Thursday, October 20, 2016

The Culture Did It: World-Viewism, Freedom & General Incoherence

I've come to a point in my own academic writing, inspired by the work of Pierre Bourdieu, where I put a moratorium on my own use of the word "culture". One primary reason is that it functions as one of those grab-bag words that doesn't seem to mean much, as it seems to mean everything (and thus nothing) at the same time. Every Human word, thought, and deed is under this purview, and every 'thing' that is in relation to Humans is included.

However, I used culture quite liberally before. I think it was due to gaining a theological vocabulary from proponents of what is called "world-view", the idea about how ideas shape just about everything. Every Human being has a filter that interprets everything else and sorts it into categories and binaries. This concept has roots in Descartes and his turn to Subjectivity, but it isn't articulated until much later. This was a reaction against Empiricism and a naive Rationalism that assumed that the Human mind was a blank-slate that the World, as it is, was impressed into, like a stamp into wax.

This isn't all bad, but it has run amok in the philosophically naive Christian pseudo-intellectual community. The worst is when it results in someone accusing someone else of holding a belief that they are rejecting. Better (or perhaps even worse) is the more sophisticated notion that people are not cognizant of all of what their beliefs entail. Thus, they live inconsistently for whatever reason (e.g. Humans are not primarily rational, sin blinds them, God restrains the outworking of certain insane beliefs etc.). 

One way of the short-hand, now a days, is less a focus on ideas, which tends towards the high-brow, but towards "culture", a more popular and less defined collation of ideas. Culture includes everything from pop-music, car styles, economic emphases, and living spaces. It can cover a much broader category of people in terms that make more sense to many more people. Like I said, I used to talk this way, but there are some major problems. I'll focus on two, but primarily on the second.

First, it's suspiciously reductionistic. I'll hear people talking about immense categories of people under the category of culture. Thus, I'd hear (and say) "American culture", "Western culture", "white culture" etc etc. Of course there are much smaller spheres of activity and thought that these erase in their attempts at vast explanation. When one is aware of specific contradictions, they're swept away as inconsequential, outliers, for a broader story. This isn't to say that outliers don't exist or statistical trends mean nothing. However, bravado and confidence tend to carry these just-so stories about the current state of things further than actual facts. Coherency is not a litmus test of reality, but then again neither is incoherency (i.e. a quick cliche that "fact is stranger than fiction"). It''s not that there isn't some tentative answer that someone can draw, but we're too quick to get pronouncements and pursue with our pontifications and speculations about things we know very little about.

Second, and more importantly, I noticed the use of "culture" as a subject in many of mine, and others', sentences. That is to say, Culture seemed to be doing a lot of things. I am so embarrassed about a previous post of mine about the "failure" of a culture, that I've deleted it. What am I saying if a "culture" failed? How exactly does that happen? I also deleted another post about the development of a trans-national culture beyond the functions of a Nation. Again, how exactly does this happen? Normally, I don't police my own intellectual stumbles, but this was egregious and I don't want people resourcing this as any font of knowledge. It is only perpetuating a category mistake.

The reality is that Culture can't do anything (especially if we define it according to the oft-cited Clifford Geertz) because it's not an agent. But the other tendency is to say that people act out of culture. This isn't completely wrong, but it gets at the problem of agency. If we say people make decisions out of culture, a sort of internalized presuppositions or meanings, it is a rather bizarre world. Abstract meanings exist and people act accordingly with them. Of course, the problem remains: how does this happen? where do these presuppositions come from? It's another just-so story, out of which we can make pontifications and speculations.

The second, and much more major problem, is one of agency. Culture doesn't have agency, people have agency. People make decisions or don't make decisions (which according to Rush is still making a choice). How do people make decisions is a much more interesting question, and I'm not doubting that a person's decisions are impacted by many mitigating factors, including ideas that are of varying degrees of cognizance. But it is within such a context that people make decisions that have subsequent effects for the future of such mitigating factors, such that these factors might mean more, less, or ultimately disappear.

If it's not clear, this is not to say Rational Choice theory is correct or that Humans are fundamentally rational. What it is saying is that people do make choices according to the options that they see before them, and available options are of differing degrees of visibility. This not only matters when we think about Human freedom, and thus dignity, but also for the sheer fact of explainability. What choices someone will make in a given situation is not completely clear, and the pursuit for a sense of smugness for correctly guessing is not sufficient warrant for this obscene verbosity.

