That consumption life: Culture Lectures

Thursday, January 18, 2018 :: Tagged under: culture essay. ⏰ 5 minutes.

Hey! Thanks for reading! Just a reminder that I wrote this some years ago, and may have much more complicated feelings about this topic than I did when I wrote it. Happy to elaborate, feel free to reach out to me! 😄

Guatemala. Click for full size.

Guatemala. Gotta go back.

🎵 The song for this PR is Fight the Power, by Public Enemy 🎵

A few friends and I excitedly started a "book" club1, for which I "read" Customs of the World: Using Cultural Intelligence to Adapt, Wherever You Are. Here are some thoughts on it!

There are two primary sections: a description of "cultural dimensions" (sliding-scale variations you can use to describe cultures in relation to each other) and "cultural clusters," where he uses the dimensions to describe related societies.

The "dimensions" lectures are by far the most interesting and valuable part of the course. To give you a taste, they are:

And while they're imperfect tools (lots of overlap, some loose terms, and quibbles with supporting examples), it gives a pretty good framework for contextualizing cultural differences we experience. Some reactions I had:

Causality + fluidity of culture, its adjacents: I often think of this great bit of wordplay by Lindy West opening her review of Gone Girl:

Sometimes I wish I could just watch movies like a fun person, a Cool Girl who’s not too uptight, the kind of someone who paradoxically believes that culture doesn’t influence culture.

And it's true! There's a fair number of people who think A Thing We Call Culture (movies, porn, violent video games) doesn't meaningfully influence Another Thing We Call Culture (that big stew we all live in and participate. The deniers of their connection usually come out when you criticize a thing they like for being problematic).

It illustrates that "culture," as a word, is a messy abstraction, meaning many things. This also implies a questionable causality when discussing it in relation to adjacent things like language, or food: does the culture shape them, or do they shape the culture?2

The answer is obviously both, but when Livermore supports his points with things like languages or architecture or food, you wonder whether he should be pointing his arguments in the opposite direction, and what that would imply.

World-building. One of my best friends observed that many sci-fi universes containing alien life have strange customs, but also preserve nuclear families and two genders. Most world-building is pretty limited. The idea of dimensions got me thinking about what isn't a dimension but could be when building worlds. Suppose someone ends up in a faraway land where the orientation you face (North/South/East/West) alters the meaning of what you say? Or where your sexual desirability is determined, in part, by how little oxygen you consume in aggregate?

Like any knob, there's fun in turning it up as high and low as you can and seeing what happens.

Scope in application. I notice that I place differently on any given dimension when I'm at work vs. when I'm at home, vs. a different place with family. I think dimensions like that are fun to consider not just where they rest but how far they stray when they do, and how often.

The talk on cultural "clusters" is… well, more tenuous. Here were his lectures on clusters, see if you spot what I did:

Yes, cultures of White People in Europe get 4 lectures entirely to themselves, 5 if you count Eastern Europe (he lumps in Mongolia and Kazakhstan in the same cluster, so it feels unfair to call them "exclusively White European"). Anglo, Germanic, Latin Europe, Nordic. But Africa? Latin America + Caribbean? Just one each. I also think it's comical that Mongolia, Latvia, and Kyrgyzstan all belong to the same level of granularity as Germany, Austria, and, like, part of Switzerland I guess.

Snark aside, there are reasons for this: Livermore's Brand™ is mostly powering his consultancy, which likely targets primarily White, comparably wealthy business clients who want to speak to power brokers in other places. I mean, Jesus, the cheapest offering at the Offical Place to buy these lectures is $130 (I did not pay this much). I don't think his core audience are folks who can't pay. Many of them likely don't feel it as valuable to invest as much time learning the differences between Ethiopia and Liberia vs. Italy and Germany (or enjoy confronting why they feel or act on this). Speaking of…

Ultimately, my issue with these lectures is that I feel it's irresponsible to talk about world cultures without more acknowledgement of the horrors and effects of colonialism. Which, again, rich and/or White people don't historically have much interest in interrogating.

I'll focus on the (one) lecture on Latin America and the Caribbean (he actually never names or mentions the Caribbean lol). He mentions that they are "particularist" cultures: folks from there use a lot of local and personal context before deciding to apply rules, rather than applying them universally. If your friend breaks a law, it's different than if a stranger breaks the law.

I don't know how you can talk about particularism in their culture without mentioning shit like decades of civil war or military dictatorship via CIA intervention or giving people syphilis. And that's just Guatemala (one recipient) from selected cases (of many) of US intervention (one perpetrator) in the last century. So of course you have to limit your trust networks to things like family, and of course you don't trust government or courts. For generations those structures were run by corrupt generals who were put there by a superpower with guns.

He also mentions that Latinxs have "an optimistic look at the unknown future." Well yeah it's unknown, most of our history was it getting stolen from us anytime we tried to reclaim it.

He also gives the Latin America lecture after the Latin Europe lecture, pointing out similarities and differences. There's pedagogical reason for comparison, but I don't love that the frame for the colonized always comes after and in reference to the colonizers, especially when you don't talk a whole lot about colonialism. Just like saying "woman-identified" instead of "woman" is an often well-intentioned gesture that ends up being exclusionary, I'd appreciate a bit more thought before folks describe people in reference to their colonizers when applicable.

In college I saw Carlos Fuentes speak, and he mentioned in the colonial era, Europeans called Guatemala "the Paris of the Americas," but for some reason Paris didn't feel the same honor being called "the Guatemala of Europe." 😛

This isn't to say these lectures are 1000% useless or tone-deaf: there's a lot to like! But my main takeaway is that this is made for folks who want the NPR-flavored, power-assauging, conflict-free understanding of "cultures" and how they interact, and you'll be disappointed if you look for much meatier than that.

1. ^ Where "book" means whatever we want.

2. ^ This Twitter thread by Pookleblinky is fabulous and uses food to show some cool convergences in cooking and food across cultures and history.

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