The challenges of defining culture

The Challenges of Defining Culture: Indigenous People’s Day, by Aaron Gozum

With Indigenous People’s Day protests filling space in our country every October, this quote stood out to me as a good reminder: “We should accept, frankly, that if we extend our culture we shall change it: some of it offered will be rejected, other parts will be radically criticized” (Williams 1958: 16). From the readings this week regarding cultural studies, this resonated with me as the underlying objective of studying culture.


What I found most similar between these key theorists in the work of cultural analysis was this overarching conceptualization that culture is a symbolic, common knowledge derived from what humans think, do and produce through experiences. Still even for me, this is too reductionistic as a definition. As laid out by the many theorists heralding from the cultural studies paradigm, culture seems too complex due to its state of being — like Stuart Hall perfectly states, “a site of convergent interests” (Hall 1980: 35). From the interpretive approach to reading culture as a text in compared to a structuralist perspective that see culture as an influencing superstructure that determines our experiences, I think that the diversity speaks for the complexity of culture. Because of this complexity, the challenges of defining culture seem inherently intertwined with its challenges. If anything, to define a concept that seeks to understand ever-changing processes reeks of endless ambiguity. Like communication which Peters regards as a “rich tangle of intellectual and cultural strands”, culture will always change because of the differences we experience over time and space intertwined with the intersections of race, ethnicity, gender, and class (Peters 1999: 2). As we explore the current dilemmas across different paradigms of studying culture, I will refer to the example of Indigenous People’s Day as a way for us to critically think through culture. Before exploring the problematics of these definitions of culture, I clarify the dominating definitions of culture.

Rooted within a British cultural studies perspective, Williams defines culture in two major senses. In one way, Williams argues that culture is a whole way of life through shared common meanings. Secondarily, Williams also suggests that culture is the special processes of discovery and creative effort (Williams 1958: 5). Through these definitions, he believes that we need to clear and open the channels of expression and communication to allow the entirety of life into self-consciousness, self-determination and meaning because in his perspective, cultural growth relies on the continuous active debate and amendment process for common acceptance (Williams 1958: 9, 16). Opening our channels of expression and communication seems to be a call-to-action in the way we think about the ways of paying for our common services which will guarantee proper freedom to those who actually provide the service, while protecting them and us against a dominating minority whether political or financial (Williams 1958: 17). The most interesting aspect of William’s argument for interpretive culture analysis is the acknowledgements for the underlying structures that impact culture. For instance, he references his experiences growing up in a countryside, where he watched the modes of change (learning new skills, relationship shifts, industrial labor changes). These modes of change signified clear economic structural changes within his experiences that he indicates influences the surrounding culture. However, his experiences clearly indicate that these changes are a part of social organization, which economic change clearly affects. Williams recognizes the relationship between culture and production. He acknowledges the cyclical reproduction of the dominating ideological culture that stems from institutions like academia, which he deems are in “no sense the sole product of the commercial middle class.” Rather, the “special processes of discovery and creative effort” produced aligns with these ruling class ideologies and subsequently in a very Brave New World, Huxley-sense or as Gramsci would argue, these working middle class men relinquish consent and end up taking pride in the very class and system that had restricted and excluded them from culture (Williams 1958: 7-8). Revisiting the desire for people to change Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s Day, our example demonstrates this exclusion from culture and this need for change that Williams mentions. On one hand, some see Christopher Columbus as the man who founded America. Yet, this holiday also marginalizes the natives of America who see this as a celebration of Western colonialism, the enslaved transatlantic trade of people, and the genocide of indigenous people. When we consider the implications of naming a day in honor of a pioneer of European colonialism, we can recognize this exclusion. Through Williams, this example implies that these divisions prevent cultural growth. In this example, I do not believe that a semiotic change from Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s Day will resolve the systemic marginalization and exclusivity in American white culture, but I can align with Williams in that this change from bridging the gap between high and low culture could certainly suffice as a starting point.


In the perspective of American cultural studies, Clifford Geertz argues that the concept of culture stems from a Max Weber quote that, “Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun.” Though his views stem from European theory, Geertz develops his own definition of culture as those webs of significance, a public and symbolic system of meanings. In this view, he reinforces that culture is not a matter of power, but rather a context in which something can be thickly described through interpretation. His conclusion that the culture of people is an ensemble of texts which the anthropologist strains to read over the shoulders of those to whom they properly belong emphasizes interpretive approaches to cultural theory (Geertz 1973: 452). Ultimately, Geertz seems to agree with Williams that culture is a collection of meaning, but in contrast, prioritizes the semiotic significance of culture rather than the power implications that flow between high culture of the hegemonic elites to ordinary culture within everyday interactions. Using Geertz’s definition of culture, we are restricted to a pigeonholed view that the implications of power that is deeply intertwined with identity negotiation is insignificant in regards to the debate over the naming of this national holiday.

