As I drove north over the Point, I shouted at my phone like an angry boss frustrated with an obstinate worker. “OK, Google,” I demanded, “what’s culture?” It heard me over Larkin Poe’s southern blues rock, turned off the music, bleeped its familiar bloop, and answered me in a pleasant female voice that (I could tell, somehow) took no offense over my tone. “Culture is the arts and other manifestations of human intellectual achievement regarded collectively.” That’s not how I would’ve answered the question, I thought, but then again, I’m not a “virtual assistant” limited by either binary coding or a cracked hardware shell. I’m the product of tens of thousands of years of evolution.
Larkin Poe returned to life on my speakers and started preaching their blues again. I’m gonna get me some religion, I’m gonna join the Baptist Church, I’m gonna get me some religion, I’m gonna join the Baptist Church, Gonna be a Preacher, So I don’t have to work. I tapped my steering wheel in time with the music and recalled how I discuss culture with my students. Culture, I argue, is so much more than collective human achievement. It is the intellectual ecosystem from which we nourish ourselves and grow. Blues music, for example, traces its origins back to the American slaves who used rhythm and melody to set the pace of work. The singer who sang the first line—I’m gonna get me some religion, I’m gonna join the Baptist Church—repeated it—I’m gonna get me some religion, I’m gonna join the Baptist Church— to give someone else time to improvise the next line—Gonna be a Preacher, So I don’t have to work. Information like this feeds my curiosity and satiates my desire to grow. The canned answer my virtual assistant provides me does not.
One of the first American scholars to publish a dictionary—the famed lexicographer, Noah Webster—defined “culture” in 1828 as the environment farmers relied upon to grow food. He made no mention of language, kinship, political structures, religion, philosophy, music, dance, art, fashion, medicine, or drugs. That’s not how people understood culture in the early nineteenth century. They were probably too busy growing food to worry about much else, honestly. But Webster’s original insight proves metaphorically useful nonetheless. Culture as we now define it is an intellectual ecosystem that nourishes us the way a physical ecosystem nurtures plants. So I feed myself a steady diet of musical, literary, and political memes that hopefully nourish me and keep my ecosystem healthy.
As Marx once put it, however, “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.” We are, in other words, limited in our cultural choices by the culture that came before us. “OK, Google,” I shouted, interrupting Larkin Poe’s virtuoso lap steel solo, “what’s capitalism?” “Capitalism is an economic and political system in which a country’s trade and industry are controlled by private owners for profit.” That’s not how I would’ve answered the question, I thought, but so what? She’s right. The profit-motive corrupts our ecosystem to suck nutrients from the soil to turn it into money and leave the world a cultural wasteland. That’s why Marx concluded, “The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.” I dread the day Larkin Poe squanders all of their authenticity to follow the profit motive into the cultural doldrums.
Driving south toward Salt Lake Valley, I wondered, what kind of cultural ecosystem does it nurture? The pollution hanging thick in the sky felt like a nightmare. I hummed along with Larkin Poe. I left my virtual assistant alone. Grabbed up my suitcase, And took off down the road, I said farewell my church, May the good Lord bless your soul. I dreamt of fresh soil and a nourishing culture. I dreamt of escaping.