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Notes Toward a Definition of Culture

Marshall Soules

Culture Written on the Body

In 1871 E.B. Taylor defined culture as "that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, customs, and many other capabilities and habits acquired by...[members] of society."

"Culture means the total body of tradition borne by a society and transmitted from generation to generation. It thus refers to the norms, values, standards by which people act, and it includes the ways distinctive in each society of ordering the world and rendering it intelligible. Culture is...a set of mechanisms for survival, but it provides us also with a definition of reality. It is the matrix into which we are born, it is the anvil upon which our persons and destinies are forged." (Robert Murphy. Culture and Social Anthropology: An Overture. 2nd ed. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1986: 14)


The Predicament of Culture

In the opening chapter of his influential book on the practices of anthropology, James Clifford claims that the modernist age is marked by a sense that "all the beautiful, primitive places are ruined," that there is a kind of "cultural incest, a sense of runaway history" haunting us, and giving us the feeling that cultural authenticity has been lost. (4)

Traditionally, change has been interpreted as disorder, as chaos, as loss of authenticity. But in the global intermixture of cultures that we have witnessed in this century, the authenticity of former cultures may not be lost in quite the ways we imagine them to be: "local authenticites meet and merge in transient urban and suburban settings," according to Clifford. This complex process of acculturation, of meeting and merging, poses a predicament for the contemporary student of culture: the student of culture must consider both "local attachments"--regional dialects and traditions, for example--and "general possibilities."

This predicament is based on the observation that "there is no going back, no essence to redeem" once authentic traditions yield to the attractions of global culture. Clifford's book does not see the world as populated by "endangered authenticities." Instead, the world "makes space for specific paths through modernity." He concludes from this that "the time is past when privileged authorities could routinely 'give voice' (or history) to others without fear of contradiction" (7).

Clifford proposes that the student of culture is faced with a series of important questions which challenge traditional assumptions of "ethnographic authority":

Who has the authority to speak for a group's identity or authenticity? What are the essential elements and boundaries of a culture? How do self and other clash and converse in the encounters of ethnography...? What narratives of development, loss, and innovation can account for the present range of local oppositional movements? (8)

A question that Clifford does not ask: Who will document and publish these narratives of "local oppositional movements" when the status quo is the first order of the media's business? While we wait for the media to tell our stories accurately, local cultures attempt to find ways of living with invasive cultures without abandoning all their traditional ways.

Ethnography, which cannot be separated in practice from anthropology, is the "systematic description of a culture based on firsthand observation" (Haviland 1989), requiring "participant observation." For Clifford, the predicament of culture involves the difficulty of being in a culture while looking at it, "a form of personal and collective self-fashioning." (Anthropologist Ted Carpenter was fond of quoting John Culkin's remark: "We don't know who discovered water, but we're certain it wasn't a fish.") A modern ethnographer must move between cultures: "[Ethnography] is perpetually displaced, both regionally focused and broadly comparative, a form both of dwelling and of travel in a world where the two experiences are less and less distinct" (9).

In The Predicament of Culture, Clifford approaches ethnographic texts as "orchestrations...constructed domains of truth, serious fictions" (10). As such, in many ways they resemble those art forms which make use of collage, juxtaposition, and other forms of extended comparison.

In defining culture, then, it is important that we locate ourselves (and our beliefs, ethics, and assumptions) in relation to the culture we are studying, since culture is context-specific. It is also important to keep in mind, according to Clifford, that local cultures (sub-cultures) are often established in opposition to what might be termed the official culture--the status quo--defined by those with significant access to the media. In many cases, this opposition is between the individual, or small group, and the larger cultural body used as a sign of social cohesion and control. While popular culture is often defined as mass culture--the culture of the majority--it can also be seen as a site of continual change, adaptation, and subversion.

(James Clifford, The Predicament of Culture. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1988.)

Fish Out of Water

Fish Out of Water

"We don't know who discovered water, but we're certain it wasn't a fish."
John Culkin (qtd. in Edmund Carpenter's
They Became What They Beheld )

We've been born into a world where most of what passes for reality is mediated for us. Even before television, radio, newspapers, computers, and books begin telling us stories about what is happening out there, our parents or caregivers speak to us about the perils and joys of the world. As human beings we intuit that there is something out there that exists, undeniably, apart from us and our perceptions.

Who in North America doubts that media play a significant role in our lives? Think of politics, commerce, education, recreation, art and culture, or social interaction--it would be difficult, if not impossible, to discuss any of these activities without some acknowledgement of the medium through which we "know" about these things.

We are inundated by messages speaking about technological determinism: the belief that technology must be adopted as it becomes available if we are to evolve as a species (or at least as a global corporate culture!). Where are the perceptive critics of the media who can balance this wave of technological promotion on the one hand, with the cynicism of the common people on the other? The real test for a student of the media is to find the middle path--the path free of ideology and rhetoric, at the mid-point between a technological utopia and the irrational fear of technological change--to arrive at a clear-eyed and knowledgeable assessment of the way we communicate with one another.

We're on the edge of the (former) empire, and that gives us a certain vantage point. The Canadian media theorist Harold Adams Innis created a philosophical niche for the media analyst who lives on the margins of powerful nations. Along with his disciple, Marshall McLuhan, Innis established strategies for investigating both the medium and the message. We need a model for investigating the media which provides a perspective, a place to stand, without removing us too far from the centre of the action. Like the fish in water, we are so immersed in our (mediated) environment we forget it's even there.