Posted by: Johan Normark | October 4, 2010

I am also of the opinion that the concept of culture must be destroyed

In the recent Swedish elections the far right wing Populist Party Sverigedemokraterna (Sweden Democrats or SD) emerged as a new member of the parliament and they will have some influence on cultural politics. These people wishes to emphasize “folksy art” such as local historical societies, folk dancing groups, folk music bands, the national Heritage Board and some museums. They wish to centralize policies that define Swedish art and culture to make it more socially beneficent, etc. This has stirred some worries among archaeologists who does not want to be associated with SD’s worldview. Hence, the chairman of the Swedish Archaeological Community, Björn Magnusson Staaf, argues against SD’s culture politics in a debate article in one of Sweden’s major newspapers. In the article we find the concepts of culture and cultural heritage frequently in use. These concepts are, to me, heavily intertwined with the “culture as an organism” mode of thinking. The main problem is that this view of culture is shared among most archaeologists, cultural workers, the main population, etc. This is how we have been taught to think and since it goes back to at least Aristotle I suspect that it will be hard to change that mode of thinking.

At one extreme end of “culture as an organism” thinking we have the conservative, static, and homogenous view of culture represented by SD and on the other end we find flexible and heterogeneous views of multiculture by the lefties. In-between you’ll find a spectrum of ideas. However, these are all based on the idea of Culture and hence they can only become differences of degree to one and another. I am of the opinion that the concept of culture must be destroyed.

Why is “culture as an organism” wrong? In this mode of thinking it is argued that just as the bodily organs work for the organism, social institutions and cultural markers mainly work to benefit the society/culture. The Mexican philosopher/historian Manuel DeLanda (2006) argues that these approaches rely on a seamless whole, a formless society in which the human subject is interwoven. This seamless whole ultimately relies on the organismic metaphor where society and culture are made up by relations of interiority, that is, by relations within a “cultural body.” If a part, for example a “Viking ship,” is removed from this whole, the “Viking culture,” it ceases to be a “Viking ship” because one of its properties is to be this specific part. A “Viking ship” is therefore defined by the essentialist concept of “Viking culture,” not from the material and expressive components it consists of.

This cultural model is reductionist since the aim is to analyze the minimal essential components of a complex cultural system or network. One then add together the explanations for the components in order to explain the whole system. Such approaches disregard emergence and claim that the whole system is just an aggregate of components. It basically means that the Viking culture is the loose aggregation of Viking artifacts and architecture (“material culture”), assumed to have been the internal parts of a social or cultural body. Culture is more or less the same thing as the artifact, only greater in magnitude, but not in kind. The oddity here is that the artifact cannot be the same as culture since culture is in a higher hierarchical position, something existing beyond the single artifact.

That this way of reasoning underlies SD’s culture politics may not be surprising, but I claim that this way of reasoning underlies the multicultural idea as well. The main difference is that Culture in the latter case is not the nationalist static culture but a more general culture. However, it is still Culture. To me culture is just an abstraction that works in daily usage, but for a discipline that attempts to explain causality behind the material record archaeology work with it needs more concrete definitions that do not rely on overarching concepts where artifacts simply becomes reified examples of age-old culture-historical units. However, I am afraid that the traditional “culture as an organism” way of thinking only will grow in popularity as people strive the hardest to define what Swedish culture is. We will hear one side’s arguments and then the other side will take more or less the opposite view without really questioning the grounds they both stand on.

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Responses

  1. I agree with all but the desire to throw out the concept of culture. That behavior is not natural culture.

    All right let me give you a different view.

    Exhibit 1: At the bottom of the diagram (visualize) is the individual.

    Exhibit 2: Two group concepts split off (very simplified).
    Societies are top down. Cultures are bottom up.
    Societies eliminate variations and amplify through unity. Cultures add together all the strengths of the members and variations in interest are kept separate so the amplify through numbers.
    Societies masquerade as culture through cliques for that controlled rebel edge.
    Cultures masquerade as society through tradition for that false sense of security.

