Cultural Neural Network

In recent years, I have grown aware of a newish way of people’s separating themselves out from and above others, a newer form of elitism. In the past, educated people were rather legitimately accused of elitism as they held themselves above the uneducated, unwashed masses. Those masses had the good sense to retaliate with a much more pervasive anti-intellectual movement. Long Live Homer Simpson! This making the elite look silly had to stop, of course. In an effort to recover some dignity from the ignominy of dummy-bashing in the PC era, the educated elite embraced those less favored in a new way—through their “studies.” Gay studies, women’s studies, cultural studies…, something like crosses between sociology and natural science. The result of this superficial shift in perspective is that the modes of discourse preserve the cultural disparity between haves and have-nots.

By studying discrete social groups, those who are educated can show some level of respect for “marginalized” people, much as we would identify an endangered species, but they still identify such others as not-themselves. “Othering”—assuming a position of power that allows one to say who is outside the circle of power and privilege—identifies and labels people who differ from an educated norm as “marginalized,” at once creating a category of people to study, award rights, offer respect, and in the same breath placing them at the margins of main-stream society. Marginalization can only occur from the center, after all. Liberal academics will tell you that it is other empowered elements that have placed such people at the margins of society. But privilege is privilege and power is power. The academics comply with this othering when they study the marginalized, not the process of marginalization. Were it any less the educated empowered, they would have set the conversation differently. As it is, academia accepts and supports, even thrives on, an axis and rim vision of society and its relationships to its people, one center, many margins.

I want to look at an entirely different model for thinking about cultural difference. This assumes that cultural difference is significant in some meaningful way and not just as a means of elevating some folks over others. Culture can be considered as a group of people who share characteristics that make them identifiably different from others. Members must understand membership in the culture at some level. A gang will have a culture, but a random group of criminals will not, unless perhaps, they share an extended period of incarceration. Cultural groups should empower themselves by coming together for the purpose of defining themselves in some significant and presumably justifiable way as different from others. Such self-defined groups should examine their defining characteristics and determine how their group identity serves the needs of their members. Cultural groups should be self-defined and purposeful; otherwise, there is no reason to separate themselves, or be separated from the herd.

Such self-defining places a cultural group at the center of its own wheel with relationship to other cultural groups each of whom is at the center of its own wheel, each spoke representing a unique perspective. There is no need for a cultural “norm” that defines those at its margins. With no central power, there are no margins. The visual image of the wheel becomes increasingly less useful as we picture many groups sharing spokes with many other groups. Taken all together, these self-defined groups and their tangle of perspectives and relationships becomes a sort of cultural neural network. With the greater society viewed as a sort of brain, studying itself becomes just that—studying itself, not one part getting to study all the others, but a collaborative effort that results in a vastly more powerful understanding of who we are and how we fit together in the world.

Academia may not like this arrangement, as it dislodges them from privilege and asks them to share power; although sharing it could increase their power. The educated do not need to define any group but their own. I count myself in this group, while others may count me out. So be it. Academia is able to define itself, e.g., diplomas, publication, or perhaps simply demonstrable facility with knowledge. Without its privilege of othering, it might be hard to see the usefulness of a culture of educated. And the educated would have to redefine their relationship to other groups, no more Us and Them. Group identity must be about defining ourselves, not excluding others. So with a network of cultural study groups, we could study and be studied by other cultural groups. We must first study ourselves, however. We must first know who we are, if only to answer others’ questions about us. Within each group, would almost certainly be members who are also members of other groups. Much could be gained by learning from this intra-group diversity. Once we know ourselves, there would be learning and sharing dialogues between and among groups where inter-group relationships exist. These dialogues must be two-way conversations that ask, “Who are you?” and answer, “This is who I am.” No more is there a single source that says, “This is who they are,” or worse, “This is who you are.”

What does this say about the universities and colleges courses of study? Cultural Studies becomes Intercultural Studies with academia serving as a forum and occasionally as moderator. The content of such programs would not be the content of the cultures, but the perspectives among selves. New questions would be studied:

“Who am I?”

“What do I see through my eyes?”

“Who is he?”

“What does she see through her eyes?”

“How do our perceptions matter to us?”

“How do our perceptions define us and how are we defined by our perceptions?”

“How does it feel to me us or them?”

“What are our dreams and fears, shared and at odds?”

“How can or should we change how we look at things and ourselves.”

This may not be the ultimate goal, and it will require new thinking and a reorganization of some deeply vested resources. But it can greatly improve how we could get along, and it could greatly increase our potential for making real and sustainable progress in social status and material wellbeing.


About Jay C Ritterson
The only failure is the failure to try.

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