Thursday, January 17, 2008

The Culture Thing


Here's an idea: What if "culture" is not a concept, but a thing. A real, tangible, malleable, usable, organic thing in the world. And something that is as much a part of us, individually, as our head and hands; as much a part of our shared living as mothers and fathers and kids; and as vital to our health and well-being -- both individually and socially -- as food and water and air.

We are, I believe, symbolizers. That is what we do; that is the attribute and skill that truly separates us from the other creatures on this planet. We give things meaning, we categorize, we label -- and we function by mapping the world and our place in it by these symbols. It's how we function and navigate. And cultures are our sets of shared symbols and their meanings that allow us to function in groups and to have relationships (with each other, including with ourselves, and with the world at large, other creatures, the land, and circumstances we find ourselves in).

I am arguing that culture is an extension of our very minds and bodies and spirits -- a fourth thing to add to that sacred trinity, which we all already recognize and acknowledge, even if we all give them different labels. And I argue that the health and maintenance and control of our cultures is as much our individual responsibility as it is over those other things -- because I also argue that the condition of our cultures affects us, individually and as groups, as the condition of our minds, bodies, and spirits.

So these symbols and meanings -- both individually and how we coalesce them into cultures -- are real things, for they decide what those relationships and groups will be like. They decide what we see. They decide how we act, and so how we shape ourselves, our lives, and the world around us. And therefore we must take culture, our many cultures, as seriously as our houses and our cars and our clothes. And we must treat them as tenderly as our kin or our own skin, and with as much care and protection and affection as we offer our food and water and air supplies.

So what does this mean? It means, since these cultures are built, brick by brick, by each of individual choices about how we symbolize and what meanings we give things, that we each have both a great responsibility and a great potential role in the shaping and reshaping of our greater cultures.It means that we can't be so casual about our relations, to ourselves, to our closest kin and friends and family (our "tribes," in a the general sense of the term), and even to our physical places and spaces.

It means that what we do, individually, matters. For we each are the foundation, the root, the main veins, of every culture we are part of.

It means that our cultures -- and our own individual perceptions that comprise them -- are much too important to leave to the machinations and purveyors of so-called "mass culture" -- celebrities, advertising, mass media, politicos and their financial backers, and so-called leaders of every bent.

It means we are not victims of those cultures. It means that we, each of us, can be antibodies and immune systems to the illnesses in mass culture that are also making our land and communities and homes and even ourselves sick.

So, want to change the world? Start by changing yourself. Don't wait for the revolution, any revolution, out there. BE the revolution here and now -- in everything you choose to see and do.

For those seemingly small, symbolic, insignificant-on-a-global-scale changes are real, tangible things too. Use that symbolizing skill, that culture-making skill that makes us human. There is nothing to wait for. See the world differently than how the mass culture says to see it. Live differently now. It is our true power.

And it's a real thing




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