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Past Valve Book Events

cover of the book Theory's Empire

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cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

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cover of the book What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?

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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

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William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

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Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

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Thursday, October 12, 2006

American Wildlife & Culture

Posted by Bill Benzon on 10/12/06 at 03:42 PM

I have previously argued that the notion of “Western culture” is unintelligible when considered as a term of cultural description and analysis. The term is ideological and finds its meaning in geopolitical struggles, not the study of culture. I feel much the same way about the phrase “American culture.” Such phrases, when employed to talk a general way about politics, society, and history, tend to designate some undifferentiated metaphysic substance. In one case that substance is associated with the West, but not Africa or the Orient. In the other case the substance is associated with the United States of America, but no other nation.

I want to do a bit of thinking aloud and explore this matter by contrast that usage with a phrase such as “American wildlife.” That phrase simply designates the wildlife living in America. Given that America includes Alaska and Hawaii and some miscellaneous territories, the term’s geographical range is ambiguous, but that is easily enough clarified in any given context. 

My point is that, whatever geographical range one specifies, the term does not imply that the wildlife species in question has some special essence that makes the species American. Some species are found only America whiles others are found elsewhere. Whatever the case may be, we have a body of biological theory that allows us to understand the situation in terms of geography, climate, and history (both near-term, going back 500 or 1000 years, and deep, going back millions of years).

Now, let us construe “American culture” as meaning simply the cultural practices taking place on American soil - however you wish to understand its geographic scope. Given the wide range of peoples who have migrated to America, it follows that there are a wide range of cultural practices taking place on American soil that cannot reasonably be considered American. Without even attempting to characterize those more specifically, let’s just cross them off the list and go on to some less obvious cases.

For example, consider the culture of 20th century physics. There’s a lot of that in America, but the practice of physics is international in scope and it doesn’t make much sense to identify it with any one nation. There may be more such physics practiced in the United States - as measured by, say number of Nobel Laureates, number of college and university physics departments, number of professional physicists, etc. - but that doesn’t make physics peculiarly American. Local variants are likely to reflect the influence of specific individuals or institutions as much as, or more so, the influence of geo-political nationality.

What about Christmas? It is certainly very important in American national life. Many businesses, for example, organize their business year around Christmas season and the appropriateness of Christmas ritual objects - e.g. a crèche - for display on certain public property is a matter of annual contention. But the holiday itself is not specifically American; it is Christian. And the specific customs associated with Christmas in modern America owe as much, if not more, to Victorian England than to America itself. By contrast, Thanksgiving is specifically American, as are a various civic holidays of which Independence Day, July 4th, is the most obvious.

And then there is baseball, known as America’s pastime since the late 19th century. The origins of the game seem rather obscure, at least to the writers of the Wikipedia, but mostly English and American. The first published rules of the game were written in 1845 by one Alexander Joy Cartwright for Manhattan club called the Knickerbockers. That’s as convenient an originating point as any but no particular origin seems to justified privileged status. Like many things cultural, the game evolved over a period of time in many different places.

The game is certainly important in America’s sports ecology, but it is also important in Cuba, Korea, and Japan and has been played in those countries since the first half of the 19th century. That makes the game Cuban, Korean, and Japanese in a merely geographical sense, but in a cultural sense? Probably not. But is it culturally American and, if so, what characteristics make it American? Does it share those characteristics with, for example, American football? The answers to these questions are not so obvious.

Let’s consider one final example, the American novel. As a literary form, the novel is not specifically American. Just what it is, is a question I’ll leave to those more expert in the subject than I am. And I’m pretty much going to do the same with the American novel. But, whatever it is that makes a novel American, it is not the birthplace of the novelist or where the novel was written, but what the novel is about and, perhaps, its style and manner. Characterizing those traits is not an easy business.

At this point we have come rather a long way from the trite point that, to be a meaningful term in the analysis of culture, the phrase “American culture” has to be something more than, other than, a mere geographical qualifier. But it is not at all obvious to me just how to characterize this “more than,” this “other than.” It is difficult enough to characterize it in once fairly circumscribed case, the American novel. How would you characterize it in a fully general way?

I do not have an answer to that question. What is worse, I suspect that it is the wrong kind of question to ask. The issue is not one of specific words and phrases, or even paragraphs by the 10s or 100s. No, what’s at issue is the nature of the entity designated by those words. If it isn’t some kind of essence, then what is it? But I am going to leave that for another day.


Comments

Public opinion polls and objective observation are valuable.

“At this point we have come rather a long way from the trite point that, to be a meaningful term in the analysis of culture, the phrase “American culture” has to be something more than, other than, a mere geographical qualifier. But it is not at all obvious to me just how to characterize this “more than,” this “other than.” It is difficult enough to characterize it in once fairly circumscribed case, the American novel. How would you characterize it in a fully general way?”

Asking, What is an American novel? (meaning U.S. novel here, I take it) is something like asking, What is a political novel? There’s no possible certain answer. It seems to me that one simply looks for interesting, lively, meaningful, useful approaches to answers (to the extent one is interested in the question). Rubin and Moore in their interesting anthology The Idea of An American Novel excerpt and comment on some early thinking along these lines. And for a much broader background overview one could harken back to Vernon Louis Parrington’s landmark work—Main Currents in American Thought: An Interpretation of American Literature from the Beginnings to 1920.

Some great Victorian novelists famously explored, dramatized and revealed individual lives from “cradle to grave” and beyond. It seems to me to pursue “the idea of an American [US] novel” one could do worse than examine the US, the Americas, the world from birth to the present and beyond....

And looking closely at “the idea of an American/US _publisher_ (or reading public) might be as revealing as anything else along these lines.... Or even the idea of American/US literary prizes, and their peculiar existence and evolution, touched on by Louis Menand last December in “All that Glitters: Literature’s Global Economy” along with some broader comments about lineage of books, with some comments on Pascale Casanova’s interesting book The World Republic of Letters: http://www.newyorker.com/critics/books/articles/051226crbo_books

There’s a real literary economy at work in the US (and everywhere else)—that’s one of the main things that always jumps out at me. Scrutinizing what that economy is, what those economies are, and how and why certain authors, publishers, and readers function with and/or resist any and all economies and cultures of literature—and the effects and implications of doing so—seems worthwhile to me.

At any given time in any given domain, the functioning economies of literature and cultures of literature interacting with the individual “agents” of literature (authors, publishers, readers, etc) seem to me to be phenomena that need to be well understood to explain what is meant by the literature of a given domain (like the US) however defined. Pretty basic stuff. So much depends upon the main and particular interests of the analyst.

“Given the wide range of peoples who have migrated to America, it follows that there are a wide range of cultural practices taking place on American soil that cannot reasonably be considered American.”

