The Culture of “only a sort of They”

All good people agree,
And all good people say,
All nice people, like Us, are We
And every one else is They:
But if you cross over the sea,
Instead of over the way, You may end by (think of it!) looking on
We As only a sort of They! —Rudyard Kipling, last stanza We and They (1926)

Originally published in the March issue of Value Chain.

Back when I aspired to become a diplomat or a secret agent, I took a course in the Government Department at Harvard called International Relations East Asia (IREA) from Alastair Iain Johnston who was there as the Governor James Albert Noe and Linda Noe Laine Professor of China in World Affairs. Professor Johnston, now well known for his writings on socialization theory, identity and political behavior, and strategic culture, mostly as those relate to the study of East Asian international relations and Chinese foreign policy, was, at that time, a young man. I was excited to take his course. During the first week of class, standing in front of us with his reddish hair in a khaki GDR army jacket (or maybe it was PLA), he proposed to us that, from the perspective of the social sciences, there was no such thing as “culture.” He then challenged each and every one of us to prove him wrong by coming up with a definition to go with this all-important but amorphous concept. None of us could, though not for lack of trying. I encourage you to try this little assignment yourself right now. How do you define “culture”?

Richard Ned Lebow writes in the 2011 Millennium—Journal of International Studies, “Even by the loose standards of social science, culture is a vague, catch-all term that has been used in so many ways for so many ends that there is little to be gained, and perhaps much to be lost, from attempting to impose my own definition, especially the kind of narrow and technical understanding essential to “operationalise the concept.” Professor Johnston said much the same thing to our class before proceeding to shoot down every definition we came up with. In the end, we could only agree: “There’s no such thing as ‘culture.’”

The first place we got hung up in our IREA class was thinking about culture, as you may have as well, in terms of the nation state— the traditional arts of nation states, in particular. We were also including in our desperately forged definitions of culture things like language and sports and cuisine. It was an international relations class, after all, so we tried to corral the question by placing it in its familiar international contexts—Korean culture, Japanese culture, Chinese culture . . . . Johnston countered that it might actually be easier for us to drop the map-line construct (which, of course, we should recognize as little more than a product of human imagination) and contemplate culture as something that can be more easily shared, for example, by people who work globally in the IT industry, regardless of nationality.

Lewis Henry Lapham, great grandson of the founder of Texaco, argues similarly in his 2015 Lapham’s Quarterly, that “Beverly Hills and the Upper East Side of Manhattan belong to the same polity [read culture] as the sixteenth arrondissement in Paris or the Peak in Hong Kong; the yachts moored off Cannes and the Costa Brava sail under the same admiralty that posts squadrons in Bali and Miami Beach. . . . [To these people] the downmarket American becomes as foreign and frightful as a wandering Arab.” Lapham appears to be arguing that the culture of shared class transcends national boundaries (as long as one is not in the first place Arab). Professor Johnston might have agreed.

In a recent issue of the New Yorker, Elizabeth Kolbert reports on an experiment called the “illusion of explanatory depth,” in which two professors show that people believe we know much more than we actually do. To prove their hypothesis, the researchers turned to that indispensable cross-cultural icon, the toilet. Most people have used one. But do you really know how it works? The professors asked Yale graduate students to explain in detail, in writing, how a toilet operates, and then to rate their performance. “Toilets, it turns out,” writes Kolbert, “are more complicated than they appear.” And the study revealed most of us know close to nothing about their mechanics. She goes on to weigh the cost of this practical ignorance against the cost of political ignorance—how we treat public policy the same a flushing a toilet, as if we are all experts by simply possessing the ability to press a lever: “It’s one thing for me to flush a toilet without knowing how it operates, and another for me to favor (or oppose) a [public policy] without knowing what I’m talking about.” I take this to mean that, in my relationship with my toilet (as opposed to that with my government), it makes no difference to either the toilet or me if I understand the series of events that occurs when I compress the handle (or pull the chain, or simply exit the stall—it seems even the assertion of a common reference to bathroom culture now no longer holds water). Though Kolbert’s article doesn’t exactly match the point I am making here, when I read it, it did occur to me that the study’s “illusion of explanatory depth” describes well the dilemma we were faced with in our International Relations class.

