Culture like Relativity?

Culture like Relativity‘ by Daniel Lende


One of the prominent ways to think about culture is as a system of symbols or beliefs. For example, Clifford Geertz wrote in 1973:

Believing, with Max Weber, that man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun, I take culture to be those webs, and the analysis of it to be therefore not an experimental science in search of law but an interpretative one in search of meaning…

It is through culture patterns, ordered clusters of significant symbols, that man makes sense of the events through which he lives. The study of culture, the accumulated totality of such patterns, is thus the study of the machinery individuals and groups of individuals employ to orient themselves in a world otherwise opaque.

Recently Bill Dressler reiterated this belief-oriented approach to culture, emphasizing the shared and cognitive dimensions of significance of Geertz:

Culture is the knowledge we use to function in a given social system. As Searle has shown, cultural knowledge is of a special kind generated by a certain class of speech acts. These speech acts, which Searle refers to as constitutive rules, literally construct the world around us; and this is an ontological account consistent with what we know of our biological and evolutionary history.

This is an important approach to culture, with a long history in the social sciences. However, I view it rather like Newton’s approach to motion and to gravity. Newton’s view remains extremely relevant; we use Newtonian physics in many of our daily calculations and interactions. But it is not the only way to view the world.

I was struck by this idea again today, which brought back something I wrote in 2010 on Anthropology, Science, and Relativism:

To really understand what Dooglas Carl is saying, it is important to grasp relativism more directly. The easiest way is by analogy. Isaac Newton developed a linear, determinist physics which still serves us well today, but which also does not help us explain core aspects of the universe that surrounds us. Albert Einstein introduced a revolution in physics through his idea of relativity.

Relativity has two major impacts. First, it changed the idea of “timeless laws” at the heart of the Enlightenment. “For example, it overturned the concept of motion from Newton’s day, into all motion is relative. Time was no longer uniform and absolute.” Much of social science still searches for uniform laws that apply across human societies. Franz Boas, a student of physics and founding anthropologist in the United States, introduced the study of society based on the history of that society. It was a relative approach to the study of humankind.

Second, relativity radically challenged the notion of the impartial, outside observer. First, the frame of reference of the observer mattered in being able to compare results. If two observers are moving relative to each other, their different motions shape how they observe the same event. Moreover, in quantum mechanisms, the actions of the observer are seen to shape the outcome of observations. The observation itself helps determine what actually happens.

Anthropology embraced this view earlier than any other social science discipline. Around the same time as Franz Boas, Bronislaw Malinowski was creating the core research technique of participant observation. Unlike previous “armchair” anthropology, where researchers got data from afar and assembled it to fit their own theories, participant observation required spending time with the people one was studying, and placed emphasis on getting their perspective on their lives. No longer was it just the outsider’s perspective.

To understand human society, it is imperative to recognize that we are already located within society. Just like in modern physics, our observations are relative, and help shape what is actually observed. Moreover, our frame of reference is based on our own movement, our own individual motion. Anthropologists’ main solution to this problem is to encourage reflexivity, an examination of our frame of reference in relation to what we are studying and our own personal and professional histories.

But there is one stark difference between modern physics and modern anthropology. In physics, observations are still done in only one universe. In anthropology, we study multiple societies, both past and present. We have to take relativity one step further.

What is that one step further? A report on recent work on Einstein’s relativity caught my eye.

General relativity describes gravity not as a force, as the physicist Isaac Newton thought of it, but rather as a curvature of space and time due to the mass of objects, Will said. The reason Earth orbits the sun is not because the sun attracts Earth, but instead because the sun warps space-time, he said. (This is a bit like the way a bowling ball on an outstretched blanket would warp the blanket’s shape.) …

General relativity works very well for gravity of ordinary strength, the variety experienced by humans on Earth or by planets as they orbit the sun. But it’s never been tested in extremely strong fields, regions that lie at the boundaries of physics. [The 9 Biggest Unsolved Mysteries in Physics]

The best prospect for testing the theory in these realms is to look for ripples in space-time, known as gravitational waves. These can be produced by violent events such as the merging of two massive bodies, such as black holes or extremely dense objects called neutron stars.

