Harald Haarmann’s Theory of Cultural Knowledge Construction

Malta_HagarQimTemple Art_doublescrollCultural studies is an innovative field of research that investigates the ways in which ‘culture’ creates and transforms individual experiences, everyday life, social relations and power. Cultural studies is avowedly and even radically interdisciplinary and can sometimes be seen as antidisciplinary. Cultural studies scholars examine the forces within and through which socially organized people conduct and participate in the construction of their everyday lives.

My work in cultural studies combines a variety of politically engaged critical approaches including ecofeminist philosophy, ethnography, critical race theory, semiotics of culture, poststructuralism, decolonialization theory, critical social theory, history, philosophy, political economy, archaeomythology and art to study cultural phenomena in various societies and historical periods. Thus, cultural studies seeks to understand how meaning is generated, disseminated, contested, bound up with systems of power and control, and produced from the social, political and economic spheres within a particular social formation or conjuncture. Theories of cultural hegemony, agency and the dynamics of change are relevant to cultural studies,  particularly to climate change adaptation.

Adaptation to the environment is not based on a strategic plan but is connected to a community’s identity as an inner force that promotes the cultural enterprise.  Language – the most efficient natural sign system – provides a sense of community-in-environment through symbols (p31). The use of language for mythmaking is more pressing than the use of language for instructing tool-making.

‘Ecocentrism’ is defined as “the nondual notion that humans are nature and are interdependent with all beings in the web of life,” however, this definition does not carry the meaning of ‘participation’ unless we interpret oikos – the Greek root of eco- (usually interpreted as habitation), as a collective place, as in ‘collective inhabitation of place’ or ‘our dwelling’, which implies a politic of place that is inclusive of all species (MacAuley, 1996).  This reinterpretation of oikos decentres the human in the collective community shared by all beings; it amplifies my usage of “naturecultures,” a term explicated by Haraway and Latour (Puig, 2009, p.157).  I like to think of my work as naturecultures studies, not just cultural studies.

30 postulates on the dynamics of viability and change

Harald Haarmann

Harald Haarmann

These postulates originate in Harald Haarmann’s Foundations of Culture.   The examples in italics illustrate the postulate.  The keywords are knowledge, experience, interaction, time, space, place, environment, community, viability.


17Image_cooperacion - vectorstock_1048760Group 1 – Cultural networks, communal life and patterns of sustenance.

  • Postulate 1: If communal life is the key to the understanding of how a locally specific culture operates, then the ways in which people interact define their culture’s properties (p.183).
  • Postulate 2:  If the interaction in a community is expected to be successful, then people have to behave according to certain conventions of conduct that are shared by the members in the community (p.185).
  • Postulate 3: If the conventions of conduct are the key to successful interaction among people in a culturally specific milieu, then there must be a functioning shared system of common values that will enhance the viability of the community (p.187).
  • Postulate 4: If the members in a community share conventions of conduct and a system of common values associated with a particular belief system, then they also share common strategies of symbol-making for the purpose of in-group identification (p.191).
  • Postulate 5: If conventions of conduct among the members of the community are the social wrapping of their culture, and the symbolism of their belief system is the spiritual wrapping of their culture, then these wrappings articulate themselves by means of language and non-language related sign systems as the communicative wrapping of their culture (p.195).
  • Postulate 6: If the sociocultural phenomena effected by interaction within the frame of conventional conduct and bound by communication through signs and symbols are essential ingredients of a culture, then the collective knowledge of meaningful conventions and symbols is the foundation of human cultural memory (p.196).

17Image_cooperacion - vectorstock_1048760Group 2 –  Symbol-making and symbolic activity