Plenty of “wildlife” have migrated or moved into “America” too, and have migrated out as well. Whether or not such “wildlife” may be called “American” or non-American seems to me a “temporal” matter, or terminological, in large regard. Besides some people who have lived their entire lives in the US have more in common with some Africans than with some “Americans”—culturally and otherwise—that is, unless one chooses to define such commonalities away. Biased or prejudiced ideology would be at least the easiest way to define such commonality away. Can it be done otherwise, non-ideologically? I suspect an answer to that might go a long way toward providing some interesting views on “the idea of an American novel” and “Western culture.”

By Tony Christini on 10/12/06 at 11:23 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Plenty of “wildlife” have migrated or moved into “America” too, and have migrated out as well. Whether or not such “wildlife” may be called “American” or non-American seems to me a “temporal” matter, or terminological, in large regard.

Yes, it’s a trivial matter. And in many cases we know the history, we know what species are native to the territory and which ones are new. And having defined the phrase to mean “wildlife living in America,” I deliberately chose to ignore the difference. Had I said “wildlife native to America” my point wouldn’t change. The meaning of these phrases is not inherently problematic. The meaning of the phrase “American culture” is. We don’t know what kind of entity that thing is.

Most of what you say makes sense, including the suggestion that “one could do worse than examine the US, the Americas, the world from birth to the present and beyond....” But this is all by way of coming up with some characterization of American culture. But it doesn’t really address my question about the kind of entity we’re dealing with. If “American-ness” isn’t an essence, what is it?

To get some idea of where I’m going with this, take a look at what the Wikipedia has to say about the biological concept of the species and about essentialism in biology. Note that I am not about the propose that “Ameican culture” is some species of culture, where the usage parallels that in biology—though we sometimes talk as though that were the case. What interests me is the shift from essentialist thinking to population thinking. How do we make such a shift in conceptualizing culture? The standard implicit notion of culture—as some “undifferentiated metaphysical substance”—is essentialist. That is the usage that Michaels has criticized. That usage doesn’t work very well, but culture certainly does exist and we need to understand it more deeply.

By Bill Benzon on 10/13/06 at 07:30 AM | Permanent link to this comment

“undifferentiated metaphysical substance”

Which is to say “some thing”. My point is that where an understanding of culture, etc, is not ideological it’s evident, and where it’s not evident, it’s subject to falsifiable research that ultimately must be carried out within some fairly arbitrary limits imposed by any researcher.

By Tony Christini on 10/13/06 at 10:48 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Bill, to what extent do you think “America” can be totalized? It occurs to me that what makes Faulkner American—his ability to represent the economic and cultural stagnation of the South—is very different from the almost post-colonial consciousness of Henry James, with his novels about expatriate Americans. Both of them seem to be conjuring with the particulars of American history, but in very different ways.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 10/16/06 at 03:11 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Well, Joseph, “totalization” is not part of my intellectual vocabulary so I don’t catch the nuances in its use. But, in the particulars, American history is very diverse. Is it possible to embrace ALL American experience within ONE novelistic vision? Has it been done, could it be done, is it too late to try? But, novels aside, what about what America IS “on the ground,” as they say?

America certainly is an ecology of cultural formations of various genealogies. I can imagine describing, analyzing, and even understanding that ecology by various intellectual means. But that’s something one does by standing above and apart and observing from the outside. That’s not where novels come from, and it’s not how America is lived.

It seems to me that the melting pot has been the traditional theme of American totalization. That theme’s been badly frayed by multiculturalism. I don’t know what the future brings.

BTW, Faulkner also caught the “back door” causal relationship between sexual repression and racism, and that’s very important. It is certainly typical of American racism, but not unique.

By Bill Benzon on 10/16/06 at 07:08 AM | Permanent link to this comment

The question is sometimes asked, What is Texas literature? Is there one? And the answer is sometimes that Texas literature is more of a national literature than anything else – perhaps given that Texas has three of the 9 or 10 largest US cities and its vast countryside and great ethnic and class diversity and other factors. Among other Texas surprises, I suppose, there’s a book coming out on an “Asian underground railroad” that once ran through El Paso, Texas.

Similarly the notion of “American” literature may be thought of as one main variety of world literature, given the underlying urbanization, countryside sprawl, given the military, economic and cultural power and range, given the USA’s great diversity, given its many extremes, of poverty and wealth not least.

It has also been claimed at least that the US is the only “first” world country to share a border with a “third” world country—and that nearly 2,000 miles long. And of course much of that border happens to be the Texas border.

Great historic economic and/or political developments are occurring in Latin America and China, also the Middle East, which is rather closely tied to Houston, the city that the great Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes calls the Arab capital of the US due to its involvement in oil.

Apparently the last Democratic candidate for US president to receive a majority of white male votes was Texas native Lyndon Johnson, perhaps because Texas is seen to be so typically (or stereotypically?) “American”—despite (or because of?) Texas being in many ways as much a borderland or international land as any state in the US.

Of course much of what one can say along these lines for Texas, one can say for California as well—and I suppose for New York and Florida too—and also to an extent because of their port cities, the states of Washington, Louisiana, Pennsylvania and Illinois. And other US states have their own keys to national and international signature.

Or look at the literature (novels, say) that have come out of the cities of Cairo, Paris, London, Mexico City, Istanbul, etc… It may be that it takes the USA or a sizeable US state, perhaps like it took a “Russia” as nation or state during the Victorian age, or today a big diverse country like Nigeria or India, to produce literature that can meet or surpass the great works that come out of the great cities of the world. Of course the US has its great city or cities also, New York City at least. Wherever people from all walks of life come together, perhaps that is where great literature may be found most (if far from the only distinct and distinctive literature) whether that be a city, a state/province, a nation state, a continent or hemisphere, or some (other) nexus of the world.

Perhaps essential literature is defined by great public crises too the world over—climate change, weapons of mass destruction, militarism, economic conquest, poverty, disease. Victor Hugo said that a person is known by (his or her) toil and struggles, which is a start at least. And if humanity may be known by the key interrelationships and connections between people of toil and struggle, from the least well off to the most well off, rather than necessarily by place or any other mode of being—and since such human essence can be located and rooted in “America” or any place else in the world, or across the world, then I think the notion of novels and literature as having some sort of quintessential definition by states and nation states and even vast continents begins to not occupy too much of central importance in thinking about the state of literature for much of the world. What artificial chopped off notions of life are concepts like the Americas, or Africa, or Asia, or Europe (or for that matter notions like men or women) especially in a world of instantaneous communication, and near immediate transportation? Lots of ways of thinking about literature are interesting and vital. What happens to seem most interesting and vital to me to think about in this regard is what are the great novels of liberty or equality or justice—such as Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. That this wonderfully expansive and incisive novel happens to be rooted in France and Europe—especially when reading it today—seems almost inconsequential. This novel is extraordinarily panoramic and intimate, clinical and polemic, realistic and idealistic, a marvel of time tested insight and drama. But is it “French” and how? To me the answer is largely, I don’t know and I don’t care. It would be interesting to know how it might be understood as French. But what is most interesting and vital is that the work is a powerful great novel of any realm, idiom, domain.