We (speaking universally, here, in one of the very rare contexts universalism holds up) empty our bladders often, and, in the narrower context of the English-speaking world, we speak the word “culture” almost as often. But do any of us actually know what it means? In Korea we use the word munhwa 문화 文化 (wenhua in Chinese), a word that is tied to being literate and civil. The connotations are different than in the English “culture,” though, which originally related to agriculture. Chinese often refer to a person as having or not having wenhua, a word indicative of class, similar to the use of “cultured” to mean “classy” in English.

When two people speak of culture, what are the chances both are ascribing the same meaning to that word? And what in the world is meant by terms like “culture wars”? Is it the same as a “clash of civilizations?” We students of Professor Johnston walked into class one morning believing we knew what culture was; two hours later, we had come to begin to realize the “depth” of our “explanatory illusion.” A great teacher might be defined as a person who asks a question you continue to think about over the course of your lifetime. By this measure, young Professor Johnston was one of the greats.

Ever since that day, I have been trying to come up with a definition of culture—not one that I can “operationalise” but simply a definition roomy enough to contain the many worlds I have encountered in my voyages across so many of Kipling’s envisioned “seas.” By their nature, words (especially, it often seems, English words) are not built for roominess. As many scholars have written about at length, the job of words is to circumscribe/ contain/compartmentalize our vast interconnected and otherwise incomprehensible universe—not to provide loosey-goosey definitions for life’s margin-less moments. Nevertheless, Professor Johnston’s challenge continues to poke at me. But I may be beginning to hone in on something that might work, if not for him, at least for me—a notion that culture is what happens at the points at which we intersect—those bits of shared territory we co-occupy at any given time. Without being, as they say in the world of Law, “void for vagueness,” this loose definition is open enough to accommodate the ways we commonly use the word, e.g., “business culture,” “arts and culture,” “Korean culture,” “youth culture,” “popular culture,” “Cultural Revolution,” “culture wars.” According to this definition, as few as two people may share a culture. We are used to thinking of culture as representing some sort of critical mass, e.g., “national culture” or “religious culture.” But is a friendship, especially a long one, also not a kind of culture? At the other end of the continuum, my airy definition of “culture” even encompasses the seven newly discovered earth-sized planets around a sun in a different galaxy— for the minute we “discover” these cosmological entities through the lenses of our magnificent telescopes, (and the possibilities they present for extraterrestrial life), we create the intersectional territory needed to qualify for that definition.

Meanwhile, back here on earth, let me come back to the culture-sceptic Professor Johnston’s biography, in which he references something called “strategic culture” which he elsewhere defines as “an ideational milieu that limits behaviour choices.” Here one might demand, in the spirit of the day (or this article, at least), “Define milieu!” If you do look it up, you will find “milieu” means something like “a person’s social environment”—which would seem to have us wading into waters at least as murky as those of “culture.” Johnston elaborates: “[S]trategic culture [comprises] shared assumptions and decision rules that impose a degree of order on individual and group conceptions of their relationship to their social, organizational or political environment.” I am happy to find the Professor and me headed in the same direction on our common quest to resolve the query he presented so long ago. “Shared assumptions and rules that impose order on a group” might be governing principles or at least a regulatory regime for the shared territory at the point of intersection I have come to in my current working definition of culture. I am not sure that the points have to impose order if we are not talking strategy, though— often, groups with a high degree of shared points of intersection are those most passionately in conflict with one another, i.e. black and white Americans, Israelis and Palestinians, North and South Koreans, Jeolla Provincers and Gyeongsang Provincers, Europe in general—but they provide a shared frame of reference from which to proceed into relationship.

