Meaning in Action
Estonian National Research Award in the Humanities
Also available in Estonian
"Meaning in Action: Outline of an Integral Theory of Culture is marvelous, the best book known to me on the character and workings of culture—deserving the widest readership possible among all sociologists. Further it is beautifully written, with the argument made crystal clear by means of helpful and striking examples…" - John A.Hall, McGill University
"Professor Raud’s range is amazing…" - Maurice Bloch, London School of Economics
"A high wire act of cultural theorizing, ambitious and original…" - Jeffrey Alexander, Yale University
"Meaning in Action would be worth reading for the ambition and importance of its project alone, but Raud’s thorough analysis of the fundamentals of culture make this an extremely worthwhile read, and one that I think may spawn a vital discussion about the basic conceptual structure of culture itself... I would recommend this book for working professionals and graduate students in cultural studies or related fields, and any scholar interested in understanding culture more precisely.” - David Weissglass, Cultural Sociology
“Raud’s theory is not only cognitively adequate, but also offers a conceptual toolkit applicable to a variety of cultural phenomena. Most importantly, in the context of this review essay, it addresses key problems of social semiotics in an original and inspiring way.” - Werner Binder, American Journal of Cultural Sociology
Published by Polity Books in 2016.
This book is primarily motivated by the current situation in the study of culture(s), which has become rather narrow in its interests. Even though books with titles promising new theoretical advances in the field continue to appear, in fact these almost invariably turn out to be case studies with little ambition for generalization, or discussions of other authors who have had such ambition in the past. No real breakthroughs have been made for decades. It has almost become improper to theorize about culture in broader terms. Under the conditions of increased specialization, the bigger picture is getting hazier and hazier. At the same time, the concept of culture, defined sloppily or not at all, is occupying an increasingly central place in social and political debate. Globalization, culture shocks, multiculturality and ‘civilization conflicts’ are being discussed by the general public almost daily – but with the help of a conceptual apparatus from about fifty years ago, which has been simplified to the extreme.
Any theory of culture has to start with the definition of its object. In chapter 1 of this book, I argue for an approach to culture that is able to account for all phenomena related to the production, dissemination, transmission and interpretation of meaning.
If culture constitutes the sum total of our efforts to make sense of our world, from the most individual and personal level to the most universal, then meaning should indeed be the common denominator for all phenomena we consider cultural. But meaning is not something abstract; it is itself produced in and by individual minds when they confront their reality.
Throughout the book, I stress the binary nature of cultural phenomena. On the one hand, there are more or less stable and shareable fixtures of meaning from images and narratives to laws, dress codes and domesticated spaces such as cities. A cultural subject comes into being in dialogue with such entities – texts – and inevitably participates in their production as well. On the other hand, culture manifests itself in all kinds of activities, from real rituals to ritualistic behaviour, from displaying curiosities to auditions for reality shows, from witch-trials to defences of dissertations. All activities grounded in meaning, or cultural practices, also construct their participants while being constructed by them in the process: you become a ‘player’ by ‘playing’. I will proceed from the description of the signifying act – the elementary cultural event – to the nature of the mechanisms that combine and organize singular moments of signification into larger meaningful wholes, ‘texts’ and ‘textualities’, and from there to the cultural practices that relate the signifying wholes to the behaviour of people towards each other as well as all levels of their environment.
