American dreamtime


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Cultural Generativity
I have come to believe that the whole world is an enigma, a harmless enigma that is made terrible by our own mad attempt to interpret it as though it had an underlying truth.

— Umberto Eco, The Limits of Interpretation

Up to this point we have seen that many things we take to be simple truths of everyday life have a disturbing tendency to shred or fragment on close inspection. Lines have no fixed length, dimensions are pretty much what you want them to be, and even the notion of a “language,” which, after all, is what most of us depend on to communicate what we know about lines, dimensions, and everything else, turns out to be a surprisingly slippery entity. Much more disturbing than these rather arcane issues, however, are the implications that follow from applying the notions of intersystem, continuum, and semiospace to individuals — folks like you and me — considered as social beings and not just as speakers of a language or as reluctant students of geometry.

For a cherished belief and anchor of the myth of America is the individual: independent, practical, self-reliant, and with a distinct presence and wholeness — an integrity — about him. To propose, as I have just done, that the individual is actually a multiplicity of selves, a set of virtual beings (not unlike quantum wave-particles) spread (or smeared) out across a little domain of semiospace, is to make a frontal assault on the commonsense belief that, probably more than any other, is the ideological foundation of Dreamtime America. That assault, however, is not just a perverse little campaign I have mounted to shake up the good burghers of the land; at most I can take credit only for struggling to articulate here a truth that each of us (perhaps I should say “some of each of us”!) already recognizes but keeps locked up inside, permitting only an occasional Whitman to voice it outright. That truth is the agonizing tension, a palpable, wrenching force like binary stars of con­sciousness locked in a death struggle of centrifugal-centripetal motions, between our somehow intuited realization of Whitman’s multitudes within each of us and our compelling need to stand up and wave the flag of our individual, unique, personal identity, to proclaim that “This Is Me!” That tension pervades The Dreamtime, flooding our theatres and our lives with images of beings who are this rather than that, who are John Waynes rather than Gregor Samsas.23

The terrible ambivalence of myth we encountered earlier, in trying to make sense of the contradictory meanings “myth” possesses, is nowhere more evident than in the conceptions we frame and attempt to maintain of our fundamental natures, of what we, as individual human beings, are like. We strive mightily to act as though each of us were a coherent, unitary being, and, as part of that valiant but doomed attempt, even contrive a notion of truth that possesses, as its very essence, the coherence and unity we long to discover in ourselves. If the universe around us is whole, then so must we be. But when the universe, or what little we can see and say of it, turns out to be quite ambivalent about itself, when the building blocks of matter are sometimes particles and sometimes waves, maybe here and maybe there, maybe even existent or only “virtual,” then the coherence and unity of individual identity teeters vertiginously on the edge of chaos.

While this may all sound quite drastic (or to the skeptical, at least melodramatic), I submit that most of us have already learned to live with Whitman’s multitudes, even as we struggle to keep those “others” within us sorted out. For the one constancy in an individual’s life is change: you are not the being you were as a five-year-old, although that five-year-old is still with you, one of the voices of your multitudes. And as adults you and I are probably much like our friend from Topeka, who may well be another voice in our respective multitudes, in that we have experienced a number of those wrenching dislocations that are part and parcel of (post)modern existence: our family of childhood far away, dispersed, irretrievably lost; our spouses or lovers departed, turned bitter or indifferent; our children become aliens; our surroundings, even if they began as a Norman Rockwell pastoral of corn-on-the-cob shared at the family reunion picnic, become the fragmented, often terrifying existence of the drive-by shooting last night at Tony Wu’s teriyaki taco stand on Sepulveda. As the homily runs, you can take the boy out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the boy. Whether trying out his Spanish at that Anaheim Mobil station or dodging hot lead when he decided at just the wrong moment to indulge his newfound appetite for low-budget Cal cuisine, our Topekan friend still carries around a lot of Topeka with him, of Topekan selves who jostle in the tumult of the megalopolitan present to be heard among the cacophony of new, tentative voices, new selves stirring within their multiplex subject.

The clearing house or processing unit for those multitudinous selves strug­gling within the individual is a small cluster of beliefs we hold about what “people” or “humanity” or, more academically, “culture” is like. We don’t have to go around psychologizing about the depths of our individual psyches (all this stuff about “multitudes within”) because we believe deeply that people, apart from their idiosyncratic differences, are basically and uniformly people, human beings fundamentally distinct from anything else on the planet and the pos­sessors of a unique facility: culture. We may not follow all the twists and turns in their relationship When Harry Met Sally, but we assume without question that Harry and Sally as people have a familiar presence, a solidity about them that makes it possible for us to know them: their psychological acrobatics are anchored in the familiar bedrock of a “human nature.”