    Exhibit 3: Group of groups.
    The society line naturally evolves into institutions like police, fire dept, military, judge.
    The culture line naturally evolves into professions like investigator, researcher, lawyer, medical professional.

    Exhibit 4: Hub where individuals and groups meet.
    Government.
    The culture line becomes traditionalists.
    The society line becomes radical social engineers.
    If the individuals do not have at minimum significant minority influence on politics you will have disaster sooner than you can say Minbari council imbalance + Earther/Amero style cocky attitude in space (Babylon 5 reference) = war that almost destroys Earth.

    I would not destroy the concept of culture or society as there are healthy and mean memes in both contexts.

    I would try to discourage the false masquerades though. Subculture is a social deception. Tradition is a cultural deception. There’s a healthy form that should be encouraged instead.

  2. My main problem is that culture is separated from nature (hence your natural culture is nonexistent in my world). Culture, in its simplest definition, is what people do as opposed to what animals or inanimate things do. Hence, people building a pyramid results in material culture whereas birds building a nest simply is natural. This basic distinction is then divided further and further into specific cultures (such as Swedish culture, Maya culture, etc.). Culture is indeed a hierarchical way of thinking and I would say it embraces society, it does not stand opposed to it (nature does). Hence we always have debates if a certain phenomenon is genetic or taught, natural or cultural, etc.

  3. The whole nature nurture debate reminds me of WWE wrestling.

    See I would call your description, right on the money btw, the specialization of culture, or subculture or clique. What you’re describing is a division tactic designed to oversensitize people to their identity which “the machine” calls dignity. This is a variation on cosmetics and fashion.

    I’m glad somebody studying archaeology is picking up these details. Such a culture that goes from pyramid to Swedish and Maya culture that is precisely my point. That is not a culture that is the sum of its members. It’s a hierarchical society passed off as a group of friends with similar interests.

    There healthy material culture is impossible. Like the farmers of America’s plains who attended social events with food and dances so they could exchange information about what crops did well in what areas.

    Speaking of dignity… Dignity at an extreme is psychologically indistinguishable from identity which, as you’ve probably figured out from my postings, brings to my mind the exaggerated notions of dignity of cranks like Zbigniew Brzezinsky. Dignity on crack = identity = fertile ground for corporate sponsored revolution.

    I am now a fully embedded journalist of the Internets. A while ago some of the Networkologies and Object Oriented community lamented that philosophy has become a nursing home dwelling pensioner with war stories to tell the young’ns. I think there’s plenty of material in your research and others to change that.

    My approach is still quasi conspiracy focused but I have a few weapons of mass media deconstruction up my sleeve.

    I want a philosophical basis that resists easy manipulation. From Bergson to DeLanda there seems to be a solid platform for discussing the situation and it’s encouraging to have better tools than the demagogues do.

    • In most cases I see no difference between culture and society. They are both loosely defined terms that relies on some form of essence. When culture/society reach a level where people demand homogeneity (such as in natonalism) it becomes and imagined community (Benedict Anderson’s classic work).

      I agree that ideas from Bergson to DeLanda are not easy to manipulate since they are based on fluidity. In order to manipulate you must be able to stop and control the flow but there are always (wiki)leaks.

  4. Johan,

    I agree with you that the whole idea of culture is embedded with tons of problems and misuses. The idea of the nature/culture divide is one of the big ones.

    For me, the fact that non-human primates obviously have culture pretty much derails the idea that “culture” is some uniquely human trait. It’s not. Also, it makes no sense, in my view, to go around saying that some things that humans do are somehow “unnatural.” Is New York city unnatural? Have humans been modifying their environments for thousands and thousands of years? If so, when did this become unnatural?

    Ya, the ways in which culture is used all the time drives me crazy.

    Learned behavior is certainly a key quality of humans–and there’s nothing unnatural about it.

    Nice post.

