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Week 10--Culture's Stories

Anne Dalke's picture

There are stories of the natural world, of ourselves ... and of culture, which we are all both influenced by and influence. In this next section of the course, we will be looking at and thinking about stories about culture and the influence of culture on stories. Can we step back from "culture" enough to tell useful stories about it? How could we do so?

Silko and Geertz give some examples to help think about these questions, relevant to your upcoming writing assignments, in which we'll ask you to tell a story of some aspect of a culture with which you're familiar. To get started on that, share your thoughts here about a culture you'd like to write about, and ways you might go about it. Or about Silko and/or Geertz and/or anything else that  intrigues you this week.



Madi's picture

These two readings were very

These two readings were very different. I liked Silko's story better because it was more personal. She was discussing her own culture and the stories associated with it. I found the story that she told to be very powerful. The other reading was of a completely different style, however, it too was a discussion of a culture. Geertz was not originally a member of the culture that he wrote about. His writing was so hard for me to get into because it wasn't as personal as Silko's. He wrote like an anthropologist.
ashaffer's picture

Going back and reflecting

Considering culture, I am still wrestling with several questions:

1. How do we define culture?

2. Does culture disable b/c it's human nature (reductionist thinking), or b/c that's what society has done (whole is more than the sum of its parts)?

3. Could we make a culture that doesn't disable (anyone)? Would this still be a culture (Goes back to question 1)?

christa wusinich's picture

week 11 "culture as disability"

Life is cumulative. We all try and make sense of where we have been and what we have done. It’s a shame then that we are judged by where it is we currently stand…or maybe for many it is not such a shame. In this cultural context, it is not so much a measure of where we stand in relation to ourselves (in our personal cumulative process), but where we stand in relation to everyone else. This is something that has always been very difficult for me to contend with. I struggle every day not to let comparisons disable me.
For the culture essay (which I tried to write several times on three different topics), I wrote but did not turn in my essay entitled “Go to College!” In it I was expressing how credibility rests on having a college education; success in life is basically contingent upon having this college degree. Everyone knows that you can be successful without a degree, but this is more of a gamble. In the Social Darwinian sense, the fittest are the most educated and the most educated have degrees to prove their worth. I am not comfortable with this assessment, yet I am back in college for the third time after my degree…so I am enabling the disabling culture that I contend with.

“Lucky is the man who does not secretly believe that every possibility is open to him.”
- Walker Percy (in chapter one of The Last Gentleman)

Beatrice Nava ('43)'s picture


This struck a bell with me because of participating in creative writing workshops, in which we did read our own writing and profited from comments. I think that fundamentally, as is generally true, the crux is how something is said. Rather than saying a paper has no thesis, say that the thesis could be stated and substantiated more clearly, perhaps addressing some questions that could provide back up.

Hyperpuffball's picture

Classes and Papers

Somehow I doubt my observations of this week were as detailed as Al's last week, I still would like to discuss something that's been nagging me.

Everyone has a different opinion about the paper readings we do in class. Some hate having their work hashed over in public, others don't really mind, and still others enjoy the experience. I cannot make broad sweeping claims about how the class views our paper critiques, because my opinions are not the opinions of the entire class.

I can, however, state with confidence that the honesty and sincerity of our critiques in class have suffered since each author's name has been revealed. That is not to say that I personally object to this practice, it's merely an observation.

We are now much more gentle with our critiques, much less likely to say "this paper has no thesis" than "you might want to think about rewriting your thesis". While we are dampening public embarassment, are we not also impeding the growth of each author if no one feels comfortable saying "I think this paper's evidence needs more support"?