Chapter 2 outlines the theory of meaning used in this book. Just as cultural activity iterates between textuality and practice, the human subject also conceptualizes the world in two different ways that result in two different kinds of concepts – through direct experience, when the empirical flux is structured into a manageable reality, and with the help of acquired tools: by learning, for instance, that an unknown city is situated in a certain country of which the person has no experience. Concepts learned this way are, in Saussurean terms, more closely related to the signifier while the ones deduced from lived experience are inherent in the signified. It can be said that the moment of becoming meaningful, or the act of signification, takes place when these two concepts converge. This does not happen solely through an internal realization, but rather as a response to a claim. When an adult is speaking with a child and points to a furry barking animal, saying ‘This is a dog!’, she makes the claim that the signifier [dog], which the child may already know from a bedtime story, is associated with the animal they are observing. Of course, it is possible to use signs – for example, for abstract concepts – that hark back only to other signs that form their definitions, the only reality to which they refer. But all these derive, in the last resort, from similarly accepted claims, just as physically non-existent fictional characters are imagined through an analogy with real people. It is also possible not to accept claims others are making by saying, for example, ‘this is what being a real man is all about’, when the experiential concept does not fit the one acquired through learning. Moments like this highlight the difference between the two kinds of concepts, unnoticed in uncritical situations. And, from within, it is also possible to construct private-language signifiers with which one can refer to personally relevant reality slices. Nonetheless, reality on the whole becomes culturally meaningful to the perceiver through acts of signification that claim the identity of intralinguistic, learned concepts and experiential concepts, and it is these claims, not actually existing relations of meaning, that become reified in signs. And this is precisely what constitutes their irreducible arbitrariness. In a claim, the relation between the intralinguistic concept, definable through linguistically expressed characteristics, and the experiential concept, derived from our observation of reality, is necessarily arbitrary.
But stand-alone signs or their random combinations do not constitute cultural phenomena. Various sets of rules that govern cultural expression make it possible for us to express ourselves – to engage in practices and produce texts – and for others to interpret our utterances. These ‘grammars’ are modulated by the mentalities, the structures of knowledge, the worldviews of their historical context, which, deep down, have a similarly cultural origin. Although most of our cultural environment is handed down to us in a ready-made form, the elements that constitute it have all been produced by the same dynamic processes that are taking place in our minds when they encounter something unknown.
It should also be noted that cultural phenomena do not automatically enter circulation. At this next level, there is a mechanism at work similar to that within the elementary act of signification. Any new cultural expression (text or pattern of practice) that seeks to be acknowledged by the community makes a bid, a promise to be meaningful to its recipients in certain ways. Thousands of clothes designers produce new models each year and each of them makes a bid to be the expression of the new trends in fashion. Thousands of new poets make their debut and each of them makes the bid to be the voice of the new generation. Especially in the present times, when the equipment for producing a sample CD, a portfolio of photographs or a video is accessible to a much larger proportion of aspiring creative personalities than ever before, the number of bids greatly outweighs the number of those texts that are accepted by cultural institutions. At the same time, more democratic as well as more cheaply available new channels of communication, such as the internet, have also made alternative dissemination possible. Nevertheless, even after a text has initially entered circulation, it remains only a bid until it is endorsed by a critical mass of its intended recipients – tens of thousands of dedicated fans if the bid is to be a pop idol, or perhaps a dozen academics if it is a bid for the reinterpretation of the seventeenth-century Ethiopian philosopher Zera Yacob. If a bid is accepted, it will gain access to proper channels of circulation, which, in turn, determine the rules for its reception. Each cultural text comes with an implicit operation manual. A romantic comedy shown at an arthouse cinema may be poorly welcomed, even if the majority of the audience likes to see a romantic comedy now and then, but in another setting.
At this point it will be useful to start describing the mechanisms of the cultural system with the help of not one, but two separate models, a text-centred and a practice-centred one, sketched here in the barest outline. It is possible to look at a culture as primarily the sum total of all products of meaning production, or texts in the widest sense of the word – written and oral, verbal and visual, aural, corporal, spatial. But it is also possible to describe the cultural system as a totality of different, sometimes mingling, mostly collective but occasionally private, practices in which its carriers engage, producing and consuming texts in the process, sometimes simply as negligible by-products. For a holistic view, it is important not to privilege one of these perspectives over the other, though (or actually because) they operate with incompatible sets of concepts.
