Tour de Detour

I was going to write an essay, a fairly long one, along the lines of 20 to 30 pages, single spaced, as I’ve done in the past, no biggie, but I quickly ended up on a seven, no, in the end, nine page tangent on culture. So, instead of covering what I was going to cover, ‘Marxism and the Philosophy of Language’ by Valentin Vološinov, I’ll focus on a related issue, that of culture, for reasons that I’ll express shortly.

Right, in summary, the translators, Matejka and Titunik, (1) note that the book was written in the late 1920s. It’s peculiar in the sense that, as noted by the translators, it has little do with Marxism as Marx nor Marxians didn’t really delve into the realm of language prior to his venture, or so Vološinov at least claimed. In other words, it’s a curious piece of work that has ‘Marxism’ in its title, yet it largely has to do with something else as, well, language just wasn’t part of the canon. It rather connects language to Marxism rather than explaining it in Marxist tradition. The translators do a good job at condensing the key points of his thinking, so do check it out, but it’d be too practical of me to just reiterate their summations. Instead, I plant to take a closer look at certain parts of the book and explain the main features myself and try to connect it to my other readings and essays, past and future ones (as I’m going to go on a tangent here).

As I simply can’t stand the word ‘ideology’, I’ll replace it with ‘collective’ throughout the essays on the book. For me the issue is that ‘ideology’ is one of those words that gets thrown around wherever and whenever someone runs out of gas. It’s a shorthand. It’s a lazy presupposition that people sneak in to back up a claim. In this sense it gets used the same way as ‘nature’ or ‘culture’. To make more sense of this, it’s on my shortlist of banned words because instead of doing the hard work, explaining or at least trying to explain why it is that we have this or that or this or that happens, whatever that may be, people just happily fall back on them. For example, at times people explain their views or their behavior as part of their ‘culture’. Similarly, people may claim it’s ‘natural’ or that it is ‘human’, ‘humane’ or in ‘human nature’. At times, when something dramatic happens, something beyond the control of people, say when a hurricane levels a major city, people claim that it is ‘nature’ seeking revenge for what humans have done. The common theme here is that ‘nature’, ‘culture’ and ‘ideology’ are considered as having a life of their own, external to people, and having agency. I’m sorry but that is just lazy. If I notice you using them, that way, I reserve the right to ridicule you for it. You can’t say you didn’t have it coming, for reasons I’m going to explain in this essay.

I remember coming across this issue in one of the first texts I read that had to do with landscape research. If you haven’t read James Duncan’s ‘The Superorganic in American Cultural Geography’, then do yourself a favor and go through it. He is dealing with this issue and it’s worth reading even if you aren’t interested in geography. He (182) summarizes the issue quite neatly:

“Today in popular, nonacademic modes of thought the distinction between the individual and society is virtually taken for granted.”

He (183) then adds that:

“Most theories in social science today are based on the assumption that individuals are atomistic and thus independent of one another.”

I’m not so sure that this applies, as such, anymore, at least not in the more critical academic circles. Then again, I do recognize this, this emphasis or, no, rather, the taken for granted notion of the autonomy of the subject, the individual. I’ve had trouble explaining my own views on this because, for others (albeit not everyone), it just makes their blood boil when you challenge this notion. It’s, of course, only understandable, not only because it makes your head hurt, quite a bit actually, but also because it fundamentally challenges your perception of yourself. Anyway, Duncan (183) continues:

“This leaves unresolved the problem of accounting for the order one finds in society unless it is imposed by an external force from without.”

He (183) notes that there are two solutions to this problem. The first one is the atomist or individualist treatment of the problem, that people are independent from one another and that they just agree or disagree to get along, or so to speak. The second one is the holist treatment of the problem, that there is something autonomous and beyond the individuals that makes things go round, or, as expressed by Duncan (183), “‘work themselves out,’ or ‘seek their equilibrium.’” He (183) argues that Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s transcendental object known as Geist and its successors, such as Émile Durkheim’s concept of collective consciousness and Alfred Kroeber’s concept of superorganic, are classic examples of transcendental holism, in which society functions prior to the individuals and thus also irreducible to them (as it is not drawn from the individuals). As noted by Duncan (183), this also results in the whole being the active determining force acting upon the parts, the individuals, not the other way around. What really irks Duncan (183-184) about this, or that’s my take on it anyway, is that the agency of individuals is relegated to acting as determined by “transcendental formal cause, e.g. society, culture, and God.” Duncan refers to Aristotle in this context, which made me think of how, if I remember correctly, for Aristotle teleology is something, like a plant, having a goal, to grow to be just that, while its the parts also have a goal, to support the whole. Anyway, that’s from memory, so correct me if I’m wrong.

