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  • The Culture of Criticism
  • Richard Van Oort


The peculiarity of culture is that you know it only by doing it. You know what culture is only by knowing what it is for. In this sense, culture is roughly like a tool, its form or shape—its definition—derived from its function. A hammer is used for driving nails, and its particular shape is well suited to this task. But if I have no hammer, I could (in a pinch) use a stone. The stone would become my hammer, its structure temporarily determined by my perspective—that is, by my knowledge of what hammers are for.

This analogy between tools and culture has prompted some to argue that tools are a kind of elementary culture. Clifford Geertz, for example, suggests that the originary form of culture can be found in the “protocultural” activity of early humans.1 What is protoculture? Protoculture is culture without symbolic thought, and it includes such socially mediated or imitatively learned activities as hunting and toolmaking. Does this mean that lions, which hunt in groups, have protoculture? How about chimpanzees? They hunt in groups and use tools. Do they therefore have protoculture?

Consider the argument for chimpanzees as users of culture. In her pioneering studies of wild chimpanzees, Jane Goodall notes how they modify branches to make termiting sticks.2 They tear a branch from a tree, strip away its leaves, and poke the stick deep into a termite mound. When the stick is withdrawn, they eat the termites that have gathered on it. Jane Goodall emphasizes the creativity of this task, which seems to rival our own much-vaunted creativity. Would not a man left naked and hungry in the jungle make a termiting stick in exactly this fashion? Goodall goes on to point to another, more significant feature of chimpanzee tool use. A young chimpanzee watching his mother at the termite mound attempts to imitate her, but he selects a stick that is too short and manipulates it “clumsily and incompetently.”3

The point is not just that the task is complex, but that it must be learned, first by observing the mother, then by imitating her action, then by repeating the [End Page 459] whole task, until the chimp becomes an expert at selecting, constructing, and using termiting sticks. Surely we must agree with the primatologist that this is an example of culture. The appetite for termites is instinctive, inherent to the biology of the chimp, which, like all animals, experiences hunger that must be satisfied. But the particular technique selected by the chimp for satisfying his hunger is not instinctive but learned by imitation. It is an unambiguous instance of the primatologist’s definition of culture as “the non-genetic transmission of habits.”4

From this assumption others quickly follow. For if we grant that the object exists only by virtue of those who intentionally see and use it as this kind of object, then we are committed to the idea that the object varies depending on the group using it. We can assume, for example, that different chimpanzee groups will develop distinctive “styles” of termiting, as they imitate different individuals who have hit on different techniques for eating termites. Each group develops a different “culture” of termiting. Perhaps one group favors green sticks, whereas another favors brown. Perhaps one group strips the bark off its sticks, whereas another prefers to leave the bark intact. And perhaps yet another, less innovative group has failed to develop the termiting stick at all! Will it not be necessary to divide the theory and analysis of each particular culture of different chimpanzee groups into separate disciplines? For if chimpanzees use culture, there is no such thing as a univocal chimpanzee culture, only the interpretation of multiple and different chimpanzee cultures.

This last remark is intentionally absurd. We do not have disciplines organized along the lines of a theory of different chimpanzee cultures, because we do not recognize culture as a property of chimpanzees at all.5 It is no mere prejudice to observe that chimpanzees, for all their ingenuity, are not using culture. This is not because chimps lack the intelligence to produce culture. That...


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pp. 459-479
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