How do we make culture?

It’s like a tune I can’t get out of my head.  It keeps circling.

“From its opening sentence, every novel is an argument for its own reality.”
This is the sentence with which Mark Kamine opens his review of the new Joshua Ferris novel, The Unnamed.
But of course it’s going to appeal to an anthropologist.  We’re in the business of observing how cultural artifacts serve as arguments for their own reality.  
But there’s still something breathtaking about the “reality argument” process. Doesn’t Marx have a line about how we build worlds, and they then build us? Worlds issue from artifice and end up as perfectly actual, so actual you can bounce a nickle of them.  The arbitrary becomes the indubitable.  Miraculous. And then not.  And therefore miraculous.
We have a pretty good idea how this works in natural systems.  The complexity theory shows us how things emerge.  The Fibonacci series is a nice illustration of how the application of the same logic over and over again produces a robust, complex system.
We have a somewhat less clear idea of how this works in economic systems.  How enterprise starts from tiny acts and scales up into enterprises.  We can start with simple acts of exchange and, whoa nelly, before you know it, we have a market and a world. Economists are more inclined to posit this miracle than study it.
We are not at all clear on how this works culturally.  How do cultures create “mattering maps.”  (And who was the novelist who coined this term? Elizabethan Spencer, I think. Can’t find her with Google, but the search tells me that Lawrence Grossberg has also used the term.)  
How does a world makes itself?  Collecting gives us a glimpse.  No coins matter till you have a 18th century penny.  Then more and more 18th pennies do and, then, eventually, 19th pennies start to exercise their fascination.  The mattering builds its own scaffold, piece by piece.  We posit one thing, and another becomes necessary, still another becomes plausible, and a third hoves into view.  
It’s all very vector-ish and critical path-ish, isn’t it?  With these creations, we want to choose our starting point carefully.  It will impose certain limits.  It becomes a substructure, potentially an imprisoning assumption.
I think this is what Kamine says finally about the Ferris novel. Eventually the conceit is exhausted.  The “what  if” ceases to be generative.  The novel starts with a man possessed of the urge to keep walking and, er, follows him as he walks.  This builds a world and a novel of some interest.  But eventually the conceit empties out.  The novel does not become a complex system, a world of meaning.  It isn’t a plausible argument for its own reality.   
And that is of course the big problem with our culture at the moment.  Now that we are so various, multiple,  contradictory, and dynamic, we have plenty of arguments against our own reality.  Making culture in our culture is difficult.
And the makers of culture are tempted by two options.  
The first is, perhaps, the one exhibited by Ferris, to build a world from a single conceit, to play out the “what if” until a world results.  
The second is to embrace the noise and in that once radical act of abandon to construct a post-modern world that is filled with empty signifiers in chaotic flight.  This novel is exciting to write (and read) the first few times, and then it’s “Dude, the novelist’s job is to make meaning, not distribute it.”  
The “man who must walk” conceit is a courageous one.  It says, “what if I posit this guy with this condition, what if I am true to this, what I write where this (sorry) takes us.  What if I “vector” this and see what happens.” In effect Ferris’s peripatic hero is Mosiac.  He promises to walk us out of our post-modern condition to something that can be lasting and substantial.  
But Ferris fails (nobly) because fictional terraforming of this kind can only work when some of the noise is let back in.  It works only if the critical path is not allowed to cul de sac. At least, I think that’s it. The problem, I think, in a nutshell: How can cultural artifacts serve as arguments for their own reality, how can they build worlds?  It’s clear they do.  It’s up to us to figure out how.
Ferris, Joshua.  2010.  The Unnamed.  Viking.  Available at Amazon here.
Kamine, Mark.  2010.  Going in Circles.  Times Literary Supplement.  March 5, p. 20.  

11 thoughts on “How do we make culture?

  1. Pingback: Grant McCracken: How Do We Make Culture? - PSFK

  2. Pete

    This is plenty interesting, and i can follow it until you start talking about ‘noise’ – what does that mean?

    thank you thank you

  3. Grant Post author

    Pete, I meant “go with the chaos” I guess. Accept the great commotion our culture now. Thanks for reading, Grant

  4. Cindy Frewen Wuellner

    Grant: I was intrigued by your reference to Marx: “Doesn’t Marx have a line about how we build worlds, and they then build us?” It reminded me of a line by Churchill: “We make our buildings; thereafter, they make us.”

    Perhaps you are referencing Marx’s idea that we are both “world determined” and “world producers”? In “Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte,” he wrote:
    “[People] make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like an nightmare on the brains of the living.”

    I am delighted by your essay, thank you. there was an interesting essay in the past week about noise versus signal, tho I am not sure who wrote it. As I recall in response to Gladwell’s recent Atlantic Monthly article that refutes the claim that we can create revolutions via the Internet. Its an odd debate since who would use only one avenue to organize social change?

    Cindy @urbanverse

    1. asmith

      October 4, 2010 at 4:21 pm
      Cindy Frewen Wuellner said:
      “there was an interesting essay in the past week about noise versus signal, tho I am not sure who wrote it.”


  5. srp

    “Mattering maps” comes from Rebecca Goldsmith’s novel The Mind-Body Problem. At least, that’s where I came across it.

  6. Kate Barrett

    Perhaps part of that need for “noise” is the need for tension that adds dimension and richness to life. I keep thinking back on Gluckman and Turner. If rituals only ever ran in one direction, life wouldn’t be very interesting. It is the latent potential for a 180-degree turn and total disruption of the system that makes ritual such a memorable and defining experience in life. You see this play out in more recent cognitive anthro work on motivation as well. When you cancel out the noise, you lose all opportunity, creativity, and generativity.

    1. Grant Post author

      Kate, my thoughts exactly. There are social groups now who feel anti-noise, and they create a world in which noise becomes ever more necessary and probable and therefore something to be outlawed. Call it an unvirtuous cycle. Thanks for refs. to Gluckman and Turner. Grant

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