"Culture," as Eagleton (2000: 1) states, "is said to be one of the two or three most complex words in the English language." As to the various meanings of "culture," Williams (1982: 11) elaborates:
"We can distinguish a range of meanings from (i) a developed state of mind — as in 'a person of culture,' 'a cultured person' to (ii) the processes of this development — as in 'cultural interests,' 'cultural activities' to (iii) the means of theses processes — as in culture as 'the arts,' and 'humane intellectual works.' In our time (iii) is the most common general meaning though all are current. It coexists, often uneasily, with the anthropological and extended sociological use to indicate the 'whole way of life' of a distinct people or other social group."
The word "culture" thus, it seems, is too broad and at the same time too narrow to be greatly useful. In the words of Eagleton (2000: 32): "Its anthropological meaning covers everything from hairstyles and drinking habits to how to address your husband's second cousin, while the aesthetic sense of the word includes Igor Stravinsky but not science fiction. Science fiction belongs to 'mass' or popular culture, a category which floats ambiguously between the anthropological and the aesthetic. Conversely, one can see the aesthetic meaning as too nebulous and the anthropological one as too cramping." While it may well be, as Archer (cited in Eagleton, 2000: 32) observes, that the concept of culture has displayed "the weakest analytical development of any key concept in sociology and it has played the most wildly vacillating role within sociological theory," from a practical point of view such openness could be welcome. Contrary to Eagleton, one might argue that it is perfectly possible to judge science fiction despite being popular culture as belonging to the aesthetic category of culture — there are after all some "quality writers" — Stanislaw Lem, for instance — to be found in this genre. In addition, since culture is not static but constantly changing, developing as well as progressing (albeit slowly and seldom in straight lines) — Bob Dylan was once regarded as an outsider (and then definitely not representing popular culture), nowadays one would probably see him more as mainstream (and thus belonging to popular culture) — it is somewhat difficult to understand why popular culture (popular, after all, refers solely to the amount of items sold) should not be understood as culture, especially in times when the word combination "consumer culture" seems not only widely acceptable but to largely characterise modern culture as such.
Moreover, Zakaria (2003: 14) argues that culture has been democratised: "What was once called "high culture" continues to flourish, of course, but as a niche product for the elderly set, no longer at the center of society's cultural life, which is now defined and dominated by popular music, blockbuster movies, and prime-time television. Those three make up the canon of the modern age, the set of cultural references with which everyone in society is familiar. The democratic revolution coursing through society has changed our very definition of culture. The key to the reputation of, say, a singer in an old order would have been who liked her. The key to fame today is how many like her. And by that yardstick Madonna will always trump Jessye Norman. Quantity has become quality." While agreeing that there seems indeed to have been a shift in our understanding of culture, the conclusion that "quantity has become quality" is certainly questionable. Rather, it seems, there are various cultures and sub-cultures living comfortably side by side — to find on bookshelves the works of Bob Dylan next to the tomes of Shakespeare doesn't strike one as "inappropriate" anymore. This has largely to do with the appearance of "counter culture" in the 1960s — it basically meant a culture that stood in opposition to "high brow culture" which was seen (by some) as elitist and distinctly unexciting. Yet this "counter culture" movement that was, originally, probably as elitist as the established culture it opposed became — over time — increasingly popular and thus integrated in, and a part of, today's dominant culture. Seabrook (2000: 25-26), referring to the world of (New York) publishing, asserts: "The old aristocracy of high culture was dying, and a new, more democratic but also more commercial elite was being born — a meritocracy of taste. The old cultural arbiters, whose job was to decide what was "good" in the sense of "valuable," were being replaced by a new type of arbiter, whose skill was to define "good" in terms of "popular." This vast change in our civilization made itself felt in virtually every museum, library, university, publishing house, magazine, newspaper, and TV station in the country." Seabrook calls this newly emerging culture "nobrow" as opposed to high/low brow, the question however is whether this phenomenon is really so new. That "human nature itself in America exists on two irreconcilable planes," as Van Wyck Brooks (cited in Seabrook, 2000: 26) puts it, "the plane of stark intellectuality and the plane of stark business" one imagines to have always existed, and not only in America. Yet cultural differences still exist and one might ask if there is, say, a specific American, or Swiss, or Australian way of doing things? Milner (cited in Eagleton, 2000: 33) suggests that Australian culture consists of "distinctively Australian ways of doing things: the beach and the barbecue, mateship and machismo, Hungry Jack's, the arbitration system and Australian rules football." Machismo however cannot be said to be peculiar to Australia, and neither are beaches nor barbecue, as Eagleton (2000: 33) points out. On the other hand, machismo in Australia and machismo in, say, Mexico, seem nevertheless to differ as do beaches and barbecues for beach life — that is always closely linked to climate — on British and Australian beaches is certainly not the same. Moreover, as Edward Said suggests, "all cultures are involved in one another; none is single and pure, all are hybrid, heterogeneous, extraordinarily differentiated, and unmonolithic" (cited in Eagleton, 2000: 15). In addition, one's personal experience of culture varies as much as does one's experience of religion, of sports, of probably anything one can think of.
