Tuesday, 26 July 2016

'Universal' Culture

I'm aware that I'm probably being a bit too postmodern or structuralist or whatever in my analysis here, and, as ever, criticism is welcome. I also think the coherence of this piece is a bit tenuous, but, hell, I'll only get better if I keep trying...

The inimitable Scott Alexander has, once again, written An Interesting Thing, in response to Another Interesting Thing.

There's good stuff in this one:
I am pretty sure there was, at one point, such a thing as western civilization. I think it involved things like dancing around maypoles and copying Latin manuscripts. At some point Thor might have been involved. That civilization is dead. It summoned an alien entity from beyond the void which devoured its summoner and is proceeding to eat the rest of the world.
“[W]estern medicine” is just medicine that works. It happens to be western because the West had a technological head start, and so discovered most of the medicine that works first. But there’s nothing culturally western about it; there’s nothing Christian or Greco-Roman about using penicillin to deal with a bacterial infection.
“Western culture” is no more related to the geographical west than western medicine. People who complain about western culture taking over their country always manage to bring up Coca-Cola. But in what sense is Coca-Cola culturally western? It’s an Ethiopian bean mixed with a Colombian leaf mixed with carbonated water and lots and lots of sugar. An American was the first person to discover that this combination tasted really good – our technological/economic head start ensured that. But in a world where America never existed, eventually some Japanese or Arabian chemist would have found that sugar-filled fizzy drinks were really tasty. It was a discovery waiting to be plucked out of the void, like penicillin. America summoned it but did not create it. If western medicine is just medicine that works, soda pop is just refreshment that works.

Read the whole article. It's great fun, as is ever the case with Scott Alexander. If you're one of those people who thinks that 'TL;DR' is ever a good response, I'll summarise: Alexander's argument is in response to a short piece by Bryan Caplan in which he argues that Western civilisation isn't anywhere near as fragile as people make it out to be, and that it is merrily conquering the whole world through sheer niceness and awesomeness. Alexander's response is a qualifier to Caplan, that it isn't 'Western civilisation' that's doing all this, it's something very different, which he dubs 'universal culture'.

The thing that makes it universal is that it's much more objective than other cultural forms and practices, which is why it works better and keeps winning. Hence the above comments about 'medicine that works' and 'soda pop that works'.

Now, I think I mostly agree with where he's coming from, but I think a few caveats are worthwhile.

First of all, he equates things that are obviously universally and objectively true, like medicine-that-works and drinks-that-are-nice with values he then posits as being universally and objectively true as well, such as 'democracy' and 'liberalism' and 'egalitarianism'. Is it really the case that these values have an objective and universal truth to them in the same way that the efficacy of penicillin and the tastiness of coke do?

A response to that would be that, from a utilitarian perspective, you could argue that values can be universally and objectively true if they consistently produce desirable utility outcomes, but that doesn't address the fact that the values behind the utility measure are very much grounded in contingent Western values about the desirability of reducing moral questions to utility calculations in the first place!

He also, and this is the most curious thing for me, seems to equate 'universal culture' with global capitalism. Indeed, his demonic metaphors made me think of Deleuze and Gauttari's characterisation of capitalism as the unspeakable Thing that demolishes all values, the monster all despotic civilisations had to guard against that, eventually, ate them alive. I think his essay would have been much improved by the concept of 'deterritorialisation'.

(I want Scott to read Anti-Oedipus. I don't have my copy to hand but I distinctly remember D & G talking about the contingent origins of global-capitalism in a little peninsula on the edge of Asia (that's us, Europe), with the great expanse of the sea's horizon calling us to explore it, with the competitive disorder of the web of feudal societies making the kind of general harmony found in China impossible, creating an ideal environment for the emergence of Capital.)

Gathering my thoughts together, my key point is this: he's wrong to suggest that world-culture or global-culture or 'universal' culture is somehow a-cultural, that it isn't at least partially still inhabited with the specific cultural contingencies of its origin. What about other cultural elements that aren't so easily reducible to objective science? The ubiquity of Western media and fashion, for instance, doesn't strike me as being to do with Western movies being 'objectively' better or Western fashion being 'objectively' superior. They strike me as contingent cultural features that became global on the back of global capitalism. Perhaps that's all these remnants of the distinctively western are, but I don't think so. Modernity is distinctively Western, because the idea of modernity itself is fundamentally Western.

Alexander recently shared this article on the tribalism of people who characterise themselves as cosmopolitan, as opposed to the stereotypical 'Little Englander'.
This species [of cosmopolitan] is racially diverse (within limits) and eager to assimilate the fun-seeming bits of foreign cultures — food, a touch of exotic spirituality. But no less than Brexit-voting Cornish villagers, our global citizens think and act as members of a tribe. They have their own distinctive worldview (basically liberal Christianity without Christ), their own common educational experience, their own shared values and assumptions (social psychologists call these WEIRD — for Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic), and of course their own outgroups (evangelicals, Little Englanders) to fear, pity and despise. And like any tribal cohort they seek comfort and familiarity: From London to Paris to New York, each Western “global city” (like each “global university”) is increasingly interchangeable, so that wherever the citizen of the world travels he already feels at home.
That sounds a lot like what Alexander is trying to present as universal and a-cultural...

I don't want to agree with Nick Land here, but I'm reminded of one of the possible outcomes he gives for global modernity in The Dark Enlightenment:
(1) Modernity 2.0. Global modernization is re-invigorated from a new ethno-geographical core, liberated from the degenerate structures of its Eurocentric predecessor, but no doubt confronting long range trends of an equally mortuary character. This is by far the most encouraging and plausible scenario (from a pro-modernist perspective), and if China remains even approximately on its current track it will be assuredly realized. [My emphasis.]
That is, Land anticipates that modernity, which I think is identical to what Alexander calls 'universal culture', may happen all over again, but with the unique and contingent cultural inheritance of somewhere other than Western Europe and its former colonies.

The problem here is that Alexander has fallen for the great conceit of liberal modernity, namely, that it really is universal and objective, and isn't grounded in pre-existing cultural norms. It pretends to be the light when really it just carries the candle.

Added: I'm not trying to make the relativist argument that as our values appear to emerge from contingencies that all cultural norms should be treated with equal respect, I'm just trying to, at the very least, render problematic the idea that our present global order is somehow 'objectively' correct.


  1. To symbolically summarize, the coke might just work, but the idea of drinking coke instead of water is contingent.

    Penicillin does just work, but it's not like other cultures were trying to come up with penicillin and failed. It's only philosophical civilization that was even trying. (Technically not-dying is contingent per Hume, but in practice it really is universal.)

    This is Moldbug's technical success & social failure thing again, plus progressive civilization taking responsibility for things it didn't do because it can bully anyone who objects. Of course I say the same thing - that philosophical civilization is responsible for the tech, and only a corruption is responsible for the social rot. (Philosopher claims philosophy the most important pursuit. In other news, water wet.)

    1. 'To symbolically summarize, the coke might just work, but the idea of drinking coke instead of water is contingent.

      Penicillin does just work, but it's not like other cultures were trying to come up with penicillin and failed. It's only philosophical civilization that was even trying.'

      More or less, yes. In a nutshell: you can't dismiss the cultural inheritance from which these things emerged.