Friday, November 18, 2005

Fractal culture

Having gotten back into what I've sometimes called "special consciousness" (meaning language-based consciousness) lately, in talking about abstraction and concept formation, I thought it would be useful to look again at the proper framework or context for that kind of consciousness, which is culture. And the question I want to raise here is, when we refer to a culture -- i.e., not the concept of "culture", but a particular instance or example of it -- what do we mean by that? In particular, how do we determine what or whom it includes, and how do we establish its boundaries?

Well, an obvious sort of boundary might be a political one -- "a culture", in that sense, refers to a national culture, and extends to the borders of a state. But it's clear that the notion of a culture is, or can be, larger than a political entity. Another, and at least potentially larger, boundary would be a language, and this also seems like a "natural" boundary since a culture depends upon communication, and a common language clearly defines a cultural space that includes its speakers, excludes its non-speakers. The evolution of different languages, in fact, might seem to resemble a kind of cultural "speciation" in the way it impedes further influence external to the language speakers. But there's another, and potentially even larger type of cultural boundary to be considered, and that would be religion (or religion-like ideology) -- so that all of "Christendom", for example, can be considered a culture, or all of Islam or others, that include not just a number of states but different languages as well.

But now the idea of "a culture" starts to seem complicated, if not confusing. Because, while a religion can include multiple states and languages, it's also true that a language area can include multiple religions, a state can include multiple languages as well as religions, and so on. There doesn't seem to be any neat hierarchy of boundaries that would allow us specify culture in a simple or unambiguous way. Furthermore, this complexity/confusion extends downward from these larger formations as well, so that we can and often do speak of the culture of regions, of cities, of organizations, of neighborhoods, of cliques, even of meetings, and the boundaries of these "cultures" seem to be nested or overlapping in many different ways.

Now, one response to this kind of usage is just to throw up one's hands and say that "culture" is a vague and general word with different applications, and let it go. But, as I've indicated in earlier posts (see the list at the top of this recap), I think that the concept actually has a reasonably precise and fundamental meaning -- one that clarifies the confusion above, accounts for this apparent diversity or complexity of usage, and provides the basis for understanding how culture functions as well. And this is the idea that "culture" really does exist, and really only exists, as a structural imprint in the mental apparatus of each language-using individual -- an imprint acquired in the course of learning a native language, and developed and maintained in the course of social interaction through the rest of a person's life. Each such imprint or memotype is unique, as I've said, because of its dependence on the unique individual experiences that it's made from. But when such individuals associate, however few and however briefly, their interactions bring their cultural imprints into greater semantic alignment, and this group harmonization, as long as it persists, can then be said to constitute a kind of micro-culture. In this way, any one individual is typically a member of a number of such micro-cultures (family, workmates, friends, etc.), which overlap in ways that are sometimes quite fluid or changeable, but also comprehensible. And these "memotypes" will also display similarities on the largest scales of tribe, nation, language/ethnicity, and religion/ideology as well, which is what underlies the sense of referring to these groupings as cultures. The encultured individual, in other words, constitutes a kind of cultural atom, out of which particular cultures of various sorts, on different time scales, and on varying levels, are built. "Culture" becomes a fractal-like phenomenon.

1 comment:

  1. Blogger Unsane said...
    Too cool.

    10:17 PM, March 06, 2006