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Etymology of the word culture dates back to Sir E.B. Tylor (1832-1917) who defined it as "that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, customs, and other capabilities and habits acquired by humans as members of society" (1). For Raymond Williams (1921-1988) culture is "the organization of production, the structure of the family, the structure of institutions which express or govern social relationships, the characteristic forms through which members of society communicate" (2). However, beyond these examples of attempts to define the term "culture," we see the word is not just for human beings, but also other biological growths (see biological cultivations). The term might be considered nonsensical when used without context.
Culture requires an adjective or partner, as in the phrases "hip hop culture" or "culture and the arts." When given context, culture is used to embody and describe, at the very least, the way a group interacts. Those who share in a culture might have weak or strong associations with one another, or may have only perceived associations (see consumer culture). Therefore, culture is not a purity of human interaction. What is felt, believed and known by members of various cultures can be both individual and collective, and these knowledges tend to be laden with power dynamics that are overlain on "outside" individuals and collections of individuals, a phenomenon known as "othering" (see ethnic culture).
In our present-day international capitalist milieu, culture has become a kind of roux in which marketable items and ideologies are created and disseminated to consumers, a continuous development of culture, a shaping of the beliefs, thoughts and behaviors of consumers of cultural artifacts. Individuals often come together to form subcultures that re-envision aspects of human interaction to help change individual and collective roles: that is, creating cultural agents for "positive change." But these subcultures must compete in the greater context. Such a subculture might be youth-based, as with the punk movement in the 1970s, or it might be an organization, as with Humanities Washington. This is not to say the state doesn't do this kind of work, too: most major U.S. cities have an arts and culture department, and in Argentina, for example, the national government subsidizes "most cultural activities" providing arts and culture accessible to all people for free to stimulate cultural growth, appreciation and investment.
This begs the question of when exactly a culture or subculture truly is a manifestation of "the people" and when it is just a series of steps used to internalize control within a society (3) for the sake of maintenance of an economic, political or religious system. Potentially, a state or other centralized power structure (e.g., a church or an organization) could have full control over what is deemed worthy to produce in terms of cultural artifacts and ideologies. Former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), Bill Ivey (4), in his Arts, Inc.: How Greed and Neglect Have Destroyed Our Cultural Rights states that "[t]he expanding footprint of copyright, an unconstrained arts industry marketplace, and a government unwilling to engage culture as a serious arena for public policy have come together to undermine art, artistry, and cultural heritage -- the expressive life of America." He proposes a Cultural Bill of Rights, reminding us that culture should be a right, not a privilege.
The key to creating autonomous cultural space is perhaps understanding how we create and transmit aspects of culture in the first place. In many societies, communication, media, storytelling, ritual, educational institutions, religious institutions, and the workplace are the primary transmitters of culture and social norms that shape the way people behave, think, and interact. Not all of these transmission spots are fully tied with "othering" market dynamics; some are tied with the necessary nurturing of the human mind (see education).
In developed nations, increased autonomy is illustrated by an increasingly individualized production of multimedia. Helen De Michiel (5) quotes Ellen Schneider (6) of Active Voice in the following reflection on the changes happening with mass-access to media production: "We are...no longer independent media makers, but interdependent ones. That is, we are now free...to exchange and share ideas with our users and thus open up a myriad of ways to approach, use, and even change the media piece and redefine its place in our communal cultural habitat." De Michiel further notes that the biggest task facing us is "how to understand our individual contributions and redefine their deep human value not only as entertainment or advocacy, but as a way to stimulate dialogue with oneself, the community, and throughout the global media space none of us can escape." In other words, if this internal and external dialogue doesn't happen, new multimedia technologies can become more of the same: means by which to propagate non-autonomous culture.
Works Cited That are Unlinked:
1. Tylor, Edward. 1920 . Primitive Culture. New York: J.P. Putnam’s Sons.
2. Sardar, Ziauddin, Borin Van Loon, Richard Appignanesi, and Ziauddin Sardar. 1999. Introducing cultural studies. Cambridge, UK: Icon (5).
3. Miller 1993; Bennett 1995
6. Schneider, Ellen Active Voice