The Invention of Future Culture

Carl H. Flygt

December 2007


Roy Wagner’s classic (1975) treatment of anthropology, The Invention of Culture, details the experience and the purview of the modern scientist in pursuit of that most essential and most elusive of all scientific objectives, the theory of Man. Fundamental to that experience and purview, according to Wagner, is a thoroughgoing self-analysis as a necessary part of the analysis of others, and Wagner argues that this process is likewise the process gone through by the natives themselves, as they continually shape their culture as a way of interpreting nature to themselves. The self-nature, which is common to all mankind, is thus the fundamental stratum to which cultural controls and codes are applied, and from which meanings and idioms arise. “Nature is an experience of something happening to our controls, and it is perceived through their objectification. It is felt as the individual self, a peculiar (‘motivating’) resistance encountered in the effort to ‘control’ or discipline the self.” (p. 141). The experience of the anthropologist and of the object of the anthropologist’s study (the native population) are thus similar experiences, and both participate in the invention of the same culture.


The purveyor of conversation theory, and his targets, may be in exactly this self-analyzing, culture-inventing, anthropological position. Conversation is (or should be conceived to be) so entirely fundamental both to philosophy and to social science that a kind of culture shock can be expected to attend its reformulation and revisioning. The first manifestation of genuine culture shock, according to Wagner, is the recognition one’s own inadequacy as an investigator of oneself and others (p. 7), a loss of self through the loss of controlling supports. To function in proper conversation, according to the theory, one is required to function from a wholly social standpoint, with no assertion of private self-interest or personal agenda. In ideal or archetypal conversation, each speech act, which in principle is always subject to perfect analysis and perfect determination, must meet with universal acceptance; otherwise, there is no conversation. A social situation in which, as a result of a set of well-ordered agreements, institutional arrangements and technical enhancements, this condition holds can only result in a “pressing and enduring” (p. 7) loss of control for an individual otherwise accustomed to a private and autonomous mode of existence and self-consciousness. Social consciousness in the proper sense is quite distinct from what we are accustomed to.


Just how the pure social or pure conversational attitude is supposed to work is a matter of the Kantian will under the categorical imperative. The morally good will is the pure social will, a will that acts under a universal or harmoniously social frame of reference, and this frame of reference makes it a lawgiver in a realm of ends, a realm free of the laws of nature (Kant, p. 52). So what occurs in pure conversation is a sort of universal levitation, a consensually framed “out-of-body experience” in which consciousness in an important way is inverted, turned inside-out, with the heretofore idiosyncratic impulses of the private individual transposed and transformed into the mind of the universal individual, the social organism in which the self sense takes up a position in a field of force originating in living, breathing human minds but working in a transcendental space distinct from those minds and sensitive to cultural, social laws, not natural laws. Pure or truly social conversation is thus an experience like that of a flock of birds or a school of fish, operating under a psychic unity, except the biological units are not birds or fish, but human beings, with all of the semantic complexity and intelligence proper to that species. Clearly a circumstance like that, were it to become robust and reproducible (i.e. cultural) would be somewhat disorienting and challenging to an outsider experiencing it for the first time.


The next step in the process of culture invention, according to Wagner, is to learn the new culture by objectifying it, as one might learn a card game (p. 8). Since the objectification and the learning take place simultaneously, the conversational participants, all of them fieldworkers, will be said to invent the culture. It will be believed of course that ideal conversation is “a ‘thing’ that has rules and that ‘works’ in a certain way, and thus can be learned,” (p. 8) but it will not be learned in the way a child learns the rules of home or school. It will be learned out of the culture and meanings that each individual member of the community brings to the enterprise from his (her) own world (p. 8). This individualistic and mutually opaque set of backgrounds is what will “make all the difference” as the workers learn to understand “what is ‘there’” in the new cultural form. The reason that individualities “make all the difference” in pure conversation is that individualities constitute conversation. Certainly propositions are the vehicles of conversation, but individualities produce these vehicles. Individualities stand behind and give both substance and connotation to the truths that are uttered and thus proposed for universal acceptance in the social situation.


Self-conscious and ideal conversation is thus a “prop,” a fictitious aid to individuals in their invention and understanding of themselves. What individuals engaged in the project of ideal conversation seek to invent and understand is culture, to be sure, but it is also what anthropology and the study of Man itself always seeks to invent and understand as well – the self in its relation to nature. The anthropologist does not simply “learn the new culture, and thus place it beside the one he already knows, but rather ‘takes it on’ so as to experience a transformation of his own world” (p. 9).  Thus, according to Wagner, “culture is made visible by culture shock, by subjecting oneself to situations beyond one’s normal interpersonal competence and objectifying the discrepancy as an entity” (p. 9). When successful, moreover, the investigator gains a “powerful new control on his invention” that leads to “sureness in his thinking and feeling” (p. 10). Just what is made visible as an objective entity under conditions of ideal conversation is a mystery that will need to be studied and tested on a systematic basis for some time to come, but I suspect we will decide that it is a cosmic dimension in the human being, a capacity or a domain in self-consciousness that extends beyond the individual into the realities it confronts necessarily in death, for example, or in the generation of new life through sex and love. Certainly society can benefit from the invention of people sure in their thinking and feeling about these crucial domains of nature.