So, according to an example I read awhile ago, Star Wars does not have a "particular world-view" that people watching the theaters walk away with. Star Wars is situated in a time and place where certain ideas are intelligible and others are not, certain stories and tropes are popular and others are not. What people take away from it will differ wildly; not because it's a battle of ideas, but individual and groups of people will interpret these messages differently and respond even more diversely. This is both the beauty of art and the failure of propaganda, which Star Wars, in ways, functions as both. This is not so monolithic. Perhaps Star Wars fails to inculcate an understanding about simplistic readings about good and evil, but it does properly brainwash people to conceive that the purity of heart is all that matters. But, even if this happens, people may respond differently to the idea (e.g. disgust, joy, cynicism, hope).

I'm not saying you shouldn't use the word "culture", but it's become so vogue, and so misunderstood, I'd caution you, reader, to be mindful. Explanation for patterns of behavior (even our own) ought to set off red flags that we are merely in the process of self-justification, even if such self-justification damns us. It's not that we can't do this (God forbid), but such a process requires much self-reflection, discernment and understanding. We can't just chalk it up to "culture" or any other grab-bag. This is an intellectual ritual of purification, so we might more properly see the world as Christ the Lord sees it. In the end, this process will enable us to listen more carefully, and, hopefully, to dignify our fellow creatures. 


  1. Sort of ... but front-loading a kind of reader-response agency can overlook the agency of the people who explicitly laid out what they were getting at. Peart can say that if you don't decide you made a choice but that might just beg the question of what level of agency we have. After all, you can choose from phantom fears and kindness that can kill but Peart's going to choose free will over gods that don't exist. Was in a band that did Rush covers back in college.

    There's a difference between suggesting Star Wars as a corporate franchise doesn't have a perspective (pretty plausible) and suggesting that Lucas operated from no particular perspective. Star Wars, as Lucas explained it close to its original release, was supposed to be a political commentary on Vietnam. Pretty epic failure of propaganda there. :)

    When George Lucas declared the Empire was the United States and the Rebellion was Vietnam he articulated a particular perspective that can be used to understand the film. The franchise went on to mean different things as explicated by Lucas depending on what social or political point he was claiming he was always trying to make through the films. His attempts at self-mythologizing were more studious than attempting to fashion a coherent narrative.

    Star Wars is interesting because its incoherence may be an indication of a narrative which is committed 100% to total individual agency and to glorious destiny, which seems pretty American overall. I'd propose that it's a kind of panentheistic Pelagianism. This might rankle some folks but if we take the ideas about human nature actually articulated in the films by characters explaining the Force (luminous beings are we, not this crude matter) then the 1970s era California New Age scene can be seen as informing Lucas' approach whether or not we agree with it.

    The beauty of art and the failure of propaganda ... most Baroque art could be construed as successful art AND as successful propaganda since a lot of that art and music was made to celebrate power (at least in Manfred Mufkozer's telling of the patronage dynamics of Baroque music). I wonder if in the United States we can forget that the aims of art and propaganda are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Atheists could propose that the entire Bible is a compilation of Judean propaganda tracts written and compiled during the exilic period, for instance.

    What I've seen Christians do a lot with pop culture is to decide, once they like something, to simply impose a Christian typology of some kind on something they like because they like it. Ergo Mark Driscoll just declared that the show 24 had Jack Bauer as some kind of Christ-type. I've found it playful and useful to invert the process and to propose that some franchises that are popular with American Christians need to be seen as the propagandistic campaigns they really were (Star Wars and Star Trek being the foremost examples) so that we can see that their failures as propaganda for particular American political ideals doesn't mean that wasn't what they were instigated as in their earliest phases.

  2. What I'm laying out is that it's a complex dynamic between author/intent and reader/response. Even if we dig out the intent of the author, it doesn't mean the audience receives it, and sometimes that's the author's point. I'm thinking particularly of Tarantino's films that many times include a kind of condemnation of the audience that the audience, in its enjoyment, invites on itself (at least that's one reading of it). To not get it is to get it. If this is so, this is a metalevel dynamism between authorial intent and message communicated that reveals both sick brilliance, but also an accomplished reading of the sort of interpretive mentality applied.