Most contemporary anthropologists think of culture as akin to something like a force. There is “structural violence” or “friction.” These are useful ways to capturing the scientific phenomenon we study.

But I also think of culture as something closer to gravity in the way Einstein meant. It’s a curvature of human lives and history due to the mass of ourselves, because the ways we interpret – our language and meaning, those webs of significance – warp us.

It is not a system layered on top, something separate from ourselves. The regularities we observe are not because “culture attracts” but because culture shapes us, warps the very curvature of our lives. The search for universals, of the regularities of how we vary, has faltered largely because they have taken a Newtonian approach to culture, of some laws that are prior to ourselves. But that is not the only way to view things.

The above reflection on Einstein, and the type of extreme experimentation available now, also relates to anthropology’s long-term use of extreme examples to think about ourselves as humans. It is a powerful approach. Our brains are alien technology, and we’ve pushed them in some amazing directions.

Escaping from our categorical view of culture, of culture as akin to the force of gravity, is something we’ve struggled with ever since Durkheim set out social facts, different and privileged, as the object of study of social science. It works, and works well.

But there are certain things about culture, not as a complex whole, but as the particular historical warping of our lives that we haven’t theorized quite as well as we might have.

Or at least those are my thoughts late on a Saturday.

For relativity problem, much of the focus has been on the method – the need for reflexivity. This is important, vital. But it still doesn’t solve the theoretical problem, of what culture looks like from a relativist viewpoint. That is what Einstein, for me, captures as analogy. But we’re not only on the train, trying to observe the velocity, but we’re also helping to make the tracks and the ways we measure velocity in human systems. So it’s complicated. But the basic point stands. Anthropology’s “It’s complicated” is often about relativity (or cultural relativism) as a methodological point. I want it as a more substantive theoretical point.

One example here that I like is Bunzl’s reconsideration of Boas. Another is that we need to reconsider the “human” side, in ways outlined by Jon Marks in The Growth of Biocultural Thought or by me in Nature/Nurture: Slash to the Rescue. I’d like to meld those pieces with Bunzl’s appraisal.

Still, not quite a theory. Or a relativistic update to Boas historical particularism and Geertz system of symbols.

One way this post can be taken is that “culture shapes us and warps the very curvature of our lives.” That is a fine anthropological point. But on the theory side, I would want to reverse that, or at least bring into equal consideration, that the curvature of our lives shapes and warps culture. In other words, I’d like a warped theory of culture.

Yet conceptualizations like a “system of symbols” or “habitus” often divorce themselves from the messiness of our lives. But I think our conception of culture would look quite different if we theorized it from a relativist position, rather than using a rationalist approach. Culture as a warped field, something we generate and in turn generates us. Perhaps something that attends more to a post-structuralist approach to get at that dual generation, yet still does the sort of work Geertz did four decades ago.

And by warped, I don’t know if I mean made from crooked timber or at warp speed, since culture lets us transverse space and time faster than the speed of light. Both?

Where I’d like to take this is, or where this approach needs to go, is to distinguish how it offers something different than other cultural approaches. In other words, what sorts of insights, predictions, analytic purchase does this type of view of culture give you? If it’s just the same as other approaches, then maybe it’s a neat way of viewing culture, but not much more. I’m definitely open to suggestions on this point.

13 responses to “Culture like Relativity?

  1. I really enjoyed Lende’s post for its attention to physicalist framings of symbolic action, but I never like talking about “culture” as if it is an object, or whole. Wholes are assemblages that function with a high degree of coordination and material extension, which most human populations don’t enact. Physical and cognitive cohesion even in tightly knit, relatively isolated tribal societies never reaches a Borg like degree of extensive intensity. But theorizing “culture” as a kind of phase attractor modeled (abstracted) from actual conditions does have some descriptive and ethnographic value.