Thus, we are left with the task to uncover how to improve this limitation. With these similar, yet competing views sieving through intellectual accounts of the terminology culture, Stuart Hall precedes them through exploring the advantages and weaknesses of cultural studies. Hall argues that “no single unproblematic definition of culture” exists and that culture remains a complex “site of convergent interests” (Hall 1980: 35). Revolving around ideology in that culture holds the power to create and produce experience, structuralism combats theorists heralding from the culturalism paradigm, a view that interweaves all social practices with the belief that human experience creates culture. Demonstrating the complexity of culture, Hall sees bridging the gap between these views as the opportunity that may supersede the “endless oscillations between idealism and reductionism” (Hall 1980: 32). In a Western-white-male dominating country, a symbolic name change could resemble the start to expanding culture by including other Americans in the discourse. Yet to dream for this idealism, we must critically focus on the structural implications as well. Only when we imagine an alternative that interpretively understands common meanings, but also analyzes the underlying structures that divide us, we can move closer to reaching a consensus on what culture is and its ever-changing role in society. #decolonizethisplace



Geertz, C. (1973). The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected essays. Chapter 1: Thick Description, Chapter 15: Notes on the Balinese cockfights.

Hall, St. (1980). Cultural studies: Two paradigms from Media, Culture and Society, Vol. 2.

Peters, J. D. (1999). Speaking Into the Air. University of Chicago Press.

Williams, R. (1958). Culture is Ordinary.


Questioning the Hyphen

Questioning the Hyphen: Considering the hyphenated-American for an alternative approach to U.S nationalism by Aaron Gozum, 12/7/2017


Today, the American concept of nation is ardently debated between traditional nationalists hailing from a dominating gaze of white male patriarchy and the emerging voices of among the marginalized ethnic groups who have differing perspectives on American culture. As Anderson famously theorized, nations are constructions of our imagination built upon the culturally and politically dominant ideas of a group. The popularized definition of nation was defined as “an imagined political community — and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign” (Anderson 1983). Essentially, Anderson sought the belief that nationalism seemed to be the abstracted invention of nations where they do not exist through means of developing a sort of political kinship (6). Among the discourse of nationalism, many variations emerged. In the course of the U.S., two seem most prevalent: civic nationalism, which derives from political legitimacy intended to represent the democratic will of the people via social contract; and ethnic nationalism, which focuses on determining nationality from linguistic, religious or ancestral commonalities (Anderson 1983, Rousseau 1762, Barnard 1967). Emblematic of civic nationalism, President Theodore Roosevelt was an outspoken anti-hyphenate who seemed to stand for an assimilationist belief:

“There is no room in this country for hyphenated Americanism… The one absolutely certain way of bringing this nation to ruin, of preventing all possibility of its continuing to be a nation at all, would be to permit it to become a tangle of squabbling nationalities… each preserving its separate nationality” (President Theodore Roosevelt on Columbus Day, 1915).

Though the goal was most likely an attempt to reinforce solidarity, President Theodore Roosevelt — regardless of intention — imposed a necessity for homogenization. Post his presidency, World War I was underway, giving rise to the question of political loyalties among ethnic groups, particularly Irish-Americans; thus, motivating the denunciation of the hyphenated American as a response for national unification in the country. Though the negative effects of homogenization deserves further discussion, the main issue of this paper points here: if homogenization was the goal for U.S. American nationalism, the compelling question falls to unraveling why the term Asian-American appeared in the 2000 U.S. census reports, decades after the initial usage of the hyphen. If the aim was to create a shared, assimilated community among the residents in the U.S. like President Roosevelt intended, what is the purpose of tacking on another categorical box on the national population records?


