Cultural Holism

In the late summer of 1977, NASA launched the Voyager space mission. Because of a rare planetary alignment, astronomers had the opportunity to send probes to photograph the distant planets Jupiter and Saturn, which had previously been little more than blurry dots on our most powerful telescopes. The two probes would perform flybys of these planets and transmit their pictures back to Earth before skipping out into the cosmos like stones across the pond of our solar system.

The mission was a resounding success: Voyagers 1 and 2 did their flybys, Voyager 1 was the first spacecraft to cross over into interstellar space, and, as of this writing, they are the most distant human-made objects in the universe (Reynolds). As tremendous an achievement as this was, what continues to captivate people more than 40 years later is not the photographs the Voyager probes sent back but, rather, the symbol of humanity they represent. Upon completion of their flybys, the Voyager probes were given a secondary mission: NASA was very mindful of the fact that they were sending human technology into the unknown reaches of space where there might exist some form of extraterrestrial intelligence. As such, they included on each probe a gold-plated disc comprising a wealth of information about humanity, a sort of “message in a bottle” reaching out into the cosmos to announce to anyone who might listen what it means to be human.

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Artist’s rendering of the Voyager 2 spacecraft, NASA

The task of curating these discs fell on renowned astronomer Carl Sagan, whose charge was nothing short of distilling the essence of humanity onto a medium not unlike a vinyl music record. While each of the discs contained information detailing our human anatomy, Sagan felt this was insufficient to encapsulate the whole of our human experience. So, he also included information from a broad range of cultures: photographs depicting food, architecture, and the daily lives of various peoples, selections of music from wildly different cultures, as well as spoken greetings in 59 languages and other human sounds, like laughter. Should distant travelers ever discover these probes, the portrait of humanity they receive will be exceptionally diverse.

The spacecraft will be encountered and the record played only if there are advanced space-faring civilizations in interstellar space, but the launching of this ‘bottle’ into the cosmic ‘ocean’ says something very hopeful about life on this planet (Sagan).

So, I ask again: What does it mean to be human? If our biological makeup is only a part of our being, where do we find the remainder of our humanity? As the Voyager discs exemplify, perhaps that which makes us human is found in our diversity—in the fact that we possess, as a species, the innate drive to synthesize into cultures. Though the cultures and traditions of all the world’s people vary sometimes beyond recognition, the fundamental element that links them all together is that they exist. As anthropologist Franz Boas so succinctly put it, “there are no peoples without religion or without art” (Boas 634). In other words, there is no humanity without culture.

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Homo Habilis reconstruction,
Museo de la Evolución Humana,
Burgos, Elisabeth Daynes

But what is driving the creation of our cultures? Humans, by their very nature, are creators, organizers, and designers. I would go so far as to suggest that our humanity—that original human instinct which makes us who we are and separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom—is our ability to design. Our most ancient “human” ancestor, Homo Habilis (the earliest primate to be classified in the genus homo), is classified as such because of his undisputed use of tools. From the moment we first picked up a rock and lashed it to a stick, we became not only humans, we became designers. The two are inseparable.

Of course, this necessitates an unapologetically broad definition of humanity, one which includes all the Earth’s cultures as a synthetic whole which is more than the sum of its parts. As such, I feel it important to briefly discuss this phrase, “The whole is more than the sum of its parts,” as it is perhaps one of the most misunderstood maxims in the Western sphere.

This famous phrase by former South African Prime Minister Jan Smuts is too often misinterpreted as “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” Ironically, this miswording serves to actually lessen its meaning. As Gestalt psychologist Kurt Koffka writes:

It has been said: The whole is more than the sum of its parts. It is more correct to say that the whole is something else than the sum of its parts, because summing is a meaningless procedure, whereas the whole-part relationship is meaningful (Koffka 176).

Thus, in saying that the whole is something more or other than the sum of its parts, we are allowing it to transcend a mere sum and become an autonomous, dynamic whole which generates its own intrinsic meanings. And so it is for the world’s cultures as parts of the dynamic whole which is humanity.

