrasts with "physical" or "natural". It seems to me that the way "culture" is being used here implies to me that he takes it to be the set of values/norms shared by a group of people.

So, you've got your natural, physical things - like the materials of which your house is made, but then you've got cultural values that might make an impact on how you arrange the materials to build your house. It's important to figure out which is cultural and which is practical (for instance, I doubt it's a cultural thing that our houses have walls - that's just practicality, duh).

However, there are things that seem kinda arbitrary. Our toilets are in our bathrooms, which are privately set apart from the rest of the house. Back in Ancient Rome, their public toilets were just kinda..out there. Yet, no one would purchase a house now that has a toilet in the living room.

Well, maybe this artist guy would, but you see what I'm saying.

I agree that one could be learning about oneself by being placed in this environment simply because it is an environment in which he's not accustomed to living, but it could also, as the artist is saying, make you think about cultural values.

For instance, why do we value privacy in the bathroom? Why is America so opposed to nudity? Why is privacy such a big deal?


I agree the space doesn't "construct" you, but I don't think that just because there is understanding going on about how one copes with living in a situation that he's not used to, that doesn't exclude any understanding going on regarding cultural beliefs as well.

1:18 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My HOUSE isn't cultural--it's physical

WS, unless you live in a cave and have not made an intentional mark on it, I don't see how your house can fail to be cultural. Is architecture cultural? Your house is the result of artifice, and I'd bet that there are many ways it reflects the culture in which it was built. For one thing, it's probably stick-built with wall studs 16 inches on center and floor joists 12 inches on center. That commonplace reflects the culture that built it (the standardization of a specialized, large-scaled economy, etc.), not high culture to be sure, but it's different than if you lived in Europe, where you might have a masonry house.

Physical vs. cultural is not a clear distinction. Michelangelo's David in Florence is both.

Natural vs. cultural is distinct, which gets to the heart of why I posed rhetorical questions about camping. It can be an escape from culture into nature.

Maybe we're really arguing what 'culture' means. I'm clearly construing it broadly. Britney Spears is cultural in my book, no matter how decadent.

If we're not parting over what culture is, then you must be apprehending a Platonic form of Culture that's too metaphysical for a Humean like me.

12:34 AM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Well, on a quick read, both M and LL seem to be advocating such a broad definition of 'cultural' that *everything* is cultural.

Again: the term is vague, but this is exactly the kind of abuse that leads to the confusion in question.

A house isn't "cultural" just because humans built it, any more than a rock is "cultural" just because a human saw it.

Unless, that is, we employ such an expansive definition of the term 'cultural' that almost everything counts as "cultural."

[1] So, back to the drawing board:
What's 'cultural' supposed to mean?


[2] No matter how you slice it, the project in question isn't aimed at changing "how we culturally understand ourselves" (not that that clause even makes any sense). Rather, it's about what changes (or doesn't) when we change our PHYSICAL living environment. Now, this physical living environment was made (and is inhabited by) *humans*. On the ordinary construal of 'cultural', that doesn't make it cultural; on the expanded definition of 'cultural' virtuall *everything* is cultural, so this is too...but then the claim is uninteresting.


[3] If we really want to get serious about what this guy says (a course of action I'd avoid as unprofitable), the real question here is: what exactly is "cultural understanding" anyway? How does this differ from, ya know, regular understanding?

8:29 AM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

And, incidentally, M:

'cultural' *does* ordinarily contrast with 'natural' or 'physical'--note the traditional nomos/physis contrast.

And as for the claim that the privacy of toilets is arbitrary...I think you might want to think on that one a little more...

8:39 AM  
Blogger The Mystic said...

How would you define "cultural" so that it contrasts with "physical" or "natural"?

Maybe it would help if we understood what you were taking it to mean.

9:23 AM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Um, not sure what to tell ya...check out the nomos/physis distinction in e.g. Aristotle.

To some extent the Greeks were concerned with questions about e.g. human behavior and to what extent it was determined by nature as opposed to culture. This to some extent comes down to us in the nature/nurture distinction.

Maybe you're operating with a non-standard conception of either 'culture' or 'nature', but I can't tell.

10:24 AM  
Blogger The Mystic said...

In that debate amongst the greeks, from what I recall, they were debating over whether or not certain behaviors/traits/practices were natural parts of human existence (physis) or if they were created arbitrarily from society (nomos).

So, no, a house isn't cultural because humans built it, but it becomes cultural when the culture of the humans building it impacts its design. Maybe there are decorative columns outside of your house to give it that Greek look that our society likes so much. They're not structural, so they're not simply a natural thing to put there to support the house - they're there because American Society has developed an affinity for Greek architecture.