    If “culture” is anything it is the abstract pattern of dynamic attraction and action enacted by the temporal matrix of social ecology, collective memory and the poltico-historical trajectory of the onto-specific bodies, flows and forces within a particular geo-situational terrain. Such cultural matrices generate kind of gravitas creating various ‘curvatures’ influencing the expressive development of human lives and history (expressed in the ways we move, exchange, organize, subsist, procreate, experience, interpret and resonate).

    • yeah, part of the hangover from the pipedream of there being a social science or a science of the social, Freud used to talk in terms of fluid-dynamics and the like and people still make such categorical errors, ghosts from the machinery.
      still don’t think there could be such a thing as collective-memory (even our own individual acts of re-membering are processes of assemblage in response to our present interests/environs). Leaves open the question of whether such framings might be useful in terms of trying to organize people even if they aren’t accurate descriptions of the actual goings on, but how to keep in mind that they are just figures-of-speech and not fall into the tyranny of the means?

      • There is no ‘thing’ that is collective memory, but individuals do remember narratives and symbols in a socially mediated way. Museums and television are machines for collectivizing memory. Humans do memorize and recall events that produce similar affective responses within a population. JFK’s murder, the Olympics, Cuban revolution, etc. Historical populations institutionalize narratives in holidays (remembrance day here in Canada being a prime example) and monuments, and such, in ways that activate the network-informational potentials between brains, while generating reproducible affective states among citizens. Such extended/distributed cognitive realities are well documented. The literature on collective memory in anthropology alone could fill a barge. See here for example, and this gem here , or even this collection here.

        – Wilson, R., A. (2005). ‘Collective Memory, Group Minds, and the Extended Mind Thesis’. Cognitive Processing, Vol. 6, Issue 4, pp. 227-236
        – Hardwig, J. (1985). ‘Epistemic Dependence’. The Journal of Philosophy, 82: 335-349.
        – Hutchins, E. (1995). Cognition in the Wild. Cambridge: MIT Press
        – Wegner, M., Giuliano, T., Hertel, P. (1985). ‘Cognitive interdependence in close relationships’. In W. J. Ickes (Ed.), Compatible and incompatible relationships (pp. 253–276). New York: Springer-Verlag.

        I think when we reduce every cognitive act or latency to an individual event we completely miss the social character of communicative action and our extended minds. Humans exist in meshes of affective resonance and semantic networks that facilitate ‘cultural’ habits of behavior and cognition (habitus), and this replication of informational-phenomenological action allows for larger assemblages of experiential regard/interest. Information does ‘circulate’ among brains to form larger patterns of expression than can be understood at the level of individuals.

      • “Practices: Turner has published in the overlapping fields of sociology and philosophy, particularly on the notion of practices. In The Social Theory of Practices as well as in other writings Turner argues against collective concepts like culture: what we call culture (and similar concepts), he argues, needs to be understood in terms of the means of its transmission. There is no collective server by which it is simply downloaded and “shared”. What we take as “collective” is really produced through experiences of interaction which are different and produce different results for different individuals but which also produce a rough uniformity through mechanisms of feedback rather than “sharing”. He has extended this argument in various places, most recently in relation to the philosophical idea of “normativity” which he argues is an explanation of “facts” which are the product of an unnecessary and mystery-producing redescription motivated by an attempt to take back ground from social science explanation.”

      • Yeah Turner had some good points, most of which I agree with, but his dismissal of “collectives” is just a semantic issue. The fact remains there is commonality and coherence among and between individuals in their remembrances and cognitive informational contents. Collective memory is the basis and continuance of practices and phantasies such a nationalism – which generates all kinds of affects (in Spinoza’s sense) and effects which suggests a group level causal efficacy and thus loose agency. Think of how street gangs cohere and act as swarm systems. To completely dismiss the emergent powers of collectives as distributed assemblages/networks is to be too reductive imo.

