There is an interesting relationship between what we have come to call the “self” and the “mind” and the world in which we live. This world comprises our “culture” – not in the sense of the opera or the symphony, but rather the background of assumptions and conventions that make it possible for us to make sense of everything. We wouldn’t be able to exist in any meaningful way without it. It profoundly influences our concept of who and where we are. It imposes itself on us whether we want it to or not. Having said this, there isn’t any particular reason why anybody has the culture they’ve got, other than it’s been around for a while. People living in different parts of the world have different attitudes, orientations and outlooks. Their customs, protocols and procedures vary considerably.
But this only is part of the story. We inhabit this place we call the “earth” and are biologically-evolved creatures. We are neurochemically predisposed to culture’s authority and sway. The main reason for its power and compulsion over us is because that’s how we’re made. So while we may have different cultures our human need for culture is the same. Cultures have different substantive outcomes even as our experience arises from the same human genome.
The relationship between culture and the persons who inhabit it leads to a curious problem. “Culture” doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Any community per se comprises the individuals who are (or have been) its members. Culture wouldn’t (and couldn’t) exist without us. In this respect each of us exists in an environment that is not entirely of our own making.
Which raises the question of how culture comes about to begin with. One of the main drivers is the activities of individual people who become, or who are transformed into, cultural paradigms. There never has been that many of them – one only need take an imaginary ratio of the number of people mentioned in history books against the cumulative population of the world.
For better or worse these people are the ones who’ve been handed down to us as cultural determiners or arbiters. Not as “deciders” or “meaning-conferrers” because that implies they knew what they were doing, which well might not be the case.
Whomever they were these few people came to be interpreted as defining a culture’s style, and the rest of us fell in step. Historically, in Western culture at least, they believed we had “selves.” Since they were precedent-setters, what they thought was important, no matter how peculiar it may have been. It trickled down to the rest of us, from medieval serf to Elizabethan noble. A few people thought they had selves, and told the rest of us. So the rest of us did, too.
This odd notion has inspired individuals to create great works of art – or to become horrible dictators. It also is responsible for a lot of confused thinking. Our fanciful notion of self exacerbates neurochemically-caused mood disorders such as depression and mania. In extreme cases it has the potential to result in psychopathological conditions such as schizophrenia.
It also has caused us to come to think the notion of culture (or even our particular culture) is an “innate” feature of human experience. This is not so. Human culture has evolved because we are neurochemically disposed to it, not because we have been thinking about it or somehow “willed” it into existence. “Innateness” simply is a derivative feature of “mind.”
Today’s world differs considerably from that of 50 years ago, not to mention a century or two. Culture still is its primary constitutor and we as individuals living in it still are neurochemically predisposed to its effects. Our idols still are the same type of people. Even the means by which they become inaugurated essentially remain unchanged.
The back-and-forth tension between culture and individual neurochemistry, however, has become exacerbated by drivers such as mass media. Mass Media – including both “conventional” and “new” technologies – has picked up the pace. It also has modified the relationship between our cultural icons and us in a subtle but pervasive way. One thing hasn’t changed, which is, most cultural avatars are propelled by neurochemical incentives and rewards. Many of them may be profoundly mentally ill.
So ours is an interesting tale, but a complex one too. It draws from several different disciplines including geology, neurophysiology, sociology, philosophy, theology, aesthetics and classics studies. They disagree about most aspects of it, implausibly exaggerate or mischaracterize each other’s positions and call each other names. It originates in ancient Greek and archaic Israelite civilization, which somehow has been transformed into modern pop culture (1). The former are the bedrock of where we’re at, right now; and the latter are where we’re at, right now. If nothing else this makes for lively discourse.
(1) Pope Benedict XVI, spiritual leader of the Catholic Church, agrees. “One of Benedict’s favorite themes is that European civilization derives from the rapprochement between Greek philosophy and religious belief, between Athens and Jerusalem,” “Papal Inquisition,” Wall St. J. (Jan. 17, 2008). Pope Benedict sometimes is referred to as the Church’s “Supreme Primate,” which puts an interesting twist on evolutionary theory.