All posts by bonesofculture

A good friend of mine always says, "today I will go to work and increase the sum total of human knowledge."

Race: Cultural Construct — And Very, Very Real

Anyone who has absorbed the content of an Anthropology 101 class, or even a general education class, knows intellectually that race is a fiction. What we don’t usually take away from these classes is the nature of “fiction.”

We think of “fiction” in the most simple, 6th grade terms — as “made up.” But as adults, it is easier to recognize that that a fiction is not the same as a lie — or even more simplistically “a random collection of disparate ideas.”

10,000 Monkeys

Shakespeare
Better than 10,000 monkeys

But Shakespeare was not written by 10,000 monkeys on typewriters. Fiction is not random. In the same way, race does exist — as a part of culture.

The part of culture that we struggle with, especially our own culture, is that it is not coterminous with reality. But one thing that we know, as anthropologists, is that culture seems real. From the inside (and humans must by definition operate from the inside) we can’t tell the difference between reality and our perceptions of it.

The “crime” is not that we believe in race, but that we legislated it as if we bear the unitary truth of reality. The mistake, then, is not that our culture is “wrong” but that our expectations of culture are crazy.

A Teaching Moment

Saint Francis of Assisi by Jusepe de Ribera
Just another hotblooded Italian? No, that’s Saint Francis of Assisi.

When I was teaching Anthropology 101, I had a student in one of my classes who felt, very strongly, that his identity as an Italian-American was all the explanation that was necessary for his hot temper. No amount of argument would suffice to show him that what he was doing was embodying and reinforcing his culture’s expectations.

The discussion in class became quite heated, as he would not budge from the belief that his experience was not only valid, but indeed intrinsic. That, of course, is the power of culture.

The power of anthropology is not that we can step outside of culture and look at it. That is, I believe, impossible. We can bend and expand our culture, stretching our mind to extrapolate the nature of culture. But we can never wholly step away from it.

Anthropology: Proscriptive or Descriptive?

Anthropology is an academic discipline, and philosophically a powerful one. It allows us, from the inside, to stretch and turn our culture so that it can look at itself.

But we also know that it is possible, once we have begun these philosophical limbering exercises, to reshape not only ourselves, but culture as a whole. Like all science, anthropology lets us begin to reshape our minds in ways that let us begin to map the world the way it is.

But this idea, that we can reshape our culture to map the world, is based on the underlying cultural belief that culture and reality are the same thing. Believing that everyone should have an understanding of the world that matches an anthropologist is just as self-centered as atheists (for an example in the news) who believe that everyone should see the world the way they do.

All at once, it brings anthropology to the center and cheapens it. If anthropology is itself a discipline, then it has something to offer the world as it is. We don’t need everyone to be an anthropologist any more than we need everyone to be a doctor.

Instead, anthropology might consider focusing on what these truths we learn mean when we can present them without leading the listener to be an anthropologist themselves.

And if it is impossible for us to teach without leading the listener through every step of the whole process — if we can’t bring truth back for our culture — then that would explain the challenges we face as a discipline.

The difference lies in status. If anthropologists can access cultural truths and these truths are of some use, then we must teach from a rhetorical standpoint of ethos. If our only way of teaching is teaching others how to think, then we are in the business of changing culture, not serving it.

Race is part of Western Culture, and denying its cultural validity is an uphill battle. Instead, we must reach out to those who legislate and make decisions that cross cultural groups. These are the people who need to understand that everything they “know” about “the other” is from only one perspective.

Science, Religion, and a Messy, Messy Universe

Galileo before the Holy Office: a 19th century painting by Joseph-Nicolas Robert-Fleury
Galileo before the Holy Office: a 19th century painting by Joseph-Nicolas Robert-Fleury

It is an almost unspoken truth in the West that there is a necessary conflict between science and religion. Western religion (historically, Christianity) says that the nature of the universe can be understood by, in an anthropological sense, listening to our elders.

Western science, on the other hand, says that we can understand the universe through observation. How could these two views not be in conflict? These are two very different approaches to what “truth” is.

By extension, they end up also being very different windows into the natures of people, the universe, and knowledge itself. But a question we need to ask ourselves is: “is there only one way to understand something?” An underlying assumption of both systems of thought is that there is one, and only one, “best” way of knowing.

The Rise of Science

It has been argued that Science has been growing in the West since the fall of Constantinople in 1453. It has, in some respects, replaced the authority of the Church in Western culture. Belief in the power of science has become (perhaps ironically) a status marker.

We’re all very familiar with the observational part of science — the root of experimentation. But the second part of science, which we often either take for granted or ignore completely, is the collaborative part of it.

Science, as a way of building knowledge, depends on both observation and collaboration. Sometimes we talk about science as if the observational part were the whole of it. “Scientists have discovered” say the headlines, as if science were wholly a journey of discovery, and not discovery followed by careful collaborative work.

Scientific research, then, implicitly argues that “we can all agree…” on whatever the evidence shows. This aspect of science allows for the testing of theories across different times and places.

