Culture as Praxis

AutorBauman, Zygmunt, 1925-
PealkiriCulture as praxis / Zygmunt Bauman
IlmunudLondon ; Boston : Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1973
ViideBauman, Zygmunt 1973. Culture as praxis. London; Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Whether inherited or acquired, culture is a detachable part of a human being, a possesion. It is a very peculiar kind of possession, to be sure: it shares with the personality the unique quality of being simultaneously the defining 'essence' and the descriptive 'existential feature' of the human creature. (Bauman 1973: 7)
Here Bauman comes quite close to Bourdieu's notion of cultural capital. A bit further down the page he elaborates an aspect of it:
Still the culture, the peculiarity of its existence notwithstanding, is a possession. And all possessions can be acquired or squandered, manipulated and transformed, shaped and framed. (Bauman 1973: 7)
Essentially, culture is malleable.
To Aristotle the analogy between soul-perfection and techne must have seemed self-imposing; the soul was to him like 'the capacity of a tool'. A very odd tool, to be sure once again, with its edge pressed against itself. (Bauman 1973: 8)
This metaphor reminded me something that Lotman wrote about semiotics, approximately it being "a gun that builds itself in the process of shooting". On a grander scale, this can be compared to his notion of culture being simultaneously the subject and the object of itself (or semiotics; a perspective of which Peeter Torop is a major proponent with regards to the notion of semiosphere).
Using the term 'culture' with the indefinite article makes sense only if supported by an implicit assumption that nothing universal can be a cultural phenomenon; there are, to be sure, numerous universla features of social and cultural systems, but they do not, by definition, belong to the field denoted by the word 'culture'. Unfortunately, this type of logical self-awareness is seldom made manifest. Many an anthropologist takes great pains to 'prove' that the alleged cultural similarities are not cultural at all, and would have better referred to some psycho-biological, proto-cultural phenomena. (Bauman 1973: 22)
Earlier, he discussed the 'idiosyncratic' also. Here he moles over the difference of universal vs relative (e.g. cultural, if it can be equated as such - which seems to be the question he poses).
David Aberle made a cogent case for early linguistical structuralism (in the shape it assumed in the heyday of Ferdinand de Saussure's posthumous triumph) having played the role of main inspiration of cultural differentialism. The easy analogy between language and culture (both phenomenon serve as constitutive factors of respective communities) seemed to have strenghtened enormously the position of those social scientists who pushed to the fore the discriminating function of cultures. Among numerous contiguous points specified by Aberle, two are particularly important in the present context: like language, culture 'is selective', each being 'a unique configuration. There are no general categories for analysis.' Once again, what was in the first place a methodological postulate (of an enormous heuristical value, to be sure) was reincarnated in the cultural analogue in the garb of a pseudo-descriptive statement. (Bauman 1973: 23)
This can be viewed as a peripheral criticism towards cultural semiotics of the Tartu-Moscow school which viewed natural language as the primary modelling system of culture. To be sure, the differential concept of culture is pushed so far in cultural semiotics that the difference takes the form of border between us and them.
...Ruth Benedict's statement of 1932: 'Cultures are individual psychology thrown large upon the screen, given gigantic proportions and a long time span.' (Bauman 1973: 29)
Yet again a parallel can be drawn with Yuri Lotman's writings. In the 1960s when he dealth with the issues of artificial intellect (his articles dealing with culture as an A.I. were published in Kultuuritüpoloogiad, 2010; c.f. Peeter Torop's foreword). The transference of individual qualities to culture as a whole is called, in another nomenclature, holistic agency (Waldstein 2008: 154). This happens when cybernetic models are utilized in the study of culture.
Physically, the temperature of the human environment oscillates within a very wide range of probable values. By introducing mediating artifacts between the human body and the natural environment (built-up enclosures, clothes etc.) the actual variation in the immediate vicinity of the body is again drastically reduced. (Bauman 1973: 54)
Mediating artifacts is another fancy notion to convey the idea of extrabodily devices (cf. Ivanov 2008: 234) or physical gadgets (cf. Leopold 2005 [1949]: 114) which separate the bare human body from the environment.
If even the linguistic process cannot be looked upon as 'pure communication' it is doubly so in the non-linguistic fields of culture. With few exceptions (like the language of gestures and etiquette - it is not by accident that the word 'language' has been spontaneously applied to these phenomena) the non-linguistic culture operates with material which by itself is directly related to non-informative, in some way 'energetic' needs. Although we can justly consider non-linguistic cultural events as information-transmitting, the ratio information/energy is in their case much less favorable to information than in the case of purely linguistic acts. Which means that the role of the non-informative elements in these events is much greater than in speech-acts, and so, almost by definition, much more influential in shaping the events themselves. First, the 'energetic needs' set the limits of freedom in adjusting the uses of a given material to semiotic purposes. Secondly, in the case of clash or friction between the informative and energetic functions it is not always the informative one which gains the upper hand. (Bauman 1973: 90)
The 'energetic function' here originates from systems theory and can be a useful platform to discuss the 'non-sign', or 'instrumental' nonverbal behaviour (note the correct use of 'behaviour' here, as opposed to communication).
