Cracking cultures

25th October 2021

The art & philosophy of getting into stuff
Confidence: Made up. Works for me and Tyler Cowen at least.
Topic importance: 6 / 10

There is so much to understand, there are so many things to like - and all of us understand and like very little of it.

If you’re young, your preferences maybe define you - but you could be defined by something else. If you’re any age, they determine who you spend your time with - but you could spend time with almost anyone.

It’s easy to forget how inexhaustible the natural and human world is. This year I’ve been running classes on the art of getting into things. I collected all the interests and subcultures my students are into (or actively not into):

A few cultural codes (n=70 young Europeans)

You can attempt to get into any such system of meaning. What’s a word for those? "Culture" - but they can be much smaller than the national units we usually mean by "culture". So here take "a culture" to mean a subculture, an idiom, a scene, a style, a genre, a field, a medium, a view.

Claim: every human activity, and every group of humans larger than one, forms a culture. It’s often intentionally hard for outsiders to understand. Reality has a lot of detail, and humans, good humans, paint this detail with meaning and distinctions. Cracking these codes is the most important skill which is barely taught anywhere.

Every year I try to get into something major. Hacker lore (2014); "modern classical" music (2020); Chinese poetry (2011); Analytic philosophy (2008); economic rationality (2013); dank memes (2017); singing in public (2016); teaching (2020); this year, comic books.

Tyler Cowen's practice


1. Fun! Access more of the value in the world.

It’s more than just liking more cool stuff. It’s about treating your own taste and interest as an object in question, an object which could be worked on. About treating outgroups as puzzles rather than threats or weirdos.

2. Social life

What you like determines who you spend your time with. It often determines your life partner. Businesses and academic fields are famously culturally ornate and hard to crack.

You’ve probably had the experience of being at a party and realising that the stranger next to you shares your love of Japanese noise rock, or loose-leaf tea, or Afro-futurism, or Adult Swim. You’ve probably had some amazing conversations as a result. This tells us we can deeply interact with 10x more strangers.

3. Understand people!

  • You break off a piece of the giant impossible concept of human culture overall.

  • Subcultures do a large amount of all new and interesting work. (This is almost true by definition in art. But also startups: to replace a huge corporate incumbent, you have to have a different angle, and often they are outsiders.)

  • Mental flexibility. One of the evils of ageing is bewilderment: feeling that the world is bizarre and unmanageable, that you can’t interact with the young, that you are relegated. Active effort and mastery of cultures should prevent this.

Expensive example

Why aesthetics?

Above, I made grand claims about large portions of all human activities being available to crack.

So why am I talking about comics?

Aesthetics is a great place to start because it’s so cheap and the experiments are so quick. It’s also surprisingly impactful, socially powerful.

And also because once you stop seeing your taste as immutable (or god forbid correct) you can pursue all of the rest of the world.

I really think there’s a general skill here - that understanding punk deeply really does increase my ability to understand Tanzanian culture, let alone prog and disco and post-punk and dub and thrash.

A spectrum

Three ways of relating to a genre, a medium, an art, a school of thought, a field:

  1. Love: to find value in ordinary examples.
  2. Open to: to see the value of the best examples.
  3. Not open to: to struggle to see the value of even the best.

I claim that 0% and 100% are basically never correct. Most things fall into 30-40%. We want to move from 20% to 60% on most things. (It would be very distracting to love everything.)

Pick something you’re not open to. Ask:

  • Why don’t I like it?

  • Do I not like the people who like it?

  • Do my friends dislike it?

  • Does it offend me? Is it ugly? Low class? Pretentious?

  • What is it trying to do?

  • How would I have to change to get it?

Actionable bits of a cultural code

To make something interesting, just look at it a long time.
― Gustave Flaubert

1. Canon.

You need to start with the greatest (or the most accessible greats) so that you can remove one source of uncertainty and solve for the remaining unknown: your stomach for it. Some cultures revolt against the idea of a canon, and but all of them have secret shibboleth canons behind the listicle canons.

Finding critics you can trust helps, because their activity consists in taking the unwritten and writing it down. (Obviously they never fully succeed.) Outside literature, academics are often surprisingly poor critics.

Once you know the canon, you can get the allusions, and you can understand the principal components, the ways instances are supposed to vary.

2. Jargon, conventions, techniques

Too specific to say much about here. Critics again, or else a hard act of empiricism.

3. Material conditions

Say you try it. Say you pick the top 10 all-time whatevers. But you bounce off - it all seems so contrived / so hostile to its audience / so trivial / so pretentious. What to do?

One powerful trick is to study what Marxists call the material conditions.

For our purposes this is not a grand reduction of the ideal to the economic, it’s just 1) how capital-intensive it is, 2) the demographics of the creators and audience, 3) the tempo and complexity of production (weekly for manga, a month for a serious poem). Then: how do they do it? Those timelapse videos of someone painting or carving are ideal.

I watched every Kubrick film and didn’t really see the fuss. Then I read up on him, and learned that e.g. he had thousands upon thousands of doorways in London photographed while location scouting for Eyes Wide Shut. It’s not that obsessiveness means quality, that inputs mean output. But it means meaning. As I rewatch him, I am have good reason to consider many parts of the production as meaningful, and in fact I like him far more on the second runthrough.

Only once you know what’s good, what the axes are, and how it’s made can you understand originality, deviance, substyles, and your own sense of the greatness.


  1. Find a critic you can trust. Friends are best. [2 weeks]

  2. Where is the quality? What is it trying to do? [2 weeks]

  3. What are the material conditions? [2 weeks]

  4. If you really can’t see any value: what’s sociologically remarkable about it?

  5. When do I just accept that I am not capable of liking this?




effective altruism

anime / manga

What will you like? What will you understand?

See also



Chaining codes


Tags: art, meaning, philosophy