Of course much can be learned from thinking about literature in terms of nation or group too. Some cultures and subcultures say people are known by who and what they “belong” to…. But if one were to consider a great novel from the Americas with a great novel from Europe like Les Miserables, it seems to me that the notions of “Americas” and “Europe” would take a back seat to far more universal concepts and underlying principles of human society, and of course humanity itself, our common humanity so often disfigured by forcefully imposed borders and other deforming constructs of power and/or ideology.

Isn’t there some broader common “country” of humanity we can see building? Its reach extending far beyond the borders of states and continents that is more generative of great literature—and healthful life—now moreso than ever? Can we not see some of the essential elements of that literature (and such life) and that it does some of its best work in transforming or vaporizing many of the often limited or deformed notions of state and region? It’s possible even that when one looks to the hallmarks of particular locales one is going to primarily be struck by limits and flaws, within which creative principles operate. And that when one looks to the universe of literature one may necessarily recognize first the creative principles, and note secondarily the limits and flaws. This latter approach to understanding seems that it would be most useful for creators, whereas the former approach may be one that many creators most commonly fall into, with usually limiting and deforming implications for creation—a sort of fanatic (and typically unconscious) devotion to limits that must not be crossed, realms bounded, modes circumscribed.

It’s an interesting, curious exercise to look at the idea of an American novel and no little bit instructive. But for writers/creators, it’s a relatively backwards or stunted or otherwise limited way to think about creating and novels in general. The typical US novel today bears as primary marking the main priorities of the highly ideological US publishing industry. That alone should be enough to stir authors to look across time and country for inspiration and insight about what sorts of novels “Americans” might produce, for which—being more accomplished, meaningful, and/or useful—they might be more appreciative and for which they might find more appreciation. If that means writing and publishing internationally or independently so be it. Writing and working to transcend, transform, transfigure the publishing industry and other bastions of restrictive power and ideology – therein lies the future of literature, and life, and not in the US alone.

By Tony Christini on 10/16/06 at 03:02 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Bill:
You say,

The meaning of the phrase “American culture” is [inherently problematic]. We don’t know what kind of entity that thing is.

With all due respect, who’s this “we”; you got a mouse in your pocket? You assert a personal, muscular ignorance as to “what kind of entity that thing is.” Whether we, including those of us who didn’t write your post, do indeed “know what kind of entity that thing is” is the question at hand, and you’re begging it.

What if I say that culture is the set of all behaviors, defined probabilistically, exhibited by the population being contemplated?

Cx={b1·(n1/100), b2·(n2/100), b3·(n3/100). . .}
where Cx is any national culture; by is any exhibitable behavior; and nz is any real number between 0 and 100, inclusive.

I figure that definition sure beats trolling Wikipedia and throwing up your hands. Of course, it may run into problems, which I welcome it being confronted with, but at least now you’re not trying to prove that there’s no such thing as culture by building a phenomenally weak straw man to knock down.

Now of course, the above definition of culture differs from the Wikipedia-prone definition you both invent and attack in the body of the post in that it allows multiple cultures to share behaviors, even at the same level of involvement, though as the value of y approaches infinity, the probability of two cultures being indistinguishable approaches 0. We will at least not have to share your weird ceritude that since more than one country’s inhabitants might, say, play baseball enthusiastically, baseball has nothing to do with definable culture.

Of course, I guess you could argue that it is just plain illogical for the set of behaviors in two nations to overlap, and that never in the real world would Americans and Cubans both exhibit baseball-playing behaviors (though that would require an about-face from your original argument). I don’t know. But if you’re going to argue that there’s no working definition of culture out there, at least take the time to attack real possibilities.

By the idiot on 10/17/06 at 01:35 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Yo, slow down, Mr. the idiot. I’m not trying to argue that there is no such thing as culture, just that certain casual and common ways of talking about culture don’t make sense. You’ve pretty much wasted your time attacking a position I don’t hold. Yes, we need to move toward probabalistic thinking.

By Bill Benzon on 10/17/06 at 02:05 PM | Permanent link to this comment

We’ve read about “Texas culture” above. And “college-town culture"--here Ann Arbor, where “smug control” is a growing problem. 

Clinton’s “Glow-job” and the Gory Show
Vis a vis Bill Clinton’s “glow job” twin (for more on why he’s a “glow-job”, read on), Al Gore, I must relate a recent experience that made “fur a bi’ o’ foon fur me mates” at my VFW post yesterday.

Freshly rested and returned from our annual fishing trip up north (and untouched by the skeeters ‘cause we’d remembered to take along our burqas this year!), my grad-student right-wing gun moll, Cendrine and I returned to Ann Arbor ready for the early fall sidewalk lotus and latte season and ready as well to engage “the people”, i.e., the 1% of the 1% of the profanum vulgus in any college town that hangs round cafes and “red” bookstores handing out greasy radical broadsheets and occasionally getting up faineant streetcorner chants like “OM . . . Bush, fascist . . . OM . . . “.

Tired of being tired by all this, we left the rest to their ostentatiously-displayed foreign cigarettes and beret-induced existential trances when I suddenly said to C., C., let’s go see a gory show or something, and C. said, OK, Jacques, mignon, there’s one down the street at the Michigan (theatre)--Allons-y!

So C. and I went to see Al Gore’s pan-planetary horror show (without candles or squirtguns, alas!)--interesting, you know, and little bit unsettling, for we were distracted just before the real neato global conflagration/inundation parts when a few waffling eco-soldiers broke ranks and ran out screaming, “RUN!, Global warming! Help us, sweet Nader! . . . Help!” And come to think of it, I noticed that Al’s jet-set Bahamas man-tan couldn’t fard over the waxy-fruit glow-job underneath. Too many doughnuts, Bozo, I mumbled to C., and she said, he’s like Pancho, or Paunch-o, rather to Slick Willie’s Cisco--my grandparents were watching the old re-runs on TV the other day. Anyway, sweetie, it’s over, so Ay Pancho, Ay Ceesco, Let’s Went!

We hustled out of the theatre after the show, heads down and smelling trouble, while outside an ugly mob swirled round, thirsting for Halliburton blood and armed with Chicken Li’l pamphlets, double lattes and organic smoothies vociferated threats of sidewalk teach-ins and petulant guitar/tambourine cacophanies.

Then C. and set in motion our plan--suddenly stepping forward with an improvised bullhorn fashioned on the spot from a discarded cotton-candy cornet, I shouted, Comrades! The time for talking is over! #%&*%!! The time for action is NOW! On les aura! We’ll get ‘em!--that dab of French was guaranteed (and calculated, I confess) to send a frisson of smugness through the spongy notochords of the Jean Francois Kerry rad-rabble (for he’s whispered to have gotten through most of Le Petit Prince in the original) and Al Gore (who tells all within earshot that Stendhal’s The Red and the Black is his favourite book--must be the Clintonian, “And when Julien left Madame de Renal’s bedroom, he had no more for which to wish"--and then foghorns out a Gallic hog-call like “Zhe SOOwEE!--y’no, um fr’m Taynuhsay, b’t m’ hayarts n’ Payris . . . Franss--ever since he earned his astounding “C” in high-school French class.