But what criteria are applied here in defining cultures? In encyclopedic terms, “culture” might refer to the system of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes a group of people. However, referring to culture in such textbook terms effectively sterilizes the idea. Culture is not a thing which can be understood mathematically; there is no known algorithm to calculate the sum of cultural expression using constant values. Yes, cultures are made up of these parts, but when all the shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices of a group of people come together through an ever-changing gesellschaft of collective understanding, the whole of these factors is simply something other than the sum of its parts.

Culture is about sounds and smells, traditions and feelings. It has a sensorial existence. It is emotional and can only be qualified through the experience of direct immersion. Though we might learn about the history and traditions of a place, it is not until we are on the coast of Shirahama, Japan, smelling the ocean breeze and watching shopkeepers pound rice into mochi that we experience the weight of that culture as a whole entity which is more than the sum of its parts.

Jan Smuts writes:

Natural wholes are always composed of parts; in fact the whole is not something additional to the parts, but is just the parts in their synthesis… As Holism is a process of creative synthesis, the resulting wholes are not static but dynamic, evolutionary, creative (Smuts 89).

In extending this concept of holism to the study of culture, I find that culture is perhaps best defined not as the summative attitudes and practices of a group of people but as something more autonomous and dynamic: Culture is people in synthesis.

To extrapolate this even further, let us try to conceptualize the world in its entirety as a global whole made up of a myriad of cultural parts. Our planet is a diverse ombré of cultural diffusion; though it may not feel like it to the American tourist fumbling through an ancient Japanese temple, these two cultures are inextricably bound, one fading into the other gradually over immense distance. Though we all find ourselves at various (sometimes opposite) points on this ephemeral spectrum of world culture, it is all of these parts working together that creates the synthetic whole that is humanity.

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a Japanese enso,
expressing a moment when the mind is free to let the body create

Natural Design

Humanity is such an incredibly diverse species because our existence transcends our biology and enters the realm of imagination where we redesign our environments to suit our needs. The influence of environmental factors changes our needs, and so the objects we design differ according to geographic region. These different designs change the way of life of the people living in that region, eventually developing into synthesized cultures.

Across history, many examples exist of what Franz Boas referred to as the “parallelism of development” of disparate cultures. Both the ancient Egyptians and the Aztecs, for example, created pyramids (or ziggurats) to honor their gods. Most utterly disconnected cultures have created writing systems, myths, mathematics, and agricultural practices completely independently of one another. And, while differences between cultures emerged based on specific environmental factors, we can see evidenced quite clearly the underlying humanity these designs share.

Structural Anthropology concerns itself with the underlying causes of these homologies. 19th-century German anthropologist Adolf Bastian wrote about what he called the “psychic unity of mankind,” the belief that humans all share a basic mental framework upon which our cultures are built. This framework, as he put it, was made up of elementargedanken (elementary ideas) that develop into locally variable völkergedanken (folk ideas). These folk ideas are contingent upon geographic location and historical background. Because of this, he argued, people from the same time and place who share the same histories develop similar folk ideas and thus synthesize into a type of group mind (or gesellschaft)—a collaborative whole in which the individual is only an embedded part. In other words, this holistic dynamic exists at many concentric scales.

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Aztec calendar
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Inuit art
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Indian mandala tapestry

The Evolution of Style

But what, then, of our differences? How is it that all the world’s people can have so much in common and yet appear so foreign?

Franz Boas, in addition to noting the parallelism of development of cultural designs, also noted that these designs tend to diffuse outward when cultures come into contact. As they are adopted, the designs take on new meanings:

All cultural forms rather appear in a constant state of flux and subject to fundamental modifications… A transfer of customs from one region into another without concomitant changes due to acculturation, are very rare… In geographically extreme areas… distinct types of social organization occur, the intermediate regions showing transitional types (Boas 284, 286, 290).

Cultural “styles,” if you will, do not emerge spontaneously in a vacuum but grow organically in the muck and mire, the product of a wide array of social, political, spiritual, and formal factors coming together to create an expression of cultural zeitgeist. As a product of human ingenuity and creativity, style is rarely utilitarian—becoming less so as the number of adopters increases—but it is also never arbitrary; even the most abstract, nonsensical creations of the Dadaists held cultural meaning.

