What is “culture”?
Early generations of anthropologists offered all sorts of definitions. No matter what their specifics, the various definitions inevitably shared one feature: “culture” is identifiable. Above all, it encompasses a set of beliefs and behaviors that, together, are premised on an enduring set of values.
Or something like that.
And, as such, culture (it was thought) offers a source of stability. It occupies broad swaths of time and space: associated with a delimited place, and occupying long patches of history. For these reasons, culture makes for a certain level of predictability in the lives of community members.
Or does it?
Starting in the 1960s, anthropologists started questioning those assumptions. Marxists pointed out that ever since, oh, the advent of capitalism, or feudalism, or agriculture (pick your favorite starting point), “culture” has been perpetuated by the ruling class. Once the poor get fed up enough, they protest; eventually, they revolt. Then, suddenly, what passed for an enduring model of “culture” turns into a set of values to be challenged, and “culture” — or, one particular version of it — doesn’t seem so reliable or inevitable.
Around the same time, feminists began pointing out that “culture” has been perpetuated by men-in-power. Once women get fed up enough, they protest; eventually, they revolt. See above.
One can repeat similar arguments focusing on many other oppressed groups: racialized minorities, religious minorities, ethnic minorities, citizenship minorities, language minorities . . .
Nor is oppression the only reason for change. “Culture” also mutates when people from different backgrounds meet up, live near each other, work with each other, eat each other’s foods, dance with each other at street fairs, marry each other, have children with each other.
You get the point. “Culture” turns out to be way less permanent, less bounded, less intractable than early anthropologists claimed.
Not that the idea of culture is worthless. Contra some serious critics (Lila Abu-Lughod famously urged anthropologists to “write against culture“), I still find plenty of value in the notion. That’s because I see a lot of space between worthless and intractable. Culture can be malleable, adaptable, dynamic, while still remaining rooted in something. And, although the values that buttress culture can change, while they are active, they are powerful. They lie behind many (perhaps, for the privileged few, most) of our decisions.
Still, in pop culture, the current generation of anthropologists’ critiques of what culture is, and isn’t, hasn’t taken hold. Instead, in texts ranging from newspaper articles to corporations’ reports, we easily read disturbingly essentializing claims about “the Chinese” and “the French” and “the Muslims” as if all Chinese people, all French people, and all Muslims were easily interchangeable, eagerly sharing all values and forever speaking with one voice.
Or we read simplistic assertions about “corporate culture” in the halls of this or that company, as if all employees endorsed and enacted daily the corporation’s stated idealistic goals.
Along comes COVID-19.
Of course, the most poignant takeaway of COVID-19 is the tragic demise of its most vulnerable targets.
But alongside the wrenching announcement of the day’s latest mortality statistics, as a cultural anthropologist, I find myself fascinated to read “culture” changing before our eyes — weekly, daily, even hourly. What we took as immutable practices grounded in deep-seated values are turning out to be far more pliable than most of us imagined.
Take the case of exercise. For the first few days of their local “lockdown,” people who got their workout in gyms despaired. How could they stay fit with health clubs closed?
Enter human ingenuity. Gyms have figured out ways to run “live” classes online. The acronym du jour — WFH for work from home — is expanded by some clubs to WFHBT: work from home better together. Buttressing that conceptual adaption is a simple technical one. Don’t have weights at home? How about using any heavy-ish household item you have lying around that you can hold? Say, pasta sauce jars, six-packs . . . or suitcases.
In such cases, people substitute one space for another. The exercise formerly done in the gym is now done in one’s living room.
But for some urbanites, studios may prove way too tiny to offer space for exercise. City-dwelling coaches are undaunted. Some suggest finding new purpose in a balcony.
For fitness enthusiasts, daily habits of organizing one’s life around outings to the gym morph into organizing one’s life around coaches’ new online classes. That may entail switching work and sleep schedules to accommodate new class times. But the stable source, here, remains the commitment to “fitness,” no matter where, when, and how. That part of local culture and its underlying values remains stable.
But, for a stronger challenge to “culture,” let’s look at a different physical practice common to most of us: that of ordinary walking. For those who learn to walk competently some time in the second year of life, walking becomes a rote activity by the third year. As adults, we rarely contemplate our gait, pace, or stride. No matter where in the world we live, we have a sense of exactly how much distance we should put between us and the next person in order to avoid being judged creepy or reported as criminal. In a New York City subway, that space might be just an inch or two; in rural Sweden, it might be quite a few feet.
Whatever the interpersonal space bubble that feels “natural” to us while out in the world, we must all now confront our unconscious body awareness as we constantly re-calibrate distance. Keeping six feet from the nearest person may now require crossing the street to avoid being too close to the person approaching you on a narrow sidewalk.
Previously, such an action might have seemed, at best, rude; in some contexts, it could have been deemed racist. (As a short film by Cydney Cort called “Passing” once suggested, even speeding up while walking on the same side of the sidewalk can be motivated by racialized fear). Now, not crossing the street to avoid someone approaching you might be assessed as thoughtless, selfish, even potentially murderous.
Normally, producing such a 180-degree turn in what constitutes proper etiquette doesn’t happen overnight. Anthropologists and sociologists from Erving Goffman on have chronicled the deep-seated values that lie behind bodily practices as basic as walking styles. Those values tend to make somatic habits relatively resistant to quick or arbitrary changes.
French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu termed such practices, habitus. He spent much of his celebrated career studying how we experience and embody entrenched assumptions about the world and our place in it, and how these assumptions shape everything from architectural styles to taste in dinnerware.
