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CulturePrintCritical dictionary


Gonzalo Abril

The term “culture” (from the Latin colere, to cultivate) has already been just a synonym of “agriculture” and “farming”. According to Raymond Williams, "in all its original meanings, culture was a noun referring to a process: something's tendency for growth, namely harvests and animals". Thus, the non-mixed farming meaning of this word, which emerged in the eighteenth century and is in great part still in force, establishes the verb “to cultivate” or “to cultivate oneself” as an educational metaphor referring to the development of intelligence, knowledge and aesthetic experiences.

Keywords: animal; technique; Leroi-Gourhan; risk and modernity; theories of culture

The term “culture” (from the Latin colere, to cultivate) has already been just a synonym of “agriculture” and “farming”. According to Raymond Williams, "in all its original meanings, culture was a noun referring to a process: something's tendency for growth, namely harvests and animals". Thus, the non-mixed farming meaning of this word, which emerged in the eighteenth century and is in great part still in force, establishes the verb “to cultivate” or “to cultivate oneself” as an educational metaphor referring to the development of intelligence, knowledge and aesthetic experiences. Williams adds that the Enlightenment imposed the identification of this notion of culture with that of “civilization”, understood as a level of “mankind's historical self-development”, indirectly assuming the superiority of cultured Europe over the rest of the world, just as that of “learned classes” over the rest of society.

According to another, apparently broader conceptual content of “culture”, which identifies it with the practice of intellectual, technical and artistic activities, we can state today that any society, including those from the Palaeolithic - whose system of production did not yet include the farming of land - is cultural. Some theories emphasize its intellectual or cognitive contents: for instance, Iuri M. Lotman defines culture as a “set of non-genetic informations”, such as the “memory” of mankind or of a particular collectivity. Other theories define it as an “adaptive system” (Roger Keesing), a set of general lines of conduct that serve to relate human communities to their ecological environment in such a way that the technological resources, the forms of economic and social organization, the types of territorial settlement or the beliefs of a society, insofar as they are oriented towards adaptation, form and express one or several cultures.

The use of the term in the plural usually refers to an ethnic meaning that views culture from the particularities of customs and traditions, from the specific language of each human group, thus defining it as an expression of difference vis-à-vis other groups, and as a source of identity and belonging vis-à-vis the members of the group.

André Leroi-Gourhan considered that the well-known technical differentiation from the Palaeolithic does not allow us to state the existence of ethnic differences during that moment of human existence, no matter how hard some prehistory scholars may tend to consider the Acheulians, the Aurignacians or the Perigordians as simultaneously anthropological and ethnic entities. Notwithstanding, Leroi-Gourhan states that what the art that is known from the Upper Palaeolithic shows is that distinct regional unities already coexisted, immersed in the same material culture, “even if separated from each other by the thousand details of their group personality”.

For Zygmunt Bauman it seems obvious that the “differential concept of culture” (the expression he employs to designate the use of the plural in culture) is logically incompatible with the notion of “cultural universals”, seeming that that concept is fundamental within the image of the social world, characteristic of modernity. It is enough to read the accounts of Herodotus to realize that Classical Greece did not ignore at all the differences in customs and life styles that distinguished it from the “barbarian” peoples. The Greeks, however, did not get to develop that knowledge theoretically.

On the other hand, not only the ethnic plurality of culture acquired political relevance while space of domination and resistance: other cultural differences are also represented and mobilized within the modern public scope, such as those that concern social class, gender, sexual orientation or age. Without forgetting one of its neo-folkloric uses which has come to gain ground in public discourses: what relates culture to the beliefs, habits and routines of certain professional and corporate groups, or even with certain consumption practices. Expressions like "corporate culture", "journalistic culture" or “cycling culture” are examples of this.

