Geertz on the Brain

As an example of how the work of Clifford Geertz might continue to inform our understanding of (the significance of) culture, consider the following passage from William Sewell’s Logics of History (Chicago 2005), itself a compelling interpretation of a series of texts. Bringing the methods and insights of the social sciences and the ‘histories’ to bear on each other, Sewell’s book is a persuasive exercise in reconfiguring social theory.

One of the more striking arguments in the text, at least for this reader, appears in a chapter on Geertz’s underappreciated relevance to history, especially the value of synchronic analysis, the “thick description” and exigesis of a particular historical moment. The passage in question, however, deals specifically with how culture relates to the brain — and thus how “systems of symbols,” as Sewell puts it, “provide a supplementary source of information that is not just a convenience to humans but a physiological necessity of our biological endowment” (186). Intriqued? Allow me to quote at length, and don’t give me that TLDR BS (note: the quotations in the quotation — twinks upon twinks? — are drawn from Geertz’s essay, “Religion as a Cultural System,” in The Interpretation of Cultures):

Not only did culture and the large forebrain evolve together, but they remain organically linked today. “Man’s nervous system does not merely enable him to acquire culture, it positively demands that he do so if it is to function at all” (68). Culture, extrinsic information coded in symbols, is a condition of our viability as a species. This is true because the large and astoundingly complex human brain does not respond to stimuli by producing specific behavioral responses, but rather with highly general affects:

The lower an animal, the more it tends to respond to a “threatening” stimulus with an intrinsically connected series of performed activities which taken together comprise a comparatively stereotyped . . . “flight” or “fight” response. Man’s intrinsic response to such a stimulus tends to consist, however, of a diffuse, variably intense, “fear” or “rage” excitability accompanied by few, if any, automatically preset, well-defined behavioral sequences. Like a frightened animal, a frightened man may run, hide, bluster, dissemble, placate, or, desperate with panic, attack; but in his case the precise patterning of such overt acts is guided predominantly by cultural rather than genetic templates. (75)

The only way for humans to produce specific behavior appropriate to the challenges thrown up by their environment is to use the manifold cultural codes that their peculiar neural structure has made possible. Because humans’ genetically programmed responses are so generalized, they need the extrinsic information supplied by culture in order to accomplish the diverse tasks of life — whether those be responding to threats, constructing shelter, reproducing the species, seeking companionship, killing other species for food, or constructing political regulations. Humans proceed, and can only proceed, by gathering and manipulating information (including information about how to gather information) which is stored not in the physiological structure of the body but in the intersubjective space of human signifying practice and in the objects — books, map, clothing, tools, sacred goods, illustrations, the built environment — that give it material form.

Intellectually unviable without culture, humans would be emotionally unviable as well. Geertz remarks that “man is the most emotional, as well as the most rational animal” (80). He might have added the most emotional because the most rational. The emotional diffuseness or uncertainty of the human neural response to stimuli is the flip side of the existence of the complex neural apparatus that makes us capable of reasoning. The response to stimuli can be diffuse because our reasoning brain makes possible tremendous and adaptively useful flexibility in how we deal with a problem; it must be diffuse if we are to deal with a problem flexibly rather than in a stereotyped fashion. But this makes the human “a peculiarly high-strung animal,” subject to all sorts of emotional excitement but without in-built patterns to guide responses to the excitement (80). It is cultural patterns that provide the necessary control of emotionally upsetting stimuli. They give “specific, explicit, determinate form to the general, diffuse, ongoing flow of bodily sensation,” thereby “imposing upon the continual shifts in sentience to which we are inherently subject a recognizable, meaningful order, so that we may not only feel but know what we feel and act accordingly” (80).

This provision of specific form for diffuse and unsettling human emotion is, according to Geertz, precisely what religions are about. They provide us with conceptions and practices that enable us to live with the ever-present threat of chaos. In “Religion as a Cultural System,” Geertz specifies three sources of such threat: events or problems that seem beyond our powers of explanation, suffering that seems impossible to endure, and ethical paradoxes that seem impossible to resolve. What religious symbolism does is not to deny the existence of the uncanny, of suffering, or of evil, but to provide concepts that make them thinkable (such as divine mystery, imitation of Christ, or original sin) and ritual practices that give them an experiential reality (such as Eucharist, extreme unction, or penance). Religious doctrine, mirrored and experienced in ritual acts, does not, for example, spare us from suffering: it teaches us “how to suffer, how to make of physical pain, personal loss, worldly defeat, or the helpless contemplation of others’ agony something bearable, supportable — something, as we say, sufferable” (104). In short, our neural organization necessitates as well as makes possible the shaping of both our cognitive and emotional lives by systems of symbols.

This account of the evolutionary origins and the biological necessity of human culture is a brilliant piece of materialist argumentation. It transcends the material/ideal dichotomy not by some verbal formula, but by a substantial, scientifically based account of the inescapable complementarity of “material” and “ideal” in the human condition. It enables us to recognize the simultaneous rootedness of culture (or “mind”) in bodily needs and its irreducibility to bodily needs. It enables us to pursue the autonomous logic of cultural systems without worrying that we are becoming “idealists” and therefore losing touch with the “real” world. If Geertz is right, as I firmly believe he is, semiotic systems are not unworldly or ghostly or imaginary; they are as integral to the life of our species as respiration, digestion, or reproduction. Materialists, this suggests, should stop worrying and love the symbol. (187-9, emphasis in original)

‘Amen’ to that?