  2. It’s important to remember that there is also an exogenous material component to both individual and collective memory – this is an important contribution of the extended cognition framework as well. It’s true that every act of memory is an act of assemblage, but there has to be some pre-existing material in order for that assemblage to take place. That material exists in our neurocognitive structures as well as in our exogenous material-social landscapes: photographs, books, objects, etc. This is intensified by the presence of digital media and the Internet. These material components of individual memory can also be the components of social or collective memory where memory is considered a process rather than a repository. I agree with Michael here. Denying the interactive component of that process and reducing cognition to in-brain effects limits our capacity to understand and conceptualize all of the facets of human experience.

    BTW, the archaeologists do a much better job with collective memory than most anthropologists precisely because they deal predominantly with the past through material remains.

    Another note – none of what I’ve mentioned above gets into the changes to DNA and other endogenous physical elements that occur as a result of our socio-ecological conditions. That’s a whole other element of “collective memory” that is relatively unexplored.

    • not denying inter-actions and not reducing human-doings to “in-brain effects” just noting that there is no means on the human embodied end for the kinds of coordination/programming that one finds in say machinery (and even there “bugs” abound).
      gangs for example (which i worked with during one of my clinical internships) might briefly jump in on a beatdown but certainly don’t (and can’t) do the sorts of things that we might think of in relation to a flock of migrating birds.
      The birds (fish, etc) in someways can do these sorts of thing because they are very limited/focused and people only achieve such narrowness (in certain settings & for brief amounts of time/attention) with the help of actual machinery
      (social-media algorithms/platforms/etc, mcdonald’s style cash-registers & food preparation, and various other forms of fordism). The fact that we only now have the technologies that allow for such artificial/artifact-ual co-ordinations should be a warning about projecting them back into the past/primitive.

      • Right, but I’m not sure that anyone equates culture or collective memory with flocking or schooling behaviors in birds and fish. Culture is rather a loose causative factor in our interactions with others – one cause among many complex causes. So we don’t really need to posit the kind of focus and limitations that that behavior entails. Certainly current technologies allow for that to some degree (I would actually say that they don’t, but just for arguments sake), but since that’s not what we are looking for in culture, more modest means of integration and interaction will suffice.

      • culture isn’t a thing/agent so can’t do/cause anything, there are just actors and environs.
        why don’t we need to focus on the affordances and resistances of behavior what else is there to the anthro of anthropology and what else could “modest” (that may be all that we can manage but apparently most folks are looking for more and thus these kinds of speculative/cthonic visions of Culture, Ideology, etc, that I had hope, perhaps in vain, that post nihilism we had left behind) means be composed of?
        as for the other just look upstream here:
        “street gangs cohere and act as swarm systems”.

      • Means on the embodied end comes from our capacity for memory, attachment and associative cognition. We are social creatures though and through. We are evolved to cooperate and coordinate in very effective ways. Coordination within groups and between groups happens all the time, creating what I’m ok with calling social “structure” – networks. I don’t think functioning assemblages need to have tight extensive unity or physical boundary to enact agental powers. I think we humans have a cognitive bias towards only granting thing-ness to materially bounded objects, when there are differences in the degree of inherence, attraction and agental coordination from assemblage to assemblage. Is any given cultural matrix an ‘object’ is the strict sense? No. But can groups of individuals enact patterns and characteristic expressions that have an emergent downward causal effect on individuals? Absolutely. And it is these patterns of being & becoming and actual expressions of practice and articulation that can be theorized..

        And I do see fish schools and bird flocks in the same way. Sure, the individuals that compose those assemblages have lower agental capacity than humans – with a much narrower focus – and thus higher degree of coordination – but the basic features remain the same: enmeshed brains/bodies coping-with other enmeshed brains/bodies socially within particular conditions.

