Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Culture Making

I hate the word culture. My skin crawls to hear other people use the word flippantly, as it frequently is. It exemplifies all that is wrong with the world. Talk about culture is a talk of mutually exclusive absolutes: you have your culture, we have ours; we live on our preserve, you live on yours. As a consequence, and this should come as a surprise to no one, talk about culture also happens to be the language of relative truths.

Culture denotes anything that is not rational, questioning, and discriminatory; anything that has become habit, and slipped beneath a critical gaze. Culture stands in for things we share, our feeling of solidarity, the way things work around here, or at least the way they ought to. Encultured beings all of us, we turn and reflect on our shared culture only after it has become sedimented into our ways of relating to each other. We wonder what this or that most recent turn of events might mean for our culture; but without the advantage of hindsight, we are, at best, stabbing in the dark. But insofar as we are, we are all starting from the same place, travelling the way of all flesh, ending up no better off than when we started. That's the gods-honest truth of it.

Contemporary talk about culture goes terribly wrong by placing talk about culture within the framework of change and empowerment, of getting things done. Those who talk the language of culture-making or culture-creating or culture-shaping talk down to their audience, not with them. They demand obeisance from their audience; they do not encourage participation. Its a new language that masks over what Saint Augustine called the libido dominandi, the desire to dominate; or what Nietzsche, in much simpler terms, called the will to power.

Formerly, culture was something the upper class had--fine arts, good wines, impeccable manners--the boorish lower classes did not. Then we learned about class consciousness from Marx, and it became obvious that everyone had culture. We realized the word was better used without an implied moral judgment about social inferiority. The language of culture-making, however, is something quite different. One only has to consider the material from which culture is manufactured, shaped, moulded. It is not the material of typical cultural artifacts like wrist-watches, computers, famous pieces of artwork, or low-brow examples of cultural kitsch. No even by a mile. The material of culture-making is nothing other than human beings, to be made and moulded at will and whim.

The idea that Northern American society finds itself locked in a culture war should be brusquely dismissed. Our bourgeois existence has become so decadent that we must conjure up enemies to populate our imagination. There is no war; no maimed bodies lie strewn about, nor do tortured souls wander desolate streets crying for loved ones lost. Certainly violent crimes and even socially-sanctioned forms of violence exist; but these interrupt the social order, rather than disrupt and dislocate it. Instead, what there are, are bruised egos, spoiled children, who have been whipped up into a frenzy; but who are still able to go home at night in relative safety.

In the grand scheme of things, a minor readjustment of guiding principles of a community is serious business, no doubt, but that doesn't garner the difficult process by which the adjustment is made the title of war.


Take Peter Stockland's wonderfully written juxtaposition ('This is Ultra-Tolerance') of the moral culture that was, when a mother could march straight up to a pair of amorous strangers and shame them for not abiding common codes of decency, with a moral culture that is, where neighbours must tolerate S&M roll-playing in the front yard. You may agree with everything that Stockland has to say--which I do, almost down to the dot over the last 'i'. But you are still left with a question about how to live with neighbours that don't conform to your moral outlook. The nostalgic note Stockland sounds for the days of his youth doesn't yield a positive direction, and neither does moral condemnation.
Avoid surprise: expect the worst. Expect, in other words, that human beings are simply slaves to animal passion and lack any capacity to consider first their public obligations to you or anyone else. This is ultra-tolerance. This is the true politics of the day.
Is this an example of war? Hardly; unless sniping from comfort of one's living-room couch counts. It is difficult to discern, in this limited forum, whether Stockland thinks engaging in the politics of the day is of any value. My impression is that he would have us put on white gloves entering the public square and burn them after leaving. I readily grant, though, that my reading may be skewed by the fact that Stockland is obviously writing to an audience he believes like-minded, and is not talking with the roll-playing S&M neighbours. The absence of any positive suggestion is nevertheless conspicuous. Easy to criticize; but much more difficult to propose a course of action, all the while not becoming a tyrant.

The choice of title for Stockland's piece is ironically self-enabling, to be sure; ultra-tolerance always goes two ways.

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