Culture is what you can’t choose

(I wrote this a while ago but am only now getting around to posing it)

Several overlapping events in my life have got me thinking about how much of our lives are not up to us: the food taboos I currently labor under because it is Passover, the fact that I will be a father in a few months, and the recent module I taught on female genital cutting in ne of my classes. Of course, all of these things are about choices: I don’t have to avoid leaven, could have chosen not to have a family, and many students in my class, I am sure, desperately wish I had chosen to less sensitive subject. Still, my compelling need to do all of these things — and then to yoke together such unlikely topics in a blog post — has made me suspicious of the enthusiasm with which some greet some cultural innovations.

In our class we read Michelle Goldberg’s excellent Rights Versus Rites, which provides a good overview of recent events in debates over female circumcision — and particularly the position of women like Fuambai Ahmadu, for whom female circumcision is an empowering, decolonizing experience and who oppose readings of the practice as simply oppressive. One way the class found to reconcile the opposed claims of African feminists was to argue that the practice be optional — if people wanted to go through it, then fine. If not, not.

This approach could be criticized on two fronts. First, the ceremonies Ahmadu describes are done on girls, not women. As anyone who has filled out an IRB can tell you, children cannot provide consent to a lot of things in their lives. Indeed, we regularly force choices upon children that they would not make themselves (we do not have a world full of uneaten vegetables and unmade beds) or that they could not make themselves (which language, for example, they will learn). Hard choices about socializing children force one to think about what one is really committed to, because they remove the easy out of passing the buck to someone else’s autonomy.

Second, though, is a more elusive point — that making things optional takes away from their power and, ultimately, their importance. Giving people the choice to participate or not fundamentally alters (and impoverishes) communal life. It is the unchosenness, the inevitability of these things in our lives that make them so powerful. It is the unchooseability of lifeways that subordinate people, for instance, that makes them so particularly repugnant. In more happy circumstances, it is the givenness and centrality of these things that make us chose them even in voluntaristic situations (like mine) where we feel compelled to take up food taboos although we could chose not to. It is a reminder that culture is not something we chose, it is something that makes us.

I’d like to apply this position to current attempts to resist/undo global cultural homogenization through innovation, novelty, remix, etc. These are well and good but I think we should also remember truly vibrant creativity has deeper wellsprings in commitments which are unchosen even if (of course) how those commitments are realized change and grow over time. It is easy for us to celebrate today an infinite multiplication of new and different things — the five thousandth traditional instrument sampled in the name of World Music — and such a celebration is not unwarranted. But we also need to recognize this for what it is, and what it is not. There is a genuine, overlooked value in a slower, less instantly innovative, but the ultimately more powerful force of the arbitrary and conventional formations of meaning that make us who we are.

Rex

Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at rex@savageminds.org

31 thoughts on “Culture is what you can’t choose

  1. Adding ideas from Third Culture Kids, those who are transcultural, filled with multiple cultures who freely mix and in fact choose from each of them, would perhaps make some of what seems so fixed to monocultural people (e.g. from Sierra Leone or from New York’s Upper West Side) seem like the malleable signs & traditions that they are. So the vector more at play here, to expand it, is about conservative (small c) postures to the liturgical/traditional aspects of cultural practice and progressive flexible relations to them. Or more simply put, in addition to post-colonial framing, and in light of our global networked age, that knowledge and experience of culture is in active re-definition between those with monocultural positions and those with increasingly transcultural positions.

  2. Regarding the last paragraph specifically
    “…we should also remember truly vibrant creativity has deeper wellsprings in commitments which are unchosen”

    and “…the five thousandth traditional instrument sampled in the name of World Music”

    On the first- It helps to be aware of the ways in which our own sensibilities are already unchosen. Then choosing to cultivate them is a means to understanding and using them. Acknowledging a frame helps to focus and engage, without closing off the outside. A writer who focuses on writing well in English is not going to think of himself as being in opposition to one who writes well in Japanese even though they would never want to change languages.

