Wednesday, November 21, 2012

American Wildlife and Culture

I published this in The Valve six years ago, one of several pieces on identity issues. It comes to mind now as I contemplate doing a book on five animated features, one of which is Disney's Fantasia. In a longish post arguing that Fantasia is a masterpiece I also argued that it is an expression of a transnational culture emerging in the 20th century. But what does that mean, a a transnational culture, as opposed ot a national culture? For there is a line of argument and analysis suggesting that the idea of a national culture is a fiction. If and to the extent that that is so, might transnational be the normal state of many cultural formations? Those are the kinds of ideas in play here.
I have previously argued that the notion of “Western culture” is unintelligible when considered as a term of cultural description and analysis. The term is ideological and finds its meaning in geopolitical struggles, not the study of culture. I feel much the same way about the phrase “American culture.” Such phrases, when employed to talk a general way about politics, society, and history, tend to designate some undifferentiated metaphysic substance. In one case that substance is associated with the West, but not Africa or the Orient. In the other case the substance is associated with the United States of America, but no other nation.

I want to do a bit of thinking aloud and explore this matter by contrast that usage with a phrase such as “American wildlife.” That phrase simply designates the wildlife living in America. Given that America includes Alaska and Hawaii and some miscellaneous territories, the term's geographical range is ambiguous, but that is easily enough clarified in any given context.

My point is that, whatever geographical range one specifies, the term does not imply that the wildlife species in question has some special essence that makes the species American. Some species are found only in America whiles others are found elsewhere. Whatever the case may be, we have a body of biological theory that allows us to understand the situation in terms of geography, climate, and history (both near-term, going back 500 or 1000 years, and deep, going back millions of years).

Now, let us construe “American culture” as meaning simply the cultural practices taking place on American soil - however you wish to understand its geographic scope. Given the wide range of peoples who have migrated to America, it follows that there are a wide range of cultural practices taking place on American soil that cannot reasonably be considered American. Without even attempting to characterize those more specifically, let's just cross them off the list and go on to some less obvious cases.

For example, consider the culture of 20th century physics. There's a lot of that in America, but the practice of physics is international in scope and it doesn't make much sense to identify it with any one nation. There may be more such physics practiced in the United States - as measured by, say number of Nobel Laureates, number of college and university physics departments, number of professional physicists, etc. - but that doesn't make physics peculiarly American. Local variants are likely to reflect the influence of specific individuals or institutions as much as, or more so, the influence of geo-political nationality.

What about Christmas? It is certainly very important in American national life. Many businesses, for example, organize their business year around Christmas season and the appropriateness of Christmas ritual objects - e.g. a crèche - for display on certain public property is a matter of annual contention. But the holiday itself is not specifically American; it is Christian. And the specific customs associated with Christmas in modern America owe as much, if not more, to Victorian England than to America itself. By contrast, Thanksgiving is specifically American, as are a various civic holidays of which Independence Day, July 4th, is the most obvious.

And then there is baseball, known as America's pastime since the late 19th century. The history of the game seems rather obscure, at least to the writers of the Wikipedia, but mostly English and American. The first published rules of the game were written in 1845 by one Alexander Joy Cartwright for Manhattan club called the Knickerbockers. That's as convenient an originating point as any but no particular origin seems to justified privileged status. Like many things cultural, the game evolved over a period of time in many different places.

The game is certainly important in America's sports ecology, but it is also important in Cuba, Korea, and Japan and has been played in those countries since the first half of the 19th century. That makes the game Cuban, Korean, and Japanese in a merely geographical sense, but in a cultural sense? Probably not. But is it culturally American and, if so, what characteristics make it American? Does it share those characteristics with, for example, American football? The answers to these questions are not so obvious.

Let's consider one final example, the American novel. As a literary form, the novel is not specifically American. Just what it is, is a question I'll leave to those more expert in the subject than I am. And I'm pretty much going to do the same with the American novel. But, whatever it is that makes a novel American, it is not the birthplace of the novelist or where the novel was written, but what the novel is about and, perhaps, its style and manner. Characterizing those traits is not an easy business.

At this point we have come rather a long way from the trite point that, to be a meaningful term in the analysis of culture, the phrase “American culture” has to be something more than, other than, a mere geographical qualifier. But it is not at all obvious to me just how to characterize this “more than,” this “other than.” It is difficult enough to characterize it in once fairly circumscribed case, the American novel. How would you characterize it in a fully general way?

I do not have an answer to that question. What is worse, I suspect that it is the wrong kind of question to ask. But I am going to leave that for another day.

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