Duncan (184) moves on to address Afred Kroeber’s, Robert Lowie’s and Leslie White’s treatments of culture as superorganic. I’m not going to go through it all, for I’m sure you can read it yourself, but, in summary, he (185) notes that:

“[White] like Durkheim, Kroeber, Lowie and other transcendental holists believe that culture cannot be reduced to the individual.”

Moreover, earlier on he (185) characterizes its development according to White:

“[C]ulture originated and is undergoing a continuous process of improvement because of man’s ‘neurological ability to symbolize.’ Once culture had developed, it became extrasomatic, obeying laws of its new development quite independent of the laws governing its human carriers. Culture generates its own forms, independent of men, and those which are not useful to its purposes are discarded.”

The problem with this type of definition of culture is that, to reiterate it, it relegates agency of people as to mere bearers or carries of the superorganic, as noted by Duncan (187-188). He (188) explains what results from this:

“The formal cause, culture, therefore becomes reified. It has power to do things.”

It’s actually culture doing it all. That’s the cause. Sure, people actually do all that, but it’s the culture that is seen as putting them to work. The parts are just doing what the whole wants. Now, Duncan is, by no means, defending these types of conceptions of culture. This article is widely known for holding the exactly opposite view. He (189) notes that these notions have been challenged a number of time, by, among others Edward Sapir and Franz Boas, namely for being “methodologically undemonstrable”. He (189) cites Boas (235) as having expressed in ‘Anthropology and Modern Life’ that:

“[I]t hardly seems necessary to consider culture a mystic entity that exists outside the society of its individual carriers and moves by its own force.”

With regards to Sapir (286), Duncan (189) cites him as having expressed in ‘Cultural Anthropology and Psychiatry’ that:

“It is not the concept of culture which is subtly misleading but the metaphysical locus to which culture is generally assigned.”

Ay, I reckon that the issue is exactly this. Culture tends to be considered as something external to people, as if having a life of its own and making things happen. Sapir (285) is actually addressing how culture, or, rather “[t]he so-called culture of a group of human beings” is “ordinarily treated by cultural anthropologists” as “a systematic list of all the socially inherited patterns of behavior which may be illustrated in the actual behavior of all or more of the individuals of the group.” He (285) takes issue with culture being ordinarily conflated with society, which is “a theoretical community of human beings”, “itself a cultural construct which is employed by individuals who stand in significant relations to each other in order to help them in the interpretation of certain aspects of their behavior.” Instead, to get to the point here on the locus, he (285) argues that:

“The true locus of culture is in the interactions of specific individuals[.]”

As well as (285):

“[O]n the subjective side, [the true locus of culture is,] in the world of meaning which each one of these individuals may unconsciously abstract for himself from his participation in these interactions.”

And, adding what follows from this (285):

“Every individual is, then, in a very real sense, a representative of at least one sub-culture which may be abstracted from the generalized culture of the group of which he is a member. Frequently, if not typically, he is a representative of more than one sub-culture, and the degree to which the socialized behavior of any given individual can be identified with or abstracted from the typical or generalized culture of a single group varies enormously from person to person.”

What he is saying here is that culture is not a monolith, a thing of its own. Later on, he (288) refers to such conception as “total culture” (to which he objects to, of course). What he is really against here is conflating culture with society. I think it’s also worth emphasizing his own view on culture where it has to do with the interaction of individuals and how meaning is abstracted from this participation from others. In other words, culture is emergent. It emerges in the interaction, in the interlocution between individuals. It’s not something that exists outside the interaction of people, on its own. It’s not a society. It’s not a state. It’s not all encompassing. Later on he (288) characterizes his conception of culture as varying infinitely. I take this in the sense that culture is not an infinite continuum at all times as otherwise we’d just have individuals, neatly separate and distinct from one another (each person as having its own culture, if you will), but that it’s the potential to vary infinitely, that is to say that it’s not stuck in time as this or that. He (289) is, after all, emphasizing that you cannot neatly separate the individual and the society and use that as a starting point. Sapir (287) further explains what he is after:

“For each individual, the commonly accepted fund of meanings and values tends to be powerfully specialized or emphasized or contradicted by types of experience and modes of interpretation that are far from being the property of all men.”