(Me again):
So, Let’s roll, comrades! Down the street to the State (theatre)--we’ll pack the matinee of Andy Garcia’s The Lost City and cheer for Chay and Feedel!
YEAH! they wimp-roared. We strode mighty- mightily over the block to get there, threw down some crumpled bills (some of it hard-earned dollars made by badgering shoppers to sign petitions to help defeat the environment), took our tickets and made it just in time to pack the nearly-empty house. Then just before they darkened the lights C. winked at me and I announced casually but loudly that I’d get us our Ben n’ Jerry’s double-dioxin flavoured cones, and then I hustled to the lobby and slipped undetected into the manager’s office to collect my dollar-a-butt bounty for each feathery backside the manager counted from the late receipts. Hmm--not bad this week, I said. Enough for C.’s and my B-B-Q rib dinner and red-state beer at my ol’ VFW post, and some left over, too.

Next week, C.’s leading some leftie-lemming bake sale and political snake dance benefit for the forest trilia in Orygon--sounds like fun . . .and profit.

Cheers, jeers (to the left) and beers for my VFW mates,

Dr JA

By on 10/17/06 at 03:26 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m sorry if I misread you as arguing that there is no workable definition of national culture, leading me to “attack[] a position [you] don’t hold.”

In my defense though, I would argue that my misreading sprung from somewhere around the point in your post when you said, “I have previously argued that the notion of ‘Western culture’ is unintelligible when considered as a term of cultural description and analysis. . . . I feel much the same way about the phrase ‘American culture.’”

I mistakenly assumed that by this that you meant “American culture” (an instance of national culture) is “unintelligible when considered as a term of cultural description and analysis.” Now that I know that this is a flagrant misreading of your introduction, I fully withdraw my objection, and apologize for the intrusion.

By the idiot on 10/17/06 at 05:56 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Maybe you should read that other article of mine; and if you’ve not read beyond the introduction of this one here, you should do that as well. As they are generally used, phrases such as “Western culture” and “American culture” are more than mere geographical designators. Those phrases designate some cultural essence. I’m arguing against such essentism.

By Bill Benzon on 10/17/06 at 06:07 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Bill.
Your other post, dealing with Afro-American music, which I read when it first appeared, has all sorts of self-selecting sample errors in the evidence it provides, but I see no reason to hold that against you here, though if you wish me to, I will oblige your desire.

I appreciate your suggestion that I read all of your current post (presumably you think that the references to baseball, Cuba, and Wikipedia in my first comment were just lucky guesses somehow unrelated to concerns arising from the content of the body of the above post). If you have any similar recommendations, such as that I commence cellular respiration or gain access to the internet, I think you’d be surprised at my ability to accommodate you on those fronts as well.

I am fully aware that you are “arguing against such [essentialism].” I was only trying to express my concern that you were not arguing against it very well.

I started off by saying that your all-or-none approach to cultural variables like Christmas and baseball wasn’t doing anybody any favors, to which you replied that I was missing your point. In turn, I replied that I garnered my reading of your point from your introductory paragraph, which I have always figured to be a good place to look for an encapsulation of a point. You now reply that, notwithstanding the content of my first comment, I must have only read your introduction.

Now if you want to avoid addressing the concerns I try to raise, that is your prerogative as the author and chief defender of this post (if you believe that they are ill-expressed, you are more than welcome to say that as well). But don’t send me on a wild dodo hunt when I try to make a substantive point about the topic you’ve raised. It does not speak well of your manners, your skill at argumentation, or your faith in the native merits of your argument.

As a final note, you say in your last comment that “phrases such as ‘Western culture’ and ‘American culture’ are more than mere geographical designators.” This is a point that you made in your post, and to which I have not objected, so I’ll release you from any perceived duty, when addressing me, to go on the defensive against purely geographical culture banner raising, as that is not my schtick, and has not been. There is no reason for us to talk past each other here.

By the idiot on 10/18/06 at 02:12 AM | Permanent link to this comment

OK, so explain to me how your proposed probabilistic account solves the problem. Consider the verbal statement you use to introduce your formal proposal: “What if I say that culture is the set of all behaviors, defined probabilistically, exhibited by the population being contemplated?” What do you mean by population? Are you talking about nations or about individual human beings who, presumably, are citizens of—or at least occupants of—those nations?

Just what is a national culture? How do you determine whether or not some entity is a nation? Do you simply compile a list from official documents—e.g. the UN Charter, treaties, whatever else is helpful? 

Given some such list of nations, how do you determine whether or not some b is exhibited by some national culture C? Now do you determine what n is? Is n simply the number of national cultures exhibiting b, treated as a fraction of the entire set of nations and normalized to 100?

Given that you’ve sorted all of that out, that in itself doesn’t get us much. It just gives us a way of coming up with a bunch of probabalistic descriptions of national cultures. We need to understand where those distributions come from. We need to explain the causal forces that cause some set of behaviors to be exhibited by some specific national culture. What are those forces?

The answer implicit in the view I am criticizing is that some national essence, perhaps a national spirit, causes this. That’s not very helpful.

<center>* * * * *</center>

Now, in critizing a certain way of talking, have I set up straw man? Yes and no. As far as I can tell, the people who talk about jazz, for example, as being Western music, never explicitly compare examples of jazz with examples of all other kinds of music and then argue that the jazz examples all belong in the Western bin along with waltzes and symphonies. In suggesting that we do that I am thus, in some sense, being unfair to them. But, unless we do such comparisons and justify our results, the assertion that jazz is Western music doesn’t mean much. I am, in effect, arguing that this casual usage has not been thought through. The same with, e.g. baseball and Christmas with respect to American culture.

Consider baseball. Have lots of Americans played baseball at some time in their lives? Yes. Do lots of Americans watch baseball games? Yes. Did baseball originate in America? Well, that’s a tricky one, but let’s say yes, it did. Does all of this mean that baseball is American in something more than a geographic sense?

If so, what? That’s the question. What features of the game make it American rather than French or Senegalese or Slovakian or Bantu? And can you make that description in terms that generalize to other forms of American culture, not only sports, but food and music and architecture, etc.? What are the mechanisms behind this?

How does your probabilitic definition help us sort these things out?

<center>* * * * *</center>

I’m inclined to think that there is some such thing as American culture. But I’m not happy about the way that, for example, professional scholars talk about American culture—or, for that matter, about culture in general. I don’t think that we have a very deep idea of what we’re talking about.

By Bill Benzon on 10/18/06 at 08:38 AM | Permanent link to this comment

It seems to me that one uses a term like American culture _not_ to have a deep understanding of a collective phenomenon but to have a broad understanding, necessarily of limited depth. (The understanding may still be useful, powerful, incisive.)

