‘Happy New Year’ I suppose. Although I would rather celebrate New Year around the Spring Equinox, as Persians, Kurds and some Neopagans do. Starting the new year in the middle of the winter is a ‘rum affair’ if you ask me (in the language of an Agatha Christie novel. We live under the Gregorian calendar; it wasn’t the butler did it but Pope Gregory XIII). Also, note that there are thirteen moons in every year, and the first new moon of this calendar year isn’t until 17th January. Anyway, structuring the year is always going to be tricky, and there are various cultural implications of when and how we celebrate New Year. For a sense of culture and social cohesion, maybe I should have destroyed my health with alcohol last night afterall. Ah well, like I said, it’s a rum affair.
‘Culture’ is a word that is bandied about a lot but it is difficult to pin down. I think of human culture as ‘the sum of everything we do’, particularly those things that we do from day to day, repetitively, that define our collective and individual identities. Culture in this broad sense doesn’t just include all of our doing, but all of our thinking too. Everyone ‘does’ culture in every moment; we are all a part of a universal human culture which is different from the cultures of other species and the human culture of the past; although, past culture bears on present culture in a continual process. Human culture is also influenced by and interdependent with non-human culture; the non-human ecosystems that make up Earth. Together with non-human culture we are ‘Earth culture’.
The online Oxford Living Dictionaries definition of culture that fits loosely with these ideas is the second one listed, which says: ‘the ideas, customs, and social behaviour of a particular people or society’, (and I would add, ‘or species, or planet’ etc). Visit the full page here.
On the human level, we can talk of the cultures and subcultures of geographically located places, like our villages, towns, regions and countries. There are also subcultures that are defined by points of view and types of behaviour; for instance subcultures based on types of music. Subcultures are also based on socioeconomic status, or class. The habits, ways of doing things and thinking of members of one economic class will share certain likely common characteristics not common to other classes. Cultures of many types and on different scales overlap each other or nestle inside each other in complex ways. Our individual and collective senses of identity are also very much rooted in culture. Additionally, ‘online culture’ refers specifically to the culture of the internet, and ‘digital culture’ to digitally enabled or digitally altered culture.
Definitions of culture usually focus on the social element; those behaviours etc in a society or group that are overtly shared. Particularly strong expressions and reinforcements of culture are shared rituals and celebrations which are repeated over time; and so tradition usually plays a strong element in any culture. However I would also like to add that even our most private thoughts and private moments are culturally defined and in turn have a cultural impact; in other words, every part of our experience has a social (or consciously anti-social) element which bears on how we relate to others from day to day, and the various cultures and subcultures of which we are members.
To complicate things, the cultures which we perceive ourselves to be members of are not necessarily the cultures whose members would generally embrace us, and additionally, people in general may perceive us to be members of various cultures (depending on the perspective) that we don’t actually identify with. Others’ perceptions will affect how they behave towards us and can become self-fulfilling, so that we are pigeonholed into subcultures from a lack of personal motivation and /or skill on our side to be identified otherwise. This process of pigeonholing can further affect the lifestyle choices and cultural options available to the pigeonholed. There is a real power dynamic here of the labeller over the labelled. We can see that culture and labelling -of self by self and other- are closely related. So far we can also see that ‘culture’ indicates a very complex and uncertain reality for individuals in the modern world, although great opportunity is also implied.
Cultures of all kinds are woven together by underlying stories or narratives which can be truthful or not, and harmful or not. These are unconscious for most of the time and may remain obscure to many of the members of these cultures (for instance, the story of ‘infinite progress’ that underlies capitalist culture). There are also many stories consciously told within and across different cultures, of course; many wonderful (and not so wonderful!) diverse and colourful stories, all of which play a role in shaping cultures, from classic myths, through novels to blockbuster films. These do not only shape the cultures they originate in, especially in the modern human world which is interconnected more than ever before.
Some stories and elements of stories -both conscious stories and unconscious narratives- are told by cultures (as ‘tellers’) about other cultures (as ‘the told’); again this can become self-fulfilling for the told, especially when the tellers have the greater political power and cultural reach. In fact, some of these narratives serve to maintain the dominant cultural position of certain tellers, resulting in a very real oppression of the told (or in this context read ‘minorities everywhere’ for ‘the told’). Women as a whole have also been and continue to be culturally dominated by men, largely unconsciously on both sides (but consciously in key places of power), using such insidious stories. With these features of ‘labelling’ and ‘story-telling’ discussed, culture becomes a very political concept and also one that has a huge impact on mental health, dependent on whether people feel culturally empowered or not, within the mesh of overlapping cultures which they are subject of and to.
