Academic journal article The Midwest Quarterly

The Creature and the Culture

Academic journal article The Midwest Quarterly

The Creature and the Culture

Article excerpt

The human creature has 'always had, indeed, needs, both an existence and a meta-existence. But the interplay of objective and subjective tends to mask animal being and to create an instability between objective identity and subjective identity, leaving animal being in need of recognition, a recognition that would be very like belief. While such a personal identity is constantly overlapped, and to that extent hidden, by an objective identity, the objective identity can never replace it. With their mental sensibility, human beings are more the active who than the objective what. But for most, the conscious recognition of a personal identity and the awareness of such a presence in others is the experience still waiting to occur, and it is always available. In the morning mirror, who is it that stares back? A nodding acquaintance? A friend? A stranger? Who has the most merciless stare and why?

THE RELATIONSHIP OF the human creature to its culture, befitting the two relentlessly evolving participants, is marked by both devotion and shifting, uncertain loyalties. It reveals a human animal that is not exactly trained but, perhaps because of an inherent susceptibility, undoubtedly conditioned. Culture is the great presence of human life.

Walt Whitman thought he could live with the animals. To him they were "so placid and self-contain'd" and unlike humans they "do not whine about their condition," are not "awake in the dark," weeping "for their sins." "Not one is dissatisfied, not one demented with the mania of owning things, /Not one kneels to another" (218). Sometimes it has seemed that simple--the neurotic anxieties of complex culture vs. the attractive, calm unworried existence of nature.

Yet civilization is not so easily surrendered and there has always been something disturbing in the idea of the human as another animal, the hysterical response to Darwin's Origin of Species being only the most notable instance of alarm. Even now when a tacit acceptance of science placing humans in the animal kingdom prevails, human culture would prefer to keep its distance. And yet, the kinship is there before our eyes, in the physiology of living itself---eating, sleeping, having sex, digesting, defecating, getting sick, birth and death--everything that forms that portion of life which is assumed and which largely manages to remain unnoticed until some critical stoppage occurs. This side of the human creature is cloaked, obscured, shied away from, and generally distracted with serious social and political issues on the one hand and intriguing amusements and gossip on the other. As summed up by Clifford Geertz, "We are incomplete or unfinished animals who complete or finish ourselves through culture--and not through culture in general but through highly particular forms of it" (49).

As conceived in this essay, culture is less particular forms than all that has been added to and seemingly transcended the animal: the processes of naming, connecting, explaining, cogitating, rule-making--in short all that involves the objectifying of the actual world and everything in it (even the conscious formulations in the pre-objectifying activities of reason, ideation, and imagination). It is this objectifying process at the heart of culture that claims a meaning in itself impossible to deny and as meaning it almost magically obscures its source, the human animal as objectified and objectifying being. At the root of such objectifying is language, making meanings and living within a world of meanings--names, titles, labels, relationships, proprieties. This essay will concern the human animal's uniqueness (this peculiar animal) and explore how the human creature's problematic relation to an increasingly potent and exponentially expanding culture places humanity in jeopardy. The current intellectual situation begins to imagine the irony of the creature overtaken by its own creation. Indeed, so pervasive is its purview at present that much of the time culture succeeds in totally absorbing the human animal. …

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