So it’s appropriate to object to any pretensions to any extraordinarily complex understanding in this regard, it seems to me. But pushing a concept to go “deep” that is best suited to remain “broad” would seem to me to be a more fit subject for comedy than traditional scholarship, comedy such as may be implied in the title, at least, of Gary Shteyngart’s recent novel _Absurdistan_.

By Tony Christini on 10/18/06 at 09:36 AM | Permanent link to this comment

(The understanding may still be useful, powerful, incisive.)

And it may be utter crap. You’re playing word games. How do you know that your “broad understanding” of American culture is “useful, powerful, incisive” for anything other than ideological exposition and argument?

Unless you know what the mechanisms are, how can you tell? What makes you think your understanding allows you to explain anything? For example, why has America had waves of religious revivalism every two generations or so since before the Revolution? That large-scale phenomenon in America’s public life would, it seems to me, the sort of thing that you can explain through an understanding of American culture. Well, as far as I know, those waves of revivalism have been described, but I don’t see any good causal accounts of them. We don’t know why they happened.

By Bill Benzon on 10/18/06 at 10:05 AM | Permanent link to this comment

It’s not physics—as I’ve noted before about work in the humanities—so a “deep” understanding may not be possible. Arriving at such would be more difficult than figuring out physics, it seems to me, if possible at all. However, less deep understandings, which I refer to as broad here (but call it what you like), would be useful for, among other things, argument. Any “broad” understandings are challenging enough, and as far as I’m aware are as far as such knowledge has progressed.

By Tony Christini on 10/18/06 at 11:38 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Well, I’d say that a nation is a self-selecting, self-identifying population that defines its own bounds, along roughly exclusionary lines. Now, while the bounds are defined to a certain extent by exclusion, the exclusion is of individuals, not behaviors.

Probabilistically, members of a nation are more likely to exhibit the cultural attributes of that nation than non-members; though at the margins, because culture would be defined probabilistically, membership would necessarily get a little fuzzy. It is at this area that an insistence on micro analysis of inter-cultural differences would be at its least useful.

(As a sidenote, I would argue that, beyond being too much of a micro approach to the problem, asking whether this or that musical genre resembles “waltzes or symphonies” centralizes the wrong attributes in Western musical culture. Classical music, until the Romantic period, was wholly dependent upon full economic subsidization for its existence, by which time its discursive attributes had already been set by its nonnaturalized upbringing, quite different from the vast bulk of music in the Western canon (for lack of a better word), which may have been subsidized after self-definition as a genre, but not before. It was not until the musical nationalist movements of the late nineteenth century that classical music started resembling the rest of the Western musical world (including, in the case of the New World Symphony, African-American spirituals). I’d argue that it’s an uphill battle (though not an impossible one) for any musical genre to pass the Mozart test).

Anyway, back to the main point. Now, of course you could argue that maybe even these self-selected populations aren’t really nations, because they fail to be differentiable when read alongside randomly-selected non-nation groups. This problem could be solved in a repetition of the cultural algorithm. First would be just a running of the algorithm at say, time A. Then, say, ten years later (though perhaps a better time could be come up with) the step would be repeated. Due to the self-selecting inherent in the above definition of nation, nations would be the populations that exhibit the least change in this time. As this process is repeated, the outliers would become clear: either they’re wholly contained subsets, or so erratic in their exhibition of attributes as to be non-coordinated and non self-selected.

So we’ve solved for the substitution set for Cx ("any nation") by insisting that it be a population that yields statistically significant results to the algorithm. (Perhaps pert of the problem here is that I intended to answer the question, “what is a national culture, “ not the question “what is a national culture, but given the interrelatedness of the two questions, that hopefully will not be a disqualifying reading).

Ok. On to n/100. It is the odds that an individual within the nation exhibit behavior b. Even if the total number of sets Cx were knowable in advance of running the algorithm, I see no reason to fractionalize behavior exhibition with regards to such a number. I notice that you make the same assumption in your post, that somehow a significant difference is introduced when more than one culture exhibits a behavior. But as long, as I noted in my first comment, that we do not place an upper bound on y, we should not run into a problem of too-similar cultures that fail to distinguish themselves.

Now we don’t even need to reach the question of what makes baseball American instead of Senegalese. The answer is irrelevant to the question of what makes American culture American. Baseball is American to the extent of its n in that national culture. Baseball is Senegalese to the extent of its n in that national culture. What the value of Senegalese baseball n is has no effect on questions of Americanness. Baseball is allowed multiple memberships as a behavior (music may be either a behavior of an individual depending on whether we are defining classic national culture or national musical culture).

Finally, as to the question of how these cultural behaviors aggregate themselves, that’s not really my bag, though I’d assume it has something to do with discursive formation.

By the idiot on 10/18/06 at 11:54 AM | Permanent link to this comment

It’s not physics—as I’ve noted before about work in the humanities—so a “deep” understanding may not be possible.

Why not?

One problem with your “broad” understanding is that it is difficult to distinguish such understanding from mere ideology.

Did you happen to see the Ken Burns series on jazz? Well, one of the notions argued in that series is that jazz is somehow deeply American music. This notion is widespread. There is little doubt that jazz originated in America. Nor is there any doubt that jazz has been contentious throughout its history.

Well, a historian named David Stowe has argued, in Swing Changes, that the notion of jazz as all-American music arose during the 1930s as a theme in anti-Nazi propaganda. That is to say, the notion is, at its origins, an ideological one. That doesn’t mean the jazz didn’t originate in America, nor that jazz has not been important and influential in American culture, but it does cast a bit of suspicion over the notion that jazz is peculiarly American. Is jazz more American than country and western, or rock and roll? The question seems absurd to me. But at least some partisans of all-American jazz think that jazz is Good and those other musics are, if not Evil, then certainly Inferior. Do they think that those musics are un-American? Or perhaps typically American, but not very good? I don’t know. It’s not at all clear just what the implications of this notion—jazzamerica—are, except that they a good for jazz and good for America.

But I’ve read enough such talk, and heard enough, to be reasonably convinced that it is not very useful as cultural analysis; it doesn’t tell us anything very useful about the music. It is ideological talk. It is very widespread as such, which means that such talk has causal force in the environment where jazz exists. It is used in marketing the music, in writing about it in both academic and non-academic settings, and in raising funds for institutions like Jazz at Lincoln Center. But such talk is not intellectually serious.

By Bill Benzon on 10/18/06 at 12:04 PM | Permanent link to this comment

About the Jazz example, I agree with you.

As for why a deep understanding “may” not be possible, look to your own notes. Who is coming, has ever come up with such understandings? Sure, it is an area for serious intellectual pursuit. And as I’ve noted there are other sorts of serious intellectual pursuits possible in this domain, some quite fruitful. You are not seriously suggesting that there has been no good descriptive and analytical work about American culture—either in scholarly or aesthetic form—that some of the culture is more influenced by business priorities than in many countries, that people are more mobile than in many other lands, more or less affluent in ways x, y, and z.... There is plenty of serious, useful, interesting work on quite a lot. As for all what it portends and why it came to be so, there is some good work on cause and consequence as well, of course.

