If how we talk about culture, as I mentioned in the last post, appears too static, it is not because culture itself is static. Its dynamism penetrates every corner of life. Why this paradox? Why? We need to look at culture not as an idea, but in action.
I can’t tell how many of you are having conversations with your partner, children, dog, or friends at the moment you are looking at this blog, but what I am sure of is that, even if you’re not talking to anybody, you are talking a mile a minute. Research suggests that even in a face-to-face conversation, people are speaking to themselves about eight times as fast as they talk to each other. In a tele-conversation you can mute the microphone but not your mind. This means that, even if you’re not talking to any friends, pets, or other things in your ambience at the moment, you’re talking to yourself—unless of course you’ve fallen asleep and may be dreaming. Sometimes we are totally with these inner conversations—we call it “daydreaming.”
Talking and listening
This is to say, with your inner chatter you’re asking yourself, “What’s this all about?” “What’s he saying?” “Is this useful to me?” “Do I understand this, or this, or this?” Your mind is proposing all kinds of things about what’s going on around and in you, “What am I hearing?” “What am I doing?” “What am I feeling?” Trying to make what we are sensing fit in with what we know. There are even those little conversations we mislabel as distractions, “What’ll I do tomorrow or this afternoon or have for lunch?” We’re always talking to ourselves. We can’t help it. It’s the way we are. Some of us may have learned to meditate to slow down or to quiet our inner voices at times, but they keep chattering on most of the time, whether you pay attention to them or not. What are you talking to yourself about at this moment?
What is this inner flow all about? It is what we call “listening.” I know that sounds crazy because we’ve all probably been taught that to listen, we should shut up, stop thinking and hear the other out. Well, you can’t do that very well. What really happens is that the mind is forever proposing theories about: What’s going on here? What am I reading, hearing? Do I have a second opinion? What should I do? Is this good bad, beautiful or ugly, worth my time? Should I go do something else? And so on and so forth.
Listening is that voice—I’m describing it simply as a voice, but the flow of listening contains pictures, imaginative scenarios and feelings of all kinds that come up in reaction to what’s going on around you and in you. Actively listening means engaging with these conversations, deciding which are focal, which should take priority, which ones we wish to avoid, pursue, take action on.
This is culture!
The conversations, the discourse that you listen to is what we call “culture.” In other words we have inherited, built, built upon, and shared such discourse all of our lives. Today I’m inviting you to take a look at it in this new and different way. Listening is culture speaking. It is at once process and content. We have inner conversations, discourses about all kinds of things, about our goals, about the people we are, whether we’re how we should be or not. We have basic discourses about such things as: What’s a man? What’s a woman? How to live out my masculinity, my femininity? We have discourses that come from where we are born, the gangs we hang out with, and discourses that prevail at a certain point in my generation, in your generation.
That discourse not only originates from outside of us, but also springs up from within, as our unconscious mind brings these strains together. With old conversations rubbing up against the new, sometimes helpful, sometimes contradictory, we are ever awash with fresh ideas in the wired, or should we start saying, “wireless” world that we live in.
A torrent of discourse
So today the culture that builds our inner listening is a flow of discourse coming from countless sources; we live in worlds that are continually shaped by these flows of discourse within us and around us. They are continually flowing over us and into us, following old channels and carving new paths. What was once a slower moving stream of discourse has now become a torrent with the explosive growth of social media and facile, inexpensive means of communication. It sometime seems that everyone is wired, everywhere, or, again replacing the aging terminology, it seems that “everyone is wireless everywhere!”
When I was a student at Notre Dame graduate school, I kept a notebook in my dorm room where I jotted down what I needed to research at the library. Every Tuesday and Friday afternoon I trekked across campus toward the arms of “Touchdown Jesus,” the mosaic mural that welcomed scholars to the Hesburgh Library, to satisfy my learning needs and humor my serendipity. Today I can Google and Wiki most information quicker than I can stand up and walk over to the bookcase where I know the exact book that holds my answers. In terms of sheer quantity, I suspect that, now as a septuagenarian, I am learning a hundred times more each day than I did as a collegian. Shivering in the wee hours of the winter morning, I Skype with heat-oppressed colleagues in Australia or friends in Indonesia without thinking it magic. Yesterday I bought a USB flash drive about the size of the first joint of my index finger, but large enough, I am told, to hold 32 copies of the Encyclopedia Britannica I once owned. Go figure!
On the sociopolitical level, we see new media: Twitter, blogs, and Facebook, support the Occupy protests, the Arab Spring, and provide a conduit for wikileaks, all calling into question the way the culture of power is structured and exercised. Battlefields are managed from half a world away. On the commercial level we may feel helpless in the face of mind-bending electronic advertising, victims of strangers who can know everything about us, not just where but how we live, but our likes and dislikes, as well as the GPS coordinates of our smart phones at any given moment. Ought we call in the exorcist or take a digital sabbatical when our inner voices start to babble?
There is no end in sight. On one hand our identity seems diluted in the flow of discourse, sound bites and memes, while on the other hand we have powerful means to connect and coordinate our values and our actions to shape both the world we have inherited and this emergent electronic global village we now live in. Given this, we need a truly dynamic discourse about culture, not just a static definition that puts labels on what people have in common and do in similar ways, but one that enlightens us on the ways we share and influence, as well as misunderstand each other.
Please share some reflections on how you see your identity in this new context. What is changing? What is not? How are you and those about you connected, supported, or threatened by the discourse you share? What do you listen? What are the inner voices saying? What is culture telling you?