The class paper editing process clearly needs to be revised, but I am not the one to say how.

redmink's picture

I was a second grade or

I was a second grade or so.  I would go into my mom’s room and watch her bookshelves full of variety in colors of the book covers.  Then, every day I would pick out the same book and would read it.  The story was about a little girl cajoling her mother to make strawberry cake.  The mother says, “I’m busy with talking to this new neighbor, go into your room and do not disturb our conversation.”  The daughter gets disappointed and cries. The ending of the story is like that of Waithea’s story in which the little girl drowns herself.  Not that in the story I read, the girl died, but there was nothing satisfactory or moralistic so that it would give readers nihilistic sense.  However, that’s the story I always read every time I entered my mom’s empty room.  I guess my sentiment as a child was similar to the girl’s, disappointed at her mom who does not explicitly give her daughter motherly affection.  My mom was never home because she had to work.  Being in an empty house alone was not a good memory.  I felt not cared enough.  I read the story over and over again because I could sympathize the little girl’s disappointment.

From this experience, although several people might say they did not understand the nihilistic ending of the Pueblo story, I could grasp that however the ending is, the indescribable sentiment embedded in the story is closely related to the Pueblo culture, and that net fact gives a genuine story even though there is no explicit moral.  

Anne Dalke's picture

lighting the lights/performing the unconscious

"Considering how dangerous everything is, nothing is really very frightening."
(from the program notes)

I've just come from the rather astonishing performance of Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights (yes, go see it tomorrow night--last chance!). The piece about the production in Bryn Mawr Now emphasizes the fact that it is a valedictory to Goodhart-as-we-know-it. What it DOESN'T mention is what an astonishing representation of the unconscious this play is.

Maybe Allie Mouratis--who is in the ensemble for the play, and a member of our class--can tell us a little next week, about how it feels to (consciously?) perform the unconscious?

Anne Dalke's picture

lovers' statue installed

This is a follow-up from our talking about Sex in Flatland. Those of us interested in the stories cultures tell about love--about (not to put too fine a point upon it) who gets to do it publicly, and what snogging in public sells--see the news about the new lovers' statue installed @ St Pancras station in London.
Anne Dalke's picture

engaging in deep play

Those of you who couldn't join us today (not to mention those who could!) might enjoy seeing some shots of us engaging in deep play.
Audra's picture

I thought the Pueblo story

I thought the Pueblo story about the girl drowning herself was very much like a fairytale. The outcomes were extreme and the narration was kind of distant like in the Grimm stories we read at the beginning of the course. Also, their approach to storytelling-- drawing the story out of the listener/ reader-- reminded me of reader-response literary criticism, which argues that the reader is never objective and concerns itself with the responses that literature causes in the reader. Were the "inventors" of this form of lit crit familiar with Native American storytelling traditions?

I also find the idea of deep play intriguing. I think the most prevalent form of deep play in my life is the intense emotional connections I have with members of my family and some of my friends, particularly my best friend of nine years who now goes to Haverford. If I were to loose my family or this friend, I would be broken. It's a risk I'm more than willing to take, though, because I thrive on these emotional connections and they make my life so much richer than it would be if I were distant from everyone. I think people engage in deep play because the extreme highs in life go hand in hand with extreme lows: you need to take risks to experience life fully.

P.S. To anyone who is inclined to be alarmed by my crying in class today: don't freak out! It's how I react to things, and kudos to you for making me feel comfortable enough to open up after knowing you for only a couple of months. :D

Madi's picture

I really enjoyed reading

I really enjoyed reading Leslie Marmon Silko's ideas about story telling. I especially liked reading the Pueblo Creation story where the Thought Woman thought the world into being along with her sisters. It seems that we're collecting Creation stories in this class: the Pueblo idea, the Christian idea, and evolution. I'd like to add another one from a different culture. The aborigines of Australia believe that their ancestors sung the world into being while walking on paths called Songlines. These Songlines crisscross the world and connect everyone and everything. Each aborigine comes of age by walking their own part of one of those Songlines in a Walkabout.


In the second essay, I'm intrigued by deep play. Why do we play games where the stakes are so high?