    Yes, I'm intentionally begging the question of agency, because I've addressed that concept elsewhere in bits and pieces and didn't want to get sidetracked anymore than I already do. Suffice to say, I believe in conditioned freedom, where people are neither automatons, but the available options in any given circumstance are limited by the structural realities, which make certain possibilities visible or invisible. Like the Rush song, Peart only provides a set of negative concepts from which "free-will" emerges. It's not the sum total, and Peart's locked into what he perceives.

    Yes, Star Wars reflects this in both what is produced and how it is received. Lucas' attempt at portraying the Vietnam typology (which I didn't know, that's interesting) reveals how most Americans (I'm assuming) fail to see that. Instead, I'm sure the Empire is read over the Soviet Union, if anything at all. So, all my point is to say is that digging up what Lucas means to say is not enough, and how I (or you or anyone) receive it should be coupled with a sense of epistemic humility, account for all our own experiences and quirks.

    In addition, World-Viewism tends to be rather reductionistic in compiling some cerebral set of fundamentals to a "world". But Star Wars is fantasy, it isn't the world. It's much better to talk about gut level instincts that one feels. One can "feel" what the movie is suggesting by how it allots good guys, bad guys, guys you shouldn't care about, and everything in between. Again, this is why Evangelicals tend to make shit movies. They have a compulsion to tell practically everything, even if what they show is two-dimensional or a degree of contradiction with what is said. A perfect example of this is the recent spate of DC movies where monologues and pithy one-liners are supposed to tell you something about life, the world, etc. but instead the tenor of the movie reveals something different. I'm thinking about Batman V. Superman and Suicide Squad in particular.

    1. I don't think patronage or the "celebration of power" automatically defines something as propaganda, though these are almost always necessary accompaniments. I guess how I mean to divide art and propaganda (since propaganda is always art, while art is not always propaganda) is in its quality of good-bad. I'm not an art specialist, but I tend to think good art is that which contains the seeds of multiple interpretation, a vista upon which one many explore and see many things. Good propaganda is that dominates with a singular message, overwhelming and subjugating the audience. This is my own idiosyncratic definition, I'm sure it has problems. But I'm committed to upholding an objective transcendental Beauty, which art, as art, reflects, revealing the Wisdom of God moving throughout creation.

      I wonder if good propaganda, through the power of time, is broken and may become a work of art, unable to truly control the means of creation it set out to become. I'm not sure. I remember looking at the statues of the Apostles in John Lateran (cathedral of Rome) and was horrified. It was clearly Counter-Reformational artwork and it had a strong whiff of totalitarian aesthetic. Its looming and oppressive size shout submit to the Pope of Rome. Of course, my companion enjoyed it, I felt spiritually blackened, like an evil cloud was slowly choking out the rays of Sun. Perhaps propaganda is always art, but even aesthetically pleasing or powerful propaganda, successful as it may be, is not art. That's probably an impossible standard, but, as I said, I don't want to become purely cynical about the created world. Contra Barth, Ellul and the Reformed tradition, I do not think Creation is merely lost to God, darkened and without Image, wholly alien from the God who made it, even if I agree (following Ellul) in the pervasive corruption. I am following St. Maximus and how he speaks about Logos/logoi.

      It sounds like a good idea to invert typographies which are many times flat and stupid. Americans think they're too smart for propaganda, and sadly the Church rarely teaches this kind of discernment! I am too often bewitched.

    2. My brother proposed that Pulp Fiction as a kind of retelling of the story of the conversion of Saint Moses the Black, actually, a man who was once a bandit who comes to see the cruelty of his ways and begins the path to repentance. Probably not necessarily where Tarantino was going with the story but the idea that art can invite more than one interpretation and more than one level of interpretation sounds like something we generally could all agree on.

      Whatever Lucas claimed Star Wars was about in the late 1970s Reagan's deployment of "Evil Empire" changed the range of cultural meanings. When I was a kid I thought Star Wars was maybe some parable about the American Revolutionary war, for instance. I don't really know why, it's just how I thought about it as a `tween.
      I think that the original trilogy managed to thread the needle on agency and destiny in a way that kept the two ideas in balance; the prequels leaned so heavily on destiny that was a foregone conclusion there was no room for play and Lucas was in preacher mode. He'd also long since divorced from his wife and the more I've read about the history of how the original trilogy came together the more I think his former wife played a larger and unfortunately not credited enough role in fleshing out character motivations in the original trilogy. As Daniels put it, the original trilogy still feels inspired because George was so much more a collaborative storyteller back then and the prequels seemed bleak and inhuman to him because control freak George was calling the shots.

