What is culture? We use the word in many different ways. Culture is something we used to think a “civilized” person ought to have. To be “uncultured”, in the Euro-American sense, was to be unfit for good company. A cultured person was a part of a certain social class (or race), had been educated in certain subjects and understood a certain set of codes of behavior (manners). The word culture is used in a much broader sense these days. It’s something shared by a community: a way of life, religious rituals, physical gestures, a style of dress, a kind of music. To understand a culture is to understand a group of people and the world they inhabit. A culture is made up of the common threads that tie people together. Patterns of behavior are usually inherited from others in one’s environment. Actions and gestures are not always adopted with effort or consciousness. In this way culture seems to be something that seeps into us and that we carry with us as we go along.
I was once told a very funny story about a young woman who used to cut the ends off her pot roast before she put it in the oven. When her mother came for a visit she said: “Why on earth are you throwing away all that good meat?” “But Mama, you always cut the ends of the pot roast off?” the daughter replied. Her mother thought back and then began to laugh. “Sweetie, I did that because the only pan I had deep enough for a pot roast was too small.” This odd little kitchen ritual was a part of this young woman’s family culture. The gesture was repeated- but without any thought as to the reason behind it.
I like the two following quotes about culture. They sum up what I mean by the word and how I intend to use it in these blog entries. Many thanks to my dear friend the historian Brian Griffith who sent them to me.
“The concept of culture I espouse, … is essentially a semiotic one. Believing, with Max Weber, that man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun, I take culture to be those webs, and the analysis of it to be therefore not an experimental science in search of law but an interpretive one in search of meaning.” – Clifford Geertz, anthropologist (1926-2006)
“As with language, culture offers to the individual a horizon of latent possibilities—a flexible and invisible cage in which he can exercise his own conditional liberty.” – Carlo Ginzburg, historian (b. 1939)
* “Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management” is considered to be one of the first middle-class “how to” books in history. As the industrial age began to create an entirely new class of monied people, that class began to experience anxiety in the face of its new found power. Mrs. Beeton took it upon herself to create a compendium of middle-class know how and manners before such things had completely solidified into reality. I find the images of food that fill the book to be the most intriguing. Mrs. Beeton helped make culture. She laid out a road map for women of the new leisure class who may not have understand that things like desserts could signal their status and thus send the correct message to dinner guests.