What is the best culture? It is a provocative question. In our post-post modern world, it is almost presumptively offensive; likely to lead to a collapse into a relativistic puddle. After all — the only possible answer to that question must come from within a culture, so there is no privileged perspective from which to ask or answer the question.
And yet it is clear that this is the question of the 21st Century. The Decline of the Nation State has set in. Although superficially the drama of 20th Century politics continues, it is clear to those who are paying attention that the next (and perhaps final?) locus of war has come: culture itself.
This is not a bad thing. After all, at a minimum this is a question of selection. From within whatever freedom we have as individuals, what culture do we choose to particpate in and construct for ourselves? This is a question just barely before its time and, therefore, quite worth asking.
In order to approach it properly, we must dive into the nature of culture itself. What is it, what are its dynamics and how does it evolve?
First a crucial concept: the “fitness landscape”. This is an abstract model of the “fitness” (i.e., the chances for survival and reproduction) of some way of being in some environment. For example, if you have a measure of the “whiteness” vs. “brownness” of a bunny, you might see a fitness landscape that looks something like this:
Where the Z-axis measures the fitness and the position on the X/Y measures the color. Lets say that this particular landscape maps fitness in the Arctic — where being completely white is highly advantageous. So bunnies who are some other color (say where the “A” is located) will tend to get eaten and over time the entire population will “shift” in color up to where the “B” is located — very white. If we were to map the landscape in the forest, we might imagine a different landscape. Maybe something like this where there are a few different colors that provide enough fitness for bunnies to try them.
With the concept of fitness landscapes in our pocket, we can dig deeper into the nature of culture itself. First an effort at a definition:
A culture is a self-reproducing set of values and evaluations. It includes semantic classifications (“that is a dog”), and moral and aesthetic evaluations and prescriptions that lead to or inhibit actions (“you don’t eat dogs”).
The process whereby a person is “trained” on the classifications, evaluations and prescriptions of a culture is “enculturation”.
A culture is self-reproducing because the people who act according to the characteristics of the culture tend to enculturate the people around them to the culture. Which is to say that if you spend most of your time around people who call four footed furry beasts “dogs”, then you will likely adopt that usage yourself and, in turn, become an agent of enculturation.
Importantly, pretty much everything that you do becomes an “enculturating” artifact precisely because it carries with it and produces the effect of the cultural scheme that impressed itself on you. So if you wear socks with sandals — you are enculturating this norm in any who see you. If you put sugar in your tea, you are enculturating this norm. If you use a three tined fork, you are enculturating anyone who sees you using it and, indeed, to a limited extent anyone who experiences and plays with the fork. Any way that you shape or condition the environment that can subsequently impact the way that some other person adapts their ways of understanding, evaluating or acting with the environment is an “enculturation” of some degree.
Every moment you are exposed to countless acts of enculturation. Some stick, some don’t. To some extent, those that stick will influence your behaviour and, therefore, convert you into an agent of their reproduction. This, of course will increase their chances of reproduction. In other words, their fitness.
Cultures, then, can be understood as akin to to fluid organisms whose “body” and reproductive organs are a distributed field of people. And they are constantly in competition with each-other for the scarce resources of human attention and expression (i.e., enculturation).
Culture proceeds by war. On the one hand, all war is (deep down) culture war and, on the other, all cultures are always at war.
When I say that cultures are always at war, I obviously don’t mean war in the simple sense of flags and declarations and troop mobilizations and such. War here simply means a conflict for scarce resources. In the case of cultures, the ultimate scarce resources are attention and expression — which is to say that cultures compete for the degree to which they direct the actions of people. And they do so continuously, completely and comprehensively.
Cultures compete for the degree to which they direct the actions of people.
