Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Culture by Subtraction

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Culture by Subtraction

Article excerpt

Could I get some mayonnaise with these fries?" I asked the garçon in my broken French, imagining I was being a bit chic in eschewing ketchup. "Impossible1" he replied. I tried to rephrase the question in the certain knowledge that I am among the world's best speakers of broken French. "Non," he said and added another "Impossible!" Then, seeing my surprise at his first reply turn into confusion at his second, he explained that the fries were meant to be eaten au jus-with what was a gravy, really-or else the taste would be, and here he switched to English, "destroyed by the invasion of condiments."

That was nine years ago. My family was visiting the beaches that my father's father had stormed on D-Day as a young officer of the Big Red One, part of the avant-garde. My insistence on mayonnaise, and particularly my irritation at not getting what I wanted, was, if I am honest, fueled by a sense of entitlement. I felt as if "we" owned the place simply because our ancestors had defended it, and today's residents should respond to our desires with unrefined gratitude. More important, I was as of yet insensitive to the overriding significance of what is "impossible]"

Culture, in one important sense, is the space of everyday habits. These customs or conventions of life are not personal preferences, for we feel them as obligatory-not, perhaps, in a high moral sense, but as binding nevertheless. Nor are they political positions, for they transcend the sorts of things we debate in public life. Nor are they conventions of commerce or exigencies of economic life in a modern capitalist system.

The necessity that fries be eaten au jus reflects a loyalty to norms both more permanent than the political and more important than the economic. Such habits create a shared space of common life. They flow from expectations imposed and obeyed without being deliberated or legislated. They serve no partisan cause, nor do they conduce to profit or utility. Under normal circumstances, our cultural habits provide the pleasant universal background for all of those and more. They mark out what is impossible and guide a great deal of what is permissible toward common, shared agreement. Proper use of mayonnaise may seem trivial, and in a certain sense it is. But taken as a whole, our cultural habits go a long way in forming social and personal life and, as a consequence, identity.

Asimple mental experiment in subtraction gets at what I mean here by culture. Think of yourself, just yourself. Now subtract your work, your political convictions, your merely personal concerns, and the theological particularities of your religion (not the belief in God, which no sane human doubts for long, but belief in double predestination or the Immaculate Conception). What remains? Are there things that are, in principle, impossible for you, not because they violate self-evident moral principles, but because they're, well, gauche? Are there things you would never sell or buy? Things that should never be consumed? Or never even touched? Never honored? Always shamed? Regarding the permissible, do you eat or greet in a particular way? Speak or refrain from speaking for social propriety? Your list could include everything from not spitting in public to paternal piety, from always offering guests food to hugging a grieving friend, from shaking hands when parting to silently tolerating an enemy, from matching colors just so to driving manners.

As you think through what remains after subtracting the political and the private, the commercial and the religious, you are identifying your culture-we have no better name for it. There is an American culture, of course, with everything from noble patriotic feeling, to peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, to white socks worn with sneakers (which is why Europeans can spot us from five hundred yards, ahem, meters off). There are also local cultures within the United States, though less so now than was the case a generation ago. …

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