Culture: An Owner's Manual is a newsletter about the mechanics of culture: what it is, what it does, how it works, where it comes from, and why it changes
Hello, I’m W. David Marx, an American writer based in Tokyo, and this is my newsletter/blog, Culture: An Owner’s Manual.
You may know me from my book Ametora: How Japan Saved American Style — a cultural history of how American casual clothing such as jeans and blazers came to Japan after World War II, set the standards for Japanese youth fashion, and went on to inspire Japanese manufacturers to make some of the highest-quality and most “authentic” versions of American garments available today. From a broader perspective, Ametora is also a book about how innovations snowball into social trends, and in some cases, root in the main culture as traditions. In the case of American style in Japan, a small group of rebellious, yet very rational individuals promoted imported styles as business ventures and worked closely with the mass media to create social acceptance. Their success then caused mass market imitation from other companies, and in this process, once-radical styles became conventional. This inspired subsequent waves of rebels to propose their own innovations.
Like many of you, I enjoy reading about specific cultural moments, but when we start talking about the general field of "culture," the topic can quickly become very frustrating. Taken as a whole, culture is ill-defined, amorphous, and unpredictable. And so for much of my life, I have obsessively been trying to find order in the mess. And after writing Ametora and thinking through similar phenomena from the same perspective over the decades, I have come to understand a few principles of culture that help me better grasp what is happening. Namely:
Culture is not total chaos: There are general laws and patterns guiding how it flows.
Culture is not random: Innovation appears in reaction/relation to dominant styles, and this provides a structure to the process of change.
Culture is a micro-to-macro phenomenon: “Trends” only occur when groups of individuals choose to behave in the same ways. Understanding culture, then, is the process of charting why individuals cluster into new behaviors.
My new book, Status and Culture (due from Viking Books in August 2022) is built on these assumptions, specifically framing culture as a complex ecosystem of individuals in pursuit of higher status. I believe the inexorable link between status and culture clarifies many enigmatic cultural phenomena: e.g. taste, authenticity, identity, class, subcultures, art, fashion, tradition, retro (and how the Internet has changed the parameters for all of them).
This newsletter, Culture: An Owner’s Manual, will be a companion to the book — a forum for exploring and enhancing its main ideas, applying the principles to the latest pop culture, taking stock of new social conventions, going deeper into auxiliary phenomena, and tackling counterpoints and critiques. The title comes from two facts about culture: (1) If our individual actions make up the patterns we know as culture, it is we who “own” the culture. And (2), if culture is a complex, but orderly ecosystem with laws and rules, we should be able to work towards a manual to understand how all the parts work together. This newsletter won't be literally entries in that manual, but we can think about each installment as an attempt to elucidate a principle that would be included in such a weighty tome.
In the future, this newsletter will be more regular, but for the moment, I will kick things off with a limited series that sets the groundwork for the entire newsletter. Before we can talk about culture, we have to ask the question, What is culture? What do we mean when we talk about “culture”? Admittedly this tends to be a dreadful topic – an interminable rhetorical debate with no authoritative answers. But I think we can at least achieve two modest goals: (1) narrow the focus of culture to a specific sector of human activity, and (2) identify the atomic “unit” of cultural phenomenon that will make future analysis much easier.
Next week I’ll send out the first post for the “What is Culture?” series, with another installment sent every few days. You can always unsubscribe through the link below, but if you enjoy the newsletter, please recommend it to others.