Re: Borrowing culture

From: Stephen D. Williams (
Date: Thu Feb 22 2001 - 10:09:50 PST

Lisa Dusseault wrote:
> > '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.

Yes, we filter reality through a particular cultural perspective. I
like to try to absorb the salient differences in the various
sub-cultures I come into contact with. It's interesting and
self-revealing at the same time. I seem to be able to adapt and blend
into sub-cultures easily which is fun sometimes. It's irritating when
people are so myopic that they treat other sub-cultures as horrible
offenses to them.

On the other hand, some people jump into a different sub-culture
uncritically strictly on an imitation basis. This is what I was
referring to in my son. We had a really funny conversation at one point
when he was about 16: I pointed out that he was just following trends
and wasn't individualistic at all. He disagreed until I pointed out
lots of details (grunge stuff) and contrasted it with my geekyness
growing up which really was individualistic, since I didn't care if
people thought I was different. (My example was socks: I ran 3000
miles a year training and hated calf/knee length socks that boys were
expected to wear. I was probably the only boy that wore ankle socks in
the 80-83. Now it's common, 20 years later.)

A list of identifyable sub-cultures would be interesting. I could come
up with a long list. I think that because I didn't fit in as a
teenager, I started my ameteur psychologist/anthropologist thing of
understanding a context and figuring out how to fit in, at least
passably and within my boundaries.

> - 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
> scratch?

IMHO: To a small extent, many of these things have always existed but
in individual glimpses that weren't 'useful' to the overall population.
When they were given solid form as a cultural icon, story, or principle
they become a basis for building a new area in the cultural psyche. Our
current culture has so many of these it's surprising we can keep track
of it, and of course part of the problems we have is that so many have
shallow understandings.

People seem puzzled that Russia and third world countries have such a
hard time with US style capitalist mechanisms. It's obvious that they
lack the cultural background to make it work smoothly and will have to
learn their own lessons to some extent. If a particular country were
suddenly filled with 20% of a good cross section of US (or UK, or
Australian, or Finnish, etc.) citizens, it would be interesting to see
how they would fare compared to a control.

> - 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".)

Peer pressure at it's starkest.

> - 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.

These are great! Talk about Memes. From Star Trek to the Matrix (just
read an afterword in a Matrix art book by Gibson about how the lessons
of the Matrix (awakening, reality, etc.) are so good, and better than
Star Wars) to Austin Powers, many great lines from songs, and on and on.

> - 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.

It's amazing how some designers really can guess what's coming, or do
they sometimes or always choose what's coming?
> - 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.

Of course not. There are pros and cons and many gray areas for most

My aforementioned son in fact liked country when he was about 12,
influenced by some of his friends. I liked early 'alternative' and he
eventually liked it also. He had a hard time rebelling against his
mother and I since we couldn't be shocked. Maybe that was part of the
problem, hard to tell.

> 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.

Indeed. I argued at the first "Rural Datification Conference" in
Chicago about 1991 or so that Usenet (HTTP wasn't popular yet of course)
would allow people isolated by their local culture to connect with those
in other parts of the world with the same interest. (All that and I
didn't think of starting a porn site...)

Either you're part of the herd, or you're leading it, eh? Or running
away to find a better herd.

> lisa

Stephen D. Williams         Insta, Inc./Jabber.Com, Inc./CCI
43392 Wayside Cir,Ashburn,VA 20147-4622 703-724-0118W 703-995-0407Fax 

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