Chapter 3 is dedicated to the text-centred model of culture. I will first distinguish between two categories of texts that differ in status and function. First, there are the texts that every carrier of the culture could be expected to know – at least to some extent or by hearsay – and the extent of her knowledge is a measure of her level of education. The Gospel, Hamlet, elementary table manners, Mona Lisa, the beginning of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, basic traffic rules and the Eiffel Tower are examples of such texts in contemporary Western culture. I will call these nodes of meanings base-texts. No cultural system is totally homogeneous, and one way to identify its different layers is by the differences in their sets of base-texts. The heavy metal cultural community counts ‘War Pigs’ and 'Smoke on the Water' among them, while Giselle and The Nutcracker belong to the base-texts of ballet enthusiasts, but the Eiffel Tower, traffic rules and Mona Lisa are shared by both. Obviously, the borders of these communities are not closed and a person with somewhat more catholic tastes can actually appreciate ballet and heavy metal alike. This also demonstrates that the category of base-texts has no fixed boundaries – immediately next to those actually shared by the overwhelming majority of the carriers of a culture are texts that are still only making the bid to be accepted on this level, emerging from a sub- culture and claiming their spot on the central stage. Similarly, there are texts, such as the catechism or novels by Mikhail Sholokhov, the Nobelist classic author of socialist realism, that have previously been base-texts in their respective cultures, but are no longer.
At the opposite end of the status scale are result-texts, bids that have just been accepted and entered circulation, as well as those that have done so some time ago but are still being considered recent arrivals by their recipients. Some of them may eventually acquire a more solid position, become the base-texts of a subculture, and finally perhaps even of the whole cultural system, while others will have a brief span of active life and will soon fade out of circulation. There are various mechanisms in action that may prolong or shorten the life span of a text, and some of them are completely accidental. For example, it is possible that an actress who will later become a major star has played the heroine in a film based on a mediocre novel, which will induce her fans-to-be to rediscover the book they would otherwise hardly have bothered to read. In any case, the status trajectory of a text, its trail through the operational memory (see below) of the cultural system, may take different turns and, accordingly, the group of result-texts is even more mixed in terms of status than that of base-texts.
Apart from their life span, there are also other differences between the layers of base- and result-texts. The most important of them is the role of the former in generating the latter. Base-texts keep appearing in new cultural expressions as intertextual material – narrative templates, imitated style registers, wandering motifs, parodied elements and simply quotes that will be recognized by the majority of their intended recipients. This also upholds their status. New generations of recipients may never have actually read Romeo and Juliet, but they continue to be aware of the story because of its many reincarnations in contemporary culture. Some other classical love stories, such as that of Tristan and Isolde, for example, have gone almost completely out of circulation. Result-texts do not have such generative potential, and if an author has assumed that a recent text can be confidently alluded to with a broader audience in mind, this means her accept- ance of the text’s bid for base-text status, which also contributes to the rise of that text towards this goal.
A model of textuality also needs a description of the space where base-texts are processed and result-texts produced. I call it the operational memory of culture, using the term without a very consistent analogy with either neurophysiological processes or computer technology, but more resemblant of the latter. This operational memory contains the normative theories of the period, or the assumed proper ways of symbolization and interpretation. It is also the space for struggle between ideological, moral, aesthetical and other kinds of standards, as well as many other modes of cultural thinking, verbal, visual, corporal – in short, everything that can influence textual production and interpretation. These modes are not necessarily in correlation with the two layers of texts, and there are tensions within this layer itself. For instance, it is possible that the modes of cultural thinking change, but a critical amount of the base-texts stay intact, as in the time of the Reformation, which made a bid for a new regime for reading the Bible and more or less successfully challenged the status of many of the result-texts produced by the Catholic Church. Or, conversely, base-texts may change in a historical rupture, but the modes of cultural thinking remain largely the same, as in the switch from communism to nationalism in Russia and some other parts of Eastern Europe during and after the decline of the USSR. In due time, a significant change in one of these two will also affect the other, but the impact on the result-texts is almost always immediate.
