AN INTERCHANGE ON CULTURE


TIMOTHY READY and GEORGE F. McLEAN


T. Ready:

1. Culture and human interests: Culture is a human artifact in symbolic form; it is used by human beings to adapt to the environment. Therefore, the cultural premises shared by people (groups and societies) have adaptive value in relation to the environments being faced. Nonetheless, while culture is the main tool of homo sapiens in adapting to the environment, it is much more. Just as culture is a human product, humans are a cultural product, for culture is part of our environment. Indeed, only through culture do we encounter nature. (See Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality.)

Bearing this in mind, I do not view culture as a simple form of material determinism. Humans have many interests that are a complex function of psychological needs and predispositions and unique cultural formulations. These are important in influencing cultural constructions. Though the desire to maximize material advantage is not universal, it is part of the human condition that we are predisposed to seek some degree of security. We are predisposed also to seek filiation--to feel that we are related to other people, to nature and to conceptualizations of the supernatural (see Ch. 10 of J. van Baal, Symbols for Communication). We need to feel that we understand that part of our environment perceived as relevant to our ability to act.

Ethnological research has revealed a number of behavioral predispositions which are a complex function of biology, unique cultures, and the exigencies of living in society; and the psychologist, A. Maslow, has identified a number of human needs. Although I would agree that we may be predisposed to a greater or lesser extent to seek to secure most of what he discusses, the specificity of Maslow's elaboration opens it to the criticism of being culture bound. In any case, when I refer to interests as related to culture, the interests are as mentioned above.

The examination of work as a social phenomenon seems often to be the most useful place to begin in attempting to understand society and culture. Work is broadly understood as socially organized productive activity with resultant control over the product of labor. This view of work is related to the early writings of Marx. It is reflected also in the very insightful encyclical of John Paul II, Laborem exercens, and its discussion of work, both as subjectively experienced and "objectively" organized, as being related to the creation of a just society and to the understanding of injustice. This encyclical and the long-standing importance of the Christian Church as a social institution central to the cultural heritage in Central America, provide a basis for the statement that the church offers the best hope for the securing human rights through peaceful means. Hope, however, is not the same as expectation.

2. Material and symbolic components in cultural change. How can it be demonstrated that structures of oppression are no longer viable? It is useful to examine various forms of social power or control over the environment of others. I continue to believe that the history and continuing relationship of economic and political dependence is essential to understanding "fields of power" in Central America: this backdrop is too obvious to ignore. There are other forms of power, however: "the power of reason," "moral force," and the power wielded by great writers, "prophets" (secular or sacred or both), politicians and religious leaders. In addition to both the arbitrary and the culturally legitimized use of power through social institutions, those who can both articulate and communicate a compelling vision of society and culture have great power. The power of cultural myth makers is charismatic, but it is likely to wear off when the charismatic figure (perhaps E. Cardenal) has to exercise power in a different way, e.g., as administrator and implementor of "The Great Vision." A shared perception of threat from foreign powers helps to perpetuate the charismatic vision in the face of less than hoped for results from the new social order.

Practically, power never is absolute. Even the most oppressed have some influence over the environment of the more powerful. Power can be understood as a dimension of all social relationships and all structures.

The essential question is how to mold a compelling new vision of the Central American States which could be a template for the construction of a more just society and could bring an end to the chronic and acute violations of human rights through peaceful means? In order for a new social and cultural order to be accepted, the previous social order with its attendant cultural formulations must be shown to be not viable. History shows that change seldom comes until there is a serious crisis in the existing socio-cultural system. Although the crisis need not be economic (see A.F.C. Wallace's "Revitalization Movements"), the likelihood of change in this era of the myth of modernity and development is slim in the absence of a demonstrably viable economic order. Evidence suggests that the poor are now, and for a long time have been, experiencing an increasingly acute economic crisis. Surely this is a major (but not sole) factor explaining the breakdown of the social fabric. A worsening debt crisis, a severe world recession or a depression almost certainly would lead to change in which elites would perceive that the current social order is no longer viable for them. The cultural crystalization of circumstances at that time would dictate whether such a crisis would lead to social reconciliation in the face of common adversity or to the strengthening of inequitable structures.

