Cultural Beings Evolving in the Mesh

This one wrestled me hard. In it I use new terminology and concepts–coordinators, phantasms, cultural beings–as though I know what they mean and am comfortable with them. But that's not quite the case. It's only recently that I've invented them. It's one them to use terms in a document where you define them. It's another thing to use them in an extended exposition. That's where they come to define themselves. So this post, a long one, is something of a shake-down cruise. Sure, I'd like to have things all worked out nice and neat. But there's no way to do that except to put the terms out there and see how they do. That's what I'm doing.

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In this post I further explore the notion of a cultural being and I introduce a metaphor for culture, that of a hyperfluid (cf. Tim Morton’s concept of a hyperobject). A cultural being, if you recall, consists of an envelope or package or coordinators along with all the actions that have given it life. It is thus a rather strange notion, which is why I want to explore it.

And I want to explore it in tandem with another strange notion, that of culture as something we might call a hyperfluid, something that has multiple levels of viscosity and thus changes at different rates. I’ve long thought of the brain, as a functioning entity, as hyperfluid in this sense. At the deepest “thickest” layer we have the physical structure of the brain itself. At the most superficial “thinnest” layer we have the flickering of neural impulses from one millisecond to the next. But that flickering can lead to changes in synaptic structure and, over time, those changes can “rewire” the brain at a fairly “deep” level, so-called cortical plasticity.

So it is with culture, which is, after all, a collective product of the brains of all those individuals in a social group over the life of the group. The thickest cultural layers settle to the bottom. These are the features that endure over decades and centuries, if not millennia. It’s at culture’s thin surface that we see ordinary everyday behavior. Here is where people read books, and write them, where they listen to music, and make it. In this process each individual will participate in many cultural beings and will, in turn, be shaped by them. And some cultural beings will attract only a few individuals while others will attract more. Some of those cultural beings will outlive any and all of the individuals that have participated in them.

What we have, then, are collections of individual human beings, biological beings, on the one hand. Each of them participates in and is (partially) formed by many cultural beings. On the other hand, we a bunch of collection of cultural beings, each of which has attracted participation by at least some individual humans while some will attract participation by many humans. Some of the latter are able to attract participation over decades and even longer, so that they outlive any of the humans that have participated in them. It is the interaction of these two sets of beings that give us this hyperfluid culture that lives in the social mesh.

Notice that I talk of cultural beings as living. They are and they are not. Coordinators–targets, couplers, and designators–are not alive. The humans who read the books and listen to the music, of course, are alive and it is that vivacity, their phantasms, which I am, in effect, allocating to the books and musical performers they witness. Cultural beings as I have defined them do change. While they are utterly dependent on humans, they also have a degree of autonomy from any individual humans. They are neither alive nor inanimate in a strict sense. So I will refer to them as being alive, a provocation that seems warranted as a device to stimulate thought.

Being in the Mesh

What do I mean by the mesh? For the most part I’m using that term as more or less equivalent to what Latour has in mind when he talks of networks of social actors, where the actors are not just humans, but everything encompassed within society, the humans, animals, plants, and material objects, both natural and man-made. All of it is gathered into the causal nexus of the social: the mesh.

But let’s start with the humans, biological beings. Make no mistake, they’re the ones that hold the mesh together, and culture is the glue that they deploy. So far as we know, the most basic case is that of foraging bands of hunter-gatherers. That’s how humankind began on the African savannas. Let’s think about them for just a bit to refresh ourselves.

Such bands typically have a dozen to thirty or forty members, all of whom know one another, some better than others, but all of them face-to-face relations. A number of bands will occupy a given territory, and people in any given band will have friends and relatives in other bands. So maybe we have two hundred or a thousand or more people all speaking more or less the same language and having more or less the same culture.

Those people and their relations are the core of the mesh. But we must also include the environment in which they live and the artifacts they’ve manufactured. They too are part of the mesh. They mediate relations among the humans.

Those non-humans are ‘covered’ with coordinators through which the humans assimilate them into their cultural system. Humans often place markings in the environment, such as slash marks on trees, or paintings on rock faces of cliffs and in caves. Or they may place stones to mark boundaries, and so forth. But environmental features often enter into myths and stories without themselves being physically altered and so become assimilated to culture. All of these involve coordinators in the technical sense I’ve been using.

Those myths and stories are what I have come to call cultural beings, as you recall from the introduction, a term I use to encompass not only the string of linguistic signifiers used to convey the stories, that is, the envelopes of coordinators, but the various individual mental acts (the phantasms) giving them life. Some or many of those environmental features may also function as cultural beings if they figure centrally enough in mythology and in the group’s way of life, that is, if appropriate phantasms are consistently associated with them. But I don’t want to get into figuring out just what qualifies as a cultural being. The question is an important one, but I’m going to leave it for later. For my immediate purposes we can regard the term as something of a placeholder whose extension will be in a specified later more specialized discourse. We can make do with some rough and ready observations.