As I indicated in Chapter 2, there is a fundamental difficulty with the conventional view that people are a known quantity, i.e., ordinary people leading ordinary lives, upon which we merely embellish a decorative motif of stories or myths to entertain and instruct ourselves. At the heart of the conception of culture as semiospace — as a dynamic, dimensional, semiotic entity — is the principle of cultural generativity: the seemingly paradoxical, rather heretical notion that humanity itself is far from an established fixture of consciousness, a presence possessing a “human nature,” but is instead a shifting, drifting complex of identities and artifacts, a complex that is the (vectorial) product of cultural processes acting within a set of semiotic dimensions. Perception and language, as we have seen, can play tricks on us, and perhaps the most outrageous trick of all is our easy acceptance that the “people” or “humans” or, more grandly, “humanity” invoked in our casual thought and speech are a given, a natural feature of our experience that we can simply point to with an exasperated “There!” if ever we encountered someone perverse enough to question their integrality. The several versions of a materialist critique of myth examined in Chapter 2 fall prey to this trick, for they insist on some pre-established order or scheme, such as ecology, history, economy, that fixes humanity in place as a sort of dependent variable and only later allows in, by the back door, myth and its imaginative play of Dreamtime beings who are part-human, part-animal, and part-god. Cultural analysis, in working through the principle of cultural generativity, flies in the face of those approaches because it replaces the “.” behind “humanity” with a “?” .

At the conclusion of Chapter 2, I presented what is the underlying theme of this work: that myth has primacy because it is our means of working through elemental dilemmas that arise in the course of specifying who or what we are and of situating ourselves within a cognitized world, or Umwelt, which we construct and continually modify through our invention and use of artifacts. In short, myth is about human identity and its ever-changing nature in a world at whose bootstraps we are constantly tugging even as we march, or stagger, along. The relentless classificatory force that is the human mind, as described by Lévi-Strauss in Totemism, is such only because it is forever trying to place itself as subject within its framework of experience, which, not incidentally, it transforms as it goes along. Culture is the name we give to these inexorable processes of myth as it builds up, tears down, pushes and pulls at the very sense of who and what we are and what kind of a world we inhabit. Culture is the accumulating, shifting residue of ongoing conceptual and artifactual systems people have developed over the ages, on their way to becoming people and, quite probably, something other than people.

If this seems an odd way of thinking about humanity, which, after all, consists of “just plain folks,” then consider the alternative. We can relegate myth and its current vehicle, the supergrosser movies of Dreamtime America, to the back burner of human evolution only by supposing that “human nature” or “identity” or “culture” somehow just popped out of blue sky and gelled immutably at a particular time in the prehuman, precultural past.

In fact, a cinematic version of this just-suppose “theory” of human origins already exists: the opening scene of 2001: A Space Odyssey, in which dim-witted apes headed for extinction are zapped with a smart ray from the mysterious obelisk that has appeared outside their wretched cave dwelling, all to the thundering kettle drums of “Also Sprach Zarathustra.” A few aficio­nados of popular movies may object that Kubrick’s scene was anticipated by the work of another director given to epic themes: John Huston’s The Bible.24 And still others, of a fundamentalist if not fundamental turn of mind, may wish to argue vigorously that the book (or The Book) is a lot more important than either Huston’s or Kubrick’s movie, that it establishes once and for all exactly how and when humanity appeared on Earth and what its true, immutable nature is.

Now although anthropologists tend to get rather snappish when confronted with Bible-pounding creationists who want to stamp out the pernicious lie of evolution being spread by the nation’s heathen schoolteachers, I must admit to being fascinated, if ultimately saddened, by the uproar they have generated. What fascinates me about creationism, and what kept me riveted to the screen when I first saw 2001 despite the nagging little anthropologist’s voice in the back of my mind saying “This is a crock!”, is the great emphasis both give to creativity, to the awesome power involved in taking up a handful of mud or just a dull ape and transforming it into a soulful, sentient being. What deeply saddens me about both creationist dogma and Kubrick’s film is that, while seeming to celebrate the germ of divine (or at least extraterrestrial) creativity within the human spirit, they deny humanity any creativity after the fact: we are doomed to plod along in the path laid out for us until The Second Coming or until the next obelisk shows up on the moon. Both have come to bury culture, not to praise it.

