The Backdrop of Reality
The Backdrop of Reality

The Backdrop of Reality

You need to look hard to see just how powerful institutions are, but when you do, you understand that we're all shaped by them.

James Davison Hunter in conversation with James K.A. Smith.

September 1 st 2013
Appears in Fall 2013

James Davison Hunter has a knack for writing books that subvert their own titles. A sociologist at the University of Virginia, where he is also executive director of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, Hunter has penned some of our generation's most probing cultural criticism. But a survey of the titles might give the wrong impression, since his argument often undoes first impressions. For example, his definitive 1991 book, Culture Wars, is actually a call to get beyond them. And while Death of Character (2000) might sound like a despairing title, in fact it is a bracing argument for renewing moral formation as central to the educational project. And his most recent and much-discussed book on Christian cultural engagement, To Change the World, actually counsels Christians to give up such bald goals of "transforming culture" and instead encourages us to cultivate "faithful presence" in centres of cultural influence and production.

We believe Hunter is someone you should know, and read, not least because at the centre of his work is a deep appreciation for the importance and influence of institutions on our lives. Without romanticizing or demonizing them, Hunter has spent a career attending to the significance of a variety of institutions—families, schools, universities, churches—as centres of cultural formation. But he has also pointed out our recent neglect of these institutions— and what we stand to lose if they are eroded. So Comment editor Jamie Smith arranged a conversation with Hunter about the shape of our institutional lives. Here's your chance to listen in.

JS: "Institutionalization" is not a bad word for you. Indeed, in much of your work, especially The Death of Character and To Change the World, you talk about the importance of institutions in shaping a culture. I wonder if you could give a kind of thumbnail definition of a cultural "institution," since the word can feel vague and slippery sometimes. How would we know one when we see one?

JDH: You're right. Most people think of culture as ideas or values and beliefs, or else they think of it as certain kinds of artifacts, such as art, music, or various styles of cuisine. What they tend to miss is the way in which culture manifests itself as institution. This is culture in its most powerful expression.

First, institutions are simply patterns of thought, behaviour, and relationship. While we often think of those patterns individually—say, in your life or mine— these patterns find expression in the social organization of everyday life: family life, schooling, worship, volunteering, work and consumption, and many more. These patterns are themselves expressions of the larger-scale, historically rooted social organization of life in the family, education, religion, civil society, capitalism, and so on.

Institutions are powerful in part because these patterns are so deeply part of the habits and routines of our experience and so deeply embedded in our consciousness that we take them for granted. In experience, they present themselves to us as reality—"just the way things are." So, as I often say, the power of culture is the power to define reality. But the power of culture is measured by the degree to which we take those definitions of reality for granted. In this light, to question the taken-forgranted nature of social life is, in fact, to challenge the very foundations of the social order.

What this means, in part, is that we generally don't see cultural institutions because they form the backdrop of reality of our experience. To "see" a cultural institution requires that we step outside the habituated reality they create.

JS: On the one hand, it feels like institutions are sort of invisible, and thus feel almost ethereal; but on the other hand, you're saying that they are not only real but shape reality. Are institutions the sorts of things we can touch? Are they bound up with physical realities in any way?

JDH: You are getting at the complex nature of institutions. Most obviously, institutions— as the organization of social life—are often bound up in the material culture of a society or civilization and these are located within physical spaces such as schools, banks, churches, post offices, apartments or houses, theatres, galleries, restaurants, and, well, bars, whore houses, casinos, meth labs, and so on. Because these are visible, we tend to reduce institutions to those buildings and the observable activity that takes place inside of them.

But the buildings are artifacts of the habituated patterns of thinking, behaving, and relating that constitute the institution in the first place. They provide the physical space within which the thinking, behaving, and relating all take place.

What is even less visible than the patterns themselves are the expectations that infuse those patterns. These expectations are normative in character; that is, they carry powerful constraints guiding what should and should not be done. So, just as an experiment, the next time you are in line waiting for communion, walk ahead and cut into line in front of others ahead of you or try to grab the chalice for a second drink of the wine. Try the same thing in a crowded grocery store at the check-out. Not only will your actions be greeted with scowls and maybe a few carefully chosen invectives, but even without the reactions of others, you are likely to feel mortified by embarrassment or guilt, and your family with you would feel great shame. Those moral expectations are not written down anywhere. Nor did you learn them from some YouTube training video. They were just a part of your natural socialization—what is to be done and not done. In this sense, the normative nature of institutions is mostly invisible. But as they are internalized into subjective consciousness and the collective consciousness of the group, they became breathtakingly coercive.

JS: So what's not an institution? The way you describe it, it would seem that all of our lives are lived within institutions.

All of our lives are lived within institutions. The most basic institution of all is language. It is the habituated organization of signs and symbols that make coherent thinking, behaving and relating in all realms of social life possible. Language demonstrates how deeply shared and deeply taken for granted the meanings of words are. Yet it also demonstrates its coercive power. What is "politically incorrect" speech but words and phrases that are not to be used and if they are, you will feel the full weight of moral correction. Take Paula Deen as the most recent case in point.

JS: Does that mean it's actually impossible to be "anti-institutional?"

JDH: I think that's right, at least in a manner of speaking. I think that what you are calling anti-institutionalism is, in fact, an alternative institutionalization. It's funny; have you ever noticed that the most antinomian, self-declared "individualists"—like bikers, English literature professors, punk rockers, artists, cowboys, vegans, and so on—are so utterly predictable in their dress, ways of speaking, their political views, and aesthetic tastes? Our "non-conformists" are utterly predictable in their conformities, including their condescension to those who don't conform to their standards. I don't mean to pick on any of these groups, I'm just saying that human nature is social in its character— we all do this—including those who actively undermine institutions.

