428. The Culture I Was Born To

February 10, 2015

Embracing all the ways of the human world, “culture” labels a concept so large and abstract that it has room for almost any idea, construct, behavior, object, or institution we can imagine being projected outward from the collective human mind onto the natural world. Pizza is an aspect of culture, as is a school bus, AK-47, hula hoop, an abacus, the Eifel Tower, and religious strife in the Middle East.

Reduced to a metaphor, culture has many faces. It can be seen as:

  • A people’s collective human agenda writ large on the Earth.
  • The façade we erect to make nature acceptable to us.
  • The mask we force nature to wear in our presence to reshape its looks to our liking.
  • The great mirror we put up to reflect our personal likes and dislikes as if they were features of the world.
  • The wall we build around ourselves to keep the wild world at bay.
  • The stage set we prefer to our natural setting.
  • The human context we are born to, including its language, vocabulary, reference libraries, statistics, artifacts, histories, wars, arts, sciences, ideas, monuments, communication media, ways of getting about, trade routes, and all the rest.

Think Mount Rushmore, Hoover Dam, Suez Canal, Stonehenge, The Koran, Bible, Sayings of Confucius. Songs of Woody Guthrie. Beethoven string quartets. Our courts and penal system. Cosmology through the ages. Be sure to include Facebook, Google, Wikipedia, Amazon, and the legislative stalemate in Washington.

Culture is nothing less than the public forum where we engage throughout our lives, the stage where we each give our personal performance. We ought to know, we built it ourselves. Not the original, but the one we keep running in good order with daily contributions of our collected dreams, needs, and desires. In that sense, culture is a reification (thingification) of our thoughts, imaginings, hopes, fears, and all the rest of the contents of our personal black boxes.

When we were infants, the then culture of our birth family calibrated our inner workings in the terms we would grow into and live by for the rest of our lives. It gave us a repertory of numbers, letters, words, gestures, symbols, songs, poems, stories, behaviors, lies, and beliefs useful in describing our inner thoughts and situations.

Now that we are older and know the ropes, we give back in kind to keep the show going for the next generation, modified to slight degree by the gleanings of our cumulative personal experience. As adults, the whole thing is now our intellectual property because we’ve given it nothing less than our perceptions, meanings, judgments, actions, and engagements, all adding up to nothing less than our inner lives turned inside-out.

I remember being told that I was born in Faxton Memorial Hospital in Utica, New York, in the dark days of The Depression in 1932. That puts the culture I was born to in Upstate New York during days of high unemployment. One of the primary goals people had in that place and time was, if not getting “ahead,” at least holding their own. I was given tests in school to see how I would measure-up at getting a good job. Which was seen as something called my “intelligence.”

Nobody could tell me what that word meant, but it seemed to imply how smart I was in terms of doing well on the test, and perhaps beyond that, doing well in life. Cultures do a lot of that—gauging how well young people can expect to fit into the beliefs of their particular segment of humanity. Which often turns out to be a kind of superstition that such tests actually measure a meaningful mental quality that individuals are said to possess in varying amounts.

So here I am today, a grown-up child of that upstate culture, writing about “situated intelligence” as if I knew what it meant. It is only fair that I share that understanding with anyone who happens to read these words.

I use situated intelligence in referring to the key link between perception and action in individual human minds. In my last post (Reflection 427), I wrote, “Consciousness comes down to having behavioral options and choosing among them.” I see situated intelligence as the agent responsible in each of us for making such judgments and decisions regarding how to respond to any particular situation as based on the configuration of a great many dimensions contributing to the nature of just that situation.

As I now see it, personal intelligence responds to three Questions. Perception, I have said, gives our best answer to the question, “What’s going on?” from our point of view at that moment. Judgment answers the question, “What does that mean in my case?” With action following on to give the answer to, “What should I do?”

As I see it, our intelligence plays the central role in coming up with answers to those questions in order, so linking perception of ongoing events to actions meant as an appropriate response to those same events. What I call situated intelligence serves as the mediating agent that routes incoming signals toward outgoing actions in a meaningful way.

That link, in other words, is the central focus of what I call our loops of engagement with selected aspects of our external environments, enabling us to fit our behaviors to the situations we find ourselves in as best we can figure out what they are.

The several dimensions of consciousness constituting the situation that we feel we are in include sensory impressions, remembrance of similar situations in the past, emotions, values, imagination, understanding, humor, life force (available energy), ideas, thoughts, attitudes, excitement, interest, curiosity, among other constituents of inner awareness. That particular situation is our judgment of what all those dimensions mean or add up to, allowing us to choose the behavioral option that best serves our amalgamated interests at the moment.

That is what I mean by situated intelligence in developing these posts to my blog.

My thought is that my ongoing engagement with my surroundings is run by my intelligence as the agent designated to provide just that service. That agent is who I am. It is not a little man in my head, it is no one else but myself, agent-in-charge of matching my perceptions to actions intended to promote my personal well-being.

That is my conclusion after considering my many engagements on the cultural level of my lifelong experience. My experience is embedded in the particular culture that has calibrated my mind from the first minutes after my birth eighty-two years ago.

I am not making this up out of my head. I am actively engaged with the culture that has enveloped me every moment of my life. This is a long-lasting, team project for which I happen to be the primary spokesperson from an introspective point of view. Other than serving in that capacity, I have nothing else to offer. I have no choice. I am committed to being myself, my very own situated intelligence, until my last minute of conscious life as shaped by the culture I was born to.

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