But if style does not emerge spontaneously, what catalysts bring about these cultural paradigm shifts? The origins of many “unique” cultural designs are, in fact, deeply rooted in the soils of non-native peoples. As Boas suggests, styles flow from one culture to the next as people interact, changing a little bit each time until finally becoming part of that newly hybridized culture.

This process, to put it mildly, is unstable. The ebbs and flows of cultural ideals are ephemeral and forever incomplete. “All cultural forms rather appear in a constant state of flux and subject to fundamental modifications” (Boas 284). Styles are necessarily impermanent, constantly in flux simply because the cultures upon which they depend are constantly in flux. Design, thus, is never simply form nor function—neither wholly stylistic nor utilitarian—it is, instead, a combination of the two, addressing current needs based on cultural values and expectations.

As we trace the movements and evolutions of styles throughout history, we can see how tightly grafted design is to culture, with culture influencing design as a reflection of the zeitgeist and design, in turn, enabling the evolution of culture. Design historian Phillip Meggs points out the importance of graphic design, in particular, to this process:

The immediacy and ephemeral nature of graphic design, combined with its link with the social, political, and economic life of its culture, enable it to more closely express the zeitgeist of an epoch than many other forms of human expression (Meggs viii).

If we consider visual design styles in perhaps their most elemental form as tools of communication, we can then include cultural symbols (and, by extension, writing) in the same canon, which will allow us to trace the diffusions of cultures by tracing the historical diffusions of languages.

Spread the Word

Language is a central, defining factor of every culture. It not only allows for the transmission of basic values, myths, ideas, and archetypes, it also defines how we communicate and what meanings we embed in the things we say. But, when we look more closely at the history of our written languages, we find that their visual symbols are overwhelmingly foreign in origin. As an example, let us consider the symbols which make up the English language. To do so, we must look not at the history of Anglo-Saxon visual culture but, rather, at the history of ancient Mesopotamia.

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petroglyphs from the western US
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the evolution of cuneiform

The earliest prehistoric Mesopotamian visual communications were made up of pictographs, elementary pictures or sketches that represented specific objects. To represent the Sun, for example, ancient authors would sketch out a rudimentary drawing of something like a round circle with lines radiating from the center. This system, over time, evolved to embody more abstract ideas and concepts, where that same drawing of the Sun became an ideograph representing the abstract ideas of day or light or life. These early symbols, which were recorded mostly for ritual purposes, were eventually simplified into a writing system known as cuneiform, a system of abstract lines and symbols which represented certain ideas only because of the cultural meaning attributed to them.

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the evolution of Cretan to English

With this example, we see how a written language as fundamentally Mesopotamian as cuneiform can move from one culture to the next, diverging as it is adopted by each subsequent culture, evolving from something foreign into something native. Boas states that:

All special cultural forms are the products of historical growth… the introduction of new ideas must by no means be considered as resulting purely mechanically in additions to the cultural pattern, but also as an important stimulus to new inner developments… independent development as well as diffusion has made each culture what it is” (Boas 290, 291, 436).

In other words, cultural styles do not emerge independently, but as a process of outside influences that trigger internal adaptations. This is essentially a passive, ancient form of globalization at work. As the people of disparate cultures come together, they tend to either merge their cultural styles or to replace the non-dominant styles with dominant ones.

The Power of Adaptation

This type of diffusion—that of a dominant culture supplanting a subordinate one—breeds a proclivity toward imperialism and hegemony. From the first Mesopotamian ritual symbols up until even the Protestant revolution, reading and writing was primarily the work of the religious elite who used this skill to hold power over the populous. The priests of ancient Egypt were the highest educated class of that civilization, intermediaries between kings and gods. Similarly, the Roman Catholic church declared that the word of God was in Latin, establishing a priestly class of apostolic succession who were/are purported to be the sole arbiters of God’s will throughout Europe. The regulation of these written symbols, visual styles, and the meanings they held was a source of power for those who were able to decipher them, creating systems of hegemony that lasted for centuries.