After all, if my scientific observations and yours don’t match, it’s clear that we’re going to have to further develop theories so that all of the data can be explained. Science doesn’t depend on the work of lone experimenters slaving away in laboratories, but on their coming together to agree.

Western Science, Western Religion

Back when Science was getting started (going back to 1453), there certainly was a need to cast off the “old ways” of knowing , especially in the domains of knowledge where science was beginning to assert itself and the Church (the big authority on Truth at the time) was saying “nuh-uh.”

Christianity, after vanquishing the pagan ways of knowledge of the Roman empire, had spent more than a millennium enjoying its day in the sun in Europe. It wasn’t until the rise of science that it it experienced any serious challenges to its way of seeing the universe.

This “struggle” between science and religion is ongoing. Sometimes this conflict between scientific and religious followers simply comes down to different assumptions about the nature of the universe. Scientists as a group generally argue that the universe is understandable through observation, measurement, and collaboration (with other scientists). The proponents of religion (in a very Western sense of the word) have a very different view of truth and authority.

The two “opposing” systems still duke it out from time to time, but the official decisions of the government and the upper strata of society are much more in line with scientific knowledge. The easiest way to be certain of this is to “follow the money” and determine whether, in a market sense, scientists or theologians get paid more.

But It’s a Messy, Messy Universe

The argument between science and religion is a little like the conflict between Coke and Pepsi. Both contain an underlying assumption that they want us to swallow. In the knowledge wars, like the cola wars, the assumption is that we should be drinking either exclusively!

Holidays — The Best Christmas Gift

Santa's Arrival
Sure, we all like the parties and the presents. But sometimes we take the days off for granted.

If we go back in time not too far, just a couple of hundred years, then we can be certain that much of the West was Christian. This wasn’t just a matter of ascription, as religion and the law were strongly intertwined. In other words, it wasn’t that people were Christian, so much as the whole culture was from top to bottom — but especially at the top.

Unsurprisingly, the word “holiday” originally came from the Old English hāligdæg meaning “holy day.” That is, originally the days were all religious observances.

Not only did people “get” the day off, they were required by law and religion to not work. And maybe more interesting, the idea wasn’t so much about partying as performing religious observances.

Days Off

The whole idea of not working on holidays comes from its religious origin. Going back to Christianity, one of the rules is “keeping the sabbath day holy.” In the Middle Ages, this was extended outwards to other days of religious observance. Apparently it was used to good effect by the church in making wars more difficult.

Since, in many ways, the Church only had power over “holy” matters, they made an end-run around secular authority and would declare certain days holy so that they could make the warlords stop fighting. That is, they would take certain “feast days” into their sphere of control so that they could stop, or at least slow, wars.

That, combined with the idea of keeping every Sunday work-free, has come down to us as government-recognized holidays. So we can thank the Church’s interest in preventing useless bloodshed for the days off we now enjoy. Enjoy your days off, and Merry Christmas!

It’s Beginning to Look a Lot like Christmas

The War on Christmas is a shorthand for one front in the West’s “culture wars,” which address a number of cultural bones of contention. The central question of this war could be framed “Is the West primarily Christian?”

If we think about Western Culture as the thread of belief and knowledge that has come down to us through history, stretching from the Greeks and Romans (and the Ancient Egyptians, though they got short shrift in my middle school history books, and probably yours), then the West is Christian.

Historically, the Christians fought a battle for political supremacy in the first handful of centuries CE. They took over the Roman Empire and set the religious and scholarly tone for our culture. In short, they won.

The victory of the Roman Christians for political influence meant that power resided either in the hands of the Church (or one of the divisions that came after the Protestant Reformation), or in the hands of people at least nominally beholden to the Church. That lasted, in many ways, until the end of the European colonial era.

The West isn’t the West Anymore

Since the end of World War 2, however, something else — something critical — happened to the West. It stopped being the home only of Westerners.

Starting with the Age of Discovery, which began around 1492, there was increased trade and influence passing back and forth between the West and the rest of the world. For Europeans, the world got a lot “larger” as everyday people came into contact with thoughts, ideas, and people from around the globe.

The European colonial era came to a dwindling end around the close of World War 2. What arose in its place was a postmodern world, where the flow of people and ideas became more and more rapid, and where people of non-European descent could “take their place at the table.”

Human Rights Are for (All) Humans

Sure, there were many non-Westerners in America before the mid 1900s. But those groups lacked many fundamental rights. They were not, legally or culturally, seen as equals. They lacked many of the freedoms enjoyed by nominal Westerners.

For instance, in many cases, non-Westerners in America could not vote, have full citizenship, own land, or marry as they chose. More important for consideration of Christmas, their religions were not recognized.

However, since the second half of the 20th century, a new spirit of religious freedom has enveloped America. It’s an era when the ideas of human rights, which had historically been only applied to white Westerners, were applied more evenly. Non-Western, and non-mainstream Western, populations now have an expectation that the separation of Church and State means something.