3. Human responsibility within prevailing structures. Upon reflection the statement that "Structures are no more than the habitual patterns in which individual human beings interact with each other" seems an overstated attempt to draw attention to the common tendency to analyze or view structures in a depersonalized way. Both thought and action are influenced by structures, and we participate in them. To ignore personal responsibility for participation in--and influence by structures--masks behind culturally legitimated institutions our responsibility for our actions. An important implication of this for the academic enterprise is that commonly accepted paradigms in disciplines are culturally relative. To believe that we are "objective"--that is, scientific in some acultural sense detached from social influences--is naive and perverts or hinders our ability to understand social life in its more existential dimension. Cultural interpreters (prophets, great writers, academics) are not detached from society nor are they objective. Rather, their genius is derived from their ability to understand intentions, suffering, and the striving of others. This gives their cultural "crystalizations" their power and makes them compelling. This is central to our discussion and understanding of authentic cultural representations vs the spurious and/or demagogic.

4. Emergent properties of social, political and economic structures. Structures have properties or functions which transcend the intentions and probably the consciousness of individual actors. Their latent functions comprise a level of analysis unto itself. Nonetheless we must be aware of the personal responsibility or the effects of structures intended or otherwise.

G. McLean:

The division between the pragmatic-political, the economic and the cultural dimensions highlights the distinctiveness of these contributions. Each dimension has its own importance and each has its proper and indispensable relation to the others. To the degree that the present problem centers upon the powerful dissociative effects of the modern abstractive powers for rationalizing life, the most difficult and possibly the most important part of working toward an adequate conception of the problem and of possible directions for a response may be precisely in this reintegration in contemporary terms.

In this work there are many starting points. The choice among them could be a matter of methodology, but it could also connote a sense of what is most important or a ranking of values. This becomes especially important in concrete decision making. For example, that the Indian population of Guatemala came to be treated simply as a factor in the international labor market was not a problem on the basis of the work involved. They were quite willing to work--and even migrated to do so--but this tore them from their cultural fabric, and hence from their self-understanding in relation to their family, land, community and ancestors. Labor was an issue only in as much as it related to the broader context of human dignity and to the human interrelations articulated in their culture.

This is not to say that the labor or economic issue is not vitally important, indeed, it is a particular flash point in the present confrontation of rationalization and traditional culture. Nevertheless, its proper understanding requires that it be inserted appropriately into their hierarchy of values and their pattern of relations (i.e., their culture) in order correctly to interpret and respond to related economic problems of work and land, and related political problems of social authority, responsibility, etc. Thus, e.g., in U.S. Indian and some African cultures where land is not owned but only used, schemes for the distribution of land ownership--which in other cultures might be a requisite for a solution--may be only a new form of the basic problem of land disappropriation. Similarly, in the organic social relations of Asian cultures a notion such as "one man-one vote" could be a formula for anarchy.

This underlines the importance of studying human interrelations according to the cultural patterns which shape human interaction in work, production and distribution, as in all other parts of life, according to symbols and myths which are characteristic of a people. The possibility of change can be opened by an economic crisis, but for its direction one still must look to "the cultural crystalization of circumstances" for the determination of whether this will be followed by "social reconciliation in the face of common adversity or . . . inequitable structures." 

If this be so then we must look to that cultural crystalization which makes the difference. This will require study of the coordinating cultural patterns of the tradition and of the challenge to these from new modes of rationalizing and working with the physical and social environment. In this the goal will be to identify the characteristics of an appropriate template for future social relations and to mobilize the elements of concern and commitment required for progressive social transformation.

T. Ready:

A critical challenge in resolving the current problems in Central America is undoubtedly to devise a new "cultural crystalization" that would serve as an appropriate "coordinating template" with a solid foundation in the culture(s) of the region. If there is to be any hope of a peaceful resolution of the conflicts, this must be done.

But the conflict should not be described as being caused by cultures clashing--dissociative, rationalized modern culture with traditional Indian culture. If this is a correct reading it seems important carefully to examine what is meant by the term "traditional culture." Although I could accept the term with some major reservations in reference to rural indigenous peoples of Guatemala, the term does not fit very well with the cultural orientation of most other peoples of Central America. The term could seem to imply that there exists some rich, timeless culture that has been isolated from the outside world. As argued by Mexican sociologist, Rodolfo Stavenhagen, however, in Social Classes in Agrarian Societies, and "Seven Fallacies about Latin America," and by economist Andre Gunder Frank in "The Development of Underdevelopment", the terms "modern" and "developed" should not be taken as synonymous. Neither should the terms "traditional" and "underdeveloped." Traditional societies are not underdeveloped because of the integrity of their social institutions and of their cultures. Rather, most rural peoples of Central America have been subjected to a systematic process of underdevelopment wherein the autonomy of their cultures is undermined. More importantly, the viability of their social institutions has been undermined. 

