What is culture? You decide

We’ve been discussing various definitions or ways of thinking about culture, and by now I hope everyone has plugged into the idea that culture isn’t fixed, that it is something we do, something we make, something we negotiate with — that it is a process. Below I’ve provided several (very) different was of thinking about culture. For this mental exercise, you choose which one you like best, then elaborate with a paragraph or two on why you like that particular quote. Here are the nominees:

  • “Culture — the lifeblood of a people, the flow of moral energy that holds society intact.” –Gottfried Herder, who coined the term, in German (kultur), in the mid-1700s.
  • “Cultures are maps of meaning through which the world is made.” — Peter Jackson, film director
  • “Culture is everything you don’t have to do. Cuisine is culture, but eating is not; fashion is culture, but clothing is not.” — Brian Eno, musician and artist
  • “Culture is a process — fluid, interactive, communal, ongoing and always negotiated.” — Brian Carroll, Berry dude
  • “Culture is what we do with the contradictions in our lives.” — Carol Greenhouse, anthropologist, professor
  • ” ‘Culture’ names a rather amorphous entity. Human beings produce culture in the same sense that they produce carbon dioxide: they can’t help it, but the stuff has absolutely no value in itself. It’s just there. It is one thing to attribute a group’s characteristics to its culture; it is another thing to elevate that culture into a discrete set of traditions and practices in which the members of the group can take pride simply because they are, willy-nilly, theirs. Culture is only a response to the conditions of life; when those conditions change — and in modern societies they change continuously — culture changes as well.” — Louis Menand, The Metaphysical Club
  • “There are at least two ways of using the word ‘culture.’ The evaluative use has been more common when we are thinking about ‘the arts’ and ‘literature': to be ‘cultured’ is to be the possessor of superior values and a refined sensibility, both of which are manifested through a positive and fulfilling engagement with ‘good’ literature, art, music and so on. The analytic one is used in the social sciences and especially anthropology: it seeks to describe the whole system of significations by which a society or a section of it understands itself and its relations with the world.” — Cairns & Richardson, Writing Ireland

What do you think? What is culture? What is it to you? What is it not? Post your response to these questions by 9 a.m. Friday (Jan. 22).

23 Responses to What is culture? You decide

  1. Jordan says:

    I really liked the quote “Cultures are maps of meaning through which the world is made.” I think that best describes culture because there are so many different cultures and so many different definitions of culture that when they’re all pieced together, they truly do make up a map of what culture really is. Culture makes up our world much like countries and continents do a map.

  2. Alice says:

    “Cultures are maps of meaning through which the world is made.” — Peter Jackson, film director

    Each society that is part of the world creates and partakes in a unique culture of their own. Culture is essentially the way that humans makes sense of life and bring color to their societies. Individuals use parts of a culture to describe themselves and show where they are from. Through these representations, humans unite together and form the groups of the world. Our very worlds are defined by the culture that we are exposed to and involved in.
    Culture exposes us to new ideas and concepts, but it also shelters us, making us believe that the ways of our lives are the only ways. With each different culture that exists, we make our own worlds that we live in and we abide by the rules and expectations of that particular culture. Culture is diverse and practically limitless, but most of all it is how we define our lives and essentially, our worlds.

  3. Don’t forget to vote for top artifact of or surface/environment for visual culture. Candidates include:

    * Star Wars tattoo,
    * Star Wars helmet,
    * Virgin Mary with Coke bottle, v
    * ibrant Argentinian colors on homes,
    * little cute horse, a neglected boot,
    * sister not wearing any pants (nightmare),
    * sculpture in St. Simons tree stumps,
    * gold tooth or tooth cap,
    * jewelry holder in shape of women’s legs,
    * band-aid with old English motto,
    * TOMS shoes flag,
    * graffiti on a dumpster,
    * “No Dumping” over a urinal.

    If I forgot anyone’s, my apologies. And thanks to Nicole for helping me catalog these.

  4. Brin says:

    “Culture — the lifeblood of a people, the flow of moral energy that holds society intact.” –Gottfried Herder, who coined the term, in German (kultur), in the mid-1700s.

    Human beings desire constant. They desire for something or some concept to identify with–which brings around culture, “The lifeblood of a people.” We are initially born into culture, if we like it or not. For the first few years of our life we have no control over the culture we are raising within. However, as time progresses and we become more understanding of ourselves and our surrounding we begin to create different “flows of moral energy.” Needless to say, regardless of the culture we are either grow up in or moderately create we need this social context to stay intact.

