Not something that happens
But the way something happens
-- Charles Ives,
Essays Before a Sonata

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Ethnomusicology, baby formula, and the perfume of language

The things you notice when you're both a parent and an ethnomusicologist. One day I was giving my daughter a bottle and idly reading the label of the can of formula when I scratched my head over the trademark Natural Cultures. To anyone who knows the histories and meanings of these terms, this phrase is a direct contradiction. It makes no more sense than if a state park were called Developed Wilderness. Yet marketing language is more often based on the perfume words emit rather than the denotative meanings of those words.

The 17th century philosopher Thomas Hobbes famously described the "state of nature" as "nasty, brutish, and short." In Christian theology, the "natural man" is the human in an unredeemed state, prior to the reception of the gospel. In neither school of thought is it a compliment to label something as natural. The idea that the natural is something desirable, even a prelapsarian state of grace, developed in the thinking of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the Romantics of the 19th century. In a sense, we Americans are all Romantics now, since this idea of the natural is so pervasive among us as to be unquestioned. And since the Food and Drug Administration does not define the term natural, almost anything can be sprayed with the perfume of the word. If euthanasia becomes legal, I imagine that someone will market an all-natural euthanasia aid made from USDA organic lima beans.

Culture, on the other hand, has had a host of definitions over time, but all of them have in common the idea of human agency. One use of the word describes the act of growing biological material under controlled conditions: a throat culture is removing bacteria from the throat and growing them in a petri dish, while agriculture is growing plants in a systematic way in a field or greenhouse. Precisely because of the human agency involved, throat cultures and agriculture are not natural.

I can imagine the dilemma of those marketing infant formula: they need to come up with a euphemism for the bacteria in their product. People like the idea of nature in the abstract, but few realize that the nature of the human digestive system is to rely on symbiotic bacteria to do some of the work of digestion. Moreover, one of the current crazes in parenting is the use of antibacterial products (which, perversely, may do more harm than good.) The marketers could have chosen the term probiotic, which some yogurt manufacturers use for the bacteria in their products. The term sounds unthreatening and positive, but it's also abstract and scientific. It lacks the stinky perfume of "bacteria" but does not substitute a more alluring one.

Not so with the term culture. The term culture does have this alluring perfume, though I don't think this is because of the use of the term in biology as described above. In his recent book Beyond Exoticism: Western Music and the World, Timothy Taylor describes an experience that I have had on a number of occasions. People often tell me that they are interested in learning more about "cultural music," and they think it is admirable that I am able to teach on such subjects for a living. What do they mean by "cultural music"? Is there such a thing as noncultural music? Generally, it turns out that by cultural they mean foreign or exotic.

The use of culture in this sense is a popularization of the concept of culture promulgated in anthropology and related disciplines beginning in the late 19th century. In these contexts, culture describes the customs, beliefs, and practices that a group of people uses to make sense of the world. Of course, in this period of time, anthropologists were primarily interested in what they then called "primitive cultures," and they often decried the "loss of culture" that occurred as these societies came into contact with modernizing influences. Anthropology today has distanced itself somewhat from this model of what culture is, but the popularization continues to have force.

And I think it is a pernicious popularization if it reinforces the idea that one's own way of looking at the world is default, unmarked—in short, "not cultural"—while other people's ways of looking at the world are deviations from this norm. In this way a subtle form of ethnocentrism can creep into our thought via the language of multiculturalism.