But with COVID-19, much of what heretofore passed for habitus has suddenly become its evil twin. An attempt at a friendly hug might as well be a curse.
If maintaining a span of two meters from the nearest human may require doing a sort of dance down the sidewalk, suddenly, we are all turning into novice choreographers, performing an awkward solo tango across the street. What was heretofore a routine somatic movement becomes a basis for uncomfortable improvisation.
Perhaps the professional dancer, actor, and jazz musician can teach us a thing or two. All these artists learn the art of improvisation as part of their training. It may seem odd to think of improvisation as something to be learned. But improvisation is actually a discipline that students practice in dance, theater, and music classes. Ironically, it turns out that the art of improvisation is, indeed, a teachable skill, and the rest of us non-artists are suddenly being required to master it. If you’ve got an artist friend or relative, ask them for some tips.
Artists are now designing striking face masks, teaching us to find beauty in even this new health requirement while enjoining others to do the same.
Powerful new works of art, such as this one by performance artist, Miles Greenberg, may speak to how many people feel these days — alone, awkward, defenseless, shackled.
But artists no longer have a monopoly on improvising new ways to cope with unprecedented challenges. Many who never considered themselves especially creative are finding themselves inventing new ways to cope with challenges and celebrate what remains noteworthy.
Neighborhoods are now organizing weekly shout-outs to thank those who risk their own health daily to care for the sick.
And those whose jobs put them daily in harm’s way are, themselves, figuring out the life-saving art of improvisation. In the U.S., thanks to an infuriating two months of inattention to the looming pandemic on the part of the Trump administration, medical professionals at risk of infection because of inadequate supplies are actually making their own masks.
Workers in plenty of private businesses are also digging deep to find new modalities.
Distilleries that otherwise produce vodka have found a new use for excess alcohol: they are re-purposing that newly-hyper-valued substance into one of the rarest commodities of the day, sanitizing wipes.
Inside supermarkets, managers are getting creative about indicating six-foot intervals delimiting where people should wait on the checkout line.
Meanwhile, gig-economy musicians position themselves outside those supermarkets, where they entertain customers awaiting their turn to enter at safely-spaced intervals.
With all this creativity occurring in the economy, I find all the more reason for us to take another look at the homeless.
And, no, I don’t mean because they are especially vulnerable. They are, but we already know that. We’ve known that for a long time. Too many books have been written about their vulnerability, with not nearly enough done to address it. Here, I’d like to point out something we rarely think about when we consider the situation of those who live on the streets.
By necessity, the homeless are masters of improvisation. From whatever tragedies led to their plight, they must scrounge anew for food and safe spaces daily. As if that weren’t enough, they must often manage these demanding tasks while being stigmatized, mocked, even arrested or assaulted. Although the homeless are more frequently the object of derision than admiration, their life skills in the face of almost unimaginable obstacles are extraordinary. Along with artists, they, too, could teach the rest of us some important life lessons.
As an anthropologist who researches the lives of homeless people in Leipzig, Germany, Luisa Schneider writes in a new poem:
while you wait it out at home
part of an expanding digital universe
connected to those you love
millions of us
have no doors to close behind us
or doors behind which
Even as many in the middle class (and beyond) are now coming to appreciate for the first time the low-paid workers who (often, invisibly) make their privileged world work — producing payroll checks, bagging groceries, cooking restaurant meals, packing and delivering packages, cleaning houses, teaching children — the one group that remains invisible for their life skills is the homeless. When this COVID-19 state of emergency finally passes, might this moment of global reflection produce new policies of compassion for helping the homeless to find new living quarters, while also helping them adapt their formidable survival skills to new careers?
At the biomedical level, the most urgent lesson of this COVID-19 moment, of course, remains: isolate, isolate, isolate. For understanding the epidemiological challenges of this infectious disease emergency, we can turn to readable digests and thoughtful analyses of the week’s scientific COVID-19 findings such as this one, by the brilliant infectious disease specialist, Dr. Bill Rodriguez.
But that biomedical level has its counterpart in sociological factors — inevitably, given that humans are, above all, a social species.
The new catch-phrase guiding our lives is “social distancing.” For some, the required new habits of isolation are causing great loneliness and worse. For others, the phrase couldn’t be more of a misnomer, as people with access to advanced technology forge ingenious ways to stay in touch with those they hold near and dear. In the global North, Zoom is making geeks of technophobes.
I do not mean to underplay the suffering that the most vulnerable are enduring. Of course, that group includes not just the homeless but also the incarcerated and the medically compromised — the elderly, and those with the now-famous list of “underlying medical conditions” that, especially, stress the heart (diabetes, cancer, obesity, serious organ issues) as well as the lungs (asthma and respiratory conditions).
But it also includes the sociologically most vulnerable — the poor. And, in most parts of the world, that means, especially — for historical reasons having everything to do with the past half-millenium of European colonial expansion — people of color. Maps plotting those five groups — the homeless, the incarcerated, the medically vulnerable, the poor, and Black and Brown populations — are disturbingly close to isomorphic.
In a future post, I will explore these sorts of social vulnerabilities in this COVID-19 moment. Here, I want to end on a different note.
COVID-19 is forcing us to do no less than not only reinvent ourselves as individuals, but reinvent components of who we are as communities. For those who fear change but recognize the suddenly urgent need to embrace it, artists and the homeless alike offer powerful models of inspiration.
The transformations now occurring at every level of society will offer anthropologists research topics for years to come — starting with reëvaluating some unexpected benefits of what we might have formerly dismissed as fragility, and what we mean by “culture.”