Cultural Minimum

There are many thoughtful and suggestive definitions of “culture,” but I can’t remember any thoughts about the minimum. What is necessary and/or sufficient about a given set of circumstances for it to be rightly called a “culture”? Surely there would be fairly wide agreement that such groupings as families, professions or companies regularly develop distinctive cultures, using available materials and conforming to or confronting the possibilities and limitations available within some larger culture.

I’m not sure it would take more than two to establish circumstances in which people could “grow,” as the concept of culture implies. But one isn’t enough. The relationship between language and culture may well be the key to all this. I accept that there can be no private language. Can a friendship be enough? Conversely, could there be an upper boundary, maybe a point where “it” is too big or too complicated to be one, and must be multiple?

This is a metaphor, of course, a specifically biological one. In laboratories, “culture” is a verb, and it’s transitive — it takes an object.” Often that object is a bacterium. The culture is what it takes for a bacterium to grow and reproduce. In a “rich” cultue, this happens fast, with no inhibitions. And that’s where the metaphor breaks down. Human culture is arguably exactly what is not absolutely necessary for survival. I may be wondering about the minimum any one of us needs to be human.

Author: Nancy Roth