Most people assume they know what culture is and how it works, but culture is a slippery character and is neither what it appears, nor is it just one thing. The common-sense, everyday notion of culture looks at what I would call superficial culture and believes it is seeing all there is to see. This would include Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the Mona Lisa, War and Peace, and the plays of Shakespeare—that is, all the works that the “experts” tell us is high art—which then qualifies them as high culture. Beneath this lofty plane reside all the other contributions to art, architecture, philosophy, music, and literature—that second tier of artistic and intellectual endeavor which occupies the great middle ground of our cultural heritage. In the last couple centuries, science and technology have also made substantial contributions not only by way of intellectual achievement but also in a vast array of creature comforts and consumable commodities that have come to define the physical infrastructure of our lived environment—our material culture. Also central to this level of culture are the interlocking systems of extraction, production, and distribution–as well as our technological and economic systems–which deliver, and make possible, our way of life.
If all this (which only hints at its totality) is to be considered “superficial” culture, what in the world might deep culture be? Deep culture is deep in at least three senses: it goes way back in our cultural history, often several millennia back; it works at a subterranean level, and so remains invisible to most; and, it is so deeply embedded within the individual and the group mind that–despite its invisibility, and also partly because of it–it all but determines human behavior, both at the level of the individual and the collective. Deep culture is what gives history its shape, in much the same way that our skeletons give shape and structure to our bodies. Looking back over our ten thousand year history, using an X-ray-like lens, it is possible to discern how the patterns and trajectories of our ancestors’ lives have been informed and directed by deep culture. Using this same culture-penetrating lens, it is also possible to trace how this same deep culture has led us, step by step, to the converging global crises that bear down on us now.
Deep culture is far less visible than superficial culture, but far more potent, because it addresses our primal nature as cultural animals. When anthropologists speak of culture, it is generally to this deeper culture they are referring. In this more specialized view, culture is a body of knowledge, a collection of stories, myths, and memes, a repository of values, and–embedded invisibly in language, and passed from one generation to the next—culture provides people with the cognitive structures they use for framing life’s vital issues, as well as lenses through which to see and interpret the world. In philosophical terms, a people’s culture includes their origin story cosmology); their notion of what is “real” (ontology); their beliefs about how they know what they know (epistemology), and; their sense of right and wrong (their ethical or moral code). All known cultures ask these questions about life and living, and each comes up with its own particular answers—though, of course, there is much overlap among the beliefs of different cultural groups. Among hunter-gatherers, for instance, while there will be stories and beliefs unique to each particular people, and grounded in the place where they live, certain features of their culture will be held in common among nearly all peoples who share their way of life.
Thus, while it is important to acknowledge the particularities and uniqueness of each indigenous group, it is just as important to recognize that beliefs held in common among nearly all such peoples amount to a worldview. Nearly all hunter-gatherers, for instance, speak of Mother Earth and Father Sun as sacred and exalted beings who synergistically provide the conditions for Life to flourish in wondrous abundance. Both Sun and Earth are personified and understood to be spiritual beings, and, because they give the people the means to live and thrive, they are held in high esteem: loved and respected, but not without an edge of apprehension, or even fear. Among these peoples, all the creatures of the Earth are considered to be kin, and are understood to be individuals with personhood. Thus they can speak of beaver persons, eagle persons, lizard persons, salmon persons, cricket persons, granting each individual within each species its own intelligence, sentience, interiority, and volition. And just like human people, each has the spirit nature of its kind, as well as its own unique expression of that spirit. When indigenous people speak of All Our Relations they are acknowledging the human relationship to the entire Community of Life. While they may rank one species above another in terms of the quality of its spirit—the spirit quality of a panther being quite different from that of a mouse—they do not see the Community of Life as a hierarchy, nor do they put human persons above all the others. This does not mean they are oblivious to the special gifts of humans, but rather that they tend to see these gifts as conferring special responsibilities to the Community of Life rather than inviting special privileges—in accordance with the Law of Reciprocity.