I maintain, and would even hope to convince you through this work, that a special kind of creativity, which I insist pedantically on calling cultural generativity, is indeed the most powerful force behind the origin of humanity. But unlike the creationists and Kubrick’s film, I see that force continuing to operate, to shape and reshape humanity in fundamental ways. Things change, to be sure, but those changes are the result of processes within the system, within the semiospace of culture, and not of an external puppeteer jerking on the strings. The biblical creation as interpreted by our coiffed and mascaraed TV evangelists turns away from the spirit of creativity itself and, in my opinion, insults whoever might be up there, or out there, with the demeaning image of a humanity so constricted and lifeless that bringing it into being would not be such a grand accomplishment. In contrast with that diminished vision of what we humans are and may become, I would suggest that our very being is a con­sequence of and testimony to ongoing, generative cultural processes.

The best evidence for cultural generativity, for a continually evolving (or at least shifting) humanity, is the prominence or, as I have called it, primacy of myth itself. My argument here is extremely simple, which you may take as a plus or a minus. Suppose (we have supposed things before in preceding sec­tions that have got us into trouble; so watch out!) that cultural generativity and its vehicle, myth, in fact played little or no role in human origins. Instead, natural forces of the environment and biology or outright divine intervention (the choice is yours) operated on the planet and its emergent biota for billions of years (or six days), with the result that a particular species, Homo sapiens, appeared that possessed an intelligence born of adaptive response (or the breath of God). Without the elemental dilemmas of cultural generativity to fret about, that is, without Gregory Bateson’s schismogenesis or what I have called the ambivalence of myth in the picture, Homo sapiens could proceed directly with the chore of putting together culture. It would have warmed the heart of an early day “management training” specialist sent out from the head office to fire up the troops. And so the new species employed its facility of sapience in an exceedingly tidy, straightforward way: the plants, animals, human relatives and groups, and artifacts it found in its environment needed names (since with sapience they were now concepts, information embedded in a consciousness) and it set about expeditiously naming and classifying them. This task was not difficult, since everything corresponded closely to its intuited nature: lions were dangerous and to be avoided; fruits were sweet and good to eat (except the apple!); sex with parents or siblings wasn’t a good idea; the folks in the next valley were revolting beings to be killed on sight; you could knock a rock in a certain way to make a cutting tool.

If you find this a parodying treatment of “environmental determinism” or whatever label we give it, you are quite correct, but I would argue that any claim for an environmental (or divine) basis for the origin of a full-blown human consciousness is already self-parodying. In fact, you can find a similar collection of just-suppose stories that account for cultural origins in a text avidly read by anthropologists (at least embryonic ones) in the late sixties and prominently displayed in leading graduate departments of anthropology at the time: Anthro comic books.25

The problem with the just-suppose approach to cultural origins as outlined in our sketches above is that a world without something very like cultural generativity would look a lot like a real (but not reel!)-life version of Anthro comics. Consciousness, and specifically an artifactual intelligence, what I would call the true signature of humanity and culture, would be unrecognizable, and quite useless, in that world. The first hominids (who, it is important to bear in mind, lived over four million years before the appearance of modern Homo sapiens) would have sorted out themselves and their surroundings right at the start, assimilated the classificatory order of things they had imposed, and settled into a social life that varied little from eon to eon. Movement, process, change, vectorial semiotic forces, all would have been of negligible or non­existent significance in that protocultural world, which would have possessed the dreary timelessness of a colony of algal pond scum. Homo sapiens, and our comic book hero, Anthro, would never have made an appearance: they would not have been needed. The creationists notwithstanding, humanity as presently constituted in Homo sapiens has continuously and fundamentally transformed itself throughout its more than four million years of hominid speciation. And the predominant agent of transformation, the impetus behind the big brain, the erect posture, the dexterous hands, the early, foetalized birth, has been incipient culture, or protoculture: patterns of behavior (diet, division of labor, establishing a “home base,” infant care, sexuality, con­jugal bonding, intergroup relations) and artifact production whose adaptive value demanded more and more “computer time” and “RAM space” from the emergent consciousness.

