The concept of culture is among the more complex academic concepts. It has multiple meanings and uses within and across different disciplines as well as the vernacular in which it is a widely used term. Further, the concept has changed and developed through the decades in quite radical ways, and some of its earlier conceptions, now, to us, may appear surprisingly ethnocentric if not racist.c It is rather important then to narrow down on those aspects of culture that are relevant to the problem areas this paper tackles. The preceding ‘case study in cultural learning’ goes some way towards this goal. By looking at how culture is acquired we have come to identify the ways in which shared meanings and significances condition subjectivity and influence behaviour. This coheres with the central concern of this paper, which is to understand the relations between culture and subjectivity, when these relations can be said to be problematic, and whether or not it is possible to detect this.
As I have come to learn through my experience in Dakhla, cultural learning requires developing knowledge of symbols and beliefs such that one is able to share a cognitive understanding of social situations. It also requires participation in the ebb and flow of a social context in order to be attuned to the environment and be moved to feel and act in an immediate and natural way. These two facets of cultural learning correspond to two views of culture which have developed over the course of the second half of the 20th century: the symbolic and the phenomenological. These views may be usefully thought to differ with regards to the answer to this question: In what ways does culture – understood as socially acquired meanings and significances – condition subjective experience? Symbolic views emphasise the act of interpretation and meaning-giving, while phenomenological views, in addition, of course, to recognising the symbolic order, highlight more passive, prereflective modes of engagement with the world. In the remainder of this section, this distinction is further highlighted and the phenomenological view of culture is expanded upon through the concepts of intentionality and salience. The emerging account will provide a framework over which a more fruitful conceptualisation of congruence can be based.
Symbolic & phenomenological conceptions of culture
Throughout the Enlightenment, culture stood in opposition to the body, and, more generally, to nature (cf. ). This opposition was replicated in the emerging discipline of anthropology and by the first half of the twentieth century culture came to denote more narrowly the “conceptual and linguistic dimensions of human existence to the exclusion of somatic, sensory, and biological dimensions” (, p. 18). Leslie White, writing in 1959, took culture to mean the “extrasomatic, temporal continuum of things and events dependent upon symboling” (, p. 3). Symbolic views were carried forward by Clifford Geertz’s influential conception of culture as an
historically transmitted pattern of meanings embodied in symbols, a system of inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic forms by means of which men communicate, perpetuate, and develop their knowledge about and attitudes towards life (, p. 89).
Here, culture is an “interworked system(s) of construable signs” that provide the context within which behaviour and social events can be understood among members of a community (, p. 14). This is evident, for instance, in the importance of grasping the phenomena of the evil-eye and envy. The kind of context Geertz is after is the subtle understanding that enables one to interpret an eye twitch as a wink and not only an eye lid contraction. It is the ethnographer’s task to understand such a system of significations if she is to gain access to the conceptual world where subjects live (, p. 24). In a more recent formulation of the symbolic view, culture has been described as “shared symbols and meanings that people create in the process of social interaction,” where it functions as a resource that shapes experience, interpretation, and action, and “orients people in their ways of feeling, thinking, and being in the world” (, p. 5). Cultural symbols and signs invest the environment with meaning and through being shared permit intersubjective understanding and communication.
Symbolic approaches to culture have been criticized as narrow and incomplete, and for eliminating the possibility of meaning and engagement that precede representation. They privilege culture and mind over biology and body; culture begins where biology ends and the mind becomes a representational machine engaged in inferential relations with objects in the world, including its own body, and adopting the cultural framework to thematise and give meaning to what are culturally-neutral experiences. Against this view, some anthropologists (e.g. [8, 12–14]) appealed to the phenomenological tradition in philosophy to argue for a concept of culture which recognises that socially acquired meanings and significances are evident in our natural attunement with the world. In what follows I will attempt to locate culture phenomenologically by exploring aspects of the concept of intentionality and its relation to salience. In particular, I argue that far from being limited to reflective modes of engagement, the influence of culture can be seen in the organisation of background intentionality, specifically in the automatic attentive orientation by virtue of which certain aspects of the environment are imbued with more salience than others.
Intentionality is a basic characteristic of consciousness. Consciousness is always consciousness of something whether real or imagined. The memory of a friend, a hallucinated dragon, and a perceived car are all intentional experiences with the friend, dragon, and car being the respective intentional objects. In Logical Investigations Husserl ( ) identified two inseparable aspects of intentional experiences: intentional matter and intentional quality. The former specifies the object intended and the perspective through which it is apprehended given one’s background and context. Perception, thus, is informed by “valences, feelings, past experiences, and frameworks of reference and interest” (, p. 115). The intentional quality, on the other hand, specifies the type of experience; whether the object is remembered, judged, doubted, desired, denied, or feared (cf. , p. 121).