There is, of course, a deeper aspect to your question and that has to do, not with people, but rather with those sociological and historical processes that undermine traditional institutions, such as consumerism, mobility, pluralism, and the like. But here, too, the outcome is not the absence of institutions, but rather their replacement with others.

JS: Meaning replacement with other patterns that shape reality and hence our identities?

JDH: Yes.

JS: In Death of Character you argue that institutions are part of the "social and cultural conditions that make character possible." What is the connection, then, between institutions and virtue?

JDH: We tend to think of a person's identity as something that individuals create for themselves; there may be influences from one's family circumstances and the like, but it is up to individuals to filter those influences and forge their own identities. This view tends to overstate the importance of individual agency. In ways that are difficult to specify here, a person's identity is actually forged through the roles that they play in public and private life as they are acknowledged by others. When I say roles, I am referring to the patterns of behaviour associated with certain tasks, and we all play many roles—son, daughter, mother, father; tennis player, golfer, bass fisherman; carpenter, teacher, preacher, executive; and so on. Identities are attached to those roles.

Character is the moral part of our identity. Character reflects the moral environment in which it is formed. And so good moral character that gives expression to virtue can only take shape in communities that themselves articulate and practice those virtues. Individuals still have an ability to choose, but those choices are framed by the practices and expectations (and, I would also say, the narratives and rituals) of the larger community of which they are a part.

JS: Does this mean that our institutions have failed to cultivate a proper appreciation for institutions?

JDH: We tend to think of the charactershaping institutions as the family, school, and faith, but all institutions are character shaping. Today, entertainment, consumption, and work are especially important. The problem is that the family, school, and place of worship have become weak institutions. They used to be strong, by which I mean there was a structure of authority, clarity of identity, role, and purpose, and they were coherently related to each other. Their power as institutions was measured by the degree to which the reality they promoted was taken for granted as the reality. These have become weak in part because there is little agreement as to their nature and purpose and in part because they have lost cultural authority. But they are also weak because they have been eclipsed by the power of the entertainment industry, consumerism, and peer-cultures that are independent of adult life.

JS: Is part of the problem that people don't seem to invest in the institutions that shape them?

JDH: I think that's exactly right. Let me put it this way: we tend to fixate on and respond to what we can see. We see changes in the law or in public policy or in the statements of politicians or entertainers and so people react to those things. But the world has actually changed in deeper ways than what we can see and for reasons that are much more complicated than the rise in secularism. When people observe a weakening in public virtue or traditional personal character, they tend to blame the artifacts of change and not the sources of change. There is much that Christians cannot do at present to influence the world in the ways they hope, but certainly one thing they can do immediately is to reinvest in the institutions that shape them and generations that follow. For Christians, the goal is to figure out how to strengthen traditional character-shaping institutions in ways that are not authoritarian or dour or separatist, but so compelling and so healthy that they eclipse the attractions of the worst of popular culture.

JS: Is authority always wrapped up into institutions? If so, it would seem there is a parallel here to an earlier point you made. You said, I think, that it's not a question of whether one is an "institutional animal;" it's rather of question of which institutions shape you and which you invest yourself in. Similarly, then, it would seem that it's not a question of whether you submit to an authority, but which.

JDH: That's right. We all yield ourselves to some authority, even if that authority is our own desire for pleasure or ambitions to beauty, success, and power. This, in fact, is what the market, the entertainment industry, and our politics have figured out. The authorities of community, tradition, and of God himself hardly have a foothold.

JS: Are there particular institutions that have more "leverage" in this cultural moment than others? Do you see strategic institutions in which we should be investing and working?

JDH: Well at this point you can anticipate my answer. In every civilization there are leading and trailing institutions. At one time, of course, the dominant institution was the monarchy and church and the military apparatus that aligned with them. Those days are gone and there's not a lot we can do about it. Now the dominant institutions are capitalism, the state, science and technology, entertainment, and the ways these are interrelated.

There is no simple answer to your question about investing in certain strategic institutions. To create a subculture of human flourishing, one has to do more than have the right ideas or the right values. One has to create a robust and more or less coherent cultural economy that produces and sustains human flourishing.

JS: This can be a daunting project. How do you muster hope?

JDH: There is no simple answer to this question either. In non-eschatological terms, it is in part a matter of expectations. For one, I have never hitched my hopes for the church to the character of the nation or of national life. Those who have conflated these have set themselves up for disappointment. When you disentangle these things, you see all sorts of space for the church to become the church again. I also think that the old paradigms by which Christians sought to engage the world are mostly exhausted and, in my view, none too soon. Christian believers are longing for a new vision of human flourishing and ways to live that out effectively in a world that generates as much hurt as ours does. This is a moment of extraordinary creative opportunity. I don't think the church as a whole is prepared for it, but I do see seedlings of innovation taking root and beginning to grow. To see them come to maturity in the form of an alternative cultural economy will require extraordinary intellectual, educational, ecclesiastical, entrepreneurial, and financial resources, as well as time, but these things are within reach.

Topics: Institutions
James Davison Hunter
James Davison Hunter

James Davison Hunter is Labrosse-Levinson Professor of Religion, Culture and Social Theory at the University of Virginia. He is also the Director of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture.

James K.A. Smith
James K.A. Smith

James K.A. Smith was the editor-in-chief of Comment from 2013-2018, and teaches philosophy at Calvin College where he holds the Gary & Henrietta Byker Chair in Applied Reformed Theology and Worldview. He is the new editor-in-chief of Image Journal


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