On the other hand, though human creativity is to a very great extent inspired by the demand for new signs to replace the older ones, worn out because of their frequency, it could not be reduced to this cause alone. Owing to its, at least in part, spontaneous and unmotivated character, human creativity produces cultural items in numbers exceeding the actual semiotic demand. These are 'would-be' signs, potential signs, which for the time being do not 'commute' with any real distinctions in the structure of human reality. (Bauman 1973: 93)
On cursory reading this appears to be a quite exact description of the semiotic realm of nonverbal behaviour which is not considered communicative and is frequently left out in linguistic descriptions (e.g. the nonverbal behaviour of a character in a novel that is not made explicit).
Some linguists went so far to distinguish between two entirely different types of information which allegedly lie behind the two questions.Thus according to Berzil Malmberg a message may be said to contain information in a twofold way. It has its 'meaning', which is the traditional popular interpretation of the concept. The message 'gives us information about something'. But information also may imply what we can call here the distinctive information; that is to say the distinctive characteristics which make it possible for the receiver to identify the signs - or more exactly their expression level, for this information does not necessarily imply understanding of the message. The secret of signifying, conveying information and so on, lies in the first place in relationship between sign-bodies themselves (syntactic relations, according to the classic threefold classification by Charles Morris). (Bauman 1973: 99)
This section resonated with me because nonverbal behaviour often carries information merely due to its occurrence, and the distinctive features of the occurred movements, but only tentatively a "meaning". In everyday notions - I see your facial expressions and see how they differ from each other, but I may not have the slightest idea what they mean or how I should understand them.
Human praxis, viewed in its most universal and general features, consists in turning chaos into order, or substituting one order for another - order being synonymous with the intelligible and meaningful. In semiological perspective, 'meaning' means order and order alone. It is detached from the performance of an individual or even collective actor, whether interpreted mentalistically or seen, as by behaviourists, as reactive mechanisms. It does not depend any more on giving rise to an idea associated with the sign, as it was for C. K. Ogden and I. A. Richards; neither is it a pattern of stimulation which evokes reactions on the part of an organism, as it was for Charles E. Osgood or Charles Morris. It is rather a cultural organization of the human unvierse, which makes both these after-effects possible. (Bauman 1973: 119)
Or, in Yuri Lotman's terms, the organized internal sphere (us) is opposed to the non- or differently organized outer sphere (not-us). This is yet again the differential concept of culture in which the subjective position is embraced by meaningful organization and the Other is projected into meaningless disorganization.
Ordering involves transmuting what is fundamentally a continuous, shapeless stream of perception into a set of discrete entities. In this sense the world is not pre-humanly 'given' as ordered; the image and the following praxis of order are culturally imposed on it. (Bauman 1973: 123)
At this point I am already wondering if it is a coincidence that in the same year this book was published, Yuri Lotman published his article on The Discrete Text and the Iconic Text in Russian, in which he phrased his view on discrete and continuous signs in culture. Someone should really investigate how much influence Edmund Leach had on Yuri Lotman.
The third frontier of apparently utmost imporance is the one between 'we' and 'they'. Suppression of the intermediate, ambivalent cases is a necessary condition of group cohesion, e.g. of the application of syngenic behavioural types as distinct from biocenotic ones, which are apposite in relations with the aliens. The very existence of the border-cases in this paramount area creates an enormous tension between two incompatible sets of behavioural and attitudinal patterns - comparable to the stress which makes a stickleback bury his head in sand when, hacing approached the borderline of his nest territory, he is unable to choose between the pugnacious stance of the native, chasing the intruder off his homestead, and the defensive posture of a rambler in a land of inhospitable aliens. Let us notice in this context, that the objection raised by Leach against Lévi-Strauss's heavy emphasis on the in-built tendency of culture to 'either-or' divisions - 'it is not sufficient to have a discrimination me/it, we/they; we also need a graduated scale close/far, more like me/less like me' - stands in an obvious contradiction to the main core of his own argument. The graduality, intermediacy of the existential status is the very cause of the conceptual-behavioural earthquake to which taboo and the sacred provide the adequate remedy. The sembalnce of a graduated scale comes from the possibility and, indeed, pronounced tendency of cultural conceptualizations to arrange diverse frontiers into a sequence or rather into a series of concentric circumferences centred in the ego's eye: the frontier 'me/it' is in this sense 'closer' than the ultimate frontier 'this world/other world'. Many other frontiers besides will inevitably be left behind, not finding their place in this 'subjective-focused' continuum - as, for example, frontiers between different states and forms of matter, which made of their transgressors - alchemists, iron-smelters, smiths - semi-sacred, semi-outcast figures. Whatever the importance of the ego-centred mapping of the world divisions (elaborated on, among others, by Alfred Schutz in sociology and Kurt Lewin in psychology), the act and its product are brought into effect by employing a series of clear-cut, either-or oppositions, and these oppositions only constitute the foci of taboos and sacredness.
