Globalization: Its Cultural Consequences and Opportunities

In elucidating Culture as Praxis, Leeds sociologist Zygmunt Bauman explores the trajectory of culture: first as concept, second as structure, and finally, as praxis (or, practice). Within the concept of culture, Bauman emphasizes three moments: the hierarchical, the differential and the generic. While all three slants retain overlapping significance in cultural studies today, their meanings can be mapped onto more or less specific periods in the history of globalization.

The hierarchical notion of culture, while perhaps the oldest, remains the most salient. Hence, culture is an acquired, value-saturated mark of prestige – accorded, for example, through class, education, or profession. Most closely aligned with the fine arts, literature and music in their classical senses, the hierarchical conception of culture allows us to speak of someone being cultured, or uncultured.

As Susan Yelavich remarks in her lecture, this notion of culture derives from colonialist assumptions of dominance. Seen here in artist Mark Dion’s ironic 1994 Scala Naturae, the enlightened male subject is depicted as the penultimate destination of biological evolution itself. This emerges, as Yelavich observes, from Greek notions of civility, wherein an individual is responsible for the cultivation of their own person, morally implicated to always endeavor towards the dominant ideal.

In contrast, the differential conception rejects notions of the ideal or singular in favor of comparative studies of culture. While all groups organize themselves through culture, the differential appreciates a diversity of means towards that end. Thanks, in part, to the emergence of modern social sciences, cultureS can be analyzed according to distinctive formulations, typically of all those facets beyond necessity: kinship patterns, decoration, cuisine, costume, art, music, etc. The spread of culture comes through diffusion, so that the edges of disparate configurations of the same, result in difference.

Finally, the generic conception of culture is understood through the culture/nature binary. Culture, and cultural construction are appreciated as human essence, related, Bauman states, through structural organization: “In this wide sense we can say, that culture as a generic quality, as a universal attribute of mankind as distinct from all other animal species, is the capacity to impose new structures on the world” (41). Depicted here is a very rudimentary example of a conceptual map.

As Bauman writes, culture as structure “means simply ‘being systematic’ … an antonym to ‘disorder'” (40-41). In this sense, the generic, culture as structure, is an understanding which brings us to yet another approach to culture: culture as praxis.

“Only then can the logic of human life continuously reinforce the plausibility of the supremacy of the Being over the Ought. Culture, as the critical rejection of reality, would then be reasonably seen not as an autonomous, well-founded and reliable brand of knowledge, but as – at the most – one of many objects of positive study” (138). As exemplified by this project by British Designers Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby depicted in the center image above,  critical designers today interrogate our material lives to stimulate debate regards how designers take on this responsabilty to shape culture.

Again, as Yelavich notes the specificities of our current period of globalisation: increased access to communications, travel — and an overall increase in the rate of change — through praxis, and as cultural producers, we come to understand our means as ends. Rather than manufacturing concrete objects, we appreciate the lives of our creations as they survive beyond us, shaping our interface with the very day.

posted by: Sarah Butler

course administrator

textbutler(at)gmail.com

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