To put this very simply, if you find that most of your decisions — what to eat, what to wear, where to live, how to make a living, how to greet people, how to process personal tragedy, etc. — are made using the cultural values of, say, Japan, then you are part of the Japanese culture. If, by contrast, they are made using the cultural values of Wisconsin, then you are a Wisconsinite. And if you are a part of the Japanese culture and you move to Wisconsin, you will become the subject of a struggle between these two cultures for your attention and expression. You will be the battlefield.
And this struggle will be total. In the sense that the cultural dynamics that are struggling for your attention and expression will bring to bear everything that they have to win. Clearly cultures don’t wage war like conscious agents — with strategies and tactics. Lets look back to those fitness landscapes. It doesn’t matter if our brown bunny in the arctic is killed by a fox or an Owl or starvation or exposure. And it doesn’t matter whether it survives because of its color, or speed or even a particular habit. What matters is that the whole environment is at play, all the time. The war is never fair. And whatever survives — survives.
Consider the culture war that took place during the “Cold War” between ‘American’ culture and ‘Soviet’ culture. This war took place on every possible level. There was clearly a military aspect. And an economic aspect. And a deliberate propaganda aspect. But, as it turned out, it might have been American popculture, particularly music and apparel, that was the decisive factor. Blue Jeans and Rock and Roll were highly virulent and tended to spread within the attention and motivation structures of otherwise ‘Soviet’ individuals. It didn’t matter whether this “culture virus” was deliberate or not — cultures meet all the way and where there is an opportunity for expansion, it will be exploited as far as it can do. There is no other way.
Consider the post-WW II culture war between Japanese culture and American culture. In principle, the “hot” war was over. But culture war is never over. The cessation of military conflict changed the fitness landscape, to be sure. And as might be expected, in the aftermath of the War, huge amounts of American culture found itself outcompeting indigenous cultural elements in Japan — leading to shifts in fashion, diet, business, family. At the same time, everything from Sushi to Anime to Pokeman turned out to be highly fit components of Japanese culture within the new fitness landscape. This is how it always goes. Culture war is total — and whatever can win will spread and increase its hold on total resources.
What, then, of War proper? To paraphrase Von Clausewitz, “war is culture war by specific means”. In other words, yes, a military victory tends to result in a change in the fitness landscape — with the victor’s culture generally tending to outcompete the defeated culture relatively broadly. We can ask any number of indigenous cultures about that.
But the deep consequences of War are rarely obvious. Consider the Romans and Greeks. Militarily defeated, many components of Greek culture (language, literature, philosophy) crossed over into Rome — almost entirely populating that portion of the cultural landscape. Seen from this point of view, the military component of the culture war between Greece and Rome was perhaps the least important piece. Culture war is always nuanced and subtle. Consider the consequences of the Babalonian Captivity on Jewish culture. Or the many facets of the ongoing multi-front global culture wars that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union and the “hegemony” of the American variant on Western Civilization.
Going deeper, if we fully understand the degree to which culture is always at war, we understand that any given culture is always at war with itself. Every culture is itself a fitness landscape — composed of many, many different micro cultures always struggling amongst themselves for supremacy and entering into complex alliances. As a result, it can be a struggle with surprise reversals and unexpected twists. Will the Anglophile elements of American culture win out over the Germanophile elements during World War I? It could have gone the other way — with profound consequences.
It is a subtle dynamic. We can see how, for example, the novel challenges of World War II changed the cultural environment (the fitness landscape) in many subtle ways. The gear up for the war effort put pressure on the dynamics around race, allowing for, among other things, the Red Tail Squadron. These changes, in turn, created a new fitness landscape within American culture that combined with other post-war dynamics (increased population mobility, new enculturation pathways enabled by national media, etc.) to prime the cultural eruption of the Civil Rights movement. Which in turn catalyzed the Gay Rights and the Women’s Rights movements.
And this is how it goes: a constant struggle along all possible facets of human experience for “enculturating resources” between among and betwixt the various (sub) cultures.
