Wednesday, May 9, 2012

High Culture versus Low Culture (Daily Practices): A worldbuilding hangout report

I was joined for this discussion by Brian Dolton, Glenda Pfeiffer, Erin Peterson, David Peterson, Jaleh Dragich, and Margaret McGaffey-Fisk.

The first critical point of this discussion was that when we're worldbuilding culture, we should make sure to include both high and low culture, because either or both of these can easily be neglected. In our world, in fact, there are very few places where you won't see any sign of high culture, while daily practices (low culture) are all around us constantly.

In my story, At Cross Purposes (Analog Jan/Feb 2011), I had to create an environment where there would be very few signs of high culture, so I put my humans in a terraforming station where there were just enough people to do the job at hand, and very little time for decorating the place. This actually played into the cultural clash that occurred, since for my aliens, "art" and "purpose" were the same word!

Varin is an entirely different story, because there I use a lot of high culture borrowed from our world, such as orchestral music and embroidery and architecture and furniture... but while eating utensils and bathing are similar to our world, quite a few of the daily cultural practices are very different. These similarities are intended to create the feeling that the world is familiar, and that the reader lives there.

Recently I've been reading China Miéville's Embassytown, and that's a case where the elements of both high and low culture are intended to be very different from those we're familiar with; they come complete with alien terms, some of which are entirely mysterious, and others of which use our knowledge of cognates to hint at meanings. This creates a sense of extreme alienness.  We also talked about The City and The City, where there were two cities which entirely overlapped, but where culturally the people were taught only to "see" members of one or the other, and they could only acknowledge each other's existence in designated locations, or bad things would happen. These two books are great places to look for inspiration in designing cultures.

Very often in my reading I will notice that elements of high or low culture appear to be missing from a book. Brian said he notices that there isn't much art and architecture in a lot of fantasy and science fiction, leading to the feeling of a blank spot. If you're going to be using a Renaissance setting, he says, use art - because that period was all about art and architecture! Cathedrals are an example of the kind of amazing art and cooperative effort toward high culture that was possible even in very early times - don't forget about it as you create a world with a medieval or Renaissance setting.

Erin remarked that people cared about art and beauty far earlier than that, and that beauty can be a mark of status even among nomadic people. As she remarked, "Achulëan tool sets are gorgeous!" It's always a good idea to consider what your people think of as beautiful, and what kind of art they make, whether it's painting on a cave wall or designing fabulous laser-light displays.

One show I have enjoyed for precisely this reason was Avatar: The Last Airbender. It is a great demonstration of how art and architecture can lend a sense of history to an environment. No one should make the mistake of thinking that the existence of fine art and architecture is merely an indicator that some people are stuck up, or that somehow there are no poor people in a society. It can do so much to tell you how people live in a place, and how long they have been there. If there's a completed cathedral in a town, you can be sure that people have been living there for hundreds of years!

Jaleh brought up textiles and fabric. These are a great example of the intersection of high culture and art with daily cultural practices. Norse tablet weaving is an example of a very early practice that reaches a very high level of sophistication. Stories of weavers come from all kinds of real world cultures, and it makes sense for them to exist in many fictional worlds as well. Clothing is an art, and a practical consideration, and interacts with climate and geography, and reveals things about daily practices - in effect, it's a worldbuilding goldmine just waiting to be explored. I also was reminded of when I first learned that the scarves and shawls with money sewn onto them were an indicator of how certain nomadic peoples actually stored and carried their money. I told the group about a visit I took to the Kyoto textile museum. They had a display there where you could watch an incredibly complex metal-threaded obi (waist wrap) fabric being woven, and places where you could learn about dyeing techniques, etc. It was amazing.

Music is everywhere in our world. You have iPods, and people grooving down to their own private music on the streets, and people "sharing" music out of their cars, and playing music in their homes, or taking music lessons... so make sure to go beyond the "bard" (at Brian's particular recommendation) when you're looking at music in your world. Music can happen with sophisticated instruments in orchestras, but it can also happen with hands and feet and voices - or trash cans and plastic buckets and sticks.

Another place of convergence between art and daily practices is personal adornment, i.e. Jewelry and makeup. I recently realized that I had made the appearance of makeup and jewelry very restricted in Varin, and had to think through how I was doing it (I decided to make it subject to both caste trends and personal styles).

When you think about daily cultural practices - low culture - perhaps the easiest place to start is at the table. Forks are incredibly common, but they aren't the only option! I was thrilled to see people using chopsticks in Avatar: The Last Airbender. And still there's more. You can use your fingers, or a trencher, or just a knife. You can have all different kinds of spoons, or drink straight from a bowl. You can use straws to consume liquids. You can use roasting sticks or skewers. What other things can you think of?

Jaleh took us onto the topic of hairbrushes and combs, and hair adornments. These can be made of all different kinds of materials - stone, bone, wood, plastic, metal...the list goes on. Rubber bands, pins, barrettes (even chopsticks!).

This led us to more aspects of personal hygiene. Brian remarked that Queen Elizabeth was known for bathing once a month "whether she needed it or not." Does one use a toilet or a bidet? Is there such a thing as toilet paper? What kind of supplies do menstruating women use? How do people brush their teeth? David told us about a wonderful song by Nigerian musician Fela Kuti called "Don't worry about my mouth" where he described the daily hygienic practices of his own people and why they were superior to (what I'll call) the Western approach - for example, why a chew stick was more effective than a toothbrush and toothpaste. Why toilet paper was an inferior solution to the problem. I noted, and Brian confirmed, that in many Muslim countries people have bottles of water to clean themselves instead of toilet paper. We talked about the "techno-toilets" (my term) in Tokyo homes and how vastly different they are from the minimalist squat toilets that you find in some tourist areas of Japan (Brian encountered them on Mount Koya, but I've seen them in quite a few other places too). I talked about the "flush noise" machines that are very common in Japan, specifically invented to create a sound imitating that of a flush, so that people can cover up the sounds of their visit to the bathroom.

By the end of the hour we were starting in on issues of privacy, so we decided that would be our topic for this Wednesday, May 9, 2012 at 11am PDT. See you there!


  1. As far as tableware goes, Vikings used spoons and knives. Northern Europe didn't adopt forks for a long time.

    I also loved that someone brought up tablet weaving! I've done some tablet weaving, and those efforts have given me a great appreciation for the difference between a simple pattern and some of the true art others can do.

  2. That's good info, MK. Thanks for the comment!