Sep 7, 2009

Communication as Community and American Culture

Carey presents an interesting view of thought as inherently public and social. That society gives us the symbols and the framework through which we filter our emotions and intuitions, such that it gives us language to think, and in this sense, all of our thoughts are shared and represented by the same symbols and everyone else in the community. It seems to cast Descartes's famous quote in a new light as, "I think -- because society has given me the language with which to think -- therefore I am."

And yet, even as we share these representative symbols of communication (and, according to Carey, build community in the process of such sharing), we talk of breakdowns in communication amongst each other as the root cause of most conflicts. I would have liked to have seen Carey explore this idea further. That while we might share the same symbolic representations of our environment, our interpretations and communication to each other of these representations can vary widely. If, as he asserts, we create our own reality in the process of creating the means by which to communicate about it, and our shared knowledge is what brings us together as a community, how do individual realities play against each other? To bring in another reading from this week, how does the cybernetics systems theory explained by Weaver apply to this concept of communication? Where does the encoding, decoding, and feedback happen if we're all supposed to share the same symbols?

Carey also asserts that Americans lack a unified understanding of an American culture. This seems an interesting position to take, given the neo-colonialism and American cultural imperialism discourses explored by the other readings. To the extent that American culture is often the hegemonic model propagated throughout the world, are we unable to recognize our own culture because we are immersed in it, because it is so rarely challenged, even on a global level?

Of course, I would argue that this isn't the case. While I understand that my background, socio-economic status, education level, etc. put me in a unique position, I can hardly think of anyone that I personally know who really thinks that American culture is the only lens through which to look at the world. I would also argue that most people are savvy enough to take a critical look at the tropes by which American culture is communicated, even to ourselves: American dream ideology, Protestant work ethic, democracy and free markets, materialism, etc.

And yet, while I generally acknowledge that most Americans will probably assume American culture to be the predominant model throughout the world, I have to stop myself. Where is the empirical evidence that this is the case? Does anyone know of any studies where we have empirically studied levels of American self-centeredness? We all reference the ugly American stereotype, especially as it relates to Americans abroad, but on what do we base these assumptions? In my own experiences, I've found it necessary to defend myself from these stereotypes, to point to examples of open-minded, globally savvy Americans who think we have much to learn from other cultures. Perhaps we are doing a disservice in propagating the model of the "ugly American" ourselves.

1 comment:

  1. I should say I really enjoyed reading your post! Got a couple of ideas to share...

    Firstly, a suggestion on your q about the representation of symbols for creating cohesive community, and rightly, in causing conflict when this communication breaks down. Sharing symbols inevitably results in sharing the identity, which, I would argue is MUCH MORE than merely saying I'm American, British, Russian, etc... To be a part of community/society, you would need to share MORE OR LESS the same [ok - "similar"] values, beliefs, outlooks, and of course, a sense of fraternity with the others of a similar "mental make-up". I believe THIS is the most important component of culture, while the physical representations of it are a mere TOOL for passing the former on.

    Now, if two individuals from the same culture, for instance, diverge in their fundamental beliefs and/or values, there is no way they can successfully cooperate; or, not for long, at least... Being in the same "community" they would expect the other to reciprocate the other's action; however, due to the abovementioned difference, that would be impossible, inevitably giving way to conflict. Sharing the same identity, they would also, IDEALLY, be following the same overall goals and interests (i.e. for their society). But when each one of them comes forth with their OWN self-interest, the sense of trust and shared values disappears, quite naturally, resulting in disagreement and conflict (when it gets there)...

    The same happens at the international level. When the claim of a "flat world" or "shared global culture through globalization" is made, I see people referring to some sort of a shared global community. But we all know it is impossible, as to have that, you would need a shared identity and a shared culture - i.e. VALUES and GOALS - something, which would inherently imply imposition and force.

    Unfortunately, we are no where near achieving a global community, YET, and therefore, each member in the international sphere is after their own self-interests. Those who are more powerful - i.e. assertive, affluent, and influential - get to dominate, leaving the smaller/less influential members behind, crying out about "injustice" and "Americanization", for example.

    However, I see culture as being very dynamic. It is NEVER static, and it changes all the time. Any culture came to be what it is through constant interaction with others (over the past decades, centuries, millenia...), constant exchange of ideas and values, and never-ending transformation. The attempt "to keep one's own culture intact" will never succeed, as the very essence of culture is such that it needs change (positive or negative, would entirely depend on the perspective). "Preservation" is different, as it does not refer to the total exclusion of "foreign" elements, but rather focuses on preserving some of what would be considered as core values. Yet, I would argue, these would change over time as well...

    In short, having a global culture and a world without conflict MIGHT BE possible, but we will definitely not live to see it. Ideas and values usually take hundreds, if not thousands, of years to "sink in" FOR REAL, and even then, I don't believe the outcome would be anything close to democratic (in our general understanding of the concept, that is).