Posted by: HAT | October 29, 2014

On Waking Up in Captivity

A picture of California roll on a plate

I have heard that some people do not consider California Roll real sushi

Hi, Gang!

What does it mean to be a “captive of the culture”? How possible is it to escape that captivity, and what is the price of that escape?

I used the term “captive of the culture” the other day, about an innocuous stranger we – Number One Daughter and I – saw in a restaurant. My Daughter commented, after we left the restaurant, that “that girl next to us was wearing that sweatshirt.” Which sweatshirt? “The one I wanted from Victoria’s Secret that you said why would anyone want that?”

I remember the conversation better than I remember the sweatshirt. Mainly, I didn’t want to spend another $40 on another nondescript valueless Pink anything. Which sentiment I expressed by saying that I did not perceive how that sweatshirt could be described as “cute” when there was nothing special about it at all. It was a completely non-noticeable, forgettable sweatshirt, and a flimsy one at that, in a neutral color, that had the word “Pink” on it. What makes that “cute”?

So I said, “Well, I didn’t notice the sweatshirt, but she did look kind of like a captive of the culture.”

To which Number One Daughter said “What’s that?”

To which I said, mmm, someone who lets the culture make all their choices for them. Who wants whatever the magazines and tv tell them they should want, and who values what the culture values and doesn’t value what the culture doesn’t value, and who basically tries to fit in with the culture really well. Someone who’s been taken captive by the culture. Someone who can’t ask themselves whether something is what they really want, or ought to want, or whether this or that thing is a good idea or not.

By then she was ready to change the subject.

But I’ve been thinking about this episode off and on since then, because although that answer is not entirely wrong, the problem it flags is far from that simple, either to perceive or to resolve.

First: we saw this alleged “captive of the culture” in a restaurant. We were both at the restaurant, too, so if being “the kind of person who eats California roll at Tomo” is evidence of culture captivity, which it might be, then that evidence counts against all three of us.

Second: saying things like “the culture” and “the magazines and tv,” making use of the definite article in that way, implies that there is some monolithic entity that can be identified as “the” culture, with identifiable content, values, associated practices and resultant visible signs of participation. I know this is fictitious. I did not think “the magazines” that young stranger follows slavishly included The New Yorker or Birds and Blooms or First Things. I was not saying she watches too much C-SPAN or HGTV or Weather Channel. But if “the culture” means something like “the sum total of the attainments and learned behavior patterns of any specific period or people, regarded as expressing a way of life subject to gradual but continuous modification by its participants,” those magazines and tv channels are as much “the magazines and tv” as any other part of “the culture.” “The culture” is diverse and polyvalent. There cannot be just one profile of a “captive” of something like that. I should at least, in the interest of precision, have said she looked like a captive of popular young white girl culture, or of Seventeen culture, or something like that. Instead, I was content to identify her as a captive of a loosely conceived subset of cultural elements, which I called “the culture” – distancing myself from it in that particular act of speaking.

Third: really, “the culture” is total. I majored in the social sciences; I know as well as I know my name that we – all humans – are products of our social conditioning, profoundly as well as superficially, subtly as well as grossly and obviously. Besides which, I live here. So I am well aware that I drive a car and shop at the Evil Emporium and have a phone that’s smarter than I am, like everyone else in my neighborhood. I am well aware of that, that is, when I pay attention long enough in a certain kind of way to notice it. I wouldn’t have to do any of those things, although making a real choice to do something different would be harder in some cases than in others. (Without the car, in particular, I would have to stop traveling to Kentucky, or become a much better swimmer. Either way, my life would have to change a lot.) But I can’t honestly say I ever made a deliberate, critically conscious, informed choice to go along with any of these practices because they are so consonant with my deliberately and independently arrived-at values and vision for the world. So who looks like “a captive of the culture” now?

This is not a new problem. It is the fundamental problem posed by trying to think about an alternative to “the unspeakable world that is.” It is the fundamental problem posed by trying to assess whether what one wants for that alternative is something one wants because it is worthy of being wanted, or because one has learned to want it in this world, or because one hadn’t even ever thought about it yet. It now takes the form of becoming blind to one’s own cultural locale, a locale which is different and distant enough from some preferred targets (like that successfully feminine stranger in the sushi restaurant) to make a semblance of critique possible, while being an outcrop of the same substrate of relations of production and consumption that gives rise to those preferred targets. Those “captives of the culture” are our kin, or the “shirts” to our “skins.” They’re on our same cell-block. I just almost never get that angle on it, so I almost never see it.

When I do glimpse it, I’m reminded that I don’t have a solution to the problem. I know about climate change and fossil fuel but I still love my car. I know a little bit about labor economics and producer-supplier relationships, but I haven’t stopped shopping at the Evil Emporium yet, because it is so much easier and closer. If I stopped shopping there, I would have to drive farther. Or learn to do without. Learning how to do without is, I suppose, the ultimate answer to every addiction.

But we – humans, that is – cannot simply “do without” culture. We have to have one. At best, we might be able to ask ourselves more often, and more deeply, which one we would prefer to be the captive of, and what we can do to turn the “gradual but continuous modification by the participants” in that direction.


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