Culturematic: a device for making culture in two easy steps


The culturematic is a device for making culture. 

It has two steps.

Step 1

Think up a pretext.  It will usually start, "what if I…"

Some examples:

What if I ate all my meals at McDonald's for a month?

What if I swam across Connecticut using local swimming pools?

What if I reached out to and visited every Grant McCracken [insert your name here] in the tri-state area [insert your region here]?

What if I made recipes from Julia Child's cookbook for a year?

The topic should make us smile, cock our heads, rub our chins, and go "hmm."

Step Two:

Now, play it out.  Visit all those people with your name in your neighborhood.  Swim all those swimming pools. 

And write it up.  Blog it.  Tweet it.  Write a book.  Do a documentary.  Take the artifact that comes from this artifice and release it into the great stream of popular culture.

How does the culturematic work?

To be honest, we're not entirely sure.  We have the boys in the lab working on it pretty much around the clock.  Here's are some of the possibilities.

1) Culturematics give the world small and manageable proportions.  We no longer need to write (or read) about everything, or even about one big thing.  We have reduced the world to a tiny set.

2) Culturematics produce easy culture. There aren't many Grant McCrackens in the tri-state area, and I'd be very surprised if there were any systematic connections between us.  The fun will come from showing how little we have in common.  No heavy lifting required by the author or the reader.  There's no danger we're going to find ourselves grappling with big questions.  This is frothy culture. 

3) The products of the culturematic are not merely small and easy.  They are also animated like a Koi pond or a pocket watch.  Some gentle, intelligible event has been put in train.  Charming interactions will ensue.  We are eager to see how things will turn out.  Culturematics make a world that's diverting.

4) Culturematic devices are quirky.  I think I took the idea of swimming across Connecticut from John Cheever.  It made for a wonderful short story because the idea is so very strange.  Imagine treating discontinuous pools as if they were one body of water!  Imagine saying we had "swum" Connecticut?  It's all so very arbitrary.  Why swim?  Why Connecticut?  Why bother?  It is the quirkiness of the things produced by the culturematic that captures our attention.  "Hmm," we say,

5) These culturematics produce a small, likable episode in the life for the writer and the reader.  Someone has to go to McDonald's for a month.  And we get to go with them.  When someone takes their meals from Julia Child from a year this must give continuity to the year.  The episode is an arbitrary event with an arbitrary interval.  It's continuity without cost. 

6) We do hope that along the way, some larger issue will swim up and dignify the proceedings with a certain contemporary relevance.  Looking for one's name sakes give us the opportunity to dwell ever so fleetingly on questions of identity.  The McDonald's stunt (sorry, I can't think of the guy who staged it, and I'm on the plane.) gives rise to thoughts of diet, obesity, and wellness in America.  To satisfy condition 2, we don't want extended treatments or very deep thoughts.  But the occasional resonance doesn't hurt. 

It is possible event to stage these artifacts for commercial purposes.  As when the philosopher Alain De Button spend a week as writer-in-residence at Heathrow.  It was very good publicity for all concerned.  And I deeply hope some airport would so engage me.  Perhaps a bus station is a little more my speed. 

I am not sure what it says about us that so much culture is being produced by these devices.  Surely, it has something to do with the fact that we are so multiple, so changeable, so unpredictable.  Culturematics make the world a little less …  The boys in the lab are still looking for that last word.  Watch this space. 

But, listen, please consider creating your own culturematic.  And please keep us posted on the outcome. 


McCracken, Grant.  2007.  Transformations. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

For more on Alain De Botton's experiment, go here


Thanks to Craig Swanson for the Alain de Botton reference.

21 thoughts on “Culturematic: a device for making culture in two easy steps

  1. mark brady

    Great post, Grant. “We have reduced the world to a tiny set.” And there is maybe the most counter-intuitively (counter-culturally?) productive 8 words seen in a long time.

    Bravo also for The Swimmer. I just know the movie but I’d say Burt Lancaster’s portrayal was of a man most completely discombobulated by his cultural gene pool. And his character was an advertising guy to boot. Oooo-eee-oooohh!

  2. Taylor Davidson

    And that continuity can also create resonance, value and meaning; the beauty of a culturematic is that they are meaningful on their own small scale, but if they resonate they can be copied, amended, adopted, spread. They organically scale into their own “addressable market” by simply being great, relevant, meaningful to more people.

    An experience turned into a “social object”…

  3. Peter

    The Culturematic reduces human experience to a small, digestible example, yes. But it is in that small, digestible example that we can see the bigger issues inherent in being human.

    You say “No heavy lifting required by the author or the reader. There’s no danger we’re going to find ourselves grappling with big questions.” but I say you’re wrong on that point: It is expressly those little peeks into the human condition that reveal the big questions, and allow us to do the heavy lifting one little piece at a time.

    You start to get at it in point 6), but the fact that the Culturematic uses small examples to illustrate the big questions is the beauty of them, and what makes them resonate with us.

    Viva the Culturematic!


  4. cheryl

    I’m quitting my day job and doing a culturematic experience…it might involve an RV, class AAA baseball and hot dogs..or not. My brain is working…thanks for the kick-start.