Catrina Mueller's picture

Each word

I thought it was interesting that for each Pueblo person, they have a different story and each word "has a story of it's own". I think it is really rather odd to associate a story with each word, because stories are made of words in Englis and not the other way around. Actually, when I think about it more, each "kanji" (Chinese character) in Japanese has its own story. The kanji for man consists of "rice field" and "power". The kanji for woman comes from the way a woman use to sit way back when.
akeefe's picture

A sketch

This week, I really enjoyed the Pueblo Indian perspective of literature. Specifically the line that, to paraphrase, said that the Pueblos believed that the storyteller does not enter stories into you, but rather draws them out. I was thinking about this while going through the news last night in an attempt to burst a bit of the Bryn Mawr bubble. I came across a story about the Writers’ Guild strike. I only read a little bit, and cannot profess to know the logistics, but there was one passage that interested me. Apparently in the year of the birth, 1988, there was also a Writers’ strike. During this time some producers attempted to write snippets for their talk shows. However, the attempt failed. When I think about this, I wonder if it was not because they could not draw the stories out of people.

Isn’t that what Bettelheim suggested that fairytales do for children, draw out their understanding of themselves? Isn’t that what tacit understanding does in a dream, creates a story out of your experiences? A storyteller is important. She is the friend, the guardian, the punisher, the psychologist, the teacher, and awakener all wrapped up together. She is “Thought Women” of the Pueblo creation stories. She creates the universe…

merry2e's picture

On Motherhood as Culture

A long night passed, as I held and rocked my three year old daughter through another ear infection, I contemplated motherhood as culture. Finally, as the pain subsided and I watched her pain turn to short intervals of quiet slumber, I remembered how, when I was a child, I, too, had severe ear infections and my mother and grandmother would rock me to sleep. I then began thinking of the different ways in which we celebrated holidays together, how my mother always was in the kitchen, all my aunts laughing together, cleaning (doing supposed "women's work"), the men watching sports, but it provided a sense of home and community. It occurred to me how important it is, not only to have an awareness of what our culture consists of but how to teach our children the importance of cultural inheritance (is there such a term??) My family has changed since my mother and grandmother, there are now two mom's in our house, and at holidays, two mom's and a dad and everybody does the dishesand "most" of us like to watch sports (partcularly Steelers). But, some of the same culture stays with me from my childhood, nonetheless.

Have a good class...I will be at home being mom.

Allison Fink's picture

My CSem readings have

My CSem readings have reminded me of stuff from my philosophy class. Something that stood out for me in the Silko reading is how her culture makes public what other people have done because they believe that it is important not to isolate oneself from a group by thinking that one has experiences that are unique to oneself.  One must experience the experiences of the group as one’s own. This is the way the group feels unified. This is a necessary aspect of Plato’s ideal city in The Republic.

Rituals, as Geertz said, are self expressions. What you do is less important than what, in playing it out, it means for you. Rituals could mean, as in the cockfighting, expressing things like hatred and cruelty. It is interesting to note that in one passage Geertz refers to the cockfight, when the cocks, after being caged together and otherwise cruelly treated and are therefore responding by being about to rip each other to pieces, as “beautiful”. Religious rituals can be violent, and in some religious worldviews there are gods of destruction that are an essential part of the universe. Some people think that violence is evil and the devil is to blame for it. Some people think that the universe is neither good nor evil but indifferent, and that we are neither good nor evil. The ancient Greeks, however, abandoned religion that worshiped gods who engaged in uncontrollable behavior (another philosophy class example).      

An anthropologist is kind of like an artist who discovers layers of meaning in the playing out of culture that no one knew was there before. The anthropologist must be very sensitive and insightful to do this. This reminds me of Aristotle, whose view was that it was possible to learn things through experiential knowing.  

Alison R. Mouratis's picture

This post is not from the heart...

I find how this class had changed my point of view very, very interesting. I like thinking about my first reactions to a reading and then comparing them to how they might have been different before this seminar. For example, in the first paragraph of this reading, the author talks about how important speaking in the moment is: “Where I come from, the words most highly valued are those spoken from the heart, unpremeditated and unrehearsed.” My very first reaction was, “Where does that expression ‘words from the heart’ come from? Is our unconscious the same as our heart? As our emotions? Maybe we just think it is difficult to access our unconscious, like some people find it hard to access their emotions… “ Just a crazy little train of thought that went through my head.