Is what is understood as complex as advanced physics? Not to my understanding. Is it as important, valuable, often even as taxing? Sure—at the least.

By Tony Christini on 10/18/06 at 12:27 PM | Permanent link to this comment

A quick note about the term “broad”. If anyone can come up with “deep” understandings in the humanities, great. I chose the term broad to describe much of the good work that _actually exists_ in the social sciences and humanities to avoid the intellectually negative sounding “shallow”. More clear terminology for what I’m referring to would be “specific, limited” with sometimes profound implications. It seems to me more accurate to note that there are often mistakes made or misperceptions enabled about understanding specific, limited aspects of culture and that often this occurs in course of an effort to sound deep or be profound. Such statements scarcely sound deep to me, and they are in fact often specific and limited, and yet often either trivial, wrong, or vague to the point of meaninglessness. Nevertheless, some evidence about culture is quite striking and convincing and some perceptive comments about it—by say Victor Hugo in Les Miserables—quite profound and affecting.

By Tony Christini on 10/18/06 at 12:51 PM | Permanent link to this comment

A most interesting response, Mr. Idiot. I take your penultimate paragraph as a rejection of essentialism, which is fine by me. Your statement—that you haven’t the foggiest idea of how these behaviors aggregate themselves—doesn’t surprise me. Neither does anyone else. That’s my point. You may be content to say that “it has something to do with discursive formation” but that that’s not your bag. That doesn’t help those of us who are interested in how culture works.

As for what you say about nations, one problem with that is, however well it might work in a computer simulation, it’s not clear to me how to make it work empirically in the real world. At the time of the French revolution, for example, most of the people within the geographic boundaries of France couldn’t speak French. Was their culture French or not? How would they have identified themselves? What about a peasant living on French soil who doesn’t give a crap about the national government and doesn’t identify with any group more than 10 kilos from where he lives? There’s a considerable literature on nations, nationalism, and nationalist movements and it yields lots of questions like that. Maybe they’re mere semantics, maybe not. But they need to be dealt with.

About n/100. Given that we have a list of individuals in some nation Cx, or have identified a bin Cx containing all those individuals, it is easy enough to determine the probability that some arbitrary individual will exhibit some behavior b. But human beings exhibit many behaviors. Which behaviors are we going to use in determing the extent of, say, American culture? If baseball is one of them, do we treat all of baseball as a single behavior, or do we analyze baseball into component behaviors? If the latter, how finely do we take the analysis? How do we determine the appropriate level of granularity for choosing our set of diagnostic behaviors?

This last set of issues is around and about that pesky issue of “Americanness.” Ascertaining that this or that arbitrarily chosen behavior is American in the sense that it shows up in the population of American individuals, that’s not very interesting. We need a way of thinking about and characterizing the ensemble of behaviors that is more characteristic of American individuals than of individuals from any other national group. How do we figure that out?

Finally, on “Western musical culture.” Just what is the extension of the phrase “Western music?” I don’t think it’s well-defined in any useful sense. My guess is that, for most of the people who recognize it as meaningful, it indicates so-called Classical music: Bach, Beethoven, and Brahams and all that. But there have been and are all sort of vernacular musics in the Western nations and some of those musics have been taken-up in the Classical realm and have, in turn, been influenced by it. Are they Western or not? As a crude synonym for “the high-art tradition from plain-song through Stockhausen and beyond” the phrase “Western music” has its uses. But those uses are mostly ideological. As a general term in the analytic study of the world’s music, the phrase is all but meaningless.

By Bill Benzon on 10/18/06 at 01:02 PM | Permanent link to this comment

There is plenty of serious, useful, interesting work on quite a lot.

Sure there is. Could it be better? Certainly. And I think some of the questions I’m raising can lead to better work. Do I know that for sure? No. But I’m allowed to ask questions, no?

I don’t think it will be easy, but I see no reason why we can’t make progress. Our buddy the self-styled idiot is thinking in useful ways. More humanists and social scientists need to think in those ways, and figure how to put some empirical meat on those rather abstract bones.

By Bill Benzon on 10/18/06 at 01:08 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Probably going off at a tangent here: sorry for that.  But:

For example, consider the culture of 20th century physics. There’s a lot of that in America, but the practice of physics is international in scope and it doesn’t make much sense to identify it with any one nation. There may be more such physics practiced in the United States - as measured by, say number of Nobel Laureates, number of college and university physics departments, number of professional physicists, etc. - but that doesn’t make physics peculiarly American. Local variants are likely to reflect the influence of specific individuals or institutions as much as, or more so, the influence of geo-political nationality.

If I may slip into the tones of an old-school Marxist for a moment, what about Power?  As a for example: ‘the physics of rocketry and space flight is flavoured Nazi, American (or more specifically a hybrid of the two) and Russian.’ It’s not flavoured, say, Australian, or Burundi, or Japanese.  This is for reasons not of metaphysical essence, but of geopolitical practicalities and, you know, material financial and military Kratos.  A similar point could be made about nuclear physics.  I’m being deliberately crude when I say this, but you see what I mean.

By Adam Roberts on 10/18/06 at 01:13 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"We need a way of thinking about and characterizing the ensemble of behaviors that is more characteristic of American individuals than of individuals from any other national group.”

Do we? Can we? To what extent? These are also legitimate questions. The notion of “American culture” may be something like the notion of “generation gap”—these may not be useful terms to begin with for great intellectual pursuit. Lilliputian and Brobdingnagian cultures can also be studied, if in a different way than “real” cultures, but it seems to me that very quickly one may inevitably reach the twilight zone for understanding of what these terms can possibly mean, especially in any sort of complex scientific way. Doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be studied scientifically, etc. At some point, one simply plays one’s hunches for what is worthy and worth studying and in what way, on intellectual grounds, moral grounds, etc… I’m challenging your tack by noting that there are existing far more fruitful ways (and probably focus of study), which may be expected in a forum like this, and your response is aparently, Be that as it may, why not make these sorts of attempts I’m trying _anyway_?, which is fine but which seems to end the conversation, which is apparently as it must be.

By Tony Christini on 10/18/06 at 03:14 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Well, it’s not as though the study of culture is in fine shape except for the meaning of phrases like “American culture” and “Western culture.” I think there’s a whole raft of problems, of which the meaning of such phases is but an indicative example. See my essay on Culture as an Evolutionary Arena so a look at the sort of question’s I’m raising.

By Bill Benzon on 10/18/06 at 03:34 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Bill.
I have always taken my inability to answer questions of why culture (or any other structure) is the way it is to be a result not of the difficulty of answering that question, but instead my personal lack of interest the answer. Perhaps my lack of interest masks from me the implicit difficulty, though. Ultimately I’ll express no opinion one way or the other, though I would personally probably place the question of why on the list of questions I do not see as vital to an understanding of the system as a whole.