My examples might not be great, I'm just trying to find one that works. Maybe there isn't one. I'm kinda wondering whether or not there is any such thing as a broad-reaching "nomos" that envelopes an entire group of millions of people. I'm more willing to accept the idea that, on a person-by-person basis, there are physis and nomos attributes that that person has. However, nomos that you could generally assert a population of millions of people share is a different story.

So it seems to me that cultural, the way the artist is using it, is meant to indicate the shared nomos by a group of people - in the case we're talking about, American people (the art WAS in America, right? I forget).

When you say that your house isn't cultural, but rather physical, are you implying that everything about your house is simply there because it's naturally necessary for the existence of the house (e.g. all materials are there for a pragmatic use or structural integrity), or that the decoration that is there is entirely free of the influence of others? It's all just naturally coming about from a person - all nature, no nurture.

That's the only way I could see a house being entirely natural and lacking wholly of any cultural influence.

11:01 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

WS, do you think the definition of 'culture', as the pomo artist was using it, relies on a classical Greek distinction? Do you think it should or otherwise isn't worth considering?

May I impertinently suggest that you consult a dictionary of English. From Merriam-Webster's Eleventh Collegiate, here's one of the many senses:

5b the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group; also : the characteristic features of everyday existence (as diversions or a way of life) shared by people in a place or time (popular --) (southern --)

There's a fairly obvious distinction between all senses of 'cultural' and 'natural'. Your house is definitely physical, but it is by no means natural (unless you're squatting in a cave), and the longer you try to argue by blurring the distinction between 'physical' and 'natural', the sillier you look. It's a technique used by the Bushists by rhetorically associating Iraq with 9/11, but most people here are immune to that abuse of logic.

A house is clearly a cultural artifact, at least in some commonplace and, yes, standard sense of 'culture'. Please stop pretending your argument from the authority of Aristotle has relevance here and engage the actual argument.

5:11 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Well, I'm not sure I'm following...though I expect we've already thought too much about the lame-brain quote above...


If by saying 'x is cultural' you just mean that x is made by people, then, yeah, houses are cultural in that sense...but it's a very, very weird use of the term 'cultural.' Actually, I've never heard anyone use the term in that way. Seems to me that when something is called 'cultural' it's thought of as being something that depends on something like tradition for its existence. So e.g. marital rites are cultural but e.g. stone walls aren't.

But what what's-his-name the artist actually says is:

"The design of the space constructs us in a way that departs from how we culturally understand ourselves (autonomous, private, and with options for movement)."

The point isn't really about the culturalness (or not) of houses, but, rather, about the nature of the relevant understanding.

I'm not sure what it means to call something a "cultural understanding," but maybe he just means a kind of shared understanding.

Anyway, to the extent that I can make heads or tails of what he's saying (and I'm about to drop this point b/c we've already thought about this more than he did), he seems to be suggesting that there's something particularly cultural about our view of ourselves as being "autonomous, private, and with options for movement." No doubt there's SOMETHING cultural mixed up in there, but it's not the important part.

His suggestion seems to be that this little artwork somehow challenges a view of people that the culture has been primarily responsible for putting in place.

Why do we consider ourselves to be autonomous, private, etc.? Because we ARE that way.

Why do we think we have (significant) options for movement? *Because we have (significant) options for movement*

We think of ourselves that way largely because that's the way we are. And if we have a "cultural understanding" of these things, it's largely based on the fact that we as individuals all perceive that this is the way things really are.

That is, I know that I have significant options for movement, and so do you. It's a fact, and a fact mostly about physical facts about me and the universe. Culture doesn't have much to do with this...and what's happening to the people in the artwork is, again, something physical and only tangentially cultural. They're agreeing to stay inside a small, transparent space.

Anyway...there aren't any thoughts in this piece that deserve this much attention from any of us, I assert.

9:15 AM  
Blogger Random Michelle K said...

Not to disagree with your main point, but I do think that we can say that houses are cultural artifacts.

A traditional American house is very different from a traditional Asian house.

I think there are even differences in American homes that are affected by culture. Older homes are often set forward on the property and have large porches where the family could sit in the evenings and talk to those who walked by. Modern homes tend to be set further back on the property, and any outside space is typically a deck on the back of the house, for privacy from cars driving by.

The construction of these homes was influenced by the culture that existed when they were created--a walking oriented culture versus a driving oriented culture.

And the construction of these homes influences the culture of the area--do you sit on your front porch and get to know the neighbors and become familiar to the neighborhood, or do you sit on the back deck in isolation.

