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Culture is a slippery thing

by geezer in Paris Mon Nov 27th, 2006 at 08:44:17 AM EST

A moving response from the diaries to this earlier post of mine. Jerome

Frederic Martel is missing the point.

I want to extend a comment made earlier- a comment on a post of Jerome's, quoting an interview with cultural attache' Frederic Martel. One might want to read Jerome's post first-"USA-A vibrant culture open to minorities, better funded than in France".

I came to Paris the first time for love- love of the culture.I came the last time to stay- for medical treatment, but still for the culture, -- not just the art, or the music or the cuisine- I came for the cultural depth.

In Jerome's post on culture and the following good discussion, somehow culture has not been defined, so here is my take.

Yes, art is a part of culture. And symphony orchestras and opera and art galleries and self-important Pompidou pomposity. But in the same sense that a house is made of bricks, but a brick is not a house, none of these things- or all of them together- are culture, but the vastly smaller part of culture.

Culture is a tradition that says it is a human right to have universal medical care that won't bankrupt a family if they are shat upon by fate, and people with this cultural value do whatever must be done to realize this right.

Culture is a tradition of "Waiting table" that says a good waiter is an admirable calling, not a bottom-line subsistence job.

Culture is talking to a driver stalled for an hour during a terrible traffic jam as a result of a strike, and hearing him say that, in spite of his total frustration, he supports the strike---"Because next time it might be me".

Culture is this:
After four years in public school, my nine year old son managed to go through five pairs of glasses, tore his pants a zillion times on the playground wrestling and pushing, --but never saw a child strike another child with a closed fist. When asked about this, the school directrice simply said, "Here, that is barbaric behavior". Case closed.(nine years ago- sadly, this is changing now.

Culture is this:
At the center in Valenton where I go for therapy (I am a double amputee), the director told me on the first day I was there that I might not walk usefully. He said, "Our job here is not necessarily to make you walk, Jim. Our job is to maximise your quality of life."

Culture is this:
People who do NOT help you with tasks that you might reasonably be able to do by yourself--until you ask, or until it is obvious that you are in trouble. Then they help, ---and smilingly disappear. Dear God, thank you.

On my old street, in the ninth, I used to walk out my door and turn left, to pass first a retirement facility for military officers who were wounded. Then the Italian deli, where I grazed for six years, and never made a real dent in the task of trying it all: then the odd, petite Japanese hotel, then the Four Season grocery, run by two North Africans, then the Internet cafe and tattoo parlor, then the corner, and across the road was the antique doll hospital and museum, next door to the fireworks store (yes, right in the middle of Paris!), then the hairdresser from the bronx, then the transvestite bar, the Presse, -------  

Culture is a caleidoscope of elements, most of which develop over time. The USA is a cultural infant-- or perhaps an early adolescent, and has not had the time to build depth. This is not a criticism. It's just a fact. Our recent behavior might reasonably be described as adolescent mucle flexing from an adolescent giant who had played too many video games, too many Bruce Lee movies. Perhaps we will grow up.


The "culture" of consumption- "Stuff Addiction"- is so powerful- speaks so loudly- that it drowns out the voices of the heart, of the soul, and therefore the USA may not get the chance to build that depth. That same addiction is becoming pervasive in France today. I suspect that the elements of French culture that I value so much would not exist if the French culture had formed in an environment like McWorld.

A huge part of culture is independent of funding levels, or the method of disbursement, but hinges on the definition of what is "Valuable". If a riding mower trumps a cello or wealth means you get to be healthier, all the money in the world won't make culture.


Thanks for this post!

This is what we call "art de vivre" in France.

Are you still intra-muros?

by Laurent GUERBY on Sun Nov 26th, 2006 at 12:48:44 PM EST
Hi Geezer, long time no see. Hope your you and your family are well and I also hope you will stay around and of course post more interesting diaries as this one.

I like you definition of culture, though it is not very common.

by Fran on Sun Nov 26th, 2006 at 02:12:37 PM EST
This Culture thing sounds like "Society" as in Maggie Thatcher's infamous "There is no such thing as Society...."

Could do with some of that Culture over here then..

"The future is already here -- it's just not very evenly distributed" William Gibson

by ChrisCook (cojockathotmaildotcom) on Sun Nov 26th, 2006 at 02:56:00 PM EST
Culture is talking to a driver stalled for an hour during a terrible traffic jam as a result of a strike, and hearing him say that, in spite of his total frustration, he supports the strike---"Because next time it might be me".

In the early 1900's you could have had this conversation in the US - the reason that you won't any longer has nothing to due with your idea of culture (I view materialism as a symptom, not the cause).

Otherwise I think your thesis makes a good amount of sense. I do think the US will have universal health care within the next decade. Within my own short lifetime, I have seen little movements toward your definition of culture.

you are the media you consume.

by MillMan (millguy at gmail) on Sun Nov 26th, 2006 at 06:04:03 PM EST
hey migeru, you're always asking me to define 'soul'...

well no-one can, it's either there or it ain't.

this diary has it, in spades, imo.

thanks for some of the most evocative writing on ET so far, jim...

seriously beautiful...

it takes centuries to write the story we see in the architecture around us in europe, likewise building culture, a word whose meaning this diary has expanded for me, even redefined.

totally uplifting...

native americans built no duomos, they saw no need.

for some odd reason, they underwent the formality of occurring here.

much food for thought, recc'd.