However, as complex as any concept of culture is, "if we are to think seriously about the world, and act effectively in it, some sort of simplified map of reality, some theory, concept, model, paradigm, is necessary" (Huntington, 1998: 29). This means that for the sake of scientific and intellectual advance, as Kuhn demonstrated, paradigms are needed. "To be accepted as a paradigm, a theory must seem better than its competitors, but it need not, and in fact never does, explain all the facts with which it can be confronted" (Kuhn cited in Huntington, 1998: 30). In the words of Gaddis (cited in Huntington, 1998: 30): "Finding one's way through unfamiliar terrain generally requires a map of some sort. Cartography, like cognition itself, is a necessary simplification that allows to see where we are, and where we may be going." As convincing as this argument for simplification certainly is, there is also a danger inherent for it might — Mr Bush's famous "you're either for us or you're for the terrorists" — contribute to creating divisions among cultures that are far from useful if, say, peaceful coexistence were the goal. As Eagleton (2000: 38) reminds us: "In Bosnia or Belfast, culture is not just what you put on the cassette player; it is what you kill for. What culture loses in sublimity, it gains in practicality. In these circumstances, for both good and ill, nothing could be more bogus than the charge that culture is loftily remote from everyday life." Indeed, and not least because culture also embodies power relations: it helps to establish and maintain social hierarchies for, according to Bourdieu (Swartz, 1997: 285), "cultural resources, practices and institutions function to maintain unequal social relations." In other words, culture secures the predominant social practises, its function is to stabilise the existing order and must be thus seen as eminently political: it is power politics what cultural issues are predominantly all about.
Bourdieu, Pierre (2002), Language and symbolic power. Cambridge UK: Polity Press.
Eagleton, Terry (2000), The idea of culture. Oxford: Blackwell.
Huntington, Samuel P. (1998), The clash of civilizations and the remaking of world order. London: Touchstone.
Seabrook, John (2000), Nobrow: The culture of marketing, the marketing of culture. London: Methuen.
Swartz, David (1997), Culture and power. The sociology of Pierre Bourdieu. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Williams, Raymond (1982), The sociology of culture. New York: Schocken Books.
Zakaria, Fareed (2003), The future of freedom. Illiberal democracy at home and abroad. New York: W.W. Norton.
2006 © Hans Durrer / 2006 © Soundscapes
On the floor under his feet
Fodor's Guide lay open. THE GAUCHO ACQUIRED AN EXAGGERATED NOTION
OF MASTERY OVER
HIS OWN DESTINY FROM THE SIMPLE ACT OF RIDING ON HORSEBACK
WAY FAR ACROSS THE PLAIN.
Anne Carson: Autobiography of Red
Despite the — sometimes seemingly profound — differences between cultures and values, there is no such thing as an Islamic society, an Arab mind, an Oriental psyche, as much as there is no European society, no American mind, no Western psyche. The same opinions, the same love for certain books or for certain music, can be found all over the world. Moreover, there appears to be a common consciousness existing alongside, or underneath, the cultural values, as Sri Ramakrishna taught,
"which is our own ground and so in consciousness we are one; insofar as you identify yourself with the consciousness that moves and lives in your body, you've identified with what you share with me. And on the other hand, if you fix on yourself, and your tradition, and believe you've got it, then you're removed yourself from the rest of mankind (Campbell, 1990: 64)." Moreover, the author Arthur Koestler, in the words of Holbrook (1981: 92), observed that, "our religious and scientific modes of knowing are often indistinguishable, and support each other. To put it more strongly, objectively viewed these two traditions [Greek versus Chinese] pretend to respectively specialize in spirituality-mysticism and rationality-science but, actually, neither does either well enough, and, as indicated above, the two are basically identical. They differ chiefly in their practical relations to the human society over which they divide their influences and which they divide."
