[Paleopsych] David Steigerwald: Our New Cultural Determinism

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David Steigerwald: Our New Cultural Determinism
Society, 2005.1-2

First, the summary from the Chronicle of Higher Education (5.1.24):

The developed world has become infatuated with the idea of 
culture as the framework for understanding everything, says 
David Steigerwald, an associate professor of history at Ohio 
State University at Marion.

"Culture has become to our time what religion was to the early 
modern period and science to the Enlightenment," he writes.

We now have cultural politics, cultural citizenship, culture 
wars, and corporate cultures, he says. Fly fishermen and Elvis 
fans have their own cultures, as do drug addicts and people in 
recovery from addiction.

"We have oversold culture," he contends. "We have come to see it 
as far too powerful a thing. Stretching culture to encompass 
everything, using it as shorthand for complicated social 
developments, we have made the term meaningless, the fate of all 
overused words."

And focusing too much on culture can be dangerous, he argues, 
because it draws attention away from real sources of power, like 
wealth and the state.

"Had Mao labored under the cultural determinism of our time," he 
writes, "he would have said that power comes out of his ideas 
about the barrel of a gun."


Sometime in the last quarter century, without much notice or fanfare,
the developed world slipped from the Age of Materialism into the Age of
Culture. For at least 150 years, individual behavior, public
motivations, the whole infrastructure of the human enterprise was
understood, widely and basically, to be rooted in material interests.
Today, however, culture is the framework for understanding what moves
the world. Culture has become to our time what religion was to the early
modern period and science to the Enlightenment. Economic Man of the
nineteenth and early twentieth centuries has abdicated in favor of
Cultural Person, and the new regime has replaced class consciousness
with culture consciousness. The philosophical materialism that
underpinned a century of Marxism and evolved into economic determinism
has given way to a cultural determinism every bit as dogmatic as the old
hardcore communism. In the United States, if not throughout the
developed world, this cultural determinism has trickled down from the
intellectuals and now assumes the position of common sense. Culture is
the new catch-all, the court of first and last appeal, the basis of
public policy, the obligatory note, the place we all reside.

It is astonishing to contemplate the breadth and frequency of the appeal
to culture. It hardly takes a ready ear or wide reading to turn up
instances of culture's invocation. We're told that American politics
runs on the intensity of the "culture wars," because the legislative and
electoral life of the nation is consumed in "cultural politics."
Washington is awash in lobbyist money, yet the foot soldiers of the
culture wars are oblivious, concerned only with asserting their
"cultural identities." No wonder pundits and dispassionate scholars
alike have taken to analyzing something they call "political culture."

If current affairs of state have come to be regarded as essentially
cultural matters, so to have the great streams of history. The rise of
western power, according to the military historian Victor Davis Hanson,
was a matter not of political strength, technological genius, or
economic dynamism but of the "2,500-year tradition," running back to the
Greeks, of soldier democrats. This cultural tradition, he announces,
"explains not only why Western forces have overcome great odds to defeat
their adversaries but also their uncanny ability to project power well
beyond the shores of Europe and America. Numbers, location, food,
health, weather, religion-the usual factors that govern the success or
failure of wars-have ultimately done little to impede Western armies,
whose larger culture has allowed them to trump man and nature alike."
Hanson might sound a bit too much like a cheerleader for western
imperialism, but even the sharpest and wisest critics of the spread of
western power emphasized the culture in imperialism. It was as if they
wanted to claim that Joseph Conrad, not British weapons, had oppressed
Africa; the concept of "orientialism," not the French shackling of
workers to rubber trees, presumably subjugated Vietnam. In an
intellectual climate where imperialism is understood more as a function
of the culture of nation-states than of the political dynamics of
nation-building, citizenship itself is reconceived as "cultural
citizenship." Even so staid a discipline as diplomatic history now
appeals to culture, lest it fall into irrelevance.

That high-school and college students are now more likely to read Chinua
Achebe than Joseph Conrad must mean, by this reasoning, that imperialism
is done for. But then how to explain its reappearance in the Bush
administration's unabashed enthusiasm for conquest and domination?
Presumably Mr. Bush, Mr. Cheney, and Mr. Wolfowitz are all products of a
"cowboy culture," as is often suggested. Or perhaps they are products of
"the culture of national security," which according to Peter J.
Katzenstein leads some foreign-policy "actors [to] respond to cultural
factors" as much as, and sometimes more let stand than material
interests-apparently it's not about the oil after all.

