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The difficulty of studying culture begins with the problem of finding it. In studying Americans' culture of love, what, precisely, are we looking for?
At one level, the culture of love is everywhere, filling paperback racks, pouring from car radios, shimmering on the movie screen. In the immensely popular Harlequin romances, women resist dangerous seducers, pursue a spirited individualism, and are rewarded with love as were their sisters in the classic English romantic novels, from Richardson's Pamela to Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice (see Watt 1957; Modleski 1984; Radway 1991). Such is the power of this mythic drama that its variants still dominate our literature, our popular entertainment, and our imaginations. In hit songs and pulp fiction, as in the conversations and commiserations of friends and lovers, love is described and dissected. These sources do not all agree on what love is, but from "Love means never having to say you're sorry" to "Love is not love which alters when it alteration finds," the culture of love is all around us.
The difficulty comes not in finding cultural stories and symbols, but in discovering how culture in this sense (art, entertainment, or the advice friends give one another) affects culture as lived, the meanings that shape people's day-to-day lives. And here we run into a host of problems. These are not just a matter of art versus life, but of the complex ways people use the diverse culture surrounding them.
Among sociologists and anthropologists, debate has raged for several academic generations about the proper definition of the term "culture." Since the seminal work of Clifford Geertz (1973a), the older definition of culture as the entire way of life of a people, including their technology and material artifacts, or that (associated with the name of Ward Goodenough) as everything one would need to know to become a functioning member of a society, has been gradually displaced in favor of defining culture as the publicly available symbolic forms through which people experience and express meaning (Keesing 1974; Wuthnow 1987). In Geertz's (1973b:89) now classic definition, culture is "an historically transmitted pattern of meanings embodied in symbols, a system of inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic forms by means of which men communicate, perpetuate, and develop their knowledge about and attitudes toward life." Seeing culture as meaning embodied in symbols focuses attention on such phenomena as beliefs, ritual practices, art forms, and ceremonies, and on informal cultural practices such as language, gossip, stories, and rituals of daily life. I would follow Ulf Hannerz's (1969:184) "minimal definition of culturalness, in line with ... the essence of conventional usage ... that there are social processes of sharing modes of behavior and outlook within [a] community." But I would add Geertz's emphasis on the role of particular symbolic vehicles (rituals, stories, sayings) in creating and sustaining those modes of behavior and outlook. Indeed, culture is specifically the set of symbolic vehicles through which such sharing and learning take place.
Whether they define culture as public symbols, entire ways of life, or individual knowledge, conventional views leave us very much at a loss when it comes to studying how culture is actually put to use by social actors. In the traditional Geertzian view, cultural materials were assumed to form a unified "cultural system," and the question of how particular pieces of culture actually become meaningful for people—when they are put to use and in what ways—could hardly be raised. Contemporary theorists, on the other hand, take cultural disjunctures and contradictions largely for granted. From Foucault's "genealogical" approach to the multiple layers of overlapping practices that constitute the modern subject, to Levi-Strauss's emphasis on "bricolage," to Bourdieu's insistence on the fundamental contradictions (the "misrecognition") at the heart of any system of cultural hierarchy, many contemporary theorists have subverted or abandoned the notion of culture as a unified system. Yet the implications of such a stance for drawing links between culture and action have hardly been explored. The task cultural analysts set themselves is still most often describing the unifying principle of a cultural system (or, for Foucault [1970, 1972] for example, the unifying principles of each level in an "archaeology" of overlaid cultural systems), leaving aside the question of how actors might navigate among multiple competing "systems" or how the polysemy and multivocality of cultural symbols might shape the ways people actually bring culture to bear on experience. Describing how one culture differs from another has been the central task of the cultural analyst. Questions about the diverse ways any particular culture is used by its possessors have seemed unnecessary or irrelevant. But understanding how cultures change, or indeed, understanding what difference it makes for someone to participate in a particular culture, will require that sociologists address the problems created by the diverse uses of common cultural materials.
To begin with the most obvious problem, people know much more of their culture than they use. One San Jose suburbanite, now a successful lawyer, recollects that as a child he "went to church every Sunday for over fifteen years without missing once. I was very into that." He was "very much into Boy Scouts, a real achiever type." "Very serious about what [he] was doing," he thought he might "get into [religion] in a bigger way," perhaps by becoming a minister. But as an adult, he is "almost uninvolved in community activities": "Now I divide my time between my work and my family at home, and that's where I get my satisfaction. I don't have much of a desire to be involved." So, we must ask, is his earlier religious enthusiasm, or indeed his Boy Scout ideals, now part of his culture? In what sense does cast-off faith maintain its influence?
