Sunday, July 25, 2010

Nebraska's Culture

Marshall and I had an interesting exchange on FaceBook a couple weeks ago. It started with his noting Nebraskan culture being distinct, and my arguing that Nebraska, as a granfalloon (an group identity with no real, lasting bond between its members) couldn't really be called a distinct culture. Marshall argued back that Nebraska is unusual among states for its coherence, for a variety of historical and economic reasons. I still demurred that defining the culture by the bounds of political geography was a problem. And we let it go.

The fact is, political boundaries do define culture to some extent. Where they bound areas within which migration is relatively easy, but across which it is comparatively difficult, they provide a the edge to a shape within which things are comparatively blurred: this is the source of anger to Tibetans, who feel their nation being homogenized into China, and who thus want restored their sovereignty: the sense that Tibet has a border that Han Chinese could not then blithely migrate across. It also explains why Canada and the USA, while culturally similar in many ways, are in fact noticeably different at the border, all the way from coast to coast: they are each broadly homogenous, but each of their homogenizing occurs (comparatively) more within its own borders.

Even where migration across the political border is easy, if there is a state-to-state difference in political culture, it can show up in the wider culture. Marshall talked about this to some extent in his home town of Omaha, where the political culture of Iowa is in fact different from Nebraska. I know this is true from experience from living in Vermont within sight of New Hampshire. Even though the part of New Hampshire across the river from me was the most liberal part of the state, Vermonters still made a point that they lived in a progressive state, as opposed to what was then a very conservative-dominated state.

In thinking about Nebraska identity, it's hard also to ignore sports. Memorial Stadium at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln is, in itself, the third-largest city in the state on game day (with a current capacity of 81,067, it has sold out every game for 38 years). Without a major-league team or any competing land-grant university, the Cornhuskers have an unusually central place in Nebraska identity. But in general, sports provides a rallying point for group cultural identity, like it or not (and I do tend to inwardly sneer at the cultural influences of sports). Here in Minnesota, the Vikings and the Green Bay Packers help define Minnesota from culturally similar Wisconsin.

But sports can create group identity that cuts across political lines. I grew up in Lawrenceville, New Jersey, which sits on one side of the old "Province Line" between the colonies of East and West Jersey. Legend has it that on a summer's evening you could walk down Province Line Road (which mostly follows the ancient political line) and hear New York Yankees baseball broadcasts on one side and Philadelphia Phillies on the other.

In fact, professional baseball teams' "fan-sheds" have very little to do with political boundaries: see common census's survey-based map and Nike's United Countries of Baseball. These have more to do with cultural spheres of cities (as I was arguing with Marshall, Omaha's sphere probably does not match up all that precisely with the political boundaries of Nebraska), and especially with news media.

College sports are different, especially where they are dominated by Land Grant colleges, which are dominated by state residents and whose mission and program is tied to the state's economy. Hence the Nebraska Cornhuskers.


I think the other problem Marshall and I were having (or at least that I was having) was the hidden baggage that the word "culture" carries.

The Oxford English Dictionary traces the path of the word: originally it meant the planting and care of crops (as in agri-culture), then other things that needed to be coddled along (like cultured pearls). By analogy, one could "cultivate" or "culture" one's mind, developing taste and refinement... also an early usage.

The first OED use in the anthropological/sociological sense of "Nebraska's culture" is 1860, from A. Gurowski's Slavery in History: "This Egyptian or Chamitic civilization...preceded by many centuries the Shemitic or Aryan cultures."

The idea of "a civilization" has fallen out of fashion. So too, to some extent, has the word "subculture". Civilization implies that those who are not members aren't civilized, and are therefore somehow sub-humans. Subculture also implies a kind of irrelevance: members of a subculture are part of a fringe, not part of the dynamic center.

The violent and totalitarian side-effects of nineteenth and early-twentieth century nationalism are a big piece of why the idea of a national civilization is viewed suspiciously today. Hitler and Mussolini used the same fierce sense of national identity to create oppressive states as had been used to form Italy and Germany into nation-states only sixty to seventy years earlier... around the time of that first use of "culture" as a synonym for "society."


And this gets to the root of my problem with "Nebraska culture." It's the same as my problems with any normalizing identity that then can get reinforced back on its members. I mean, Nebraska as an identity is pretty harmless, but the definition of "American" culture can be (and has been) turned back on those someone defines as "un-American." And this basic dynamic—define a "culture" or a "civilization" or a "type" by average characteristics and then enforce that average back on the whole—is tremendously destructive.

So how to deal with the fact that Nebraska is different from Iowa (and the other surrounding states) as a whole? Or that there is a "gay culture" or a "cartographic culture" or a "morris dancing culture"?

First, recognize that all groups of people that we can identify as a group end up looking to outsiders like their average member (or to be more precise, their average as heavily nuanced by their public leadership/spokespersonhood). And it does little good to say, "there is no average member of X group because they are all individuals. We instinctively seek to identify and characterize a typical personhood out of a bunch of people. It's how people are built.

Second, consider the back-and-forth dynamic of a formal structure arising around a shared identity, which arises around a formal structure, and so on. And consider what a mess inheritance makes of the dynamic between the two: Generation 1 founds a new institution around an idea, generation 2 grows up tin that institution and so a culture becomes embedded around that institution, but some of those members move away from the institution, and by generation 3, some birth members of the institution no longer feel connected to the culture of the institution, though they are members and may still hold to the institution's ideals. In generation 4, there is a revival of focus on those institutional ideals, while the descendants of those who moved away from the institition in generation 2 want to return to the patterns of the culture, but not necessarily the ideals behind the institution...

It all gets rather muddled, rather quickly.

Third, consider the relation amongst the culture, the markers for that culture, and the degree of choice one has about those markers. I can choose to be a cartographer more easily than I can choose to be of Yankee extraction, middle-class, English-speaking and pink-skinned. I can choose to be Minnesotan by residence, but I can't really choose where I was raised. And if I moved somewhere where I couldn't pass as local (the bayous of Louisiana for instance, or Scotland), I would always be an outsider.

Finally, and this ties in to all of these, recognize that culture is fluid, even as entities that it forms around are comparatively rigid. By naming a culture "Nebraskan" we are claiming a relationship between a box and the contents of the box. In this case, the box is porous: a milk crate filled with packing peanuts. We can identify the container, we can pull the container up and look at it, but peanuts fall out of the holes, and other stuff gets in, and the identity of the peanuts ends up having a statistical rather than an absolute relationship to the container. Doesn't mean there's no relationship, but it is not simple as 1-to-1.

1 comment:

Inay said...

We are always bounded by how we think and act. Culture and traditions change as the world somehow tried to connect to each other. Cross cultural is now on the move trying to decode barriers. What will maintain is the land itself which can also eats up by changes with regards to its geophysical nature. What makes us differ from the rest of the world is accepting who they are and what they are. We can't understand culture of others by visualizing or reading or mere observing. Living with them for 3 to 6 months for total understanding and appreciating what makes them unique and distinguishable disregards their looks and appearance. Chinese won't mind. African or Germans.
Faces are skin value. With respect to the dignity of each country. They all have a sense of family value. God bless you.