Cultural Artifacts and Culture itself

     “And God said, ’Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let him have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.” Genesis 1:26

     “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.” Genesis 1:27

     “And God blessed them, and God said unto them: ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.” Genesis 1: 28

     A distinction needs to be made between cultural artifacts and culture itself. This is seldom as simple and straightforward as our either/or paradigm would have us believe, because there are often blurrings and shadings of one into the other, as well as questions about the creator of artifacts, who is herself inevitably a product of culture. Nevertheless (and while allowing for an ample ambiguity factor), a cultural artifact should not be confused with culture itself, as it often is.

     In the case of these passages from the Christian bible we have a fairly rare instance of a cultural artifact which is simultaneously a manifestation of culture, a carrier of culture, and culture itself. How is that for blurred edges? It is a physical artifact of culture to the degree that I can go pick up a book and find these injunctions to the human race, and so can you. It is a manifestation of culture because these words (whether from God or not) were written down within a cultural context by humans inevitably influenced by their historical mileiu. These passages are a carrier of culture in that they are, in effect, marching orders, and marching orders (ostensibly) from God the Creator Himself. These words, these injunctions, are culture itself in that they serve to inform and direct the human being in how to carry on in the world. They provide a worldview and value system by which to operate, and by which to rationalize a people’s behavior. And this brings up yet another distinction and category.

      It is entirely possible that a worldview and moral system that goes back five or six thousand years would by now be moribund, and irrelevant to people of the present age. Then, instead of being a living artifact, it would be of interest mainly to specialists in the antiquities, as with the goddess cultures of yore. Unfortunately, these cultural instructions are not moribund; they are insidiously alive and well, to the degree that a twenty-first century thinker and writer can state with no sense of irony, “By multiplying till we reach our maximum possible numbers, even as we take out much of the planet, we are fulfilling our destiny.” (Charles Mann, “State of the Species,” Orion Magazine, Nov/Dec2012)

     Before we look more deeply into the nature of our own culture of civilization, I want to touch on what a lot of people confuse with culture. We have, for instance, this entity we call high culture, which includes the fine arts: orchestral music; painting and sculpture; the world’s great literature; philosophy and other contributions to the history of ideas; libraries and symphony orchestras; ballet and opera; and perhaps a few architectural marvels could be added to the list. The rise of scientific knowledge might be included in this category, or in one of its own. But you get the idea. This is what most of us think of when we think of culture. Indeed, all of these things are what I myself have thought of when I’ve thought of our cultural heritage. I was a literature major as an undergraduate and graduate student, and as such I worshipped at the altar of civilization—the altar of our own unsurpassable culture. Please, don’t anyone tell me that all I have learned to value about my culture—the music, the paintings, the great books—are artifacts of decadence and corruption. Twenty years ago I would not have accepted any such notion. Heresy of the lowest order, I would have said, a fringe opinion totally without merit.

     But all these wondrous artifacts of culture that we mistake for culture itself are not the outpourings of civilization or culture, they are the works of individual human beings, and are, collectively, a reflection of the human spirit. As such we can embrace and celebrate them, but let’s not confuse them with our own pathological culture of civilization.

     One thing to always remember: Civilization is nothing if not a self-promoting, self-aggrandizing propaganda machine. It is happy to take unto itself all the prestige and credit we will bestow upon it for the artifacts of our own (often agonized) creative urges and outpourings. I seem to be speaking of culture as if it were something apart from the humans it informs and manipulates. Some would say it has no such standing as a metaphysical entity unto itself. It makes us and we make it, and thus it can have no agenda or other characteristic that are other than (or apart from) us. Well, I used to believe something like that myself. It seemed to make perfect sense. But I don’t believe it now.

     Ours is an imperial culture, imperial and imperious both. It seeks power; it seeks dominion over every living thing upon the Earth. Those injunctions from Genesis spell out in detail its deepest urges to take over and overrun every creature of the air, of the ocean deep, and upon the land—and to do it through us gullible humans. Well, we have been good soldiers and followers. We have been fruitful and multiplied. We have taken what we thought was our own dominion over the Earth. And we have set ourselves up as the one creature, of all God’s creatures, who is like unto God Himself– for only we were made in His image. And all the other creatures, and the world itself, have no standing in His eyes, or in our own, as anything other than resources for our exclusive use.

     This is the story embodied in these three passages from Genesis, and it is the story we have lived in for thousands of years. For most of that time it seemed to work very well for us. There was plenty to go around, and few enough of us that it seemed it could go on forever. Even today, in the face of depletion and system failures, there are many who still believe this is a story that goes on forever. It worked before; it will go on working. Few of us are willing to contemplate that there might be something deeply flawed in this story—maybe even deeply evil.

     Culture is embodied in a people’s language, and is carried in that language. Culture consists of values and a worldview which are expressed in its memes and stories. Theoretically, the genius of culture is that it can respond to sudden environmental or other change, thus supplementing instinct or genetic inheritance as a way of coping in the world. That, at least, is how it is supposed to work. It is what we have told ourselves. But ours does not seem to be showing that kind of flexibility, and that is a problem. Indeed, it is a problem of survival—for us and possibly for all of life on this planet. It is for this reason that I believe we have been hijacked by our culture; that instead of serving us, we are enslaved to it; and therefore I am led to speculate that our culture is an entity unto itself with an agenda of its own; that it is, in effect, a parasite upon us and upon the body of the Earth. And if we are to go by what we have seen so far, its agenda is to devour the Earth until all its vital functions fail; until it cannot be dined upon as something still alive. And our place in all this? We are its cat’s paw, its tool; and it is our master. At its behest, we are enacting an Earth-devouring story of destruction and death. That is precisely why it needs to have a stake driven into its heart, until it is dead forever.

     I believe this Earth has its own agenda and story. It has worked on that agenda for more than four billion years—and produced life in such abundance, complexity, and diversity, that it has been the wonder of a wondrous Universe. That is the story I want to be a part of, the story I want for my fellow humans and All My Relations, in which each of us has our own meaning. It is the story of Life overflowing, joyfully exuberant in its own fecund diversity. This is a story with staying power, but only so long is it trumps our cultural story of subjugation and dominion.

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