      I have somewhere I'm meaning to go with that last thought but I figure I'll keep this comment short (for me).

  3. The distinction between propaganda and art "does" seem as though it's the distinction between a work that invites more than one level of reading and more than one possible interpretation where as propaganda insists upon one message that is explicable from
    within one perspective. Star Trek was conceived as a kind of chauvinistic blue state secularist Chick tract. Fortunately Roddenberry didn't have as much totalizing influence on the original series as Gene L Coon did, and Coon got this idea that character relationships were important. ;)

    So all art is propaganda in the sense that it can be read in propagandistic ways. When leftists insist on only reading Nolan's Batman films as fascist that's a propagandistic reading from a propagandistic mentality. Does that mean Nolan's films are propaganda? Not necessarily. Propaganda, as you were saying, is capable of at some point being transformed into art by dint of time and alternate interpretations and if people who watched Nolan's Batman films considered them in light of Nolan's career-long exploration of how men deceive themselves into believing that the wrongs they do are the right thing to do that could spur film reviewers to reconsider just how jingoistic or fascist they think Nolan's films are. When John Blake told Gordon that he and Batman had deprived hundreds of citizens of due process and civil rights based on a convenient lie there wasn't any tone of approval in that line reading in The Dark Knight Rises.

    Criticism seems to have tilted toward the reader-response side both in Christian and non-Christian settings. I admit to feeling like it's been getting overdone. It's not just Christians seeking to baptize their pop culture fandom. I saw a piece in The Atlantic recently by an author explaining how Miyazaki's heroines helped her understand womanhood before she'd transitioned from male to female. That weights reader response to a level I ... hesitate to endorse. I just don't see how Hayao Miyazaki's fims, which I love, would somehow tell someone what it means to be a woman. I would sooner trust Rumiko Takahashi or Jane Austen on that range of topics.

    I've been playing with the idea (inspired by Miyazaki's film The Wind Rises) that the VOCATIONAL ARTIST is always a servant of empire as either a servant of or a member of a ruling class. The ideologies with which artists convince themselves otherwise insulate them from the thought that what they are doing serves empires but this may or may not be the case. Now for the composer Charles Ives he seemed to come down to the idea that there's an alternative, which is that the artist seeks artistic purity by staying in the amateur class in relationship to the arts. So he sold insurance and became a millionaire by the 9-5 and composed some fantastic music in his off hours (well, I'm sort of a Charles Ives fan, plenty of people hate his music).

    BvS was so awful I couldn't bring myself to watch Suicide Squad.

    1. I certainly don't want to say that authorial intent is irrelevant or (even worse) non-existent. But I do want to think about the process of how people "receive", which is in fact something that is done. People do not passively absorb, and the fear of subliminal programming is, I think, mostly a non-starter. But, and here's where propaganda truly functions, people wire things together in particular ways, and if you can figure out what that is and how to cross a wire, then you understand how to manipulate or retool a read/response for your particular means. But of course, it's never that simple. No one can truly predict how information will be received or what cascading effect it might have in changing how a society reads/responds.

      My whole point is to call attention to defining agency. The way people socialize and information, symbolic or otherwise, is exchanged is a complex process from both sides. It is not merely one speaks (whether a living voice, or an artifact like a book, a poster, a movie etc.) and another hears, both trapped by some dominant interpretive matrix that controls them. If we are to use the phrase "world-view", it's a tool in an intellectual tool-belt, and not a pair of glasses or (perhaps more cynical) your eyeballs. Of course, the problem is when one thinks they have all the tools necessary and they try to rewire a house with a hammer. Or perhaps the moment of a certain kind of enlightenment, where they realize that what they have is not working for them and they look for something else.

      I don't care whether its some sort of objectivism or subjectivism, if agency isn't properly defined and delimited, it usually becomes erased or sublimated. As I try to say, the way people talk about "world-view" or culture seems to say that people are sock-puppets for ideologies, mere outcroppings of some immaterial non-thing. I'm not saying ideologies are unimportant, but if we give them agency by failing to explain Human agency, then it really makes little to no sense, unless you want to make ideas into angels and demons, taking us to a strange world of The Exorcist meets Inside Out.