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“Deposition of Christ”,
Bronzino, 1540-1545
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Islamic mihrab (prayer niche)
ca. 1500s, Iran

In the Islamic world, where graven images and idolatry are strictly forbidden, visual styles emerged in the middle ages which were vastly different from those emerging congruently in Europe. Instead of the European style of portraiture, triptychs, and statuary, we see a trend toward patterns and mosaics. Rather than focusing art on the depiction of scenes and people, the focus was on bringing the presence of Allah into the surrounding world, decorating the walls and floors in His words, rather than His image. As breathtakingly beautiful as much of this artwork is, the development of these styles were direct responses to cultural beliefs imposed by the religious elite who were able to control the zeitgeist by controlling the use of visual style.

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“Books (Please!) In All Branches of Knowledge”,
Rodchenko, 1924

What these examples show is that “Hegemony … is not universal and ‘given’ to the continuing rule of a particular class. It has to be won, worked for, reproduced, sustained” (Hall, et al. 40). Political power is not something which maintains itself, but rather something which must be actively and continually sought. This is simply because of the ephemeral nature of culture. Power structures must remain relevant over generations by either adapting their methods to changes in culture or adapting culture to fall in line with their methods. We can see this power struggle between the elite and the populous play out like a litmus test in the changing visual styles put forth by the zeitgeist of any culture.

When we look at the progression of Western design styles, especially since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, we can see the pendulum swing rather dramatically as cultural reactions to political events shifted the dominant style paradigms. In Europe and the American colonies, the gaudy, extravagant style of the Rococo period became suddenly tawdry with the rise of revolutionary ideology. As the French and British monarchies flaunted their wealth before the people, the popular mentality shifted away from this extravagance and toward more democratic ideals of liberté, égalité, fraternité and the Neoclassical styles inspired by Greek and Roman history. The progression of these anti-establishmentarian styles, of course, culminated in political revolutions in both America and, soon after, France—where new cultural ideals were established and even new systems of communication (e.g., the metric system) came into prominence. Clearly, this shows the power of style to both encapsulate the values of culture and enable the further evolution of that culture. It is no wonder so many regimes have sought to control this influence.

This progress seems to go on ad infinitum (from William Morris’ Arts & Crafts movement to the sartorial styles of post-modernism), with each style—each cultural ideal—arising as a reaction to its predecessor. These movements are not merely a product of the zeitgeist of each generation, they are also catalysts whose expiration triggers new movements. This is an iterative process. As each style—each cultural zeitgeist—manifests, it becomes an abstraction of that culture, allowing those in power to validate or invalidate popular ideals and to make subsequent changes as they see fit.

Because the cultural experience—the way of life—can change so drastically from one place and time to the next, the implications this holds for design are nothing short of profound. The products of design are tied to cultural anchors which are rooted in the soils of specific traditions and values. The peril of our increasing globalization is that, as disparate cultures interact, imperialistic tendencies work to supplant local knowledge, tradition, and design with those of a more dominant culture. The nature of this is viral, using the local infrastructure as a host body through which to spread exogenous ideologies. As these cultures are osmosed and their parts are erased from the spectrum, the world becomes perhaps more homogeneous but, in the end, less whole.

The fear is that design might play a serious (if unwitting) role in this homogenization. The history of design discourse is often myopic, lacking a broader perspective of the political context of its Eurocentric ideologies and largely ignoring the cultural products of non-Western civilizations. Thus, exogenous designs (designs created and introduced by non-native peoples) inherently lack the necessary cultural anchors. When designers trained in Western traditions take it upon themselves to design for the people of other cultures, they bring with them the wrong set of precedents, effectively structuring their knowledge as hierarchically more important than the local knowledge of native peoples. In so doing, the expectation is that the indigenous culture should adapt to fit the design, not the other way around. This is, essentially, imperialism by another name.

Instead, the role of the designer must shift from someone who designs for the user to someone who designs with the user. To allow ourselves to be open to other cultures and other ways of knowing is to understand our collective humanity as a synthetic whole which transcends any or all of its individual parts. By designing in a way that respects, preserves, and strengthens these parts, we work to strengthen the whole. By including rather than marginalizing the accumulated knowledge of other cultures, we work together to better ourselves and the world for all people.

The Era of Transculturation

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“American Bingo Spirit”,
Marcus Cadman

It is perhaps an ironic phenomenon that, as the world becomes more homogenized, the daily lives of people become more individually varied. A yoga instructor in Omaha, for example, may share more cultural overlap with the people of India than with her own neighbors, while a teenager in Bangalore may daydream about American life as depicted by Hollywood. The question is whether this intermingling of cultures leads to cultural preservation, cultural erasure, or some form of refraction in-between.