Culture as textuality is also dependent on cultural institutions, which play a seminal role in the production and dissemination of result-texts as well as the maintenance of base-texts along with their canonized interpretations. Some of these are real places and people (galleries, publishing houses, newspaper columns, cafés); others, just instances of the social imaginary (the average TV viewer, the powers-that-be). In the text-centred model of the cultural system, these institutions are important for the ways in which they highlight some aspects of the texts in the operational memory and downplay others, encourage and support the bids for status of particular texts and stop the advancement of those that do not conform to their standards, and can distort the semantic content of the texts they handle, both the ones they favour and the ones they dislike. Cultural institutions may be in alignment with certain dominant modes of cultural thinking, but they may also be at odds with them, challenging the mainstream taste or the preferences of the powers-that-be.
The text-centred model of the cultural system thus consists of two groups of texts, base and result, which are separated by a layer of operational memory and cultural institutions. The two groups of texts communicate with each other through this layer, and the components of this layer also influence each other. During stable periods, all the constituent parts of the system are in contact with each other (a certain degree of necessary subcultural fragmentation aside), but in times of cultural turmoil, which are frequently also the turning points that produce more texts with base-text potential than other periods in history, there can be strong tensions between the elements of the system. By identifying the key features of each of the constituent elements and their relation to each other, we have a picture of the background system within which both old and new texts circulate, are (re)interpreted, interact while competing for status and, collectively, make up the stuff of which the larger part of the cultural consciousness of the people in this particular timespace consists. An understanding of this system is necessary in order to turn close readings into truly ‘thick’ descriptions and to put technical studies of textual form and style into perspective.
But the terms of textuality are, as stated above, not the only coordinates for mapping a cultural system. A different picture arises when it is conceived as a flux that merges together a large number of heterogeneous practices, whose tangible products command attention only as junctions guiding the movement of meanings in action. Some of these practices support each other, some contradict one another, some are unrelated, but all of them are shaped by their common context, which they themselves actively shape in turn. A text-centred model must therefore necessarily be complemented by a practice-oriented one that foregrounds the activities of cultural subjects, and not the stable clusters of meaning these practices produce. A tentative description of such a model is undertaken in chapter 4. Even a cursory cross-cultural inquiry reveals, however, that the structures of practices vary to a considerable extent across genres, historically and geographically. Indeed, it seems difficult to compare auguries based on birds’ entrails to weather forecasts on cable TV networks. On the other hand, we might find it useful to observe that there is a certain similarity between the cultural logic that requires of all adult men that they write a poem to prove their suitability for public office (as was the case during many centuries in China) and another that presupposes that marriageable women can play chess (as was traditionally the case in Georgia) which distinguishes them from logics that reserve these and other analogous cultural activities for professionals.
To enable such comparisons, I have identified eight aspects that each cultural practice necessarily has. First of all, we can identify a function for each cultural practice – a certain task or a set of tasks that it performs in the socio-cultural environment (entertainment, education, transmission of values, recording of historical events, or even the suspension of other socio-cultural activities, as is claimed for ‘pure art’, etc.). This is not necessarily identical to the goal of the practice, or the task that it has set for itself and proclaims to be its true purpose. Moreover, the function of the practice may change – for instance, when a once-entertaining text becomes a historical source – but its goal cannot; the text may also proclaim ‘false’ goals or conceal its true ones, which should then be deduced from its reception.
Each cultural practice necessarily has a certain type of carrier – people who are actively engaged in it as producers or consumers. The carrier of a practice can be expected to have a certain kind of education and social standing, they can belong to an age group or gender, or have some specific personal characteristics. The group of carriers can be homogeneous, or not very. It could be closed to anybody but the initiated, or open to all. There might be differences between the active performers and passive recipients of the practice, or it could be that everybody involved should be both. The carrier type may be in correlation with the status of the practice. It is always likely that practices of the aristocrats would be considered aristocratic. But they might be reserved for them and only them, or be available for imitation by everybody else. The decadent habits of the nobility, such as orgiastic debauchery or impious investigations of heathen religions, can also be abhorred by the common people on moral grounds. The practices of carriers of similar standing may also have a hierarchy – some of them could be serious pursuits; others, pastimes for leisure. It could be that practices of originally low status, such as the singing of folksongs, could be elevated to a high status by a sudden gust of fashion. It could even be that the richest and most powerful would construct for themselves an artificial world in which to imitate the allegedly pure and primitive life or the socially deprived, as has happened in various forms of pastoralism. The status of a practice does not immediately follow from who its carriers are, and vice versa.
