A Turning Point in the Shifting Concept of Culture

If I had been asked as a child what I thought ‘culture’ is, I would have pulled out my hard-earned collection of tiny ‘golden’ (plastic) figures of women from all over the world, dressed in their cultural attire, for which I had tirelessly plugged a nickel gum-ball machine in order to acquire the entire collection. My favorite was from Thailand (although I think it said ‘Siam’- it was the early 1970’s-which brought on a discussion with my mother regarding the name of the country) she wore an elaborate headdress and was posed with her arms bent in right angles. As a child, this was a representation of ‘other cultures’ to me. I’ve lived in very culturally diverse areas all over Los Angeles, as well as primarily white (culturally ‘restricted’ and even racist) neighborhoods on the east coast, and have even felt like a foreigner at times in my own neighborhood, but I never really thought about that, at the time, as ‘cultural’ diversity. Consequently, I grew up very open to other cultures as a regular part of life, and when traveling have little difficulty assimilating in new situations. My simple definition of ‘culture’ would be “the methods a population of people devise to organize, structure, and enhance their daily life, which would include objects created during or for this process.” I would even stretch that to include the individual’s methods for carrying out his/her life, being considered culture, as I certainly feel that my own personal ‘culture’ clashes with that of the dominant, Western, culture. Actually, my view of culture has changed in the past few years, primarily as a result of my continuing education. I would say that my own shifting view of culture is indicative of not only the nebulous definition of the concept of ‘culture,’ as described in Raymond Williams discussion, but of the changing nature of the cultural process itself.

In a class last quarter I was introduced to the concepts that Raymond Williams discusses in our reader, in the book The Turning Point, by Fritjof Capra, (also author of The Tao of Physics), which had considerable impact on my view the ‘Sensate,’ or material, culture. Strongly influenced by the I Ching and the theories of Pitirim Sorokin, a leading 20th century sociologist, Capra’s view is that the Scientific Revolution and Age of Enlightenment were symptom/cause of a paradigm shift in the natural flow of energy on the planet, leading to a profound cultural imbalance, characterized by aggressive, expanding, competitive and patriarchal activity- or ‘Yang’ values, favored over ‘Yin’ values of cooperation, intuition, and environmental concern. Capra argues that this has resulted in academic, political, and economic systems that, although mutually supportive, are all but blind to the imbalance of the value system that motivates their activities, and that a change in values is inevitable. He feels the decline of patriarchy and end of fossil fuel are evidence of and contributing to, a global paradigm shift. (Capra. 1982: 33-39) Capra goes into great detail about the theories of Francis Bacon, René Descartes methods of scientific thought, and the physics of Isaac Newton which realized Descartes’ scientific thought, that became the only method for knowledge about the universe, influencing all branches of modern science. (55-58) This was the first contact I had with these illuminating thoughts about the development of society, and it helped put words to a growing unrest I had about our culture and its influence over the planet.

Descartes’ concepts consisted of an analytic method of reasoning that breaks thoughts and problems into parts, arranging them in their logical order, a reductionism that now characterizes Western thought and academia, notably the division between mind and matter as separate realms. (Capra. 1982: 59-60) The organic view of the Earth as the “nurturing mother” of the Middle Ages was replaced by the view of nature as a machine, which had a profound affect on people’s attitudes towards the earth and its resources. The Cartesian ‘scientific’ view was that the goal of science was the control and domination of nature, sanctioning its manipulation and exploitation. The nineteenth century brought the theory of Evolution, the idea that the present state of the earth was the result of a continuous development caused by natural forces, in which complex forms developed from simpler ones,(70-72) a concept that led to the hierarchal view of nature with man on top, specifically the “civilization” of man as an achieved state, that Raymond Williams discusses in the reading. (Williams. 1977: 13-15) Though Descartes philosophy included the existence of God as the common point of reference between mind and matter and the source of “the light of reason,” (Capra. 1982: 60) in coming centuries with the separation of ‘spirit’ from ‘matter,’ mention of ‘God’ was omitted, resulting in the “secularization” of nature and what Capra calls a “spiritual vacuum” he feels is characteristic of mainstream culture. He goes on to point out that another consequence of the Cartesian ‘separation of mind and matter’ is that the world as a mechanical system could be objectively described without acknowledging our position as observer, and that this became the ideal for all sciences, including the Social Sciences.(66) The ability to judge life, without considering our part in it, is the paradigm created by the Age of Enlightenment, a consequence of the separation of the body from mind/spirit.