The fundamental point here is that, even with four-plus million years to work on it, humanity has still not “got it right.” With all its newfound cognitive skills and its very recently acquired industrial and electronic technologies, Homo sapiens is still very much a project underway. In fact, the transfor­mational processes of culture, after proceeding at a leisurely rate for 99.9% of the hominid past, have now shifted into overdrive. If cultural processes influenced the course of biological speciation in the past, selecting for big brains with linguistic capabilities, for example, that is nothing compared with our developing ability to alter the human genome directly: biological speciation and cultural processes have been a synergistic complex for eons; they are now becoming one and the same. Whatever wrinkles biotechnology may introduce to this ancient mix of biology and culture, however, the important thing is that none of the high-tech wizardry would be happening were it not for the fact that the project of culture is intrinsically incomplete. If we had sorted things out with the invention of the Acheulian hand ax, or the wheel, or the Model T, or the computer, then not only technological change would have ground to a halt but cultural processes of identity formation, of establishing the shifting differences between this and that, would also have ceased. That people are still sorting out the basics of their existence attests to the intrinsically unfinished nature of culture and to the vitality of the mythic processes that accomplish that sorting-out. We wouldn’t have myths, including the current rash of supergrosser movies, if we didn’t need them.

Having made a general argument supporting the principle of cultural ge­nerativity, it is important, before moving on to the specific operations of that principle, to make clear what I do not mean by “cultural generativity.” As heirs of a tradition of “humanism” that extends back at least to the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century, we have become comfortable — too comfortable, I would argue — with a diffuse, self-congratulatory attitude toward ourselves as the “architects of our own experience,” the masters, for better or worse, of our destiny. Cultural anthropologists routinely endorse this general outlook on “the wonder that is man,” which is not surprising since they owe their dis­ciplinary existence to the ascendancy of humanism over the past two centuries. And in an excess of zeal, some anthropologists have even called explicitly (if redundantly) for a “humanistic anthropology” and enshrined that mission in the name of a professional association. I find this outlook, particularly when embraced by anthropologists, far too constricting. In fact, it is directly contrary to the perspective of a semiotic of culture, of an anthropological semiotics. Humanism, however well-intentioned (and it seems rather sacri­legious and “inhumane” to come out against it), installs “humanity” at the center of things, a splendid icon to be marveled at and relished.

Anthropological semiotics, perhaps regrettably, takes a less exalted, and certainly less complacent, view of “humanity.” Its radical premise is that the generativity of culture, the ceaseless arranging and rearranging of things, issues from humanity’s contingent, circumstantial existence, and not from humanity’s privileged occupancy of center stage in the universe. For me this premise, unflattering though it may be, is indispensable; it is certainly the foundation of this study. Since the world began long before Homo sapiens appeared on the scene and will end long after our species has vanished, a naive humanism that insists on a ptolemaic conception of humanity is an insupportable conceit. People, as a whole and as individuals, have issued from something, some prior state that was not of themselves, have undergone major changes in the course of their careers, and will relinquish their place in the scheme of things to heirs that differ fundamentally from themselves. In this radical sense of cultural generativity, humanity not only produces itself and its experiences, as a naive humanism would have it, but is itself produced by cultural processes that began long before Homo sapiens walked the earth and will quite probably continue after our version of sapience has transmuted into Something Else. Humanity, like languages and ant paths, occurs on a continuum, and can be understood only by following some of the pushes and pulls that continuum receives on its twisting, turning (vectorial) odyssey through the semiospace of culture.

The only way of retaining even a vestige of a spent humanism is to subvert drastically its most crucial principle: that Man (which was what they called humanity back in the bad old days) is at the center of things — what I have termed humanism’s ptolemaic conception of humanity. Nowhere is that con­ception stated more forcefully or with greater conceit than in René Descartes’ famous dictum, cogito ergo sum (“I think, therefore I am”). In a remarkable bit of what Nietzsche called “world historical irony,” Descartes proclaimed that the proof of existence itself (“How can I know that anything exists?”) hinged on his apperception of his own consciousness, while a few hundred miles away his contemporary Galileo was busily sketching the first outlines of a vast cosmos, an ultimate Being, which existed quite nicely, thank you very much, while relegating Descartes and his epistemology to the far-flung reaches of a nondescript galaxy scattered like a dust mote among billions of other galaxies.

