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10 August 2010

Are Cultures Objects?

This post is related to Levi's post Relations All the Way Down, and the very interesting comment discussions that have ensued.  I'm not actually going to try to answer the above question, since I don't know nearly enough about Object-Oriented Ontology (OOO) to make a claim either way.  I will say that Levi's "strange mereology" confuses me, and I'm not sure I have the synaptic connections yet to fully grasp it.  It's that, I think - the independence of objects from the objects and relations that compose them - that keeps me from understanding/accepting OOO (at least part of the reason).  I'm hoping that Levi or Graham will offer some insights into an OOO theory of Culture, and how it responds to critiques of the concept. 

What I want to do, though, is offer a conception of culture that I'm trying to work out now as a basis for comparison and conversation.  It's not fully thought out yet, as will be obvious, but one of the best ways to think something out is to write it and discuss it.  I've already posted on the topic here and here, but only peripherally.  I'm drawing here from Latour, Law and De Landa, among others in trying to put together a concept of Culture that avoids the pitfalls of past conceptions, but maintains the useful components of the concept.  Maybe the concept I present here will correspond to an OOO conception, I'm not really sure, but I suspect not.
First of all, after reading Max's post and thinking it through for a while, I think the term Culture may be too weighed down by multiple connotations.  It may be impossible to extricate it from these, so it may have lost its value as a term for explaining how every encounter is overflowing.  Maybe Latour's associations would suffice.  In any case, I'm going to use the term Culture for now, just for the sake of simplicity. 

So what is a culture?  Cultures are heterogeneous associations, composed over time, formed and maintained by continual enactment and reenactment, which exert a causal effect on the behavior of individuals within the culture.  Let me take each of these aspects in their turn.

Heterogeneous Associations - Cultures are not made up only of humans, as has been traditionally thought.  They are composed of plants, animals, objects, and ideas as well.  These are not merely material substrates upon which we can act, but have agencies of their own and can dictate, in certain ways, the way we associate with them.  We can't treat a cow the same way that we treat an elk, and vice versa, because these animals cause us to interact in different ways.  So, when looking at a culture, we have to look at all of the different components that compose them.  We also have to look at how the components are associated.  Cows in India are very different from cows in the U.S. because the association between humans and cows are different (were composed differently) in these two places. 

Composed Over Time - Cultures don't simply emerge when things come into contact with one another, they must be composed over time through the creation of new associations - i.e. new tools, systems of organization, buildings, city plans, etc.  These associations kind of pile up over time so that a sort of structure emerges.

Formed and Maintained by Continual Enactment and Reenactment - The associations that compose culture come into being because they are enacted by the people and other things in the culture.  Once they are enacted, they must be reenacted continually or else they will decay.  If one person makes a certain kind of tool - an obsidian blade, for example - then never makes it again, it would be hard to call that cultural.  But if the person makes it again and again, and other people start making the same or similar tools, then it starts to get some cultural qualities.  If the group then makes it again and again over several years, then it is surely cultural.  If the group stops making the obsidian blades for some reason - run out of obsidian, find a better material, find better tools, etc. - then that association will decay over time, not immediately, and this depends on how well composed the associations are. 
This is linked to thermodynamics for me.  The tendency of systems is to move toward equilibrium.  It takes a flow of energy to create and maintain organization.  This enactment and reenactment can be thought of as the continual flow of energy that creates and maintains cultural organization.  If the energy stops, then the system moves back to equilibrium.

Exert a Causal Effect On those Within the Culture - If cultures didn't affect the way people behave, then it would be pointless to talk about them - it would simply be an amalgamation of individual behaviors.  I think that, because cultures are heterogeneous and because they are composed over time, they do have causal effects on their constituent parts.  The associations that make up culture create new agencies, and these agencies are what overflows in every encounter.  So when I talk to my dog (yes, I do talk to my dog, though he doesn't often talk back and when he does it's usually nonsense), there are various agencies involved in that interaction besides just the two of us.  It could be the structure of the room, the clothes I'm wearing, the food I have in my hand, the tone of my voice, and so on - all of these have been composed already, and push and pull the two of us in different directions (not as a holistic entity, but as a multiplicity of entities). 

That's it.  If I've left anything out, please let me know.  Again, I'm still working this through, but I'd appreciate any advice or opinions, and I'd love to hear Levi or Graham's thoughts on Culture.

1 comment:

michael- said...


I must say my good man, you have been making great contributions to the OOO think-about with your questions here and at Levi Bryant’s blog.

I want to touch briefly on a few issues you raise:

1. I think you pin down exactly what needs to be thought about when you asked, “…at what point can a set of relations be said to have turned into an object?” That is very important because the language you used actually offers its own way forward. You asked ‘at WHAT POINT’? – and the answer is: precisely at the point something becomes more rather than less differentiated from its background context.

But there’s the rub! No-thing is ever completely separate or differentiated from its context. Both Einstein and quantum physics argue exactly this. Things, or objects, are only ever relatively differentiated from the ecology within which they emerge. All things depend (or interdepend) on other things. But, as Bryant pointed out, not all things interdepend (my word) on other things at the same time. It is not that all things are directly related to each other, but that all things exist under certain circumstances and depend upon particular conditions and background relations. And, to return, it is the degree to which any coalesced assemblage becomes relatively differentiated from the life-conditions (form of life) within which it always partakes and co-creates that it can be said to be an ‘object’ unto itself.

Continued HERE because of limted space...

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