As Terence McKenna said in this interview, “Culture is not your friend.”
I know, I know. How can I have a go at culture? What’s culture ever done to hurt me? Why aren’t I thankful to culture for providing me with such a rich and varied, erm, culture?
It’s easy to paint culture as some kind of essential framework, without which all the rich bounty of Western civilisation would turn to ash and be taken by the winds. But that’s the thing: our culture has a vested interest in ensuring that your conception of ‘culture’ is a positive one. It would be considered quite the faux pas to instead characterise culture as a form of bondage to which you never consented, which serves only to exclude and to characterise the foreign as ‘Other.’
The very word itself, “culture,” finds its etymological root in the Latin ‘colere’, a term for cultivating crops. While not without a sense of romance, this origin damns culture at its very roots as being a force which staves off true creativity. The reasoning behind this, if we’re going to continue to entertain the rather tortured metaphor I’m setting up here, is that the artefacts produced by a culture will always be template and predictable, as certain fields yield certain crops, and barring some truly seismic shift in the culture’s paradigm we can foresee future artistic endeavours and trends, even if only in the abstract. Even subversion is subservient to culture: works become defined by disparity and dialectic difference. I am a work of B, because I oppose A.
What was Ginsberg’s Moloch if not an unflinching characterisation of his own culture, one which he perceived as brutal, unfeeling, mechanical and fuelled by the lives of children, symbolic of his countrymen and their futures? Given, Ginsberg was a particular person at a particular time in a particular place when he wrote Howl, but the snapshot he took of his culture and it’s inhumanity and viciousness can only stand as a damning, rather than celebratory, characterisation.
Culture means borders. Culture means language barriers. Culture means economic disparity. Culture is always defended by the aged agents of tradition, the traditional enemies of progression.
In The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception (1944), Adorno & Horkheimer accurately predict the path of Western culture. They foresaw that it would become an assembly-line of sensory spectacle, repeated ad nauseam for the sake of profit, bereft of deeper meaning and only ever questioning or critiquing the culture in as much as it can viably profit within the pre-existing space of definitions, hierarchies and power structures.
Of course, all this is to be taken with a shaker of salt. Without my culture, I would have no way to disseminate these ramblings, no language or communicative forms with which to convey them. But that which is inflexible is doomed to shatter, and the defenders of culture and its homogeneity cling to a sinking ship’s mast, a crumbling tower’s parapets, shunning a greater patchwork of identity and community for the sake of preserving the relics of an ahistorical Golden Age.