The culturematic is a device for making culture.
It has two steps.
Think up a pretext. It will usually start, "what if I…"
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."
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.