Indeed, time often distances people from even their most intense cultural experiences. The same young lawyer, now married several years, recalls his first "terrible crush at age fifteen": "restless, excited, dizzy, you know all those trite things that people say about it, all the puppy love sort of thing. Boy, it hit me like a ton of bricks." When the relationship broke up, he was crushed.
I can still remember playing that Kingston Trio record over and over again and feeling that my life had lost all meaning. Kingston Trio #16. They all seemed to be sort of sad songs too. One of them was "Try to Remember" from The Fantastiks.... I still have the record.
But despite the intensity of the experience, it lacked staying power. "I was just so terribly overwhelmed, and then a month or two later it was all gone. It was almost as if it hadn't happened."
Like his religion, this lawyer's teenage love was eminently cultural. It is still available to him in memory, and yet is very little part of his life. How should we understand this? The Kingston Trio is culture, but perhaps no longer "his" culture? Or the Kingston Trio is still his culture, but put somehow on hold? Or perhaps romantic love and the Kingston Trio have already been assimilated into his experience, so that he no longer finds the specific symbols engaging. His current view that he has outgrown both adolescent infatuation and the Kingston Trio may itself be a cultural frame for distancing some experiences while embracing others. But the sociology of culture as it currently exists has little to say about such variations in the meaning of cultural experience.
Changes in biography and cultural context, which can leave us more bemused than moved by our past enthusiasms, make it difficult to say what a person's culture actually is. Unless we assume that everything a person has known or experienced is in some sense still "current" (an assumption whose problematic implications I discuss below), we have a hard time describing the uses people make of culture they have outgrown. What we clearly need are more differentiated ways of describing not the content of culture, but the varying—what?—confidence, seriousness, engagement with which people hold it.
Even culture that is not distanced by the passage of time is often distant in other ways. We see a movie, but we find it stupid or unconvincing. We are aware of our culture's love mythology, but we know it isn't "true." Does that mean it does not affect us? Or does culture affect us in the same way whether we accept or reject it? Aside from the distinction between "current" and "past" cultural experience, we need some distinction between "vital" culture and culture that remains insulated from experience.
Skepticism—ranging from suspended judgment, to doubt, to outright rejection—is a usual, not exceptional, response to culture. For example, almost all my interviewees understand the term "love" and use it frequently in interpreting the world, yet their dominant reaction to the love culture surrounding them is rejection. They usually invoke the "Hollywood" image of love (associated especially with "the movies") only to condemn it. While few go so far as the therapist, herself divorced, who says, "My friends and myself, we are sort of lost as to what love means; it just does not have a whole lot of meaning," many agree with her disparagement of romantic ideals. The divorced women she counsels "have been disappointed by that Hollywood image they thought existed when they first got married. They thought there would be that magical love—dancing through the stage and stuff—and that in actuality it is not there."
Most men and women agree with the therapist's view that love "is mainly hard work and partnership and getting some gratification. Love grows, but infatuation love is a problem that we grew up with. It is not real." They blame a culture that, in their view, purveys a false image of love. An insurance executive, describing his failed first marriage, says, "It was all based on this superficial TV image of what it was. There was not any real discussion about how feelings were. ..." His own view of love still includes romance, but he carefully brackets off this kind of love from what he considers "real": "Well, we re all born and raised in this concept of this movie-star love. A romantic ideal." He still enjoys "that flash of movie-star love," but "no one can keep up that intense one-sided appearance forever." Eventually "we got to get down to really what's there." A suburban homemaker distances the movie image with humor: "I think I had kind of a Doris Day image thing about marriage ... I would keep the bod up and have my hair nice, wear high heels, scrub the toilet looking real pretty, and have those beautiful meals on the table when he came home." People thus use common cultural images as they formulate their own views; yet we must see that they frequently use culture by distancing themselves from it.
Cultural skepticism is not limited to "playful" fictions (Huizinga 1956) such as those of "the movies." We always select among cultural competitors for our engagement, so that our cultural universe is much wider and more diverse than the culture we make fully our own. Thus we may know about punk rock without actually having heard any, or we may know what it sounds like but hate it, or we may even listen to it occasionally without any great involvement. For only a very few does punk become a way of life (Hebdige 1979; Frith 1981), but it becomes part of the culture even of many who prefer "101 strings."
