View Full Version : Cultural logic

Tuesday, January 10th, 2006, 08:20 AM

I am not using the term logic in that strict sense in which it is used in our own culture to describe a discipline of thought in which the species of steps involved [in fitting together cultural premises] are rigidly and consciously controlled. I do mean, however, that the elements of structure are linked together by steps. Cultures may vary in the species of steps which link their premises together, and the word logic must therefore be interpreted differently in every culture. This concept describes the eidos of a culture. - Gregory Bateson, Steps to an Ecology of Mind: 25

Symbols are not only rendered meaningful in terms of codes. Or perhaps a better way to put it is what connects symbols and renders them meaningful can be expressed in other forms than that of a structural code. One of these alternate forms of expression is a “cultural logic.”

A “cultural logic” is a set of assumptions underlying a message or discourse. Faced with a set of symbols, whether spoken discourse, a text or a set of images, the cultural analyst seeks to locate the web of cultural assumptions that make the symbols meaningful.

William O. Beeman in his book Language, Status and Power in Iran gives a simple illustration of how this process works. Beeman suggests that most of these kinds of assumptions can be expressed as if/then propositions:

A: Hey, you two can’t kiss here.

B: But we’re married. (IF you’re married, THEN kissing is appropriate)

A: But this is a public park (IF you are in public, THEN kissing is inappropriate even if you are married)

B: But we’re newlyweds (IF you’re a newlywed, THEN kissing your spouse in public is appropriate)

A: But this is Saudi Arabia (IF you’re in Saudi Arabia, THEN kissing between men and women in public is inappropriate even if you’re newlyweds).

B: You’re crazy! This is New York City! Bug off or I’ll call the cops! (IF you’re in New York City, THEN saying you’re somewhere else is crazy and IF you are crazy THEN it is appropriate to call the cops.)

Although this particular illustration is a little silly, it illustrates the method. Note that it is not important in this method whether the person you are speaking to is telling you the truth. B may in fact be the one who is crazy (that is, they might really BE in Saudi Arabia) but the cultural rule he is invoking (that saying you are somewhere you aren’t is crazy) is true either way. This illustrates a crucial rule of semiotics: people have to draw on the same cultural logic to tell a believable lie that they do to tell the truth. The truth or falsehood of assertions is thus not very important in this kind of analysis since you are seeking to work back to the logics behind the statements.

It is possible to work from this method to very abstract models of cultural rules. Susan Bean’s classic essay “Sagas of American kinship” looks at (or behind) the conflicts that make soap operas dramatic to ask what they are saying the cultural ideal of the American family (which they do NOT portray) should be like. Likewise, Donal Carbaugh in his book Talking American uses discourse from American talk shows to work out American cultural rules about individualism and freedom of speech.

Livya Polanyi in her book Telling the American Story offers a four-part method for doing this kind of cultural analysis. She recommends that you divide your data into referential and evaluative elements. Referential statements are propositions about things that happened in the world, while evaluative statements are comments about those things. For example:

So I got on the subway. It was awful. I mean… it was so hot and so crowded. And we were jammed up against one another like cattle. I just… It made me feel sick.

The second statement gives an evaluation of the other, referential statements. It allows us to link moral/emotional values to statements about the world (hot + crowded = inhuman conditions = awful = makes one sick).

The second step, she suggests, is to put the statements into a list of “Proposals For Meaning” From the story I’ve quoted from above, in which someone tells about how they fainted on the New York subway, she elicited (out of 93 lines of transcribed discourse) the following proposals:

1 Fainting on the subway is frightening

2A Personal problems in the past are important

2B Personal problems in the present are even more important

3 Rush hour is terrible

4A People are nice

4B People aren’t really nice – they are bigots

5 People are like that in New York

6 Speaker is an inept subway rider

7 Fainting warps perception

The third step is to compare the “proposals for meaning” from each data set to look for parallels, similarities and other connections. From this, you want to create a “Master List” of meanings.

The fourth step is to take each of the propositions on your master list and explore them by looking back through contextual data to develop them in as much detail as possible.

Applying this system to media texts is not difficult. In a movie one might begin by distinguishing between those elements which move the story forward and those which are assumed by the story. What happens to various characters is itself an evaluative statement: are the good rewarded and the evil punished?

Once articulated in propositional form, these can be listed and then grouped together into a master list. Not all the propositions one elicits will be equally interesting or important. The analyst must exercise judgment according to the kind of questions s/he wishes to ask. Using these judgments, the analyst would then prioritize the propositions and look for elements of commonality. Finally, he or she would look outside the film to cultural and social elements in the society that produced (or consumed) it in order to find parallels and connections with broader social phenomena.

A cultural logic is ideological insofar as it focuses on relations of domination. Since all logics ultimately involve relations of domination and resistance at some level, the difference between logic and ideology is one of emphasis rather than essence.

Bron: http://www.aucegypt.edu/academic/anth/anth400/cultural_logic.htm