Wednesday, September 5, 2012

With Organic Culture We Are Not Robots

    In today’s world, there are many people who preach that an important way of minimizing the possibilities of war is by minimizing the importance of a mental construct that has helped us to shape human society since the dawn of humanity. The construct I am talking about is culture.  The word culture has different meanings, but I am particularly interested in culture as a coherent system of attitudes, expectations, social rules, moral values, aesthetic styles, world views, and general beliefs.  Culture, in this sense, has traditionally been the basis by which a given society is molded.  It contributes significantly to the identity of each individual member of a social group.  And it helps to tie the members of a group into a larger unified entity that is greater than the sum total of the individuals.

    Culture also has the meaning, particularly when used in the phrase “high culture”, to mean refined aesthetic expressions such as classical music, fine literature, theater and salon art.  In this sense, the term culture overlaps with another synthesized organic mental entity we have discussed previously - namely, the humanities.  And great high culture is intrinsically connected with the meaning of culture we started to discuss at the beginning of this article.  Refined high cultural expression springs from people who are creating from within the cultural system of which they are a part.  One synthesized organic mental entity is dependent upon and interlocks with another.

    I have already discussed how, in a living environment where there are fewer and fewer actual patches of nature that are easily accessible in the daily lives of most of us, that creating synthesized organic mental entities for our interior world serves as a defense against being robotized from all the technological stimuli that surround us.  And just as there are social forces that diminish the importance of the humanities in societies that prize technological innovation to gain global economic and political power, so there are also social forces that want to diminish the importance of culture as a coherent human system.  One reason ostensively that people want to diminish the importance of culture in this latter sense is that it acts to divide people from each other and can form a foundation for war between people.  This has certainly been true in Europe with all its different cultures packed so closely against each other.  And it has been true in many other areas of the world, both in the past as well as today - areas like the Middle East.  But to throw out the good with the bad, the baby with the bath water, is not a solution to anything.  And on a deeper level, a strong cultural identity, with its foundation in grounded phenomena and rich continual stimuli, definitely can create a barrier to the robotization of people.

    Culture provides established patterns of communication between people based on common beliefs, common values and common expectations.  It provides a social template for well-grounded, deep-bonded relationships.  Just as nature can provide a coherent physical grounding, so culture can provide a coherent social grounding.  A culture reinforces both community and family relationships and, in today’s world, can help to fight the isolation that comes from sensory distortion.  The key is to maintain an organic cultural presence independent of a strong organic living environment. 

    I have previously discussed how science is trying to reduce the world of the mind to physical activities occurring in the brain, and that the world of the mind for scientists today has no real existence apart from the material world.  At the same time, I have also pointed out how Bishop Berkeley, a famous British philosopher, demonstrated that we have no way of affirming the existence of something unless we experience it through the mind.  That if a tree falls in the forest, and no one sees it, how can we be sure it happened.  Furthermore, it is difficult to reduce all the rich variety of phenomena one is experiencing on a daily basis - phenomena with large numbers of continual blendable stimuli as well as discrete defined stimuli - to a series of events controlled in a laboratory that are focused almost exclusively on discrete defined stimuli.

    I feel that we have to affirm the existence of a world of mind independent of a world of matter, if we are to survive the growing trend toward robotization.  A robot can be given a kind of a brain, but it can’t be given a kind of a mind.  A robot can’t create profound works of thought or sensation in the humanities and it can’t create a complex coherent culture.  The humanities and culture are organic mental entities that humans synthesize.  They are mental worlds composed of complex non-reducible phenomena.

    The humanities as a mental entity are based on the mental entity of culture.  It is no wonder that culture, apart from referring to a complex coherent human mental system, also refers to the philosophy, the creative arts and the artifacts produced from within the mental system.  High culture refers to the more refined creative arts and the humanities refers to the more refined creative arts, the study of creative arts, history and philosophy.  So all these terms, all these grounded mental phenomena, overlap.

    But if high culture and the humanities are derived from the fundamental system of culture, then humans need culture in this second sense as a foundation for creating organic mental phenomena to act as a defense, as a barrier against both technological sensory distortion and increasing robotization.  The universal man, so highly prized by modern humanistic traditions, is a human denuded of a fundamental component of human experience.  The belief is that only a universal human can truly live in peace and harmony with all other humans in the world.  According to this belief, the particularism of culture as a system is what sets groups of people against one another.  But when we are denuded of culture and all its grounded phenomena and all of its varied blendable continual stimuli, we are reduced eventually to being entities operated by discrete stimuli alone.  The universal human is the technological human, is the android or robot.  Particularity in culture may have been and may continue to be a cause for war.  Belief in the superiority of one’s own culture and the inferiority of the culture of others is an unfortunate perversion of immersion in one’s own culture.  But this doesn’t mean that the solution is to do away with the notion of culture altogether.

    Perhaps one solution to the problem of arrogance from within one’s own culture is teaching cultural anthropology as a social studies course in high school.  In offering this solution, I am speaking from personal experience.  I studied anthropology in my senior year in high school and it transformed my life.  Not only did I learn about how people in many preliterate cultures had very different assumptions about what was important in life, but I was able to use anthropology to examine basic American cultural assumptions about which I had never thought.  Although I continued to appreciate my identity as an American and, in particular, as an American Jew, I was able to do it without being excessively ethnocentric.  And all this helped me enormously when I spent ten years living in Mexico City, in a culture that had very different attitudes, expectations and beliefs from the United States.  I was able to truly appreciate the cultural differences between Mexico and the United States and even embrace them.  It is good that there are different cultures in the world to offer different solutions to the problems of life.

    One final note.  There have been more robotic societies based on single cultures starting in the twentieth century.  I am talking about fascist societies and communist societies.  It would appear that in these cases culture did not offer protection against becoming a robot.  But, in truth, these societies used technology as a vehicle to aspire to universalist goals through robotizing and thus thinning out their cultures.  The Nazis wanted to use their robotized Aryan culture as a means to taking over the world.  The Communists wanted to use their robotized Soviet culture as a means to taking over the world.  Being robotic was the means by which these modern technological societies could become universalistic.  But to the extent that these societies fell into totalitarian systems, they lost their organic cultures and their capacity to produce great high culture.  To the extent that a society like Cuba held onto its organic culture, it failed as a totalitarian society with a self-sustaining economy.

© 2012 Laurence Mesirow

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