[A Snippet of Intellectual History: Although philosophy has anointed Descartes as the “father of modern science” because of his early championing of rationalism, it is important to note that he was a mercenary and a coward. He employed his considerable mathematical skills to calculate artillery trajectories for whatever army was paying him at the time. And as for his being the “father of modern science,” when Galileo’s work earned him arrest and the threat of execution by the Church, Descartes immediately cancelled plans to publish his own scientific opus, Treatise on the World, and returned to his fawning prose to please both monarch and Pope. It is a scandal that this spineless opportunist should be held up as any kind of model for those genuinely interested, like Galileo, in pursuing real science.]

In the spirit of Galileo, if not with his rigor, I would suggest that the anthropocentric Cartesian cogito holds only if, invoking the principle of cultural generativity, we conceive of humanity as an absence at the center of things, a cipher to be filled with meaning through the operations of an artifactual intelligence. The fact that people think at all, that they are cultural beings who do things and effect changes in their surroundings, is due to the pronounced uncertainty, the relentless unclarity of their lives. The reason that we tell myths, that our minds continue to turn over at a frantic rate after a hundred thousand years or so as Homo sapiens and do not just sink into that immortal algal ooze, is that the fundamental characteristic of human identity is its ceaseless, tormented struggle with elemental dilemmas that issue from our particular brand of sentient existence.

Those dilemmas, themselves the product of the semiotic dimensions of cul­ture, operate as movements around the absent center that is humanity: they are parameter-setting, identity-testing, semiotic processes that function in the non-Euclidean domain of semiospace, and not in a tidy world of clearly de­lineated, preconceived categories that we, following Descartes’ seductive example, have popped out of a metaphysical hat. It follows that the (un­avoidable) subversion of Descartes’ cogito is precisely to reverse its terms and negate its second premise: “I am not, therefore I think” is much closer to the provisional truths revealed by anthropological semiotics than the classic formulation. Thinking is an emergent, generative process leading to self-consciousness only if the thinker is itself inherently incomplete, an intersystemic multiplicity of beings, a pastiche of lines and shadows that requires something, some form of consciousness to attempt to integrate those disparate elements, to connect the dots.

How, then, does humanity attempt to connect its dots (an activity whose fundamental importance artists since the pointillist Georges Seurat have understood)? The incompleteness inherent in the from-Something Else, to-Something Else nature of humanity is its distinguishing feature, and is therefore the primary focus of a semiotic of culture. The critical question for that developing field of inquiry then is: What are the continua, or semiotic dimensions, through which the generative phenomenon of humanity moves?

The Semiotic Dimensions of Culture
Animal <---------------------> Artifact/Machine

Us/Self <--------------------> Them/Other

Life Force <-----------------> Death Force
. . . I count as an aesthete since Sartre applies this term to anyone purporting to study men as if they were ants. But apart from the fact that this seems to me just the attitude of any scientist who is an agnostic, there is nothing very compromising about it, for ants with their artificial tunnels, their social life, and their chemical messages, already present a sufficiently tough resistance to the enterprises of analytical reason. . . So I accept the characterization of aesthete in so far as I believe the ultimate goal of the human sciences to be not to constitute, but to dissolve man. The pre-eminent value of anthropology is that it represents the first step in a procedure which involves others. . . This first enterprise opens the way for others. . . which are incumbent on the exact natural sciences: the re­integration of culture in nature and finally of life within the whole of its physico-chemical conditions. (emphasis added)

— Claude Lévi-Strauss, The Savage Mind

Man is a thing that will pass.

— Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra

Enjoy your humanity. . . while it lasts.

— Chief Supreme Being, My Stepmother Is an Alien

I have said that this work is a scouting expedition, an attempt to try out some theoretical ideas new to cultural anthropology on some material — popular movies — generally neglected by anthropologists. Nowhere is that remark more appropriate than in this section, in which I attempt what an artist could only call a gesture drawing: a quick, impressionistic sketch of a subject that aims at capturing, in passing, something of its essential nature. The “subjects” in this case are the semiotic dimensions of culture, of that semio­space on which I have been harping for scores of pages. And while the sketch I offer here is undeniably provisional, I can assure you that it has not come as easily to me as a gesture drawing: thinking it through even at this rough stage has been for me a long, grueling, and truly mind-altering experience.

But the basics of my argument are quite simple. If our essential nature as cultural beings is generative and processual, and if myth as I have described it here is the vehicle for those generative processes of identity formation, then a close inspection of our myths will reveal the parameters, or dimensions, of semiospace. So where, according to our myths, have we come from, and where are we going? What are our myths about?