Housing is often regional--you have certain types of house in certain areas of the country. Much of these differences are influenced by climate, but I think that these differences are influenced by culture--and as I said, influence culture.

In my opinion anyway.

Michelle K

11:31 AM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

et tu, Michelle?

11:33 AM  
Blogger The Mystic said...

"Seems to me that when something is called 'cultural' it's thought of as being something that depends on something like tradition for its existence."

Yes, that is what I would think too. So, if your house has Greek columns (that are purely decorative in purpose - not load bearing) in the front of it that are sporting Greek design (such as the decoration around the tops and bottoms of the columns), then your house is something of a cultural artifact in that aspects of it rely on cultural artistic influences for its existence.

Further, if he says "cultural understanding", then I would take that to mean understanding that relies on something like tradition for its existence..right? You just defined cultural, and it is an adjective, so if you attach "understanding" to it, performs the role of an adjective modifying "understanding"...

So there.

If that's all the case, which it seems to me to be (and I'm guessing it seems to you that I'm right since I'm using your definition of culture), then he's saying that by placing the people in this piece of artwork of his, he is challenging the understanding, which he considers to be culturally derived, of human beings as autonomous, private, and with options for movement.

Now, I agree with you that there's a lot of line-drawing to do when it comes to separating out that which is natural and that which is cultural, and if he were asserting that every aspect of our understanding about ourselves as being autonomous, private, and having options for movement is determined solely by cultural influence, then I'd concur with you that he's a total loon.

I'm going to grant him the benefit of the doubt that he didn't really mean it to be that extreme because 1) he's not here to defend himself and 2) that's pretty nuts.

So, overall, I think we can agree that there's at least some cultural influence on things like houses and understanding for most people. Perhaps not all - but most. Especially when it comes to all of the beliefs people hold about themselves that are derived from their religious beliefs which, in many cases, I would consider to be cultural.


7:58 PM  
Blogger Random Michelle K said...

I just call 'em like I see 'em.


Though I do have to admit that most of the cultural influences I have studied have had more to do with how culture affects the elderly and end-of-life care. So houses aren't my forte.

8:14 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

To Mystic's first point:

Well, I don't know what kind of weird house you live in, but mine doesn't depend on tradition for its existence. If the tradition goes away, the house will still exist.

Again, I think you are confusing:

(a) Is cultural


(b) was built by humans.

8:17 AM  
Blogger The Mystic said...

The house would not exist as it does now (with the artistic features it has) without tradition.

It depended on that tradition to be constructed in the manner that it was. If the culture were different, the house would be different.

4:51 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

If the tradition goes away--e.g. all of us die from an unknown superplague one minute from now--will the house still exist, or will it evaporate when our traditions evaporate?

9:49 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I knew a botanist in college. One day, the dining hall served raspberries.

"These berries are great," I remarked, having tired of other banalities, I guess (though it was a true miracle to get berries of any kind in a college dining hall).

"They're not berries," she said. "They're drupes."

No amount of reason could deflect her from the one true meaning of 'berry'. Similarly here, 'culture'.

A word in natural language often has multiple senses. It's up to the listener or reader to distinguish which sense is intended. This is one source of ambiguity and a great source of humor and mistakes, not to mention political cover ("sexual relations with that woman", "no plans on my desk"). In this case, it allows clinging to peevishness.

Of course, don't we all know that the one true meaning of Winston-smith is an employee of RJR Tobacco who crafts cigarettes!

11:46 AM  
Blogger The Mystic said...

Hm. Do you think that there's any such thing as a "cultural artifact", then?

I was indicating causual dependence, not essential dependence. So, something is cultural if it is something that actually, in fact, did come about due to cultural influence - so that culture is a necessary (but not sufficient) prerequisite for its existence.

So, two houses could look exactly the same and only one might be a cultural artifact because its design was, in fact, derived from the cultural values of the time. In the same way, a set of beliefs might be considered cultural because they were derived by the believer from the cultural values at the time. However, someone might have the same beliefs that he just came up with on his own, and then those wouldn't be cultural.

What do you think? I agree with you that if there's no such thing as a "cultural artifact" then there's probably no such thing as a cultural belief. If that's the case, the artist is doomed.

It'd be my guess that there can be beliefs/artifacts which are cultural in the sense that they are causually dependent. I could be wrong, though.

11:54 AM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

e.g. marrital rites and conventions are cultural, as are certain aspects of economic systems, caste systems, etc.

There's as cultural as you could want.

Houses, not so much...

Heh heh...

Well, I already granted that if 'cultural' just means 'made by people', then LOTS of things are cultural...

But if that's all it means, then the most of the putatively astonishing claims of the culturophiliacs are, in fact, not interesting or important at all...

