Theory Bytes

Culture and language: a phenomenological vignette

I was recently reading an academic article when I stopped at one of those phrases that have been abraded of any real meaning by over-use: “cultural narratives, practices, rituals and beliefs”. It occurred to me that this apparently self-evident catalogue of cultural “stuff” is, in fact, subtended by a particular idea of culture: most simply, the idea that “narratives, practices, rituals and beliefs” share some sort of quality that enables them to function as “culture”, and therefore makes them comparable to one another.

So let’s ask a rather out-of-date question. What is it that they share, other than a collective name? What allows us to yoke these disparate nouns together under a single rubric? Here is Stuart Hall having a bash at explaining the point of commonality in his 1997 anthology, Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices: “Members of the same culture... must share, broadly speaking, the same ‘cultural codes’... Our partners must speak enough of the same language to be able to 'translate' what 'you' say into what 'I' understand, and vice versa. They must also be able to read visual images in roughly similar ways. They must be familiar with broadly the same ways of producing sounds to make what they would both recognize as ‘music’. They must all interpret body language and facial expressions in broadly similar ways. ... Why do we refer to all these different ways of producing and communicating meaning as 'languages' or as 'working like languages'? How do languages work? The simple answer is that languages work through representation. They are 'systems of representation'. Essentially, we can say that all these practices 'work like languages', not because they are all written or spoken (they are not), but because they all use some element to stand for or represent what we want to say, to express or communicate a thought, concept, idea or feeling. Spoken language uses sounds, written language uses words, musical language uses notes on a scale, the 'language of the body' uses physical gesture, the fashion industry uses items of clothing, the language of facial expression uses ways of arranging one's features...”

I admire Stuart Hall hugely: he is a subtle and brilliant thinker. But I do think there is room to expand his claims above - claims which are still very typical in the Humanities, despite some encouraging recent movements in alternative directions. In the view that he advances here, narratives, practices, rituals and beliefs are examples of languages that are sort-of-more-or-less shared by and intelligible to a particular group of people. They are comprised of signs, and they form part of a system of communication. I have some notion in my head, or some form of meaningful behaviour, and I manage to impart it to you by way of a mixture of signs, and you manage to impart it to her, and eventually we reach my own head again – voila, “culture”. I have a feeling a great many theorists of culture still fundamentally agree with Hall on this. It is an understanding that remains indebted to structuralism: lift the lid of culture, and what you find are signs in a semiotic matrix, whizzing around on their cultural circuits, colliding and collaborating in an adaptable structure that underpins the way collective meaning is made and contested.

I’d like to trouble this idea a bit. For all its explanatory power, it seems to me to miss something of the quality of lived experience. I am interested in Hall’s use of the word “essentially”: “essentially”, he observes, “we can say that all these practices ‘work like language’”. Does that mean that some of these practices do not work like language? “Essentially” plays an interesting qualifying role in this context. If we read it as “in the main, but not always,” that would actually throw a serious spanner in the works, wouldn’t it? Or we could read it as “stripped down to the basics”, in which case the question becomes: what are we stripping away? Should we?

Imagine this vignette. I am walking next to the river on a well-worn path with my parents because the market lies that way, and because in my culture children accompany their parents to the market on market day. During the walk, we sing a few well-known songs together: the kinds of songs that everybody in my culture sings on this round trip. Meanwhile, two issues preoccupy me. First, next month is my coming-of-age ritual, and I have to enlist a group of close friends to perform a certain ceremony. One of my friends belongs to a lower status group, and I am guiltily conflicted between my loyalty towards my friend and my desire to hide this connection from the judgmental eyes of others, especially on such an important day. Second, I am composing a poem, and it feels almost perfect to me, except that the refrain sounds flat to my ear, and I can’t work out why. There is no logical reason that I can identify. It just doesn’t sound right. It is possible for me to think about these matters while I am walking and singing, because I know this road so well, and I learnt the songs when I learnt to speak, maybe even a bit before. They are both second nature to me, so my mind is free to do other things.

