Two definitions of culture

In one definition, a culture is a set of traits establishing continuity between an individual member of that culture and the past and future. In another, a culture is a phyle.

A phyle, a heritable thede, is necessarily a continuity between its members and the past and future; but a phyle is defined by identity, not cultural traits. A phyle can change radically over time and still remain the same phyle; a set of traits establishing continuity cannot.

The first definition seems to be associated with the left, and the second definition with the right. The leftist will reduce culture to fiddle music and Arthurian myth; the rightist will reduce culture to national identity. Defining culture as sets of more or less ‘authentic’ artifacts makes it difficult to speak of the natural tendency of geographic or political multiculturalism to lead to conflict; defining it as purely identitarian makes it difficult to speak of establishing legitimate historical continuity on an individual or communitarian level.

But these definitions refer to different things. A third-generation Albanian, Chechen, etc. immigrant who becomes a Wahhabi and doesn’t speak Albanian or Chechen has lost continuity with his ancestors; but, insofar as he still identifies as an Albanian, a Chechen, a Muslim, etc., he maintains the same phyletic identity. So a difficulty in translation arises in discussion of multiculturalism. If ‘culture’ is read according to the first definition, multiculturalism mostly raises difficulties for minorities, who are cut off from their native continuities and thrust into environments shaped by and containing others; but if it’s read according to the second, multiculturalism mostly raises difficulties for the majority, who are suddenly forced into bloody and avoidable phyletic conflicts, sometimes (as today) with enemies backed (or fought ineffectually enough that they may as well be backed) by their own governments.

Both of these consequences are real.

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8 responses to “Two definitions of culture

  1. Pingback: Two definitions of culture | Reaction Times

  2. NRK June 12, 2016 at 7:29 am

    I don’t think anyone uses culture and identity interchangeably. If anything, people on the right view identity as a necessary part of culture, while people on the left do not.
    As a reduction to an abstract sense of belonging, culture loses that aspect which is more important to the right than to the left: actually being part of a community of common heritage. A new yorker wahhabi albanian may have a lot in common with other new yorker wahhabi albanians, but the problems he causes cannot be blamed on albanian culture, he doesn’t even know what that is, and no one in Albania recognizes him as one of them. Same with NOI members with ‘afro’ hair, to what extent is their culture african? No one in Africa was into that, ever.
    What the left runs into is a simple self-contradiction: we are trying to build Utopia Where Everyone Feels Good, but cultural change feels bad for minorities. Since utopia makes no appearance of arriving anytime soon, they have decided to give preference to the feelings of minorities, becoming, in effect, tradionalists of cultures to which they do not belong.
    The right, described in your terms, faces an abyss: the realization that NOI afros and wahhabis are things that emerge organically in their own country. They are not foreign or imported, and therefore you cannot close your gates against them. They are, in fact, reactions to the loss of belonging and authenticity that happens in the natural course of capitalist progress, and even the most homogenous societies aren’t safe from producing the most violent reactions, cf. fascism.

    • nydwracu June 12, 2016 at 4:44 pm

      One possible position with regard to immigrants is: sure, you can come here, but you’re going to have to give up your old continuities and get new ones in order to become one of us, which you’re going to have to do. Another possible position is: sure, you can come here, but you can’t be one of us, so you’re going to have to build your own pillar if you do. Different countries can position themselves in different places on the sliding scale here, as can the same country with regard to treatment of different groups of immigrants — in America, the Jews had to build their own pillars (Brandeis University and so on) and the Germans were forced to abandon their old continuities and become ‘unhyphenated’ Americans — but it seems that there’s no coherent place now.

      That said, Wahhabism isn’t an organic development within the West. Certain foreign elements are very invested in spreading it. It may still have some appeal if not for those foreign elements, since its literalistic tendencies are popular in the West (see: nü-atheists), but there’s a lot of foreign money behind it, and money always helps.

      Also, I wouldn’t use ‘authenticity’ without scare quotes. I’ve never seen it deployed usefully, no one seems interested in analyzing it, and it tends to be used to sneak noble-savage jabberwocky in through the back door.

  3. NRK June 12, 2016 at 5:31 pm

    You mention two groups that have been exceptionally successful in their respective modes of assimilation (though I don’t think these particular modes unfolded because someone told them there was no other way), so maybe they’re not particularly useful for addressing the problems of failed assimilation (which, I’ve hinted at it regarding fascism, might well become a problem the majority has).

    The question is not, who is funding wahhabis, but why is this joyless nonsense attractive to third generation albanians? But yeah, the saudis are behind it, that’s why the NoI is the better example.

    You’re right about the concept of authenticity, more than you probably think: its employment, very much including the use by western identitarians, inevitably turns people into noble savages.
    But that doeesn’t mean that the feeling of losing yourself to an alienated existence isn’t real, or that it doesn’t produce monsters. Or, for that matter, that nothing is being lost.

    • nydwracu June 12, 2016 at 5:46 pm

      Wahhabism is also spreading in Albania, South Asia, Indonesia, etc., so it’s unlikely to be anything in the immigrant experience making it popular. That may be an added factor, but when it’s spreading in their home countries as well…

      Like, you have these peripheral Muslim societies that have been cut off from the rest of Islam for centuries, and then the people from the country Mecca is in, the descendants of the tribes that founded and spread Islam, come in and tell them, “y’all are doing it wrong, here’s the right way to do it, and here are all the traditional Islamic documents that say y’all are doing it wrong”. Why wouldn’t that in itself be appealing, at least to some?

      • NRK June 12, 2016 at 6:00 pm

        My first guess (well it’s more than a guess) is that the countries in question have, by the time such ideologies take hold, seen enough western influence, and therefore alienation, for it to be explained in terms of fascism, as a regressive, identitarian immune reaction to a superior system full of incredible promises and threats.

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