    Regarding the second: those who enthuse about the ‘idea’ of diversity are not the same as those who live it. Generalized and vague (intellectually and musically) “World Music” is ubiquitous on the what the first commenter above calls the monocultural upper west side. The hybrid cultures of Queens are culturally very specific. The people who inhabit it develop a connoisseurs pleasure in their experience. The UWS sensibility- less experiential- is voyeuristic by comparison.

    There’s also a very important difference between a culture that values individualist invention and one that values fluency. People who spend all their time inventing new musical instruments rarely take the time to learn how to play them well. This all ties into my recent rantings on this site about MIT sponsored theories of cultural production as invention vs the role played in our culture of the actually existing arts: whether the Sopranos or Philip Roth.
    Roth being my standard example in this context of someone who who assumes that culture is always something you can’t choose. for better, worse, or both and that art is first engaged observation and then description. Invention is last on the list.

  3. I think the idea that “Culture is what you can’t choose” is only half the story. There are elements of most people’s cultural repertoires that are ascribed (e.g. one’s mother tongue) and others that are achieved (for instance, one’s occupation), both being equally ‘cultural’? Moreover, it is reasonable to assume that some cultures (in the sense of total ways of life), subcultures and social classes will be more ascription- and others more achievement-oriented.

  4. The mentions of choice, Passover, and Third Culture Kids are leading me to want to say something that I can’t really articulate about 1.a. why so many of the most devout (ha ha) atheists are Jews and 1.b. why there are so many good Jewish anthropologists. Whatever it is I’m trying to think my impression is that it supports rather than counters the main thrust of Rex’s original post.

  5. There is a genuine, overlooked value in a slower, less instantly innovative, but the ultimately more powerful force of the arbitrary and conventional formations of meaning that make us who we are.

    This is an important insight, but one that needs some qualification. We need, I believe, to consider more closely the options between the extremes of consumer choice and blind acceptance. If we reflect on our own lives, most of us will, I suggest, be compelled to consider the various combinations of rebellion and adaptation through which we have not only absorbed but modified in constructing the selves we find ourselves today.

  6. “the most devout (ha ha) atheists are Jews.”
    The most “devout” atheists are evangelizing Christians: Hitchens, Dawkins, Dennett et al.
    Jews have been on the receiving end of myth, living as outsiders for so long, and are more likely to recognize that people tend to replace one form of irrationalism with another. Devout atheism is the Fordism of reason. Jewish secularists tend to more like “village atheists” who read a lot.
    That’s the tragedy of Zionism. The original anti-Zionists were Jews [who else in Europe?] but they bought into the myth.

  7. “the most devout (ha ha) atheists are Jews.”
    The most “devout” atheists are evangelizing Christians: Hitchens, Dawkins, Dennett et al.

    Seth, despite the fact that it is largely tangential to the rather interesting topic at hand as well as the fact that it runs the risk of allowing you to hijack what might otherwise turn out to be a rather pleasant and informative thread, I feel obliged to point out that it is good practice to at least include an ellipsis if you’re going to chop up an NP. Thus, while hardly ideal, the below is at least a bit more honest:

    […] the most devout (ha ha) atheists are Jews.

  8. Read my last comment as the continuation of the one before ending with a reference to Philip Roth, a novelist and Jewish secularist. Both comments are apropos the original post, making the argument that rather than discussing the “choice” not to be free, it makes more sense and at the same time does justice to the values of culture as such to acknowledge that we are not free to begin with. Roth understands this, Woody Allen understands this. I am a secular Jew describing what I appreciate about aspects of the culture[!] of secular Judaism: often but not always modeled as a secular humanism opposing a secular instrumentalism.
    But next time I quote you I’ll use those three dots.

  9. Read my last comment as the continuation of the one before ending with a reference to Philip Roth, a novelist and Jewish secularist.

    Please tell me more of this underground novelist Philip Roth. Word of his existence has yet to reach we residents of western Massachusetts.

  10. Coming from pantheon of cultural norms of south asia and growing up as urban nomad, me and my brother have multicultural practices.
    To understand where we stand against cultures which has been rock steady flow of aeons I looked in all possible explanations and experiences.
    We always participated in every practice and celebrated every festivity sometimes of different faiths at the same time. Reached a point where it was a way of enjoying diverse community acceptance and cancel out opposing beliefs from different backgrounds.
    Recently came across works of terrance mckenna on culture where he considers culture as a operating system which can be changed of course a certain skills are required to qualify for that. So even though i see arbitary and powerful forces that shape our being, I also feel the presence of innovation as a key to our survival as a species.