  • Postulate 7: If the knowledge of sociocultural phenomena and of symbolic communication provides the frame for membership in the community, then the consciousness of acting based on such knowledge determines the stability of cultural traditions (p.197).
  • Postulate 8: If the knowledge collected from perpetuated experience meets the demands and requirements of community life, then this knowledge tends to be tight and firmly rooted in people’s cultural memory (p.199).
  • Postulate 9: If the rigidity of knowledge is a function of an easy verifiability and of the willingness to act upon it, then this knowledge has proved its usefulness for vitalizing  communal life (p.201).  Rituals are not only universal in the geography of human cultures, they are also present in all stages of human evolution. Consequently, this means that rituals will persist into our future world (p.201).  There is a broad consensus among most scholar that ritual preceded theatre, that ritualistic performance provides the mind frame for the reworking of eternal human matters (i.e. Love, hatred, liberty, power, death) projected into the fictitious world of theatre… [producing] drama as therapy (p.204).
  • Postulate 10: If the usefulness of knowledge is collectively acknowledged and appreciated in the community, then this knowledge has intergenerational potential.
  • Postulate11: If useful knowledge is successful for the functioning of community life, then it must have a dual capacity, a storing capacity (propositional knowledge) and an instructive capacity (prescriptive knowledge (p.206).
  • Postulate 12: If the propositional and prescriptive knowledge in a community enjoys continuity throughout  many generations, then its compositions reflects the indebtedness among the living members to the instructions of their ancestors (p.213). For example, the preservation of classical literature during the Carolingian Renaissance rescued and copied ancient texts which might otherwise have been lost.
  • Postulate 13: If the collective knowledge is oriented towards living-conditions in concordance with the natural environment, then communal life will unfold according to the rhythm of the natural life-cycle (p.220). For example, worship of a rain divinity is typical of agrarian societies (p.221).
  • Postulate 14: If local living conditions unfold in concordance with the natural environment, then the degree of a superposition of propositional knowledge by any competing life-styles is low (p.222).  For example, modern worship of Pachamama testifies to the tenacity of ancient propositional knowledge about the mythical construction of human living conditions and dependency on the natural environment [in spite of the popularity of Virgin Mary] (p.222).

17Image_cooperacion - vectorstock_1048760Group 3 –  The Relationship between natural environment and cultural space:

  • Postulate 15: If propositional knowledge tends to be resilient, then it will not be significantly affected by social change or by influences of culture contact (p.223).   For example, botanical knowledge about the usefulness of certain medicinal herbs.
  • Postulate 16: If a culture has persisted in a certain area uninterruptedly over many generations, then the canon of core knowledge has proved its usefulness to vitalize the community and tends to remain stable (p.224).  For example,  the V sign, spiral and snake motif belong to Paleolithic repertory of signs and symbols. They were retained, albeit with some changes, in the Neolithic. (p.226). Similarly the meander-motif associated with bear mythology had a very long history in Eurasia (p.227).
  • Postulate 17:  If the natural environment inhabited by humans is dominated by extreme climatic conditions and by limited natural resources, then the instructions that are adopted from the ancestors about living in harmony with nature are likely to retain their usefulness infinitely, thus guaranteeing the longevity of cultural patterns (p.230).  For example, Hinduism and Buddhism posit the idea of balance between all living things in their natural environment (p.233).For example, shamanism in Siberia originates in the Paleolithic and continues to hold timeless value for the retention of in-group solidarity in human communities and their embedding in the natural environment (p.236).
  • Postulate 18: If the natural resources in areas of human habitation are hard to access, the human mind is challenged to invent technologies for accessing those resources (p.236). For example, tar sands extraction of oil from bitumen. Haarmann’s examples are about extreme environments where irrigation was invented to ensure food supply (p.237).
  • Postulate 19: If the collective knowledge is technologically oriented and directed toward a control of nature, then the community is likely to detach itself from the natural life cycle. For example, command of fire allowed for cooking food, and changed which/how foods were gathered and stored.

17Image_cooperacion - vectorstock_1048760Group 4 – Cultural continuity and change.