The War on Christmas

So it comes down to this: the “War on Christmas” is actually a push to make human universal rights, well, universal. It isn’t a silly argument, though. It’s a full-blown struggle to define “the West.”

Is Western culture just the Christian descendents of an ancient line of thought? Or is it more beholden to these new ideas of equal freedoms for all?

Star Wars Isn’t Racist

Today I went to the San Jose Tech Museum, where I saw the Star Wars exhibit on its last stop of its tour. While it was a very cool exhibit, one thing that I (anthropologically trained) really noticed was the treatment of the “other” in Star Wars, the mythology of my generation.

Science Fiction or Fantasy?

Storm Troopers on Patrol
Storm Troopers on patrol at the Tech Museum of Innovation — San Jose, CA

To understand the impact of Star Wars on our impressionable young minds, we first need to dispense with the idea that the franchise is science fiction at all. Sure, they have laser blasters, robots, radios, and space ships, but it’s really fantasy (…in space!).

How do we know it’s fantasy? Because against the fairly dystopian cyberpunk background, we’ve got good guys in white, bad guys in black, glowing swords, and magic powers blooming left and right. And let me say this clearly: if we have good and evil wizards battling it out in the distant past, it’s not some vision of our future.

Science fiction, as a genre, is one of the ways that our culture tries to make sense of rapid cultural and technological change. We’ve been experiencing this change since the beginning of the scientific era and industrial revolution. But that’s not Star Wars.

Star Wars is about our colonial past, the nature of good and evil, the proper role of mysticism, and necessity of righteous rebellion against tyranny. In other words, it’s not a projection of our future, but a mythic retelling of our own past.

The Mythic Past as a Window to Our Own Past

The Millenium Falcon
The coolest cat in the universe clearly needs the coolest car…spaceship…whatever.

Back in the 70s, when science was “gonna change the world,” Star Wars gave us a chance to see something that was quite the opposite of the Humanist and spiritually sterile Star Trek. But the differences don’t end there. While Star Trek treats all aliens as foreigners with their own political interests and idiosyncrasies, Star Wars treats them as archetypes of our own culture.

In other words, George Lucas might not be racist at all. But he’s betting the bank that we are. And, historically speaking, that’s a safe bet to make.

Only a hundred years ago, the British Empire ruled a big chunk of the world, “race” was a dominant political-economic creed, and everyone “knew” that religion was true and culture was an a priori category. We’ve come a long way in changing our views about matters of race, religion, and gender. Heck, we’ve come a long way since the 70s.

Defining the Problem

Tusken Raider
Extremely territorial and xenophobic, Tusken Raiders will attack with very little provocation.” Little provocation after the humans took their planet, that is…

We live in a culture that would be unrecognizable to the people of a century ago. But that doesn’t mean the change is over. We still understand these archetypes, use them in our stories, and to a certain extent keep them as part of our culture.

Just as science fiction plays with the cultural change wrought by technology, Star Wars as science fantasy deals with our own changing culture. The aliens aren’t really meant to be aliens, just people in funny suits with motivations that we can quickly apprehend and use to drive the plot forward.

You know, archetypes. Stereotypes. We can get all jumpy about the way Star Wars uses these cultural shorthands to paint a quick, recognizable picture. But the problem doesn’t lie with the authors. The issue isn’t that Star Wars is racist. The problem is that we are.

…Now with the Power of Science!

I ran into a funny piece of advertising recently. It was for a facial cleaner or some similar product, and the product read, in big friendly letters (as part of the advertising on the front of the package):

Now with “science-y jargon blah blah“!

Okay, so I’m just paraphrasing the semantic meaning here. But, I’m pretty sure that we weren’t supposed to understand what it meant, just be impressed with its efficacy.

Science As Authority

Luckies Doctor
If “Science” says it, it must be true!

Using the idea of “Science” (the cultural construct) as a way of establishing authority in ads isn’t anything new. Even since science started being something that we listen to, instead of something we learn to do ourselves, marketers have been using it to affect our decisions.

Remember, in a perfect world, scientists have every obligation to share their data with other scientists. This is done for the sake of improving the world of science — to strengthen the academy. But for those of us on the outside — and with the incredible complexity of scientific research today, that’s almost everyone — we just have to take their word for it.

The New Alchemists

Gold Bars
Can science navigate the shoals of temptation?

The majority of scientists today work outside of the academy. They are in the employ of (not to put too fine a point on it) merchants. These merchants are themselves in the employ of shareholders, themselves. There are times, we can imagine, that this might present conflicts of interest.

It’s a trade-off. With much of research funding coming from private hands, and those hands being bound by (fickle) shareholder obligations, we’re making great strides in areas like consumer electronics and pharmaceuticals.

Patent wars are the result. And patent litigation is probably desperately against the scientific method at its core. The scientific method, at its root, is a collaborative method; that is its power.

But “scientists” working for private ends have a business model of making their patron happy as they try to create wealth through their knowledge. We’ve seen this model before — it’s the way that alchemy functioned in the pre-scientific era.