Of course when talking about something as complex as a culture, it is important to emphasize that not all components are created equal. My own reading is that there are four dominant forces on the cultural fitness landscape:
- Technology — simply put the “laws of physics” on how we can go about being exposed to things and/or acting in the world lays down an important scaffold for our cultural evolution. For example, a culture mediated by oral tradition will present a very different landscape than a culture mediated by Television. Different things will “work” and, therefore, tend to be promoted; while other things will “fail” and tend to be left behind. Consequently — change the technology and you will naturally expect to see sometimes extensive changes in the elements of the culture. For example, the phrase, “The Medium is the Message” is true. A centralized, broadcast medium (e.g., television) will tend to promote certain kinds of cultural elements and inhibit others; by contrast, a decentralized medium (e.g., the Internet) will tend to present a quite different fitness landscape. Among other things, more voices will be heard and they will compete for attention in very different ways. No longer is owning the only newspaper in town a dominant enculturating position.
- Deep Aesthetic/Ethical resonances. In any given culture, there are a myriad of “ways” that things are done. These are important — but what is often more important is the “aesthetic” resonance between the ways that is reinforced by each and every one. We might call this a “resonance” or a “sensibility”. Thus there is a consistent “German” sensibility that shows up in everything from how they make cars to how they dress or tell jokes. And a Japanese sensibility that is co-resonant between zen gardening, flower arranging, eating soup and making a car. Or an Italian. Or a Russian. Or an American. These deep “resonators” potentiate and inhibit more surface cultural elements, and it is the dynamics between them that spell the major fronts in culture war (for example the conflict between free enterprise and civil rights that has been a major front in the American culture for generations).
- Human fundamentals. At bottom, the stuff that cultures compete for ishuman stuff and, therefore sits on top of a biologically evolved substrate that hasn’t changed too much for the past quarter of a million years. Max Neef has identified ten fundamental human needs:
Every culture must find ways of satisfying these needs. All things being equal, those cultural elements that satisfy fundamental human needs more effectively will outcompete those that are less effective. Of course, it can be quite difficult to distinguish between a satisfaction and a simulation of a satisfaction and so there is a whole ecosystem of need simulating cultural objects that might be best considered parasitical.
Naturally, all of these dominant forces are at play all the time and relate in non-linear ways. The invention of television, for example, combined with American resonators around a certain promiscuous and uninhibited “low culture” sensibility and a highly competitive, heterogenous local fitness landscape to give rise to a uniquely effective set of cultural artifacts that satisfied (or simulating satisfaction of) several human fundamentals (identity, leisure, creativity, freedom, affection, understanding and participation can all feel satisfied under the soothing massage of television). The result was a 20th Century phenomenon, “American pop Television” that infiltrated nearly all of the world’s cultural milieu.
What is the “best” culture?
So now we can begin to contemplate the deep question: how might we go about identifying the best culture? At a finite level, this is a question of specificity: what is the best culture now. To answer this question, we must first identify: what is the fitness landscape now. Just as we can identify that a brown bunny is a “more fit” phenotype for the forest than a white bunny, we can surmise that certain cultural dynamics are more likely to be fit than others in a given fitness landscape. For example, the fitness landscape shift driven by the technological innovation of the printing press and the rifle are often considered to have rendered the neo-feudal monarchical cultures of the high renaissance unfit and provided fertile soil for the liberal democratic nation state of the modern era.
In this context, we can do good work identifying the major technological structures that constrain and enable contemporary culture; the major resonators that cut across local, national and global cultures; and the deep human needs that can grasp and promote specific cultural elements. For example, we might note that “authentic creation” that emphasizes imagination and promotes mastery is a cultural “space” that is well suited to the emerging landscape of decentralized media and production; that is resonant with cultural forces in a number of major cultural dynamics and taps into deep human needs. And we might hypothesize that any culture that wants to “win” in the contemporary enviroment would have to empower “authentic creation”.
We can go further. There are many things that can be said about what an optimal culture might look like. But it feels like that is the subject of another post.