Next, it is necessary for each cultural practice to have a range of materials it regularly uses. A cultural language, or a mixture of several languages, or only a small part of the vocabulary and stylistic registers, but also material objects and technologies, such as costumes, artefacts, paints, typewriters, wines, ritual objects, computer software or the full moon, can all be necessary for practising certain cultural phenomena. Artefacts used in a practice perhaps have to be manufactured only according to established rules and by licensed masters. Musical instruments may have long histories of prestigious owners and be traced back to makers of high reputation. The authenticity of a painting may be confirmed or disputed by chemical analysis of the paints used.
Regulations on what can and should be used in a cultural practice are complemented by sets of rules about how the materials are to be exploited. Approximately the same set of percussion instruments can be used for pop, rock, heavy metal or jazz music, and even if we consider these separate languages (because all of them are difficult to use outside the subpractices they define), then the variety of styles and forms within each of them is still considerable and has been changing over time. The same is obvious for any other cultural practice. The rules of the practice are sometimes adequately described by the normative theory of its timespace, but at some other times they are not, which usually means that the normative theory is being challenged by actual practice. It is permissible to use swear-words in contemporary poetry, but it is precisely that permission that marks the poetry as contemporary – the absence of certain restrictions is itself also a rule. The rules are thus closely related to the materials and, through them, to their immediate context, but also to other rules in other similar practices that use similar materials in their expression.
The final pair of characteristics is formed by the means of circulation and the means of preservation and transmission of the practice. On the one hand, it is important to know how the practice reaches its immediate audience. There is a difference between public readings, manuscripts, books and files – each of them implies a specific mode of organizing time, materials and distribution; some are more costly than others, and some are more easily controlled than others. Circulation is usually managed and monitored by specific institutions that can impose their regulations on the process; they can be elitist or democratic, selling for profit or interested in the diffusion of their message, centralized or heterogeneous; they can have the monopoly over a particular practice, compete with each other on an equal basis or set up alternative systems that a dictatorship cannot hold in check even though it censors official publications. In a different world, there are websites for downloading pirated files, persecuted by distribution companies and copyright agencies that try to restrict their circulation to commercial channels.
Each cultural practice also seeks to sustain itself and ensure its continuity by teaching itself to new possible performers and educat- ing new recipients to appreciate it. Practices with a sufficient degree of self-consciousness frequently try to preserve even those of their historical forms, genres and subpractices that are falling out of circulation, but may be kept alive in some other form. Ballroom dancing, once a widespread social skill, has been transformed into a form of sport, while folk dance has become a social activity, and medieval dance a form of entertainment performed by professionals. As the function of these practices has changed, so have their means of transmission. Societies, schools, fraternities, clubs, universities, lodges, libraries, archives, museums, wandering teachers and many other kinds of cultural institutions preserve and transmit specific skills and kinds of cultural knowledge, instrumental and theoretical. Some of these are simultaneously engaged in organizing the circulation of the practice; others are specialized in transmission. And what is being preserved and taught there may one day, when the suitable moment arrives, make a new bid for being restored to general circulation, albeit usually in a new form.
In the last chapters, I present two case studies, applying the concepts proposed here to two cultural moments, one historical – the ‘new sweet style’ poetry in Italy in the thirteenth century – and one more recent – the transformation of the art scene in Eastern Europe after the fall of the Iron Curtain. As I hope will be seen from these brief studies, the description of a cultural phenomenon – be it a stylistic trend in TV series, or the work of a school of medieval Persian manuscript illuminators, or American adaptations of Japanese food – can gain a lot in explanatory power by employing simultaneously the two sets of concepts proposed here. If so, this could perhaps also lead to more dialogue between the disciplines engaged in the study of culture(s), something sorely needed in the present times, when humanities programmes in universities worldwide constantly have to struggle for survival.