Re-reading Michael Baxandall’s book Painting and Experience in Fifteenth Century Italy, which I use in my art history course, I was struck the similarity between Baxandall’s opening paragraph in his second chapter and our “conversation” about the way we obtain cultural input (feedback loop). Baxandall writes:
“An object reflects a pattern of light on to the eye. The light enters the eye through the pupil, is gathered by the lens, and thrown on the screen at the back of the eye, the retina. On the retina is a network of nerve fibres which pass the light through a system of cells to several million receptors, the cones. The cones are sensitive both to light and to colour, and they respond by carrying information about light and colour to the brain.
It is at this point that human equipmente for visual perception ceases to be uniform, from one man to the next. The brain must interpret the raw data about light and colour that it receives from the cones and it does this with innate skills and those developed out of experience. It tries out relevant items from its stock of patterns, categories, habits of inference and analogy – ’round’, ‘grey’, ‘smooth’, ‘pebble’ would be verbalised examples – and these lend the fantastically complex ocular data a structure and therefore a meaning. This is done at the cost of a certain simplification and distortion: the relative aptness of the category ’round’ overlays a more complex reality. But each of us has had different experience, and so each of us has slightly different knowledge and skills of interpretation. Everyone, in fact, processes the data from the eye with different equipment. In practice these differences are quite small, since most experience is common to us all: we all recognise our own species and its limbs, judge distance and elevation, infer and assess movement, and many other things. Yet in some circumstances the otherwise marginal differences between one man and another can take a curious prominence.”
(from M. Baxandall, Painting and Experience in Fifteenth-century Italy, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1972, 1988, pp. 29.)
This is fascinating. First, because it was published in 1972 – quite a while ago – but in an area that was ignored by cultural studies experts of a “newer” stamp as it addresses “high culture” (M. Arnold, not R. Williams). Baxandall, however, obviates the relationship between our physical structure and the way we interpret the world, assigning common experience to the way we interact with our enviroment (“estimating elevation and distance”) but necessarily arriving at different meaning – which, in some cases, makes for different “culture” even though differences must be small.
It is a small jump from here, therefore, to conclude that different geography, climate, and cultures of work and survival greatly influence the “culture” of any given region and form differences between regions. Culture, cannot be soley external, but is rather developed as a relationship between physiological/psychological processes and other human beings as we confirm our modes of interaction with the enviroment. It is a shared discourse on the relationships between memory and action (simplistic, but ok.)