Society vs. Culture: Body vs. Soul
Society is like the Tin Man: hollow, and heartless, without a cultural soul to give it life. No amount of money, status or possessions can compensate. That’s because culture requires what most societies fear: deviancy. Luckily, not all do.
In the brilliant book Finite and Infinite Games, James Carse writes, “Society [is] the sum of relations that are under some form of public constraint, [while] culture is whatever we do with each other by undirected choice.” He further clarifies, “If society is all that a people feels it must do, culture is the realm of the variable, free, not necessarily universal — of all that cannot lay claim to compulsive authority.””
In his description, he is distinguishing between society’s rules base and culture’s freedom. He goes on to suggest that society gains its potency through adherence to accepted norms, while culture gains its richness through creative non-conformity. Said another way, a society cannot hold together without commonly held — and enforced — standards of conduct, while this is precisely what kills culture. Culture requires open-endedness, lack of rules or expectations — only delight at what has yet to be discovered, and permission to explore it.
Societies are entities bound by geographic, demographic, familial and/or religious commonalities. At some point, they coalesce around these shared characteristics and plant a flag by giving themselves a name and a set of guiding principles by which to operate and interact. Wikipedia states, “Societies construct patterns of behavior by deeming certain actions or speech as acceptable or unacceptable. These patterns of behavior within a given society are known as societal norms.” This is self-evident. Without adherence to societal norms of conduct, there is no society — just anarchy. Therefore, deviancy — departing from the norm — cannot be tolerated, because it creates risk to upending order. Society cannot abide by setting precedents that others could justify following, potentially leading to further breakdown, and at the extreme, chaos. Laws and enforcers exist to prevent this very thing from happening. The word deviant itself, when it applies to a society, is interpreted extremely negatively. No one in a society — well, nearly no one — wishes to be called a deviant. Thesaurus.com provides several menacing synonyms for the word, including aberrant, queer, weird, devious, heretical, freaky, off-key, perverted and twisted, among others.
And yet: a society without an expressive and deviant culture — because culture is incubated within a society, and necessitates variation — is a spiritually hollow group of people carrying about, without much to aim or inspire them. That’s because society is a means of feeling safe, surrounded as it is by similarity in mien and in action.
What society alone is decidedly not, is alive.
Culture is, first and foremost, the domain of the creative classes. It is comprised of the arts — graphic, spatial, culinary, applied and performing — and endows a people or a politically defined territory with a soul. It is, I am firmly convinced, the living, breathing heart of a place. Culture inspires. It uplifts. It arouses. It provokes, tests and often — always? — rejects societal norms. It does that because it must; because culture is the outcome of open-ended inquiry and exploration.
Carse writes, “Deviancy is the very essence of culture. Whoever merely follows the script, merely repeating the past, is culturally impoverished.” He then ties history to the present, in writing, “Greater [cultural] significance attaches to those variations [to societal norms] that bring the tradition into view in a new way, allowing the familiar to be seen as unfamiliar, as requiring a new appraisal of all that we have been — and therefore of all that we are.”
In other words, culture makes the unmanifest manifest, including our very identity.
Culture is one of the predominant change agents of a society, along with scientific discovery. Governance and enforcement stand at the opposite end. Change equals risk, and is therefore feared by society’s institutions, as we saw, unless it’s contained. Of the two change agents, only one — culture — is an expression of our inner truths. As such, culture is fundamental to what it means to be human; whereas science and governance are artificial constructs, arrived at with our intellects — not our hearts.
That’s not to say that these things aren’t valuable. They are. Without governance, we’d have no commonly accepted — or, arguably, successful — means of interacting in large groups. Without science, well, the world would look very, very different. We would likely not be having this conversation.
But culture, and culture alone, is intrinsic to the uniqueness of a person, and as such, it cannot be replicated. When one attempts to do just that, it dies. For culture to exist, it must be authentic. For it to be authentic, it must come from a place within. For it to do that, it must be reflective of what makes us different from one another. And paradoxically, while creativity (not to be confused with creating) is a truly personal, individual act, we share enough in common as a species that others’ creative output can resonate with us collectively, as though it emanated from within us. And creativity — the engine of culture — usually translates across societies. In that way, culture is a bridge.
Think about music, or painting, or dance, or food, or sculpture, or craftsmanship, or architecture. Do we not equally appreciate all of these things, whether or not we are a member of the society in which the creator(s) made it?
Of course we do! Not only does culture (not to be confused with shared and/or inherited societal rites and rituals) translate across societies, it is, in fact, the many faces of culture — with the exception of wilderness seekers — that get us to spend time and money to visit other societies, and participate in the expressions of their cultural inheritance. To be cheeky, outside of business travel, I have yet — in a half-century spent exploring 75 nation-states, so far — to come across a single person who chose to get on a plane in order to experience someone’s government, money, ceremonial titles, driving habits, infrastructure, rules, laws or enforcers.