To your question about nations, I think that whether language is a determining factor in nation-definition is dependent on n-value of language within that culture as compared to other n-values. At least as I defined culture, language would not of necessity be a strong determinant of nation/national culture, though it may well be.

Which brings us to your n/100 question. I would place no limiter on by. Any exhibitable behavior would qualify, and there would be no upper bound on y, allowing a portrait of a given culture as detailed as humanly possible.

And finally, back to jazz. I would argue that the characterization of classical music as central to a Western musical tradition is misleading. As a point of comparison, see William St Clair’s The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period on, among others, Frankenstein and A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, as characterized by Miriam. (I am not making claims on his specific point here, only trying to extend his type of point to the emphasis on classical music).

I would take exception to your assertion that “[a]s a general term in the analytic study of the world’s music, the phrase [’Western music’] is all but meaningless.” While perhaps as static outline of of a set of subforms it does no good, as a limiter of a dynamic, discursive formation, the term is an enabler. Only participants in the discourse may take part in the constant back-and-forth it engenders, and some definitional is required to clarify just what those participants are. (Of course, I think that that the discursive behavior would go on whether we knew its bounds and trends or not. I just think it’s no good to throw up our hands because of what I’ll acknowledge is the vast difficulty of siting those bounds and trends (and of course here’s where you, or anyone else, is more than welcome to say these bounds and trends are all in my own mind)).

By the idiot on 10/19/06 at 01:00 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I would argue that the characterization of classical music as central to a Western musical tradition is misleading.

The issue is not what I think the term means or what you think the term should mean, but what it in fact means to the people who use it. My impression is that the term generally is used to mean the so-called Classical tradition. That is certainly what is meant when someone is arguing about the excellence of “Western music.” But what is meant when someone asserts that jazz is “Western music”? That is not at all clear to me. If what someone means is that jazz is music that originated in and is performed in the so-called Western nations, well, yes it is. But that’s not much of a statement; it won’t carry the weight of the argument built around the statement (as in Martha Bayles, Hole in Our Soul), because that argument isn’t about geography. It is about, well, culture—whatever that is. It is about volksgeist.

While perhaps as static outline of of a set of subforms it ["Western music"] does no good, as a limiter of a dynamic, discursive formation, the term is an enabler.

But what does it enable? Certainly, it enables ideological discourse. It’s not clear to me that it enables much else. There’s an 800-page book on one of my shelves that is a textbook about the history of this Western music. It starts in ancient Greece and Rome and ends in 20th century America. As far as I can tell, it’s a pretty decent book for what it does. Encompassing that much material in a single narrative is difficult. What I’d like to know is this: Are the topics in that book, and the method and order of their presentation chosen on the basis of an ideology, or is there a more substantial basis for the choice? I’m arguing that there is an ideological component—for lack of a better term—in the topics and structure of that book that is all but unrecognized by the people who wrote the book, who teach from it, and who read it.

I just think it’s no good to throw up our hands because of what I’ll acknowledge is the vast difficulty of siting those bounds and trends . . .

I’m not throwing up my hands at all. Look, people are doing research. That research is guided by current knowledge and by intuitions about where the gaps are and how to fill them in. I’m saying that we need to rethink research programs in which concepts like, for example, “Western culture” and “American culture” are doing a lot of work. We need to rethink what we’re going and start asking some different questions. In some cases such terms are just casual delimiters, they don’t carry a heavy descriptive, analytical, or explanatory burder. But that’s not always the case.

. . . (and of course here’s where you, or anyone else, is more than welcome to say these bounds and trends are all in my own mind)

The question is whether or not those bounds and trends exist in the world or only in the minds of the people doing the research. How can we tell if the latter possibility has never even been raised?

For example, there is a great deal of academic discourse about culture and history that asserts, roughly, that “the West” has strange ideas about, for example, “the Orient,” that those ideas, while presented as objective discourse, are not objective at all. They express various prejudices that Western scholars have about non-Western peoples and, ultimately, serve to justify Western imperialism. Let’s grant a measure of truth to these claims. The notion of “the West” plays a big role in these discourses; someone even coined a clever phrase, “the West and the rest.” But this West that these people are talking about and take so seriously, it’s as much a fiction as those discourses that are being criticized. As a term for delimiting “bounds and trends” in world culture, society, and history, “the West” is problematic. We need to stop and think about what we’re saying and thinking.

By Bill Benzon on 10/19/06 at 08:33 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam, on power and nuclear physics. First let me introduce the distinction between society and culture that <A HREF="http://www.thevalve.org/go/valve/article/politics_beyond_the_personal_diversity_identitarian_rhetoric_and_equality/
“>I used here</A>:

The distinction I have just made between culture and society is one I’ve been making for years, though it is not mine. I learned it from my teacher, David Hays, and he learned it from his, Talcott Parsons. Society is a concrete network of relationships between people. Culture is a set of ideas, attitudes, and practices: what people speak, sing, believe, the cut of their clothes, and so forth and so on through a long list. The distinction is a bit strange if you are not used to it - it doesn’t play in Michaels’s discussion at all, which assumes a conception of culture that does not differentiate between a social group and its practices, attitudes and ideas - but it becomes comfortable enough through use.

In terms of that distinction, power is an attribute of a society, not culture. It’s about, in your words, “geopolitical practicalities and, you know, material financial and military Kratos.” As a cultural entity it seems to me that nuclear physics is non-national in character; it’s ethos is not that of any particular nation. But as a praxis that functions in the world to achieve material ends, nuclear physics belongs to those with the power to implement it, and that is a relatively small group of nations. And if we go a bit further and ask, which nation has actually used a nuclear weapon in warfare? well, the answer to that question is obvious: the United States of America.

There is another “side” to this: the use of nuclear physics-power-bombs as an image and theme in various “texts,” broadly construed. It seems to me that such use is highly biased by America’s use of bombs against Japan at the end of WWII and by American-Soviet competition during the Cold War. It doesn’t require a great deal of Kratos to deploy the nuclear theme. And you have the interesting case of Japan, which has, so far, foresworn the development of nuclear arms, but has a popular culture that is thick with the nuclear theme.

By Bill Benzon on 10/19/06 at 09:44 AM | Permanent link to this comment

The issue is not what I think the term means or what you think the term ["Western musical culture"] should mean, but what it in fact means to the people who use it.

I’m going to have to disagree here. I am perfectly willing to disagree with the “people who use it.”

When the sun was defined as a luminous heavenly body that revolved around the earth, the proper response to the stunning lack of utility of such a definition in the universe as it truly exists is not to insist that talking and thinking about the sun doesn’t do much for us, but instead that “people who use [the definition]” are not the ultimate authority on what the sun is. Just as we allowed ourselves to abandon an earth-centered model of the universe without abandoning all universe-modelling, we sould allow ourselves to abandon a classical-music-centric model of Western music without without of necessity abandoning Western music modelling. (Maybe eventually we’ll have to abandon all modelling of Western music, but we’re not at that point, notwithstanding what “people who use [the term]” may say).