    • New York is simply an assemblage consisting of assemblages (skyscrapers, cars, people) and it is also part of other assemblages (USA, North America, Earth). Just as bugs, bottles, orchids and pants are. There are only differences of scales, not of kind. We can study assemblages without imposing heavily generalized concepts that becomes meaningless. Hence, if culture must be destroyed, the same goes for nature. I can see a stone and a tree but can I really see “nature”? Nope, that is just an abstract linguistic convention. However, language does not always convey “reality” outside the linguistic system. Better see language as part of the assemblage “stone” as well.

  5. Interesting point! I’ve explored similar territory in three blog posts concerning Sverigedemokraterna, where I also come to the conclusion that their view on culture is related to the concept of multiculture (and that these cultural extremes both apply to an overall nationalistic ideology present in society as a means to define us as a homogenous group – or nation.

    If you like, you can find the posts I mention HERE. (In swedish, to be read from the bottom up…)

    • Yeah, and I forgot the point I wanted to make: That the only solution to the problem was to destroy the concept of culture – or as I put it in my posts, to choose the third alternative, “okultur” (“unculture”, for those not fluent in swedish).

  6. Sorry for the delayed answer but this is a busy period.

    The only objection I would have with the term “unculture” is that we still have the term culture in it. It only becomes a negation of culture and hence it is still attached to it. I suggest a complete break and a search for more “specific” terms. I find DeLanda’s assemblage theory to be the best one for the moment. Sweden can be seen as an assemblage of heterogeneous components (flag, buildings, language, people, etc.). The way it molarize or homogenize its components is what people tend to see as culture but there are always lines of flight out of this assemblage. It is always open to its own deterritorialization.

    • As a provocative term, “unculture” might serve to put focus on the issue, but in the long run I agree that it might need to remove the implications of being simply a negated definition of culture.

      However, as I see it, the problem lies more in the process of defining culture, than in the definition itself. Wether speaking of homogenization of an assemblage of heterogenous components or of culture as an organism, it’s the disassembling or killing of the cultural process that has to be the goal. Not how we define the result.

  7. I agree. There is no point replacing one concept with another one that attempts to cover the same issues. I simply wish to return to more specific terms. Culture is simply the opposite. I would like to paraphrase a famous quote from what St Augustine had to say about time:

    “What then is culture [time]? If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks, I do not know.”

  8. While I believe a proper society has group structures naturally forming from the individual on the bottom up to the government deriving its authority from the bottom, I have to protest that there is a difference between culture and society as there is a difference between a clique the extreme being a cult) and culture.

    The thrust for organizing the group or group of groups can come downward or upward.

    Two problems:
    The best defense against cults and cliques and biker gangs is solid culture that is:
    a. too busy to drift toward faux rebels
    b. will not disintegrate when the culture refuses to engage the miscreants

    Without culture you get a social vacuum where a cult or clique can set up shop.

    Group dynamics are way too volatile to go zero tolerance on culture.

    The idolism of culture is a problem, though. But again that is mostly used by society cliques posing as culture.

    • I think I see the problem you’re trying to describe. From a philosophical (my philosophical) point of view, though, the cult or clique wouldn’t be able to set up shop, because no one on the outside would recognize their claims of culture.

      The Sweden Democrats/Sverigedemokraterna use the common belief that there actually is a genuine swedish culture to lure voters to support their extreme nationalistic ideology – and were so successful that they are now new members of parliament in Sweden!

      As you say, it’s not possible to oppose this belief. Nor would I recommend the current strategy in swedish media to contend the Sweden Democrats’ definition of “swedish culture” with an alternative definition – as Johan also stated in his last comment. Because that only enhances the problem of culture as truth.

      My solution would therefore be to try to make culture irrrelevant (or at least not very interesting). To “unculture” (or disassemble) the components claimed to belong to a culture.

      There is probably no way to totally eliminate culture as a cognitive function – culture puts you in a social context that you need to percieve to be able to function in society. But as I see it, that’s pretty much the opposite to the sort of constructed culture we’re discussing here. Right?