I think it is true to say that as modern individuals we all have a ‘cultural repertoire’ which I would define as ‘the sum of all the attitudes, feelings, thoughts and behaviours internalised within us which we can choose to employ variously and selectively according to cultural context and personal cultural aspiration’. In fact I would say that everything about us can be used as a cultural instrument by us or by others acting on us, or with us. Although ‘feelings’ are typically described as more reactive than the other more proactive elements of ‘thinking’ and ‘behaving’ etc, actually we have a lot of choice about the way we feel and how we process or use that culturally (without going into how others can use our feelings for their own cultural ends).
Personally I am very lucky: I realise that I have a large cultural repertoire at my disposal which allows me to move fairly comfortably (but never completely comfortably) through many quarters of society. But this has become a deliberate cultivation and survival strategy for me -borne partly from a former mental breakdown- and is partly a sign of a culturally incoherent modern society. My ultimate position is to assume membership of a complex global culture, but grounded ecologically in my home region of mid-Devon, or more widely and conveniently, southwest England. I have a great feeling of cultural freedom. Some people don’t have the privilege of cultural understanding that I have or do not take on identifications like this with much confidence (my own intellectual confidence borne in part from my privileged white liberal middle-class culture); and so culturally they may retreat, more or less, into subcultures -including physical localities- which in modern times are often incoherent and fragmented. (I touch on this incoherency and fragmentation a little more in Part Two of this post).
I theorise that many people don’t realise the extent of their cultural repertoires or don’t have the skill to employ them effectively. Many more people are culturally impoverished, meaning that there is a lack of cultural options available to them -in awareness, and practically. Also, their socioeconomic status or ‘class’ may make it very difficult for them to realise the extent to which their culture is actually impoverished, the extent to which it is dominated by insidious cultural stories from other quarters, and the extent to which it is unnaturally divorced from the land and (mostly non-human) Earth culture (more on this in Part Two). Then again, even those in the most culturally dominant quarters e.g. the nation state culture of governments, and the technological culture of Silicon Valley and the like, do not usually realise the extent of their unnatural divorce from Earth culture or rather, are in denial.
On the plus side, although it may be partly a spuriously neoliberal view, in modern times there is more opportunity for some, including those traditionally from quarters of the culturally oppressed, to develop larger and more diverse cultural repertoires than ever before, especially using the online culture of the web, which includes the ability to group with others to form subcultures in the pursuit of social and ecological -and hence cultural- justice. Yet, the choice not to have so much choice has been taken away, potentially at the expense of the model of the grounded, nurturing, localised culture that some would like to have the option of ‘returning to’ though they might have never personally experienced it. On the positive side again, via internet culture there are currently many inspiring ways to connect with and be touched by people and events from around the world, which can bring emotional fulfillment and nurture certain aspects or identifications of culture that we hold within ourselves. Additionally, internet-based subcultures, for instance formed around special interests, can provide support and well being for individuals who are otherwise relatively isolated.
This is where I am right now; I am relatively isolated and lonely; I exist between worlds, the rural and the urban, the individual and the communal, the unemployable and the entrepreneurial; and currently, although I am lucky to feel part of a global as well as regional culture, it’s all a bit confused. 2018 for me will largely be about how I define myself culturally amongst all the cultural options open to me (and open to most of us). How I redefine myself culturally will also be key to how I move the Epic Tomorrows blog forward. I have high hopes and aspirations that internet culture, despite its shaky ecological foundations, can be a massive force for helping shape emergent global culture -and all the subcultures and individuals nestled within- in a way that has social and ecological justice at its core. In Part Two of this post I will look more at the concept of ‘global human culture’. In Part Three I will explain why I think Permaculture, with a big ‘P’ and permaculture with a small ‘p’ both have potential to be the containing baskets, as well as the weavers, of a globally sustainable culture. I will explain why I think a branch of permaculture needs to develop as a fully fledged ‘ethical social science’, in order to facilitate globally sustainable culture.
And now, feeling a little uplifted that I have finally finished (Part One!) of this post, I feel more genuinely able to say, with great cheer, and a herbal tea instead of a beer…in a culturally reinforcing kind of way…Happy New Year!