I think one of the most interesting things that I read in this first article was the idea that a written speech is highly suspect because that means the words that this person speaks are not “from the heart” and that they are detached from the occasion. As someone who is very interested in theater, this made me wonder if the Pueblo Indians viewed theater as something not truly from the heart since it was already written down and not improvised. And that also makes me wonder about how much they value storytelling. Isn’t storytelling a “premeditated” and “rehearsed” form of expression? I’m by no means trying to discredit the Pueblo Indians, though. In retrospect, it seems like I’m out to disprove them or something--which I am not!


The other fact that stood out to me was when the author discussed the importance of remembering and retelling all stories—both positive and negative. This part especially stood out me because the author describes this as an important practice because, “If others have done it before, it cannot be so terrible. If others have endured, so can we.” I found this mentality very interesting

calypsse's picture

back to the past

Both essays took me back to my culture, of the few things I love and appretiate about the place I grew up in is the stories told, like in the Publo essay, in Mexico there are many stories that can be told about a word or a phrase, a particularity of our culture are the refranes we constantly use. As I was reading that particular essay I was having a conversation with one of my friends in Mexico and as we were joking I said a frase that all of the sudden made me parallel my culture with the reading. Also, in telling a story we end up telling several stories within a story, and that is something I had never realized before.

With the Bali essay I was amazed of the cockfight ritual, we also have cockfights in Mexico, they are not as popular as they were 20 or 30 years ago but there are still of great importance in some rural areas, I have never actually seen one, but I do know that just like in Bali is all about male pride. It's an irony that I love bullfights but think that cockfights, dogfights and horse and dog races are horrible.
hannahpayne's picture

In response to the two

In response to the two questions posed in the prompt, I believe that we can step back far enough from culture in order to explain it and tell stories about it. The first reading was written by a member of the culture that was being written about and did an excellent job of conveying the important aspects of the culture. I think that sometimes we don't realize the distinct characteristics of the cultures that we are a part of but once we begin to think about them ideas come pretty quickly. I also think that this is highlighted when put in comparison with other culutres. For example, the story about Bali is very interesting to us because our culture is very different from the culture of Bali. It talks a completely new way of living and interacting with one another. Most people in America don't completely ignore outsiders until and then accept them after a certain amount of time, but in Bali it is normal. The things we may find strange in Bali's culture point out what we find normal in our own culture. I have found  this same occurance in coming to college. Here there are so many people from very different backgrounds and hearing their stories have pointed out certain characteristics of my own culture from home. I have come to realize what makes up the culture that I come from which before I just took for granted. Maybe I will write about this in my next paper? 
christa wusinich's picture

"not the master key"

"The cockfight is not the master key to Balinese life, any more than bullfighting is to Spanish"( Geertz top of 239). It seems strange that I selected this quote from the myriad of potential quotes that I might have extracted from Geertz's account, many of which are more central to G's claim that cockfighting provides a rich "cultural text" of Balinese society. Geertz elaborates that cockfighting is a Balinese artform, an aesthetic interpretation of caste and hierarchical realities. In his own words the cockfight is "a Balinese reading of Balinese experience, a story they tell themselves about themselves"(234).

Back now to G's disclaimer..."the cockfight is not the master key." First of all, it seemed to me that according to this account, cockfighting was the "master key." Before I finished reading this, I began to consider various cultural practices that involve animals as victims...I thought of the foxhunters I see in parts of Chester County riding their horses and surrounded by hounds...I thought about hunting in general...I thought about bullfighting and I cruised the web a little and found some horrifying footage of recent bullfights in Barcelona and in Portugal. I came back to the Geertz reading and was surprised to find mention of bullfighting in Spain; maybe I'm not that bad of a wanderer after all! There was relevance!