        And “primitive” or more isolated groups didn’t need the internet or McDonalds to have tightly woven social networks, or “cultures”. Their day-to-day life was/are limited mostly to endogenous interactions and encounters so there was a higher degree of filial bonding, generational influence, linguistic replication, and social conformity – what Levi-Strauss called “cold societies”, entropically static with very infrequent influx of novelty and disruption – which generate only small amounts of variation and divergency among individuals.Television, the internet and digitalization are only returning us to (neo)tribal modes of intimacy and perception after centuries of divisive modern and postmodern alienations. McLuhan’s ‘global village’ and all that.

        I don’t see post-nihilist thought as doing away with the need to track emergent powers Dirk. The downward causal influences of networks are material-systemic realities that shape what we do, how we perceive and thus require tracking. The words we use won’t ultimately matter, but how we use them and what resonance they produce for acting bodies. But to do away with conceptions of higher order assembly would be to ignore how the ‘the real’ operates, and thus limit our ability to practically cope. (besides, isn’t seeing humans as THE ontologically dominant node in the networks of atoms and energy that obtain on this planet a bit too anthropocentric? The subtle dependencies that stich together worlds and species kinda require that we think above and below the level of individuals)

        I’m certainly not advocating to perpetuate naïve uses of the concept of ‘culture’ (and truth be told I think it needs to die), but rather trying to parse out the actual ecological/material dynamics and causal layers of social assemblages. My original point was about collective memory only – which suggests that information is distributed across bodies/brains in relatively uniform ways that can produce causal effects among groups. We need some sorts of bridging concepts to theorize and thus become aware of non-local (non-extensive) network complexity in ways that atomized accounts just can’t get to.

      • hey m, on the run today but very interested in fleshing this all out so I can get a better sense of what yer trying to show me ( I certainly know that you’re not naive on these matters) , maybe some of it will come up in the 3Eco discussion but if not we’ll definitely take it up again here or elsewhere and hopefully dig into a particular assemblage or two (case-studies help me to grasp such matters better).

      • I’d like that.
        The more research I do on the etymology of the word “culture” the more I’d like to restrict it to referring to the external, material, artifactual products ‘excreted’ by individual bodies (but never opposed to “nature”) – kin to what Marvin Harris tried to capture in his Cultural Materialism – rather than any intrinsic transcorpreal pattern per se.. For Harris, cultural materialism “is based on the simple premise that human social life is a response to the practical problems of earthly existence”. So we can view culture as an ambient material ‘growth medium’ that supports the practical life and proliferation of individual bodies in relation – as seen at the micro scale in nonhuman microbial culture work.

        A note on Harris. He adapted Marx and Engel by thinking of material relations in terms of

        1. “Infrastructure” (that which is comprises a groups relations to the physical environment), or material relations.

        2. “Structure” (the ethical practices and behavioral domestic and political economies of social life), or social relations.

        3. “Superstructure” (the symbolic and ideational aspects of social life), or symbolic relations – which include the “conscious and unconscious cognitive goals, categories, rules, plans, values, philosophies, and beliefs” (Harris 1979:54).

        From MY perspective I view all of those/that as Infrastructure, with complex relations among all the actual layers and systems involved. The general situation in which hominid infrastructure is enacted (as a natural subsystem) is the ecosystem. I wonder how this rolls into what Guattari was after in Three Ecologies..?

        I should also say that for Marx and Engels the term infrastructure is sometimes used as a synonym for “base” in the dialectic synthetic pair base and superstructure. And I follow those fellas in using a much broader notion of the term infrastructure/base, but disagree with how they argue that social activities such as laws, governance, regulations and standards should be considered part of the superstructure, not the base. Narratives, texts, institutions, speaking hominids, etc., are all part of a radically immanent base, and only take on human specific infrastructural character by virtue of being crafted and made and perpetrated by humans. So the separation between “base” and “superstructure” is a matter of degrees of functional extension not of ontological separation.

        I don’t know why I went there, but I did. Deal with it. LOL.

  3. Pingback: Culture Revisited | Struggle Forever!·

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