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Monday 8 April 2019

Nature and Culture: A Manichean Heresy

A nature can never be made to change; what has been once formed in it cannot be reformed by any sort of change. Change does not involve the nature itself; it necessarily modifies, but does not transform the structure - Clement of Alexandria

I discovered that something was wrong when I was thirteen. My mother and I had been taken in by an aunt and uncle, and my aunt - who was a ward sister in a mental hospital - noticed that when I ate, I held the knife in my left hand and the fork in my right. She thought this should be corrected, partly as a matter of social etiquette and partly for the good of my mental health. My aunt was not an eccentric; the forced conversion of left-handers has a long, worldwide cultural history and Wikipedia can entertain you if you want to know more.

The situation was, in fact, rather complicated. I am naturally right-handed and my aunt could see that I wrote right-handed and that when I used my knife to spread butter on bread, I held the knife in my right hand. And I was not ambidextrous: I couldn’t spread butter on bread holding the knife in my left hand. But when it came to knife and fork, I had to have the knife in the left.

My mother wasn’t left-handed, as far as I know, but somehow she had mishanded or transhanded me when, early on, she taught me how to hold a knife and fork. Despite my aunt’s concerns, my mother declined to co-operate in putting the matter right. I continued to eat meat and two veg with a knife in my left hand. This gave strength to that hand and a lifetime later I still twist off jam jar lids and open bottle caps with my left. But I uncork with my right and likewise hold a bread knife in my right and the same for hammers, scissors, and so on.

When I got to university, I discovered that something else was wrong. I sat down for the first time in my college dining hall and confronted four pieces of cutlery rather than the three I was familiar with. In addition to knife, fork and spoon there was a second fork. I had not previously eaten puddings - things I grew up calling afters - with two implements. I used just a spoon. But now, it seemed, I was supposed to address apple pie and custard with spoon and fork. On my first day at college table, I held back and watched what other students were doing with this second fork and discovered, as you may have worked out if you are with me so far, that I had a problem. I had grown up to hold my main course fork in the right hand, and likewise the solitary spoon used for afters.

Decision time. After a bit of experiment, the spoon stayed in my right hand and the fork went to the left where I suspect it is still not fully functional. But I conform to etiquette and pick it up in restaurants, sometimes to the bafflement of servers who have seen me switch knife and fork for main course and now see me switching the fork back again.

There is a point to this story. It probably explains why I tend to Manichaeism in all my thinking. I believe in both Nature and Culture and in their interaction. There are some things where I think Nature has the upper hand, and others where I think Culture does. In addition, there are areas where the outcome of the interaction might best be described as uncertain. But even with that qualification, were I still looking for work, my Manicheanism would probably disqualify me from teaching Cultural Studies, since it violates the first article, That all things are made Cultural and none Natural. 

This belief has been very successfully propagated in a very short space of time despite being expressed in execrable prose and explains why, for example, our Driver and Vehicle Licensing Authority (DVLA) has converted the Sex I gave them many years ago to a Gender which I am not sure is mine. But the word Sex to all intents and purposes has been banished to outer darkness leaving me not much choice. As far as I am concerned, I am male by nature and not very masculine by culture, but I don’t expect the DVLA to get their heads around such subtleties and simply wish they had stuck with the Sex.

In the past I did work hard to articulate my core belief, without knowing that really it was all just an attempt to understand how in life you can get to be transhanded. My academic publication most cited according to Google Scholar, and in my own mind the one over which I sweated most effort, is a defence of the coherence and plausibility of Chomskyan linguistics, Language in Mind and Language in Society (1987). The book goes beyond Chomsky’s core concerns with how the human mind spontaneously develops the representation of a language and tries to show how, within a Chomskyan paradigm, there is still space for an account of an interaction between Nature and Culture in ways where the outcomes are not always easily predictable. Language growth is indeed triggered in the mind of human infants, but it is also to some degree shaped even though in growing their language infants do not begin by targeting the language around them. Infants are not heat-seeking missiles and they make their own way into language by a more devious route than imagined in theories (easily falsified by observation) which imagine language learning as a cumulative, straight line affair in which culture is simply ladled into the child. 

Later on, as teenagers or adults, many of us will fine-tune our language - spoken and written - to conform to what we think are prestige norms or political expectations. These adaptive modifications are made using small mental Apps. But those quite often get things wrong and are never comprehensive. You might not catch me out if we talk about philosophy, but should I have occasion to tell you to pull your trousers up you will probably spot that I have said trowzis as I still do despite much well-meaning correction. It was just so early in life that I learnt about trowzis and I’m rarely on high enough alert to defeat the past in the present. In contrast, in my writing life I have willingly moved from he to he or she to they and I can do the last so that it does not clunk, seems to be the natural thing.

The belief that all is cultural and nothing natural does have a longer history than I have so far implied. It fits well with any aspiration to control the lives of others. Despite their belief in original sin and such like, most religions are convinced that children can be moulded to fit, perhaps with some local difficulties needing to be overcome by beatings and starvings.  That religious conviction has been shared by English public schools and by American behaviourist psychologists - Chomsky earned some of his early fame from comprehensively trashing the mindless work of the behaviourist, B F Skinner.

But the belief that humans can be shaped has also been shared “on the left” where there is a long tradition of believing in the perfectibility of human beings. The long philosophical tradition was then reinvented in things like Soviet Pavlovian psychology and now in contemporary gender theory. 

The only comfort in all this is that it is just mistaken; beat and starve and shame on Twitter as much as you like and still human beings refuse to be shaped to order. It’s a wonderful if sometimes demanding thing that we live at the interface of nature and culture. But to my mind, it is the mark of authoritarian thinking to suggest that the interface does not exist, and that’s as true of those who believe that there is only Culture as those who believe that there’s only Nature.

But how the interface works is a complicated affair, each aspect of it no doubt subtly different. There are aspects which make humans more like cats and others which make them more like dogs. When there is a choice available, my advice is to feed your inner cat.

© Trevor Pateman 2019. First published here April 2019. The passage from Clement of Alexandria comes from his Christ the Educator, quoted in Jonathan Dollimore, Sexual Dissidences, page 108

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