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Grant McCracken: How Do We Make Culture?

Observations on culture creation, world building and meaning.

Grant McCracken, Cultureby
Grant McCracken, Cultureby on October 4, 2010.

It’s like a tune I can’t get out of my head. It keeps circling.

“From its opening sentence, every novel is an argument for its own reality.”

This is the sentence with which Mark Kamine opens his review of the new Joshua Ferris novel, The Unnamed.

But of course it’s going to appeal to an anthropologist. We’re in the business of observing how cultural artifacts serve as arguments for their own reality.

But there’s still something breathtaking about the “reality argument” process. Doesn’t Marx have a line about how we build worlds, and they then build us? Worlds issue from artifice and end up as perfectly actual, so actual you can bounce a nickle of them. The arbitrary becomes the indubitable. Miraculous. And then not. And therefore miraculous.

We have a pretty good idea how this works in natural systems. The complexity theory shows us how things emerge. The Fibonacci series is a nice illustration of how the application of the same logic over and over again produces a robust, complex system.

We have a somewhat less clear idea of how this works in economic systems. How enterprise starts from tiny acts and scales up into enterprises. We can start with simple acts of exchange and, whoa nelly, before you know it, we have a market and a world. Economists are more inclined to posit this miracle than study it.

We are not at all clear on how this works culturally. How do cultures create “mattering maps.” (And who was the novelist who coined this term? Elizabethan Spencer, I think. Can’t find her with Google, but the search tells me that Lawrence Grossberg has also used the term.)

How does a world makes itself? Collecting gives us a glimpse. No coins matter till you have a 18th century penny. Then more and more 18th pennies do and, then, eventually, 19th pennies start to exercise their fascination. The mattering builds its own scaffold, piece by piece. We posit one thing, and another becomes necessary, still another becomes plausible, and a third hovers into view.

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