Thus, the problem is not just one of cultures in conflict. Such conflict may be important, but "only in as much as it is related to the broader context of human dignity and human interrelations as articulated by culture." I would emphasize the meaningfulness of human action and communication. This is a function not just of the integrity of a cultural tradition (viewed in isolation), but also of the utility of culturally informed social action and institutions to productively address human intentions. As I argued above, these intentions are defined by the complex interaction of unique cultural traditions and psycho-biological predispositions (e.g., not to go hungry, to protect the lives of loved ones). When a sociocultural system does not provide the means for taking action to address these fundamental problems of the human condition of a large segment of the population, that sociocultural system is distorted. As this distortion is a function of hundreds of years of colonialism and neocolonialism, any cultural crystalization which would lead to a just peace must come to grips with this fundamental issue.

G. McLean:

The expression "culturally informed social action and institutions" is particularly apt, for cultural factors appear to relate to social action very much as form to matter. In this light the terms "sociocultural system" and "the complex interaction of unique cultural traditions and psycho-biological predispositions" can also be helpful.

The importance of "psychobiological predispositions" can be reflected upon helpfully in terms of the classically articulated priority of the formal and actual to the material and potential which it shapes. Conversely, however, the form is evoked from the matter which, in turn, must be disposed for this form. Hence, a progressive indisposition of the matter will lead to the substitution of one form by another. 

The term "traditional culture" is not intended to suggest a "timeless culture . . . isolated from the outside world" or "the integrity of a cultural tradition (viewed in isolation)," but derives rather from Gadamer's sharp and persistent polemic against the predominance of technical reason in modern life. Its goal is to substitute for the Platonic sense of meaning and values as separated, transcendent and static ideals, the Heideggerian sense of these as arising originally within human experience. In this latter sense, meaning and values live only by means of their continual and creatively new applications in ever changing circumstances. In turn, more of the truth is manifest through the application of the tradition in new circumstances.

Though truth comes from experience this, however, is not an empiricism, and if it is applied in ever new ways in new circumstances that is not a pragmatism. Truth, meaning and values then are not reduced to their circumstances; their content as had by human persons is more rich than any particular application. For this reason we can speak of tradition, of truth as passed on (tradita) and lived in new manners as circumstances change. This, in turn, manifests the distinctive character of properly human capabilities: they include, but reach beyond, the limited determinateness of physical objects. This is identically the foundation of the human capacity for freedom, language, and culture.

For this reason also culture as form has a priority in its relation to the psycho-biological predispositions to which it relates as to matter. This is not recognized in systems which begin from food gathering and see the distinctively human merely as instrumental to this process--whether this be approached from the point of view of consumption or of production. This is not because humans do not make good instruments for such a process--a person can be a magnificent instrument. Rather, the priority of culture over the psycho-biological processes rests precisely on the basis of the human capacities of understanding and of will which qualitatively quite surpass these processes.

When this is considered also in terms of final cause--that is, of what it is for or of what people are really concerned about--it renders intelligible the willingness to undergo enormous physical hardship including hunger, decades lived in prison, exile or hiding, and even the death of one's loved ones. This has always occurred when a people's freedom--or what might be the same, their cultural identity understood as what they freely have chosen to be--is threatened.

Only social action that is "culturally informed" is human action; action that is not so informed is by that very fact dehumanizing, no matter how productive it might be. This is what makes the issue of cultural authenticity so central at the present time in which technical interests and instrumental reason are rapidly changing the patterns of social relations on all levels from the international to the familial. Only if this transformation is culturally informed can it hope to fulfill its potential for promoting rather than destroying human rights and peace.

T. Ready:

Clarification of how such concepts as "traditional culture" and "cultural tradition" are employed is obsolutely crucial to understanding these topics. The social sciences typically have been reluctant to deal with the meaning of "truth," or concepts like "freedom," "liberation," or "authentic culture." The clarification of what each of us means by these value laden terms can only help to draw out the often unstated premises behind our thinking and the thinking of others.

To speak of psycho-biological predispositions as influencing the meaningfulness of human action does not mean that our "human nature" is somehow prior to, or more important than, culture. Rather, human nature, with its jumble of ill-defined and sometimes mutually inconsistent urges, is expressed through culture. It is impossible to think of human beings without thinking of culture or some other term(s) roughly representing that which we understand to be culture. However, to consider human beings apart from their existential circumstances, and not as intentional creatures with certain psycho-biological predispositions inevitably enmeshed in patterns of social interaction (exchange) can produce an excessively sterile view of humanity. Though humans "willingly undergo enormous physical hardship, hunger. . ." this is not because cultural form somehow supercedes action. Rather, those aspects of human nature having to do with something larger and transcendent of oneself have, in the course of social exchanges and cultural currents, come to take precedence over one's material welfare. There are probably as many social and cultural explanations for why this happens as there are instances in which it occurs.