  11. The operating system concept of culture is interesting, but it can imply that culture is infinite.

    We can’t forget that culture is unique to humans, and as such is limited to our biology, our evolution, our ability to survive and physically adapt to certain ecological niches. An OS can be tech. platform specific, so it fits fine, but needs to be clarified to not create misunderstandings. Culture is also not merely ideational. It includes material culture, spatial patterns, and other things outside the individual. Here’s where an OS model can brake down.

    The other way that culture is not specific, is that it is patterned behavior and material culture over time. The aberrant behavior of individuals isn’t culture, unless that behavior is itself patterned and shared.

    So in a sense, we don’t chose culture in a similar way that we don’t chose physical adaptation. However, both culture and biology are determined each day within individuals of a larger population. So, we all do chose our culture in our daily choices and practices. This goes back to the structure/agency dichotomy I discussed in another thread. The boundaries between the two are really imagined, due to the fact that there is no real separation from individuals to structure, or structure within individuals. The infinitely complex sociocutlural processes that happen in populations, happen between individuals, and the infinity complex processes that happen within each individual are both effects of and affects to wider culture.

    Van Gannep, then Turner, then Rappaport, then Wantanabe and Smutts, showed the way ritual in culture acts as a regulator of patterned behavior and allows for trust in a system of individuals. Yet, also within that lineage is the fact that within invariant ritual roles, individuals express agency and resistance, and thereby change the structure of ritual, and social relations, over time.

    What I like about this model is that it solves many of the theoretical problems traditional to these debates, such as the nature of free will. No free will is either necessary or posited by the model.

  12. I suppose another way to frame this debate would be to say — anthropologists know that cultures transform through times, that diffusion of cultural traits is the norm and not the exception, and so forth. I guess that I am saying that recognition of this fact often leads us to underestimate the existence and importance of the deeper cultural currents of the things that stay the same (sometimes by transforming).

    I think recognition of this fact would help us undo some common preconceptions — that children with multiple ethnic identities feel that they can freely chose them (when in fact they often feel torn and uncomfortable about their betweeness), that cultural practices endure through time, but in doing so they are not rock steady and unchanging for aeons, etc.

  13. “Please tell me more of this underground novelist”
    Should I have written “who is…”? or just “both a novelist and…”
    or how about “who is after all…” Should I have made more of an effort to express contempt?

    And all this just to avoid admitting that you learned something today.
    “leading me to want to say something that I can’t really articulate…”

    We’re well aware.

  14. I suppose another way to frame this debate would be to say — anthropologists know that cultures transform through times, that diffusion of cultural traits is the norm and not the exception, and so forth. I guess that I am saying that recognition of this fact often leads us to underestimate the existence and importance of the deeper cultural currents of the things that stay the same (sometimes by transforming).

    I tried to capture a bit of this in something I wrote yesterday on OAC. The key takeaway was the line that popped into my head,

    To say that something is constructed doesn’t imply that it’s fragile.

  15. As it happens, I was just blogging recently about the perennial problem of how to theorise cultural change. This is a slightly edited chunk from that blog post:

    One possible way into this problem, I suggested, would be to put away our favourite bestsellers about the latest supposedly revolutionary technology and head for the reference section of a large university library. We could start with a decade-by-decade series of political maps of the planet during a given world-historical period, say 1950 to 2010*. This will show the end of the European and Soviet empires and the concomitant emergence of the world of UN member states we find ourselves in today. These states, I would argue, are the prime culture areas of our era, veritable media and culture labs where social and technological innovations are constantly being put to the test, tampered with, selected and rejected, mixed with existing cultural practices.

    * Attempting to theorise about human affairs in a historical or geographical vaccuum is generally not a good idea.

