The Culture Prison: A Crow's Song
“Every effort of colonialism is an effort of imperialism.”
Linda Tuhiwai Smith,
Research and Indigenous Peoples”
“Every conflict over Truth is in the last analysis just the same old
struggle over immortality.”
Ernest Becker, “Escape from Evil”
“Culture is but a theater for heroism.”
In a recent discussion with Free the Body collaborator Lauren Bright, she mentioned the rich spiritual practices and embodied views represented and inspired by the crow. Soothsayer. Future Oriented. Keen Sight. Tireless Flight. Inquisitor. Carrion Digester. Mover Across Dimensions. Beyond the Known. It is in this spirit that I offer the next four blog postings.
In this week’s Free the Body blog, as promised, based on the recent Dobbs ruling by the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade, we begin to take a close look at not only the culture of imprisonment, but culture as imprisonment, and culture imprisoned. Consistent throughout, of course, are the colonial impetus, mechanisms, and goals of disenfranchisement, invisibilizing, disappearing, and ultimate destruction of culture, itself. In a subsequent blog, I refer to this phenomenon as the “Voiding of Culture”, itself. (Think big box stores nationwide, strip malls, etc.)
To clarify: the appropriated priorities and mandates, by consciously or unconsciously indoctrinated masses, of created, purported, and legislated behavioral and structural, cultural constructs, rooted in a perverse notion of an otherwise benevolent heroic empowerment ideal central to participation in culture as a life-coping mechanism has, for the last 50 years, in response to ameliorative socio-economic advances for all, been fomented, matured, and fully ripened as its typifying characteristic (see Dr. James Gilligan, Some Politicians are Dangerous to Your Health for an in-depth, quantified public health study of the link between particular legislative bodies, their work, and the comparative quality of the social good since Nixon).
In the Dobbs ruling and its proponents, as throughout history, we see normal human cultural practices reframed and deformed through fear of the unreal - or willful ignorance of the real - into a violent implement of domination and subjugation rooted in a myopic, desperate unilateralism where group sacrifices are not made to the gods of fortune, but to the God-King with the promise of immunity from any conditional harm, impunity from prosecution of character, and immortality for oneself. This subterfuge of life may always be tracked from the small tip (A) of the top of a triangulated power structure that pits group (B) against (C) at the bottom. That is, ‘power-promise’ is promised “downward” to one side of the structuralized non-cooperative masses (like “trickle down” economics). These propagandized binaries are usually disguised as legitimate and legitimized saving graces, as the majority opinion in the Dobbs ruling, the MAGA movement, supremacist ideals, Nixon’s “Southern Strategy”, slavery, Jim Crow, and beyond have demonstrated so brutally.
To ensure a common readability to this writing, and to maximize the opportunity for useful, subsequent critique and dialogue, perhaps it would be useful to take a moment to define what “culture” is; take a broad, but pointed, look at why culture exists; and what it, traditionally, is meant to accomplish. Then we’ll see not only why the Dobbs opinion is a ludicrous excuse for a piece of jurisprudence, but why and how the Dobb’ ruling incites, affirms, and encourages a perversion of healthy cultural practices. Then, we’ll tackle the three categories of “Culture Prison”, above, linking it to the New Panopticon. Finally, we’ll dive into the particular inspiration for this week’s sound score for Free the Body as arts activism in the context of this Blog, in particulars.
As soon as we become conscious of our existence, we become conscious that, at some point, we will not exist. As Dr. Sheldon Solomon puts it, “We know that we’re here. And we know that we know that we’re here. And we know that we know that we know that we’re here. This is what our enormous brain can tell us. And it also tells us that, at some point, we will return to the same state of slimy protoplasm from which we came.” This realization may not appear in our minds in the rational sense (being so young), but as a feeling, an awareness. Further, we quickly come to realize that it’s a big world out there (which is, actually, right here). Much, much bigger than our corporeal form. These two realizations, when meeting the human being’s super-powered metacognitive mind, aware of its own existence and mortality, compound into several existential fears as the “self” and the environment we live in conflate:
First, we feel small in comparison to the universe.