Myths and folk tales are cultural beings, as are rituals and songs. A sacred mountain will be a cultural being, as will any feature of the environment regarded as sacred. Is a supernatural spirit a cultural being? The myths and tales about that spirit would be cultural beings. Ritual masks representing the spirit, they too are likely to be cultural beings, as are rituals involving the spirit. But the spirit itself, is it a cultural being in this technical sense?

Probably not. The core sense of the concept is of envelopes or packages of coordinators along with the vivifying mental acts. Individual words, however, may be cultural beings, as the signifiers designate specific mental entities, ideas. A signifier along with the manifold and perhaps even contradictory set of meanings (phantasms) would be a cultural being in this sense.

Leaving that issue hanging, the general point is that the mesh consists of humans and material objects and events that are somehow assimilated to culture through the coordinators that mark them, and allow people to think them, think about them, and express themselves through them. As populations grow and group activities become more complex and differentiated, so the mesh grows and differentiates as well. As writing evolves a whole new set of coordinators–written symbols–comes into use and, in time, the sacred stories will come to be written down. That is, a collection of coordinators will become ‘fixed’ in writing, in an envelope (to use another term I am putting to technical use).

Writing does not, of course, evolve in isolation. It is linked with various social practices and structures, all of which are ‘inscribed in’ and ‘covered by’ coordinators assimilating them to the cultural mesh. Formal legal codes and courts require legitimization through cultural beings (rituals, myths), as do hierarchical social structures and offices of all sorts.

I could go on and on. As societies grow and differentiate, so does the mesh. And we have not only more cultural beings, but more types of cultural being. Rather than attempting to elaborate even further – process that could, logically, grow into an impossibly long cataloguing of cultural forms and practices–let me close this section with the metaphor of culture as a hyperfluid.

It is the slow-moving deepest layers of this hyperfluid that we think of as the cultural system. That is where the most salient cultural beings become anchored. Day-to-day behavior exists in the rapid movements of the highly viscous top layers. That’s the day-to-day neural flow. Cultural evolution is ultimately about change in those deepest layers.

From Anxiety to Myth

To think about cultural evolution we need to think about anxiety in the mesh (recall Culture as a Force in History and What is Culture that it Can Evolve?).

1 Anxiety General

At the top we see various causes of anxiety. Some of them will be specific to one or a few individuals–a neighbor’s dwelling is burgled, one’s spouse becomes seriously ill–while others may affect the group–a hurricane is bearing down on the village, an elder is murdered. Anything that threatens one’s well-being is a potential source of anxiety. We share our anxiety with others, as well as our pleasure. Anxiety thus becomes collective and affects the life of the group.

That’s a crucial point. That gray cloud in the middle of that diagram represents the final common path for all the ills of the group, whatever their source. Where a threat is readily identified and quickly countered there is little or no anxiety. If not, then people will feel anxious.

Moreover our curious and questing minds generate anxiety independently of specific threats. The unknown can itself be experienced as threatening (see the diagram below).

2 Uncertainty

We can encounter the unknown simply by taking thought. Let us recall an observation by the late David Hays. Here’s a passage from “Politics, Cognition, and Personality,” which is the fifth chapter of The Evolution of Technology Through Four Cognitive Ranks (1993):

Life is hard. Life is hard because it is lived in brains that strive always to understand, and often fail to understand, both the world and themselves. Our brains are the most complex devices known. The workings of cognition, emotion, and volition are scarcely understood at all even now. We do not know enough to guide parents and teachers, eliminate crime and the use of drugs, or achieve universal and lasting peace.

The psychobiological consequence of failure to understand is often fear, anxiety, anger, hostility, and hatred. These states are unpleasant and disruptive. They disrupt thought, and they disrupt society.

... In reading to prepare to write this book, I have learned that the wheel was used for ritual over many years before it was put to use in war and, still later, work. The motivation for improvement of astronomical instruments in the late Middle Ages was to obtain measurements accurate enough for astrology. Critics wrote that even if the dubious doctrines of astrology were valid, the measurements were not close enough for their predictions to be meaningful. So they set out to make their instruments better, and all kinds of instrumentation followed from this beginning. Metals were used for ornaments very early – before any practical use?...

In fact, someone in the future may look back on psychoanalysis and remark that its origin was in parapsychology – dreams were interpreted first for divination, second for diagnosis of pathology.

Here is my first point: The driving force behind progress in social organization, government, technology, science, and art is the need to control anxiety, to satisfy the brain's striving for understanding.

And if we ask where the brain got its striving for understanding, what answer will we get? What kinds of answers are available to us? Is there a biologically driven will to knowledge? I don’t know, but I’m suspicious of that kind of formulation.

Let us think about something more specific, the fact that we will, at some point, die. If an animal attacks, we can capture it and kill it. If a stream runs dry we can find another. If the weather is unusually cold, we can build a fire. But we cannot avoid death and we don’t know when it will visit us or those we love. That knowledge is a source of anxiety to one degree or another, and groups go to considerable effort to allay it. Myths and rituals–cultural beings–are spun from that fear (see the diagram down below).