Indeed, a graduated nature of 'we-ness' and 'they-ness', if at all imaginable, would undermine the very foundation of the human-orientation-in-the-world. 'We' play with each other a non-zero-sum-game, or at least try or pretend to, while with 'them' the zero-sum-game is what is to be expected as well as desired. 'We' share the same fate, grow rich together or get destitute together, while 'they' prey on our calamities and are hurt by our success. 'We' are supposed to assist each other, while 'they' lie in wait for our lapse. 'We' understand each other, feel the same feelings and think the same thoughts, while 'they' remain impenetrable, incomprehensible, sinister aliens. The frontiers of the 'we-group' - the truth articulated at least since Sumner - delineate the border of our intellectual and emotional security and provide the frame on which to hinge our loyalties, right and duties. Here, inside, the order is known, predictable and manageable. There, outside, all is darkness and uncertainty. Still, if only the frontiers between 'here' and 'there' are marked clearly and unmistakably, the 'we-group' can do reasonably well even in the close neighbourhood of 'them'. THe group, in fact, would have invented 'them' had 'they' not been in existence before. Any 'we-group' needs its own 'them' as an indispensable complement and self-defining device. 'They' are in their peculiar way useful, functional, and therefore tolerable, if not desirable. One cannot however think of any beneficial use to which the 'we-group' can put its 'inside-outsiders', belonging neither here nor there - the marginal men. (Bauman 1973: 126-128)
This should be read closely and compared to the notion of semiosphere (in this sense, the semiotic circumference of culture).
The ultimate root of the Stranger's threat is therefore somewhat shifted; it is now his penchant for bizarre questions which would not occur to a 'normal' person, for contesting the very distinction which for 'ordinary' people are attributes of the universe itself rather than their views of the world. (Bauman 1973: 130)
In baffling clarity, in Fahrenheit 451, Clarisse is this Stranger.
Culture is the only facet of the human condition and of life in which knowledge of the human reality and the human interest in self-perfection and fulfilment merge into one. The cultural is the only knowledge unashamed of its partisanship and ensuing bias. It is the only knowledge, for that matter, which is bold enough to offer the world its meaning instead of gullibly believing (or pretending to believe) that the meaning lies over there, ready-made and complete, waiting to be discovered and learned. Culture is, therefore, the natural enemy of alienation. It constantly questions the self-appointed wisdom, serenity and authority of the Real. (Bauman 1973: 176)
This is just beautifully worded.
Some useful references:
  • From Bauman's Notes:
    • David F. Aberle, 'The influence of linguistics on early culture and personality theory', in Theory in Anthropology; p. 311.
    • Clyde Kluchohn, Culture and Behaviour, New York, Free Press, 1962, p. 52.
    • 'Configurations of culture in North America', American Anthropologist, vol. 34, 1932, p. 24.
    • Peter Berger, A Rumour of Angels, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1971, p. 55.
    • Z. Bauman, 'Semiotics and the function of culture', Social Science Information, 1968, 5, pp. 69-80.
    • Language in Culture (Confrence in the Interrelation of Language and other Aspects of Culture, 23-7 March 1953), ed. Harry Hoijer, Chicago University Press, 1960, p. 163. TÜR
    • Charles E. Osgood, 'On the nature of meaning', in Current Perspectives in Social Psychology, ed. E. P. Hollander and Raymond G. Hunt, New York, Oxford University Press, 1963. TÜR
    • P. B. Medawar, The Uniqueness of the Individual, London, Meuthen, 1957, pp. 141-2.
    • The Structure of Behaviour, London, Meuthen, 1963, p. 173. English trans. by Alden L. Fisher.
  • From International Library of Sociology Catalogue:
    • Belshaw, Cyril. The Conditions of Social Performance. An Explatory Theory. 144 pp.
    • Brown, Robert. Explanation in Social Science. 208 pp.
    • Barbu, Zevedei. Problems of Historical Psychology. 248 pp.
    • Blacburn, Julian. Psychology and the Social Pattern. 184 pp.
    • Fromm, Erich. The Fear of Freedom. 286 pp. TÜR
    • Fromm, Erich. The Sane Society. 400 pp. TÜR
    • Argyle, Michael. Religious Behaviour. 224 pp. 8 figures. 41 tables.
    • Silbermann, Alphons. The Sociology of Music. Translated from the German by Corbet Stweart. 222 pp.
    • Stark, Werner. The Sociology of Knowledge: An Essay in Aid of a Deeper Understanding of the History of IDeas. 384 pp.
    • Douglas, Jack D.. (Ed.). Understanding Everyday Life. Toward the Reconstruction of Sociological Knowledge. Contributions by Alan F. Blum, Aaron W. Cicourel, Norman K. Denzin, Jack D. Douglas, John Heeren, Peter McHugh, Peter K. Manning, Melvin Power, Matthew Speier, Roy TUrner, D. Lawrence WIeder, Thomas P. Wilson and Don H. Zimmerman. 358 pp.
    • Jarvie, Ian C. Concepts and Society. 216 pp.
    • Cook, Jenny. Socialization and Social Control. About 300 pp.


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