Joseph Campbell, who researched mythology in various cultures, "deems the meaning of all hero myths not just similar but identical: 'As we are told in the Vedas: 'Truth is one, the sages speak of it by many names'.'" (Segal, 1990: 33). Could it then be that there exists a deep layer of the unconscious that Jung called the collective unconscious, a term that is used "in recognition of the fact that there is a common humanity built into our nervous system out of which our imagination works" (Campbell, 1990: 122)? Very likely for how would one otherwise explain that the same mythological motifs seem to appear everywhere? This "common humanity built into our nervous system" can be experienced, it can be felt, wherever individuals from different cultures meet on a personal level, whenever there's a chance to identify with another person. In addition, the experiences of, for example, Zen Buddhist monks and of Christian mystics do not appear to differ. Conversely, one could argue that most people also seem to share the ability to rather arbitrarily interpret, for example, their religion. As Mulder (1992: 10) states (referring to Southeast Asia): "According to serious Moslems, Islam is about the submission of man to God, and his obligation to worship along the prescribed lines. For a long time, they have been irritated by Javanese ritual practices, the neglect of religious rules, the heresy of mysticism, and so forth, of their fellow countrymen, who sometimes even drink beer and eat pork. According to Buddhadasa Bhikku, the ways in which the Thais make religious merit is about as useless as 'raising chickens in order to feed the eggs to the dogs.' According to Filippino priests, the Philippines is still missionary territory, where superstitions flourish and sin thrives, and where the message of the Mother Church is far from being understood." While our differences do matter, our common humanity matters more. This is something that we intuitively know, that we feel for we all share "the suffering, mortal, needy, desiring body which links us fundamentally with our historical ancestors, as well as with our fellow beings from other cultures" (Eagleton, 2000: 111). It is on the body, and not so much on the mind — we can do anything with our minds (convince us of whatever, that is) yet we can't do the same with our body — that we need to base our actions in order to avoid a clash of cultures. As Eagleton (2000: 111) states: "The body has a curiously dual status, as at once universal and individual. Indeed the word 'body' itself can denote either the singular or the collective. It is the inherited, sheerly given stuff which links us to our species, as implacably impersonal as the unconscious, a destiny which we were never allowed to choose. To this extent, it is the symbol of our solidarity. But the body is also individual — indeed it is arguably the very principle of individuation ... A common culture can be fashioned only because our bodies are of broadly the same kind, so that the one universal rests upon the other."
One needs to keep in mind, however, "that man as such does not grow better" and that "he progresses only by recognizing his nature, his misery together with his sublime possibility. A politics has to be built on that" (Pfaff, 1994: 238). Which also means that the dominance that the idea(s) of culture play in public discourse, and that the emphasis that is put on values, needs to give way to some sober facts, namely, in the words of Eagleton (2000: 130-131): "The primary problems which we confront in the new millennium — war, famine, poverty, disease, debt, drugs, environmental pollution, the displacement of peoples — are not especially 'cultural' at all. They are not primarily questions of values, symbolism, language, tradition, belonging or identity, least of all arts ... Culture is not only what we live by, it is also, in great measure, what we live for. Affection, relationship, memory, kinship, place, community, emotional fulfilment, intellectual enjoyment, a sense of ultimate meaning: these are closer to most of us than charters of human rights or trade treaties."
Campbell, Joseph (1990) An open life. Joseph Campbell in conversation with Michael Toms. New York: Perennial Library, Harper & Row.
Eagleton, Terry (2000), The idea of culture. Oxford: Blackwell.
Holbrook, Bruce (1981), The stone monkey. An alternative, Chinese-scientific, reality. New York: William Morrow.
