The Grammar of Culture

My nephew has become seemingly obsessed by Supermarkets, wanting to know how they evolved, when i first visited one, where it was located, what brand it was. My own experience of supermarkets as a child was not radically different from his experience today, although today there is a fundamental shift towards self checkouts or, in the case of Amazon’s prototype work, no checkout at all. The fundamental grammar of the experience is evolving, but substantially unchanged: dynamics of customer, displays, selection, transaction.

The Grammar of Culture

Reflecting on this yesterday, i realised how colonial the grammar of supermarkets is: i can visit a supermarket almost anywhere in the world, and certain signs are common: conventions of merchandising, the conventions of packaging, the rituals of sale. Indeed, it’s not just colours and shapes, it’s the spread of totemic power: the word ‘sale‘ itself becomes endemic. Everywhere i see clothes for sale with random words of english, or Japanese (SuperDry): totemic value assigned through culturally held notions of value. There is nothing intrinsic in these languages: they are imbued by our understanding of this emerging global culture.

This is the new colonisation: not the totems of power, not the artefacts alone, not simply shadows, but rather the fundamental grammar. Organising principles and systems of energy and control. Not mathematically derived constants, but socially determined principles, underlying the expressions of culture. Deeply pervasive, easily transmitted, toxic to local tradition.

Maybe consider these four features of culture: ‘grammar‘, ‘totems‘, ‘artefacts‘, and ‘shadows‘.

Artefacts are those things made by our own hands: physical remnants, books, signage, those things that are manufactured. Artefacts travel physically and can appropriate and represent the progression of power, projected. The AK47 rifle is an artefact, and it symbolises the political struggle between communism and capitalism or, latterly, fundamentalism and the mainstream. Coke cans are artefacts, colonised across the world, carrying their significance with them.

Totems are reflections of this: deliberate attempts to put physical form around cultural significance. War memorials are artefacts, but also totems. Totems deliberately invoke, or seek to invoke, meaning. Where artefacts are the output of culture, totems represent it. Totems hold a type of power: the deliberate utilisation of totems often forms part of aggressive suppression or subversion. When Colonel Gadaffi wielded a gold plated AK47, he invoked totemic power. Similarly, when President Bush stood on an aircraft carrier wearing his old flight jacket, he did the same. Within gated cultures, totems can have great significance for entry.

Shadows are pale reflections of totems: artefacts that have lost their imbued meaning, orphaned from significance, separated from our collective reality, signposts of nothing. Archaeologists uncover shadows when they find the form, but lack the culturally determined meaning.

Sometimes organisations or formal powers try to deliberately turn totems into shadows: renaming cities, banishing symbols, perhaps we can even read it into how, in Germany, swastikas are illegal. By controlling the totems of power, by restricting the symbols, we can perhaps, or at least attempt, to control the power itself. Totems that garner their power through networked authority (as a swastika does) may, though, be simply empowered by our efforts to disrupt the network.

The grammar of culture is complex: there is the thing, and the understanding of the thing. There are artefacts and meaning, both separate. Artefacts have form, but no imbued power or meaning. Totems have meaning, but not measurable in the form. Shadows lack meaning, having had it wrest away from them by time, or through the erosive power of other totems, appropriated to a new cause.

The Romans used this approach: when integrating into a new space, they would seek to understand and adapt existing religions, not simply to bury or break them. Thus, they ended up with hybrids: co-owned by the old and the new. This type of cultural pollution is really what we see today, carried by the major brands and, primarily, transmitted through mass media.

Look simply how generic ‘looks‘ have become: ask any sulky teenager to strike an Instagram pose, and you will likely witness the pursed lips and finger to one side: the way that even poses and body language are transmitted through media, globally. Innovation is replicated fast: how many school children could strike a Usain Bolt arrow pose? The cultural transmission of meaning is well documented.

Organisations often seek to influence or change culture through blunt force trauma: they seek to control it through rules, through education, through the trappings of power. By changing buildings, by changing brand, they think that they have power over culture, and yet the grammar of culture is complex. Perhaps the Romans had it right all along: change through engagement. Neither one thing, not another.

All things change: my understanding of a supermarket will be subverted by technology, by social innovation, maybe even swept away by a fundamentally new paradigm of smart cupboards and drone delivery. Even those things we think are set in stone are like leaves in the wind, when faced with the stiff breeze of time.

About julianstodd

Author, Artist, Researcher, and Founder of Sea Salt Learning. My work explores the context of the Social Age and the intersection of formal and social systems.
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