Possibilities in CULTURE

The following are various attempts at summarizing my personal understanding of the relevance of "culture" to the study of human action.  Each of them is intended to highlight various aspects of the overall theory of culture that I, in collaboration with others (particularly Ray McDermott), have been working on.

IN [neo-structuralist?] SUMMARY,

CULTURE REFERS TO THE CONSTRUCTING POWER OF AN ACT IN HISTORY THAT MAKES A DIFFERENCE (communication) ON FURTHER ACTION IN A GROUP.

 
A culture REFERS TO THE REMNANTS OF SUCH CONSTRUCTIONS AS THEY HAVE BEEN INSTITUTIONALIZED IN THE HISTORY OF A GROUP.

This summary suggests that, when talking about 'culture' we talk both about

1- the differential between the most probable mechanistic response to a set of conditions and the actual response of someone about which we can thereby say that it is alive. This is the processual, historical, and practical, character of culture.

and

2- the pattern of practical conditions to which an individual agent must be sensitive at the particular time and place when one acts. This system is historically produced by the process of culturing. What we observe in customs, laws, artifacts, languages, myths, tales, religions, etc. are the dead remains of the constructive process.

[the ensemble of these constructions to which acts are sensitive may be talked about as "the cultural context of the act" and the "culture of the actor"--though such phrasings may be dangerous to one's understanding of the processes involved]

In brief: CULTURE HAS MORE TO DO WITH THE HOUSES WE INHABIT THAN WITH THE HABITS WE ACQUIRE 

furthermore:

the concept of CULTURE refers to the processes through which human beings take the facts built for them over the course of human history, transform them and thereby build further facts for future human beings.

I take this to be a paraphrase of LÚvi-Strauss's statement about "culture transforming nature" (1949:..).  The difficulty is the ease with which the word "nature" is misunderstood.  Given LÚvi-Strauss's bows to marxism, I venture that LÚvi-Strauss is not referring here to pre-cultural "nature" in a literal sense, but rather to the conditions that human beings have made but which are not of their own choosing (Marx ...).  There again, without a sense of the passage of time, the danger lies in loosing sight that every generation is but a moment in the history of humanity, finding a cultured world as it emerges and culturing it further for the following generation.   In this diachronic process (Saussure 1966 [1915] ) time is not reversible, a fact made in history cannot be un-made though it is always open to further transformation (culturation).

Note that this process is not dependent on the scale of the group involved, nor on the time frame.  The same principle applies whether examining the evolution of the institutionalization of schooling in the United States of "the course of a joke's tellling" (Sacks. 1974).

Note also that this definition can be taken as a reformulation of Boas's charge for the social sciences that they "require and understanding of the individual ... as reacting to its social environment" (1930: 84)


and so

CULTURE is not past cause to a current self, it is the current challenge to possible future selves

and furthermore

CULTURE is not "text." CULTURE is what is

in conversation, within a polity of practice