Sunday, March 9, 2008

culture and circulation

One definition of culture is the whole nexus of lived social practices of a particular group of people in a particular place and time.

If we accept that definition, then the constant force of change that’s present in culture might be defined as circulation: the movement of people across place and the exchanges of resources (both ideas and goods) that occur as they move.

This exchange always involves conditions of power. The most extreme use of power in the process of circulation involves the forced seizing of resources: an invasion.

Culture always remains most the same when it circulates least. But even when it remains most the same, culture also always involves conditions of power: how the culture is organized and who is in charge.

Even when it remains most the same, a culture also always contains within it pressures towards circulation, even if those pressures are nothing more than the shifting power relations within a family, clan, town, or region. All people can seek to circulate at any time, although others may succeed in restraining them.

Yet even when circulating is most frequent, the force of culture remains, even if it is nothing more than the distant memory of a person who long ago traveled permanently far from home.

The dynamic interaction between culture and circulation is inevitable. The key issue involves when to assert the value of culture and when to assert the value of circulation.

But it’s also not surprising that it’s easy to jump to the conclusion that one or the other is a fundamental source of good or its opposite. At the present time, for instance, some see the good of culture as being at war with the evil of globalization, while others insist on the good of exchange over the backwardness of culture.

How can we work to recognize that culture and circulation will always interact, and that conditions of power will always be at stake in them, without the always fundamentalist assertion that one or the other is an absolute good?



I think this is one of your best posts. The more I thought about it the more I saw different connections of different types and sizes. You may be, in part, commenting on something that's good, or great, and yet the moment it achieves "currency" -- i.e., it "travels" or circulates -- it may lose some of its power. Dilution. And, I mean, it's not like the "orignal" vanished, it's still there, but what does a consuming public worship? The "original" or the watered down versions of what gets circulated? Not that all circulated versions suck, necessarily, and not that a consuming public should automatically worship the original, but in most cases, yes. I do digress. Great post. ----B.A.

Sandra Simonds said...

This post is really interesting. It reminds me of the transitions that took place between Old and Middle English. When the French invaded England, there was a huge cultural and linguistic shift that took place alongside these invasions. Likewise, we still look upon Vikings as invaders, the ultimate cultural ransackers. On the other hand, an invasion is, however disturbing and violent, a creative process as well. An invasion seems to be the most violent meeting with the other---you will be a part of me, or I'm going to kill you and I might kill you anyway."

I guess I've always visualized culture in a geological way (inorganic)as opposed to organic (heart). What I mean is there is an event (Norman Invasion, for example) that looks to me like a volcano. All the indigenous (of course there is no indigenous because native peoples on the British Isles were invaded by the Romans) Anglo Saxons are underneath the new (Norman) lava that hardens. So, in this model culture changes through events but there may not be any circulation. Thanks for this post though. This model in my head already seems too static.

Ian Keenan said...

Using the circulatory system to represent globalization today should take into account the increased centralization that has been imposed on local culture. But the issues taken up by activists counteracting globalization - such as the WTO and the hemispheric trade agreements - have attempted to bring accountability to agreements that have been negotiated and ratified in secret. So we have an establishment which argues its case through mythology - "free trade versus protectionism." When McCain says "I will leave it to my opponent to.. pretend the global economy will go away and Americans can secure our future by trading and investing only among themselves" he is saying that the public discourse over trade agreements should be devoid of specifics and anyone who disagrees with NAFTA wants to 'trade among themselves' - a case of a metaphor obstructing congress' informed representation of the public. Your metaphor serves to counter the more deceptive metaphors in order to qualify your own position, but is world civilization a body, with a central heart? The natural world bears more comparison to the human body than what's written on paper secretly.

mark wallace said...

Thanks for these comments, everyone.

Just for the record, and perhaps because I wasn't clear, what I think is interesting--and ironic--about the visual I chose is not that the world is like a heart, but how many things we describe in terms of the way in which they both stay still and move. The idea that culture is like a heart and subject to the whims/dangers of circulation strikes me more as funny and telling than accurate. So I didn't mean that the heart fits my model so much as that descriptions of the heart unintentionally partake in models of culture and circulation. It's not too surprising that one can use either the heart or culture as a certain kind of fundamental value.

Dan, I would agree that people often tend to like diluted versions of this or that, especially when those people are at a remove from the locale where that thing developed. But of course the thing itself was also developed at least partly because of circulation. Culture is a kind of response to motion, and of course the other way also.

Sandra, thanks for your specific examples. One thing I would say, and this is only obvious, is that my model suggests there's no such kind of pure moment of culture that would have no circulation in it. Even in the most stable cultures, all you have to do is walk down the street and talk to somebody else, and you're circulating.

Ian, there's no doubt that globalization involves the history of a certain kind of circulation being forced on an unwilling population. In that sense, globalization is only a more sophisticated and economic version--but not always--of the violent extreme of circulation that I describe as the invasion. Enforced globalization also frequently involves direct military invasion too, as we know. So even while globalization has some undoubtedly new features, it clearly partakes in the history of conflicts caused by forced circulation.