The following article is based on a practice undergraduate third year exam essay:
This question seems to assume that culture has a single original meaning, one that is changed when reproduced. If this is the case, can the academic reproduction of culture avoid being unfaithful to that which it seeks to recreate? We shall begin by examining the alterations introduced by the reproduction of a single cultural object, before questioning whether this is a useful way of thinking about things, or if it is better to adopt a broader definition of culture.
Even if a single cultural object – such as a painting, text, or piece of music – is reproduced without experiencing any change in its composition, the change of context alone will alter it. Roger Chartier, for example, has studied the effect of a changed context on the play George Dandin. Performed at the palace of Versailles as part of a festival glorifying king Louis XIV, it had a very different meaning from when it was performed to an audience in Paris, who were more interested in the themes of status and ambition. Whilst the text was the same, the meaning had changed. Similarly, in 2007, the Washington Post had Joshua Bell – a world-renowned violinist – play outside a Washington subway station. The well-educated, affluent, often concert-going, audience could not relate to the music in this context, outside of the formal, focused, vetted atmosphere of the concert hall. As a result, he was ignored rather than applauded. The changed context had altered how he was understood; simply changing a cultural object’s context transforms it. We therefore need to be aware that any attempt to understand a cultural work in an academic context alters it, as it is approached by a different audience, with different assumptions.
But the idea of a discrete work of culture is flawed. Folk culture and, more recently, electronic texts, help illustrate this. In folk culture, there is no single composer, and no single product. Works are malleable and shared, rather than being single, discrete created things. Standard pieces evolve over time, without single creators, and different group performances interpret them in different ways. They are part of a continual, anonymous process of reproduction and re-making. This is what I call a flow of reproduction.
European Enlightenment thinking is in love with the idea of the individual creative genius, and with the idea of the work forged by the individual mind. But even our most innovative thinkers and musicians work within accepted modes of communication, and exist in dialogue with existing discourse. The idea of the discrete cultural object is promoted by our copyright laws, which are not impartial enforcers of a natural situation, but an ideological assertion of the existence of the separate created thing. This Enlightenment understanding of culture, however, is a relatively recent imposition, and is already being undone.
We are returning to something closer to the folk model, as shown by electronic texts, new intellectual property licences, open-source collaborative communities, and by hip-hop. The electronic reproduction of texts breaks down the barrier between author and reader, as each text is infinitely re-workable, and the reader can become co-author by rearranging the text, and adding to it as he sees fit. Intellectual property is changing too. The creation of the Creative Commons Licence – through which a work may be used and altered with some degree of freedom – and the development of open-source culture – through which websites, computer programmes, and more, are developed by a legion of users working together – suggests a move back towards a world without the presumption of single cultural artefacts produced by single creators.
Hip-hop culture was always a flow of reproduction and creativity by a community. Hip-hop music is usually built on a backing of looped samples. By copying short sections of sound from vinyl records and inserting them into new tracks, hip-hop reproduces and alters at the same time. A sample references its previous sonic and cultural location, but also has a new meaning, in relation to its new context. Thus Public Enemy‘s sampling of musicians such as James Brown and the Jacksons, in Fight the Power referenced the richness of black culture and heritage, but also politicized this heritage in its new context. This was no passive reproduction – it was a call to arms. Similarly, Genesis, the opening track to Nas’s Illmatic album, was an explicit testimony to creative reproduction in hip-hop culture. It took samples from the 1982 film Wild Style, which documented the embryonic New York hip-hop scene, and from Nas’s own verse on the Live at the Barbecue track. Nas was channeling the spirit of hip-hop – creative reproduction was at the heart of the genesis of this new album. So whilst Illmatic is the finest hip-hop album I’ve had the pleasure of hearing, it is not a discrete object, but caught up in flows of reproduction.
We’ve taken our analysis of the individual cultural work as far as we can, and it’s now looking like a pretty forlorn and rickety vehicle of analysis. So how else can we approach this question and build upon what we’ve learnt so far? Let’s start by broadening our scope. I assert that culture is wider than individual works; it is better understood as broader webs of significance and shared meaning. In other words, cultural works refer to each other, are built on each other, and are perceived in the context of other works, by people who understand the language used to communicate their meaning. Cultural works are made by communities of meaning, and cannot be separated from them.
