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Tuesday, April 15, 2014


Although the three comments were somewhat hurried and hence a bit unorganized, the thrust is clear, and it raises a very interesting and important point.  Briefly [since I too am on my way to class -- the first meeting of an Adult Education course on Plato's Gorgias  at Duke University], the natural growth and development of a human being from infancy to maturity is unlike that of animals [with an important caveat to be mentioned in a moment].  The development of the human infant is radically underdetermined by genetic inheritance alone, requiring as well the transmission of a set of behaviors, understandings, expectations, etc. that we can call culture.  An adult human who has never internalized this set of cultural elements is not a "natural man," as Rousseau and others would have it.  He or she is what used to be called a "wolf child," a wild creature radically unable to function successfully and lacking anything that we would recognize as a character or personality.  This is in contrast to the manifest grace and coherence of adult animals.  [The caveat is that we see rudimentary elements of this in animals, which we would expect, since there must have been a slow transformation over many millennia from pure genetic determination to the full-blown transmission of culture.]  Now, this cultural element in human development is unavoidably ideological, in the sense that it encodes components of domination, exploitation, rationalizations of the same, and so forth.  So a pure biology of human development cannot, by its very nature, capture what is distinctively human.

A nifty example of the caveat from my safari.  One day we came upon four lions lying down, which, our guide told us, were a pair of mothers and daughters.  One of the mothers got up and climbed up onto a horizontal branch of a nearby tree.  This is very unusual behavior for lions, though not unheard of.  The daughter then followed the mother up into the tree, but neither of the other two lions did.  The guide said [these guys go out every day of the week, and get to know the lions individually ] that the mother had taught the daughter to climb trees, and he wondered whether the daughter would, in turn, teach her cubs to do the same when she had some.  You see the point.  Here was a tiny bit of non-genetically determined culture being born.


David Auerbach said...

How lamarckable!

formerly a wage slave said...

It is kind of you to take the time to say more. I appreciate that. I cannot read, let alone digest what you've written (even though I recognize it is brief) just now. But I will do so. And about the "Gorgias", I can only say: Enjoy!

formerly a wage slave said...

(Part One)
I confess that I was brought up short by your brief (and, I take it, deliberately provocative) allusion to the “ineluctably ideological nature of social reality”. My original comment was directed to that. I thought: Well, if it's all ideology, then there's no truth to be known here. Hence, my allusion to biology was not intended to be a remark about genes determining culture, but an appeal to the possibility of discovering a truth that is not merely a servant of the ruling class.

I may have uncharitably parsed your remark, as the claim that social reality or culture is nothing but ideology. (And that, I confess, reminded me of Alan Greenspan's mea culpa in which he explained that everyone has an ideology, as if that were an excuse.)

And it was to that claim I was reacting in my brief and inelegant remarks. I supposed that ideology doesn't include anything like an ability to actually weigh things, or assess evidence, or get at the truth, but means warping reality to suit pre-conceptions.

Now I believe that would be unfair to you, although I still have doubts about your actual view---both about its content and truth.

My earlier remarks ignored your allowance (following Mannheim, as you say) for two possibilities within culture: 1. rationalization to maintain the privileges of the privileged, the power of the powerful, and 2. Expressions of the hopes of the oppressed.

However, that improved understanding of what you are saying raises another question: Is class struggle the only factor influencing culture? And, I hasten to add, that by “culture”, I equally mean language.

Are you intending to assert that the differences between languages and cultures are to be explained in every case by the influence of class struggle?

If so, that strikes me as a hypothesis, the preliminary characterization of a research program, which would require more work than you've done, and more work than has to date been done.

I don't deny its appeal, but the working out of the details is the important thing.

Obviously, if we speak of human culture in its entirety, we include non-industrial peoples, and they will have a different class structure. (With the exception of the relatively egalitarian societies of hunter-gatherers who don't exactly have classes.)

I can accept the claim that class struggle is a powerful influence upon culture and language. It seems to me wildly implausible to suppose it is the only influence.

To mention only one example, different languages have different approaches to emotion. The linguist Wierzbicka has claimed that speakers of Russian don't follow a maxim to control emotions, as do speakers of English. And, she has documented the fact that Russian contains many more expressions which connect the body to specific emotions, as compared with English. Moreover,
translations of Russian literature into English actually tone down the power of the emotional expression. (I am not a Russian speaker/reader; I am only repeating her claims.) There are, as well, grammatical differences in the way different languages talk about emotions. Russian, and other Slavic languages, have more verbs. In English, emotions are states.

formerly a wage slave said...

Part Two
Those differences don't obviously seem to reflect class struggle.

To be sure, what I need here is an example of two countries or cultures which were both industrialized, but whose culture differed, and the explanation of the difference/s was not merely that they had reacted differently to class struggle. Wierzbicka has argued at length that there are features of English which are not found in other languages whose societies are equally industrialized.

But whether or not Wierzbicka's specific research holds up is not the issue. She is not the only student of language and culture who emphasizes diversity of cultures. And within that diversity are elements that don't obviously connect to class conflict.

In any case, when you appreciate the playing of Yo Yo Ma, is your appreciation an expression of class struggle?
It seems to me not reasonable to suppose that your appreciation is “ineluctably ideological”. You couldn't appreciate it if you hadn't been in a way lucky; but that is a separate matter. It seems to me that neither your appreciation, nor his playing are ideological, even if you and he and I all live in a world where “immiseration” is a word enjoying a new resonance.

Of course, in the context in which you were writing, the role of class struggle must have been prominent. But your guide's mother-tongue probably contained the original names for all those animals you enjoyed seeing. I doubt whether that part of his culture is ideology, even if one might find there influences of the particular social relations of his society, or his society before colonization.