He (287) lists different occupations as sub-cultures: “[t]he dairyman, the movie actress, the laboratory physicist, the party whip”. For him (287) they all have their own worlds, or so to speak, with varying degrees of opaqueness in relation to one another. Simply put, if you, the dairyman, fail to understand someone working in the movie industry (or the other way around, if you don’t like idea of you as a dairyman), it’s because their world is rather opaque to you. You just don’t get it, well, unless you get into it, which, may, of course, take a bit of time. Also, notice how he maintains that individuals have much in common with others but not all others. If we’d have nothing in common with others, if a sub-culture was used in a sense to mark the individual, then everyone would be opaque to one another. We continuously struggle to understand one another. Anyway, what follows from this, he (287-288) argues, is that:

“If we consider that these specialized cultural participations are partly the result of contact with limited traditions and techniques, partly the result of identification with such biologically and socially imposed groups as the family or the class in school or the club, we can begin to see how inevitable it is that the true psychological locus of a culture is the individual or a specifically enumerate list of individuals, not an economically or politically or socially defined group of individuals.”

Furthermore, he (288) warns not to work with preconceptions, what he humorously calls unicorns, such as those economically, politically or socially defined groups. Why? Well, as he (288) points out, they may have very little to do with people themselves. In this text he (285-286, 288) uses delineation of areas as example this. So, for example, a municipal border may be of little actual consequence to the people living at the border, on this or that side. Sure it has some consequence, but it hardly determines your everyday life, or, well, I hope it doesn’t. The same applies to categorizing people according to some socioeconomic standards.

It’s also worth clarifying here that for him (288) the individual, or what he calls an individual, is not:

“[S]imply biologically defined organism maintaining itself through physical impacts and symbolic substitutes of such impacts[.]”

Instead, what an individual is for him (288) is:

“[T]hat total world of form, meaning and implication of symbolic behavior which a given individual partly knows and directs, partly intuits and yields to, partly is ignorant of and is swayed by.”

This just so that you won’t feel frustrated by what he means by individual (as he does use it quite a bit in the text). To get to somewhere with this, and to eventually move on, I’ll skip to a bit where he (289) summarizes the locus of culture, as it is generally treated by people and how he wishes it’d be treated. He (289) first summarizes how culture is generally understood:

“Ordinarily the locus will be a substantial portion of the members of a community, each of them feeling that he is touching common interests so far as this particular culture pattern is concerned.”

Only to object to this (289):

“We have learned that the individual in isolation from society is a psychological fiction. We have not had the courage to face the fact that formally organized groups are equally fictitious in the psychological sense, for geographically contiguous groups are merely a first approximation to the infinitely variable groupings of human beings to whom culture in its various aspects is actually to be credited as a matter of realistic psychology.”

As you can see, you can’t separate the individual from the society, hence his (288) remark about unicorns. Anyway, I think I’ve gone on a long enough tangent on this oeuvre. That said, Sapir also has early article titled ‘Do We need a “Superorganic”?’ (pagination here from edited collection of his works). It is in this text that the issue is addressed, well, as hinted by the title, that the issue is addressed very directly. He (34) argues against Kroeber’s superorganic conception of culture because it ends up ignoring people and relegating their agency:

“All individuals tend to impress themselves on their social environment and, though generally to an infinitesimal degree, to make their individuality count in the direction taken by the never-ceasing flux that the form and content of social activity and inevitably are subject to.”