Now let’s think of all the various elements at play here that we can term “cultural”. First of all, I know the way to the market in detail, because I have been following my parents along this path all my life. Put me down anywhere en route, and ask me where I am: I will be able to tell you immediately. My parents communicated this exact way of moving a body across a landscape, and as a corollary also a knowledge of the landscape, to me – not by using signs, but simply by moving their own bodies, which were next to mine at that moment because of cultural convention. It is surely ridiculous and unnecessary to evoke some intermediary moment of ‘symbolisation’. Knowledge and practice are communicated in this instance without “some element to stand for or represent what we want to say,” to use Hall’s phrasing. And yet, for a visiting anthropologist, the convention of children accompanying their parents to the market is clearly a cultural convention, and the forms of understanding and knowledge that emerge when this convention is followed are provoked or mediated by cultural practice.

It is, in a sense, merely a way of being human together that evolved over time within specific limitations, and then started to reproduce itself from generation to generation because, to state it bluntly, kids tend to follow their parents around when they can. No sign system is involved; no decoding of meaning, no signifier that evoked a signified. The fact that I follow my parents as my children follow me according to an exact route communicated across generations is at question here and not necessarily the destination, the market, which belongs to a completely different logic: the highly specific, clearly encoded and institutionalised cultural habits of exchange. I would not be walking to the market if not for this economic system, but the economic system is also sustained by my habit of walking with my parents, which is a direct consequence of my social nature.

Parents aside, there is also a physical reason for following a specific route next to the river: by now generations of walkers have trodden a convenient, clearly visible path. I walk on the path because of where others have walked before: not because they “communicated” their habits with signs, but because the actions of their bodies gradually changed the landscape so that it was physically easier to follow their path.

Let's complicate things and say the path is on the left of the river because an earlier generation believed that ghosts haunted the right-hand bank of the river. Now, however, there is no remnant of this belief, other than the path itself.  We still walk on the left because the path is on the left, even though no cultural archive survives of the ghosts that were once thought to dwell on the opposite bank.  The path serves as a faint, deracinated memory of the culture of the past, a trace of an older belief that still manages to determine something of our movements today. We are connected to this tradition without understanding or knowledge, and in the absence of any signs that mean anything. Yet, through the movement  of bodies across the landscape, physical changes are effected on the surface of the earth that serve to communicate a culturally determined habit across time. And if my culture disappears completely, you might still follow the path I cleared, in ghostly memory of the way my culture determined my movements and organised my space.

At the same time as I am walking next to the river, I am also singing songs, if you recall. Now here we certainly see an example of the “cultural codes” that Hall talks about above. The songs are arranged in a particular way; they have words, and the words have meaning that require culturally located understanding to make sense. And yet... I learnt the songs in the same way as I learnt the way to the market. I knew the songs as a movement of the lips of my parents, a way in which they move their bodies and reach out into the world with their voices. Later, when I am an important ethno-musicologist, I can write academic papers about the meanings of the songs, the complex ways in which they articulate ideological faultlines in my society, or naturalise difficult cultural propositions. I can see these things when I abstract the signs from the songs. But I still know where I am in the song in the same way I know where I am next to the river. It is a habit of the body as much as it is an aspect of my symbolic. It is not like a belief that I can stop having, or a meaningful proposition that I can refute. I probably arrived at the phonological base of my language by emulating the sounds of these songs: I learnt how my people combine sounds before I learnt how they combine meaning, and the songs helped me to do so. They are located somewhere between doing (or moving) and meaning.

I am capable of thinking about other things – my social dilemma, the poem that I am composing – because neither the walk nor the songs engage the part of my mind that I need to think about appropriate social behaviour or aesthetics.

