Monday, September 29, 2008

Conversationalism + Identity

The thesis of this blog, as it were, is that culture is a conversation, and every mode of public expression helps shape that culture. One of the ways in which public expression shapes culture is through public understanding. When a journalist writes an important news story, or an internet meme travels through the public consciousness, or a theater piece reaches the height of its success, it's partly because it causes a new understanding of the current shared state of the members of its culture (or causes a new awareness of understanding).

So, a cultural dialogue is a mode of cultural self-expression, but also a cultural dialogue is a mode of cultural self-examination. America is constantly probing the question, "What is America?" and "Who are Americans?" When you hear this refrain of "Small town values," for instance, what you're hearing is one interpretation of what America "really" is; and such an interpretation is deliberately constructed so as to remove those who disagree with it from America. In other words, by defining America as conservative America, "liberal" America becomes un-American, and thus America has no responsibility to "liberal" America. That, I think, is the power of the common refrain in the Obama campaign: "That's not who we are as a people. That's not who we are as Americans."

By extension, I think, part of joining the cultural dialogue is also examining your own internal dialogue, and coming to understand yourself better. The wisest people in public life, for instance, have often had the most healthy internal understanding. Think of Abraham Lincoln's brooding self-examination, or George Washington's humility in the face of success. Their self-awareness is what made them more aware of how to serve their country.

Our blind-spots in ourselves are our blind-spots looking at culture, and those things we see constantly in ourselves are what we see in culture. This, perhaps, explains the fascination that biographical interpretations of art/history have for us. After all, if we understand what Kafka thought of fathers, we should be able to understand what Kafka wrote about fathers.

This also is where we get into the trouble spots in culture. Because too often, we use culture and cultural identity as a protection from self-examination. That not only shows an unhealthy attitude toward the self, but an unhealthy attitude towards culture.

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