  5. Brin says:

    I liked the “no dumping.” :)

  6. Klavey says:

    Brian Eno’s quote, “Culture is everything you don’t have to do…” is an interesting approach to culture. I see what he means when he says “cuisine is culture” but food is not because food is necessary for survival. We don’t have to dance but we do have to move. The more I thought about the quote, I came to the conclusion it is very simplistic. There are things we need for survival but people are often challenged with their desires to want or do more—which determines our culture. Eno uses cuisine as an example of culture, which is true, because we relate certain cuisines to different cultures. I would also agree that many people in today’s society need clothing but choose to buy ‘fashionable’ clothing because they can, not because they have to. Culture is everything we don’t have to do… what we have to do is survive. We don’t necessarily have to survive dressed in the latest Chanel spring outfit, eating crème brulée in downtown Paris, but we can.

  7. Alice says:

    Also- I vote for the band-aid, to me it is one of the most unusual ways to communicate a message.

  8. dakotafloyd says:

    For me, Peter Jackson’s quotation makes the most sense. As culture is a human construct, everyone has a different perception of what their specific one is, as well as what others are. The people I surround myself with, the music I listen to, the things I buy (or don’t buy), the books I read all affect how I perceive my culture. All of these facets, things that hold meaning to me, are parts of the larger “map.” This map guides me in my decision making on a daily basis, creating the “world” I choose / try to live in. Additionally, since no two people have the exact same views all of the time, everyone’s map will have differences, some being of totally different worlds.

    Going off of the whole Peter Jackson / LotR association, culture can serve as the one ring to “bring them all and … bind them.” People that share characteristics, beliefs, or interests typically want to be around each other. Whatever culture they may subscribe to is what binds them together as a group.

    I also like Brin’s idea on creating different “flows of moral energy” as one begins to realize their surroundings and interests. These new flows can serve as rivers in newly developing maps, possibly taking someone to a totally new place in the world.

    As for my vote, I liked the Star Wars tattoo. I actually know a couple people with Star Wars tattoos as well, and I’ve always wondered about it.

  9. Katie Underdown says:

    “Culture is everything you don’t have to do. Cuisine is culture, but eating is not; fashion is culture, but clothing is not.” — Brian Eno, musician and artist

    I like, and agree with, this particular quote about culture. You have to do things like eat, wear clothes, etc. But it’s really what we choose to do that makes us unique and different from other cultures. The things we choose to eat (or cuisine), the things we choose to wear (fashion), the things we choose to watch, what we choose to listen to, and how we choose to act around others. Basically, the things we do that do not pertain to sustaining life are part of our culture because we are making a choice, whether it be conscious or not, that whatever it is we are partaking in is a particular thing that is liked and acceptable in our society. And even if it is not liked by the entire society, there is usually a large group of people that share the same views (for example, teenagers in the 1960s-70s were often looked at as rebels because of their cultural choices, but that was what they chose and agreed upon as acceptable between them). Culture is what makes us who we are and what distinguishes us from other people/cultures. This is why it is not what we have to do, but rather what we choose to do. Everyone has to eat to survive, but the food we choose to eat is what makes us unique. Thus, I agree that “culture is everything we don’t have to do.”

    As for my vote, I’m going to go with the band-aid with the English motto, since I think this is a very interesting way to display your culture- and it is often overlooked.

  10. Astin Adams says:

    “Cultures are maps of meaning through which the world is made.” — Peter Jackson, film director

    I liked this definition of culture because it really emphasizes the importance of culture. In the same way a map would help a person navigate through and unknown area, culture helps outsiders navigate their way through the different societies. In every society, culture establishes a different meaning for different things. Through culture and the ways things are depicted, outsiders are allowed a better understanding of the important aspects, ideas, and values of a particular society or group of people. The composition of all the worlds various different cultures, or maps, is what makes the world as diverse as it is.

    My vote is the Star Wars tattoo. I think it says a lot about the importance people today put on TV and movies and how these ways of communication impact the lives of Americans today.

  11. tschneider says:

    The quote that stands out to me is the one by Louis Menand. Culture is only a response to the conditions of life; when those conditions change — and in modern societies they change continuously — culture changes as well.” Culture is defined for a person based on the environment that surrounds them. When that environment changes they can either adapt to the new culture or rebel against it and stick to the old culture or create an entirely new one. Prime example…shoe culture. Dr. Carrol brought this up in class…the different shoes phases starting with the Uggs, the Crocs, the Chacos, and the Sperrys. They all have had their 15minute culture run and people have either switched with the culture change or stayed with the previous one. Each of these shoes has a different meaning attached with them which then defines the persons culture.
    Culture is always changing and moving. That is the beauty of culture! You are able to decide which culture you want to be a apart. And ironically a culture can also reject someone who is trying to be apart of it. For example…in hip hop/urban culture it is mainly seen as a culture for African Americans. When a Caucasian attempts to participate in the hip hop/urban culture they are looked down upon and a majority of the time not accepted into the culture.
    To say that there isn’t a culture isn’t very likely. Everything that has meaning to somebody is part of a culture, even the my little pony doll is a culture….The posters of scantily clad soccer players that are on my wall (my roommate’s) are part of a culture.

