Viva la Vida

“I see culture as enabling, not constraining. It’s something we build, not just something we inhabit.”

Has it come to this, that I’m quoting myself? (Actually, I think worse than that is using a Coldplay song for the title of this post.) Anyway, continuing from yesterday on culture and causation: I’m trying to articulate a positive vision of culture-as-causal-factor – not something that constrains our choices, not something that explains away our inadequacies or inequality, but something that can be constructed actively, something that sets people free.

You have to start with multiplicity, or as I gather it’s now being called, intersectionality: we all inhabit multiple traditions, our identities emerge at the intersection of many cultural narratives: child, student, citizen, racial/ethnic tradition, religion (or absence thereof), gender, etc., etc. No one of these defines us completely. To me, this is structure: that you come into the world connected (or not) to all these other networks, and not by choice. You’re entangled in multiple strands. Not just entangled: held aloft – supported. Identity is the fabric each of us weaves from these multiple strands. Some of us try harder at it than others, reaching beyond what we’re given to weave in different strands – we leave the place we’re born, we take different kinds of jobs, we study different things, we take on new activities and networks. Others take what they’re given and say thank you, weaving an identity and a life from the strands they were born into.

These individual choices aren’t random, or at least they don’t add up to chaos; there are patterns.┬áCultures are the patterns different groups collectively weave from the strands they’re given. They make a new reality of the raw material of daily existence. This is another way of saying, civilization happened. We’re not still Paleolithic cave-dwellers, we made fire and language and all the rest of it. This process of individual and collective weaving of identities and cultures from the networks and narratives into which we’re born is a continual and active process.

To me, that’s a very hopeful and encouraging thing. We’re not fated; we can and do change things through the choices we make, even if we’re working with materials from birth that we haven’t chosen. We do something with those, and we bring in new strands through the choices we make in life, the networks we join, the relationships we cultivate or cut off.

Anyway, when I talk about “culture” on this blog, or find myself defending the notion of culture as a causal factor, that’s where I’m coming from.


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