To focus solely on how an individual's action is culturally informed, however, would miss the point that human action takes place in patterns or structures, the order of which is largely beyond the control of individuals--particularly individuals with relatively little social power. To understand whether an individual's action is informed by a cultural tradition (Gadamer), one must examine how patterns of social interaction in which the individual is involved are established and maintained. What are the manifest and latent functions of such patterns of interaction in work (broadly defined) and other aspects of life? Such questions must be addressed at more than one level of analysis, and this is what is most problematic in attempts to understand the issues in Central America.

Noting that "technical interests and instrumental reason are rapidly changing the patterns of social relations on all levels," and the importance of this for understanding questions of culturally informed human rights, peace, and human action seems to consider modernization (understood as technological change and attendant social restructuring) as the primary cause of disruption in Central America. However, technological change, particularly in the Third World, is deliberately introduced by those with power within specific economic and political structures. Whether the changes associated with modernization function to enhance human liberation (P. Peachey) or to dehumanize social action by destroying authentic cultural traditions (Gadamer) depends on how such changes are introduced, what values inform such innovation, and what consequences (intended and otherwise) these innovations have upon extant shared systems of meaning (culture) and upon the viability of social action to address human intentions.

Thus, I reiterate my argument that the conflicts of Central America are not the result of a value-neutral process of modernization and rationalization of life, but rather, a question of what values inform the way in which modernization takes place, and what interests are singled out for "rationalized" treatment. Inasmuch, as over the years, the majority of the peoples of Central America have had little or no say in this process, I suggest that their interests have not been represented and that this has "dehumanized" social interaction and undermined customary cultural meanings. The motivation of the poor to engage in violent conflict, thereby risking their material well being for a vision--realistic or not--of a better society, is derived primarily from this. Thus, any new cultural vision, if it is to come to grips with "inauthentic culture" and structural injustice and thereby prevent further violent conflict, must address the question of power, and not just the inexorable and seemingly neutral process of modernization.

G. McLean:

The above is most helpful, particularly concerning: (a) the importance of examining how patterns of social interaction are established and maintained, (b) what values and interests inform innovation, (c) what consequences follow, (d) the need for people to have a say in the direction of change if it is not to undermine customary cultural meanings, (d) the general question of power and (e) the need to attend to multiple levels of analysis. The following suggestions concern three areas, namely, method, values, and the person.

1. Method. It would seem useful to note the distinctive character of terms such as `truth,' `freedom' or `authentic culture.' They do not lend themselves to a single or univocous definition, and hence do not lend themselves to rationalistic methodologies predicated upon clear and distinct ideas. Instead, such terms are analogous and have a different meaning each time they are used in order to be able to reflect the freedom of the person and the uniqueness of cultures. This implies, in turn both distinctive methodologies for knowledge and distinctive structures for social action in order to protect and promote personal and cultural identity and freedom. In an age of progressive abstractive rationalization of all phases of life this is a central and pervasive problem.

The diversity of levels of analysis must be attended to because each has its own ordering of priorities which cannot be extended to another level of analysis without creating difficulties. Thus, as material causes or factors the psycho-biological are predispositions and have precedence over other factors. This cannot be converted into a precedence in the formal order or that of values without serious confusion. One may need to eat three times today and may not vote until tomorrow, but this does not imply that one's capacity for eating is of a higher nature than one's capacity for citizenship.

Sometimes such precedences enter surreptitiously and implicitly through the employment of a temporal model according to which material welfare is attended to before more transcendent dimensions of meaning. Since in this model the latter "come to take precedence over the material" only after some time and for socio-cultural reasons, they are interpreted as being less fundamental and less necessary to human life. What began as a temporal order becomes a ranking in value. Indeed, what for Aristotle was but a working hypothesis concerning a temporal sequence (e.g., his notion of wonder beginning only after material needs were satisfied), is unsuspectingly transformed into a metaphysical position concerning the nature of reality as it was for Marx. All the evidence from symbolic artifacts, however, suggests that the lives of the earliest humans with the simplest social forms were patterned in terms clearly exceeding simply pragmatic goals. A transcendent totemic principle of Unity was not a subsequent development, but the initial position. The notion that mankind moved from material to transcendent concerns is anacronistic, contrary to all evidence, and reflects simply a specifically modern evolutionary materialism.

