At the same time, however, things did not fall apart. Human beings continue to ward off chaos through cultural objects; the embrace of chaos tends to be a temporary and highly stylized posture of youth, like the jackets embroidered with “Live fast, die young.” People continue to produce and perpetuate their cultures through interaction and socialization. Our original cultural definitions still work. People may exist in multiple communities through multiple networks, but along these networks they still share meanings with one another. Communities, whether relational or spatial, still collectively represent themselves through patterns of meanings embodied in symbols, meanings that shape attitudes and actions.
In a de-centered world, understanding the connections among cultures and societies may require a handful of cultural diamonds, but the familiar questions still apply. To understand any cultural phenomenon, from the traditional to the postmodern, one needs to ask: What are the characteristics of this specific cultural object? What does it mean, and for whom? Who are its creators? Who are its receivers, and how do they interpret it? From what social world does it come, and into what social world is it sent? One can ask these questions about an MTV video or an idea sent through the Internet just as one can ask them about a Chinese poem or a Nigerian masquerade. Their answers will continue to be revealing about the relevant social world. And those people who can come up with the answers will be those best equipped to navigate in this still new century.
QUESTIONS FOR STUDY AND DISCUSSION
- Think of the micro-politics, the power struggles and attempts to get one’s own way, of a very small group: a dating couple. In the case of a conflict, how does each person use culture to support his or her own position? Develop an example of how the conflict might play out.
- What makes the various forms of reconstructing the past work politically, and what makes them fail? Consider how a contemporary leader or candidate refers to some historical figure or past event to justify a line of action. Is this move successful? Why or why not?
- How does your own country, or a country with which you are familiar, deploy culture to create nationalism? What succeeds and what fails? Why are some attempts to do this more successful than others? Is this form of nation building ultimately divisive and destructive, or is it a necessary part of building a collective identity?
- Can a visual spectacle like a parade or convention have any impact on political life today? What about a website? If you were running for office, what type of political aesthetics would you invest in, and why?