Nor is this cultural determinism a bizarre quality of the
intellectuals-an element in "the culture of academia," I'm tempted to
say. It has seeped out far and wide. Health-care workers now are
instructed to heed the cultures of their patients. Thus Madeleine
Leininger exhorts her readers to surrender the "lofty contempt for
people whose culture is different or seems strange" through
"transcultural nursing." Nursing "can no longer be...an activity based
solely upon knowledge of man's physical and emotional needs." Our
multicultural environment means that "understanding the culture of an
individual seeking health care is just as important...as is knowledge of
the physiological and psychological aspects of an individual's illness."
Nurses cannot be mere caretakers to the ill; they have to be
anthropologists as well. Healthy living itself constitutes a culture,
according to the professionals, a helpful thing to understand when, for
instance, treating drug addicts. Drug addiction, according to one
expert, is "a way of life, a means of organizing one's daily existence,
and a way of viewing people and events in the outside world." Addiction,
in short, is a culture by anthropological definition. Successful
treatment begins with identifying how deeply "enmeshed" the addict is in
this culture and then moving them into the "culture of recovery."

What once would have been considered human idiosyncrasy, a quirky habit,
an off-beat hobby, or just plain weirdness nowadays all lay claim to
institutionalization as "cultures"-not, mind you, as cultural ephemera
but as cultures in and of themselves. Fly fishing is no longer a
peaceful pastime; its advocates insist that it is a culture in its own
right. No doubt church bingo, city-park chess playing, and flea-market
shoppers all deserve similar elevation. The cultural-studies scholar
Erika Doss recently revealed her discovery of the not-so-lost world of
"Elvis Culture," whose inhabitants regard Elvis Presley with all the
reverence of a god; they make pilgrimages to Graceland and create
shrines to him in their home. The faithful battle the bad corporate
types who scurry to control Elvis' image, knowing that they can rely on
the "mystery and wonder" that is The Eternal Elvis to help them
frustrate the efforts to vulgarize his memory.

If Elvis fans can have a culture of their own, there is no reason why
bureaucracies or corporations cannot. Whenever a major merger is
announced, the stock analysts ponder the mix of "corporate cultures" as
if arranging a marriage. Since Tom Peters invoked the term to explain
why some firms succeed and some fail, it has been taken as a matter of
course among organizational theorists that corporations have cultures.
Corporations "have personalities too, just like individuals," intones
the author of a standard collegiate text on organizational behavior. It
is legitimate to speak of corporate cultures, according to another,
because individual firms have their distinct artifacts, symbols, values,
and rituals; corporate cultures "are shared, communicated through
symbols, and passed down from generation to generation of employers."
Once its culture is institutionalized, the corporation "acquires
immortality," because it presumably lives beyond its founders. Just look
at McDonald's, "the definitive example of a powerful and successful
organizational culture. ... It's not by chance that a McDonald's meal
tastes pretty much the same everywhere."

When the Federal Bureau of Investigation came under fire for a rash of
near-scandals in Spring 2001, Iowa Senator Charles Grassley, who chaired
a subcommittee that oversaw the FBI, chalked the problems of
mismanagement and investigative sloppiness up to the Bureau's "cowboy
culture." Grassley's comments conjured up images of John Wayne or Jimmy
Stewart. But Grassley had in mind "a kind of a culture that puts image,
public relations, and headlines ahead of the fundamentals of the FBI."
Presumably this "cowboy culture" is different from the "cowboy culture"
of Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney. But then it is good to know that cultural
diversity thrives even among cowpokes and buckaroos.

We have oversold culture. We have come to see it as far too powerful a
thing. Stretching culture to encompass everything, using it as shorthand
for complicated social developments, we have made the term meaningless,
the fate of all overused words. The fundamental assumptions of our time
notwithstanding, culture is not the most powerful realm in human
affairs. Wealth and the capacity to exploit labor remain the fuel of
economic change; to these fall the privilege of setting the material
conditions of most people. Class conflict still revolves around the
struggle over just how powerful those forces are in daily life. The
state remains the seat of coercion and still enjoys the monopoly on
police powers. It still largely retains the focus of public loyalties,
even in those developed nations where patriotism long has been
considered vulgar. The state still sends out the military to push its
way against its enemies. To say that values and ideologies, which are
legitimately understood as cultural creations, are convoluted with the
economic and political realms is not incorrect, but it abstracts power
by investing it at a remove from its basic sources. Had Mao labored
under the cultural determinism of our time, he would have said that
power comes out of his ideas about the barrel of the gun.

