Tag Archives: culture

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.

The making of a Communist

When Mama and Papa came to America they were not seeking the legended golden mecca. As young Jewish revolutionaries, they knew they were coming to a capitalist America, but at least it was not tyrannical, monarchistic Old Russia. …

The 1905 revolution in Russia raised jubilant hopes among the young emigrés, and Mama, pregnant with my sister, made plans to go home. The revolution failed; going-home talk slowly receded, but Mama and Papa and the aunts and uncles did not assimilate into the new country. They rejected the mores of capitalist America. They were critical of those among their emigré circles who adjusted and tried to make it by the exploitative measures needed to succeed. Their goals remained alienated from those of this country. They wore their poverty like a badge of honor, continued to meet in small groups which at least now were no longer illegal as in Old Russia, and talked about the needed revolution. …

Through it all we children grew and played in this self-contained, foreign-born, radical community. We were enrolled in the Socialist Party sunday school at the Labor Temple at the time we started public school kindergarten, and the former was more important than the latter. Among my early memories are those of being lifted each week onto a table in stark meeting halls and lisping my way through recitations of revolutionary poems by Yiddish writers my parents and their comrades loved so passionately. Papa coached me at home, explaining the pathos and courage and hope of the words I was to recite. …

In 1922, at the age of sixteen, my sister Mini, already a Young Communist League member, organized the first Communist children’s group in Southern California. I was her first recruit and rapidly became that organization’s public spokesperson—a fiery, tense thirteen-year-old. In school I was selected to recite James Whitcomb Riley’s “Little Orphan Annie” poems at PTA meetings; out of school I made eloquent speeches at Communist mass meetings, denouncing the Rockefeller and Morgan warmakers and urging support of the new children’s revolutionary movement.

Peggy Dennis, The Autobiography of an American Communist: A Personal View of a Political Life 1925-1975

Dealing with abnormality

The following paragraphs describe a certain country. As you read, try to guess which country it is.

[T]here were people whose gender identity was hard to figure out. There was this one particular person living in the neighborhood next to mine that people were always busy gossiping about. I wasn’t sure whether I should refer to this person as “aunt” or “uncle” (in [redacted], you don’t call older people by their first names; you should call them “aunt,” “uncle,” “grandma” or “grandpa”).

This person was married to a man and had two kids. Still, this person cheated on their husband with a woman and thus was always on people’s lips. When you met this person for the first time you would think she was a man. Although this person was voluptuous, with boobs bigger than any other woman in the neighborhood, everyone thought this person was a man. …

She was friendly and nice to everyone, so I always liked her. My mom’s friend had been a widow for a long time and fell in love with her. That’s why I became a close friend to her.

She took care of all the house chores typically performed by men in the house. She maintained a good relationship with her husband and she was a good mother to her children and, most importantly, she was the breadwinner in the family.

People probably wanted to gossip about her not because of her bisexuality. They probably gossiped about her because of jealousy that she made lots of money while having a good family.

Since leaving [redacted], I have learned more about LGBT issues in the women’s studies class I took. When I was in [redacted], I hadn’t heard the terms “gay” and “lesbian.” All I thought was that they had different sexual preference. As long as they were good people, we didn’t have any problem being friends with them regardless of their sexual preference.

Of course, people would gossip from time to time because they didn’t have anything else to do in their free time. People didn’t treat them with contempt and the LGBTs were never shunned or excluded from the society.

After arriving in [elsewhere], I saw that the LGBTs were a social issue and often found in public discussion. I tried to take an interest in the issue but I never paid much attention to it since it wasn’t directly of interest.

A very progressive country, no?

Here’s the paragraph I cut:

Women are not supposed to ride bicycles in [redacted], but she could ride a bicycle. That’s because even the traffic police couldn’t figure out the gender of this person. They couldn’t stop her from riding the bike. Before they could figure out the gender, she was already gone.

So maybe it isn’t progressive.

Have you made your guess?

The country is North Korea.

How can this happen? Here’s one possible reason:

[A] tolerant attitude … can be had towards any minority – whether it be a lifestyle minority, an ethnic minority, a religious minority, or a political minority – when it is below a certain level of prominence in that society.

… [T]hose of baroque sexuality have often, in sneering and pushy voices, asked “Are you threatened by my sexuality?”. Or at least they used to – now, of course, we know that that question was, in itself, a threat – the fulness of it, including the unspoken portion, would go something like: “Are you threatened by my sexuality? Well if not, just you wait. You’ll be paying astronomical fines for not wanting to bake a cake for my wedding or losing your job for daring to oppose my pet political causes soon enough, chump”.

And yet in Japan, and certainly in the world of anime, things are different. Anime homosexuals are carefully portrayed as not representing a threat to the prevailing cisheteronormist order. … Sailor Uranus does not wish to upend the society around her in order to gain the validation involved in having her lifestyle redefined as normal; she only desires to be left in peace to discreetly live as she wishes. She doesn’t want to change marriage laws, get you fired for saying that you don’t like her, or tear down the faith of the polis.

And it is because of this that she can safely be left alone by the larger society around her.

