Perceiving Culture in COVID-19

This post appears in the SHA Grad Council's new series about research, teaching, and living under the shadow of the pandemic.

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I have never kept a journal because all journals must end. How many souls have I accompanied in archives amidst a battle, a disease, a tragedy—the remaining pages of their diaries thinning beneath my thumb before disappearing entirely, without resolution? Narrative suspended, I search for a denouement only we historians can give. To keep a journal is to accept a personal ending, willful or otherwise. Likewise, it is to muddle the distinctions between historian and historical actor, observer and observed—the navigation of which is our Sisyphean dilemma; the attendant existential crisis, our kōan. COVID-19 has thrown these dual identities into sharper relief. As I write a dissertation on how mass death restructured behaviors and reoriented perceptions for generations, I’m unsettled by the awareness that we are living through another of those moments right now.

The only certainty is uncertainty. All we seem to know is that the pandemic will irrevocably alter our “culture,” but what is meant by this is increasingly unclear. In preparing for the world that may come, it is essential to decipher what exactly culture is so we may know what is at stake.

We often treat culture as an evocative catchall for anything that does not plot neatly along the axis of politics, economics, and social relations. At worst, we skew towards atmospheric definitions that regard it as something in the air, spectral and zeitgeist; at best, a constellation of worldviews, customs, and beliefs. [1] While the latter homes in on observable phenomena, it conflates culture’s products with its ontology, which results in the term remaining just as elusive. All too often, this makes “culture” the woo-woo dustbin of history.

The challenge is this: understandably, most written history turns on what is immediately visible and expressly said. Yet that amounts to an infinitesimal proportion of lived experience. From our own lives we know that all which humans have ever explicitly articulated floats against all they have thought internally or expressed through subtle behaviors.

Albeit invisible in form and function, culture does leave traces; we simply must invert our perspective. The negative space is what gives our lives meaning, in the same way that silence makes music percussive, or the white spaces between lines produces the letters you see here. [2] Culture is not everything but it is everywhere. [3] As the centripetal and centrifugal force structuring our lives, it gives the visible its very shape and is the element of human existence we experience most. To set our sights upon it is to tell a fish—as the parable goes—“this is water.” [4]

To restore culture to its privileged place we must stop treating it as a noun. Culture as something had or possessed is a hangover of racist conceptualizations that endured even in the work of the anthropologist trying to overturn them: Franz Boas. Boas divorced culture from race and leveled the universal pyramidal model of racial evolution from savage to civilized. [5] Instead, culture was a complex matter of human response to particular environmental conditions. [6] Nevertheless, once formed, culture was straitjacket, programming individuals to behave in certain ways. Thinking about culture as a constructed response to material realities is critical, but sealing it off as immutable fails to capture its dynamism.

This continued to be culture’s analytical weakness. Decades later, Clifford Geertz argued for a semiotic-based definition of culture as “webs of significance [man] himself has spun.” [7] An effective spatial metaphor, but Geertz wanted “an interpretive theory of culture” that used ethnography to untangle a great semiotic knot, purposely sidestepping ontological issues altogether. [8]

Yet uncoupling ontology and signification is a logical fallacy. The form is the function, and the function is the form. It’s helpful to recall that “culture” meant the “action of cultivating land” for over half a millennium. [9] It was mobile, active, and productive. Following Geertz’s metaphor, culture is not the semiotic web itself but rather the spinning, repairing, and reworking required to maintain it.

It’s clarifying to revisit Geertz’s unstated inspiration: Charles Peirce, the nineteenth-century philosopher who founded semiotics. [10] To return to Peirce is to recover a broader world composed entirely of signs that, in its functioning, recaptures human lived experience. The differences among Peirce’s categories of thought and the signs constituting “thirdness,” are less important than the premises and implications of semiotics. At its core, semiotics is a theory of perception based on the tenet that innate ontological identity does not exist; instead, all meaning is human-made. [11] To think is to navigate a sea of signs perceived through the five senses. [12] Signs therefore have a vital function, allowing humans to reason inasmuch as they “virtually resolve” everything we see by comparing present perceptions with “something like a ‘composite photograph’” of past experiences. [13] This is why, for example, we can recognize an infinite variation of sentient meat suits as categorically human on sight. It is in the constant creation, interpretation, and re-articulation of these meanings that we can begin to see the substance and mechanism of culture.