The Law of Reciprocity recognizes that all of the systems that make life possible, from the smallest to the largest, require that those who are served by these systems give back as good, or better, than they are given. This is necessary for the Life Systems to operate at their optimum best. Free-riders drag the system down; those who obey the Law—the vast majority of the entire Community of Life—enhance the Life Systems and help keep the four-billion-year Project of Life alive and well.
Showing reverence for Mother Earth, Father Sun, and the Community of Life, while respecting the Law of Reciprocity, constitutes the essence of the Indigenous Worldview–whose function is to inform and direct the people how to behave in the world. This is deep culture working in accordance with the Laws and Systems of Nature; deep culture that is therefore viable, resilient, and durable. But deep culture also carries the potential to do great harm; harm made more dangerous by deep culture’s primal pull on the human psyche, and by its ability to mesmerize, captivate, and colonize those who fall under its spell. Deep culture, with this kind of power over the human mind, can thus be perilous unto ruin—as many of us are now beginning to see.
For hundreds of human generations the Indigenous Worldview orchestrated the way humans lived in the world. Humans were in right relationship with Mother Earth and Father Sun; they were well-integrated into the Community of Life; and they were observant of the Law of Reciprocity. Then, with agriculture, and all the changes that agriculture brought in its wake—private property, social stratification, and the rise of authoritarianism; food surplus and food storage, and the burgeoning populations these made possible; the mining of topsoil, unto exhaustion, with the consequent need to expand into new territory, thereby generating the need for warriors and (endless) war—the old way of living in the world was transformed into something quite different. The old stories, myths, and code of ethics were inconsistent with this new way of living in the world, creating confusion and cognitive dissonance. A new cosmology, ontology, and epistemology were required—along with a moral code to match. Thus, over the early centuries of agriculture a whole new belief system took shape, and in the process our culture of civilization was born—and with it what I call the Big Lie.
The Big Lie is pretty much a reversal of the Indigenous Worldview. In this new version of ourselves and the world the human being is separate from Nature, and Nature, rather than being sacred is seen as subordinate to humans: an antagonist to be overcome, on the one hand, and a storehouse of resources for human use, on the other. As hunter-gatherers, we had “lived in the hands of the gods,” to use Daniel Quinn’s elegant phrase; as agriculturalists, we were bent upon taking the food supply into our own hands, at once defying the gods and becoming like gods ourselves. In this process we grew ever more self-absorbed and vain, no longer seeing ourselves as an integral part of the Community of Life, but rather, apart from, and above, all the other animals. In our anthropocentric narcissism, we came to see ourselves as some kind of wondrous anomaly, unlike any other creature on Earth. By the time of the writing of the Book of Genesis, some three-thousand to thirty-five-hundred years ago, all of these cultural memes were well-established, and only remained to be codified in print and sanctified as the Word of God.
Consider the far-reaching implications of these three verses from “the good book:”
“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
In this story, born of the agricultural way of life, the human being is in charge of the Earth, and every living thing upon it. Dominion implies not only domination but also ownership. Everything on Earth that the human might desire is his for the taking, as his exclusive right. All sense of community and mutuality with the other creature s of the Earth has, by this point, been replaced by a relationship of domination and exploitation. And, as we see in other parts of the Old Testament, this exploitative relationship is not to be tempered with moderation, but pursued to the maximum to build up riches and become a powerful patriarch upon the land. And, of course, have many children.
These (putative) divine injunctions amount to a set of marching orders, and a template for how to live in the world. This is deep culture, and it matters not at all whether we are devout Christians, militant atheists, or something in between in terms of personal beliefs. These injunctions constitute a foundational myth which underlies all, or nearly all, of our stories. Since, as cultural animals, we live by story, we really cannot escape the assumptions about the world that our stories are built upon, subterranean as they may be. Or, as pathological as they may be. Each of us imbibes these stories and memes with our mother’s milk and at our father’s knee. Deep culture is encoded in language and penetrates all our cultural institutions; and we get a dose of it every time we interact with others of our culture, reinforcing” the story of our people.”
