“What is Culture?”

There is a theme in the “What is Culture? What is Cultural Theory?” reading that I just can’t get through. It states that “culture tends to be opposed to the material, technological, and social structural” (Smith). We didn’t get a chance to discuss this reading in class, and maybe I’m going beyond (or completely missing) the context, but those three terms of opposition (material, technological, social structure) bring one simple notion to mind… they are culture.

When I think of American culture in particular, those behaviors and interests that define us as a collective, I can’t help but imagine an interaction with a cell phone, an ipod, or the web. These technologies and devices come to mind long before literature or theater or music (except for the music on an ipod). As the definitions of “culture” shift from intellectual development and “the Arts” to the broader “way of life,” why is technology, and the resulting social structure, being opposed?


  1. Tyler Pace

    Chris Brogan is a popular blogger and he recently wrote a post about the digital lifestyles of his children versus his upbringing.


    # My children believe television is provided by Apple.
    # They believe you can pause TV, shift it from room to room, manipulate it.
    # They think TV is videogames, google, weather.
    # They think music comes in iPods, and that I can go back and play it again.
    # Phones are for pockets.
    # When Daddy’s away, they can see him, watch him do work, share videos, play games remotely.
    # They make movies and photo collages and songs for gifts to their grandparents.

    At some point, the technological has definitely become part of culture. I was just as confused by that statement in the reading and had hoped to touch on it in during class.

  2. houssian

    Remember that Smith in the first few pages is just giving an overview of what the word has meant over time and in different traditions and locations through a couple hundred or so years. He is not making a normative claim as to what culture is, but rather making descriptive statements about it.

    You are showing quite clearly that you are a “digital native” (or at least more of one that I am) and that you can’t seem to relate to what culture is in the same way as those who grew up in a mostly analog world. That is part of what this course is about I think, and what we will be exploring to some extent (I hope). Perhaps you have heard all those old definitions P Smith gives and you realize that there is a lot more than that.

    Re: What is culture?
    P Smith seemed to be taking what I think culture is stating it succinctly, and the things like the rampant materiality, consumerism, and incredible digital revolution of today is more about our society. Why am I making this distinction and is it useful? I don’t know and I don’t know. I don’t have an answer here, at least not right now.

    @ Tyler
    I think you posted the wrong link there, I think you meant to post this http://grasshopperfactory.com/cbc/digital-kids/
    At some point, the technological has definitely become part of culture. I was just as confused by that statement in the reading and had hoped to touch on it in during class.
    I think that it has always been there, but it has taken on a lot more importance in the last decade or three.

  3. Dave Roedl

    When Smith states that culture is “opposed to the material, technological, and social structural” he attempting to describe the core usage term within the field of cultural theory. So I would say that he is making somewhat of a normative claim, and seems to be quite deliberate about it.

    @Tyler and Aaron
    I don’t agree that ‘at some point he technological has become part of culture’ (though I certainly know what you mean by that statement). I would say that technology as always been a part of culture, in the sense that since humans became human, they have been creating tools and artifacts which in turn shape human beliefs and values.

    Thinking about it now, I think that maybe Smith is trying to give a very precise definition and say that the word culture refers only to the non-material beliefs, values, ideals, and symbols. Maybe those beliefs and symbols motivate the creation of artifacts, but the artifacts are not ‘culture’. In other words, culture is an abstraction away from the physical world and refers to the world of ideas.

    If that is what he’s saying (and I’m not 100% sure) then I don’t think its a very useful distinction to make. As we talked about in Jeff’s class last semester, symbol systems do not exist independent of their physical manifestation. Cultural meaning is produced through the interaction between human and artifact, and the material specificities are part of that meaning. Thus artifacts would seem to be of utmost importance whether thats a spear or a poem or film or an ipod.

    (p.s. does this make me a structuralist?)

  4. jeffreybardzell

    Excellent questions and responses, all, and we should take this up in class. For what it’s worth, when P. Smith separates political, material, and technological phenomena from culture, he’s certainly not saying they are irrelevant to culture. And I don’t have the book in front of me now, so I’m kind of afraid to jump in and clarify what he means. But I think it is something like this: the domain that is studied by economists, while clearly connected with and related to culture, is usually not understood as a part of culture. But this is difficult to understand, given the importance of Marxist critique, which is a form of cultural criticism predicated on economic and material matters–and P. Smith has a whole chapter on this, so he is far from ignorant of it. So, I guess the point is that there is probably some nuance intended in that sentence that just didn’t come through all that well, and I can’t help at the moment, because I am 4,000 miles away from my book. Someone, feel free to bring this up next Tuesday when I am back.

    P.S. David Roedl is talking more like a post-structuralist than a structuralist. To me that’s a big compliment, but I wouldn’t brag about it, especially in front of scientists.

  5. Tyler Pace

    @Houssian: Yep, wrong link but thanks for the recovery.

    @Dave: Great comment. I was definitely thinking along those lines when I wrote my piece, but just quite couldn’t get it out. Thank you for connecting the dots for me! 🙂


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