      • We can always try to cirumscribe definitions of culture by assembling the actual parts in other ways. This attempt will probably not affect people who maintains a traditional culture idea.

        A year or so ago I had a discussion with a Sami woman on “Arkeologiforum” where I attempted to discuss the Sami shamanistic drums from an assemblage perspective rather than see the drums as filled with Sami cultural essence. She did not like my approach and she remained convinced that the Sami drum always will be Sami even if it ends up in a museum or is disintigrated to its constituent parts.

  9. There is the emotional aspect to consider as well, which your example clearly shows.

    Nationalism will never be fully understood if we stick to cold logic – nor will culture be destroyed unless we manage to break the emotional bond that is nurtured within the culture idea and binds component(s) and identity together.

    I’m just about to read Billig’s “Banal Nationalism”. Maybe that could be followed by something on assemblage theory. I guess DeLanda’s “A New Philosophy of Society”…

    • The thing is nationalism is nothing but political hot air and meaningless sound bites without culture in the community. Nationalists are few and far between that make any sense to me and I am absolutely anti-internationalist. But then you have the Nationalist tradition in music and for that I have no complaint. It’s genuine.

      Culture without society has no limited scope to rein it in.
      Society without culture has no substance and can only be destructive internally.

      If I hear another politician talk about patriotism but fail to help someone in need that is sitting two feet away from him, I swear I’ll throw a shoe at him. How can you be for defending your country and be against defending the members thereof? I think that’s the test every model must pass. A loose but useful union of micro and macro concepts. I think propagandists get away with so much bull because they are able to separate the macroconcept from its constituent microstructure.

      Culture is something organic created by two or more people.
      Society is something artificial imposed from outside.

      And it all goes to hell when you start seeing groups of groups (professional associations on the culture side and institutions on the society side).

      As an amateur activist I am sometimes forced to steal terminology for my own use. Maybe what I call culture, others call something else? or maybe the model I am describing doesn’t have common words like the title of this blog. 🙂

      BTW, Johan how the hell do you pronounce that? LOL.

      • Haecceity (singular) is pronounced: hæk-see-ê-tee
        Here you can even hear how it is pronounced: http://www.alphadictionary.com/goodword/word/haecceity

        I should have chosen another name for the blog, with a catchy phrase, but it is too late now. I tried to combine archaeology and philosophy in the title in order to indicate my interest in ontological issues. Another reason why I chose the title was that it could potentially irritate archaeologists who are against “jargon” or neologism…

      • What makes sense here, is how you implicate nationalism to pretty much be an artificial outside force trying to replace the lack of culture with something culture-like to create a limited scope to rein it in in the hope that the artificial – or false – culture will then create itself in that scope and thus create an exclusive society with an inclusive culture.

        I like that. 🙂

  10. Almost like hack cities. That kind of fits 🙂

    I tried to find the audio earlier but it wouldn’t play.

    I think I like culture from the assemblage – maybe that’s the word I’m after – point of view.

    The cult, clique, members only variety always struck me as faux culture from a society model.

    Culture tends to be inclusive, society exclusive. Culture tends to amplify by accumulating resonating characteristics, society by filtering competing values.

    But perhaps I’m looking for a problematic (as opposed to axiomatic model) which preserves that dynamic. Maybe I’m trying to carve a square peg so it’s round enough to fit in the round hole. I think I’m justified in suggesting that the dynamic exists though.

    • Regardless of what I write in my above comment, I’m not sure I agree completely with the “society exclusive” statement. At least, I’m not sure I understand your thoughts correctly there.

      Are you saying there is nothing in society itself that works inclusively? Or are you simply suggesting that culture works as a glue to hold the various groups of cliques that exist within a society together?

  11. […] med ett appendix på sin blogg. Jonas på Luchini hakade på, och även ett inlägg av Johan på Archeological Haecceities kan läsas i denna kontext. Jag rekommenderar läsning. Och passar på att puffa för ett par […]


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