Make note of how he advocates for taking into account the role of the individuals while also acknowledging that the impact of each individual is, of course, rather small. He also acknowledges that whatever they do is not in isolation of others as the participation is social. In other words, no one does anything alone, even if whatever they actually do, say dig a ditch, is done alone. For even that simple task, you still need to have come to terms with what digging a ditch is. It involves a quite a bit. You need to have a shovel, know what a shovel is, know what a ditch is, for example, in contrast to a mere hole in the ground. No one was ever born to dig ditches, even though many people have surely dug ditches throughout history. Someone must have taught you all that, just so that you can dig a ditch, be it voluntary or not.

Duncan (190) notes that what he made use of, a handful of critics of transcendental holism (of which I highlighted only some), is, of course, selective and that their own formulations of culture may not be exactly sufficiently formulated either. That said, regardless of their own formulations and the rest of their work, he (190) reckons that they are correct on this issue, on the basis that transcendental holists cannot demonstrate that culture exists as a distinct entity that has an ontological status (a life of its own) and causative power (makes things happen, even if only by mobilizing people to do its bidding), regardless of how you define it. Simply put, it just doesn’t fly that there is “a transcendent, autonomous level”, as he (190) characterizes it.

Not unlike Sapir, Duncan (190-191) acknowledges that people, the transcendental holists in particular, fail to recognize that culture is something that people do, not just something that is, by itself, for itself, because it appears as if it is not tied to anyone in particular, because it seems to be anonymous. That said, he doesn’t let people off the hook. He (191) criticizes people who opt to explain whatever it is that is at stake in such way for choosing to ignore the complexities of human action. This is exactly why I call it lazy to explain something as having to do with culture, that something is the way it is because it’s cultural. I take issue with it because it can be neatly used to back up an argument. For example, I can object to someone’s behavior, say violence towards others and challenge it. Now, the person I’m addressing could explain the situation and contextually justify the situation. That is rather complex and the person may realize that it might end up having to concede that I’m correct to object to that behavior on this and/or that grounds. In other words, it may well be that it’s not in the interest of that person to do so. Alternatively, the person may explain that what I object to is part of that culture, that it’s what people do. Oh, okay. That makes sense. My bad. Carry on. In the light of what’s been discussed so far, the problem with that is that culture is used as an a priori justification. It can’t be challenged or, at least, it would seem to be the case. Now, obviously, that doesn’t hold, at all. It’s just something that people sneak in as a justification. It’s a posteriori masquerading as a priori, a pretender.

He (191) summarizes the issues of transcendental holism, noting that it reduces agency into a single entity, in this case culture, which then obscures all the details. It ignores all the variables, even the common ones such as various interest groups, including but not limited to social groups, political groups, businesses, state institutions and financial institutions. In Sapir’s terms, it ignores what is relevant to people in much of everyday life, all what he calls sub-cultures. What results from this, what Duncan (191) finds particularly problematic, is that reducing everything into one blob, that of culture, not only ignores all those groups but also all the tension and conflict between those groups. In his (191):

“Thus the unintended consequence of the superorganic theory has been to discourage inquiry into important questions of social interaction by rooting explanation in a transcendental realm.”

So, as I pointed out, it results in people using it as an explanation and a justification, one that cannot be contested. It just is what it is. There’s nothing wrong here. No need to question people’s decision making process. It all makes sense in itself. Carry on.

At first it may seem that Duncan argues in favor of an autonomous subject or individual, considering how he (194-196) criticizes the view of conditioning, that people become creatures of habit, automatons, but that’s not exactly the case. He (196) goes on to acknowledge that unconscious or unselfconscious behavior does play a part in all this. Conversely, he (196) notes that individual choice and creativity also play a part, yet neither is unconstrained. In other words, he is arguing for a middle ground here. He (196) clarifies that while there are constrains to human action and thinking, what Pierre Bourdieu (164) calls sense of limits or sense of reality in ‘Outline of a Theory of Practice’, these constrains are not effectuated “by mysterious suprahuman forces” but by various conditions that pertain to human activity. He (196-197) exemplifies this, noting that “[o]ne could say that people allow cultural prescriptions to dictate their behavior” and that these prescriptions have an impact on people, “not because [they are] part of any mechanism by which a superorganic culture determines behavior but because many [people] believe that [the prescriptions] are … characteristic and they therefore act in accordance with this belief.”