It hardly needs to be said that the diversity movement and its
ideological companion, multiculturalism, are both creations of and
contributors to the inflation of culture. So too is cultural populism, a
less well-de-fined but nonetheless still influential sensibility.
According to this line of thought, which now provides the basic
assumptions of cultural history and American Studies and supplies the
foundational theories of Cultural Studies, individuals engage in a
constant process of culture making in a series of negotiations,
compromises, and subversions with the dominant culture that surrounds
them. The magic of "cultural agency" assumes that individuals receive
the cultural dictates of the powers that be but turn them to their own
interests. Cultural populism has its origins in two indirectly related
sources: the urban sociology of Americans such as Herbert Gans, and the
New Left Marxism of Stuart Hall and his colleagues in the Birmingham
School. These two sources share the conclusion that culture is made
through the engagement of the individual with the world around them.
Both Gans and Hall took as their nemeses the critics of mass culture,
particularly Dwight Macdonald, who held sway in Anglo-America in the
1950s. To the cultural populists, the mass-culture critics were utterly
wrong to think that mass-produced entertainment turned consumers into
"morons," to paraphrase Herbert Marcuse. Snobs like Macdonald were
denounced as disappointed ex-Marxists who had expected the working class
to share the same tastes as the intellectuals but who, having discovered
that the steel worker liked Jackie Gleason instead of Tolstoy, launched
their condescending barbs with all the venom of jilted lovers.
Working-class people, according to the populist line, were critical
consumers who deflected the stupefaction of Hollywood or television and
made meaning of their engagement and gave shape to their own distinct
world in the bargain. Once such claims were made on behalf of the
working class, they could be made as well about any group; so it wasn't
long before ethnic and racial minorities, gays, women, teenagers, the
"sub-alterns"-whatever group any given writer wanted to champion-were
similarly credited with this cultural agency and celebrated for having
created a culture of their own in spite of the conformist pressures of
the system.

Now deeply embedded in cultural studies of all sorts, populism rests on
several tenuous claims. It assumes that consumption, rather than
production, creates culture. As Herbert Gans wrote in his 1974 primer
Popular Culture and High Culture, "the critics of mass culture are
creator-oriented" while the new line of thought would be
"user-oriented." Gans's dry sociology has gotten hipped-up in Cultural
Studies scholars such as Andrew Ross, who has ridiculed mass-culture
theory as "a one-sided and inadequate account not only of the
contradictory power and significance of popular culture for its users
and consumers, but also of the complex process by which popular culture
actually creates political and social identities, by rearticulating
desires that have deep resonance in people's daily lives." Ross's
language is revealing-and typical-enough: "popular culture" apparently
has little to do with creation; it is to be "used and consumed." If
there is creative energy to be found, it goes not toward painstaking
craftsmanship but in choosing which of the presumably various
"identities" resonates most deeply with the consumers' "desires." In
this fashion, cultural populism reduces culture to consumer choice.

Almost invariably, cultural populists think of themselves as radicals
and cast the process of cultural agency as subversive. They seem willing
to concede that consumption cannot be revolutionary and content
themselves with the complacent conviction that by "rearticulating
desires" individuals stymie the imposition of prescribed gender roles,
bourgeois values, and mainstream expectations of various sorts. In the
logic of John Fiske, an émigré from the Birmingham School, because
"money is power in capitalism, then buying, particularly if the act is
voluntary, is an empowering moment for those whom the economic system
otherwise subordinates." Rather than tearing down the system as a whole,
the cultural populists believe that the autonomous consumption of
mass-produced commodities, regardless of their quality, undermines the
capacity of the ruling class to impose aesthetic standards on society as
a whole and therefore frustrates class domination. The populists abhor
taste, in other words; they do not oppose consumer capitalism. They want
things both ways. They need to believe that they are radical
intellectuals, and yet they like what capitalism sells. To swing this
they need a sufficiently flexible concept, so they reach for culture. In
their hands, reducing culture to consumer choice is the gimmick that
permits the comforting illusion of political struggle in the service of
being comfortable.