Recent philosophers have elaborated upon how semiotics works in the world. If we think in signs at all times, then culture—the constant making and remaking of these meanings—depends upon the body and place. Edward S. Casey recovered “place” as the defining feature of embodied existence. [14] Places shape and ground modes of perception. [15] This embodied view of culture liberates us from straitjacket interpretations, as agentive bodies express, articulate, and produce culture. [16] Because our bodies drag multiple temporalities into a place layered with former and present representations, the material world logs memories that trigger our own bodily and cognitive recollections, sometimes at odds with each other (as in cases of trauma). [17] In this light, passive bodies do not exist. Every second, we rely on representations and signs we know to interpret new ones; comparison, produces knowledge. [18] This is why, for instance, we intuitively know a chair we’ve never seen before in a room we’ve never been is a chair meant for sitting.

Hard sciences are vetting these philosophical meditations. As Timothy J. LeCain noted in The Matter of History, cognitive scientists propose that the mind extends beyond the brain encased in skull so that corporeal interactions with the material world affect how humans think. We offload and retrieve thoughts from our surroundings. [19] As a result, “Meaning at every level comes from our bodily engagement with the world, even when thinking about seemingly entirely abstract concepts.” [20]

Rather than swapping one abstraction for another, this makes culture materially derived. Bringing together body and place collapses ontological and functional definitions of culture. Culture isn’t static or deterministic. Instead, culture is the ongoing semiotic process of production, interpretation, and re-articulation on an individual level through everyday interactions between bodies and their material environments. By focusing on how people expressed, processed, and resisted or conformed to the world around them, this view realigns culture, history, and lived experience.

The centrality of agentive bodies to culture means that culture is necessarily messy, unstable, and divergent because lived experience is all those things. Culture is under constant construction through a multitude of perceptual sign-interpreting vectors on the individual level. As Geertz wrote, culture is “octopoidal,” moving in different directions at all times that slowly culminate in an overarching trajectory. [21]

To the extent we have coherence, it hinges on material realities. Rupture in the material world—say, in spending months isolated in quarantine, avoiding human contact, compulsively cleaning and washing—is fertile ground for cultural realignment. This is significant because culture is the bridge between individuals and the abstractions of society that renders both visible, meaningful, and comprehensible. Cultural history is the history of perception that forms the connective tissue between the smallest and largest scales of human experience.

I have never kept a journal because all journals must end, but I am keeping one now because as Rainer Maria Rilke once cautioned a young poet, moments of sadness, anxiety, and turmoil—when the old order has dispersed and the new one not yet consolidated—are the true substance of life. COVID-19 has created the conditions for just that. If we pay attention as Rilke commanded, we can glimpse the future in the ways our new interactions with the material world begin forging different modes of perception. Failing that, what follows after will appear to arise ex nihilo. [22] This is what is at stake in regards to recording our perceptions as they form in real time—the importance of tracing culture.

As historians, then, journaling performs a double duty. An admission of and reckoning with our duality as historians and historical actors, it leaves behind a rich source for future historians who want to recover the seeds of the future we are presently casting them into. But before that, looking inward, we have an opportunity to shift the trajectory of that future by degrees—to ride the rails and lay them down at the same time. Right now, culture could not be more important, for the beauty of a world built off perception is that it can be unbuilt as well.

