The Origins of Culture

This column also appears in the Orange County Register.

Once upon a time when the young woman who would become me was a freshman at Cal Berkeley studying French, art history, anthropology, mythology, literature and on weekends, beer and poetic boys with long hair, she was lucky enough to get into a very crowded physical anthropology class taught by a professorial luminary whose name, almost four decades later, I can no longer recall.

Apparently, he possessed an equally dazzling array of friends whose names he enjoyed dropping casually into conversation from time to time, reminiscing once about the time Louis and Mary (Leaky) came to dinner at his home.

This bombastic revelation occurred near the end of his lecture as I’d started to drowse off, and I admit I had trouble distinguishing whether he’d said he’d had them “to” dinner or “for” dinner.

Judging by the tone of his imperious, professorial chortling, you’d have thought Olduvai Gorge was in this guy’s backyard.

Later in the day I considered my own anthropological expeditions.  My friends and I had amassed a wonderful cache of Native American arrowheads of varied shapes and sizes collected during our wanderings in the foothills near our neighborhood, and while they weren’t Australopithecine or Homo habilis fossils, they were pretty impressive.    And we didn’t have to travel to Africa, just up the street into the still wild fields past the Northrups’ house.  They were strewn in the chaparral just beyond the mint-choked creek with all the pollywogs.

I suspected if I dug around, I could come up with a few interesting bones, myself.

However, I admit to being fairly impressed.  We all were.  In fact, I loved every minute of that course, mesmerized by the ossified and humble remnants of our remote origins, the tangible remnants of a human history so remote, it had turned to stone.  A hippie girl sporting jeans and long hair had reached along an astounding evolutionary trajectory to shake hands with a nearly naked ancestor.

Culture and creativity

The Starry Night
The Starry Night

Though I learned many things about those long gone cousins who probably gazed into the vastness of the night sky just as I do, the one factoid that lingered over time was delivered almost as a rather offhand afterthought, not unlike the revealing things patients say on their way out of the room.  Waving his pointer like a bone, Professor Luminous remarked that the currents of cultural rather than physical evolution have exerted a much greater impact on the evolution of our particular species over time.   Huh?  I perked up and shivered, considering the magnificence of a recently studied Rembrandt, glorious, exotic and painterly.

While our physiology has remained rather stable over millennia, cultural evolution has actually carried us forward.  From that moment on, I experienced the environment in which I lived as resonant and almost alive.

Despite a subsequent course in cultural anthropology during which we studied the customs and mores of several diverse communities, including the culture of organized criminals, the actual origins of culture remained indistinct.  Perhaps they were simply taken for granted.  I never really thought about them until I began to study psychoanalysis several decades and numerous personal incarnations later.  The young girl who fell in love with art and culture had become an interesting woman of substance.

Cultures define us

We are surrounded by and inhabit myriad cultures, each distinguished by distinctive identifying features that serve to circumscribe and organize the lives of those who subscribe to them.   We each inhabit unique families whose membership is delineated by both implied and overtly defined rules and features. 

Oh, we’re all funny.  The Smiths are athletic and outdoorsy.  Oh, the Silvers hate fish.  Or mayonnaise.  Or ferns.  Or whatever.

High school girl culture is defined by sartorial homogeneity, an often ruthless pecking order and the eschewing of general household responsibilities in favor of parties and loud entertainment.   The culture of religiously observant Jews is defined by adherence to scripture and its attendant behavioral prescriptions and proscriptions that include obvious dress codes and less obvious dietary laws.

Beach culture differs from urban culture, and those who inhabit both realms alternately modify their behavior according to which sphere they happen to be occupying at the moment.  The culture of Mercedes Benz drivers differs significantly from that of NASCAR drivers.  The social blogosphere culture is loosely defined by its frequent lack of reality testing, fact checking and editorial oversight.

When lawyers are surfing, they do not wear three piece suits; when they appear in court, they do not wear wetsuits.  The man wearing work attire, with whom you ride the commuter train on weekdays, may confound you if you see him on the golf course on Saturday afternoon sporting gaudy plaid shorts.  (I never quite understood the function of that particular golf culture dress code decree.  Maybe it scares away the birds.  If you have any ideas, definitely let me know.)

So, we say to ourselves… I think I know that guy… he looks so familiar but…

We define culture

While these groups may appear to have little in common, they do share a fundamental common denominator in that each culture is a fabricated construct, an organizing schema, permitting and encouraging its members to recognize each other and behave in accordance with tacit, cultural mores and rules.   Each culture has been created, formulated, devised, designed and written, documented and invented by men and women.

Trouble ensues when members of one culture feel environmentally mismatched and wish to belong elsewhere, but that’s another column.  Today I’m interested in the origins of culture and the creative dynamics involved in their formation.

