The Cultic Roots of Culture

In Richard Münch & Neil J. Smelser (eds.), Theory of Culture. pp. 29-63 (1992)
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Current conceptions of meaning and culture tend toward extreme forms of disembodied abstraction, indicating an alienation from the original, earthy meaning of the word culture. I turn to the earlier meanings of the word and why the “cultic,” the living impulse to meaning, was and remains essential to a conception of culture as semeiosis or sign-action. Culture and biology are often treated by social scientists as though they were oil and water, not to be mixed. I am fully aware of the assumed nature-culture dichotomy, but I reject it, not because I am a sociobiologist, quite the contrary, but rather because I am a semiotician, and my studies of signs have led me toward a critical reconstruction of the concepts of nature and culture. In my perspective, culture is a living, social metaboly of signs, not limited to a convention but in transaction with the inmost recesses of the person, and with the qualitative, physical, and significant environment. The question is not whether culture is a “system” or not, but whether we shall continue to conceive of culture as an inert, mechanical system or code, incapable of self-critical cultivation, or as a “living system”--a way of living--fully open to contingency, spontaneity, purposive growth and decay. Putting the “cult” back into culture requires a reconception of the relations between human biology and meaning, and between non-discursive, non-rational reason and modern rationality. Such a reconception involves considering how the technics of the biosocial human body itself form the primary source of culture.

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Eugene Halton
University of Notre Dame


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