He (197) then moves on to advocate for a reformulation culture as something not unlike proposed by Sapir. For Duncan (197), as well as for Sapir, and I agree with both on this one, culture should “not [be] treated as an explanatory variable in itself but used to signify contexts for action or sets of arrangements between people at various levels of aggregation.” So, as Sapir puts it, culture should not be taken as total culture, a totality with a life and agency of its own, but as sub-cultures, as “a series of contexts”, as Duncan (197) calls them. That said, as acknowledged already, Duncan (197) reiterates that these sub-cultures or contexts that operate at variable scales, with varying degrees of influence on the people involved, in part depending on who it is that gets to exercise power over others and who those others happen to be, often have distant and thus obscure origins, which, in turn results in people often taking them for granted, “as guidelines for action.” This is what Bourdieu (164) calls doxa.

Is that it? Can we be happy with that formulation? I have no idea. I prefer not using it at all, even if it is so, so very hard to avoid using. I’m sort of fine using it in everyday life, in the sense that Sapir and Duncan use it, as explained thus far. Then again, as explained in this essay, many people hold culture as a total culture rather than as a plethora of sub-cultures. So, every time I use it, in the way I prefer using it, people think of it as a ‘total culture’. Simply put, I prefer not using it, at all, because it has that baggage. To be honest, I don’t think I really have much use for it. When I was reading Sapir, I found it odd, as well as unsatisfactory, that he, for some reason, labeled everyday interaction and interlocution between certain people or groups of people as ‘sub-cultures’. Fair enough, I guess it’s easier to get the point across when you contrast them, what is generally considered as culture, ‘total culture’, with what he proposes as ‘sub-culture’. I don’t know about others but it just bothers me. If there are numerous ‘sub-cultures’, it pushes me to think that they are part of a larger culture, at least to some degree. Why call them sub-cultures, at all? I know I’m being anachronistic here but if you wish to rhizomatic, you can’t keep the tree, the hierarchy. That formulation is just unsatisfactory to me. Anyway, that’s why I much prefer speaking of assemblages and collectives, albeit that often results in people just staring at me, bewildered, the what now?

Getting on with things, one of the problems with culture is that it’s this used on myriad ways. Related to Duncan’s 1980 article, Don Mitchell attempts to address this very issue in his article ‘There’s No Such Thing as Culture: Towards a Reconceptualization of the Idea of Culture in Geography’. As you can see from the title, he is arguing that there is no such thing as culture. What we have instead is an idea of culture. Now, that’s also evident from what I’ve covered so far. It doesn’t matter if it doesn’t exist if people think it does. That’s sort of the gist of this. For him the issue is that no matter how you reformulate the concept, moving away from the superorganic conceptions of it, it still ends up, as if, having a life and agency of its own. I’m not entirely sure if I’m compelled by his arguments, nor that I agree on everything, as such, but, as I explained with regard to Sapir, he is on to something alright. There is something to this that keeps haunting me whenever it is invoked, regardless of how it is conceptualized. I just can’t shake it.

What in particular irks Mitchell (106), is that it is hard to understand what culture is, what makes it distinct, what differentiates it from other concepts. He (106) is also troubled by it being a shorthand for, well, basically everything. It’s sort of a conceptual trash heap (you know, like one of those ‘other’ categories used in surveys for whatever the people who came up with the survey didn’t think of). He (106) acknowledges that in this sense it certainly has its uses. It’s exactly that, a handy shorthand. Then again, he (106) finds that problematic because it is so chaotic that it no use for explaining anything in particular. Oddly enough, Mitchell (106-107) comments on the shift from culture to subcultures, noting the exact same issue that I have with it, that the very notion of a subculture retains the notion of culture, as I just expressed it a couple of paragraphs back. I have read his article in the past, but only now I noticed that. Interesting. I guess it’s unavoidable really. I mean this connects to a broader issue that has to do with categorization, how if you categorize something as this, what this is is defined in negation by what it isn’t. You can’t fix the issue by adding categories because the issue itself has to do with categorization. It doesn’t lead anywhere, it just creates further division.