    Oh and for best representation of culture thing in class i would say is the no dumping sign…although im not sure.

  12. Erin Grigsby says:

    “Culture is only a response to the conditions of life; when those conditions change — and in modern societies they change continuously — culture changes as well.” — Louis Menand, The Metaphysical Club

    This definition really stands out and makes a lot sense to me because it expresses the idea Dr. Carroll mentioned at the beginning of this blog, which is that culture is a process. Culture is the process we make individually and it links people who live under similar conditions of life into a society that is constantly changing. One thing I thought about when reading this quote was how much my culture has changed since I was a young girl. When most of us were little, our only real responsibilities were going to school, doing homework, and any chores our parents made us do around the house. For me, my life practically revolved around playing with friends at recess and watching as many cartoons as I possibly could. Those things were important to me, and it made up most of my culture. But now that I am older, my conditions of life have changed. I still go to school and have to do my homework, but I now have to deal with having jobs, handling my money, keeping up with social networks like Facebook (now a significant part of culture, in my opinion), etc. Applying this same concept to history also shows that people have constantly changed over time, and when people change, their culture changes along with them.

    My vote also goes to the band-aid with the old English motto since it is such an unexpected, yet effective, surface to convey a piece of culture.

  13. Hillary says:

    My Favorite quote is “Culture is a process — fluid, interactive, communal, ongoing and always negotiated.” It made the most sense to me because culture is not set in stone. It is constantly changing. Throughout history, the people of a culture have always had to give and take to form “today’s culture.” An example that comes to mind is what is considered acceptable on television. Many years ago, Lucy and Ricky could not sleep in the same bed on “I Love Lucy”. Today, we have “The Real World” and all the shows that come with it. What is shown on shows such as that is arguably “acceptable” today because of the constant changes and negotiations in what is deemed appropriate in our culture.

    My vote for the best piece of visual culture has to be the star wars helmet.

  14. Alex says:

    I really enjoyed the quote “Culture is everything you don’t have to do. Cuisine is culture, but eating is not; fashion is culture, but clothing is not.” from Brian Eno. I think he hits it square on the head not only what culture is, but in a sense, how to differentiate different types of culture. There is high culture, low culture, pop culture, slop culture, and any other kind of catchy word you want to tag on to it. Our tastes and our responses to various items shape how we view ourselves and each other.

    Culture is all around, and it is unstoppable. Trying to rebel against a culture creates a counter-culture. And like Dr. Carroll says, culture is always negotiated. We are the ones that negotiate what culture means to us.

    Also, I give my vote to Hillary’s jewelry holder.

  15. Pablo says:

    “Culture is everything you don’t have to do. Cuisine is culture, but eating is not; fashion is culture, but clothing is not.” — Brian Eno, musician and artist.

    I think this is the best “to the point” way of looking culture coz’ culture is not more than actions that we don’t have to do for our survival but we do because we like it and we identify with it.
    Is not life or death matter to eat waffles every morning (or in the case of my place rice and beans) but is more something we choose to do coz’ we like it, and we identify with. Culture are all those actions we don’t have to do, but, when we do them, they express who we are and where do we come from. Like many of the typical dances in different countries, they have a story to tell, they have special costumes and colors, coding in them a message that wants to be transmited. Is not something our ancestors had to do for our survival, is something they did because is a way of passing knowledge and identity through the years. To keep us together as an identified group.

    I’ll have to support my fellow latinos of the south and go for the vibrant Argentinian colors in the buildings.

  16. Jessica Gilker says:

    I think the quote that best describes is Peter Jackson’s quote along with part of Cairns & Richardson quote, “it seeks to describe the whole system of significations by which a society or a section of it understands itself and its relations with the world.”
    Groups of people create culture through formed behaviors and values. Looking at different cultures and their specifics affect the way you live and view things. This creates a map of how you and those around you (the world) are shaped. I know that I am personally affected by the different values and behaviors that individuals have. Whether or not I choose to affect certain cultures, atleast understanding them allows me to be better accept others’ way of live. Understanding what cultures are and how what they mean to the individual within t the culture can help people relate to others in the world. Not understanding cultures or being closed minded can also cut you off from different parts of the world. Your map of the world will shrink and so will your understanding of the world.

    I vote for the band-aid with old English motto for the most unusual surface for visual culture.