Moving on to my “enabler” comment, I knew when I endstopped where I did, without elucidation, I was just inviting contention.

The reason, way upthread, that I objected so forcefully to bringing Western music in as a f’r’instance is that it is axample more complex than the point it illustrates. With music, we’ve got two parallel discourses, that of music, and that on music. So when I called “Western Music” a discursive enabler, I meant an enabler of the second kind of discourse, the metadiscourse. The former discourse does not does not need the analytic forms contemplated in your posts to go on, though we need those forms to understand it. If we misunderstand it, though, we do not change it, any more than we change the universe by misunderstanding that.

But all this is a different question from that of whether there is such a thing as Western [musical] culture. Now we’re moving into the realm of how much we should care about its existence at all if most folks are wrong about it now, and the relative utility of getting it right weighed against what we can accomplish with being right.

I agree that if you’re going to talk about “the West,” you better damn well be sure who it is you’re talking about. My only concern as I read your posts is that they seem to solve the problem by defining it out of existence. I do see utility in acknowledging national and other cultures that are to some level distinct from each other (though the probabilistic definition I put forward above is intentionally not black-and-white). But when you bleed the borders of cultural definition too much, you solve the problem at the expense of the approach’s only virtue, as a comparative tool. So perhaps between us it is only a question of degree.

By the idiot on 10/19/06 at 01:27 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Please excuse the copy errors in my previous comment. “Sould” for “should;” “axample” for “example.” I meant to hit “preview” instead of “submit.” But for better or worse I’ll stand by my arguments.

By the idiot on 10/19/06 at 01:33 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The former discourse does not does not need the analytic forms contemplated in your posts to go on, though we need those forms to understand it.

It’s not quite that simple. The discourse about music is going to play some role in how music functions in society. Just what that role is and how it works is not all that clear.

My only concern as I read your posts is that they seem to solve the problem by defining it out of existence.

But I’m not claiming to have solved any problem. I’m just trying to point out that there is a problem and we should think about how to solve it.

I do see utility in acknowledging national and other cultures that are to some level distinct from each other (though the probabilistic definition I put forward above is intentionally not black-and-white).

But you see, people talk about national cultures all the time, and such talk often plays an important role in governmental policy and procedure. Those French peasants who didn’t speak French and didn’t know about the national government were still subject to French law and to French taxes. Their government created an educational system that ensured that their descendents spoke French and did know about the national government. That’s what nationalism does when it controls the state.

Entities like “the West,” “America,” “France,” and so forth are very important in the discourse of identity. And such discourse does play a role in how culture functions. Such discourses are part of the cultural ecology.

And it’s not as though I’m advancing these perhaps peculiar arguments in a vacuum. We’ve been discussing The Trouble with Diversity, by W B Michaels. Michaels has been asking pesky questions about cultural identity for over a decade. They may not be the exact same questions I’ve been asking, but they are similar in kind. As for “the West,” consider this remark by Eric Wolf in Europe and the People Without History (1982, p. 5):

We have been taught, inside the classroom and outside of it, that there exists an entity called the West, and that one can think of this West as a society and civilization independent of and in opposition to other societies and civilizations. Many of us even grew up believing that this West has a genealogy, according to which ancient Greece begat Rome, Rome begat Christian Europe, Christian Europe begat the Renaissance, the Renaissance the Enlightenment, the Enlightenment political democracy and the industrial revolution.

He goes on to say (pp. 6-7):

By turning names into things we create false models of reality. By endowing nations, societies, or cultures with the qualities of internally homogeneous and externally distinctive and bounded objects, we create a model of the world as a global pool hall in which the entities spin off each other like so many hard and round billiard balls. Thus it becomes easy to sort the world into differently colored balls, to declare that “East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.” . . . Inevitably, perhaps, these reified categories became intellectual instruments in the prosecution of the Cold War.

At the same time there’s a bunch of folks trying to think about cultural objects and processes in terms of biological analogies, with “meme” being the most familiar term in this scattered enterprise. This work has a long way to go, but I think it’s worth pursuing. This general line of thinking will entail the probabilistic considerations you’ve introduced into this conversation.

By Bill Benzon on 10/19/06 at 02:19 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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By Memsaab - The Global Indian Women on 10/26/06 at 07:49 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"For example, there is a great deal of academic discourse about culture and history that asserts, roughly, that “the West” has strange ideas about, for example, “the Orient,” that those ideas, while presented as objective discourse, are not objective at all. They express various prejudices that Western scholars have about non-Western peoples and, ultimately, serve to justify Western imperialism. Let’s grant a measure of truth to these claims. The notion of “the West” plays a big role in these discourses; someone even coined a clever phrase, “the West and the rest.” But this West that these people are talking about and take so seriously, it’s as much a fiction as those discourses that are being criticized. As a term for delimiting “bounds and trends” in world culture, society, and history, “the West” is problematic. We need to stop and think about what we’re saying and thinking....”

“And it’s not as though I’m advancing these perhaps peculiar arguments in a vacuum. We’ve been discussing The Trouble with Diversity, by W B Michaels. Michaels has been asking pesky questions about cultural identity for over a decade. They may not be the exact same questions I’ve been asking, but they are similar in kind. As for “the West,” consider this remark by Eric Wolf in Europe and the People Without History (1982, p. 5):

“‘We have been taught, inside the classroom and outside of it, that there exists an entity called the West, and that one can think of this West as a society and civilization independent of and in opposition to other societies and civilizations. Many of us even grew up believing that this West has a genealogy, according to which ancient Greece begat Rome, Rome begat Christian Europe, Christian Europe begat the Renaissance, the Renaissance the Enlightenment, the Enlightenment political democracy and the industrial revolution.’

“He goes on to say (pp. 6-7):

“‘By turning names into things we create false models of reality. By endowing nations, societies, or cultures with the qualities of internally homogeneous and externally distinctive and bounded objects, we create a model of the world as a global pool hall in which the entities spin off each other like so many hard and round billiard balls. Thus it becomes easy to sort the world into differently colored balls, to declare that “East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.” . . . Inevitably, perhaps, these reified categories became intellectual instruments in the prosecution of the Cold War.’”

----------------

Edward Said wrote volumes on this too. From Representations of the Intellectual (1994):

“One task of the intellectual is the effort to break down the stereotypes and reductive categories that are so limiting to human thought and cognition....

[In one regard] “what seemed to have completely escaped notice was everything I had actually written in a whole series of books, including Orientalism and Culture and Imperialism.... The construction of fictions like “East” and “West,” to say nothing of racialist essences like subject races, Orientals, Aryans, Negroes and the like, were what my books attempted to combat. Far from encouraging a sense of aggrieved primal innocence in countries which had suffered the ravages of colonialism, I stated repeatedly that mythical abstractions such as these were lies, as were various rhetorics of blame they gave rise to; cultures are too intermingled, their contents and histories too interdependent and hybrid, for surgical separation into large and mostly ideological oppositions like Orient and Occident.”

By Tony Christini on 11/04/06 at 09:11 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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