Culture is created by those who have the job of interpreting nature, and these people thus gain tremendous social power. Scientists and medical men interpret the nature within us and around us, entertainers interpret emotion and innate reaction, advertisers interpret impulse and need and journalists interpret events and their importance (p. 141). We can be certain that the interpreters of the nature of conversation will likewise gain social power and advantage, a power greater perhaps than any of these vocations, because conversation conceals a nature far more important to us than mere emotion, events or impulses. That nature is that of the human spirit itself, the highly subtle and ineffable logic of mental life, the stream of novelty and refreshment that is sought in every moment and in every gesture of self-conscious existence, and that most of our representations, symbolic or otherwise are infallibly calibrated to express or to control, and which they accomplish with varying degrees of success.


The serious business of modern American culture is that of taming, harnessing, subduing, tempering, rationalizing and understanding the powerful and mystifying thing we believe to be within us and around us, and to animate all things – which we call nature. Our personal and collective values are all measured by this enterprise, whether we speak of health, sanity, performance, sportsmanship, morality or progress. Our collective Culture is a vast accumulation of material and spiritual achievements and resources stemming from the conquest of nature and necessary to the continuance of this effort. It includes the substantial foundations of our cities and economic life, the massive banks of information and knowledge that fill our libraries and computers, the triumphs of art and science, and the arcane and ubiquitous labyrinths of technology… This whole vast complex amounts to a highly articulated and ever-changing set of controls for the invention of nature through acts of objectification (p. 10).


The work of the spirit, the objectification of nature, is something that seems certain to extend into the domain of conversation itself, should a coherent framework of control be proposed and accepted for that all-important quantity. That work moreover seems in principle to be quite open-ended. “Nature is an experience of something happening to our controls” (p. 141), and as long as nature ultimately escapes our controls, and manages to lie outside them in some respect, as it seems certain to do, we can be assured that the spirit will always be around to assert itself in transcendental terms.


The controls of Western, Judeo-Christian culture, science, technology, jurisprudence and the state, according to Wagner, should be understood to be arbitrary and artificial products of a cumulative historical development (p. 145). The effectiveness of these controls engender the dogma that the arbitrary analogies, divisions and distinctions we have imposed on the phenomenal world are basic and innate to it, and not merely ways of talking about it. The dogma leads naturally to the ethnosemantic stance, a belief in the possibility and perfectibility of definitions that give verbal denotation a priority over “meaningful extension” (p. 146), and a way of asserting the primacy of a “natural order.” The ethnosemantic gesture itself is a way of controlling and producing nature through cultural means, of verifying and thus creating the existence of a universal reality (p. 147). Semantic anthropologists do not see themselves as inventing nature and culture, and they tend to mask that invention by requiring “scientific certainty” of their inquiries, and referring to the interests of a collective effort by honest and dedicated professionals. But for Wagner, they are creating a particular, arbitrary reality and inventing culture by objectification and control (pp. 148-149).


Perhaps. Wagner is arguing for a “self-analytic anthropology” (p. 151), one which avoids the trap of imposing ethnocentric cultural controls arbitrarily on the meaningful extensions of other cultures. But one wonders where that process could end. It seems less complicated merely to argue from effectiveness, to assert the collective, Western discovery of universal reality, and advocate for monoculture, albeit a nuanced, complex and inexhaustibly subtle monoculture. What “dialectic, objectification, mediation and self-analysis” (p. 151) are going to get us is not altogether clear, unless to make us less arrogant and more likeable. And perhaps that is reason enough to take the theory of invention seriously. That and the fact that there seems to be a deep truth in it.


It is time, I think, to invent conversation theory, and to invent the Culture of Spirits, the domain of ends and lawful freedom that conception implies. Spiritual invention is the whole work of human life, it would seem, and to transcend the objectification of nature through culture in the ways that have been practiced heretofore seems an altogether desirable and needed innovation. Certainly we need an environmental movement of the mind, a reinfusion of the spiritual into art and architecture and an increase in the etheric vibrancy of at least some sectors of the planet, especially our schools and our public spaces. From the practice of conversation in these sectors, and the advent of a form of collective intelligence among certain kinds of human groups, it seems altogether plausible to imagine a reinvention of nature and culture through an analysis of the self. Whether that process is ultimately universal and truly objective, or merely dialectical, mediated and relatively extended, as Wagner seems to have it, is not altogether important in one sense. What is important is that enough intelligence and enough capital become available for it to happen. Future anthropology can then decide whether or not to classify it as yet another cultural projection of the great inventor, Man, or as a process in some sense intrinsic to the cosmos itself, and the necessities implied by the existence of human self-consciousness, its yearning to create new life and its obligation to break apart, lawfully, in the process of death.




Flygt, Carl H. Conversation – A New Theory of Language. Great Barrington, MA: Lindisfarne Books, 2006.


Hamilton, Craig. “Come Together: The Power of Collective Intelligence.” In What is Enlightenment? Magazine. Lenox, MA: 2004.


Kant, Immanuel. Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. Lewis White Beck, trans. New York: Macmillan, 1985.


Searle, John R. “A Taxonomy of Illocutionary Actions.” In Expression and Meaning. New York: Cambridge, 2003.


Searle, John R. Intentionality: An Essay in the Philosophy of Mind. New York: Cambridge, 2004.


Wagner, Roy. The Invention of Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1981.

The reason for this confidence in perfect analysis is Searlean speech act theory, which appears to have established as a matter of fact that the illocutionary point of any conversational utterance or gesture can only be one of five things, and that this illocutionary point can always be clearly separated from intentional content. See Searle, 2003, 2004.

Collective human intelligence of this sort is reported in Hamilton, 2004.

One thinks here of Heisenberg’s principle of uncertainty in subatomic physics, or of Godel’s theorems of incompleteness in the language of formal systems and mathematics.