  5. amosbray

    Grant, you know it was almost a decade ago that my cousin and I conceived your #3 idea, but by the time I got to thinking about it, and actually wrote a blog post about it 4 years ago (, well, the estimable Grace Lee had not only beaten me to the punch, she actually made a film about her endeavors! (A book was as far as my enthusiasm was prepared to take me.) If you look in the comments to my post, you’ll see links to the relevant material. As I said there, nothing new in the world, not that there’s anything wrong with that. -ab

  6. Steve Portigal

    Hmm. I wrote a long-ish comment here yesterday, saw it approved (after filling in the captcha) and today it’s gone. Grant – any chance it’s sitting in an approval queue or worse? In which case you might not see this one either?

  7. Candy Minx

    Delightful. You know, this really applies to the formula (oh no is there a formula?) for making movie pitches. Or for documentaries…if you don’t have a small set like your culturematica…it wouldn’t be “easy” (ha) to get financial backing. It’s like we teach young film makers this very concept for making a doc. Much to think about as always, thanks!

  8. srp

    Steve Portigal:

    I thought that had happened to me, too, then I noticed a “next” button at the bottom of the comment thread…that may not be your issue, but you might want to check.

  9. magoo

    I have a small scale culturematic experiment I was already doing when I came upon this post. Perhaps you’d like to hear about it.

    I’m 6’3”, 275 pounds, a large mammal – or was one. I tried a very familiar experiment, no sugars of any sort in my diet. I lost 22 pounds in 30 days; my health improved, blood pressure, etc. This is a well-worn path, the high-fat diet.

    However, the weight loss stopped at about six weeks, which I found out is also common. I tried intense cardio, greater caloric restriction, resistance training, and still I gained weight.

    What to do?

    One of the great things about the net is the sheer number of intelligent and creative people out there living various experiments. One site passionately describes not throwing anything away for a year. Never thought of that one.

    I came upon the intermmittent fasting subculture – which is a robust and dedicated group of people.

    After 8 weeks of dieting and intense exercise, I could not change my weight. Now I know that dieting is rather mundane to intellectuals, but for me it has been very exciting and frustrating.

    This culturematic, for me, is not actually that trivial and perhaps violates the spirit of this post. it deals with metabolic syndrome and many other serious illnesses.

    That’s the background. Here’s the experiment and my results thus far:

    Intermittent Fasting (see Brad Pilon, Martin Berkhan) or IF is not necessarily reducing one’s total caloric intake but going without food for a length of time.

    My approach has been to eat from 9am to 1pm every day, and that’s it. So I fast every day for 20 hours, period.

    I thought it was impossible to do – in the past I couldn’t go more than 8 hours without getting hungry. Turns out the trick is sugar – without it, you can go much, much longer without eating AND without hunger than I realized.

    So I have eaten 4on/20off for 12 days now, and I have lost 12 pounds. Water is lost, of course, but this is not solely water. For me, this is true because I have already depleted much of the water required to store carbohydrate as glycogen.

    The interim results that fascinate me, however, pertain to hunger.

    When I tried vegetarianism a few years back, I was shocked at the feeling of not being bloated after a meal – not ‘full.’ I had heard many, many people say that meat gives you that bloated feeling.

    Untrue. Amazingly, completely untrue. It’s sugar/starch that does so – I have eaten 2 lbs of meat in one sitting and found that I was not full afterwards. A high fat diet is not bloating, leadening, etc.

    The other aspect of the eating experience that is a genuine shock has been to eat only 4 hours a day – and this is a piece of CAKE. (So to speak.)

    This morning, at the 20 hour mark, I ate simply because I love coffee so much. The first three days were a bit rough at 8 hours; then after that there was no experiential cost at all en route to 20 hours.

    I can’t tell you how odd it is to sail through the day, the whole afternoon, evening, night, bedtime, and then to a late breakfast after taking my kids to school and waking up early – to simply eat nothing at all. I just replenish fluids with water during this time.

    Anyway, I’ll let you know how this continues, if you are interested.

    But Morgan Spurlock’s experiment (McDonald’s every day for a month) was interesting but misleading – see Fat Head for a critique, if you haven’t already.

    This has been the most counterintuitive experiment I have ever done, myself.

    This experiment has altered one of the most fundamental aspects of my life – I had a sweet tooth that was extraordinarily rapacious until I stopped eating them.

    So my culturematic has been toying with hunger control, or satiety. It is obvious that eliminating temptation cuts at the root of bad habit; it’s quite another to actually have achieved it and continue moving on, experimenting and tweaking further.

    There are so many metabolic self-editors out there, I am surprisingly one of them. (See Viljhamur Stefansson, sp, as one of the earliest and most profound examples.)

  10. Alan

    You can actually get a master’s degree in doing this. It’s called Creative Nonfiction. (Google it.)

  11. Daniel

    I don’t know whether to chuckle or cry after reading this. In fewer than 750 words, you’ve taken 95% (99%?) of the world’s culture laid it utterly bare.

    Casual Kitchen

  12. Cynthia Young

    This idea of the Culturematic reminds me of the Dow Chemical commercial, The Human Element. In a way, humans are an element all their own. These social experiments (be they documentaries, blogs, or ignite parties) are chemical equations we have yet to try out. How will people react? What will we learn about ourselves? What memories can we keep and take back to the village?

  13. Asi

    G E N I U S

    great great read.

    the democracy of culturematic is what makes it so appealing. from numa-numa boy to carrot-mob


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