Next, knowing that we’re going to ultimately die, and that we’re small in comparison to the universe, we know that we could, very possibly, perish at any time. This event of sudden, unpredictable death is called tragedy.
As hyperconscious, thinking human beings with an idea of a self, we naturally inquire and reflect upon ourselves and our situation: In this big universe, given my smallness, if I am but to die – Why am I here? Where did I come from? What happens to me after I die? What is the meaning of my existence, after all?
So, being conscious of our self (i.e. self-conscious), our smallness, our vulnerability, our imminent demise, our need for significant meaning and value in a meaningful world (clearly the natural world knows its job!), we feel a basic shame in our smallness and we have guilt that we must be able to do more.
And we want to get rid of all of this shame and guilt and fear.
Jung calls this shame and the urge to expiate it, in basic terms, the “shadow” that we all harbor. And humans devised at least two ways to purge ourselves, regularly, of this persistent and perseverating shadow-self: first, through the creation of Culture; and later, through the comparison and assumption of superiority of oneself to an assigned “Other”.
Cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker defines culture as “…an agreed upon set of symbols, in a group, about the nature of reality, that confers value, infers meaning, and allays fears of death.”
There’s a lot there.
In brief: as sentient beings with an awareness of existence, a notion of self, an experience of emotions, and an imagination, we may think in the abstract and reflect those thought-creations into the physical world as symbols of the existence of anything we like. From a Humility to the Spirit World to Love to God to Love of God to the God of Love to the God of Hate to Many Gods… In fact, in addition, we have the ability to imagine anything that doesn’t exist – and then make it exist. We have the power of creation. What some would call “God-Like” power. Power.
So, as it turns out, Art – the creation of a symbolic abstraction, representation, and psycho-somatic, metacognitive communication of human experience – is a human instinct.
We express our inner lives in the outer world. And we do it all the time. Every morning when you get dressed, do you not choose clothing that will reflect who you are? Especially, in the cultural group to which you would like to most adhere to during the day?
Experimental psychologist Sheldon Solomon (co-creator of Terror Management Theory) and Becker-based academic and advocate) duly notes, as does Becker throughout his book Denial of Death, that it is this fear of death which is the driving force behind the creation of culture. Especially religion. For what is more anti-death than the promise of immortality? However, we’re told, there are some group norms to follow. Cultural norms. And, as Solomon and others point out, cultural conflict occurs simply because cultural communities, ignoring the basic analogues of cultural practices, cannot bear the fact that one group’s cultural symbols and practices - which represent the very nature of reality as they understand it - are different from their own. Someone must be wrong! And it better not be the group to which you belong or the fear of pointless life and purposeless death will be upon you. This conflict, terror, and dread is the most fundamental, existential, threat we encounter in our lives – thankfully allayed by our cultural norms. And these norms, after a while, are called “tradition”.
So, not surprisingly, though misguided and illogical, it is this notion of “history and tradition” that the majority opinion for Dobbs – overturning Roe v Wade - rests its case on, as we’ll see.
I would first like to put forth the assertion that humans are not afraid, primarily, of physical death, ultimately (though we have a natural mental and physical inclination, certainly, to survive). Following Becker’s theories, as well as others, I assert that humans are most afraid, ultimately, being so aware of their condition of existence, of the death of the self. The death of the physical body is merely symbolic of the death of the self. The death of the knowledge of one’s existence, meaning, value, and the cultural effort to immortality. “As shame increases, action bogs down,” writes Becker. This is the prelude to suicide - the violent expression of self-removal and erasure due to mounting and monstrous self-shame – the eradication of the self, through the body – a violence symbolizing the feeling of having “disappeared”.
The Culture Prison – as all prisons – attempts to smash the spirit enough to disappear itself.
Existential terror is cyclical in our lives – oscillating and amplifying with varying tempi, but with a circular pattern of recurrent thoughts, entrapping us if we don’t have healthy coping mechanisms, most often found in “culture”. Unfortunately, unhealthy coping mechanisms – unhealthy culture - also exist.
Next Blog: Addicted to the “Other” & the Shadow of Dobbs *****************
Written by Peter DiGennaro, Sound Artist/Human Rights Educator