Borrowing culture

From: Lisa Dusseault (
Date: Wed Feb 21 2001 - 11:27:17 PST

> 'Borrowing' another sub-culture can be ok, but it can also lead to
> self-damaging actions or personality changes. My oldest adopted
> step-son, who is 20 now, 'borrowed' Kurt Cobain's depression, etc., for
> several years. In other words, he Wanted to be depressed and hold a
> bleak self-defeating outlook on the world. When he finally grew out of

What about borrowing culture in general? Or is that what you mean? I think
we are all, adults as well as children, more deeply influenced by our
culture than we'd like to believe. I was having this discussion yesterday,
and here are some examples/points that came up, plus some new ones.

 - The trigger for the conversation was wondering whether concepts like
consciousness (see Jaynes) or romantic love have long been part of human
thought, or whether they were "invented" fairly recently. Jaynes thinks
that self-reflection only started in the time of the ancient greeks. Some
literature experts believe that romantic love was invented around the time
of Roman de la Rose. To what extent have innovative works like the Odyssey
and Roman de la Rose taught humans in those cultures how to think, or at
least, how to think in a new way? Most books (and more recently other
media) are thought of as the offspring or output or reflection of current
culture, but to what extent are innovative works creating culture from

 - Imitation suicides. It's extremely well documented how a well-publicized
suicide triggers a surge in the suicide rate in the area of coverage.
Furthermore, the suicide rate increases most among those who are
demographically similar to the original. (I noticed a related effect in
myself when a young, female Canadian from Waterloo University was leaving
Microsoft. My instant gut reaction was "if she can do it, I can do it", or
"I ought to as well".)

 - Did anybody experience existential angst before the words 'existential'
and 'angst' were invented?

 - Catchphrases. These frame the way we think. What's been a catchphrase
that infected your brain for a few weeks or longer, and made you see
something differently? Years ago, "Six degrees of separation" did that for
me. More recently it was using the phrase "pareto-pessimal" to describe an
option that was worst for everybody involved. Having a catch-phrase seems
to make it much easier, quicker, to cognitively identify a situation.

 - Mission-style furniture. Five years ago I decided I didn't like most
contemporary furniture, and latched onto mission-style as a more appropriate
expression of my personal aesthetic taste. Only problem: one year later,
mission-style furniture was "trendy", Restoration Hardware opened two stores
in Seattle, and today it's so in it's almost out. What happened? Since I'm
no furniture history expert, I must humbly assume that I was in fact
affected by the early stages of a broad shift in the common tastes, caused
by mass media deciding this was now cool. I was probably slightly ahead of
the curve only because I was buying a house and browsing house design and
decorating magazines.

 - Counter-culture is an alternative culture, but it isn't the opposite of
culture. Only rarely does one see examples of rebels without a copy. More
typically, young men in particular will rebel against all aspects of their
parents' culture only when triggered by the availability of an alternative
figure to emulate, like Kurt Cobain or Eminem.

Well, I guess the advertising sector will always be around, since we're such
herd animals. The interesting developments seem to be around the
fragmenting of culture. What happens when we don't all watch Seinfeld and
learn "the push" or "having hand"? What happens when nobody in a small town
can relate to each other because they're all following different media?
Come to think of it, that may have been part of my problem in childhood,
that I was reading Tolkein and Hofstedter, while the only girls my age in
the area were reading Teen Magazine. I saw examples of recursion and
self-reference everywhere, my friends saw hairstyles and makeup jobs.


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