Mulder, Niels (1992), Inside Southeast Asia. Thai, Javanese and Filippino interpretations of everyday life. Bangkok: Editions Duang Kamol.
Pfaff, William (1994), The wrath of nations. New York: Touchstone.
Segal, Robert A. (1990), Joseph Campbell. An introduction. New York: Mentor, Penguin.
2007 © Hans Durrer / Soundscapes
On February 19, 2008, New York Times op-ed columnist David Brooks, under the title “When the Magic Fades”, opined:
Up until now The Chosen One’s speeches had seemed to them less like stretches of words and more like soul sensations that transcended time and space. But those in the grips of Obama Comedown Syndrome began to wonder if His stuff actually made sense. For example, His Hopeness tells rallies that we are the change we have been waiting for, but if we are the change we have been waiting for then why have we been waiting since we’ve been here all along?
Then, on February 25, 2008, Gideon Rachman of the Financial Times wrote in his column on “Obama and the art of empty rhetoric”:
I have watched Mr Obama speak live; I have watched him speak on television; I have even watched his speeches set to music on a video made by celebrity supporters (www.dipdive.com). But I find myself strangely unmoved – and this is disconcerting. It feels like admitting to falling asleep during Winston Churchill’s “fight them on the beaches”speech.
I will admit one thing. Mr Obama has a nice, gravely voice – which is perhaps a legacy of his days as a heavy smoker. But his most famous phrases are vacuous. The “audacity of hope”? It would be genuinely audacious to run for the White House on a platform of despair. Promising hope is simply good sense. “The fierce urgency of now”? It is hard to see what Mr Obama means when he says this – other than that some inner voice has told him to run for president.”
Well, politicians hardly ever say what they mean and hardly ever mean what they say. As Konrad Adenauer, the first German Chancellor after WWII, famously commented on his possible successor Ludwig Erhard: "He's totally unfit to be chancellor, he believes what the says."
To believe that political rhetoric should be logical, should radiate substance, should convey competence is the kind of thing one might hear in a political science class, it is however not what will guarantee political success. Moreover, to analyse and scrutinise content in political speeches misses the point completely. Relevant in a speech is not the logic of content but how the speech as a whole is emotionally perceived.
The success of Barack Obama’s campaign is, needless to say, due to a variety of factors. One of these factors is his intercultural competence by which I mean here: Keep it simple, stay on message, keep your message open. “Yes we can” is appealing because it purposefully does not address what we can.
That is too general, that is a cliché people often say when they want to dismiss a certain point of view. To label something a cliché is a killer-argument. Like saying an argument is illogical or empty rhetoric.
Truth is that we need clichés and that we cannot do without generalisations. The trick is to employ them intelligently. We use for instance “the Japanese” or “the Americans” despite our knowing that it would be rather doubtful if this typical Japanese or American really exists. Yet even if the clichés we entertain in regard to national characteristics might not withstand further scrutiny, it is a social fact that we constantly, be it in speech, be it in writing, refer to them. As Timothy Garton Ash some time ago reported in The Guardian
“Madam Secretary, this will work in practice but will it work in theory?” The reported remark of a senior French official to the then American secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, sums what both the Americans and the British like to think of as a profound difference between French and Anglo-Saxon ways of thinking. But here’s a curious role-reversal to mark the 100th anniversary of the entente cordiale between France and Britain: on the Iraq war, Blair was right in theory but Chirac was right in practice.
The question whether Garton Ash’s assessment regarding Iraq is correct or not is not my concern here. I do however feel that his playful handling of cliché is done in a way that we would be well advised to pursue.
To effectively communicate in a nation as culturally diverse as the United States of America one needs intercultural competence. By this I do not mean that you conduct a poll to figure out what the Texans like to hear, by this I mean that you bring your message down to the lowest common denominator. Let me elaborate:
One way of communicating across cultures – young and old, male and female, urban and rural folk live in different cultures that are usually divided into a variety of sub-cultures – is to rely on generalisations. Take pictures for instance: the less realistic they are, the better the chance for successful communication – just think of the pictograms at airports.
Immigrants from all over the world populate the United States. The number of languages spoken, according to the National Virtual Translation Center (www.nvtc.gov), is 311. That means differences in mentalities abound, but that also means that people speaking so many different tongues in a country they emigrated to must share a common vision. And they do for they all hope for a better life, they all hope to leave something better behind.