The intentionality just outlined is active and thematic; it discloses objects in the world and takes up positions and judgements towards them. It is founded upon more basic and passive forms of background intentionality. In Experience and Judgement ( ) Husserl writes:
The activity of perception, the perceptive orientation toward particular objects, their contemplation and explication, is already an active performance of the ego. As such, it presupposes that something is already pregiven to us, which we can turn toward in perception. And it is not mere particular objects, isolated by themselves, which are thus pregiven but always a field of pregivenness, from which a particular stands out and, so to speak, “excites us” to perception and perceptive contemplation (, p. 72).
Husserl then proceeds to provide a phenomenological explication of the passive process whereby aspects of the intentional background experience stand out and command the attention of the ego. He distinguishes two stages in this process: the first is a tendency preceding the cogito; a passive, prereflective stage in which various stimuli obtrude upon the ego accompanied by a tendency on behalf of the ego to “give way” and be attracted as it is in its nature (, p. 78). The second stage is the compliance of the ego with the initial tendency and the turning of the ego towards the object; a basic state of receptivity in which the cogito becomes active and may proceed towards reflective and thematic forms of intentionality. In this state the ego has received “what is pregiven to it through the affecting stimuli” (, p. 79).
What determines which particulars “stand out” in the background experience prior to the activity of the ego? How are certain particulars able to affect the ego, i.e. to “stand out from the environment, which is always copresent…[and] attract interest to oneself, possibly interest in cognition” (, p. 30)? Husserl employs the example of a field of sensuous data as the simplest model to demonstrate the way in which the passive field of perception possesses prominences and particularities. The initial synthesis of a field of sensuous data occurs though elements that contrast with others and are raised to prominence. Homogeneity and heterogeneity both within and across different fields, e.g. visual and auditory, allow for the articulation of the field into prominences. Through further processes of associative synthesis – in which like and unlike elements recall or “call attention” to each other – groups arise in the field and certain members begin to emerge from a homogenous background (, pp. 72–75).
Those elements which stand-out in a field, through their intensity, begin to exert a stimulus or “obtrude” upon the ego. Husserl gives the example of a noise or a colour which on the basis of its intensity may exert a powerful or weak stimulus, and may initiate a turning-toward of the ego. But Husserl is not limiting his phenomenological explication to sensuous data. He indicates that associative synthesis “holds in the same way for all data” (, p. 75), and that thoughts and desires, and not only sounds or colours, can obtrude upon the ego from the background with varying degrees of insistence (, p. 76). However, as he recognises, the mode of “coming-to-prominence” will vary: with sensuous data this will be determined by contrasts and qualitative discontinuities which cannot be present with non-sensuous data. Nevertheless, he writes, “among the different obscure movements of thought which stir us, one thought … stands out from all the rest and has a sensitive effect on the ego, as it, so to speak, forces itself against the ego” (, p. 77).
In summary, obtrusion upon the ego is a function of a discontinuity in a field of perception which arises on the basis of the insistence and intensity of stimuli whether of a sensuous or non-sensuous nature. This raises the question: what other kinds of discontinuities are there? A helpful distinction can be found in neuropsychological research on salience and attention. Another way for referring to the “standing out” or “coming-to-prominence” of aspects of a perceptual field is to say that those aspects are more salient than others; i.e. relevant or important.
Upon encountering a visual field, the subject weighs, so to speak, the multitude of data presented. On the basis of this a “salience map” is constructed, which is a “representation of the environment that weighs every input by its local feature contrast and its current behavioural relevance” (, p. 430). Only those elements deemed salient become targets for saccadic eye movements and further allocation of attentional resources. Salience research recognises two influences on the process of construction of a “salience map” (see [20–22]). The first are “bottom-up” influences concerned with the properties of the stimulus itself such as colour, size, luminance and contrast. The second are “top-down” attentional influences concerning “prior expectation, memory or emotional association” (, p. 902), and where the “observer’s expectations or intentions influence the allocation of attention” (, p. 107). It is mainly the first set of influences that are addressed by Husserl’s phenomenological explication, influences constitutive of prominences in a field of perception. But what about “top-down” influences?
“Top-down” influences, as suggested by salience research, reflect the state of the subject as opposed to the state of the stimulus. They thus reflect, as indicated, purposes, memory and expectations. This might seem to suggest that such influences involve an active accomplishment of the ego and thus do not qualify as prereflective influences on the constitution of background intentionality. To be sure such influences can be voluntary; they may involve an act of will in attending to an object or constructing a theme, but they need not always be. It is possible to conceive of prereflective yet purposeful constructions of salience, arguably through positing unconscious drives or repressed memories that direct attention. In addition, and this is the concern here, it may also be possible to conceive of prereflective constructions of salience that are culturally, rather than individually, determined. To expand on this point, consider the connection between cognitive processing styles and perception.