With the reemergence of the late-nineteenth/early-twentieth century hyphenated-American as a popular identifier, a shift of perspective on nationalism materialized. Initially, hyphenated American was a derogatory label intended to denigrate foreign-born Americans as untrue Americans. For decades to follow, the hyphenated-American seemed to slip away from the American lexicon, which only makes its resurfacing in the 21st century dialectic more suspicious. Correlated to hegemonic powers exercised by way of the political economy, the U.S. revived the arbitrary identification of hyphenated-Americans, but the hyphen now seems to carry a civic nationalism via a conduit of ethnocentrism. If we were to assume positive intent, the U.S. census may have been a start to building accurate representation of the American people. However in light of institutionalized racism and gender hierarchies, among a plurality of social pitfalls, to uncritically assume is naive. If we explore more recent reports of the U.S. census, nonetheless, in 1980, we can find the first classification of “Asians” as “”Asian or Pacific Islander.” Ten years later, the U.S. census continued this trend, but requested specific Asian or Pacific Islander race. It only took another ten years in 2000 for this terminology shifted back to the hyphenated “Asian-American,” resembling the past derogatory labeling of those deemed with seemingly dualistic loyalties. This is where standpoint theory is crucial in unraveling the not-so-visible intention of this construct and whom the label serves and provides advantage to. Hailing from a Marxist-structuralist view, this shift—implying that a dual-nationalism equates to the inability to be accepted as a true American—may be the result of using national identity as a means of economical and political exploitation to extend the hands of imperialism; thus consequently promoting Otherness by defining and identifying one’s self by what one is not (Chaterjee 1991, Marx & Engels 1976, bell hooks 1992, Hartsock 1983). From another view, some groups embrace the hyphen, arguing that the American identity is compatible with other identities. To reclaim the label inducing alienation from U.S. nationalism, some hyphenated-Americans groups coalesce for the purpose of gaining collective momentum in political representation, following the belief that there mixtures of diversity strengthen, rather than undermine, the national identity of the U.S.

Regardless of opinion on the use of the hyphen, Asian-Americans are still consistent examples of how the hyphenated-American disrupts the current reality of U.S. American nationalism. This label emblematically depicts how the hyphenated identity falls into contradiction by committing the murderous act of homogenization and cultural erasure, while also strengthening a diversity within the national identity. Even among radical ethnocentric U.S. nationalists, defining nationalism in the U.S. as limited to pilgrims colonizing a land through genocide seems outdated. Moreover thinking of American values, many veer toward the understanding that the nation is not a people, but a place—a land of opportunity, upward mobility and freedom of choice. By way of this aforementioned ethnocentric shift, Asian-Americans — possibly, all hyphenated-Americans — share this experience of being displaced as a foreign sojourner in the land of white supremacy as well as discovering a need to expand the meaning of U.S American nationalism. Courtesy of stereotyping, the process of Othering, and homogenization, when we identify Asian-Americans, we are using an ambiguous definition of how a social group, like Filipino-Americans, fits into the Asian-American umbrella. The only seemingly symmetrical thread that covers the vast diversity of social groups under the Asian American canopy is the relative geographical location of their ancestral countries — even then, we should still be concerned with its problematic definition as the label still constructs material consequence, politically, culturally and economically. As an umbrella that does not seem big enough, an opposing approach posits an alternative of cultural nationalism, which is remnant of the postmodernist school of thought in that multiple ethnicities and cultural traditions can collectivistically coexist (Haraway 1991). To credit this shift, the hyphenated-American allows for the perception that national identity can be more relative, in which varying realities or imagined notions of U.S. American nationalism can be expanded, fragmented, atomized and more inclusive; rooted in the idea that no identity is more valid or true than another (Anderson 1983, Jameson 1984). Valuing cultural kinship and familial collectivism, the Filipino-American, as an example, can illustrate how there are alternate forms of approaching nationalism, unlike the current state of the U.S. American national identity.

Ironic to Roosevelt’s efforts to unify the American people, the foundations of the capitalist system of the U.S. might be the cause of the disaggregated clutch for a hyphenated national identity. The homogenization of the vastly diverse ethnic groups among what is deemed “Asian-American” renders problematic, reiterating the necessity to a mode of thought that leans less upon the dualistic economic determination of class by the means to survive and exist. To the contrary, the hyphenated American standpoint offers a logic that extends this outlook on Marxism by recognizing there are many dualities of levels of realities, with that the subaltern seems to have a different scope of truth (Hartsock 1983). Recognition as a nation requires social solidarity and collective identity, but when the popular majority dictates the national culture, this hegemonic can exclude those who do not align with such a membership (Calhoun 1997, Gramsci 1971). Though Filipino-Americans have began to fight for cultural and heritage preservation in recent years, social science fields such as psychology, media and communication still have an opportunity to develop deeper research in United States’ history with the Filipino people as a valuable starting point in redefining the imagined community and nation of the U.S. to be more inclusive. Considered the most important part of the consensus forged in the nineteenth century—and, arguably today—as to what would count as politically appropriate identities, nationalism drove the development of essentialist thought, which Calhoun (1997: 18) referred to as the “reduction of the diversity in a population to some single criterion held to constitute its defining essence and most crucial character.” As the second largest Asian-American group in the U.S., Filipino-Americans make up 20% or over 3.4 million of the population according to the 2010 U.S. census report, which reflects the lack of representation and criticism toward the Asian-American label forced upon them. As one of the fastest growing immigrant groups in the US, Filipinos are currently the fourth largest immigration group in the U.S. with almost 2 million who were born outside of the US, making the Asian-American label smacked on the Filipino-American, exemplary of the restrictiveness of essentialist homogenization found in the current form of nationalism in the U.S. Discussing the cultural tensions Filipino-Americans face invites us to consider a nationalism formed by culture and allows us to critique the current Asian-American label, and challenge the seemingly self-evident and essentialist American identity, when in actuality is an imaginary authority based on strategic location and formation (Said 1978: 20).