  17. Nicole says:

    “Cultures are maps of meaning through which the world is made.” — Peter Jackson, film director

    Culture holds a different significance for each person; the definition of culture will vary from person to person and from country to country. Therefore, expressing culture as “maps of meaning” is the most clear and communicative way to include every individual, in every corner of the world. Culture is not the sense of being forced into a certain ideal or set of values, but instead choosing to, so that it matches your identity. While every quote includes an aspect of culture, this simply sums it up.

    My vote is for the band aid. It was not only unique, but the most surprising form of culture presented.

  18. Leeann says:

    “Cultures are maps of meaning through which the world is made.” by Peter Jackson is my favorite definition of culture. Think about the purpose of a map. It guides or shows you where to go. Culture does the same thing. Culture involves sets of beliefs, principles, and values that guide you through life. You make decisions based on ‘your culture’. Also, on a map, all places are connected. Culture also connects us all. Each person has a right to practice their own culture. They can be as different as they want to be. So, in a funny way, being able to practice one’s own culture connects us all. Being different makes us the same. Really, there is no single perfect definition of culture, but the idea of it being a map is a great visual.

    My vote for best artifact is the band-aide. It was really unique, but the helmet was amazing!!!

  19. Carina says:

    “Culture is everything you don’t have to do. Cuisine is culture, but eating is not; fashion is culture, but clothing is not.” — Brian Eno, musician and artist

    This quote stood out to me the most, because not only was it very different in nature from the others, it provides a unique perception of culture by telling us first what culture is not. Culture is not necessary for survival. Culture is not something we need to do, but it is still a part of us. The quote shows that culture is something we can choose and create. Pop culture, high culture, low culture, rock culture–all of these are things people choose to identify with and make their own. Everyone needs to wear clothing (possibly) but what is considered “fashionable ” differs from person to person. One person may love dresses and stilettos and the next jeans and punk rocker T-shirts.
    That is the interesting thing about culture: it is one of the subjective aspects of our lives.

    And my vote goes out to the Star Wars tattoo. That was just epic.

  20. Ana says:

    “Culture — the lifeblood of a people, the flow of moral energy that holds society intact.” –Gottfried Herder.
    Culture is exactly that. Culture is that part of us that is rooted deep inside of every person in a society that makes them who they are. I feel that we are able to see culture through the actions and beliefs of people, therefore culture must be a part of people and the societies that the people make up.

    As for my vote…
    Hillary Carder’s jewelry holder.

  21. Kyler says:

    I also most identified with the Eno quote. I like the comparison he makes between necessary activities or objects in life and their related, yet in some ways more advanced cultural representatives. I like the example mentioned before of dancing and moving. Moving is a general part of life, whereas dancing is an artistic, sometimes deeply emotional, expression of HOW a person moves. The human body is another example. Everyone has one. But people choose to do different things to their bodies as cultural forms of art (tattoos, piercings, etc.).

    The quote I find least representative of culture is Menand’s. He equates culture to carbon dioxide, meaning that it is a meaningless biproduct naturally produced by society. I disagree. I think the analogy is a poor one because it devalues culture in such a blatant way. Culture is what defines people and societies. It isn’t simply an afterthought or some sort of waste product. It’s the essence of life, the “life blood” of a people.

    As for my vote…
    I’m gonna go with the Band-Aid.

  22. James Clarke says:

    “Culture is everything you don’t have to do. Cuisine is culture, but eating is not; fashion is culture, but clothing is not,” says Brian Eno. This makes a lot of sense to me. What kind of t-shirt I’m wearing doesn’t define the culture that I am a part of, instead it is the fact that in our culture we wear t-shirts as part of fashion. In many other cultures, this is not the case. Movies aren’t culture, because they are something we do. Film itself however, as a medium, is part of culture. We don’t influence film or fashion or culture on purpose, it is simply a reflection of what we are.

    For my vote I’m down with the pic of the Oola tattoo also. Girls with Star Wars tattoos = good.

  23. Katie Curry says:

    I realize this is terribly late by the point, but I hadn’t checked my email and figured it was better late than never regardless of if I get any kind of credit or not. I personally enjoyed the Brian Eno quote more than the others. He makes a wonderful point in saying that culture is what we don’t have to do, this seems to really resonate with the culture of today. In our society you have to wear clothes, but the fact that I’m wearing a scarf and an owl pendant speaks to the downtown Athens culture that I come from. There is no need for me to listen to music, but the fact that it’s on right now and I’ve decorated my body with symbols that represent it states that it’s something deeply ingrained and important not just to me, but to where the people I associate come from and enjoy. We don’t need whatever culture may be, but we are representations of culture.

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