Culture and the futility of definitions

Some reflections on culture in reply to a friend:

Culture –in the broad sense- is neither a necessity nor a luxury, it is inevitability. Do not think of it as a matter of choice because it is a matter-of-fact. The Luxury vs. Necessity nexus may apply to concrete cultural products, but not culture in its totality.

I have been studying and teaching culture for the last 5 years, and every day I find myself less and less capable of defining it. I cannot give you a definition, but I can give you insights, mental images. Speaking of images, take, for example, the image below, commonly referred to as the Saigon Execution (photo by Eddie Adams).

When I showed this image to a student of mine and asked whether it was ‘culture’, she answered: yes. It’s a photo and photography is a form of art. She had just missed the bigger picture: culture is not only the ‘medium’ or the ‘form’, but also the message, it is the product and the process. Culture is the conscious content of the photo, and the subconscious reaction of the viewer. Culture is the very fabric of our human activity: we are incapable of producing ANY thing that is NOT culture. And if you saw the photo as a repulsive reminder of human cruelty or a cruel image of human folly, it’s because we are capable of cruelty: there is a culture of hate, just like there is a culture of beauty.

Forget about definitions, they are too limiting. The important thing is to broaden your horizon so that the word culture would make you think of an ever-broader range of things. You can be a culture vulture, a culture paucivore, univore or omnivore, it does not matter, as long as you do not limit your view to your own little corner of the world and that invisible corner in your brain where things are categorized as culture or non-culture.

One more thing: culture does not necessarily have any ‘purpose’ or ‘use’. Attaching a social function or a progressive view to it pushes you into a value chain that is alien to culture and tricks you into limiting your view within the confines of a tailor-made cause-effect correlation.

Finally, I fail to understand any talk about ‘preserving culture’. Culture is a living being, it will forever evolve and change inasmuch as we do. The only way to ‘preserve’ culture is to put it in a museum, like a fossil record of times gone by. Don’t think of preserving, think of celebrating and trying to encourage the aspects you like (which are nothing other than the human modes of existence that you like).

Saigon Execution by Edward Adams

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s