Recent studies demonstrated cultural differences in styles of cognitive processing among ‘Westerners’ and ‘East Asians’. While the former are more likely to attend to focal objects, engaging in categorisation and rule discovery, the latter emphasise context and are more likely to attend to a “broader perceptual and conceptual field, noticing relationships and changes and grouping objects based on family resemblance rather than category membership” (, p. 11163; see also ). It has been hypothesised that these cultural differences in cognitive style arise on the basis of perceptual differences in the way attention is automatically allocated via saccadic eye movements and fixation to varying aspects of the environment (, p. 11169). Chua and colleagues  examined this hypothesis by presenting pictures with a single foreground object and a realistic background to American and Chinese subjects and monitoring their eye movements via a tracking device. They found that Chinese subjects looked more at the background and were less able to correctly identify old foreground objects that were presented in a new background. The American subjects looked at foreground objects sooner and longer than the Chinese subjects. These results suggest that there are cultural differences in the allocation of attentional resources at the primary level of visual memory, and reveals a possible reason for higher-level cognitive differences in holistic versus focal processing of information (, pp. 12631–12633).
What we have here are culturally determined top-down influences on the construction of salience that occur prior to the objectifying activity of the ego, complementing bottom-up (stimulus) influences. How do these cultural differences arise? A possible answer is through socialisation; by virtue of immersion in a specific sociocultural context, an individual comes to internalise not only frameworks of interpretation but also the basic and automatic attentive orientation to the environment by virtue of which certain aspects are imbued with more salience than others. And what purpose do these cultural differences reflect, i.e. why do ‘Westerners’ attend more to the foreground and ‘East Asians’ to the background? The answer put forward by Nisbett and Masuda  and Chua and colleagues  is that differences in visual memory are a function of differences in sociocultural conditions. The idea is that on the basis of material, geographic and other factors societies tend to develop distinctive social structures and practices. ‘East Asian’ societies emphasise hierarchies, role relations and possess complex social networks. In such a social environment, it is more important that social actors attend to context and inter-relations than it is to adopt an instrumental attitude to objects defined by individual goals, and the converse holds for ‘Western’ societies. In any case, irrespective of the explanation of why these cultural differences exist, the evidence suggests that they do, and that they influence the automatic, top-down allocation of attention prior to the reflective activity of the ego.
In summary, background intentionality, understood as salience, betrays evidence of cultural organisation prior to the reflective activity of the ego. What we see – and not just how we see it – is influenced by culture, and this precedes personal and active judgements and positions. Merleau-Ponty in Phenomenology of Perception ( ) identifies this insight when he draws a distinction between
intentionality of act, which is that of our judgements and of those occasions when we voluntarily take up a position … and operative intentionality, or that which produces the natural and antepredicative unity of the world and of our life, being apparent in our desires, our evaluations and in the landscape we see, more clearly than in objective knowledge, and furnishing the text which our knowledge tries to translate into precise language (, p. xviii).
The “landscape we see”, as Merleau-Ponty refers to it, varies, as the studies above suggest, relative to what are quite broad sociocultural categorisations. Individuals are not only socialised into broad or primary social contexts but also into local or secondary ones, as we find with certain professions and activities. For instance, to become a farmer one not only requires knowledge of soil types, seasonal variations, fertilisation, and so on; one comes to develop subtle perceptual discriminations of what to most people is simply a patch of land. The patch of land offers a different set of affordances, or opportunities for action, to the farmer than to the uninitiated. This is partly on the basis of the way in which otherwise innocuous or unnoticed aspects of the field of perception come to prominence and emerge as relevant and important; i.e. as salient. We can thus talk of culture in terms of a broader or narrower world of common-sense, knowledge and practice. In both senses of culture, we find that socially acquired meanings and significances condition prereflective subjective experience.
Finally, I would like to re-reflect on the ‘case study in cultural learning’ presented in the previous section. If we understand culture as symbols and meanings that provide the context within which behaviour is understood, then my knowledge of the evil-eye and envy enabled me to interpret and respond to a complex social situation whose subtleties would otherwise have been lost on me. If we understand culture in the complementary phenomenological sense of socially acquired significances evident in the organisation of background intentionality, then my immersion and participation in the social context of Dakhla reordered my experience of the environment, aspects of which began to assume a hitherto absent sense of salience.