We know that some animals mourn their dead–ur primate relatives certainly do. We can thus presume that our hominid ancestors did so as well. But it is one thing to mourn a dead comrade, it is another thing to imagine one’s own dead. One’s dead companion is still physically present, but inert. There is no presence to mark one’s own mortality.

Just how did we come to know of our own death? What level of cognitive development did that require? Evidence of deliberate burial is present in the fossil record going back 100,000 years. Let us assume–though an explicit argument and construction would be nice at some point–that people who bury the dead are aware of their own mortality. What else were they doing to deal with the fact of mortality?

We do not know. But people 100,000 years ago may well have had language as we now know it. Thus they may have had a mythology and rituals. Burial itself, for that matter, is an occasion for ritual. Though myth and ritual people could share their anxieties and, in sharing, alleviate them.

If and when I decided to elaborate this story in more detail I would be inclined to derive as much as possible from our knowledge and fear of death. That is by no means the only source of uncertainty, but uncertainty in other matters – sources of food and water, movements of predators, the weather, actions of neighboring groups, sources of and progress of disease, the course of physical injuries – gets much of its edge from the possibility of death lurking behind them. That is, my inclination would be that mythological order we give to the world exists to fill the void that is death and that that mythological order is the first order grounded in cultural beings. All else derives from that.

I would like a way to motivate the following diagram, where anxiety that is traceable to specific sources is differentiated from anxiety that has no source beyond vague uncertainty and dis-ease:

3 myth and ritual

Specific anxiety motivates targeted action where noetic anxiety, as I am [provisionally] calling it motivates myth and ritual. The process through which targeted action becomes differentiated from myth and ritual is a group-wide long-term process. That is the process of cultural evolution.

Real-time activity, whether it is directly targeted action (right side) or the telling of myths and the enacting of rituals (left wide), that takes place at the upper layers of cultural hyperfluid. The nature of all those practices, however, is specified in the middle and bottom layers.

Once More, Books and Blues and the Phenomenology of the Mesh

What does this tell us about the evolution of books and blues?

That is by no means clear. But it seems to me that at last we’ve got a story that’s of the right scale. Those novels that Jockers examined, those many musical performances and recordings that are implied in my observations about American popular music in the 20th century, they all exist in the mesh and are expressions of collective psychic life in that mesh. They constitute the Geist or Spirit that traditional humanists investigated.

What Jockers had available to him, what he actually investigated, are the envelopes of coordinators (aka the texts) that constitute the physical texts of each of those novels. But the ordering among them that he constituted by investigating pairwise similarity, that order reflects the phantasms that they gave rise to. Each text gave rise to a cultural being which then grew as people read it and those cultural beings became the a significant component of the environment in which subsequent texts were crafted.

A few of those cultural beings are alive today, those associated with texts such as Pride and Prejudice, Great Expectations, Moby Dick, or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. But most of them are dead or close to it. No one reads them, except perhaps, in some cases, a scholar or two. To return the my earlier metaphor of the hyperfluid with layers of varying viscosity, those dead cultural beings lived in the middle and upper layers of the cultural fluid in times past but made little or no contribution to the deepest layers. These co-called classics, the texts that gave rise to still-living cultural beings, they have deposited material that has settled into the deepest layers of the cultural fluid. And they, in effect, act as convention columns that keep the cultural material circulating among all layers from the deepest and thickest to the most superficial and most viscous.

In the case of American popular music, with its back-and-forth dialect between European-American and African-American styles, we have convection columns operating on a decade-long time scale. Superficial imitation of cultural style is easy, but it takes a generation for deep assimilation to work. In the 1950s Pat Boone did not give a very convincing imitation of Little Richard. The Beatles were considerably better a decade later. By the 1980s a singer like Teena Marie (born in 1956) could easily pass for black, and in effect did so on recordings.

Much of that music is still alive; you can find it on the web at places such as YouTube (where you also find counts of how many people have listened). Yet the social and cultural divisions that gave rise to the black-white dynamic are still in place. It’s as though the ‘purpose’ of that dynamic is to sustain those divisions will still allowing them to drive cultural change.

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But how is it that these cultural beings “attract” human participants? There’s no way to tell at this level of examination. All we can see is the long-term flux and flow of cultural beings. If we want to know why this “text”, that is, an envelope of coordinators, is more compelling than that one, we’re going to have to examine them more closely. And we likely will have to investigate how individuals apprehend them. We may even have to look at how individuals talk about specific texts with others. Those investigations require different tools and concepts.

The point of talking about cultural beings at all, of course, is that they are, in some sense, living entities, collective entities. The texts, whether the written words of novels or the sound arrays of musical performance, are themselves inanimate objects, albeit very peculiar ones. But they are objects that we like, and that we use them to share experiences with others.

Thus they exert a pull on us. They live through our minds and bodies, but through them we come alive as well. Together, we are cultural beings.

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This is the last post in this series. Now I've got to write an introduction and package the lot of them as a single document. I'll also be reorganizing the material in the last three or four posts. It may take me a week or three.