When it comes to more serious cultural matters—religious beliefs or fundamental views of the world—skepticism plays an even more important role. We are always surrounded by diverse viewpoints, and we actively (though often unconsciously) select among them—rejecting most without a second thought. We could hardly function if we were open, ready to be persuaded, by any new cultural message that came along. Typical responses to new religious cults provide a striking, but not unusual, example. When entreated by a devotee of a new religion, most people brush aside even what sound like plausible appeals, assuming that sound reasons exist for dismissing its claims.
We enter the cultural fray armored with systematic doubt. We do not believe everything we read, or everything our friends say. Indeed, most of our active cultural involvement in everyday life is not joyful participation in shared ritual, but the demanding work of dismissing, criticizing, or filtering the culture with which we come in contact.
Thus much of our "traffic with symbols" (to use Clifford Geertz's [1973b:92] phrase) is of a rejecting rather than an accepting sort. The pervasiveness of indifference and skepticism in cultural life means, in turn, that we cannot study culture by studying the publicly available repertoire of expressive symbols if we do not know when and how these are used. Nor, alternatively, can we identify the culture of particular individuals or groups simply by asking in what they believe, since they are touched by a great deal of culture they ultimately reject.
It may be objected that skepticism is a peculiarly modern ailment, a symptom of our cultural malaise. Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann (1967) have argued something like this, claiming that the cacophony of competing cultural claims in modern society has undermined confidence in any of them. But both anthropological and historical evidence suggests otherwise. Heresies have been a pervasive problem in Western religions since the golden calf. Medieval historians agree that Christianity never managed fully to eliminate its pagan rivals, and even within Christian Europe, skepticism could easily lead to heresy (Le Roy Ladurie 1978; Ginzburg 1980). As one fifteenth-century miller saw it, the soul could not be immortal because "when man dies he is like an animal, like a fly.... when man dies his soul and everything else about him dies" (Ginzburg 1980:69). And as Keith Thomas's Religion and the Decline of Magic (1971) shows, when a historian looks for subterranean traditions, they are there in abundance. Among the educated elite in England between 1500 and 1700, rational, scientific thinking coexisted happily with what we would now regard as the wildest magical and superstitious notions, including belief in witchcraft, use of amulets and potions, magical cures, and incantations. Indeed, both the "traditional" past in which there was a deeply shared cultural consensus and the culturally unified "primitive" tribe are in all probability illusions.
Anthropologists, who presumably study the most integrated, consensual societies, find widespread disagreement about the meaning of central cultural symbols (Fernandez 1965; Stromberg 1981; Bourdieu 1990). In all societies people make choices about what cultural meanings to accept and how to interpret them.
If disagreement and skepticism are pervasive in cultural life, we cannot describe culture unless we have a way of dealing both with what people believe and with what they know and disbelieve. In the cases of punk rock and religious cults, the dividing line between the culture a person holds and the culture he or she rejects seems fairly clear. But the important cases are more ambiguous and difficult to interpret.
Frank and Emily Trumbell, now in their late thirties, several years ago faced a serious marital crisis. In desperation they turned to society's experts on marital troubles, a minister and a therapist. These specialists offered the prevailing wisdom about failing marriages, encouraging each member of the couple to do what was best for herself or himself as an individual. But Frank and Emily wanted advice that would help them stay married, not advice about how to become more autonomous individuals, which might or might not save their marriage. So they took what they could use—and discarded the rest.
Emily: The minister I went to see kept encouraging me to be independent, and to live for myself, and not to think about Frank and our relationship, just to look out for Emily. Nothing about the commitment we had made to one another, and striving to get along, wanting to make changes so we could get along.
Frank: To help yourself. I got the same advice. I was never told to get out of the relationship. I was told that what I have responsibility for is my own life, and I need to look at my own life and develop my own individuality and look out for myself.
This "therapeutic" view of love—in which a marriage should be evaluated by how well it meets the needs of the married partners as individuals—was not really what Frank and Emily wanted to hear, so at one level, they simply did not listen. On the other hand, they wanted to improve their marriage, so they followed some of the marriage counselor's advice. Frank "asserted" himself with Emily. "I was expressing my opinion and my views, and if I wasn't satisfied with what was going on I said so." They changed the "whole dynamics" of their relationship. But they embraced the therapeutic ethic only on their own terms. Emily describes how she held on to her own language for thinking about her marriage even while she learned new approaches to the relationship itself:
At no time during the time I was going to see [the pastor] did he say do you love him, or any of those kinds of questions. But I knew I wanted to be married to Frank, and I knew that I wanted to make it work, and I knew that I loved him ... and the last thing in the world I wanted was to live apart from him.
Excerpted from Talk of Love by Ann Swidler. Copyright © 2001 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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