The General Rose - decay –
But this - in Lady's Drawer
Make Summer - When the Lady lie
In Ceaseless Rosemary –
Nature, culture, language
One way of thinking about culture is to contrast it with nature. Nature refers to what is born and grows organically (from the Latin nascere: to be born); culture refers to what has been grown and groomed (from the Latin colere: to cultivate). The word culture evokes the traditional nature/nurture debate: Are human beings mainly what nature determines them to be from birth or what culture enables them to become through socialization and schooling?
Emily Dickinson's poem expresses well, albeit in a stylized way, the relationship of nature, culture, and language. A rose in a flower bed, says the poem, a generic rose (The General Rose'), is a phenomenon of nature. Beautiful, yes, but faceless and nameless among others of the same species. Perishable. Forgettable. Nature alone cannot reveal nor preserve the particular beauty of a particular rose at a chosen moment in time. Powerless to prevent the biological 'decay' and the ultimate death of roses and of ladies, nature can only make summer when the season is right. Culture, by contrast, is not bound by biological time. Like nature, it is a 'gift', but of a different kind. Through a sophisticated technological procedure, developed especially to extract the essence of roses, culture forces nature to reveal its 'essential' potentialities. The word 'Screws' suggests that this process is not without labor. By crushing the petals, a great deal of the rose must be lost in order to get at its essence. The technology of the screws constrains the exuberance of nature, in the same manner as the technology of the word, or printed syntax and vocabulary, selects among the many potential meanings that a rose might have, only those that best express its innermost truth—and leaves all others unsaid. Culture makes the rose petals into a rare perfume, purchased at high cost, for the particular, personal use of a particular lady. The lady may die, but the fragrance of the rose's essence (the Attar) can make her immortal, in the same manner as the language of the poem immortalizes both the rose and the lady, and brings both back to life in the imagination of its readers. Indeed, 'this' very poem, left for future readers in the poet's drawer, can 'Make Summer' for readers even after the poet's death. The word and the technology of the word have immortalized nature.
The poem itself bears testimony that nature and culture both need each other. The poem wouldn't have been written if there were no natural roses; but it would not be understood if it didn't share with its readers some common assumptions and expectations about rose gardens, technological achievements, historic associations regarding ladies, roses, and perfumes, common memories of summers past, a shared longing for immortality, a similar familiarity with the printed word, and with the vernacular and poetic uses of the English language. Like the screws of the rose press, these common collective expectations can be liberating, as they endow a universal rose with a particular meaning by imposing a structure, so to speak, on nature. But they can also be constraining. Particular meanings are adopted by the speech community and imposed in turn on its members, who find it then difficult, if not impossible, to say or feel anything original about roses. For example, once a bouquet of roses has become codified as a society's way of expressing love, it becomes controversial, if not risky, for lovers to express their own particular love without resorting to the symbols that their society imposes upon them, and to offer each other as a sign of love, say, chrysanthemums instead—which in Germany, for example, are reserved for the dead! Both oral cultures and literate cultures have their own ways of emancipating and constraining their members. We shall return to the differences between oral and literate cultures in subsequent chapters.
The screws that language and culture impose on nature correspond to various forms of socialization or acculturation. Etiquette, expressions of politeness, social dos and don'ts shape people's behavior through child rearing, behavioral upbringing, schooling, professional training. The use of written language is also shaped and socialized through culture. Not only what it is proper to write to whom in what circumstances, but also which text genres are appropriate (the application form, the business letter, the political pamphlet), because they are sanctioned by cultural conventions. These ways with language, or norms of interaction and interpretation, form part of the invisible ritual imposed by culture on language users. This is culture's way of bringing order and predictability into people's use of language.
Communities of language users
Social conventions, norms of social appropriateness, are the product of communities of language users. As in the Dickinson poem, poets and readers, florists and lovers, horticulturists, rose press manufacturers, perfume makers and users, create meanings through their words and actions. Culture both liberates people from oblivion, anonymity, and the randomness of nature, and constrains them by imposing on them a structure and principles of selection. This double effect of culture on the individual—both liberating and constraining—plays itself out on the social, the historical and the metaphorical planes. Let us examine each of these planes in turn.
People who identify themselves as members of a social group (family, neighborhood, professional or ethnic affiliation, nation) acquire common ways of viewing the world through their interactions with other members of the same group. These views are reinforced through institutions like the family, the school, the workplace, the church, the government, and other sites of socialization throughout their lives. Common attitudes, beliefs, and values are reflected in the way members of the group use language—for example, what they choose to say or not to say and how they say it. Thus, in addition to the notion of speech community composed of people who use the same linguistic code, we can speak of discourse communities to refer to the common ways in which members of a social group use language to meet their social needs. Not only the grammatical, lexical, and phonological features of their language (for example, teenage talk, professional jargon, political rhetoric) differentiate them from others, but also the topics they choose to talk about, the way they present information, the style with which they interact, in other words, their discourse accent. For instance, Americans have been socialized into responding 'Thank you' to any compliment, as if they were acknowledging a friendly gift: 'I like your sweater!'—'Oh, thank you!' The French, who tend to perceive such a compliment as an intrusion into their privacy, would rather downplay the compliment and minimize its value: 'Oh really? It's already quite old!' The reactions of both groups are based on the differing values given to compliments in both cultures, and on the differing degrees of embarrassment caused by personal comments. This is a view of culture that focuses on the ways of thinking, behaving, and valuing currently shared by members of the same discourse community.
But there is another way of viewing culture—one which takes a more historical perspective. For the cultural ways which can be identified at any one time have evolved and become solidified over time, which is why they are so often taken for natural behavior. They have sedimented in the memories of group members who have experienced them firsthand or merely heard about them, and who have passed them on in speech and writing from one generation to the next. For example, Emily Dickinson's allusion to life after death is grounded in the hope that future generations of readers will be able to understand and appreciate the social value of rose perfume and the funeral custom of surrounding the dead with fragrant rosemary. The culture of everyday practices draws on the culture of shared history and traditions. People identify themselves as members of a society to the extent that they can have a place in that society's history and that they can identify with the way it remembers its past, turns its attention to the present, and anticipates its future. Culture consists of precisely that historical dimension in a group's identity. This diachronic view of culture focuses on the way in which a social group represents itself and others through its material productions over time—its technological achievements, its monuments, its works of art, its popular culture.
Language and cultural identity
Kramsch C. Language and Culture. –
Oxford University Press, 1998. – pp. 65-77.
In 1915, Edmond Laforest, a prominent Haitian writer, stood upon a bridge, tied a French Larousse dictionary around his neck, and leapt to his death. This symbolic, if fatal, grand gesture dramatizes the relation of language and cultural identity. Henry Louis Gates, who recounts this story, adds 'While other black writers, before and after Laforest, have been drowned artistically by the weight of various modern languages, Laforest chose to make his death an emblem of this relation of overwhelming indenture.' ('Race`, Writing, and Difference. University of Chicago Press 1985, page 13). This event will help us bring together several notions that have emerged in the previous chapters; the motivated, non-arbitrary nature of the linguistic sign, the link between a language and its legitimate discourse community, the symbolic capital associated with the use of a particular language or of a literate form of that language, in short the association of language with a person's sense of self. We explore in this chapter the complex relationship between language and what is currently called 'cultural identity'.