Footnotes:

[1] A consortium of historians recently assessed what cultural history is, but stopped short of defining the object of their inquiry. While acknowledging culture’s expansive taxonomy—covering “a wide range of ‘cultural concepts’” in history, including “artistic expression,” social structure and institutions, “a common set of beliefs, customs, values, and rituals,” “a semiotic or discursive system,” and “transnational or global circulation”—the authors opted not to attempt to resolve definitional issues. See James W. Cook & Lawrence B. Glickman, “Twelve Propositions for a History of U.S. Cultural History,” in The Cultural Turn in U.S. History: Past, Present, & Future, edited by James W. Cook, Lawrence B. Glickman, & Michael O’Malley (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), 11-13. Instead, they foregrounded their work in “twelve propositions for a history of U.S. cultural history,” providing a historiography of twentieth-century cultural history before launching into their own atheoretical studies. Michael O’Malley found that cultural histories were split between empathic and discursive methodologies depending on whether historians felt they could speak for their subjects or if doing so replicated discourses around them. See Michael O’Malley, “Agendas for Cultural History,” in The Cultural Turn in U.S. History, 285-86. In a concluding chapter, Karen Halttunen suggested that this was a false dichotomy: in reality, historians were always concerned with humans as both “creators” and “creatures” of culture “and this shared enterprise helped bind together successive generations of historians as ‘cultural.’” See Karen Halttunen, “The Art of Listening,” in The Cultural Turn in U.S. History, 418. This was good historical introspection, but a methodology based on historical invocations of culture without a theoretical core remains a crippling weakness for the practice of cultural history. A center created retrospectively cannot hold.

[2] Regarding music, see, Hanif Abdurraqib, “On Breakups,” The Paris Review, August 20, 2019 [link]. Discussing fonts, typographer Massimo Vignelli noted, “We think typography is black and white. Typography’s really white, you know. It’s not even black, in a sense. It is the space between the blacks that really makes it.” See: Massimo Vignelli, Interview by Gary Hustwit, Helvetica/Objectified/Urbanized: The Complete Interviews, edited by Gary Hustwit (Madrid: Ivorypress, 2015), 14-15.

[3] Clifford Geertz was right to deride E.B. Taylor’s “complex whole” definition of culture that took on so much definitive weight that it collapsed in on itself. That which is everything is hardly anything at all. See, Clifford Geertz, “Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture,” in The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays by Clifford Geertz (New York: Basic Books, 1973), 4-5.

[4] David Foster Wallace, “This is Water” (speech, Kenyon College, May 21, 2005) [link].

[5] Franz Boas, Anthropology & Modern Life (Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 2009), 60. Boas served a critical but not mortal blow against this racialized conception of culture. It survived in not only public consciousness but also scholastic differentiations of high and low culture that, I would argue, simply cloaked racist views of a pyramidal culture in more subtle, classist dog whistles. This differentiation persisted relatively unchallenged long into the twentieth century until Lawrence Levine’s masterful Highbrow/Lowbrow. See Lawrence W. Levine, Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988).

[6] Boas, Anthropology & Modern Life, 92, 42, & 211.

[7] Geertz, “Thick Description,” 5.

[8] Ibid. 6-10.

[9] "culture, n.". OED Online. September 2019. Oxford University Press [link].

[10] Due to the intellectual real estate afforded twentieth-century postmodernists, historians have long associated semiotics with Ferdinand de Saussure’s linguistic semiology. See, Paul Cobley, “Introduction,” in The Routledge Companion to Semiotics, edited by Paul Cobley (New York: Routledge, 2010), 3.

[11] Charles Peirce, “On Phenomenology,” in The Essential Peirce: Selected Philosophical Writings, vol. 2, 1893-1913, edited by the Peirce Edition Project (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998), 153-55; Charles Peirce, “Pragmatism,” in The Essential Peirce: Selected Philosophical Writings, vol. 2, 1893-1913, edited by the Peirce Edition Project (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998), 400-1.

[12] Charles Peirce, “What Is a Sign?,” in The Essential Peirce: Selected Philosophical Writings, vol. 2, 1893-1913, edited by the Peirce Edition Project (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998), 4-5; Charles Peirce, “The Categories Defended,” in The Essential Peirce: Selected Philosophical Writings, vol. 2, 1893-1913, edited by the Peirce Edition Project (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998), 161; Charles Peirce, “The Nature of Meaning,” in The Essential Peirce: Selected Philosophical Writings, vol. 2, 1893-1913, edited by the Peirce Edition Project (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998), 211.