Where my predicament concerning my lower-status friend is concerned, I am without doubt encountering the sorts of signs, or structures of meaning, that Hall has in mind above. In this instance, I am comparing different, perhaps conflicting ethical and ideological systems. These systems were communicated to me in an explicit way through signs that carry imperative forms of meaning: how does one behave towards friends? How does one navigate status relationships in different contexts? How do I align my various desires with explicit and implicit social injunctions? My engagement with these issues takes the form of questions because, at this moment, I am compelled by circumstances to perform an ideological crisis. (A crisis, incidentally, that exists only in such performances, and not always-already in some abstract realm.) My personal predicament invokes incommensurable systems of meaning that are located in the same social sphere. I am therefore compelled to engage in an act of interpretation. My solution to the problem may be unique, or it may be a conventional and predictable solution, but both possibilities are enabled by my understanding of the codes that I share with other members of my culture.

As for the poem I am composing: here what is at stake is not necessarily interpretation. I understand the formal, aesthetic codes that delimit and enable poetic language in my culture. My search for the refrain that sounds just right is an enormously complex process located at the intersection of unpredictable events, physiological responses, deeply imbedded, embodied forms of knowledge, rational kinds of understanding, and a nuanced negotiation of domain-specific cultural conventions. Creative “inspiration” is not merely a matter of an adequate familiarity with the appropriate codes, but rather a coincidence between a certain code and a series of provoked slippages, accidents, associations and so on that generate an effect of meaning that is both completely idiosyncratic and also ultimately affective.

Finally, it is also possible for me to become conscious of myself in this moment, walking next to the river between my parents, singing a song, thinking about things. In this case, I am appraising myself from the position of what Jacques Lacan calls the “big Other”, the locus from which I am legitimated by the symbolic order. “Here is a child walking to the market with the child’s parents, singing a song, thinking about things” – what do I look like from the “outside”? Am I doing what I should be doing; what meaning do I carry in this moment in relation to the social whole? The question is fundamentally, constitutively unanswerable, because there is no homogeneous position from which such a question could be answered, and indeed no specific institution or person who could ultimately provide a satisfactory answer.

In this vignette, there are clearly signs that behave as signs are supposed to in most cultural theory. They “stand for” something else in a system of difference. Significant aspects of our experience of culture are, in fact, heavily reliant on the traffic of such signs. But sometimes I feel as if we have made the sign ubiquitous in our attempts to explain the bonds that link us to each other and to our environment more generally. In the humanities, language fulfils the same role as luminiferous Ether used to in science before the 19th century. We want culture to be reducible at some level to the communicative flow of some determinate substance: but it is not. Some parts of culture work in this way, but the complex bonds of affinity, the regulation of bodies, the sharing of knowledges that are components and generators of culture occur also in ways that are very remote from the sort of “communication” that many cultural theorists have in mind, where meaning is carried in symbolic forms that are reproduced over time.

Culture is in fact produced where different systems interplay: and some of these systems are not even strictly speaking “cultural”, in the sense that some of the systems clearly belong to the world of animals and geological things. The different systems have a logic, and they can be thought of in discrete ways – but what we call culture is really an interaction between these many different systems, a layering, a complex series of causes and effects that run in multiple directions. From the position of human experience, “culture” is not some “network” in which we are allocated “symbolic roles” that are negotiated by way of signs. Instead, culture is like an infusion, messy, organic smears of textures and affinities and knowledges that are distributed in ways that are both unique and predictably patterned across a porous sphere of bodies in a certain environment, and indeed located in discrete parts of the biological brain, which is not just some empty receptacle for language.

We apprehend culture as culture in a performative gesture, and this is really the crux of my polemic. We point to a constellation of systems, a particular texture of reality, and name that as culture. If “culture” has some sort of simple definition, the key lies in this moment of saying "this is culture", the delimitation of a zone of contact events in the name of culture: culture is nothing more nor less than the tautological announcement of culture, a process that is indeed effected in the kind of “language” that Hall has in mind. But that does not mean, as I hope I have managed to convey, that the content of culture is language.

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