Stretching beyond its native roots of migrants from the surrounding islands of Indonesia and Malaysia, the inception of nationhood in the Philippines was constructed through Spanish colonialism for over 300 years. Moreover, the Philippines underwent Japanese imperialism through World War II, which occurred during the 47 years of U.S. American colonialism. Without a doubt, the Philippines is undoubtedly rooted within social constructions of politic and imperialistic aims. The complex historical history of the Philippines reflects the identity crisis of Filipino-Americans. Courtesy of ethnic distinctions in physical appearance and cultural values as well as the colonial distortion in Filipino culture, Filipino-Americans struggle to fit in the “Asian-American” classification. The experience of Filipino-Americans illustrates the exclusionary limits of U.S. American nationalism and how revision is necessary. On the first hand, Filipino-Americans among the many ethnic groups within the hyphenated identity have become products of imperialism. Served up a hyperreal U.S. nostalgia in the Philippines, Filipinos willingly consumed American mass culture and adopted Western standards of gender, race and culture. These shifts have also led to this identity clash, in which Filipino-Americans tend to lack a recollection of identity origin, looking back to a world they have never lost, a “nostalgia without memory” (Appadurai 1990). In the white hegemonic they are seen as faux-Americans, a simulacra, as Baudrillard might say, of the U.S. American values of opportunity, upward mobility, material success and freedom of choice. On the other hand, because Filipino-Americans have often been a mosh-posh of varying cultures (Spanish, Japanese, American, Indonesian, Malaysian, Chinese), they offer a unique subaltern standpoint that can help reconstruct a potentially stronger and more representative national identity for the U.S. Attempting to preserve the cultural heritage in a world of imperialistically-induced erasure along, clinging to values that prioritized kin bonds to avoid confrontation and to encourage personal identity and self-worth to flow through familial relations, Filipino-Americans are caught in a bind of uncertainty with their sense of belonging (Posadas 1999).


