Towards a Meaningful Definition of Culture

[Still stealing SSC’s format.]

I

It is often observed that Western discourse is tangled by Orwellian Newspeak and anti-Thoughtcrime conditioning.  Sometimes authors tackle subjects by analyzing the roots of current modes of discourse and working backwards.  Other times, authors begin by analyzing basic conditions and contrasting the results of their analyses to current modes of discourse…basically asking the question, “Would we end up at our current understanding if we started from scratch?  On purpose?”

Snarky assessments and reflexive disdain for the mere word “progress” aside, any discussion which scratches at basic principles of the human condition must acknowledge that humans have progressed significantly from a state of nature.  I’ll quote myself here, because it saves me re-typing the same story and also amuses me:

1) The Material Cause of Post-Modernism.  The material cause of post-modernism is wealth.  Specifically, a society wealthy enough to easily provide a basic standard of living to all citizens even at less than full employment.  This is the inevitable result of civilization as a conserver of knowledge and culture, embodied in technology, which permits the work of few to easily support many.  (ie, cavemen couldn’t build bulldozers, but they built the things-that built the things-that built the things-that built bulldozers, and now one guy can do the work of 100’s.  Yet if the foundries and factories required to build bulldozers were forgotten or destroyed, we’d all be picking up shovels again, and there wouldn’t be enough people to continue construction at the rate currently enabled by bulldozers.) [Emphasis added this time around]

The bolded section was adequate for my purposes in that post, but today it is time to tease that apart, define its components better, and reach towards a meaningful definition of culture.

II

First, let me acknowledge upfront that the bolded section is kind of of a tautology.  Let’s deal with this definitional issue first.  Technology, defined by Dictionary.com is:

1. The branch of knowledge that deals with the creation and use of technical means and their interrelation with life, society, and the environment, drawing upon such subjects as industrial arts, engineering, applied science, and pure science.

2. The application of this knowledge for practical ends.

3. The terminology of an art, science, etc.; technical nomenclature.

4. A scientific or industrial process, invention, method, of the like.

5. The sum of the ways in which social groups provide themselves with the material objects of their civilization.

I said that civilization conserved knowledge in the form of technology, when technology really is the conservation/accretion of knowledge.  It is the sum of humanity’s ways of interacting with the physical world; ie it is the chain of all the things-that built the things-that built the things-that built “the material objects of our civilization.”  Such as bulldozers.  And Saturn V rockets.  And the Internet.  Having more carefully defined technology, let’s move on and apply this knowledge to something.

III

A common observation made of neoreaction, both internally and externally, is that its critiques of modern Progressivism frequently touch on the incompatibility of Progressive values with simple facts about life.  This can take the form of devaluing child-rearing, leading to a society where birthrates fall below replacement levels.  It can take the form of Gaia-worshiping environmental policies which would lead immediately to mass starvation.  It can lead to a weakened culture which is simply subsumed by a stronger culture.  The common thread is that humans are not demigods – immortal unless stricken down by a mighty blow – humans are mortals – beings whose survival requires constant expenditure of skilled effort.  This tension between Progressivism and Neoreaction was recently laid out quite well at LessWrong:

Neoreaction says, “There is objective value in the principle of “perpetuating biological and/or civilizational complexity” itself*; the best way to perpetuate biological and/or civilizational complexity is to “serve Gnon” (i.e. devote our efforts to fulfilling nature’s pre-requisites for perpetuating our biologial and/or civilizational complexity); our subjective values are spandrels manufactured by natural selection/Gnon; insofar as our subjective values motivate us to serve Gnon and thereby ensure the perpetuation of biological and/or civilizational complexity, our subjective values are useful. (For example, natural selection makes sex a subjective value by making it pleasurable, which then motivates us to perpetuate our biological complexity). But, insofar as our subjective values mislead us from serving Gnon (such as by making non-procreative sex still feel good) and jeopardize our biological/civilizational perpetuation, we must sacrifice our subjective values for the objective good of perpetuating our biological/civilizational complexity” (such as by buckling down and having procreative sex even if one would personally rather not enjoy raising kids).

To hammer this point home: the most generous possible Neoreactionary critique of Progressivism is that all of its ideals are morally laudable in a vacuum, but any society ordered according to Progressive principles is clearly doomed, either by failure to protect itself from outsiders, or failure to sustain itself in the omnipresent face of Death.

