Monday, November 16, 2009

Culture as Imposition

In my previous article, I proposed one possible way of defining culture—as that which we learn from others rather than figure out on our own (which I called “culture as imitation”). In this article, I will propose another possible definition—namely, as that which is enacted upon the outside world rather than being inherently present within it (I will call this “culture as imposition”). These two definitions overlap in a number of ways, and I will explore the interactions between them, and their respective benefits as ways of thinking about culture, in future articles. But first I would like to delve a little more deeply into this idea of “imposition”—to explain what exactly I mean when I use the term, and to give some examples of how it operates in our everyday lives.

I have stolen (or imitated) the term “imposition” from Ralph Holloway, who (as I mentioned in this blog’s first article) defines culture as “the imposition of arbitrary form on the environment.” I find this to be a particularly insightful turn of phrase, because it covers a number of different phenomena. Most obviously, it refers to the tangible, material activities of building, shaping, marking, and the like, whereby we transform our surroundings into easier and more comfortable places to live. From the first time someone picked up a rock and hit it with another rock in order to better shape it for some purpose, humanity has been imposing arbitrary form upon the environment in this way.

But the imposition of arbitrary form on the environment also happens at a much more abstract, conceptual level—and I, personally, find this level to be the far more interesting one. Because this process of imposition occurs, not just in our physical interactions with the world, but in our psychological interactions with it as well.

What do I mean by that? I mean that whenever we think about the world, we impose all sorts of psychological forms and concepts on it that don’t actually exist out there in the world itself. For example, if you stop reading for a moment and take a look around you, you will probably see a number of different objects—chairs, tables, windows, people, clouds, trees, etc.

But all of those “things,” which you perceive as distinct, bounded entities, are actually just amorphous sections of one giant, interconnected blob that is the universe. They aren’t surrounded by neat outlines and they don’t bounce around in bubbles (as would be especially clear if you took increasingly powerful microscopes and tried to find the exact place where any one supposed “object” stopped and another one started).

Even more arbitrary than the idea of distinct, bounded objects is the idea of categories into which we place them. So when you look at a chair, you not only think that is a thing which is both unified into a whole and distinct from all the other “things” around it, but you also believe it bears some inherent property of chair-ness, which it shares with everything else you would designate as a chair, but not with anything you would designate as a table, a turtle, or a tree. But I would argue that the category of “chair-ness” resides, not in the chair itself, but in your brain—from whence you impose it upon whatever environment you happen to encounter.

You can get some idea of what Holloway and I mean when we say that these imposed forms are “arbitrary” when you think about all the items you would call a “chair” if you happened upon them, and the wide variety of shapes, sizes, materials, and uses these items might have. You can get an even better idea if you imagine trying to teach an alien from outer space how to identify something as a chair if she happens upon it. You can also imagine that alien just as avidly attempting to convince you that a certain lamp, your pet gerbil, and your pinky fingernail are all “quigleys.”

Another way to think about it is to look up at the stars and to realize how many different ways people have clustered those stars into constellations over the years. Is Orion a hunter? No, it’s a scattering of light points with a variety of brightnesses and a specific distribution. Maybe to you it looks more like an hourglass. In fact, “it” is not even an “it” at all, because you could just as easily imagine connecting some of the stars in Orion to some of the stars in Canis Major, and some others to some of the stars in Taurus, to create two different constellations. What I’m trying to say is that calling something “a chair” is like naming a constellation in the night sky. You’re arbitrarily imposing unity on a collection of particles that could just as easily be conceptually grouped in any number of alternative ways.

This arbitrariness is even more apparent when it comes, not to tangible objects, but to more theoretical categories—for instance, when we identify a certain occurrence as a “tragedy,” or a certain person as a “troublemaker,” or a certain group of words as a “joke.” These designations do not identify some sort of innate property of the circumstance, individual, or statement. Rather, they dwell in our minds, and are part of the form that we are arbitrarily imposing upon that segment of our environment.

Do you see now why I think conceptual imposition is so much more interesting than mere tangible imposition? It’s really hard to fully wrap your brain around, because, well, these concepts are inside our brains to begin with. Which means they typically seem to be totally natural and self-evident. When you call something a chair you never stop to think that that title is actually something you are imposing upon that bunch of particles. You think you are describing the state of reality. But if you take a step back and think harder, you might realize that somebody else (aliens are always handy for this type of thought experiment) might look at the same thing and perceive it in a completely different way.

I have to warn you, before you finish reading this article and go back to your everyday life, that this way of thinking, once you let it into your brain, has a tendency to crawl around in there and explode at the most unexpected moments. You might be doing a perfectly ordinary thing—taking a walk, going shopping, mowing the lawn—when all of a sudden you’ll realize, “Hey, wait a second, what am I actually doing here, and why am I calling it what I’m calling it, and just how arbitrary are all the structures I’m using to understand it all, and how might somebody else with a different set of conceptual forms bouncing around in their head see all this in a completely different way?”

And that’s when you’ll know—your inner anthropologist has been awakened.


  1. I am SO glad you write well!
    When I saw how long all of your entries were it almost scared me off, because I assumed you wrote like the stereotypical intellectual (dry, boring, etc) but I read a little bit and discovered that not to be the case. You're very informative and entertaining.
    Keep up the great work!

  2. I'm glad to hear that, Jon—I'm doing my best to break any overly academic (read: unnecessarily verbose and technical) writing habits I may have picked up in graduate school. I do apologize for the length of the entries. I'm hoping that future pieces will be shorter, but for the initial conceptual background I felt I had to be a little more thorough.

  3. Oh don't worry about it! I was only scared off because I assumed you were just long words and confusing concepts, now that I've actually read the articles and I know that not to be the case I don't mind the length at all.


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