The Geertz reading could very well serve as a defense of cockfighting, if and when the practice comes under fire in Bali or elsewhere. I did notice that it was already outlawed, save for a few holidays. Remarkable...Geertz went to some 57 matches! It's frightening how we can intelligibly explain "why cruelty?" and somehow justify it...after all, they are only telling their story and ought not every society/ethnic group be permitted to tell their story? What are the limits?



jforde's picture

I think Language and

I think Language and Literature... was the first piece that we've read that actually gave a brief definition of a story. We have referenced this theme within the bigger picture of all of our discussions but have not read about it any of our readings and if at all then not very often. It's nice to read a story from the reading that ties into the bigger picture.

As interesting as I found the story about the girl drowning herself, I found the story to very odd. Why would the girl want to drown herself after she knew that her mom had "yashtoah" for her? I can understand that children are more vulnerable and often have suicidal thoughts in order to determine their worth. Did she have suicidal thougths before she wanted the Yashtoah and used the fact that she gathered snakes instead of wood as an excuse to commit suicide? If so, what were her real motives for commiting suicide since her mother wasn't able to stop her. Once her daughther jumped into the water, I was surprised that she didn't immediately jump into the water and make any further attempt at saving her daughter. A mother watching her daugher drown herself does not seem like a normal reaction. Maybe there's a certain understanding in their culture about suicide since she seemed more keen in grieving her daughter's death and scattering her daughter's belongings than trying to save her life.

Allyson's picture

In all of the readings we

In all of the readings we have discussed this semester I have always felt the most satisfaction when my understanding lands me in a place where many things relate cohesively in my mind while others still wander around in a deliciously irreverent kind of way. What I found most interesting about this week’s reading was that although the piece regarding Bali might have pointed to the fact that tacit understanding is based on culture it also pointed to some universal understandings. The need to both identify with and defect from things within a person’s environment is overwhelmingly prevalent in human behavior and the fact that certain groups of people do so in vastly different ways makes it that much more vital to the human experience, in my opinion.


ErinDoppelheuer's picture

I have to agree with

I have to agree with carterian in the fact that I was frustrated with the Pueblo stories because they left them open ended and I wanted to know more.  Why did the young girl committ suicide; just becasue her mother scolded her for bring home snakes instead of wood.  That is honestly absurd.  These Pueblo stories are supposed to teach a lesson of some sort, so what is the lesson from this story-committ suicide if u bring home snakes instead of wood-ridiculous.  Also, with the story about the woman who lost her husband, but then applied for the job in the Keans Canyon, we never know what happens once she arrives.  I wanted to know more details about these stories, but they seemed to be left open ended, which personally annoys me. 


However, I was extremely interested in the sory about Bali and the anthrologist who visited.  This story gave so much information into the background of cock fighting and the meaning behind it all.  I have much to say about this story, but that would go on forever, but one thing that I will say is that I think that the information about the cock fighting, especially the betting part went on for too long and I lost interest quickly and had to skip around the page. 

carterian's picture

Culture adds a whole new

Culture adds a whole new dimension to our understanding of tacit knowledge. Prior to reading these works, I would have argued that there is some tacit understanding of and sympathizing with animals. I always thought that it takes a very cruel human being to abuse an animal. However, reading about the cock fighting and the customs made me see that it is not a universal understanding, but mostly a cultural one. I can't say that I was unaffected when reading the story, or that I would be willing to go to a cock fight just for the experience because I believe that I would be too upset by it, despite the knowledge that I have gained by reading about it. I do understand that this is a very spiritual custom, the fact that men consider the cock to be a part of them is interesting. Yet, with all of this information because of my tacit understanding, or rather the tacit understanding of my culture, I would be unable to watch a cock fight.

I found the story-telling exhibited by Pueblos to be interesting, but at the same time frustrating. I wanted to know more! The story of the girl who drowns herself was so frustrating for me. I wanted to get more details in her so sudden and dramatic change in feelings. Also, the story about the woman who got a job, we don't learn to much about the job or the change that went on in her life, we merely know that an enormous change occurs. I wish that I had the power to appreciate what is offered to me in these stories, rather than having to have more. That is a wonderful talent that these people have. The fact that they can immerse themselves in the power of a story that has no beginning or end is amazing to me.