  16. I think the place of ‘choice’ within culture is very interesting, especially when we consider the political implications of the rhetoric of freedom. However, my main motivation for commenting is to make a connection with projects directed at culture change which can also be seen as a product of the context within which they are conceived. The example that came to my mind is Disruptive Spiritual Innovation [http://www.searchengineformeaning.com/googling-the-shema/2010/4/9/dsiyale-divinity-school-april-13-2010.html].

  17. Disruptive innovation theory even if it’s of great value could only be seen as a brilliant theory of mediocrity. So is mediocrity a valid goal? I’ve made the same point regarding economic theory: a realist awareness of self-interest transformed itself (first in this country, later elsewhere) into an idealist theory of cultural and “progress”. So what do we teach the children? ‘Be shallow and intellectually lazy, You’ll fit in better and it’s good for the economy.’

    “To say that something is constructed doesn’t imply that it’s fragile”

    The idealism of the 60’s was very fragile, shifting into narcissism very quickly. Neoliberlism is the maturing (if that’s the word) of the celebration of adolescent individualism a few years earlier. In the 90’s many people referred to Clinton and to themselves as “liberal” even though his policies were those of the right 15 years before. Cultural continuity: The tensions that made America dynamic are also a danger.

    “Attempting to theorise about human affairs in a historical or geographical vaccuum is generally not a good idea.”
    Yes.

    Even the focus of “theorizing” rather than history is an example of a cultural shift. Synchronic/ conceptual analysis is best suited to those with short term memory. Generation gaps are gaps in communication across time.
    Time is scary: all narratives end in death.

  18. Yeah, I’ve got friends that are minor players in the music industry locally, so I’m sensitive to the issue of stealing music even for personal use, but that’s not the issue here. The issue is whether or not artists deserve a cut of something that in no way affects their bottom line. Danger mouses, The Grey Album, could have sold 10 million copies (I’ve seen a vinyl copy sell for 70 dolls.) and it would not affect either Beatles, or Jay-Z album sales, concert revenue, nothing.
    So, the pirated MP3 issue is entirely a separate issue. The majority of what artists make is from concert revenue.

  19. Sorry it wasn’t clear. The comment was continuing from the one above it referring to “disruptive innovation theory” and the dumbing down of communication. I was giving an example.

    He wasn’t talking about losing money from downloads, he was talking about spending money and time to get a good sound and having it diluted by compression.
    MP3’s are to music what hothouse tomatoes are to food. And Brad DeLong defended the latter as existing as a result of ‘rational choice.’ So it all dovetails nicely.

  20. Seth Edembaum- I think I should have added a few extra sentences to my post as (I think) it really was in agreement with what you are getting at. I am very interested in the notion of what counts as ‘good/ valuable/ a wothy aspirtation/ worth striving for’. Lots of people answer this with a reference to something universal, and I think the fact that we need to universalise goals is an interesting issue in itself. I suppose I am looking for ‘an anthropology of ends’. Does anybody have any suggestions as to where I can find this?

    The promoters of DSI see rituals as holding the potential to ‘get things done’ across religions/ life philosophies. I have been trying to work out why they really believe so much in promoting this very particular appropriation of practices. It does not take practices out of context all together, it puts them in a different context. Perhaps that of 21st century neoliberal America?

    Returning to culture as what we cannot choose, I would suggest that it is pretty much always possible for people to imagine a different way, even if they do not have any of the resources to enact that possibility. A project like DSI is in some ways arguing for a situation where people do not have to choose to challenge any of the fundamental expectations of themselves or others. Both examples of DSI and MP3s as disruptive technologies are instances where the opportunity cost to the consumer is lower. With DSI, if you can make yourself feel better about what you are already doing then you will not need to change.

  21. “I suppose I am looking for ‘an anthropology of ends’. Does anybody have any suggestions as to where I can find this?”

    Define that.

  22. By an ‘anthropology of ends’ I am just referring to ‘ends’ rather than ‘means’.

    I am not suggesting that what people explicitly and implicitly aim for, work towards and/or see as right and good has been ignored, and I am not saying that they are not often mutually dependent.