Now, back to technology.  The dictionary definition describes technology as the ways in which a group provides itself with the material objects of civilization.  Rather than starting at present day and work backwards through our “material objects of civilization,” ie the internet, and Saturn V rockets, and bulldozers, let’s do like I suggested in the intro and start from scratch.  What was the purpose of the first material objects homo sapiens provided itself with?  Basic survival!  They were hunting weapons, weapons of war, cooking utensils, clothing, and shelter.  They weren’t elegant, well engineered, or made from imported materials.  No individual group had “the best hammer known to man;” the communication to determine the best man-made hammer wasn’t even available to all living homo sapiens.  Rather, technology in its infant state was the result of homo sapiens looking around at the meager resources within eyeshot and asking “how can I use these things to meet my needs and deal with my problems?”

In a single word, technology was local.

IV

The LessWrong quote above demonstrated my point about the importance of survival to the neoreactionary worldview.  Although it is inserted in a section talking about technology, the passage itself actually talks about values.  This is our segue into discussing culture.

Like the history of technology, the history of culture can be traced both backwards and forwards.  If we start at present day and move backwards, it quickly becomes difficult to discuss the multitude of human cultures.  For instance, Thai food originated in Thailand, but one can buy “Thai” food worldwide now.  The Olympic Games are Greek in origin, but the entire world now participates in them.   One can buy home decor in Asian, European, Western, etc styles, all from stores in their own neighborhoods.  Would a present-day extra-terrestrial observer understand that rice is an “Asian” food, and that potatoes are a “European” food, although they has since been introduced to many growing regions?  Isn’t the fact that an American can go to the local Vietnamese restaurant on Monday and a steak-and-potatoes place on Tuesday sufficient grounds on which to say both foods are “American?”

To avoid this confusion, let’s do like we did with technology and try starting from the beginning.  We’ll continue on the subject of ethnic cuisine, since that appears to be most of what “culture” in America (at least as represented at events focused on culture).  Homo erectus didn’t have a supply chain placing cocoa beans, maize, potatoes, rice, and wheat at his disposal.  He didn’t even know about foods available worldwide.  He knew what he could see; he knew what was local.  His diet wasn’t a matter of choice, it was the answer to him looking around and asking, “how can I feed myself off this land?”  As knowledge of local edibles increased, the question gradually shifted to “how can I make the things I’m eating more palatable?”  Keep in mind that plant/animal husbandry hadn’t been practiced in any forms yet, so corn looked like the thing on the left, rather than the thing on the right:

Cornselection

 

We see that the roots of ethnic cuisine, a commonly recognized facet of culture, have less to do with choice and more to do with necessity.  Culture is, in many ways, identical to technology. With respect to cooking, it is the accumulation of ways in which a group provides itself with enough food to survive.

Continuing on, nearly every aspect of culture can be seen as a result of necessity.  For instance, all humans die eventually, and we have to do something with the bodies.  While there is no reason a given tribe couldn’t have treated each death differently,  groups tend to develop an accepted, scripted way to do things.  This occurs for two primary reasons.

  1. It’s easier to have one ritual.  It requires fewer props, stages, scenery, tools, etc.
  2. It is easier to be sure you are sending the correct signals during a significant emotional event when the correct signals for that significant emotional event have already been agreed upon.  And we all know how much Neoreactionary writers love talking about signalling.

I picked the subject of ancient funeral rituals deliberately because they show a remarkable variety in dealing with a universal human experience based on “what can I do with the local things around me?”  In areas with soft ground, bodies were buried.  In coastal societies, bodies were often sent to sea a la a Viking funeral.  High Plains Native Americans left bodies in elevated platforms to be eaten and scattered by birds.  Certain mountain-dwelling cultures, unable to bury their dead in rocky ground, and without wood for platforms, developed funeral rights of chopping and scattering bodies themselves.  And of course the extreme effort and ritual of Phaoronic mummification stands as a counterpoint to every single one of these methods; instead of disposing of bodies, the ancient Egyptians went out of their way to preserve them; a feat no-doubt inspired by the natural mummification of bodies left in the desert sands.

V

While “culture” today is largely a la carte from a menu of ideas with origins worldwide, it must be kept in mind that these ideas were developed locally in response to the need to do something about something, usually survival-related, given certain resources and constraints.  Specifically, these ideas were the answer to the questions, “What are we gonna do when…Old Man Johnson dies?”  “What are we gonna do when…the harvest is over?”  “What are we gonna do when…a crime is committed.”

