One of the many grave problems of our current system of education is its insistence on dividing the study of culture into neat disciplinary categories. It is a practice derived from the hand-me-down usage of the analytical methods developed in the German university in the second half of the 19th century to accelerate the pace of scientific progress.
When viewed in terms of its Greek origins, analysis involves “literally ‘a breaking up, a loosening, releasing,’ noun of action from analyein ‘unloose, release, set free; to loose a ship from its moorings.’” In other words, it is the practice of dividing a given phenomenon into its constituent parts, and examining them in the hope that these detailed observations will lead back to a greater understanding of the functioning of the whole.
But as we have seen with great clarity over the last few years, that second, “reassembling” part of the knowledge search often never takes place.
Think of the absurdity—rooted in this very tendency to want to see the explication of a constituent part of a thing as an end unto itself—of presenting a genetic device that generates antibodies to part of a virus in rodents as the key to resolving the spread of a disease with numerous complex methods of propagation in humans, never mind something as socially complex as an epidemic.
All that said, there is no denying that the practice of analysis, understood in general terms, has led to some great advances in the realm of the sciences.
Much less clear in terms of positive effects generated has been the use of analysis, understood in its original etymological sense, in advancing the study of culture. And that’s for a very simple reason.
The perceived value of cultural artifacts and cultural structures is, as I have argued in a somewhat more detailed fashion here and here, almost always determined by the set of relations that they maintain with other elements in the cultural field in a given moment of history.
Think of a McDonald’s restaurant located on a deserted Pacific atoll, or this kiosk I happened upon one day while walking through the backlands of Croatia on a semi-paved footpath.
Physically, these two structures are the same as others designed to be like them in the world. But from the point of view of their particular cultural value they are near nullities as they are no longer surrounded by the set of other cultural artifacts needed to imbue them with a somewhat stable and recognizable function, and thus meaning.
This, in many ways is what happens when humanists, reacting to the long-standing sense of inferiority so many of them harbor in relation to science and their scientific colleagues (itself a reaction to their muffled sense of shame at supposedly being less in step with society’s cult of material progress), seek to apply second-hand versions of analytical methods designed by scientists to the study of culture.
As we can see from the examples cited above, cultural meaning is inherently combinatory in both its origin and deployment. If we are not to denature it to the point of meaninglessness—thus robbing us all of the many lessons it contains for us—we must examine it with methods that respect its core constitution; that is, we need to ground our attempts to understand it in the spirit of analysis’ lexical opposite: synthesis.
When we look at culture synthetically we free ourselves not only of the often nihilistic spiral of analytical fragmentation, but begin to naturally practice what is arguably the most valuable fruit of intense cultural observation: pattern recognition.
And when we dedicate ourselves to the practice of pattern recognition over time, a number of things become abundantly clear. One is that the shape of cultural systems themselves, and even more clearly, the dynamics of generating abrupt change within them, are inordinately driven by a very small group of extremely powerful people.
Another is that elite efforts to catalyze cultural change are almost always multi-front efforts in which a single new organizing metaphor or trope is implanted at various, and seemingly unrelated sites of cultural production over time.
Take, to name just one example, the issue of bodily sovereignty. Given its absolute centrality to the idea of liberty, I am convinced that the final abolishment of bodily sovereignty, and with it the idea of the marvelous and mysterious self-sufficiency of the human body, was and is the paramount goal of the mega-powerful few who organized the Covid panic.
They were clearly aware that the vaccines they were peddling would do little or nothing to stop whatever virological problem there might have been, but they proceeded anyway. And they did so with an authoritarian drive to control the bodily actions of others not seen since the time of slavery.
When the childish illusion of their “wanting to help us” is stripped away, it becomes clear that their only real long-term goal was to destroy the long-standing idea that one’s body belongs only to one’s self. In this way, they want to usher in a new age in which the individual is reconceptualized (and comes eventually to reconceptualize himself) as interchangeable human raw material to be serially manipulated to serve what powerful and supposedly knowing others have decided are overarching the common needs and goals of the culture.
A truly dramatic power grab.
But a cultural observer with both a synthetic and transtemporal vision of cultural change might view it slightly differently.
He might remember how some 30 years ago we were all suddenly nudged toward wearing brand advertisements for large firms on our clothes, and how in the subsequent generation young people were suddenly encouraged to imprint more or less permanent messages—often with overt commercial symbolism—on their bodies, a practice historically associated with indentured work and slavery, as well as membership organizations like the army and the navy where the needs of the individual are always sublimated to those of a hierarchically managed group.
And this same observer would not miss the fact that no sooner had the hyped drive to smash the idea of bodily sovereignty through vaccination reached its peak, we were rapidly inundated at a level of propagandistic force that is absurdly oversized in relation to the actual organic dimensions of the question or concern within the society. The goal was to begin accepting the mutilation and sterilization of children as a human right to be guaranteed by the state, over and above whatever objections the child’s parents might have.
That more pedigreed observers of culture do not see these trends, or perhaps more accurately, feel it would be “irresponsible” to perhaps connect the dots between them, demonstrates just how deeply entrenched largely useless, non-synthetic (or faux scientific) approaches to cultural observation have become among us.
Indeed, what is the ever-ready-to-be-unleashed slur of being a conspiracy theorist about if not to serve as a warning to people who like to think of themselves as serious scholars of culture not to even begin speculating about power-driven synergies that, objectively speaking, beg to be speculated about.
Think about it. If you were powerful and carrying out a multi-front effort to readjust operative notions of the morally acceptable in a culture with an eye toward insuring the continuance of your incredibly strong hold of the basic destinies of millions, wouldn’t you love having an culture-parsing elite that, both by dint of their fragmented view of cultural dynamics, and fear of reputational destruction, largely refrained from engaging in speculation about the true, and quite probably coordinated, nature of your culture-planning efforts? I know I would.
Those who in this very moment are seeking to radically change our core conceptions of liberty and our relationships to our own bodies though their aggressive culture-planning have, so far, faced relatively little serious intellectual opposition to their efforts.
This is mostly because the salaried inhabitants of universities and key institutions of culture, who under the implied rules of democratic liberalism are supposed to act as a critical check upon such efforts, have mostly failed to do so.
Part of this is the result of base human cowardice in the face of ostentatious demonstrations of persecutory power. But it is also the product of the tendency of the contemporary university to approach the study of culture with methodological tools that—by encouraging the examination and cataloging of disparate pieces rather than the necessarily speculative creation of holistic explanatory discourses—strip it of much of its inherent pedagogical power.
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