'The history of public debt is full of irony. It rarely follows our ideas of order and justice.' Thomas Piketty

by melo (melometa4(at)gmail.com) on Sun Nov 26th, 2006 at 08:34:56 PM EST
I liked the diary quite a bit but on the other hand I think we have entered a period in which things like depth, tradition, etc. matter very little.

I would not marry social equity to culture so precisely, however, because there are many other factors that create a system of social equality, and such political systems seem to be cyclical. In other words, social and political systems sometimes evolve or die or fade outside of concerns with culture. A gun, for instance, might be more powerful than any sort of cultural bulwark that might guard against it, and whoever wields that gun--through sheer luck or historical circumstance--can skew things.

Regardless, I for one will not be waiting for the build-up of any depth in the culture through the sheer passage of time. Melville didnt take, Thoreau didnt take, and they were writing well over a century ago.

by Upstate NY on Mon Nov 27th, 2006 at 10:40:58 AM EST
Time is a necessary but insufficient prerequisite for cultural depth.

I spoke about French culture and cultural values not because French values define "good" culture, but because they at least have one- a deep one.

The gun is the central image of our culture today, and time will tell if the rest of the world allows it to trump all things.

Capitalism searches out the darkest corners of human potential, and mainlines them.

by geezer in Paris (risico at wanadoo(flypoop)fr) on Thu Dec 14th, 2006 at 09:07:04 AM EST
[ Parent ]
.. I did nto want to comment with a stupid comment.

Liking anthropology I would say that wha tyouc all culture it is what I call" alues".
Culture is what I associated with symbolism and society ..like in symbolic antrhopology, cultural antrhopology...

You say culture I say values.. you say potato I say poteito.

Well done.

A pleasure

I therefore claim to show, not how men think in myths, but how myths operate in men's minds without their being aware of the fact. Levi-Strauss, Claude

by kcurie on Mon Nov 27th, 2006 at 12:27:46 PM EST
He "never saw a child strike another child with a closed fist"? Then he probably never saw a child battered half-senseless, with the response being not "[In France] that is barbaric behavior", but instead "[In western America] boys will be [assaultive] boys". It isn't fun being battered and having school authorities pretend that they can't be sure who did it.

I'm sorry to hear that this difference from American culture is decaying.

Words and ideas I offer here may be used freely and without attribution.

by technopolitical on Mon Nov 27th, 2006 at 03:36:54 PM EST
The USA is a cultural infant....Perhaps we will grow up.

Is there a trend toward maturity, and if so, by what metrics? (There must be some, but are they dominant?)

Words and ideas I offer here may be used freely and without attribution.

by technopolitical on Mon Nov 27th, 2006 at 03:43:58 PM EST
I do not consider any of the situations described, though all are obviously desirable, evidence of a  culturally mature society (whatever that means).  If so, I could have identified most of them as indicative of the U.S. in years past and quite a few still linger.

There is no doubt that the strains of a fast growing population, urban sprawl, the deterioration of the extended and immediate family, and a host of other ailments prevalent in the modern American lifestyle have taken their toll on yesterday's "polite society"; however, I would contend that the same thing is happening at a rapidly increasing rate all over the world. One need only look to China to find evidence of the similar ailments and could hardly accuse China of cultural infancy.

It is indeed commendable that France has managed to hold on to many elements of it's "old world charm" as portrayed by geezer.

I can swear there ain't no heaven but I pray there ain't no hell. _ Blood Sweat & Tears

by Gringo (stargazing camel at aoldotcom) on Mon Nov 27th, 2006 at 09:55:27 PM EST
I have something to say here. All though I love this little "article" about culture I really do not think "culture" is that much "describable" term as we may assume. There are such a things that can be described like "universal values", values that we all can agree on. Humanity (no need for precise description here I suppose) being one of them... Compassion...etc. But inside different cultures lay a lot of different values that are simply not a part of other cultural settings. I live in a western civilization and as much as I appreciate it for it's leading role in a rapid progress  human race is just making, I also find it in many ways destructive and some of the values are just not what I would agree on if I have my word, and I am trying not to go with them in my daily life...For example all though I am all for private property being "holly"  but I do not care for "materialistic selfishness" that is a common thing and part of the western "culture". To make it more clear I like to know and to be known what is "my possession" and I'd like to enjoy rights and security that come with my property ( and my private life)   but I also want to share it with others ( on my terms of course). Others being family, friends, sometimes even strangers. I like privacy but I don't like isolation that westerners are rapidly growing into...It's so really really hard to describe "culture" and my view is that all those artists are actually trying to do that job. Then again like it or not we are witnessing and will have to live in "multicultural" societies all over the world and especially in this era of globalization , Internet etc. So many other cultures are going to influence every single person (like it or not) in so many ways. It is and will be confusing for all of us. But when ever in doubt cling to UNIVERSAL VALUES ...they are here for ever...

Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind...Albert Einstein
by vbo on Tue Nov 28th, 2006 at 12:56:06 AM EST

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