The Cultural Essay: What is “culture” anyway?

This is a question I have been asking myself a lot lately.

This semester, I’ve taken on several projects which have necessitated a lot of self exploration. Through this exploration, I’ve been forced to come face to face with questions concerning identity. As a biracial woman, I’ve found myself either occupying multiple, seemingly conflicting, cultures, or completely culture-less. Until I realized, do I even really know what culture is?

Merriam-Webster offers six definitions of the word “culture” (many of them containing sub-definitions). Most intriguing when considering what this word might mean for us as writers thinking about the cultural essay is:

a :  the integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief, and behavior that depends upon the capacity for learning and transmitting knowledge to succeeding generations

b :  the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group; also :  the characteristic features of everyday existence (as diversions or a way of life} shared by people in a place or time popular culture Southern culture

c :  the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution or organization a corporate culture focused on the bottom line

d :  the set of values, conventions, or social practices associated with a particular field, activity, or societal characteristic

By this definition, culture has many forms. For example, I may belong to vegan culture, to liberal arts college culture, to undergrad creative writing major culture, as much as I do to deeper seeded cultures. While, of course, cultures that are based in racial or geographic sharing are richer, having had years to cultivate and being informed by layers upon layers of complex history, these smaller now cultures have a richness of their own, and still inform our lives the way they can inform our writing.

If you’re like me, you may be sighing with relief, I do have a culture.  This is a common concern particularly for those who identify as white. While I do not identify as white, I grew up in a majority-white town, in an all-white family. So, culturally, I’m pretty white. But what does that mean? How many times have we heard “white people have no culture?” I won’t attempt to unpack that statement, because there is a lot there. I just want to point out that culture need not only be identified by race, so if you’re feeling culture-less, you’re not.

Now that we’re one step closer to understanding what culture might mean, how do we write about the cultures to which we belong, how do we turn them into an essay? This is where things get complicated… I think we already are. The small cultures to which we belong are the things that make us unique, that give us something to write about. For example, I belong to small town culture, more specifically small town Western New York culture, and this was the backbone of my piece “High Speed.” I also belong to a culture of college students who know how to cook, and this informed my piece “Tastes Like Darkness.” Yet, these were not cultural essays.

The cultural essay is defined as “a writer’s intellectual and emotional engagement with a certain aspect or artifact of a particular culture, which involves the writer’s first-hand experiences, thoughts, and insights. Compared with a personal essay, a personal cultural criticism sheds light on specific cultural issues that are loaded with more collective features of a cultural or sub-cultural group instead of the mere idiosyncratic bearing on the writer himself.

As Robert L. Root, Jr. and Michael Steinberg claim in The Fourth Genre (2nd ed.), ‘Including this personal voice in cultural criticism surrenders some of the authority–or the pretense of authority–generally found in academic writing, but substitutes for it the authority of apparent candor or personal honesty” (xxv), the voice that expresses the writer’s candid opinion on the cultural issue is what divides the subgenre from the academic critique.'”

So, what seems to truly define the cultural essay is less the culture that informs it, but more the voice of the collective, the sense of community promised by this voice. We saw this in Gloria Anzaldúa’s “La Conciencia de la Mestiza,” the way the “I” was used only sparingly in the piece.

Without undermining the importance of writing on and about larger cultures (those based on ethnicity, nationality, etc.), I think it’s particularly important for us, as writers in the age of Trump, to harness and channel the collective voice in our writing, seeing if we can’t explore our own emotional engagement with an aspect of our own particular cultures. Jess’s writing prompt this week asked us to do so, and while I found it really difficult to get started, it became one of the most rewarding writing exercises this semester.

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