Prolegomena to Australian Culture

The terrible “Australian” identity debate continues to stumbles around like a drunken bogan. I feel forced to comment because of the subtitle of this blog (the “cultural critic” part) and because of the pathetic nationalist culture statement made by the imbeciles and criminals based in Canberra.

I don’t want to dignify anything that they have said by even commenting on it. Instead this will be a partial prolegomena (I don’t believe the spell checker knew that word – “you know, prolegomena, the clarification of the ground in preparation for further discussion, as in Kant’s Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics” – thanks to Richard Meltzer’s Aesthetics of Rock for clarifying that). So before anyone says anything more there are a few things that need to be clarified.

Recently the word “culture” has been applied to many things from the “work culture of Systems Administrators” to “deaf culture”. Discussion of “Australian culture” assumes that culture is a singular noun and this may be a grammatical error. The word “culture” may be a collective noun like “water”, “wool” or “dust” so that you have “some culture” or a “lots of culture” and not “a culture” anymore than “a water”, or “a wool”. A quantitative examination is a better foundation for discussion of culture rather than an examination identifying a unit.

Culture is more than the arts; it includes language, education, science, ethics, etc. It is the way that people behave in business, in medicine, in government etc. The limited understanding in Australian major political parties culture policy reduces culture to the arts. This is a narrow, limited understanding of culture and it is typical of the lack of depth to most Australian politicians understanding. Artists are culture workers, that is people working directly on their culture and not as a by-product of a culture.

A culture has material expressions, e.g. fashion, food, figures of speech, activities that identifies and defines the culture to both it members and others. That is cultures have identifiable clothes, food, dance, customs and practices. Vague claims about “mateship” or “ANZAC spirit” are not evidence of a culture. Furthermore, while I am stating the obvious, neither are national constitution (flag, etc.) nor geography evidence of a culture.

A language, in and of itself, does not constitute a culture. There are many languages that have no culture: trade languages do not belong to any one culture but facilitates communication across cultures. Likewise computer languages facilitate operations and communication without belonging to a culture. English is a language that has become free, in the processes of attempting to global dominance, of its original culture. As a language, English, does not necessarily signify any culture but particular expressions can identify the culture of the speaker. Slang, in itself, is not evidence of a culture; a person speaking Singlish is no more authentically Singaporean than a person speaking standard English.

There is so much that could and should be noted: Why have a culture? How do cultures develop? Are all cultures equal? This will have to be part one of this prolegomena.


About Mark Holsworth

Writer, independent researcher and artist, Mark Holsworth is the author of the book Sculptures of Melbourne. View all posts by Mark Holsworth

7 responses to “Prolegomena to Australian Culture

  • Graham Rawlinson

    Commenting on what is true but in the negative is always dangerous, there are always exceptions! Yes, Wool is a collective noun, but you can have ‘a wool of fine thread’ I think, and ‘a water of great purity’, I think you can say this because really you are saying ‘this is a collection/type of wool of fine thread’ or ‘this is a source of water of pure quality’, so the ‘a’ refers to another noun which is missing. In the same way I think you can have ‘a culture of refinement’ meaning a type of culture which is refined, whatever that means. If there is an Aussie Culture then clearly it cannot exist in any individual, nor in any single profession, hobby, tendency, use of language, etc. It exists but does not exist. It seems people like to identify themselves as belonging, so they like to close around this ephemeral thing called their culture, but it is a strange beast, a boojum, you have to keep saying it or it ceases to exist! And the politicians would have us believe that you have to keep funding it or it would cease to exist. But if you fund it too much it ceases to exist, it disappears up itself like a self consuming snake. Maybe we should feel pity for the politicians, they have such a hard life!

  • Mark Holsworth

    Good point about collective nouns and it appears that they become singular with the addition of a qualitative term – ‘fine thread’ or ‘a refined culture’. This would imply an inter-cultural value judgement; not that I’m opposed to that.
    I thought that culture had to exist in people, even in a single individual, but also in a material culture produced by those people. I think that culture is tangible and obvious rather than as a ghostly spirit that people might identify with. For example, there is no Pastafarian culture, even though many people identify with their belief in the cosmic spaghetti and meatball monster.
    Culture uses the excess in human life and so the institutions that have the excess, the government, the church etc. become the support for the arts and culture. Has a culture ever been destroy by excessive funding?

  • Graham Rawlinson

    Interesting, culture is tangible? I’m not sure about that but that’s because I think lots of things which seem tangible are really esoteric. For example, an eye might seem like a pretty physical real thing, but the essence of an eye requires esoteric things like the meaning of seeing things, the need for some level of intelligence, an eye has meaning only in connection with all these other things. So culture may have some elements of tangible real things but has meaning only in relation to other esoteric things. My own interest is in the nature of those esoteric things. Which ones are local and specific to a generation, and which ones are universal, maybe even exist in other species, I think it is possible to see culture in other species, though we have to be careful of silly anthropomorphism.

  • Mark Holsworth

    Culture as distinct from behaviour is, in part tangible. The tangible part is distinct and identifiable to outsiders – if you encountered a carved wooden object you might not know what it was used for or what it means but you would know that it belonged to a culture. You might even be able to guess the culture even though you are not part of it and have no idea of the use of the carved wooden object or its meaning to the culture
    I’m not sure what you mean by esoteric (meaning within a group). The group behaviour may be esoteric or eccentric (meaning to an individual alone) but both of these behaviours are within a culture.
    I’m not sure why you think that other species would need a culture. I am sure that other species have local and individual behaviours. But this is not the same as a culture. Why would a group want to create a particular identity to distinguish themselves from other members of the same species?

  • thefitzroyflasher

    Reblogged this on thefitzroyflasher and commented:
    Great article

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