Immediately the conflict between the origins of cultural practices and the modern world should become apparent.  Culture is a communally agreed-upon (however arbitrary) way of handling inevitable situations in life.  Our globalized and exceptionally-wealthy world provides individuals the opportunity to choose between multiple ways of handling these situations.  Referring back to our reasons for standard practices, we can see that in this situation, choices are neither 1) easy, nor 2) guaranteed to send the desired signals.

For whatever reasons, the first scenario to exemplify this problem that always comes to mind is that of parents disciplining each other’s children.  In a small community, there may be accepted standards for how we discipline our children.  Yet in present-day America, parents are often unsure and conflicted over how they should discipline their own children!  This is a factor of two causes, themselves related to one another:

  1. Exposure to multiple solutions to a universal problem has led to comparison, and selecting a given solution sends signals relating to that solution’s origin.  Is one solution “low class?”  Does choosing another solution appear too “stuck up?”  Does/how does one weigh a practice’s efficacy against the prejudices one incurs by practicing it?
  2. Progressive Universalist tendencies assure us that there is an absolute, universal, scientific answer to which culture’s more-or-less arbitrarily agreed-upon method to dealing with a universal problem is best.  Whereas people used to draw strength from the benefits obtained merely by adhering to a cultural practice, people now fret over whether they are following the best cultural practice.

VI

Summarizing all of the above; culture is a group’s accepted way of dealing with basic life events based on that group’s environment.  In our modern, wealthy, globalized world, individual cultural practices are adopted a la carte, meaning that there is no accepted way for dealing with anything.

I suspect this is a large part of why the promises of “multiculturalism” ring false to the ears of neoreactionary writers; we recognize that functioning culture entails a large degree of uniformity.  Without uniformity, “culture” is merely “a bunch of stuff people choose to do.”  This isn’t about whether or not the government issues a press release in December acknowledging Christmas AND Hanukkah AND Kwanza AND Ramadan (retroactively, whenever it fell that calendar year.)  It is about things which are mutually exclusive by nature.  It is about whether you bury or cremate deceased relatives, or the hassle and horror you will create if you attempt to leave them on raised platforms outside or chop them into pieces in the back yard.  It is about what children are taught about human sexuality, and when.  It is about dating etiquette, dinner etiquette, customs surrounding alcohol, etc.  Surely the massive amount of communication about the need to communicate in a diverse society is evidence that the all-important signalling functions of cultural practices are drown out by the background noise of a chimeric society.

[Slight digression here.  I can’t help but note that the California bill which would require demonstrable enthusiastic consent for sex only needs to exist in a sexually libertine environment where involved parties could reasonably have drastically different expectations such that the signal-to-noise ratio of coy verbal and vague non-verbal communications could result in accusations as severe as date-rape.  Progress has brought this upon itself.] 

[Bigger digression here.  I often consider Political Correctness to be a sort of electronic warfare; it establishes itself as the only acceptable signal and further jams other signals as to push them further into the background noise.  Few particularly like it, but it is the only viable channel for communication, so people use it.]

VII

To conclude, Westerners use the word “culture” to refer to practices, situations, and circumstances which can’t properly be considered cultural.  Even worse, we continue to inflict the idea of multiculturalism on ourselves, as if eating designated ethnic cuisine on designated ethnic heritage months and acknowledging various cultures’ historical accomplishments has any significant bearing on day-to-day issues such as child-rearing, relationships, appropriate professional conduct, physical fitness and appearance standards, or whether it is ok to chop up Aunt Susie in the yard when she croaks.

It is the recognition of this problem that leads me to tentatively place myself in the ethno-nationalist wing of neoreaction.  I recognize the importance of a culture uniform enough to function as a culture, and I also believe that such a culture cannot be imposed by government and formal law.  It is properly an issue for families to instill in their children and for children to carry on through careful mate selection and education of their own children.  Ideas do not live in vacuums or in the minds of immortal demigods – ideas which kill their mortal hosts without replacement are moral non-starters.  Cultures and ideas “deserve” to survive to the extent that they create strong, great families, and strong, great families “deserve” to survive to the extent they propogate the culture which created them.

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4 thoughts on “Towards a Meaningful Definition of Culture

  1. Pingback: Towards a Meaningful Definition of Culture | Reaction Times

  2. Pingback: Democracy Failure Mode: Demagoguery | iParallax

  3. Pingback: Progress, Process, and Dead White Males | iParallax

  4. Pingback: Political Correctness and Danger | iParallax

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