I suspect the current longing of the old folks for the good ol’ days has something to do with a longing for a time when “Us” and “We” shared more points of intersection—in other words, when “We” shared “a” culture—an anchor that prevented “Us” (우리) from untethering and floating into the great and infinite world of “They” (남) and “They” from getting not only across “our” borders but into “our cultural space.” When Hitler declared in 1924, “All the human culture, all the results of art, science, and technology that we see before us today, are almost exclusively the creative product of the Aryan,” he was proclaiming the purity of the Aryan culture as much as he was defending the primacy of the Aryan race.

Edward Said, in Orientalism, points out that physical and mental— psychological (that is, cultural)— boundaries are more or less the same thing. Alluding to the fact that the word “culture,” in the Middle English sense, stood for “cultivation of the soil,” Said writes:

[T]his universal practice of designating in one’s mind a familiar space which is “ours” and an unfamiliar space beyond “ours” which is “theirs” is a way of making geographical distinctions that can be entirely arbitrary. I use the word “arbitrary’ here because imaginative geography of the “our land/barbarian land” variety does not require that the barbarians acknowledge the distinction. It is enough for “us” to set up these boundaries in our own minds; “they” become “they” accordingly, and both their territory and their mentality are designated as different from “ours.”

“Ours” is when, in the good ol’ days, “we” all watched “the” news together at 6 p.m. “We” went to “the” movie, or “the” concert, or drove out “the” road to “the” supermarket. “We” bought “the” number one song at “the” record store. Even in cities, choices were bounded in a way they are not anymore. “Our” shared “culture” created community—a place where “We” agreed on facts and felt safe to speak our minds because “We” were all coming from the same reference points. Today, those pesky “Tubes” (the Internet) have turned a flattened world into a Shrinky Dink and revolutionized choice, letting “They” seep into every aspect of “Us,” that many experience as a poison gas polluting the culture of “Our.”

In Japan, as early as the 9th century, monks created a whole new syllabary for imported vocabulary from China called katakana. Extended to all foreign words in modern usage, this system keeps foreign words from infecting “pure” Japanese on the page. In America today, at the countryʼs highest levels of government, the erosion of the imagined “Us” is being attributed to infiltration of national borders—to the disintegration of physical (and racial and ideological/religious) space. But the breakdown of “community” is happening even in the (mythically) monoethnic, homogenous society of Korea. I suspect the “Them” here are primarily the old folk (who are also often rural). Many would argue this also to be the situation in America today at the moment when young Americans were asked to choose between two candidates who tied Ronald Regan for the oldest in history. Thus, the point of intersection contemplated in my definition must be seen as inhabiting not only a common physical (or digital/ virtual) space, but a shared temporal space, as well. As the British author L.P. Hartley famously wrote in the opening lines of his 1956 novel The Go-Between, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” In the land of the Millennial, the aging Baby Boomer becomes more a foreigner and less a naturalized citizen with each passing digital day.

I may still be struggling to nail down an answer to Professor Johnston’s question, but what is clear is that the spatial or temporal point of intersection is a place of immense power. If culture were a thing, the shared territory might be a more static space. But what my professor, Mr. Said, and I all seem to be in agreement on is that culture is not a thing but a process. We may begin by forging an “Us” out of individual identity. We may be able to fool ourselves into thinking we have no use for “Them.” Until the only thing that’s running harder than my broken toilet in Alaska is my Iranian Baha’i plumber who is fast making his way to Canada to avoid being sent by the U.S. government back to his home country, where being mistreated on the basis of his religion is not out of the range of possibilities.

The world is intrinsically, and increasingly so, made up infinite points of intersection. It’s not that we enjoy less commonality in our bounded spaces, but that those spaces increasingly intersect with the spaces of others. Culture thus continuously changes both places and the people residing in those places, as it flows across visible and invisible borders looking to create a new iteration of itself. The possibilities for combinations of intersecting points increase exponentially. Amidst all of this unavoidable change, if we can accept that culture is something we do instead of something we have, maybe we can begin to wield its power to build a new Golden Age, rather than seeking to prop up a feeble and always, from the view point of now, imagined “great” past.

Professor Jocelyn Clark

Jocelyn Clark is a Professor at Pai Chai University and KBLA Arts Ambassador.


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