  •  Postulate 20: If communal life becomes more oriented toward technological innovation, then the canon of conventional cultural symbols associated with the natural life cycle is subject to partial changes (p.245).  Example, the invention of the printing press benefited the citizens of town more than peasants, and rich more than poor.
  • Postulate 21: If rigidity and usefulness of knowledge are constitutive elements in the evolution of human culture, then there will always exist a core of useful knowledge at a given time in a given community, regardless of the dynamics of innovations that may occur (p.247). Example, communist social innovation never caused a total change in local Russian culture.
  • Postulate 22: If strange attractors challenge the continuity of useful knowledge, the innovations may penetrate its existing canon and cause variation (p. 253). Example, in spite of unpredictable modernizing influences that replaced feudalism and opened trade, Japan retained its traditions of social conduct and respect for ancestors (p.255).
  • Postulate 23: If a community’s culture is under the threat of having a foreign dominant culture with which it is in continual contact superimposed on it, then the useful knowledge is likely to assume protective functions under conditions of situational pressure (p.256).  Example, Siberian cultures under Russian communist domination somehow retained their language, cultural artefacts and lore (p.256). Also Basque.
  • Postulate 24: If propositional knowledge is distributed in two main domains, that of visible (material) and that of invisible (spiritual) culture, then the dynamism of continuity and change functions independently in the two domains (p.257).  Example, people of Papua New Guinea can drink canned coke without changing their worldview (p.258).
  • Postulate 25: If innovation is the product of a thinking oriented exclusively towards technological advance, then the knowledge that is constructed upon it defies the appreciation of the usefulness of knowledge related to natural phenomena and is in conflict with it. (p.259).  “Since technological advance aims at gaining control or at rigidifying an existing control over nature, the knowledge related to it is in conflict with the knowledge about natural phenomena that has been handed over from previous generations.”  Example: many digital images of nature appear to be fantastic virtualities because the creator of the image was disconnected from nature (p.259).

17Image_cooperacion - vectorstock_1048760Group 5 –   The life cycle of cultures: climate induced changes in human ecology and the emergence of ancient civilizations

  • Postulate 26: If a core canon of useful knowledge is needed to keep a community functioning, then total change or a complete restructuring of a society or culture (including its core symbolism) may occur only under the condition that the natural environment is destroyed or deprived of its potential to serve as sustenance for the community (p.260).  “Destruction of the natural environment and forceful deprivation of economic resources are the only factors that may cause the complete restructuring of a culture, including its storage of useful knowledge and the entire cultural symbolism” (p.260).  For example, climate change caused droughts in Turkey that made Catal Huyuk and Hacilar unsustainable.
  • Postulate 27: If there is “developmental space” for a community to respond to ecological challenges, then the threshold of civilization may be crossed (p.263).  Developmental space means arable land. For example, the massive flooding of Black Sea forced many farmers to leave their farms for higher land; many migrated to Danube Valley.  “The relationship between geological events, ecological changes and cultural development is not a simple stimulus-response mechanism.” (p.265).
  • Postulate 28: If the ecological challenges are locally varied, then the experiments with institutions and technologies that make up the fabric of civilization will produce locally specific trajectories of cultural evolution (p.268).  For example, some Neolithic cultures reached the level of civilization by developing the oecumene model.
  • Postulate 29: If the belief system in an advanced stage of sociocultural evolution reconciles traditional values with actual demands of living conditions, then development in the community will be organic (p.269). For example, when an imported or imposed religion, such as Christianity, does not replace indigenous religious knowledge, there is less cultural disruption and a syncretistic belief system enables traditional knowledge to be perpetuated (p.269).
  • Postulate 30: If the ways people interact in an advanced stage of sociocultural evolution, traditional values are not reconciled with the realities of socio-economic change in a community, then the useful knowledge of the ancestors (i.e. of previous stages of evolution) will not be perpetuated as an independent pattern, but rather will form a substratum in a subsequent culture and/or in a dominant a-traditional belief system (p.270). Disruption of cultural continuity occurs under extreme conditions of decline or total collapse, but there will always be traces, as in Hittite culture evident in Konya, Turkey.

Archaeomythology as Method to decipher the Language of Culture

Dr. Marija Gimbutas. Photo credit Monica Boirar.

Dr. Marija Gimbutas. Photo credit Monica Boirar.

Archaeomythology is an interdisciplinary theory and method of studying culture by seeking evidence in the inter-relationship of humans, nature and the cosmos by deciphering the language of culture in myth, ritual, sign and symbol. It originates with Marija Gimbutas and is carried forward by the Institute of Archaeomythology, of which I am a member.

