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  • Laura Parsons

The Emergence of Hidden Culture

In the last instalment of this introduction to hidden culture, I talked about how a lack of coherent definition for culture frequently leads to confusion both in the cultural industries, and for the general population who consume (and create!) culture. The term ‘hidden culture’ does not exist in current literature searches, but nonetheless I believe that hidden culture is an unacknowledged melting pot that incorporates subcultures, counter-culture, community art and domestic creation.

Part of the reason we do not commonly use the phrase to describe all manner of culture which remains unacknowledged by cultural institutions and funding bodies is that frequently, knowledge and skill is passed on between generations of creators, who do not consciously articulate their skillset as contributing to the cultural system.

Tacit knowledge is often difficult to pass on by verbal or written means; it is necessary to be taught in person. Examples of tacit knowledge could include knowing how a dough should feel when it is ready to roll out, understanding the tensile strength of a fabric being woven, or micro-adjustments to gesture in dances. These sorts of understanding are so subtle that often holders of the knowledge are not even aware that they possess it.

Because tacit knowledge is acquired in often intimate settings, it is often extremely dependent on the context in which it is transferred. Meric Gertler notes that transfer of tacit knowledge “remain[s] primarily idiosyncratic and ‘cultural’ in origin” (2017), and as such is a form of cultural expression in itself. This also means that any study of settings where tacit knowledge is passed on must acknowledge the wider norms, values, perceptions and sensory experiences of the holders of such knowledge.

There are often instances in culture where information is codified in a way which is designed to be understood universally, but there are barriers which prevent large numbers of people from participating. An example of this might be in written music: music notation theoretically may be interpreted in the same way by readers in any context, however the ability to successfully interpret the written music relies on a number of factors including sufficient knowledge to read the notes and the tempo and dynamic directions (along with any marking peculiar to the instrument, for example pedal or bowing), having access to the relevant instrument, and possessing sufficient skill, capacity and space to play the notated music.

So from this, despite a purported universality in many of what we would deem ‘high’ cultural forms, understanding knowledge transfer in a cultural sense can help us to rationalise how ‘legitimate’ culture comes to be seen this way. The cultural system prioritises forms which can be more easily codified and therefore monetised, without acknowledging how power and social issues may uphold and subjugate current structures. Cultural forms which are easy (or easier) to replicate, interpret and understand are frequently acknowledged more readily, and funded more generously.


An awareness of tacit knowledge also underlines the importance of networks and communities in the transfer of knowledge and the system of hidden cultural forms. We might deem these networks communities of practice; Gertler describes communities of practice as groups “bound together by shared experience, expertise and commitment to a joint enterprise”, who use techniques including storytelling and narrative to collaboratively share knowledge. Something which is frequently overlooked by policy-makers is the role of the digital world in this tacit and symbolic knowledge transfer. Digital spaces offer new possibilities in exchanging knowledge in an interactive setting outside of traditional spaces.

Communities of practice centre around “knowledge enablers”, who pass on symbolic knowledge. In cultural terms, these might include storytellers relaying folklore, graffiti artists, documentary filmmakers, matriarchs teaching family how to cook, or online influencers. Identifying these knowledge enablers in a model for valuing hidden cultures would be useful in mapping networks and tracking the flow of symbolic meaning in communities. However, it is also useful to keep power relations in mind: some holders of knowledge do not want to reproduce or share their it, for fear of it being appropriated, watered down, or lost, thus losing meaning.

Conceptualising Hidden Culture

It is evident from studies including the Warwick Commission that ‘high’ culture remains dominant in the public consciousness, while only being accessed by a small proportion of the population. Looking further at ideas of power in the cultural system and symbolism of the cultural object may help to understand why this is the case.

Power

In an increasingly individualised society, selfhood is a valuable asset. This asset is bolstered by resources, defined by Skeggs and Loveday as “access to particular sources of value, such as cultural, social, economic and symbolic resources” (2012. p.475). For those without access to such sources of capital, for example, groups discussed above who cannot articulate the value of their knowledge in a universally codifiable way, the self may become de-valued. This shows how certain groups dominate in unequal societies, and mirrors Bourdieu’s view on habitus in society.

In this paper, Eleonora Belfiore uses power to analyse the question of cultural value, noting that the relationship of an object or person to power correlates directly with how one is valued and how cultural forms are validated. Subsequently, entrenched inequalities are reinforced by the circular process of value allocation. Symbolic power “shapes how different social groups enjoy not only different levels of access to different forms of artistic and cultural engagement, but also different access to the power to bestow value and legitimise aesthetic and cultural practices” (2018, p.384). This directly relates to discussion earlier about ease of codification of knowledge: tacit knowledge can become a tool for exclusion if marginalised groups are not given the opportunity to share the context in which their knowledge is formed. This could mean that the status afforded to certain cultural forms may disempower, subjugate or marginalise non-dominant groups and render them and their activities ‘hidden’.

Cultural products matter because who gets to make cultural products is a profoundly relevant question. A pattern of only privileged creators who assign value in the creative sphere risks cultural activity becoming a feedback loop, potentially excluding large sections of audiences. Often culture or media is programmed by groups who do not represent the creators, for example when Black music is played by mainstream radio stations, or indigenous peoples’ fabric patterns appear on couture runways. This raises the question of the authenticity of cultural products when they concern a marginalised group but are not produced by said group.

Symbolism

Seremetakis (1994) describes culture as neither stable nor fixed, but rather inherently transitive. In other words, the person perceiving or consuming the cultural product demands connection and completion within the context in which it is displayed. Barthes expands on these signifiers, variously including meal choices, furniture and clothing as a language which expresses meaning. However, as per Layton (2006), it is important that objects not only have personal meaning, but represent mutually intelligible systems, thus fulfilling the earlier definition of culture as having meaning to a community bound by shared experience.

This shared meaning is especially evident when looking at subcultures, which are deliberately transgressive and characterised by duality of meaning, which may be knowing or mocking of mainstream culture. An example of this is the safety pins which represent punk and anarchist tendencies, and tubes of Vaseline which are associated with queer culture. This notion of the “good-bad object’ (Hunt, 1998, p.18) includes any cultural object considered kitsch, camp, or tasteless. Mainstream dismissal or disdain for these objects are part of what make them sources of value and totemic items.

Bearing this in mind, cultural objects – be they personal objects or daily processes – may reveal patterns and commonalities within cultures. These may include cooking, textiles, domestic design, and clothing.

Defining Hidden Culture

So, considering power and symbolism in the cultural system, it is possible to begin to build a definition of hidden culture, which relates to the definition of culture in the previous blog post:

A cultural entity within a community of practice, whose embodied meaning remains in some sense uncodified.
- Entities may be invisible to dominant societal groups because power structures obscure the explicit meaning of their symbolism, or because the embodied meaning subverts mainstream values.
- Entities may be unacknowledged by their producers as holding meaning, either because intrinsic knowledge has not been considered, or because dominant narrative excludes the cultural form.
- Entities may be consciously hidden by their creators to preserve authenticity, avoid harm or circumvent appropriation.

Of course, the research looking into the value of hidden culture is at an embryonic stage currently, and is an inductive process, so I expect this definition to evolve as I gather and analyse data.

Next blog instalment: Methods for Capturing and Valorising Hidden Culture

For further reading on Hidden Culture please see the chapter “Problematising Hidden Culture” (2020, Parsons & Granger) in Value Construction in the Creative Economy (ed. R. Granger), for sale here.




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