And we follow Ruth Benedict's (1934) suggestion that particular cultural patterns might generate particular problems for particular people. Most starkly, LD ("Learning Disability") may be a product of America, not something that is revealed in America. LD is a room well stocked with all that it takes for some children to be demonstrated as carriers--whether they are carriers or not, whether there is such a thing as "LD" for any human being to carry, whether LD would make a difference for anything if there were no rooms for its identification, and whether special treatments are required once it has become common-sense that it is an affliction that a proper Democracy should take into account. From this perspective, one concentrates on all the activities performed around a child, activities that identify the child as LD, and make contexts for still others to act in terms of the identification. LD is a room that constrains not only the children made to stand inside, but all the other children and adults who visit the room and keep it alive. The idea here may be explicated through various metaphors each of which highlight one property of our model. Birdwhistell (in McDermott, 1980) once explained "context" using the analogy of a rope:
I like to think of it as a rope. The fibers that make up the rope are discontinuous; when you twist them together, you don't make them continuous, you make the thread continuous... The thread has no fibers in it, but, if you break up the thread, you can find the fibers again. So that, even though it may look in a thread as though each of those particles is going all through it, that isn't the case. That's essentially the descriptive model.Out of multiple discontinuities, threads, or persons, an event of a new order is built; ropes or LD become facts. The fibers do not make the rope. A mass of fibers is not a rope. An aggregate of persons in a crowd do not make a cultural institution. But once fibers are made into a rope, or a crowd into an institution, something new has happened for all those who encounter it and cannot ignore it or escape from it. The rope needs fiber. LD needs children and teachers. A child's life will evolve differently whether he is "acquired by LD" or escapes from it. But LD itself is not produced by the child. Our interest in this book is LD as an institution, and The American School as the even thicker rope of which LD is but a strand. Much has been done on the impact of institutions on persons. Comparatively less analytic attention has been given to the daily workings of institutions, particularly with a culture theory not caught in the tangles of representing culture primarily as something having to do with learning. This is what we want to develop.
Institutions, of course, are not literally ropes, and the metaphor can only go so far. We also want to highlight how self-evident and inescapable a constructed world can become. The problem for children identified with LD or any other kind of school failure is that the diagnosis appears so common-sensical. This issue of perception invites another analogy. In 1908, Fraser discussed what he called the "twisted rope illusion." It is a set of black and white geometrical shapes so organized that they do two things. On the one hand, they give the overwhelming impression, to a common-sense observer, of one, spiraling, black and white, twisted cord. On the other hand, from the point of view of an analyst the same shapes can be said to be the representation of a series of twisted cords arranged in a set of concentric circles. The effect is strong enough that, if one is asked to follow any of the circles, one's finger easily follows the eye into the center of the circle; one must work hard to resist one's senses enough to trace concentric circles (one trick is to place a circular mask, like a small coin, at the center of the figure). The difficult point is that there is no rope on the paper, just alternating streaks of black and its apparent absence, the latter made significant by its contrast to both the black streaks and the black squares. It is not just that the rope "fibers" are analytically unavailable when one looks at parts of the design, it is rather that half the fibers have no representation except in contrast to other fibers and other parts of the background. Still, the rope and its fibers remain overwhelming events on observers caught by the design and unable to escape something that was made for them.
From Benedict to Lévi-Strauss and Birdwhistell, anthropologists have found the argument congenial to their understanding of what happens in culture when individual traits begin to have institutional consequences in particular localities or, to use the more traditional language, when traits are "incorporated in a culture." The same intuition is often summarized with statements that go something like "All parts of any system define all other parts of the system." The point is that the elements that together make a pattern, much like the black markings on Figure 1, gain their particular power to move people in particular directions, because of the ways they are arranged with other elements, not because of their own properties. When a child who may find it difficult to do certain things at certain times enters those settings in school where LD is going to show up, it is not so much that the child changes as it that those around the child change the way they respond, and thereby (temporarily) construct the child as a particular, "LD," kind of person.
The rope metaphor was intended to highlight how higher order events appear in the history of humanity as cultural facts for all to take into account. The twisted cord illusion was intended to highlight how the individual pieces that appear to make these cultural facts are themselves "made" by the pattern, not perhaps in their physical substance, but certainly in their social consequences. Still, these metaphors do not highlight something that is a central theme of our own understanding of culture: fibers in ropes, black stains on white paper, all are static objects, dependent on the activity of some observer to activate their potentiality. The twisted rope image is an "illusion" to the extent that it produces various effects on observers (including the designer of the image), but it is the observer who is active while the image itself does not move. In culture, the situation is quite different. The fibers are alive and active, taking into account that they are made to be in a rope they do not control, whether they like it or not.