2009 : WHAT WILL CHANGE EVERYTHING?

[ print ]

Archaeologist, Professor of the Prehistory of Humanity, University of Vienna; Author, The Artificial Ape
CULTURE

Culture changes everything because culture contains everything, in the sense of things that can be named, and so what can be conceived. Wittgenstein implied that what cannot be said cannot be thought. He meant by this that language relies on a series of prior agreements. Such grammar has been shown by anthropologists to underpin the idea of any on-going community, not just its language, but its broader categories, its institutions, its metaphysics. And the same paradox is presented: how can anything new ever happen? If by 'happen' we only think of personal and historical events, we miss the most crucial novelty—the way that new things, new physical objects, devices and techniques, insinuate themselves into our lives. They have new names which we must learn, and new, revolutionary effects.

It does not always work like that. Resistance is common. Paradoxically, the creative force of culture also tries to keep everything the same. Ernest Gellner said that humans, taken as a whole, present the most extensive behavioural variation of any species while every particular cultural community is characterized by powerful norms. These are ways of being that, often through appeals to some apparently natural order, are not just mildly claimed as quintessentially human, but lethally enforced at a local level, in a variety of more or less public ways. Out groups (whether a different ethnicity, class, sexuality, creed, whether being one of twins, an albino, someone disabled or an unusually talented individual) are suspect and challenging in their abnormality. Categories of special difference are typical foci for sacrifice, banishment, and ridicule through which the in-group becomes not just the in-group but, indeed, a distinctly perceptible group, confident, refreshed and culturally reproductive. This makes some sense: aberrance subverts the grammar of culture.

The level at which change can be tolerated varies greatly across social formations, but there is always a point beyond which things become intolerably incoherent. We may rightly label the most unprecedented behaviour mad because, whatever relativization might be invoked to explain it, it is, by definition, strategically doomed: we seek to ignore it. Yet the routine expulsion of difference, apparently critical in the here and now, becomes maladaptive in any longer-term perspective. Clearly, it is change that has created our species' resilience and success, creating the vast inter- (not intra-) cultural diversity that Gellner noted. So how does change happen?

Major change often comes stealthily. Its revolutionary effect may often reside in the very fact that we do not recognize what it is doing to our behaviour, and so cannot resist it. Often we lack to words to articulate resistance as the invention is a new noun whose verbal effect lags in its wake. Such major change operates far more effectively through things than directly through people, not brought about by the mad, but rather by 'mad scientists', whose inventions can be forgiven their inventors.

Unsurprisingly then, the societies that tolerate the least behavioural deviance are the most science-averse. Science, in the broadest sense of effective material invention, challenges quotidian existence. The Amish (a quaint static ripple whose way of life will never uncover the simplest new technological fix for the unfolding hazards of a dynamic universe) have long recognized that material culture embodies weird inspirations, challenging us, as eventual consumers, not with 'copy what I do', but a far, far more subversive 'try me.'

Material culture is the thing that makes us human, driving human evolution from the outset with its continually modifying power. Our species' particular dilemma is that in order to safeguard what we have, we have continually to change. The culture of things—invention and technology—is ever changing under the tide of words and routines whose role is to image fixity and agreement when, in reality, none exists. This form of change is no trivial thing because it is essential to our longer term survival. At least, the longer term survival of anything we may be proud to call universally human