Though invisible to most, deep culture (like our skeletons), provides structure to our everyday lives. And it is the foundation on which our superficial culture is built. It is vital to understand this, because whatever might be wrong with our culture cannot be fixed by tinkering with superficial culture. If we don’t get down to the root causes in our deep culture, all our fixes will be as superficial, and the fundamental changes that are required will elude us.
To illustrate the difference between deep culture and superficial culture, consider, for instance, the Great Chain of Being. With its intellectual roots in the thinking of Plato, Aristotle and Plotinus, the Great Chain of Being is a schematic ranking of all that goes to make up the physical world and what is believed about a putative world beyond. Medieval and Renaissance churchmen painstakingly expanded upon this way of viewing the world, putting God at the top of the hierarchy and Earth at the bottom, with angels ranked above men, men above the beasts, with all of the animals ranked by type according to perceived superiority, one over another, but well above plants, which are themselves ranked according to their “virtue” and usefulness. Below plants are the metals and minerals, with Earth and its skin of dirt inferior to all else. The Great Chain of Being is a product of more than two thousand years of our cultural history, and this way of thinking about the world so insinuated itself into the culture at large that it would come to influence the way early scientific thinkers viewed he world: that is, as an elaborate, but intelligible, hierarchy. Even today, the scientific discipline of taxonomy, among many others, continues to bear the imprint of these earlier ways of understanding the world. Nevertheless, ancient and long-lived as this elaborate cultural meme may be, it still qualifies for what I am calling superficial culture. And that is because its assumptions about the world are based upon the founding assumptions of deep culture, including the Big Lie of Separation.
The Great Chain of Being is the near-antithesis of the Indigenous Worldview, which is not hierarchical, but holistic and holonic: a view that comprehends the interdependent and synergistic nature of living systems; understanding the world in terms of connection and relationship, based upon the Law of Reciprocity. It is a view that locates value and sacredness in Mother Earth herself, and not somewhere outside this living system that both supports Life and is Life. The Great Chain of Being degrades the Earth to the lowest possible level in a rigid hierarchy that separates spirit from matter, body from mind. In order to arrive at such a construction it was necessary that the foundational Big Lie of Separation had already been well established and taken its place in deep culture. Deep culture is primary culture, foundational culture, and the secondary culture that builds upon it—what I am calling superficial culture– could not exist (as is) without its antecedent(s).
Let’s say there is a reform movement that sees problems with the Great Chain of Being, and they want to amend all the incongruities they perceive which do not align with present knowledge. Let’s say they are atheistic scientific materialists and they want to expunge the entire category of angels: No more seraphim, no more cherubim; goodbye to thrones and principalities, archangels and angels. And of course there can be no God at the top. Then let’s say there are some deep ecologists, with a minor in evolutionary biology, who are deeply unhappy about the placement of the human being above all the other animals, because, after all, we are all in this together: plants, animals (including humans), mountains, rivers, oceans, ecosystems–everything that goes to make up the biosphere—including the physical and chemical processes that help make this planet pulse with Life. And let’s just say this latter group was influential enough, after writing dozens of peer reviewed articles in all the prestigious journals, to force a re-thinking of this rigidly structured hierarchy of one kingdom or genera or species over another. And let’s take it further yet, and suppose that, after much wrangling and debate, a consensus was reached, and the whole Great Chain of Being was discarded as a patent absurdity, with no merit whatsoever, except as an artifact of our benighted history.