Mitchell makes note of the issue of divisions as well. He (107) notes that, among others, modern ethnographers can’t help but to uphold culture as an ontological given as they continually engage in creating disjunctions, us vs. them by positing people as this or that. In his words, as he (107) aptly puts it:

“Hence culture was a concept deployed to stop flux in its tracks, creating stability and ‘ways of life’ where before there had been change and contest. The idea of culture demanded a mapping of boundaries and edges, the specification of a morphology: culture had to become a bounded object that ultimately differentiated the world.”

Ay, as I pointed out, this is what you get when you engage in categorization. Pay attention to the last few words here, the differentiation of the world. The thing with arborescence, the hierarchical model of a tree, is that difference is to be found in between identities, those bounded entities, those branches. Simply put, identity is considered primary, difference is considered secondary. If you’ve read my essays, you’ll know that I hold and advocate the exact opposite view. Mitchell (107) is well aware of this when he notes that there is a movement (I’d say a fringe movement, it doesn’t even make a dent some twenty years later) that acknowledges the problems that come with bounded entities like culture, considering the expression ‘to be caught between cultures’. That said, he (107) immediately jumps to point out that as novel as that may be, to find yourself caught in between, or so to speak, that very notion still clings on to those boundaries. Indeed, you can’t be in between if identity emerges from difference. You can only be in between if difference emerges from identity. The former is proper individualism, in the sense that identity is, as the word itself does suggest, indivisible. Simply put, to be an individual, you cannot be divided. The latter is not individualism as it permits division. What is is instead is dividualism.

Getting back on topic here, with regards to culture, Mitchell (107) argues that it’s plagued by infinite regress. He (107) reckons that no matter how people try, they cannot come up with an apt definition for it without resorting to other concepts. To be more specific, he (107-108) states that:

“These bedrock terms, always receding as writers try to pin down their definitions, end up referring to nothing (or everything). They stand as empty (or overfull) abstractions. With each round of definition, the ontological basis of meaning recedes one step further, always just out of grasp, always deferred. They have roots in no worlds, at least not internally. ‘Culture’ is thus approached obliquely or its internal laws are declared to remain still obscure, in an effort to retain faith in ‘culture’s’ very existence.”

Ah, well, yes and no. I agree that culture is an idea, a discursive object, if you will. That’s, I think, what people can agree on. It’s also a powerful one. Again, fair enough. I’ve already addressed those. The problem here is that this can be applied to anything. That’s how language works. It isn’t rooted in this world in the sense that a word, say a chair, corresponds to something actual, to an object, say an actual chair. Just stating that is an exercise in absurdity. The issue with that is that I’m asserting that there is a discreet entity, an object, that corresponds to that word, chair. There is no such thing. If there was, then, well, then chairs would be things-in-themselves, eternal ideas if you will. To be fair, maybe there is, but I am not convinced by such. Anyway, there is no isomorphism, no one to one correspondence between the discursive and the non-discursive. If we just look at words, language is just that, infinite regress. Open up a dictionary. Look up a word. Does it point outside the book (or screen)? No. It does not. Does it, perhaps, instead, point to other words? Oh. Yes. It. Does. It’s pretty much a practical joke if you ask me. Words explaining words, ad infinitum.

To circle back to the start, to the third paragraph, to be specific, Mitchell (108) explains why I wish to reserve to right to ridicule people for using words like culture:

“[W]e continue to parcel humanity into discrete, bounded cultures; we continue to insist that culture exists and that it is important. And in this sense ‘culture’ does come to exist in the world. That is, it exists as a concept that is made real. The infinite regress is stopped in practice. As an abstraction or covering term, whether by ethnographers and geographers or by cultural critics, marketers or geopolitical strategists, it is made to function as explanation.”

Ah, yes. Yes, indeed, it is made to function exactly like that, as explaining whatever it is that is at stake. To reiterate the point I made early on, I acknowledge that it is a handy word, for this reason exactly. Can’t explain it? Well, worry not, for culture can always be used to explain it. Mitchell (108) further explains why he takes issue with it:

“The idea of culture is not what people are doing; rather it is the way people make sense of what they have done.”

So, to explain this in discursive terms, it’d be fine if culture was explained as a matter of practice, what people do, but it is used to explain, to justify, what was done. Simply put, people explain this or that practice as part of their culture in order to justify that practice. This is the point that I made about it being used to back up claims, along the lines of ‘it’s part of my culture’. Mitchell (108) explains this more eloquently:

“The lists of processes and activities … use[d] to exemplify culture are important not because they are culture but because, through struggle over the power of definition … they are made to be ‘culture’.”