That would be tons of fun…
Society, we’ve already determined, is dry. It is a set of externally conceived intellectual constructs applied to a group that shares characteristics or history, in order to bind them to a common set of behavioral norms.
To tame them.
If society is what binds us intellectually, culture is what bonds us emotionally. I would argue that culture prevents societies from devolving into warring factions, because frankly, as fun as it is to be told what to do and how to do it in order to feel safe, and to see others perpetually win or lose more than you do, throughout a lifetime of societal — and inter-societal — competition, culture bypasses our brains to bind us to one another far more deeply.
We may not be able to build closeness over Section 6 of the penal code, debt yield calculations, or counting to four at a stop sign, but we can sure bond over a great meal, an all-night rave or an aria.
In fact, it’s hard not to.
Not All Societies Are Equally Cultural
But not every place invests as much of itself — organically or through societal endowment — in building cultural bench depth. I was never truly aware of this until I began ping-ponging weekly between two cities that are extremely different in this regard.
This weekly juxtaposition led me to realize that culture requires more of itself to self-amplify, and thrive, as it does in New York City. It should have been obvious. Creative people also need inspiration. And they usually find it interacting with other truly creative people, or at the very least, their output. This makes creative output a language — one that acts like rungs of a ladder. The more rungs there are, the higher it’s possible to reach.
By contrast, societies that don’t invest heavily in their artists suffer two fates: first, they lose their artists to other, more culturally rich societies (this explains why NYC has the highest density of artists in the world), forming a kind of ‘culture drain’ in the places they left; and second, their own people suffer from being — in a sense — half-alive.
That’s because whether or not we get to scratch our cultural itch, we need to, as human beings. And when the collective density of creatives reaches critical mass, magic happens. Song after song, object after object, painting after painting begins to snowball in a creative feeding frenzy that — in some cases, become reference points for entire societies, or eras.
Classical music. The Renaissance. The Bauhaus. The Vienna Secession. Jazz. The Algonquin Round Table. Caffè Guibbe Rosse. The Impressionists. These are each periods or archetypes of great intensity (and relative brevity), focused on a small geographic — or societal — area, in which member-creators knew of, and/or interacted with, and regardless were deeply inspired by one another.
If societies exist to protect themselves from change — i.e. deviation — in order to maintain the past, cultures exist to understand, reinterpret and propel the present into the future in order to bring us to the new.
When a society doesn’t recognize or invest in this, they become spiritually rudderless, or bankrupt. When that occurs, they try to fill the hole with busy distractions, trying to turn the currency of society — making and enforcing laws; chasing trophies; making and spending money; gossiping and policing one another — into a cultural surrogate.
It doesn’t work.
Culture cannot be bought, or faked. It doesn’t come in the form of structured anything. What it needs, more than anything, is resonant energy. When it doesn’t find it at home, it has a choice: create it in a vacuum — a lonely road, but one that can yield dividends in the most vivid inner lives — or find it elsewhere. The culture drain is real. If I hadn’t spent a quarter century in New York City, I may never have recognized its absence the way I glaringly do, when I’m not there.
Just as a car can’t (yet) run on orange juice, a society cannot thrive on economics. It may build monuments, but they remain shells. A city’s skyline, its street life, its attitudes and its cultural institutions are all reflections of how rich, or how poor, a city’s soul is.
Whether or not you recognize this, it recognizes you. The richness of the life you live will forever be a direct reflection of the cultural context in which you live. This isn’t a matter of past glories. History’s greatest cultural wellsprings are mostly — today — hollow shadows of their past glory. I lived for a good while in Florence — the nucleus of the Renaissance. The entire city now trades on what it no longer is. Conversations often — still, 400 years later — begin with, “Ma, nel cinquecento…” (But, during the Renaissance…)
At least they have an acute appreciation for design, art and culture. All Italians, one could grossly generalize, have been exposed to some modicum of cultural legacy. But the past isn’t the future, as we’ve seen. What’s important now is what determines how hollow or rich one’s society — and one’s life — is, today.
To live in a place brimming with culture is to feel alive, each and every moment you interact with it, and one another. It is to feel connected with the source — the un-manifestable, manifest. Equally, to live in a culture-poor city is to suffer a fate that no amount of money, status, power, possessions, popularity, safety, gossip-mongering or exclusivity can ever even begin to counterbalance.
“Without culture, and the relative freedom it implies, society, even when perfect, is but a jungle. This is why any authentic creation is a gift to the future.”
— Albert Camus