  23. “By an ‘anthropology of ends’ I am just referring to ‘ends’ rather than ‘means’. ”

    Still isn’t clear to me. I have a better understanding of what you don’t mean now, but not what you do mean. Do you mean an anthropology of advocacy? Is so UT already has a degree in that: http://www.utexas.edu/cola/depts/anthropology/programs-and-subdisciplines/Activist-Anthropology.php

    Or, do you mean simply applied or practicing anthropology? As far as I know all applied or practicing work has an end goal in mind. Don’t you need a, by now standard, praxis model between theory and practice?

  24. No, nothing quite as concrete as that which is probably my problem!

    I am less interested in the end goal that the ‘research work’ has. I am interested in looking at end goals more generally (and other things that people would probably not think of as ‘goals’ but either claim to or appear to be working towards).

    There are avenues to look at what the goals that lead to government ‘outcomes’ and/or workers’ ‘aspirations’ through other lenses such as power. I was just wondering if there was any body of work in anthropology that could be labelled as being primarily concerned with ends in a similar way to the calls for an anthropology of morality which are concerned with moralities in general, not just moral claims that arise in anthropology. I know they are just somewhat arbitrary ways of carving up things that have already been looked at.

    Anyway, thanks for helping me realise that my question is one that probably is not going to go anywhere fast.

  25. I see, that is actually much more interesting and original than anything I had floating around in my head. Thank you for clarifying that.

    I think an anthropology of, I guess, “ends” would be really interesting. In a way it would be an anthropology of the creative process itself. I don’t think I’ve ever seen work on that. We talk a lot about agency, power, and the ability for some to realize desires and projects in a way that others can’t, but the fact that those desires and projects are culturally derived is often either overlooked or given a back seat.

    The only anthropologist that I think that has dealt with this issue is Otner, in her book, “Anthropology and Social Theory.” Chapter 6: Power and Projects, a Reflection on Agency.

    I think if we look at what it is that people actually want to be an outcome of action, and then what actually becomes the outcome, and the whole processes involved is perhaps one of the biggest aspects of the human condition we could look at. This is something I’ve thought a lot about, but I’ve never heard of giving it a name like that. Very cool.

    The philosopher named Stephen Bachelor, talks about the creative process of writing in the same way. He talks about the horror of the blank page and the creative process of writing with is a shared agency between the writer, the page, and the process itself. That act of trying to reach the end state of a completed work, cannot be found in any one act of will. In Zen they call it, “two that are not two,” because a separation cannot be made between will, mind, intent, process and outcome.

  26. Thanks Rick for the suggestions. I have also just started reading Ann Swidler’s book ‘Talk of Love: how culture matters’ and finding it quite useful to think with.

  27. “I have also just started reading Ann Swidler’s book ‘Talk of Love: how culture matters’ ”

    Can you give a quick synopsis of what she says? Never heard of it.

  28. I’ll have a go…

    Swidler’s ‘Talk of love’ is a book that uses the word ‘culture’ A LOT! This book uses information from interviews (which covered marriage, love, relationships and values) with middle-class Americans to explore, in her words, ‘how culture is (or is not) linked to action.’ Swidler favours ‘processes’ over ‘ends’ on both the level of analysis and as an explanation for human action. This is a strong emphasis throughout, and the centrality of such an approach and/or argument in her work becomes clear when she brings in her earlier work on settled compared to unsettled lives/ times.

    I do not think that this book flies in the face of the ‘non-representational’ camp as the accounts that arise in the interviews seem to be treated as a type of practice. Responses to the questions and to the hypothetical situations discussed in the interviews are unpacked, and they demonstrate both contradictory and common uses of ‘culture’ both within and between accounts. Swidler provides explanations for both contradictions and commonalities. The variations in how prescriptive and coherent elements of culture are seem to be mostly explained through the content of those particular elements of culture. There is also evidence that the cultural elements people draw on or have access to is grounded in things that have or could happen. I do not mean this in a functionalist sense, but simply that experiences and anticipated choices matter. However these questions appear to be more clearly dealt with in the last part of the book, so it is probably best if I do not comment too much!

  29. The de-divinization of western culture is our task for the next 100 years.

    the anti_supernaturalist

Comments are closed.