In wrestling with this simple question for some years, I have come up with three pairs of answers, three semiotic dimensions of culture that infuse our myths with meaning. It is doubtlessly possible to add to this number; it is certainly possible to take the three pairs or constructs and produce a model of semiospace with multiple, even infinite dimensions, much as Penrose has described for phase space and Hilbert space and Eigen for the sequence space of viral quasispecies. But those are refinements that may be added to the gesture drawing after the fact, provided only that the drawing has any vitality to it. And though there may be more than three constructs, I am convinced that there are no fewer than three, that the movements I identify in our movie-myths involve at a fundamental level the three constructs.

The three constructs are:

Animal <---------------------> Artifact/Machine

Us/Self <--------------------> Them/Other

Life Force <-----------------> Death Force
As semiotic dimensions of the semiospace of culture, these constructs describe the vectorial forces or movements operating on every social action in our lives and on every element of every cultural production. The system, a sort of spacetime of consciousness, which these constructs form may be very roughly visualized in two ways (see Figures 3.4 and 3.5). Figure 3.4 is a kind of schematized “little picture” of the anti-Cartesian perspective on humanity as an absence at the center of things. Its point is that what we are willing to call “humanity” at any one time is the sum of generative processes acting on individuals, so that humanity is a shifting, convoluted entity suspended within the field or semiospace formed by the three dimensions of culture. The identities or forces of animal, artifact/machine, us/self, them/other, life force, and death force impinge on that shifting entity with differing intensities, depending on the particular cultural production involved. For example, the contours of humanity that emerge from James Bond movies (which pay little attention to animals) are quite different from those that emerge from Jaws.

Figure 3.5 is my adaptation of Penrose’s multidimensional broccoli sprouting in phase space; it is the “big picture” that incorporates Figure 3.4, the detailed contours of “humanity,” as but one of a very large number of other complexly bounded units. One point of Figure 3.5 is that every scene in a popular movie, every utterance and gesture we make in the course of a day, every minute piece of culture, has an orientation, a movement with respect to the six poles of the semiotic axes. As with our ant path and our Topekan friend’s adventures in language-learning, we may choose to focus on relatively large or small chunks of experience. With increasingly fine-grained detail, semiospace is seen to be a froth of minute bits of culture, each with its vectorial movement. In the topical essays that follow, I adopt a decidedly rough-grained focus or scale, selecting a lengthy and complex production such as Star Wars and treating that as a large chunk or domain of semiospace whose vectorial movement can be treated as a unit.

But Figure 3.5 is meant to represent another, and far more imposing fea­ture of semiospace. This has to do with the all-important issue of boundaries between domains of semiospace. How do boundaries function in semiospace, and what are the properties of the domains they separate? These questions are far more complicated than conventional notions of “text” and “context” would suggest, for in my view this is precisely the point where cultural anthropology comes bump up against quantum mechanics and cosmology (hopefully to their mutual enrichment). The following analogy aims at establishing some very rough correspondences among those disparate fields, at sketching the outlines of a cosmology of consciousness (and, just perhaps, of the consciousness of that Being we call the cosmos).

Figure 3.4. Tendrils of Identity (A Cross-Section).

Virus, Language, Humanity: Internal Variation within a “System”.

Figure 3.5. The Frothiness of Semiospace: A Cosmos of Consciousness

Here is a recipe or model for constructing a somewhat more dynamic ver­sion of Figure 3.5. Imagine one of our large stadiums, the Pasadena Rose Bowl, for example, (fittingly enough, just up the road from Cal Tech) filled to the point of overflowing with soap bubbles. These bubbles are made from soaps of different viscosities and surface tensions, so that they vary greatly in size: some are novelty store items the size of basketballs, some are ordinary soap bubbles of an inch or less in diameter, and some are really more of a foam — infinitesimal bubbles like those in shaving cream. All these variously sized bubbles are randomly distributed throughout the vast volume of the Rose Bowl, transforming it into a colossal, frothy sundae composed of billions of the bubbles. Its randomness makes it a fairly lumpy sundae. Here and there the basketball-sized gag store bubbles clump together to give it a large-grained texture; elsewhere, between those pockets of oversized bubbles, whole Wal-Mart stores full of shaving-cream-sized bubbles have accumulated. Besides being remarkably large, this anthro-cosmo sundae is also far more dynamic than the common drug store variety: it has lots of snap, crackle, and pop. For here and there, still completely at random, large bubbles collapse to form smaller ones, while tiny foam-like bubbles fuse to become macroscopic in size.