A similar point can be made about the diversity movement. Over the last
decade particularly, this broad movement insinuated itself into
practically every public institution and private organization in the
United States. It is safe to say that no large organization today is
without a "diversity plan." These plans, like the movement that has
pushed them, seek to widen access to the nation's institutional life for
members of minority groups. Fifty years ago, such an admirable
undertaking was known as racial integration. Having absorbed the
contemporary vanity that culture is what you want it to be, diversity
advocates insist that bureaucratic inclusion does not necessitate
cultural assimilation. The very pretense of cultural diversity assumes
that a person who has roots in a minority group can enter the full
thrust of a bureaucratized world without sacrificing those roots. Much
as the cultural populists mangle the culture concept so that they can be
radical and comfortable at the same time, so the diversity movement, and
its close partner, multiculturalism, permit the delusion that a person
can lead a life regulated within all the fixed parameters of
bureaucratic institutions and still retain their distinctiveness. Just
as the populists turn a willfully blind eye toward the economic system
that generates a mind-numbing array of homogenized plastic goods, so
multiculturalists ignore the well-known capacity of bureaucracies to
rule by standardization and the creation of uniform, homogenized
experience. Culture, in its debased form, allows them too to have it
both ways.

The hard question is why, when the end is basic justice, advocates of
racial integration need to hide themselves in the obscurity of
misconceived conceptions of culture. The answer closest to hand is that
multiculturalism is an argument for the expansion of bureaucracy, which
is of course in the self-interest of bureaucrats. In his illuminating
book The Diversity Machine, for example, Frederick Lynch notes that the
University of Michigan's diversity plan gave birth to more than a
hundred different programs. Once you accept the proposition that
cultural diversity and racial diversity are the same things and that
cultural diversity is a public good because it insures a rich experience
for all then there is no reason to end diversity programs. Given the
eagerness of university and corporate bureaucrats to take up the cause
of diversity, or when one takes note of the explosion of diversity
consultants who made a cottage industry of workshops that browbeat white
employees, it is hard not to think that diversity and bureaucratic
expansion are brothers under the skin.

But the matter runs deeper. Just as the cultural populists accept the
economic structure of contemporary society while lampooning aesthetic
standards as hidebound class domination, so multiculturalists reject the
assimilation ideal even as their purpose is to join the mainstream.
Though they strain for access to the institutional mainstream of
contemporary life, they claim, as does Elsie Cross, the matron of
diversity consultants, that the "dominant group" within American
corporations, presumably white men, "has set up and maintains the system
that discriminates and is the gatekeeper of access to power and equal
opportunity for people. Subordinated groups don't want to be invited
into or perpetuate the system, they want to change it so they can be
equal partners."

The underlying assumption beneath multiculturalism as a wing of social
thought and the diversity movement as its concrete public expression is
that culture is a permanent feature of groups, which in turn mostly
cohere by virtue of race and ethnicity. While many thoughtful people who
can fairly be called multiculturalists-Henry Louis Gates, Jr., the
historian David Hollinger, to name two obvious examples-deplore the
tendency to see culture as eternally fixed around one's origins, the
overriding tendency is to assume, as another prominent diversity
consultant, University of Michigan's Taylor Cox, writes in Creating the
Multicultural Organization in 2001, "that differences of social-cultural
identity such as gender, national origin, race and work specialization
represent real differences in culture." Culture, presumably, is
unchanging, and the upshot therefore is that no amount of bureaucratic
inclusion, no amount of immersion in the mainstream structures of
contemporary daily life shakes off the hold of ancestors.