What has happened in this hypothetical overturning of a revered (if lately underappreciated) institution is the reform of (or elimination of) one offending secondary cultural institution, without in any way touching the primary culture that is its ultimate source. The idea that hierarchy is the natural order of things, the way the Universe organizes itself, remains. The Big Lie itself—that the human is separate from Mother Nature, the Earth, and the Community of Life– has never even come into question. Nor has the notion that the Earth is the exclusive province of man, to take for his own whatever he wants. And, naturally, the anthropocentrism that comes along with these self-serving notions stands just as tall and proud as ever. And this why reform of any of our present systems or institutions will never get us where we need to go: because our dysfunctional deep culture is in no way disabled, nor is its pathological program for planetary ecocide. As if taking sustenance from a fading, failing Earth, this program—written into deep culture– only grows stronger by the day.
Although deep culture carries the potential for the gravest of dangers, as we now begin to see, deep culture need not be dysfunctional in this way. The deep culture that underlies the Indigenous Worldview, for instance, is evolutionarily adaptive to the ecology of planet Earth, because it is well-matched to the actual (not invented) conditions, and Laws of Life, on Earth. Our artificially concocted deep culture, and the worldview built upon it, is not. But changing several millennia of habit and belief is no easy thing, and is made even more difficult by the artificial culture that has developed over the last hundred years.
In the early part of the twentieth century, Edward Bernays would become a propagandist (working within the Wilson administration) promoting the American role in World War One. Following this success, of “making the world safe for democracy,” Bernays founded an enterprise he insisted on calling Public Relations. That is, propaganda with a more acceptable name. Ever since that time, the role of the tribal storyteller has been hijacked by the corporate media and turned into a marketing platform to sell a wide range of consumer goods and a rather narrow range of ideas—mostly those that make the world safe for capitalism and corporations. Thus the human need to live by story, and be guided by cultural meme, has been subverted to the will of the corporate power elite.
This artificial culture, as provided by the corporate media, has insinuated itself into nearly every home in America, where its distractions, “entertainments,” selective disinformation, and celebrity worship all follow a highly orchestrated script. Televisionland is a parallel Universe that bears a striking resemblance to our everyday world, but is as fake as the Fox News slogan: “fair and balanced.” What media moguls dub “Public Opinion,” is not dispassionate reasoning based upon careful consideration of the “facts,” but is instead the product of manufactured memes, first tested on focus groups, then manipulated to produce the desired results. (For more details, see the excellent BBC documentary, “Century of the Self,” on Youtube.)
Artificial culture creatively combines elements of deep and superficial culture in such a way as to seem an authentic cultural voice—and in a certain way, I suppose, artificial culture is a genuine reflection of who we are now: venal, cynical, amoral, self-absorbed. But it is not a reflection of our higher, better selves, and is therefore a rather distorted glass in which to see and evaluate the human enterprise.
Many believe that culture is nothing more than the sum total of the contributions made by all those living today and all those who have gone before us. This view assumes that culture is an exclusively human enterprise: of, by, and for the people– and that it exists for the sole purpose of serving humans. But it is not nearly that simple. I like to say that the culture of civilization is nothing if not a self-promoting, self-aggrandizing propaganda machine. Invisible, and not exactly benign, it casts a spell over us that few ever break. It colonizes us with its myths, stories and memes, making us believe that what we believe and value about the world is our own individual perception. In this way our own identity is so entangled with our culture that most of us are unable to untangle the two and still have a sense of personal identity. This bond between the human and his culture can be a wholesome relationship, or it can be a kind of insidious bondage that smothers all instinct—including our very best instincts. As a wise person once said: “Culture is not your friend.” Nor is it in any way neutral.
Following the lead of the anthropologist Albert Kroeber, I reify, or personify, culture, seeing it as an entity with a will and agenda of its own. If culture—and especially deep culture—is consistent with the laws and conditions of planetary health, culture’s agenda will then be fundamentally wholesome. But if deep culture is based upon wrong-headed misperceptions or outright lies–as I have been insisting here about our own—that deep culture must be rejected if we are to have any hope at all of halting its program of Planetary Death, and our part in enacting its will. But before you can reject it, you have to SEE it, and see it for what it is.