The theories of culture, characteristic of the critical tradition (not necessarily Marxist), interpret cultural phenomena within the context of the structures and conflicts of power, and according to the perspective of the processes of domination. Pierre Bourdieu, for example, presents the “cultural field” as a scope of social interaction where positions are structured and confronted, positions produced by the unequal distribution of certain goods (such as the “cultural capital”) that confer power to who owns them. Any form of domination is necessary and sometimes, also substantially, a form of symbolic domination: the imposition of representations, perspectives, ways of saying or looking, the capacity to make certain social groups, ways of life or alternative visions of the world visible or invisible. Another theoretical tendency views culture as a way of organizing and transmitting experience, of giving form to the ways of living and of expressing oneself. Culture would then form the scope of building up meanings, where the ways of knowing, feeling, gathering and carrying out the typical exchanges of human beings would be objectified. Not only the space where their memories, experiences, expectations and desires are expressed de facto, but also the horizon of their possible experience, of all they can come to experience within a certain collective way of life. The tension and interpenetration between both concepts, one centered on domination and another dealing with cultural experience, runs through great part of the studies and opinions regarding culture and modernity’s cultures.

In what concerns the modern political question of the differentiation and plurality of cultures, it is essential to interpret them from the double context of the formation of national states and the processes of colonization and decolonization. The very attention of the social sciences to the working classes, their traditions and “folkloric” expressions, emerging as a perspective oriented towards the integration of those manifestations under the bourgeois hegemony, produced the double and inevitably paradoxical effect of understanding culture in the plural: on the one hand, as a multiplicity of cultures but, on the other, privileging the normative perspective of the “national culture”, formed by a number of goods endowed with a “cultural value” (official language, material and immaterial heritage), customs (rituals and festivities) and products (art and literature). The collective meaning of these phenomena suited the institutional pillars established by national states, endowing them at once with a stable symbolic platform and with a powerful resource of legitimation. The development of ideas regarding “popular culture” (as opposed to a “high culture” which would be characteristic of elites) is strongly related to the development of nineteenth-century nationalist projects: “a people’s awareness as a Nation has since then been encouraged by the arguments provided by popular culture and, more precisely, by the specific contents of folklore”, as Honorio Velasco signals.

Another apparent paradox is the following: national cultures were formed at a moment when already globalized or at least globalizing institutions and methods existed: the teaching of basic literacy, schooling, literary and artistic production, the emergence of a written press and, later on, of other devices of cultural mediation (such as radio and television broadcasting stations) that contributed to “standardize” national languages and cultures. The standardizing praxis implied a lot more than its establishment in peaceful spaces of encounter, lingua francas, such as the koine. That implies investing them with a unitary and politically excluding meaning that in many countries, ancient metropoles or new post-colonial states, was imposed by force on the majority languages/cultures.

The last decades have established the neoliberal multiculturalism, insisting too strongly on the insurmountable character of cultural barriers, ignoring the cultural experiences and practices of millions of people who in the twenty-first century are compelled to emigrate and thus to a forced transculturation. In this respect, Seyla Benharib writes that the emphasis on the “cultural incommensurability distracts us from the many subtle epistemic and moral negotiations that are carried out between cultures, within cultures, between individuals and even within the individuals themselves, when dealing with discrepancy, ambiguity, disagreement and conflict”. Beyond the contemporary context, we can assume that any culture is transcultural – it is crossed by others – and that the processes of cultural transformation imply the loss or the uprooting of the previous cultural substrata (deculturalization), alongside the creation of new cultural contexts (neo-acculturation).

From the nineteenth century, the production and distribution of cultural products was increasingly monopolized by the culture industry (a concept proposed by Theodor Adorno and the Frankfurt School), which currently gathers a large number of media, producers of film, radio, TV, records, video games and all kinds of audiovisual products, databases, telematic and digital systems, etc. So, the nationalist canon, without dissipating itself, had to yield before the new demands of a globalized cartography of culture, where centralized models, oriented towards dissemination, combine with reticular forms of distribution. And "publishing/editing" products - such as books, films, records - as well as products of periodical "impact" - such as the press, the radio or television - are subject to the collision with cultural distribution "in real time": from online media to peer-to-peer file exchange, etc.