As previously mentioned, the diffusion of cultures among different groups of people is not a stable process, usually leading to hybridized acculturation – modifications and adaptations of cultural traits as they diffuse. As Cuban anthropologist Fernando Ortiz notes:

I am of the opinion that the word transculturation better expresses the different phases of the process of transition from one culture to another because it does not consist merely in acquiring another culture (acculturation) . . . but the process also necessarily involves the loss or uprooting of a previous culture (deculturation) . . . and it carries the idea of new cultural phenomena (neoculturation) (Ortiz 102).

The effect of this transculturation is, again, viral—it uses the local infrastructure as a host through which to spread exogenous ideologies.

Take, for instance, the German Bauhaus and its influence on American design theory. The Bauhaus, an innovative Art and Architecture school founded by Walter Gropius in Germany in 1919, pioneered a modernist ideal that followed Germany’s defeat in World War I. The German artists of this time had a renewed liberal spirit to experiment with styles influenced by the Arts & Crafts movement and Soviet constructivism. The zeitgeist of the German people had turned from the more fanciful forms of Expressionism and toward more rational, functional, standardized forms. The United States, at this same time, was in the throes of a very different, Gatsby-esque period of Art Deco extravagance. What caused these two styles to coincide was the diaspora created by the onset of World War II.

When many of the founders and professors of the Bauhaus fled Hitler’s Nazi Germany in the 1930s, they sought refuge in the United States, where they continued to teach these German modernist principles in schools like the infamous Black Mountain College in North Carolina. As the influence of the Bauhaus seeped into American culture, we began to see the emergence of post-war modernist architecture and suburban commuter culture. Many of the ideologies still taught at American design schools today find their origins in the methods of Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, El Lissitzky, and Theo van Doesburg, among others. It makes one wonder just what American society might look like today if not for this foreign influence.

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The Bauhaus, Weimar, Germany
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color study by Josef Albers
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Students of Josef Albers’ course
in color theory at Black Mountain College

The point here is not to rile xenophobia, but to provide concrete examples of how exogenous design can fundamentally alter cultural perceptions. While the design styles of each culture will naturally follow an evolutionary arc regulated by changes in cultural zeitgeist, the introduction of exogenous design styles derails this natural evolution and, instead, inserts the values and ideals of a different culture, one which may not share the same evolutionary arc. As design theorist Victor Papanek writes: “It is not possible to just move objects, tools, or artifacts from one culture to another and then expect them to work” (Papanek 18). Instead, designers must be careful of the knowledge and culture that is potentially lost via transculturation and the introduction of exogenous designs and design methods.

As shown, there are three primary catalysts which trigger cultural evolution:

  • Internal, from the top down – by totalitarian regimes (political and religious leaders) attempting to affect change by controlling the evolution of style
  • Internal, from the bottom up – through paradigm shifts and revolutions instigated by the populous
  • External – by transculturation brought on by different cultural groups as they commingle

As such, I believe that holistic, collaborative (or “participatory”) design is the most ethical and sustainable method of designing across cultural lines, and that this is the future of design practice in the era of globalization. The role of the designer must change from someone who designs for the user to someone who designs with the user. The more seamlessly designers can integrate new designs with traditional cultures, the more impactful and sustainable those designs will be.

The natural evolution of design (from Neolithic carvings to post-modernism) is inherently tied to specific cultural meanings. To allow ourselves to be open to other cultures and other ways of knowing is to understand our collective humanity as a synthetic whole which transcends any or all of its individual parts.

culture and design are not separate analytical domains or extensions of each other. Rather they are deeply entangled, complex, and often messy formations and transformations of meanings, spaces, and interactions between people, objects, and histories (Otto 13).

By designing in a way that respects, preserves, and strengthens these parts, we work to strengthen the whole. Rather than supplanting local knowledge, we can use design to enhance and learn from it. By including and empowering rather than marginalizing the people of other cultures, we work together to better ourselves and the world for all of its people.

This, after all, is what it means to be human.

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