What Barack Obama and the people around him understand so well is that there exists a deep layer of the unconscious that the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung called the collective unconscious, a term that indicates that there is, in the words of Joseph Campbell, “a common humanity built into our nervous system out of which our imagination works.” Words like ‘hope’ and ‘change’ tap into this common humanity and are felt as motivating.
The devil lies in the details, people say. No wonder we prefer generalisations and clichés. _____
Returning from an extended stay in Brazil, I started to read Tracy Novinger’s Communicating with Brazilians: When „Yes“ means „No“ (University of Texas Press, Austin, 2003) with great interest. Already after the first few pages I decided to like the book. Because of sentences like these:
„Beyond focusing attention on a nation’s characteristics that seem exotic and foreign to outsiders, to communicate successfully across cultures it is sometimes important to just rely on common sense. Small towns in both the United States and Brazil, for example, are more conservative than are large cities, as is generally true throughout the world.“
„Most of us think that we act through our own free will. But think again. For the most part, we do not.“
„Culture is the logic by which we give order to the world … Put simply, culture is the way we do things around here.“
Given that, in 1952, Alfred Kroeber and Clyde Kluckhohn compiled a list of 164 definitions of "culture" (in Culture: A Critical Review of Concepts and Definitions) this is a refreshingly succinct and useful statement.
Now let’s have a look at the Brazilians who Darcy Ribeiro characterises as „better than others because bathed in black and Indian blood, a people whose role from here on will be less a matter of absorbing European things than of teaching the world how to live with more joy and more happiness.“ I think Darcy Ribeiro is right, I do indeed believe that Brazilians live with more joy and happiness than others. All others? No idea, really, but definitely with more joy and happiness than the Swiss. Needless to say I can already hear some protests so let me hasten to add: save for one or two exceptions.
I do not intend to point out how the book has to be seen in context of all the other books written about Brazil. Anyway, how could I? I only know Stefan Zweig’s Brasil. Um país do futuro and Peter Kellemen’s Brasil para principiantes and both of them are not mentioned in the bibliography (I highly recommend them). What I want to do here is to highlight some of the things I liked about this tome.
First and foremost: the abundance of telling anecdotes. Contrary to academics in the communication field who routinely dismiss them („of anecdotal value at best“), I love and treasure them for they teach me the essentials.
„A young woman who is an engineer hired by Schlumberger to work on oil platforms said that when she goes home to São Paulo, she and her sister no longer go out at night without their parents because the city has become so dangerous. One evening the two women went to a movie and were followed when they drove home. They called their house by cell phone. Their parents immediately turned on all of the outside lights, they and their gardener stationed themselves visibly to observe the arrival of the two sisters, and they ensured that the two young women had immediate access to the enclosed garage area.“
I heard numerous such stories when travelling for some months in the Northeast in 2006 and I heard again numerous such stories when teaching English in Santa Cruz do Sul in 2008. In other words: „Personal safety is an issue of primary public concern in Brazil.“
In the chapter „Racial Fusion“ the following story, under the headline „Only in Brazil“, can be found:
„Recently, three years after the fact, it was discovered by chance that two babies had been switched at birth in the hospital. Each family loved the happy little boy it was raising. Despite daily news coverage and avid public interest in custody considerations, no reports remarked on the fact that one of the boys was black and was accepted at birth by white parents and that the other boy was white and was raised without question by dark-skinned parents.“
So, there is no racism in Brazil? „Of course there is“, says Ricardo (of Schütz & Kanomata Idiomas in Santa Cruz do Sul), „and it is a problem but we’re not as neurotic about it as the Americans.“ Indeed.
And then there’s the jeito:
„The most significant, pervasive, and typical national filter through which the Brazilians see the world is that of jeito or jeitinho – the concept of finding a way … For Brazilians, there is always a way, some way, any way, to accomplish what one needs or wants to accomplish.“ I especially warmed to this wonderful definition here:
„Jeito is a product of an intelligent, inventive, free, and creative attitude that one should take the initiative of acting in opposition to rules.“
But isn’t that ethically problematic? Of course it is, sometimes, but what isn’t?