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Emile Durkheim in Orange County

Julie writes an interesting meditation on the idea of some white Americans -- she uses her childhood home of Orange County, California, as a paradigm -- feeling like they lack culture. The OC she describes is sort of an anti-Cheers, where nobody knows your name, and where all social activities, from meals to music, are purchased rather than made together. Against this background, it's unsurprising -- though no less problematic -- that discontented members of such a society go out an appropriate elements of other cultures. Julie would rather frame this not as people in the OC having less culture than the other groups they jealously appropriate from, but as their culture being shallower.

In the comments, La Lubu (riffing on a comment by chingona describing the contrasting cultures of shallow Phoenix and deep Tucson) makes an interesting point:
What is culture, if it isn’t something shared by people? I think that sense of anomie is that disconnect with other people. That's what's shallow, to answer waxghost's question on "who determines depth?" Isn't the function of culture to connect people? I mean, "culture" isn’t just something that exists in the background like air. It's a collective enterprise. When it is no longer serving that purpose, it isn't inaccurate for the people whom that "culture" does not serve (say, the way Orange County's culture affects Julie) to state that it's shallow. Culture is belonging. It's not just continuity with history, it's continuity with other people—right now.

This reminded me of a point made by Emile Durkheim, one of the founders of modern sociology. In Durkheim's day (as in ours), it was common to take greater connectedness as a sign of the presence of culture, whereas disconnectedness and individualism were un-cultured states. This is paralleled in "state of nature" theories, in which people are fundamentally separate and community is a further accomplishment. Durkheim's insight was that both community and individualism were equally cultural. Individualism must be established, defined, and upheld by culture just as more solidarity-filled community does. Just think of all the norms Julie's neighbors and family in the OC have to internalize in order to maintain their isolation -- rules about keeping monetary exchanges at arm's length, about not prying in anyone's business, etc. After all, that's why discontented white Americans so often seek authenticity not by becoming truly immersed in a richer culture, but by purchasing the trappings of other cultures (kanji tattoos, dream catchers, etc.). Purchasing is their existing cultural model of interaction. These norms are shared -- hence a culture in La Lubu's sense -- even though their function is to hold people apart. A similar point can be made, I think, about cultures that emphasize rootedness in a long past versus those that try to be ahistorical. Culture is a model for how to interact, but that model may or may not constitute "connecting people" as we normally understand the phrase.

Culture exists in order to enable people to get along in the world. We can therefore judge the adequacy of a given culture, in the context of the needs of the people involved and the demands of their situation. It seems clear from Julie's description that the culture of the OC is seriously inadequate for many people, because it is unable to satisfy their deeply-felt need for a particular type of interaction. Though diagnosing the problem in this way does not necessarily tell us how to fix it.


Blogger Bill Baar said...

Judging cultures is a touchy place to go... careful the standard you use.

3:48 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

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11:45 AM  

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