December 15th, 2006


Randomly generated numbers... or national culture?

I'm catching a plane to Spain later today, and, as always when I dip into a foreign culture, I'll be filing observations into two rough categories -- "that's typically Spanish" and "this is an indication of how Spain is changing". Of course, I'll make mistakes, wrong attributions. I'll probably see something new and think it's old, or see an anomaly and think it's a core part of Spanish identity, or see something local and think it's national, or see something Muslim and think it's Spanish. And actually, that last example shows how blurred these sorts of attributions can get. Where do you draw that particular line, when Spain was a Muslim nation for 800 years? The answer is partly political. You draw the line not just descriptively, but prescriptively. To designate this Spanish and that Muslim would be a political statement, and you'd make it according to your philosophy.

This issue -- and it's an interesting one -- comes up a lot in the clashes and crusades that go on over at Neomarxisme. Marxy often takes a stand against "Nihonjinron essentialists", people who talk about the Japanese character or way of life as if it were something unchanging. An example came up the other day, where he mocked the Nihonjinron Essentialists (let's call them NEs) for saying that Japan is a culture based on fish and rice, and failing to account for all the hamburgers now eaten in Japan. (This came as part of a wider argument -- well, a narrower one, actually -- about alleged links between Japan's visually-based writing system and its robustly visual manga culture.) The NE Marxy was actually answering there was Donald Richie, but a thinly-veiled parody of my writing style suggests I was also a target.

Actually, Marxy is being somewhat essentialist about the essentialism of my position on national character. It isn't as rigid as he'd like to believe. Anyone who's read my Japanese are almost Japanese piece will see that I think of national character as a construct (but also real), something that has to be learned by Japanese in pretty much the same way it's learned by foreigners.

Do nations change their habits and their character? Of course they do. But that doesn't mean there isn't a national character and a national habitus. Over the weekend I posted two pieces about the US (one about a 1959 General Motors film about design, one about the CIA's use of culture to influence post-war Europe). Click Opera reader bricology got annoyed. "Be angry at the Bush Administration, be indignant at American corporations (I won't disagree on either count). But please -- enough with saying that America and Americans "are" this or that thing, as if such finite classifications were possible. You might as well criticize randomly generated numbers."

The irony is that this belief that a culture is no more than "randomly generated numbers" is a particularly American one. American culture encourages people to look at the level of the individual ("someone in particular"), and the level of universality ("everyone in the world"), but shies away from the intermediate group level -- the level where you can talk anthropologically or sociologically about people collectively at lower levels than "everyone".

The Guardian has an interesting article today about US census bureau data, and the picture it paints of a changing -- but distinct -- nation. Look, for instance, at how the attitudes of university entrants in the US have changed between 1970 and 2005.

"In 1970, 85% of university entrants thought abortion should be legalised, 59% thought capital punishment should be abolished and 57% aimed to keep up with political affairs. By 2005, those figures had fallen to 55% in favour of legalised abortion, 33% against capital punishment, and 36% who aimed to follow politics. And while in 1970, 79% of university entrants said they had a personal objective of 'developing a meaningful philosophy of life', by last year 75% defined their objective as 'being very well off financially'."

The Guardian then goes back to the first statistical aggregate of an American census, made in 1878. America then was a very different nation, with most of its population clustered around a few North-Eastern states in which the majority of immigrants were white Europeans. Their lives revolved around relatively dense inner cities, the post office and the railway network. What generalizations about Americans could take in both these people and the car-dependent suburban people -- many of them Hispanics and Asians -- we call Americans today?

The answer is that the fact that American identity has changed in response to the historical, demographic and technological context doesn't mean there is no such thing as American identity. To be American is more than to be a series of "randomly generated numbers". People who think it's all random radically underestimate the effects of culture, socialization, ideology, politics and myth. For instance, how to explain the apparent ethical paradox revealed by the Guardian stats towards the value of human life? Support for abortion is falling in the US, and support for the death penalty rising. The answer doesn't lie in ethics, but in politics. These apparently inconsistent beliefs make sense when seen as parts of a political package -- conservatism -- which is gaining ground in the US. Conservatives assert that abortion is bad and capital punishment good, therefore these beliefs are perceived as consistent.

People hold inconsistent beliefs if they perceive them to be part of a package. Ironically, despite the lowering of stated interest in politics revealed by the US census, people hold clusters of beliefs which are entirely political, in the sense that they're only "consistent" when you see them along party political lines rather than ethical ones. They have, in other words, a mythical consistency. And the thing people forget about myths is that they're perfectly real.