In all contemporary communicational practices, one notices a big transformation of the cultural experience: first of all, of the organization and representation of time and space, with the consequent destabilization of the meaning of existential distance, of the experience of close and distant, which Walter Benjamin dealt with precursory in the 1930s; on the other hand, of the structures of feeling, bonding and social interaction. Alongside the crisis in the strategies of knowledge developed by the learned culture, and the transformation of the writing and reading practices in the age of telematic and digital communication, forms of collective and diffuse authorship also emerge, questioning the model of authorship and, consequently, that of cultural authority, inherited from the last two centuries.

The anthropologist Edward B. Tylor, in his classical work Primitive Culture (1871), defined culture as a “complex totality comprising the knowledge, beliefs, art, moral, law, customs and any other capacities and habits acquired by man as a member of society”. “Descriptive” concepts of culture, such as Tylor’s, have been replaced, or at least colored, since over half a century, by what John B. Thompson calls a “symbolic” concept: culture is mainly understood as a pattern or source of signification, embodied in the activities, expressions and objects of a society. In virtue of those shared meanings, “individuals communicate among themselves, sharing their experiences, ideas and beliefs”.

Whether dealing with rock inscriptions from the Upper Palaeolithic, or with visual advertisements of modern advertising, any instrumental objective which these practices are directed at - such as magic or shamanistic invocation, territorial demarcation, exhibition of goods or brands, and exhortation to a consumption behavior, etc. - is mediated by systems of representation, beliefs, norms and values that are based on communication processes (that are, in turn, conditions of their possibility). It is easy to consider rock inscriptions or advertisements as “cultural texts”, but the renown anthropologist Clifford Geertz goes even further in his symbolic concept of culture: behaviors and rituals also can, and even should, be analyzed as texts. The cockfight in Bali – the paradigmatic case he studies – is both a text and a novella by Flaubert. In both cases, reading seeks to achieve intelligibility and to confer meaning to the events, carrying out similar operations of interpretation, and probably facing similar obstacles.

Also starting from a symbolic concept of culture, Claude Lévi-Strauss had defended, some years before, that even the most common empirical concepts - such as the names of animals, plants or nature phenomena - were already dealt with by the wrongly named “primitive societies” as logical tools to reason, and as symbolic expressions articulating some basic representations of culture. Thus, in his “culinary triangle”, the relations between raw, cooked and rotten allow to organize and express the two pairs of categories: “culture / nature” and “elaborated / unelaborated”


                      COOKED      ROTTEN



The current perspective of the human sciences - in general, free from evolutionist prejudices - shows that, essentially, the language and techniques of our Palaeolithic ancestors manifest a greater proximity, rather than distance, regarding the mankind we belong to, as contemporary Neolithics or post-Neolithics. The use of instruments, whose production and design do not seem to be immediately connected to a particular situation, and of symbols that are equally discernible from an immediate referential context, indicates a common “brain equipment”. Both practices make it clear that culture, as a space of the human experience and of its reproduction, is made possible by the neurologic bonding of the functions of instrument production and linguistic communication: language and instruments are indissociable in the social structure of mankind (Leroi-Gourhan). And this applies both to the complex sequence of technical operations of the Neanderthal from the Middle Palaeolithic, which allows him to chisel a chopper in flint, and to the contemporary IT programmer who conceives an algorithm.

Since the Palaeolithic, mankind shares the overcoming of the search for immediate instrumental efficiency. From that overcoming would result cultural practices like art and game. The human species also shares the fact that it does not restrict the use of language and other semiotic resources to the representation and communication of a single, concrete experience, and from this second excess would result religiosity and poetry. Vilém Flusser sees in the repetitive gestures of daily and profane rituals – like lighting a pipe – a truly aesthetic expression that, even because of its radical “uselessness”, inaugurates the space of religious experience.

