"Elements of Culture"

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The Essential Elements of Culture

Joel Dubois, (c) 2009, 2013-14—for free, fully cited distribution only

IV. Dimensions and Layers: Integrating the Visible Elements of Culture

Reflection about invisible beings and forces is only one dimension or layer of culture. As hinted earlier in stressing that beliefs form and transform subtly over time, trust in particular depictions of the unseen develops in the context of daily sensory engagement with the visible world. The visible objects, spaces and events of that world thus play a pivotal role in shaping cultural worldviews, which is why people often think of culture as something displayed in things, places and events. These visible elements of culture are the foundation of trust in invisible beings and forces. An investigator of culture, then, must pay equally close attention to visible "dimensions" or "layers" of culture.

I propose that such visible forms may usefully be conceived of as two distinct layers, practice and what I call "the social web;" these two supplement the belief or reflection dimension discussed in detail so far. Listing these three together we have:

  1. reflection—becoming aware of and directing one’s thoughts & feelings—especially regarding invisible beings & forces—which involves both taking in how one is being affected, and working with thoughts and feelings to remain engaged in the what one is doing (vs. simply "believing" passively);

  2. practice—habitual engagement in activities that *invite reflection* in some way, including especially art forms, rituals and customs, whether formally prescribed in an authoritative source, passed on through observing anothers' behaviors, or simply developed informally by a single individual; and

  3. the social web—the structured network of relationships between people in consistently defined communities both small and large, such as families, ethnic groups, and states, who take on particular roles in such relationships.
Like the earlier discussion of reflection and the unseen, the following explanation of the visible elements of culture assumes that the three can never be completely separated, as the analogy of "dimensions" and "layers" both suggest. All three are simultaneously experienced by each individual in a culture, just as time encompasses the three dimensions of space, and as an individual plant simultaneously inhabits distinct layers of soil.

Yet the investigator of culture must distinguish the three, since they are separable to a degree, primarily in situations that many would consider unbalanced or dysfunctional. An individual may very well engage in practice--including reciting words that describe invisible beings and/or forces--without engagement or trust in that unseen. The routine of ritual, or the fascination of a particular artistic form, may numb a person's mind to the point where he loses awareness of his unseen goal. Likewise, absorption in social aspects of a practice might lead to a similar kind of forgetfulness. On the other hand, fascination with the unseen may lead some visionaries to leave behind their community and experiment with new kinds of arts & rituals. Also, small differences in the practice of art or religion may cause tension between different communities. The interweaving of reflection, practice, and the social web in human culture, then, is as complex as the trajectory of a line in a three dimensional graph, or the intermingling of root systems and microorganisms in compacted layers of soil.

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