It’s not just food and music

The waitress came over. I had made up my mind to try meatloaf, which sounded very American to my ears, and a pale lager.

“What did you say?”

I repeated it.

She stared hesitantly, almost despondently, at me.

Peter intervened to help us out. The waitress gathered up the menus and disappeared.

The same thing happened nearly every time I had ordered something in the past week. The waiter or waitress would look questioningly at me and ask me to repeat myself. Every exchange of information was piecemeal, chopped into bits, full of misunderstandings and repetitions. It wasn’t that I didn’t speak English, it was that I stood on the outside of the flow that made things glide along easily and without friction, where everything said and done was as expected. I was in command of the content, but not of the form, and form is always the most important aspect of human communication. I experienced the same thing when I moved from Norway to Sweden, all those suddenly blank stares and silent nods, which meant either that someone didn’t understand what I was saying or that what I was saying was preposterous. In those early years, every time I met people from Norway, I felt relief. They only had to say a few sentences, and at once I could place them geographically and socially and address them accordingly. When I was still living in Norway, I wasn’t even aware that this kind of knowledge existed, it was entirely intuitive and obvious, just part of what being Norwegian entailed, and my easy access to this whole subconscious mountain of implicit knowledge and shared references was probably what it meant to have a national identity.

— Karl Ove Knausgaard (source)

A fleeting glimpse of the obvious in the pages of the New York Times. But what follows is weaker.

Once, I mentioned this to a Swedish woman. She looked indignantly at me. “But those are just prejudices!” she said. “You’re judging people before you’ve even spoken to them! It’s much better not to know all those things, so that you can make up your own opinion about them. We’re individuals, not representatives of a culture!”

That is the most Swedish thing anyone has ever said to me.

What is culture, if not a set of prejudices? A set of unformulated and unconscious rules and ways of behavior that every member of a given society nonetheless immediately recognizes and accepts?

Nowhere in the world has shared culture been a more imperative requirement than in America. More than 300 million people live here, and they had descended over the course of a very few generations from a huge number of disparate cultures, with different histories, ways of behavior, worldviews and experiential backgrounds. All of them, sooner or later, had been required to relinquish their old culture and enter the new one. That must be why the most striking thing about the United States was its sameness, that every place had the same hotels, the same restaurants, the same stores. And that must be why every American movie was made after the same template and why, in this sense, every movie expressed the same thing. And that must be why all these TVs were hanging on the walls, unwatched; they created an immediate sense of belonging, a feeling of home.

Even though I grew up with American music and films and read about American politicians and celebrities practically all my life, I was still an outsider. I didn’t understand all these TV sets with their bright smiles.

Knausgaard didn’t see all of America; he drove from Maine to Minnesota, through small towns, suburbs, and Detroit, mostly avoiding the native population on his way. The differences he could have seen, whether on his route or elsewhere, might seem small to someone from a continent with dozens of different languages, but it must be remembered that America didn’t completely settle on English until after WW2.

The web of dependency

Ran Prieur:

Review of a book about uncontacted tribes in the Amazon. The best part is about how a large complex society defeats primitive people, when it is no longer socially acceptable to conquer them with violence. Quoting two bits out of order:

Pacification was accomplished through the proffering of Western goods, including machetes, axes, metal pots, fishhooks, matches, mosquito netting, and clothing. The seductive appeal of such things was nearly irresistible, for each of these items can make a quantum improvement in a sylvan lifestyle. Acquisition of several or all of these goods is a transformative experience that makes contact essentially irreversible.

With the convenience of matches, one quickly loses the knack for starting a fire. Shotguns decisively outperform bows and arrows, but cartridges must be bought at a good price. Such newly acquired dependencies fundamentally altered the life of the Indians, who were compelled to work for wages instead of spending their days hunting, fishing, and tending their gardens.

This is the kind of thing Ivan Illich wrote about all the time, and it’s still happening today, to you. With the convenience of frozen dinners and restaurant meals, one quickly loses the knack for preparing food. iTunes decisively outperforms radio, but music files must be bought at a good price. To navigate sprawl you need a car, to pay expenses on a car you need a job, and so on. But at the same time, many of us understand this web of dependency and are fighting to get free of it.


Right now, almost all genetic modification is being done to make crops that are dependent on industrial agriculture with high energy inputs. The danger is that inevitable biotech catastrophes will serve as the excuse to give central control systems a strict monopoly over biotech, and they will use it to stamp out biodiversity and create life that is dependent on those control systems for its survival.


As long as genetic modification is being done primarily by big agribusiness, plants will be altered to make them more compatible with central control of the food supply.

I’m not sure if he’s right about genetic modification, but if he is, it’s another illustration of the same pattern: “In practice, technologies will be used by control systems to maintain their power and stability.” People subject themselves to the control system for some perceived (and perhaps even real) benefit, and then get bitten by the tradeoffs.

Another example: the replacement of folk culture (decentralized/distributed, varying and variable, illegible to bureaucracies, difficult to control) with mass culture (centralized, impossible to edit, bureaucratic, easy to control) — less effortful and allowing for much higher production values and potentially much more talent, but in practice, buying in tends to mean letting your enemies put thoughts into your head.