"Cultural porousness" is one of the intellectual challenges that faces the anthropologist who wants to understand contemporary life.
Selves, groups, institutions, nations, cultures are all now more porous and less bounded than they used to be. Once like silos, they are now more like bird cages: positively breezy in their willingness to admit influences from outside.
To take one example, US culture, once a drab and faithful descendant of English cuisine, now admits the influence of virtually every other cuisine (as Tyler Cowen, our economist on the spot, testifies each week). To take another, we see once sober sided members of the middle class now opening themselves to new influences and definitions, as David Brooks pointed out in Bobos in Paradise. To take a third, Tom Peters is a long time champion of the idea that corporations must make themselves newly open to outside influence. To take a fourth (the last, I promise), let us quote Lamont:
In a loosely bounded culture such as American culture, one finds a high level of cultural innovation in lifestyles and in norms for interpersonal relations, and a high degree of tolerance for deviance. (All references below.)
Harvard Magazine, this month, has an interesting article by Craig Lambert that bears on this theme. New research says that some people may owe their creativity to diminished "latent inhibition," a cognitive mechanism that works to screen out irrelevant stimuli.
Latent inhibition helps most people to filter out random inputs. But creative people are inclined to let things in. In the words of Harvard psychologist Shelly Carson, creative people admit "bits and pieces" which they may then combine in "novel, interesting ways." In short, we may think of porousness as one of the conditions of their creativity.
Reading Lambert’s piece, I began to wonder if it might not give us a useful way to think about contemporary culture. Perhaps things might be a little clearer if we supposed that our culture suffers a diminished latent inhibition of its own.
Many cultures captured by the ethnographic record are pretty good at latent inhibition. They regard as ill-formed (or "noise") anything that is not fashioned according to the cultural code in place. This impulse is sometimes the very well spring of xenophobia and the deep suspicion that things that are "different" must be dangerous. In the words of Mary Douglas, these cultures see external influences as "unclear" and so "unclean." In reaction, they will mobilize extraordinary efforts (and intensity) to bar "difference" and, when necessary, to root it out. (Some part of the enduring crisis of the Islamic world might be put down to an attempt to refuse foreign influences that cannot be refused. The French treatment of 16th century Huguenots and the Nazi treatment of German Jews in the 1930s and 1940s are sometimes seen in these Douglasian terms.)
First-world cultures enjoy a relative confidence that difference is "ok," that we may admit foreign influences from abroad, and novelty from within, with impunity (not impurity). The confidence had deep roots in the Western tradition but there are moments when confidence falters. Early reviews of Samuel Huntington’s new book, Who are We?, suggest that a man once confident in the Western capacity for assimilation is now wondering whether we shouldn’t raise the draw bridge. The Western feeling for porousness is marked by moments of doubt and repudiation.
But now there are grounds to ask whether what the West once endured, with moments of ambivalence, it must now require. Our culture and our economy now appear to be predicated on the constant flow of "difference" both from without and within. In the words of Thomas Stewart, "intellectual capital" is the new wealth of organizations. More to the present point, it is the necessary wealth of organizations. Without a constant stream of new ideas and innovations the organization withers and dies. To put this more apocalyptically, it is as if we are as a culture and an economy, now hydroplaning. As long as we continue hydroplaning, were fine. It’s the moment of touchdown we do not want to think about.
This would allow us to add a second supposition. Not only are we inclined to "practice" diminished latent inhibition but we are called upon to do so. Without this characteristic approach to porousness, we cannot hope to summon the creativity on which our world depends.
But is diminished latent inhibition a useful idea with which to understand our culture? Could this idea make us make more sense?
Certainly, it would help explain why we advance a new category of white collar worker, the group Richard Florida calls the "creative class." We prize these people, perhaps, because they suffer from diminished latent inhibition and are to this extent peculiarly useful in a culture of the same character. We prize them. that is to say, because they have an internal condition that replicates, and helps fund, our external condition.
But we could use the idea less mechanically. If we were to understand diminished latent inhibition as one of our essential conditions as a culture, we might be in a position to calm the fears of those who treat our porousness as the occasion of a fundamentalist anxiety, as this manifests itself on high in the work of a distinguished scholar and en bas in the eruption of political and religious conservativism.
But these are merely the most particular and general opportunities for application. A more thoroughgoing attempt is called for. And here we must ask what precisely are the characteristics of diminished latent inhibition in the creative individual and may we may use these characteristics as a model with which to understand the dynamics of our culture and economy? Lambert’s essay, at several hundred words, does not give us quite enough detail to try this here. (Besides, might I be allowed to point out that this is a blog entry, not a dissertation!)
There are reasons, of course, to think that the exercise is wrong-headed. Projecting the psychological on to the cultural has been undertaken before by the likes of Ruth Benedict and Christopher Lasch. And in Lasch’s case the results were disappointing and reductive. On the other hand, we have embarked on an ethnographic experiment for which there is no comforting precedent. It is perhaps unwise to refuse any gift horse that comes our way. We are almost certain to experience touch down one of these days and wouldnt it be nice to have a little more preparation?
Benedict, Ruth. 1934. Patterns of culture. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Brooks, David. 2000. Bobos in paradise: The new upper class and how they got there. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Cowen, Tyler. n.d. My thoughts on food
Cowen, Tyler. n.d. Ethnic Dining Guide
Douglas, Mary. 1966. Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.
Florida, Richard. 2002. The Rise of the Creative Class and how its transforming work, leisure, community and everyday life. New York: Basic Books.
Huntington, Samuel P. 2004. Who are we? American national identity and the challenges it faces. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Lambert, Craig. 2004. Ideas Rain In. Harvard Magazine. May-June, pp. 13-16. available on-line here
Lamont, Michele. 1992. Money, Morals and Manners: the culture of the French and the American upper-middle class. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, p. 115.
Lasch, Christopher. 1978. The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expections. New York: W.W. Norton and Company.
McCracken, Grant. Transformation. Toronto: Periphe: Fluide. (available for download on this site).
Peters, Tom and Robert H. Waterman, Jr. 1982. In Search of Excellence. New York: Vintage, p. 201.
Stewart, Thomas A. 1997. Intellectual capital the new wealth of organizations. New York: Doubleday / Currency.