Now, the prankster who filled the Rose Bowl with these bubbles has pulled another incomprehensible stunt. From the middle row that stretches around the stadium, he has fixed two cables extending clear across the field at right angles, so that they cross above the center of the field to form a gigantic “X”. At the ends of these two cables, he has affixed, as though from a half-time show scripted by Magritte, four giant labels: “Animal,” “Artifact/Machine,” “Us/Self,” and “Them/Other.” To complete this warped, existential joke, the prankster has erected a towering flagpole right in the middle of the field, which intersects the mid-air nexus of the “X” and soars upward to the very top of the brimming froth. There he has attached a curious banner that reads “Life Force.” At the base of the flagpole he has laid out on the ground the (suitably chthonic) inscription, “Death Force.”

His prank completed, he exits the scene, leaving the Rose Bowl looking, from the perspective of the baffled pilots of the Met Life blimp who arrive the next morning, like a gigantic confection miraculously deposited in the middle of Brookside Golf Course (truly frosting on the cake of the California Dream) and topped off, not with a cherry, but with some bizarre, quixotic banner.

Now it turns out that the Rose Bowl groundskeepers have done less than their usually meticulous job on that expensive piece of turf: amid the immaculately trimmed blades of grass they have overlooked — you guessed it! — an ant hill. Their negligence is understandable, though, for the ants in this particular ant hill are members of an incredibly tiny species, like those West Indians call “sugar ants” but much, much smaller — mere mites of the ant world. After our prankster has departed, one of these tiny creatures (we will call it René) pokes a proboscis out of its little doorway and discovers (fait incroyable!) that its world has been transformed. The neat, clipped blades of grass with their lovely aphids have been crushed beneath an enormous mass of frothy stuff. And so, filled with ant angst, René sets out to explore its new world of bubbles, like a levitating Lawrence Welk, and abandons the familiar grassy turf for this new, celestial realm.

As with our other ant friend’s trip across the sidewalk, René’s path through the bubble world is tortuously complex, full of zigs and zags as it goes from one bubble to another. Because of its minute size, René finds that it is able to enter each bubble it approaches, whether it is an immense basketball-sized affair or a comfy fleck of Gillette foam. It simply pushes through the membrane of one bubble and — hey, presto! — it is inside another, inside its own private capsule. Of course, all this poking and prodding does produce some dramatic changes in its surroundings: on entering a giant bubble, it occasionally bursts and reforms as a smaller, snugger one around it; or a tiny bit of foam it squeezes into may swell by fusing with a couple of adjoining flecks. But large or small, stable or unstable, the end result is the same: René finds itself in a hermetically sealed, self-contained bubble world all its own.

Why, you ask, have you had to suffer through another ant parable? My answer, or apology, is that this little story contains most of the elements of culture I have been discussing. The enormous frothy, lumpy mass filling the Rose Bowl represents semiospace, or culture, transected by the three semiotic axes. Its only limit — the edge of the froth — is the limit of that artifactual intelligence I have been insisting on as the sine qua non of every cultural system. Or, as Edgar Allen Poe phrased the matter before quantum me­chanics and cosmology expanded the scope of things exponentially, “The only limit of the human mind is its own fog.”

Now, every one of the billions of bubbles in the stadium, from the largest to the smallest, represents a potential or actual artifactual intelligence. Some of the bubbles, more or less depending mainly on how you choose to confer the title, represent a potential or actual “humanity.” Glance back at Figure 3.5 for a moment. The filament-like tendrils snaking off in all directions from just one of our (highly complex) bubbles would, in the real/reel world of the Rose Bowl cultural universe, encounter and twist all around other tendrils of other bubbles representing other intelligences. It would be a commonplace occur­rence for a site on the extremity of one of “our” tendrils to be located much nearer the nucleus of some other bubble, some other intelligence. And if we find “humanity” installed at that particular, far-flung site, what are we to say about the intelligences represented by other, more proximate sites which happen to lie on the other side of that complex membrane separating bubbles, sites which are located within some other bubble? Rather than reify what is impossibly complex, the Mandelbrot line of a membrane separating the bubble of “humanity” from all other proximate bubbles, I believe the only workable procedure is to say that “humanity” comprises a region or domain of our bubble space. That domain may contain ten bubbles or ten million, depending primarily on the parameters of your observations, of the ruler you choose to use. To simplify this fundamental point greatly, I would suppose that, at the very least, a large-grained image of the domain of semiospace representing “humanity” would distinguish separate bubbles for extinct species of the Homo genus (including Homo habilis and Homo erectus).