In principle, the simple analysis or distinction of the various levels should not be a difficulty, because each level is essentially related to the one above it in such wise that taking the higher into account does not cancel the others. The fact that nutrition supports the sensory capabilities of an animal does not diminish the importance of nutrition. Indeed, it is only in relation to the higher that the lower factors can truly be realized. (Ingestion of a physical substance which renders a person senseless is not appropriate nutrition).

Unfortunately, fascination with clear and distinct ideas, however, holds us in the analytic mode and impedes such synthetic interrelation of all levels of human life. This would seem to be the case whether cultural forms are seen as superseding action, or the other way around. In reality, we act in terms of our distinctive cultural forms whether the action be a dance at Ankor Wat or study at Berkeley.

At present, Latin American scholars appear to be giving increasing attention to the work of the late anthropologist Prof. Koch, the philosopher J. Scannone and others (see Stromata). They have traced some roots for one Latin American philosophy to the Andean cultures with their notion of the ever fruitful Earth as Pacha Mama. From this they draw a particularly action and community oriented sense of being as nosotros estamos. In this may lie, I suspect, the possibility of retrieving something of that unity of matter, action and spirit constituted by the human person which our modern capacities for rational analysis have lost during the difficult process of thematization.

2. Value. Undoubtedly, the central question is which values inform the way in which modernization takes place. This is due to a number of factors.

First, as mentioned above, change is inevitably problematic when induced by power elites without attention to, or consultation regarding, the concerns of large portions of the citizenry. Where change goes against the will of the people it is understandably explosive. Though questions of power and of interests are important, massively people do choose to change their lives, and almost universally in the direction of the newer means of building and implementing homes, schooling, health, or communications. Many move to the city so that at least their children will have new opportunities.

Such changes in the direction of a more abstractive and technological implementation of life is not value neutral, but have profound influence upon interpersonal family and social relations. They induce new expectations and priorities as regards physical satisfaction, and imply new requirements and pressures upon time and attention. In other words, while the progressive rationalization of life is shaped differently by different cultures, it has great impact on each of these cultures. For countries which changed little during previous centuries, and even until after World War II, this implies specially intense dislocation. 

Hence, along with the question of how to handle what is inauthentic because imposed against one's will, and while recognizing that this has special problems due to the interrupted development of related mediating structures, there is the more general question of how to live through the substantive changes implied by a modernization which may well have been chosen for one of a myriad of reasons. It is truly, as Dr. Peachey notes, a tragedy within a tragedy (see pp. 66-80 above), and one with more than two levels. The inauthenticity comes not only from not being consulted or involved--leading to the plaintive cry: if only we were left alone! It comes also from the impersonal and potentially depersonalizing type of change that is being chosen-and this is perhaps especially true when the choice is made by those less experienced and hence less realistic.

What is hopeful is that it has been found that the process can be shaped differently according to the characteristics of different cultures, e.g., Western and Asian. This implies the possibility for shaping the process according to values which are characteristic of the culture; it founds the hope that technological change need not be destructive of a culture but can be informed thereby. If this be so then the new capabilities for communication need not be bereft of the value of freedom and made simply an instrument for control; the new instruments of power need not be faceless military machines shorn of that sense of order and responsibility which traditionally had characterized rule by the heads of leading families; and the rendering of service need not be reduced to the commercial exploitation of mass man. This will not happen, however, without sedulous attention to shaping these newly developing relationships by truly new applications of the values deeply felt by a culture. The good news--that which gives hope--is that the values of a culture can shape its process of change.

3. Culture as Mediation of Individual and Society. It is true that an individual's "action takes place in patterns or structures, the order of which is largely beyond the control of individuals--particularly individuals with relatively little social power," and that this could lead to the submersion and effective annihilation of the person in society. It is precisely for this reason that the resources of human dignity and freedom which have been lived in the past and are available to us as the tradition (the tradita) are so indispensable.

Hence, a focus upon "how an individual's action is culturally informed" would not miss the point. Rather, it precisely undergirds the hope for mediating the individual to the society, and vice versa, in ways that annihilate neither, but promote both. This is due to the facts: (a) that culture is the result of the free actions of the community over time, (b) that it provides those who are born into it with the possibility of interacting freely, harmoniously and productively with others, and (c) that this is precisely because in its distinctiveness and its unique exercise it is the analogous realm of `truth' and `freedom'. Hence, assuring that the culture is not overridden by the technical rationalization of the various spheres of physical and social life is identically the concrete process of "liberation" in the real circumstances of our time.

Along with attention to the patterns of interest and power, this attention to culture and its promotion promises to be a most promising avenue both for future investigation and for future social reconstruction.