In cultural populism, then, we have a conception of culture that is as
varied and flexible as individual choice, and in multiculturalism
culture becomes ineradicable. These conceptions are not mutually
exclusive antagonists. They are perfect complements. Advocates of both
lines of thought believe that culture is the creature of the ruling
class, that social, political, and economic power are all feeble unless
culture is shaped to justify class rule. The populists insist that
aesthetic standards are bourgeois weapons used to mark the boundaries
between classes and to define the proper from the vulgar.  Assimilation,
in multiculturalists' hands, is cultural imperialism. It is the process,
as political scientist Iris Young maintains, by which "culturally
imperialist groups project their own values, experience, and perspective
as normative and universal" and in so doing leave "the members of
[oppressed] groups...imprisoned in their bodies." To ignore good taste
or to reject assimilation, therefore, are forms of resistance to class

There is a certain grain of historical truth in these convictions. A
hundred years ago, the industrial-era bourgeoisie did seize on culture.
Among them, culture took on snob value; the boundaries of accepted taste
dictated behavior and marked off the properly refined from the
barbarians of the lower classes. And those lower classes were often
non-Anglo and non-white. So the demands for assimilation, the old
melting-pot ideal, reflected the bourgeoise's hatred for ways of life
different from its own, and of course it simply ruled out of society
those who wouldn't or couldn't melt, most obviously African-Americans.

But what makes for accurate history does not necessarily make for
accurate contemporary analysis. Today, culture is irrelevant to social
status. Economic and political elites no longer need to make cultural
demands of the lower classes, in part because all they need of those
lower classes is to have them buy the mass-pro-duced goods that make the
whole world turn these days. Far from insisting on the adoption of
class-bound standards of taste or defining subordinate groups out of
society entirely, today's rulers strive to pull everyone in as
consumers; everyone constitutes a niche market to be flattered by
appeals to contrived distinctions. No one can look across the vast
wasteland of mass-pro-duced entertainment otherwise known as "popular
culture" and seriously claim that there is a bourgeois agenda for
imposing standards of taste. And this is not because the manufacturers
of entertainment believe the lower classes to be irredeemably vulgar and
therefore cater to their bad taste. Rather it is because things of
beauty, objects that deserve aesthetic admiration, cannot be
mass-produced; standards of taste only get in the way of business. The
same principle applies to assimilation. It is in the direct interests of
the entertainment industries not to insist on a homogenized social type,
because doing so would limit their reach into all possible consumer
markets. If anything it is in their interests to flatter the sense of
group differences and keep them alive, precisely because doing so adds
to the persuasive appeal of their niche marketing.

It is almost as though the cultural populists and multiculturalists, far
from being radical opponents of the status quo, are in deep collusion
with it. When you put them together, you have a collection of people who
want it both ways: They want unobstructed access to all the goodies that
the present economic and political structure offers-the plastic gadgets,
the suburban houses, the gas-guzzling cars, the cable tv, the junk food,
the junk music, the junk entertainment, the safe jobs in bureaucratic
settings-and they still want to believe that they can either whip up
their own cultural safe zones or wrap themselves in the increasingly
remote cocoon of their ancestors, wishing away the all-too-obvious
deracination through the sheer insistence that they keep living "their
culture" even as they work for IBM or the University of Michigan. It is
as though the concrete reality of our lives no longer constitutes
culture. It is as though we ignore the fundamental ways we go about
arranging our human relationships, engage with the natural world, or
contemplate eternity.  The concept of culture we now swath ourselves in
is a cheap balm. It is no real cure for the fundamental ills that beset
us, no antidote for the very real emptiness of a consumer society that
expects us to secure our place in the larger human endeavor according to
what we buy today. Culture, as both the populists and the
multiculturalists have it, has become an enormous, generation wide
exercise in excusing away our complacency in the on-going debasement of
a decent human existence.


Conklin, Wendy Conklin. 2001. "Clarifying the Work of Integration: An
Interview with Elsie Y. Cross," The Diversity Factor, 9 (Winter). 
Hanson, Victor Davis. 2001. Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the
Rise of Western Power. New York: Doubleday. 
Katzenstein, Peter J., ed. 1996. The Culture of National Security: Norms
and Identity in World Politics. New York: Columbia University Press. 
Leininger, Madeleine. 1967. "The Culture Concept and Its Relevance to
Nursing." Reprinted in Leininger, ed., Transcultural Nursing: Concepts,
Theories, and Practices (New York, 1978), 109-11. 
Ross, Andrew. 1989. No Respect: Intellectuals and Popular Culture. New
York: Routledge. 
Young, Iris Marion. 1990. Justice and the Politics of Difference.
Princeton: Princeton University Press. 
David Steigerwald is associate professor of history and director of the
history major at Ohio State University's Marion campus.

This essay is drawn from Culture's Vanities: The Paradox of Cultural
Diversity in a Globalized World (Rowman & Littlefield).

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