Capra describes the affects of what he calls the “mechanistic view of life,”(earth/man as a machine) on the different areas of science, the most profound of which being the division into ‘different areas of science.’ While biologists have dissected the body down to its tiniest components and have gathered a lot of knowledge about the molecular structures, physicians have lost sight, according to Capra, of the patient as a human being.(1982: 138-147) In psychology, Capra points to the confusion about the nature of the mind as distinct from that of the brain, and how it interacts with the body, as another consequence of Cartesian division. (164-165) The Freudian model of psychoanalysis was based on Newton’s rational, mechanistic concepts of reality, and left no room for religious or mystical experiences, or altered states of consciousness, and such cases were/are labeled as some sort of mental ‘illness’ or psychosis. (187) Health has been reduced to mechanical functioning, with the doctor’s task to fix the ‘broken’ machine, (123) or even the part of the machine they specialize in, rather than trusting in the human body as a living system to heal itself, and the individual’s power to contribute to its own health by altering it’s lifestyle. The affects of this on our health ‘culture,’ how we view our well-being, is profound, and has shaped our mass healthcare system. This is a major difference I have with Western culture, I find my views of ‘healthcare’ are based more closely to Indigenous or Eastern methods of healing, which considers the whole person and the body’s inherent ability to heal itself, rather than the Western hierarchal view of the doctor’s role to ‘fix’ a ‘broken’ machine by prescribing the proper (scientist created) treatment.

Capra emphasizes that this tendency to model scientific concepts after Newtonian physics has become a handicap in many fields, but “more than anywhere…in the social sciences,” especially modern economics, which he says is “characterized by the fragmentary and reductionist approach that typifies most social sciences.” Capra’s thorough discussion of economics (Capra. 1982: Chapter 7) was perhaps the most relevant to our topic of culture, and illuminated for me the roots of many of our current socio-economic issues. Capra stated, like Williams, that division of ‘economics’ from the fabric of culture was the result of a fairly recent occurrence, as part of the division of the social sciences into separate academic departments. Critics who dissented from the narrow viewpoint of modern economics- defined as dealing with the production, distribution, and consumption of wealth- , were forced to remove themselves from the science of ‘economics.’ Karl Marx, according to Capra, refused to be called an economist as they were “merely apologists for the existing capitalist order.” (188-189) Capra goes on to point out that the error economists made in trying to apply the scientific method to Economics, is not taking into account the dynamic evolution of the economy, which is  dependent on the ecological and social systems in which it is part, but is now fragmented from. Economics is based on a certain value system in which our ‘standard of living’ is measured by annual consumption, the goal being maximum, growing consumption; discussion of values that can not be quantified and assigned monetary weighting, such as environmental costs, are evaded. (190-191) The fact that today’s world economy is based on outdated structural concepts that perpetuate inequality and unchecked exploitation of the planet’s resources by a wealthy ‘corporate class,’ is ignored as a ‘social issue’ by today’s economists. This attitude is reflected in most of the population who don’t make a connection between the unchecked consumption and accumulation of wealth that characterizes Western culture, and the impoverished and war-torn conditions in developing countries, or even the unequal access to resources within our own country. “The Economy” is treated as a separate thing, unrelated to the process of the daily life of a living being in a community of living beings, and not as part of a living, interrelated system.