[13] Charles Peirce, “Of Reasoning in General,” in The Essential Peirce: Selected Philosophical Writings, vol. 2, 1893-1913, edited by the Peirce Edition Project (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998), 19-20.

[14] Edward S. Casey, Getting Back Into Place: Toward a Renewed Understanding of the Place-World (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993), xv.

[15] Edward S. Casey, “How to get from space to place in a fairly short stretch of time: phenomenological prolegomena,” in Senses of Place, edited by Steven Feld & Keith H. Basso (Santa Fe: School of American Research Press, 1996), 14-18.

[16] Casey, Getting Back Into Place, 104 & Casey, “How to get from space to place,” 24 & 34.

[17] Dylan Trigg, The Memory of Place: A Phenomenology of the Uncanny (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2012), xxiii-xxiv & 9.

[18] Jacques Rancière, The Emancipated Spectator (New York: Verso, 2011), 10-13. Rancière wrote in the context of artistic performance, but applied this logic to teaching as well. Application to the broader world is sensible given the fact that under semiotics, all life is a stage. We constantly consume performances.

[19] Timothy J. LeCain, The Matter of History: How Things Create the Past (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017), 5-6 & 113-14.

[20] Ibid. 18.

[21] Geertz, “Person, Time, and Conduct in Bali,” in The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays by Clifford Geertz (New York: Basic Books, 1973), 408.

[22] Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet, trans. M.D. Herter Norton (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1962), 64-5.

Bibliography:

Abdurraqib, Hanif. “On Breakups.” The Paris Review, August 20, 2019. [link].

Boas, Franz. Anthropology & Modern Life. Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 2009.

Casey, Edward S. Getting Back Into Place: Toward a Renewed Understanding of the Place-World. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993.

— — —. “How to get from space to place in a fairly short stretch of time: phenomenological prolegomena.” In Senses of Place, edited by Steven Feld & Keith H. Basso, 13-52. Santa Fe: School of American Research Press, 1996.

Cobley, Paul. “Introduction.” In The Routledge Companion to Semiotics, edited by Paul Cobley. New York: Routledge, 2010.

Cook, James W. & Lawrence B. Glickman. “Twelve Propositions for a History of U.S. Cultural History.” In The Cultural Turn in U.S. History: Past, Present, & Future, edited by James W. Cook, Lawrence Glickman, & Michael O’Malley. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008.

“culture.” Oxford English Dictionary. September 2019 [link] .

Geertz, Clifford. The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays by Clifford Geertz. New York: Basic Books, 1973.

O’Malley, Michael. “Agendas for Cultural History.” In The Cultural Turn in U.S. History: Past, Present, & Future, edited by James W. Cook, Lawrence Glickman, & Michael O’Malley. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008.

Haltunnen, Karen. “The Art of Listening.” In The Cultural Turn in U.S. History: Past, Present, & Future, edited by James W. Cook, Lawrence Glickman, & Michael O’Malley. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008.

Hustwit, Gary, ed. Helvetica/Objectified/Urbanized: The Complete Interviews. Madrid: Ivorypress, 2015.

LeCain, Timothy J. The Matter of History: How Things Create the Past. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017.

Levine, Lawrence W. Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988.

Peirce, Charles. The Essential Peirce: Selected Philosophical Writings, vol. 2, 1893-1913, edited by the Peirce Edition Project. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998.

Rancière, Jacques. The Emancipated Spectator. New York: Verso, 2011.

Rilke, Rainer Maria. Letters to a Young Poet, translated by M.D. Herter Norton. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1962.

Trigg, Dylan. The Memory of Place: A Phenomenology of the Uncanny. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2012.

Wallace, David Foster. “This is Water.” Speech, Kenyon College, May 21, 2005. [link].

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About the Author

Alexander Hofmann is a PhD Candidate at the University of Chicago.