  • Myth. Myth is the prototypal, fundamental, integrative mind tool; it tries to integrate a variety of events in a temporal and causal framework. (p31).  Myth is thematic.  The pre-eminence of myth in early human society is testimony that humans were using language for a totally new kind of integrative thought. (p32).   All cultures have an elementary layer of mythopoetic experience expressed as creation myths to explain the culture’s concepts of primordial beginnings.  The mythical records of pre-patriarchal cultures retain female deities that reflect the roles of women in the earlier epoch and often include a primordial mother (e.g. Terra Mater) or Great Mother (e.g. Cybele). We will explore the cultural imaginary of natality through myths of birthing, mothering, birds and the world egg.
  • Ritual.  Myth is best understood by analyzing the rituals that accompany it.  Classicist Jane Ellen Harrison pioneered this method which has now become standard.  The study of ritual integrates the mythopoetic, the concrete and the abstract, and the visible and the ineffable at once in a sacred living world. Before the invention of writing systems, myth was transmitted through oral tradition. Orality in traditional (indigenous) cultures teaches us that the memorized collective knowledge in a speech community is reiterated, renewed and /or elaborated, often through ritualistic performance such as story-telling, ritual changing, dancing, singing, and other performance skills (p32). In ceremonial life, orality uses verbal performance intertwined with local cultural symbolism. (p33).  Rituals of natality may be represented by altars, graves, temples, hilltop shrines, etc.
  • Symbol. Symbol-making is a primary activity of humankind.  Like eating, it is a fundamental process of the human mind and goes on all the time (p.28).  Cultural knowledge is stored in people’s minds and reflected in the symbolism that constitutes their living space.  Symbols are embedded in living spaces through architecture, textiles, body decoration, pottery and art.  Tattooing is one of the most intimate carriers of cultural markings (p33).  Symbols may be iconic or abstract.  Abstract motifs likely originated from naturalistic forms, and for that reason scholar continue to try to decipher the dots, zig-zags, lines and spirals of ancient rock art.  Abstractness is a primary, not a secondary,  achievement of human culture.  Symbols of natality may include pregnancy, egg, breast, vulva, spiral, primeval deer and bear.  Art in the form of female figurines have been found in Paleolithic and Neolithic sites from Spain to Siberia. When modernist scholars interpret the figurines as children’s toys or Paleo pornography, they project modernist concepts onto ancient cultures. Scholars using the methods of archaeomythology continue to decipher the symbology of this long-lasting and pervasive art form.
  • Sign. Signs are markings on surfaces of artefacts; they hold meaning and significance for a culture.  Geometric markings may be retained in the textile patterns of traditional costumes. Signs may include etched markings on pottery, figurines, stelae, frescos and doorways. For example, sign is embedded in the architectural design and decoration of Neolithic temples on Malta. In Manitoba’s Whiteshell area, petroforms and petroglyphs are signs left by ancient cultures that predate the Sioux and Ojibway.

Cultural Elements

  1.  Material objects (tools, architecture, etc)
  2. Network of social relationships
  3. Collective technologies of communication (writing systems)
  4. Creative constructions originating in communal life (handicraft, music, theatre, etc)
  5. Shared values and beliefs (worldview, mythology, religion)
  6. Collective knowledge and stored memory – the kinds of instruction that one generation gives to the next to safeguard cultural continuity.

Cosmology, religion and culture

Cosmology is a comprehensive and integrated perspective of time, space and place; it functions as a paradigm for ecologically and socially sustainable living in a society. Cosmology lies intertwined with and beneath culture.  Culture is specific to place and experience and thus relatively transitory, whereas cosmology survives for millennia once it is established in the myths, legends, instincts and traditions of people.  It is deep knowledge that is lived, embodied and often not articulated in linguistic form.  Remnants of cosmology are retained in myth, ritual, signs and symbols in spite of new technology and other cultural changes (Haarmann, 2007, p.176).

Religion is a modern dualistic construct that emerges from cosmology and culture to formalize the relationship of humans to the cosmos in texts and institutions.  Based on these assumptions, my study of the neolithic do not use the term ‘religion’ because it implies a conceptual solidity documented in text, institutionalized ritual, and priestly functions – three factors for which there is scant evidence.

Eschewing the word ‘cult’, I prefer the term ‘culture’, which is inclusive of neolithic and indigenous cultures characterized by fluid, unregulated epistemologies.

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