The bubble René happens to find itself in at a particular moment repre­sents the conceptualized world or Umwelt, and thus “humanity” as constituted at that time. All the bubbles surrounding René, which it really cannot make out until it pushes through the membrane separating its world from those others, represent the Something Else(s) that surround our own world, our own particular version of that artifactual intelligence we have chosen to call “humanity.” As for our favorite heuristic ploy, the ant path itself, René’s path from bubble to bubble (really, through bubble after bubble) represents a particular career or history of one artifactual intelligence, one species if you choose to call it that. That career, as we know from our earlier consideration of ant paths, is one among billions, and is subject to vicissitudes of mea­surement we had best leave unexplored at this stage. For simplicity’s sake, let us just say that some version of René’s wiggly, squiggly path through the sea of froth — the series of bubble worlds it penetrates and exits — represents “our” 4.5 million-year hominid past.

To complete our parable, we would need to endow René with a staggering exaggeration of its ant nature: instead of undergoing metamorphosis to adult­hood only once in its life, an incredibly versatile René would experience that fundamental transformation each time it entered a new bubble. Thus the membrane of the bubble it penetrates is indistinguishable from the membrane that separates larva from adult. It is the membrane of birth, whether physical birth or the birth of consciousness, and penetrating it is always a passage from one Something Else to another (rather like what Wittgenstein called forms of life).

Through all this, however, René remains an adventurous and highly intel­ligent ant: it was, after all, the first ant out of the gate after the Great Transformation. And, proud of its own courage and intelligence as it pursues its erratic course deeper and deeper into the sea of froth, it recites a little ditty to itself to bolster its spirits: cogito ergo sum, cogito ergo sum, cogito ergo sum.

If this parable, simple as it is, already seems to raise too many complex and hypothetical issues, I hesitate to add that even the “frothiness” of semiospace as represented in Figure 3.5 does not begin to capture the complexity of a cultural system. For if there is any correspondence among cultural analysis, quantum mechanics and cosmology, if those multitudinous selves of Whitman are truly dwelling within each of us like particle-waves or baby universes of con­sciousness, then it is necessary to postulate that each minute piece of culture, each tiny signification, each fleck of anthro-cosmic foam possesses a poten­tially infinite number of interpretations, of possible locations in semiospace, smeared out across the froth. After all, we do have René becoming different ants (or different antities) as it goes along, and there are presumably a lot of ants still in the hill where René started. What happens when they head out into the froth, creating ant paths of their own and in the process disrupting parts of the bubble-trail “inscribed” by the pioneering René? What happens when René pops through into the next bubble and finds (mirabile dictu!) two little antennae waving in its face, a fellow traveler whose path has crossed its own?

Although the implications of these situations are as mind-boggling as Penrose’s account of Hilbert space, with its quantum particles that are anywhere and everywhere at once, they nevertheless surface in familiar aspects of everyday life. For example, you and I may go to Jaws and find entirely different messages in that movie and in particular scenes from that movie. Also, if Jaws happens to be the late-night creature feature on TV tonight and you decide to watch it, for nostalgia’s sake or just out of boredom, it is a certainty that your response to the movie, the articulation of your conscious­ness and the image frames of the film, will be significantly different now, twenty years down the stretch, than when you lined up with the masses in 1975 to see it in living(?!), gore-dripping Cinemascope and Dolby. When semio­space is regarded as akin to the Hilbert space of quantum mechanics or to the baby universes of recent cosmology, then a decent cultural analysis of Jaws would require a chapter from each of the multitudinous selves of each viewer of the movie — say, just to get started, a chapter a month from each of the hundreds of millions of people who have seen it over the past twenty years.

It is daunting considerations like these that have both intrigued and intimidated me as I labored to apply my anthropologist’s knowledge of myth to an analysis of popular movies and the peculiar American culture that has created them. I air these abstract considerations at this point, rather than at the end of the section, because I feel it is important for you to keep the analogy or ratio,

quantum mechanics : cultural analysis : cosmology


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