By ‘web of meaning’ or ‘community of meaning’ I mean a group of people who have a degree of consensus on an area or subject that is meaningful or important to them, along with a set of shared memories and reference points. Examples of ‘communities of meaning’ include Arsenal supporters, migrant Polish workers in Wembley, players of infinity Engine RPGs, academics at Pembroke college. A member of one of these groups is likely to understand the language that members of the group use to talk to each other, and of the memories, events or cultural works that seem important to the group as a whole, even if they don’t personally subscribe to every aspect. Individuals may reject components of the communal web, but they do understand them, and they do think with them. Whether a metalhead likes Metallica or not, they’ll have an opinion, and know that they’re a talking point in the community.
Each of us inhabits a whole host of different webs of meaning, and we switch between them as required. We use different language, and draw upon different shared experiences, when talking to our closest friends than when talking to businessmen, policemen, or our parents. When we meet someone new, there’s a fun period of attempting to find out if any of the webs of meaning in which we’re enmeshed overlap. The delight that two seasoned PC gamers experience upon discovering their common interest is testament to this – finding this common ground opens up a whole new realm of expression and exchange. We then try to get a grasp of how they understand things, and graft this knowledge on to our own understanding of the web.
Historians need to be aware of these communal webs of meaning when reconstructing past culture. We need to be attentive to the fact that different people inhabit different groups of meaning. Misunderstanding between groups can have comic results. In sixteenth-century Italy, the heretical miller Menocchio was in a very different cultural web from his inquisitors. They tried to link his heresy to the earlier heretic Mani, but Menocchio had no awareness of being in a heretical tradition. Similarly, it took seventy years for peasants and inquisitors to arrive at anything like a shared understanding of the term bendanti – referring to a rural protective spirit. We must always remember that there was no simple homogeneity of thought in the past.
Monastic charters in late-eleventh-century France, for example, detailed the purity and piety of donors heading off on crusade, but how relevant were these monastic understandings (charters were devised and written by monks) to the culture and aspirations of the knights? The message sent down the crusaders’ lines just before a battle at Dorylaeum – “Stand firm together, trusting in Christ and the victory of the Holy Cross. For today, please God, you shall all gain much booty” – suggests a more complex web of meanings prevailed in the knightly mind. In many ways, the academic debate over the motives of the crusaders is a debate on how to reproduce knightly and monastic culture. We must be attentive to the different communities of meaning and the conflicts between them, rather than assuming that everyone conceived of the world in the same way.
But if all this is true – if culture is better understood as webs of significance and shared meaning – how are historians to reproduce it? Trying to focus on the individual case, to sensitively reconstruct the system of shared meanings at play, has its problems. Both Geertz and Darnton have been accused of blithely assuming that the events they study – the Balinese cockfight, and an eighteenth-century massacre of cats by artisans, respectively – fit into a wider cultural context which they presume to have accurately reconstructed. But if meanings can change, and if culture is an ever-changing flow, then why need such a static context have had a straightforward relationship to the events described? To focus too much on context, and on reconstructing a presumed surrounding web of meaning, is to rob people of agency.
As we have seen, of course, the idea of complete individual cultural agency is false. So we must not reject the idea of understanding context. Indeed, the flaws of Darnton and Geertz’s works bolster our assertion that culture should be seen as a holistic flow, not as opposed ‘work’ and ‘context’.
How on earth do we achieve this? For starters, it seems clear that we must root our understanding in what academics call ‘texts’ – in other words anything inscribed with meaning by people in the past. To faithfully reproduce a community of meaning we must undertake an exhaustively broad survey of its work and re-build the shared language and assumptions, in order to help us reconstruct the living webs of meaning.
Looking back at the title of this essay, I’m going to conclude by both completely rejecting and completely accepting the statement posed. We’ve seen that the idea of a single artefact is a deceptive imagination, and that the question is therefore based on a flawed premise, so we must reject it on these grounds. But it is true that culture is all about reproduction and alteration. We therefore need to reproduce flows of reproduction. It’s impossible to take a snapshot of a single drop of water in a stream, but it is possible to watch the whole stream as it moves. To do this we need to examine as wide a range of texts as possible, in order to immerse ourselves in the webs of significance that constitute culture. Only then can we begin to understand the reproduction, alteration and meaning of culture.