Culture as ‘Web of Meaning’
Murray opens her inaugural chapter with a reference to the work of Clifford Geertz. Geertz is really well known for his contributions to ethnographic study and to an accommodating definition of culture. When Murray indicates that culture is a nebulous ‘web of meaning’ and that a medium supports the practice of culture (again, ‘web of meaning’), I brushed off my Geertz to see just how much of a Geertzian Janet Murray really is.
In his Interpretation of Cultures, Geertz lays out quite simply that culture is operational; culture is not painted on walls or bound in books; it is the act of painting on walls, of writing printing books that constitutes culture. In other words, culture is what we do. The only way to take part in a culture is to do.
With this in mind, Geertz goes on to explain that these operations have meaning outside of their simply taking place; they point to the causes and implications of our operations (we are cultural operatives). The causes and implications of our operations are, I believe, what constitutes Murray’s ‘web of meaning.’ This web of meaning, which encompasses the causes and consequences of our actions, could be called representation (i.e. what is represented by our operations) An example of how these two fundamental points coexist and support each other:
Scene: A bus during rush hour. You’ve just boarded and you have to stand because it’s crowded.
Culture as Operation: You use your smartphone to check your email, maybe while listening to a podcast and, as a result, not paying attention to the other passengers trying to squeeze by you as they attempt to exit the bus.
Culture as Representation: Why are you checking your email right now? Because we (all of us, as operators) have encouraged a market for smartphones, especially out of a desire to remain perpetually reachable. We need the internet, Spotify, our email, all the time. As operators, we also value the ability to operate in multiple ways. We want to make sure Aunt Helen hears from us (email), that we’re learning about Voltaire’s Candide (podcast), and that we get home on time and safely (riding the bus). Implications of these operations and their causes can be felt by us and by others.
As a result of our operations, accessing media via your smartphone becomes more sophisticated (technologies always do, the more they are used); we learn to exploit our available hours so that we extract maximum levels of comfort, convenience, enlightenment, &c; we become impatient as other people and older media forms fail to catch up as quickly (such-and-such publication does no have an iPhone app; so-and-so doesn’t have a camera on their phone; Aut Helen doesn’t check her email); we aggravate others because while we’re enviably well-connected to distant points on the map (a Gmail server somewhere in Tennessee; a podcast recorded in New York), we’re not paying attention to other passengers saying ‘excuse me’ and ‘pardon me please’ as they navigate around us, trying to reach the bus’s exit; we essentially change the way we operate. And because we change the way we operate when we take advantage of new technologies (e.g. smartphones), we’re changing our culture. Culture is what we do, and we’re changing how we do it.
When Geertz & Murray meet, Murray becomes clearer. Her ‘web of meaning’ seems thin, inadequate. But I think I understand what she means. Culture consists of operations that have representations. Do you agree?