11:27 AM  
Blogger The Mystic said...

Right, but do you think there is any such thing as a cultural artifact? Like a piece of artwork?

6:29 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Cultural *artifact* = different thing.

Again: note that what the artist references says is "cultural understanding."

Q: Is the narrow house in which the people are living made by people?

A: yes.

Q: Is the most salient fact about the narrow house in which the people are living the fact that it somehow challenges our "cultural understanding"?

A: No. The most salient featuer of the narrow house is *that it is narrow* (and that it is transparent). These facts are not cultural facts.

8:16 AM  
Blogger The Mystic said...

And those facts about the house couldn't result in a situation that challenges cultural understanding?

10:06 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If the tradition goes away--e.g. all of us die from an unknown superplague one minute from now--will the house still exist, or will it evaporate when our traditions evaporate?

If this expresses a necessary criterion of culture, then the Mona Lisa, the Bible, the pyramids at Giza, and the score and blocking of Swan Lake are not part of culture.

WS, you've taken a position that is increasingly silly. To be blunt, you're being far more sophistical than the pomo artist. The distinctions you're trying to give probative force don't exist in the natural language the rest of us are speaking and would be too precise to expect of even, say, Kant. You can't restrict any set of speakers, even philosophers, to the sort of narrow prescriptive usage you want to enforce here.

To quote from the dialogues of the famed Vincent LaGuardia Gambini, "It's o.k. You can say it. They know." George Wilber, to his credit, admitted the truth of everything Mona Lisa Vito had said.

12:44 PM  
Blogger The Mystic said...

I wouldn't be that harsh - the problem doesn't really appear to me to be an impossible requirement for the precision of language, but rather that WS appears to believe that something is "cultural" only if it is essentialy dependent on tradition or belief systems for its existence. He thinks that something is cultural if it is part of the set of beliefs/traditions that are shared by a group of people, so it appears.

I think also that WS is introducing a false dichotomy between something being either cultural or physical. Certainly something can be physical - like a brick, or it can be cultural without being physical - like a marital rite, but things can ALSO be cultural artifacts - that is, physical objects that would not exist the way that they do without the cultural influence - like a brick with an image pertaining to the culture of the society inscribed upon it. It's a physical object that would not disappear if tradition were to disappear, but it is also causally dependent on culture for its current state of existence, making it "cultural" in my view.

The reason I brought up a "cultural artifact", WS, is twofold:

1) You seem to be indicating that things are either cultural or physical, and I disagree because I don't think the only definition of "cultural" is something that is essentially dependent on culture for its existence.

2) If you can agree that there is such a thing that can be considered to be cultural - not out of essential dependence (i.e. it would still exist if culture were to disappear) but out of causal dependence (without culture, it would not be the way it is), then you might see what "cultural understanding" could be - that is, understanding that would not exist in its current state without the culture that helped to shape it.

All this being said, the art IS physical. However, when the artist says that it is challenging our "cultural understanding" of ourselves - I think he means to say that the art, physical though it may be, puts people into a situation in which he feels that it will cause them to question beliefs about their selves that culture has given them.

Whether or not he's right about this is a different question, but I don't think that he's speaking gibberish here - it doesn't seem to be impossible that the physical layout of the "art" in which the people live causes them to question their culturally derived views on their selves. That seems very plausible.

How's that for an explanation of what's going on here? Wrong? Right?

2:30 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Sorry, LL, you're wrong about this.

If you phrase the question as you did here, it's vague enough to pass. That's why it's necessary to get more specific about the formulations.

Nobody's trying to (to use your formulation) "give a necessary criterion of culture." That's a completely new issue, unaddressed in anything above.

I really don't think I have anything to add to what I've already said.

The "artist" seems to suggest that his project is unusual primarily because it challenges out "cultural understanding" of ourselves, when, in fact, it's unusual because it puts people in a narrow, small, closed, transparent environment.

What makes it unusual is the physical characteristics of the space in which the people are living. It's not our "cultural understanding" (whatever the hell that is) that's being messed with here. Rather, the people in question are living in an unusual kind of physical environment.

Of course there are cultural this-and-thats that are different here, but they're peripheral. The most salient stuff going on here isn't interestingly cultural.

7:47 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sorry, LL, you're wrong about this.

Well, that's convincing.

I'm not going to argue this further for a while, WS. You and I have been saying the same things at each other in different words for some time without progress.

To my perspective, you have simply repeated your position without responding to my critiques. You may well have a similar impression of my arguments.

Maybe in three months (or more), when positions have had a chance to soften, we might learn something from each other. That's not happening now.

6:25 PM  

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