The point he is making here is that, if you struggle (haha, a very fitting word here!) with this, the set of practices, whatever they may be, in this or that culture, are not inherently part of that culture. They’ve become reified as culture, as he (108) points out. Moreover, he (108) adds that not every practice gets to be part of this or that culture, hence the point made about culture being defined through social struggle and it being an idea, one fashioned as a certain set of practices, largely by those who get to have a say on it. In his (108) words, to put it more eloquently:

“Culture thus comes to signify artificial distinctiveness where in reality there is always contest and flux. What gets called ‘culture’ is created through struggles by groups and individuals possessing radically different access to power.”

This is why I pointed out that it is largely defined by those who get to have a say on most things. Access to power, or, as I’d specify it, access to positions in which one can exercise power (as, for me, power is never held, as such, only exercised) varies, so if culture is, indeed, something, it’s not something in which everyone gets to have an equal input. Simply put, some tend have more influence than others, even if that is always contextual. Mitchell (108) summarizes the key problem with culture:

“[It] is … a very powerful name – powerful because it obscures just what it is meant to identify.”

Spot on! Calling a set of practices, or, to be more specific, to put this discursively, systematic practices, culture only obscures that they are practices. It turns them into explanation of those practices, giving them validity, hence the point I made about people using culture to justify their actions. Now, he (108-109) goes on to acknowledge that abstraction and reification has its uses. In discursive terms, to use the chair example again, life would be highly impractical if we’d engage in debate with others, or just ourselves, on whether a chair is a chair, or so to speak, every time we encounter a chair, rather than just making use of it. What he (109) objects to, and I do as well, is using culture as a broad concept because it ends up explaining nothing. It becomes senseless. He (109) also objects to, as do I, using it as a narrow abstraction because it ends up just a mere synonym.

What Mitchell (109) proposes instead of culture is ideology, hence culture being only an idea of culture. Now, it’s worth acknowledging that Mitchell’s (109) article ruffled some feathers and he got plenty of flak for his take on culture among … cough, cough … cultural geographers, of which some is warranted and some isn’t. I’m not going to cover all the responses, nor his response to those responses (I’m sure you can look this up yourself, as you should), but I’ll address one of the responses, that of Denis Cosgrove. He addresses Mitchell’s article in ‘Ideas and Culture: A Response to Don Mitchell’. He (575) makes a keen observation:

“For Mitchell, the idea of culture is henceforward an ideology and, for all the subtle protestations to the contrary, we find ourselves firmly back in a modified base-superstructure position.”

He (575) adds to this that Mitchell evades this issue, swapping culture with ideology, by redefining it in relation to political economy and class as something more chaotic than they are. For Cosgrove (575), it is more apt to define culture in relation to nature, to which I would add that, once again, we are getting nowhere with this. For me, this is just moving furniture. Sure, you can define culture as “a process of differentiation from ‘nature’ through wilful human intervention”, but that assumes that there is will involved (which flirts with the autonomy of the subject) and that there is such a thing as nature (which comes across as awfully superorganic). Cosgrove (575) does actually make note of Mitchell’s move, how culture is a matter of divisions, it being defined as this or that, in contrast to what it then isn’t. For me, this is stating the obvious, regardless of who says it, be it Mitchell, Cosgrove or someone else. That’s how categorizing works. You always end up doing splits. That’s arborescence 101.

To end this essay, I only went on this tangent, addressing culture, in relation to nature and ideology, because, as you’ll come to notice, the book by Vološinov that I’m going to address, hopefully soon, is riddled with the word ‘ideology’. Okay, fair enough, it was published in Soviet Russia so it probably wouldn’t have got published if it wasn’t riddled with it, but it can get a bit nauseating when you read it. You sort of have to wire your brain to sort it out, to replace it with something more apt like ‘collective’ to make it less of a pain to read. That’s why I’m all about assemblages and abstract machines these days, even if that baffles just about everyone else, including my peers, those who are in the position to judge me, if you know what I mean.


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