It is Capra’s view that the emergence of economics as a separate discipline coincides with the emergence of Europe’s “sensate culture” at the end of the Middle Ages, and embodied in its institutions the “yang-oriented” values that currently dominate our culture and are the basis for our economic system. Medieval values, such as the belief in the sacredness of the natural world, discouragement of hoarding or money-lending, resources being for the use value of the community, were replaced by values of material acquisition, expansion, competition, and an obsession with science and technology. Most important in this shift in values was the rise of capitalism in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, supported by the Puritan self denying work ethic and frugal spending resulting in the accumulation of wealth as a reward, (Capra. 1982: 193-195) as well as John Locke’s philosophy of the individual’s “natural right” to property as “the fruits of one’s labor,” which had a strong impact in the development of modern economic and political theory. (69) Capra goes on to describe the consequences of the imbalance of “yang” activity in the inhuman practices of corporations, pointing out that this abuse of power is even more disastrous in so-called ‘developing countries’ (Capra uses the term “Third World”) where legal restrictions are not an issue,(224) problems that have only grown since Capra wrote The Turning Point. The abuse of the land and resources in producing ‘cash-crops’ instead of putting it to use for the local population is a global concern, with no apparent power in place to stop it, as corporate power seems to be above the law. Patriarchal attitudes, also ‘yang’ activity, are even more deeply ingrained in most societies, surviving revolutions and social movements, leaving men in control. The expansion of capitalism and wasteful consumerism in developing countries is presented as ‘progress,’ and part of the ‘duty’ of the dominant culture to spread throughout the developing world to save them from their desperate condition. (with never a question as to why their situation is desperate) This materialist, or “sensate” culture, Capra feels, has put society in a crises of imbalance, and major change is inevitable.

Capra describes the “turning point” we are about to reach, as (quoting Chinese text) “The yang having reached its climax retreats in favor of the yin” and feels we are at the beginning of a cultural evolution. He contrasts the yang cultural values of aggression, competition, expansion with yin cultural values of responsiveness, intuition, and cooperation (Capra. 1982: 37-38) He points to the “rise of feminist awareness,” the “holistic health” movement, various spiritual movements, and environmental groups, as evidence of the rising of yin activity, saying “once they recognize the commonality of their aims, all these movements will flow together and form a powerful force of transformation…” These movements form, according to cultural historian Theodore Roszak, the “counter culture.” (46)Though the corporate class that controls our economy is deeply committed to the status quo, even they know it is the (often ignorant) participation of the masses that keeps the capitalist culture functioning, leaving the power ultimately with us. In my experience with the Occupy Wall Street movement I felt the force of people coming together in recognition of that commonality, on a local and national, and even global level (via the internet), and so Capra’s concepts resonated with me. I would also add to that counter-culture the residents of various sustainable communities that have cropped up in the past couple decades, and of ‘Black Rock City,’ a.k.a. the Burning Man community, which has been referred to as a ‘sub-culture,’ although I would consider it part of the counter-culture. It makes me want to ask, how many people must be part of a ‘counter-culture’ before it is considered ‘culture?’

Since the concept of “culture” has, as Raymond Williams discussed, came to be associated with the “inner” life, the arts, literature, music, (Williams. 1977: 17) it is not considered important in describing the needs of humanity. Williams, a linguist, feels the answer to understanding the human process is in understanding the “changing concepts of language,” (20) while Capra stresses a needed shift in cultural values to what he refers to as the “systems view” of the earth, which looks at the world in terms of whole integrated living systems. (Capra. 1982: 266) My own cultural values are much more in tune with Capra’s ‘Systems view’ of the earth than with the current Western value system. The concept of ‘change’ is key in understanding ‘culture,’ even if we need to come up with a new word to express our values. My definition and use of ‘Culture’ stands ready to change as the needs of the people being represented dictates. Works Cited:

Capra, Fritzjof. The Turning Point. Simon and Shuster. 1982

Williams, Raymond. “Culture” Marxism and Literature. UK: Oxford UP, 1977. 11-20

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