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.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Formality and Familiarity

[my apologies if this post is a bit of a dog's breakfast; I've spent too much time fussing over it. It probably should have been parsed out into a couple different posts. But there you are.]

It occurred to me, a few weeks ago, that maps are like a collective voice—the voice of a group—in the same way that all published second-person information are. One individual (or more likely, a small group) composes the material, with the idea that "anyone" (that is, anyone with understanding of the particular formal visual or text system) can fit themselves into the pilot's seat and bake that bread or find that highway. In a sense all communication creates a community, in that it means that more then one person has the same information, and this sort of communication is a subset of that.

Maps, recipes and other anonymous second-person communications also act as guides within a larger system. They are formal, though they may be couched in friendly, casual voice: you can make a handwritten-text map, or (as with Julia Child or Laurie Colwin) frame recipes with chatty, informal prose. But Julia Child and your local cartographer do not know anything about you personally. All they know is that you, their target audience, desire to learn to cook the things they describe, or to learn what you have to say about geographic space. As maker of a cookbook/map, you need to compose instructions that can be used by a cook in a small kitchen in Boston or a cabin in Montana, by a motorcyclist or Hummer driver,

BUT: the maker of s standard street map is NOT making their map for people trying to walk or drive cattle. One could say that cattle drivers are excluded. Much has been made of classist, racist, sexist, nationalist etc. exclusion from cartography. And the same thing could be said for Julia Child. You need a motor vehicle to really use a modern road map properly, and you need a kitchen to use a modern cookbook: there are basic tools that the cookbook and street map presume you will have.

But besides excluding, these tools also welcome in. They make it possible to join in a community—indeed they form that community—without first passing a human-administered sniff test: there is no catechism, no manners to learn, no bloodline to prove. This was Julia Child's genius: you don't have to have an outrageous French accent to cook good French food; you just have to understand the system. So the matter of exclusion becomes a matter either of personal economics (can't use that navigational chart... don't own a boat...), or a matter of choice (why would I want to cook French food? Can't stand the stuff).


I'm writing this on the Amtrak train down to Portland from Seattle. The train staff are settled in seats behind us, where they are chatting and griping about their jobs. When they make announcements, there is a forced informality to their patter: they are trying very hard to simultaneously sound professional and friendly. The divide between formality and familiarity is, as in much of American public life, confused.

I grew up in this informal American social environment. A lot of it is about denial of class divides: it is not OK in much of this country to set yourself above other fellow Americans (illegal immigrants are another matter). I find even the now-much-reduced sense of formality in Europe disconcerting, and I know Europeans find themselves disconcerted by American "friendliness."

But friendliness is not the same as familiarity. One may give a highly formal greeting that nonetheless makes the visitor very welcome, and one can be laid-back and rudely unwelcoming.

In an odd way, formality can be more friendly, especially where there is a divide in familiar social customs. The word "familiar" comes from the same root as "family" and implies a habitual rather than consciously learned set of behaviors. Where these habits are not ingrained, being plunged into a casual social situation can be very very awkward: rules are not spelled out, and in the everyday business of eating, going to the toilet, and simply sitting and relaxing, feelings are likely to be hurt.

But, of course, formality can be off-putting. I did not like the whole be-on-your-best-manners part of visiting my maternal grandparents. The silverware, the posture, the careful wordings... and in retrospect they were not that bad at all, pretty tolerant and gently corrective to their grandson.

The difference between formality as welcome and formality as barrier is in whether the formal system permits access to the habitual. A street map allows one to discover a network, but that same network can be learned (think new cabbies with their nose in the street atlas vs. old-timers who know the city streets by heart).

Where formality is destructive is where there is no gateway through to familiarity: Eliza Doolittle could learn to be a lady, but unless her Pakistani modern-day counterpart is truly judged by her habits, speech and carriage, her skin color will forever bar her. You can be as polite as you want to awful old Great-aunt Phyllis, but she will never let you see her heart, or see you as you are.

And where maps truly do provide a barrier, they too are a problem: where they are used to create ghettoes and bantustans and reservations, to clearly and unequivocally state that this sort of person will only be allowed here and here, to rationalize and clarify violent systems.

They are also a bar where formality becomes its own ingrained habit. This is the class bar: when you have grown up used to formal habits, you have an inherent, and unfair, social advantage over those who have had to learn the formal system, and for whom it will always be a foreign language.

My own take-home for this is that it is always best that a formal system like cartography remain a foreign language to all who use it; one may become fluent, but if it becomes the language in which you relax in your pajamas, then you need in a sense to recuse yourself from using it as a tool for power. You become a host, and ought not really claim this common land of formal systems as territory.