Culture begins in mommy’s arms

To examine the nascent origins of culture, we must return to the intimate world of the mommy-baby matrix, the undifferentiated sphere wherein mother and baby continue to exist the semi-merged state reminiscent of pregnancy.

As the eminent child psychoanalyst, Donald Winnicott wrote, “there is no baby without a mother, and there is no mother without a baby.”

Mother and child in a boat
Mother and child in a boat

Sooner or later, as the baby begins to mature, he will begin to recognize that he and mommy are not actually fused, though he will rely upon her actual emotional strength to contain him for many years.  Indeed, he will rely upon his internalized representation of her image to guide him for the rest of his life.

Instead of burying his face in her neck when she picks him up, he pushes back and looks her in the eye.  Aha, he thinks!  We are two.  At that profoundly significant existential moment, the growing baby can begin to experience loneliness, but for the first time, he can also experience a real relationship.

Together yet separate

Moving forward in time, the baby has become a toddler and is taking bolder steps away from mom, though he checks in regularly to make certain she is still there.  He is able to take increasingly daring risks, because he has come to realize that not only is his existence permanent, hers is, also.  When she leaves for work or steps into the kitchen out of view, he comprehends that her existence in time and space continues seamlessly even when she is not visible to him.   He has also internalized an image of her, so that he can call her to mind when she is absent.  Similarly, he does not evaporate when he cannot see or be seen by her.

The daring risk of stepping into psychological space

These first steps toward an increasingly defined subjectivity or personal autonomy are psychologically risky.

Letting go of mom without knowing what exists beyond her gaze and arms represents the prototype for every risk the baby will take in his life.   We all fee like babies when taking risks.

I smile when I remember that the mother of a childhood friend observed him sitting in his PJ’s watching cartoons on the morning of his wedding.  This stalwart risk is the emotional equivalent of releasing your grip on the side of the pool, trusting that you will float on the water’s surface.

He must bring her along somehow, so that he is not utterly alone as he steps into what is called “transitional space,” the space midway between fusion and autonomy.  It is considered transitional in that it is the nodal juncture between a more mature independence and the merger states of the womb and early infancy.

Transitional objects

Because these nascent steps away from mom and toward independence require that the child traverse unknown territory relatively unaccompanied by mom, he devises a protective stratagem: he anoints a possession, like a blanket, with protective and magical qualities.  When used as a talisman, the blanket serves as a “transitional object.”  Embodying mom’s comforting and containing traits, the child is permitted to take a psychological risk.

Carrying a little bit of mommy with him, he takes his first steps into the world as a unique individual.

Though it is true that he can now experience the loneliness of separateness and its attendant longings, he has staked a claim in his own creative life.  Indeed, without activated longings or desire and a suitable uncluttered space in which to achieve them, there can be no creativity or culture.

Psychological space as a creative medium

The child’s initial forays into transitional space also serve as the prototype for a more mature and expansive psychological play space that functions not only as culture’s womb but as the locus of all relational life.  A relationship is defined by two individual people interacting together, creating a third psychological space that opens up at their point of intersection.  This womb-like sphere represents the interactive space wherein two entirely separate people interact and become “we.”

Baby at play
Baby at play

Indeed, this space, pregnant with potentiality and possibilities, represents the very origins of all creativity and originality.  It’s fertile vacancy is the ultimate source.   Subsequently, all cultures serve what was originally a maternal or paternal function: they contain us and make us feel safe and protected and “correct.”   They both hold and free us to expressively design architecture, compose music, study geology, lay pipe, sell insurance or cut hair.

Tolerating ambiguity

In order to live creatively, the child and later, the adult, must first learn to tolerate the ambiguity of psychological and physical space to activate his creative potential.  The movement from unformed experience and the accompanying chaos of uncertainty to a more integrated position whereby the building blocks of ideas are organized and harnessed into something useful, begins in infancy and ends with culture and creative living.

We use this third space to craft our individual lives.  We use it to forge significant relationships with other people, with works of art or resonant music.  Beginning with a raw concept or idea, I used it to write this column.

As members of groups, we use it to create the rich cultures that not only offer community attachments and affiliation but fill our senses with culinary redolence, inspirational imagery and the vast delicacies of the grand human experience.  The cultural evolution we observe among ourselves is really an artful expression of mental life made manifest.

2 thoughts on “The Origins of Culture”

  1. This is magnificent Mauri-Lynne. I love your style of writing and the thoughts you provoke in my mind. I can picture the dinner with the professor..It’s very cool! I am so proud of you for taking this step! I can’t wait to read the book!

  2. You always paint such interesting pictures with your words. I will be considering ideas from this article for some time, especially your ideas about the transitional space “pregnant with potentiality and possibility.” The fertile vacancy has parallels to vacuum theory in physics (concerned with the ultimate source of potentiality) , a bit obscure I suppose, but interesting how the sciences of minds and bodies regularly overlap. Thank you for sharing your perspective and experience!

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