Culture and Consciousness

Some comments


Hervé Varenne

"It would hardly be fish who discovered the existence of water"
(Kluckhohn 1949: 11)

The suggestion that fish would not easily be aware of water (or human beings of the weight of air on their shoulders) may be the most striking image of what may be the most powerful concept of what "culture" refers to: culture is that which is so familiar to a group of human beings that they are not easily made aware of the power of the constraints over their live and their imagination that certain patterns would hold over them. (other versions of the same statement)

The most evident case of a cultural pattern is language, particularly at the phonological, morphological and semantic levels:



These sentences, and the (social) fact that they are essentially equivalent from a purely semantic point of view, are probably fully unproblematic to an English speaker, particularly in everyday life, say in a report a child would make to a parent at the end of a day. (though you should re-read the second sentence to check your recollection of what it said)

The sentence of course is anything but unproblematic when placed within a pan-human context, which justifies the work of linguists and anthropologists

  1. (from Chomsky and those who would focus on the complex mental operations needed to process the sentences, to
  2. Sapir emphasizing how English focuses on marking temporality and not how the speaker knows that the mouse has been eaten, to
  3. the cultural anthropologists who might investigate the symbolic constructions of "cats" as particular kinds of animals in human communication.

No anthropologists would probably have ever argued that "culture" is fully unconscious. In recent years however, the issue of the relative consciousness of cultural patterns has been directly addressed.

Take for example the issue of markedness. In phonology, from Jakobson onwards it seems quite clear that

can be distinguished by the fact that the initial consonant in the second word is voiced while it is unvoiced in the first word, and that voicing was "marked" in that it is something extra that may in fact not be realized when the context is clear enough to distinguish between the two words.

One may also distinguish, in English, "to go" and "to come" on the basis of the fact that "go" can be used in almost any context indicating movement, literal or metaphorical, while "come" is marked for movement towards the speaker. Thus

is less charged, more common, than

Traditionally, in linguistic texts, the example given was the use of "MAN" to refer to the whole human species and "WOMAN" to only a sub-group within the species.

After feminism, it has become common sense that the alternation MAN/WOMAN was never "unconscious" in a neutral sense. It may have had the effect of limiting what women could accomplish socially. Since feminists brought the issue up and insisted on changes in linguistic practices, both terms have become marked, while English is still searching for the unmarked term ("person," "human being," "he/she").

Two issues are particularly salient here:

  1. Cultural patterns can be brought to explicit consciousness, contested and recalibrated. This, anthropologists would now agree, is a universal possibility that can easily be docemented across all populations and all topics.
  2. Cultural patterns always favor certain people over others, and the people who are favored have thus a specific interest in having some consciousness of what gives them an advantage, ensure that the pattern does not change, and possibly try to prevent other people from not becoming conscious of the limiting pattern, or, if they become conscious, not to have the social space to do anything about it.
October 18, 2006 [1998]