Posted by: akhtikian | September 13, 2010

Culture and Symbols

I have been appreciating my interdisciplinary, complimentary classes this week and found these words a helpful way to begin defining visual culture for myself as I start to deconstruct Bleak House.

First, a fabulous definition of culture from Clifford Geertz, one of America’s most respected and influential anthropologists (from my Cultural Anthropology reading):

The concept of culture I espouse is essentially a semiotic one. Believing, with Max Weber, that man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun, I take culture to be those webs, and the analysis of it to be therefore not an experimental science in search of law but an interpretive one in search of meaning. (cited in Carol Delaney’s “Investigating Culture.” pg. 15)

And, also from Delaney’s work, David Schneider’s idea about culture as a system of symbols and meanings:

By symbols and meanings i mean the basic premises which a culture posits for life; what its units consist in; how those units are defined and differentiated; how they form an integrated classification; how the world is structured; in what parts it consists and on what premises it is conceived to exist, the categories and classifications of various domains of the world of man and how they relate one with another, and the world that man sees himself living in….Culture concerns the stage, the stage setting, and the cast of characters; the normative system consists in the stage directions for the actors and how the actors should play their parts on the stage that is so set. (pg. 14)


  1. Came across this post again scrolling through blog history, and noticed the Geertz is cited secondhand. I just wanted to make a note that article the quote comes from is worth a read. I found a link online if anyone is interested/hasn’t read it before! (“Thick Description:
    Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture”

    Also, Geertz and Schneider are both pioneers of the same school of thought (symbolic anthropology, concerned with hermeneutics/interpretation), so their concepts are rather biased towards their interests, which I suppose is true of anthropologists representing any school of thought. I wonder – does the symbolic hold particular resonance in the study of visual culture (it seems so, as it is presented in this post)? Is it because of the number of visual metaphors employed in its ideas, or is it just more readily applicable to visuality studies?

  2. *Ack, I always forget the closing parenthesis always interferes with the link! Here it is again:

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