Nelly Schnaith states that desire is distinguished from need because it can be satisfied with a ghost, without reaching the object, while need – like hunger and thirst – is only satisfied with the very object. One might then think that human intentionality is oriented both according to need and to desire, and that both dimensions were joined inseparably, both in the field of intangible or immaterial culture (language, norms, values) and in that of material culture (techniques, tools and produced objects). Thus, language is inscribed in the order of need, grounding any other institution or cooperative practice that is possible among human beings. However, it also expresses desire while poetic, erotic, fictitious, and even delusional word. Food ingestion is a need and a condition for the maintenance of life, also responding to the order of desire while cookery, refinement of the sensorial pleasure, and a gathering occasion. The use of clothes is needed as protection, but can express desire while costume, a canvas of the body capable of welcoming more or less imaginative inscriptions, offered to the gaze of the other, etc.

In a cave of Shanidar (Kurdistan), in a place where skeletons of hominids with about 60000 years lied, a large quantity of wild pollen was found in the soil. Some anthropologists have assumed there were plants, used in shamanistic cures. Others consider that flowers were placed on corpses, as part of a funeral ceremony. This last hypothesis, comments Luis Díaz Viana, opens the way for others: that of a very early practice of what are usually called rites of passage, and that according to which those beings already knew tenderness, which, according to the evolutionist paradigm, is assumed to be an affective disposition, characteristic of an advanced civilization. Thus, need, desire and affective behaviors, probably also converge in the “projection of symbolic schemes” that, as Leroi-Gourhan considered, are part of the reflexive intelligence of the homo sapiens.

So, alongside the actual practices of symbolization, the symbol itself occupies the centre of the modern theories of culture. It should be recalled that in the Greek world this term (derived from the verb sym-balein, to use jointly) designated a ceramic recipient or a coin that two friends or contractors broke into complementary parts, thus rightly designating (“symbolizing”) their association, agreement or alliance. The bond between subjects is represented by means of the imaginarily shared integration of the object. From Plato comes the idea of symbol as a “piece of memory”, something through which one recognizes what was once united and then separated by oblivion, as José Jorge Carvalho writes. Thus, the idea of symbol is inseparable from the notion of symbolic exchange, and the use of certain symbolic resources becomes a necessary condition for the realization of certain social practices, such as rituals and games.

In a more general sense, we can still refer to the symbolic universe that underlies, as a kind of deep structure, the set of representations of a society or of a specific social group: such is the level of their cosmologies and mythologies, of their shared schemes of time and space, of their basic categories, of the symbols of collective identity that govern the delimitation between the own and the alien, between the same and the other. Just as Berger and Luckmann defined it, the symbolic universe forms “the origin of all the socially objectified and subjectively real meanings”: from the collective memory to the individual biography, from the meaning of history to dreams, fantasies and marginal experiences.



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Benhabib, Seyla, 2002, The Claims of Culture: Equality and Diversity in the Global Era, New Jersey, Princeton U. P.

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Carvalho, José Jorge de, 1999, “Estéticas de la opacidad y la transparencia, Música, mito y ritual en el culto shangó y en la tradición erudita occidental”, Antropología, Revista de pensamiento atropológico y estudios etnográficos,  no. 15-16, pp. 59-89.

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Leroi-Gourhan, André, 1964, Le geste et la parole. Technique et langage, Paris, Albin Michel.

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Schnaith, Nelly, 2007: Una  isla entre infinitos (Conversación con Cristina Santamarina), Barcelona, Café Central.

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Tylor, Edward B., 1903 (1871), Primitive Culture: Researches into the Development of Mythology, Philosophy, Religion, Language, Art, and Custom, vol. 1, London, John Murray (Spanish translation: Cultura Primitiva, 1971, Madrid, Ayuso).

Velasco Maillo, Honorio, 1992: "Los significados de cultura y los significados de pueblo. Una historia inacabada". Revista Española de Investigaciones Sociológicas, no. 60, pp. 7-25.

Williams, Raymond, 1976: “Culture”, in Keywords, London, Fontana. 


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