Following Anderson’s theory of the nation as limited because of its finite boundaries, as sovereign because of its desire to destroy the legitimacy of the divine-hierarchal dynastic style of rule, and as a community because of its conception as a deep, horizontal comradeship, the hyphenated-American, like Filipino-Americans, disrupts the convergent flow of a national identity naturalized by a hegemony of ethnocentrism. Anderson also believed that cultural production, particularly print-languages “laid the bases for national consciousness” by unifying fields of exchange and communication, by producing a fixity (or virtual, temporal and spatial infinity) of language, and by creating languages-of-power (Anderson 1983, 44-45). With cultural production at the infrastructural base of formulating a nation, Calhoun recognized that nationalism is a way of “talking and thinking and seeing the world — a world made up at one basic level of nations and their international relations” (Calhoun 1997, 1). The vital takeaway from the reemergence of the controversial hyphenated-American follows a different epistemological structure that manifests from its contradictions with material life—a standpoint that diverges from the ethnocentric form of civic nationalism (Hartsock 1983). As the civic nationalism of the U.S. could never seem to get political borders to match ethnic boundaries, this way of world-seeing — this discursive formation that shapes our consciousness — became a stepping stone that seems to have paved a path toward a nationalism based on culture and collective diversity (Calhoun 1997, 3, Foucault 1980). As an infrastructure that reifies the economic, the U.S. cultural hegemony thus plays a predominant role in the construction, emergence and maintenance of it as a nation, of which the hyphenated-American dissolves through developing a contradictory consciousness. As we observe how differing nationalisms today cause cataclysmic erasure to cultural identity and ethnic groups, we have to consider a more complex relationship between culture, identity, our socioeconomic structures and the power embedded into ideologies. Horkheimer and Adorno, if anything, were certainly correct about placing concern with the enlightenment as mass deception. On the notion of valuing freedom of choice, the U.S. American cultural industry spits out easy-to-swallow mass culture, prioritizing technical rationality as dominantly credible and valid (Horkheimer & Adorno 1969). Relying on state and legislative power, media infrastructures and mediums of technology to script what behavior and state of being  is socially acceptable, the U.S. as a super power filters the world through their cultural industry faster than ever, encouraging the reproduction of its hegemonic cultural monopoly and homogenizing the diversity found within the diaspora of immigrants amidst its boundaries. Noting the work of Gramsci is incredibly important too when considering cultural hegemony as the obfuscation of class consciousness, which in neo-Marxist/Gramsci tradition, that could lead to an uprising revolution if reclaimed by the proletariat class. Nevertheless, the hyphenated-American accentuates how by reducing to a classist structure, traditional Marxist thought can neglect core aspects of race, ethnicity and cultural identity as influencers over nationalism. Therefore, ignoring the cultural implications of the hyphenated-American equates to ignoring a crucial element that is transforming U.S. American nationalism. We need to pay attention to all facets of identity. Yet, it is important to mention that the imaginary of the nation as a political community, inherently limited and sovereign, is only partial to its conceptualization and requires more than its postmodernist inception. Grounded then in an amended Marxist view and inherently intertwined with the pervasive flows of power, the formation of a nation seems more like the naturalization of political strategy, hegemonic cultural discipline and economic production, embedded and interpellated through our everyday lives (Anderson 1983, Althusser 1971, Thompson 1990: 7, Foucault 1980). Through a dominantly-accepted body of knowledge, members are disciplined to adhere to the hegemonic narratives of the American nation, which historically has material impact on the lives within and externally of the nation across race, gender, culture and national identity through homogenization (Foucault 1991, Foucault 1980). However, framing the concept of the nation in the dispersed relativity of exercising power via the construction and reconstruction of knowledge allows for the possibility of a shift in defining nationalism, as discursive practices are always in a constant flux (Foucault 1991). Built upon the notion that the U.S. is founded by and made up of immigrants, the transnational fluidity of the hyphenated-American national identity is a compelling narrative that opens the gate to reconstructing the naturalized imaginary of the American nation. Globally considered a nationality with independent political and economic power in the world of nations, the U.S. American has the capacity to expand through the hyphen, allowing us to call for revision of national identity in hopes to address the totalizing infinity of perspectives, realities and fragmentary identities that may shape U.S. nationality.

Though the challenges and negative impacts that Filipino-Americans face should instill a bias in me, I am still caught in between the views of the hyphenation. Does the hyphenated-American resemble a lesser American or does the hyphen strengthen the U.S. American national identity? Nevertheless, the standpoint of the hyphenated-American beautifully depicts a cultural form of nationalism, emphasizing collectivism. Certainly, cohesively nationalizing a group of people through political and ethnic legitimacy can unify and lead a group toward common goals. In doing so, however, we run the risk of placing culture and ethnicity in a potential state of erasure. In comparison, creating differentiations can support values of diversity and representation for all. Still, among these differentiations emerges deep divisions and hierarchies of inequality. So, how do we address the problematic confines of American nationalism without unintentionally constructing more borders? How do we value inclusivity without creating contradictory divisions? Must we dismantle the nationality of the U.S. or do we rebuild an American nationality that can be deemed inclusive or at the least, less of a rigid imaginary wall that lacks the capacity to address the culturally and ethnically overlapping differences it attempts to fuse together? Does this complicate the equation set by Anderson who sought that the concept of the nation is inherently limited? Can a nation be not limited and be more less about freedom of choice, but more about a freedom of being? Can there be a balance between civic and ethnic nationalism or is a dismantling of U.S. nationalism the only solution? Even with material consequences, these contradictions are built out of socially constructed imaginary nations, which must mean they contain the capacity for reconstruction. The only matter is how to wield such a power. From the grassroots of social change to the likes of Filipino-Americans—amalgamations with multiple fragments of varying identities, we should consider collectivism as a form of nationalism that is capable of encompassing the diversity of cultural contradictions so that no one feels like a sojourner (Jameson 1984). Maybe through affinities we can become less of a place and more of a people (Haraway 1991). After all, a global super power should be paired with a global citizenship.


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