      You're probably right about Vocational Artists, at least most of the time. People need a shelter and get accustomed to luxuries, it becomes a dicey game when their work is attached to maintaining a lifestyle. Of course you get a clever one, now and again (Chaucer me thinks). But this idea of a vocational anything ought to be checked. How can we trust Luther when he was in the pocket of Frederick the Wise?

    2. Miyazaki, being a Japanese pantheist, wouldn't likely use the term vocational artist in a Lutheran sense of vocation, of course. :) But the situation of an artist whose economic livelihood depends on artistic production could be the same either way, and some writers have called a problem that comes from this an over-justification effect, that it stops being as fun when you HAVE to do it.

      You might have seen the post where I compared criticisms of John Cage and his music made by Francis Schaeffer and John Tilbury. On paper the conservative Presbyterian worldview evangelical and the Marxist/Maoist progressive musician from the UK would seem to have to reach "opposing" conclusions but their criticism of John Cage the man and his music was pretty much exactly the same, even down to the wording.

      One of the paradoxes of Marxist deployment of the concept of reification is that in criticizing the limits and failures of capitalism it's possible to subject capitalism itself to a reification process that corresponds to what capitalism is said to do with capital. Now an author like Louis Menand seems to get this part, but when Menand wrote that Marx hasn't been proven wrong yet the part I wonder about is when Marx will be proven right on the classless society part because that seems light a straight-up eschatological apocalyptic moment. My diffidence about Marxism hasn't been its criticism of the failures of capitalism, it's that it's come off to me as ultimately a secularist variant of the post-millenialist utopian optimism that I see as having fueled American imperial expansion. There's also a poor track record of Marxist inspired revolutionaries refraining from liquidating people ... though American leftists seem to believe that if we Americans pull off the leftist revolution it will somehow be different. Which seems like the same Kool-Aid the theocrats on the right have been drinking.

      So for me the biggest danger of worldview-ism is that it completely blinds you to the possibility (or even the reality) that once you get past the differences in formal or scholastic nomenclature you may find you've embraced ideas that, as implemented in the real world, are not functionally different from the realization of the ideals that you say, on paper, you're opposed to.

      In media theory studies we get presented with the problem of the simple send-response theory of media. Nobody thinks that works but the puzzle of the distinction between what you said and how it's heard can't be given a simple answer. For an artist that's fun. For a journalist that's not so fun because there's a tiny bit of room in their for libel suits to happen.

  4. I've been reading a lot of stuff lately on analysis of 18th century sonata forms and it's been fascinating how much early 19th century German idealism informed and arguably deformed our scholarly and historical understanding of what a sonata form could be said to be and what its characteristics are. In the 18th century there wasn't really a thing they'd call sonata form. The contrast between what 19th century advocates said the sonata was and what contemporary musicology has begun to observe 18th century sonata forms (as we now call them) actually were can be surprising and entertaining. Leonard Meyer wrote that If we took the 18th century writings about music as a guide they'd describe musical development as a series of script-based plans whereas 19th century theorists described musical forms as molds or plans. You start getting A B Marx and others talking of how theme 1 is masculine and theme 2 is feminine and how Beethoven set the model. But in the 18th century Haydn was the hero and Haydn would blithely move through an entire first movement with (often) one set of ideas that had no contrast that could be construed in masculine/feminine terms per the 19th century German idealists. Haydn wasn't writing sonatas as a way to articulate a dialectic of Hegelian synthesis, he was writing party music for aristocrats and eventually for subscription customers and he spent his life assessing the audience in real time as to what made them happy or not and adjusting his musical art accordingly. And that's probably part of why I love Haydn's music, he made actively assessing the reaction and perception of the audiences he could interact with a priority in how he made music. But generations of scholars lionized the Beethoven who obstinately rejected audience bewilderment. He had his reasons and I admire late Beethoven works, but I've drawn more personal inspiration from Haydn's approach as a guide. Per our discussions here, Haydn's approach seems (to me) like the healthier approach in that he gave and received in the creative process in a way that took the agency of himself, his musicians and his audience seriously. That won't make me anything like Haydn, I figure, but Haydn's approach might be a potential case study for the give and take that takes the agency of sender and receiver seriously rather than weighting all the agency to just one element in a triangle of relationships.