by Mary Magoulick
|The Dynamics of Culture||Culture as Discourse and Practice|
|Tradition and Authenticity||
Brief Definitions (alternate document)
Anthropologists and folklorists of previous generations sometimes lamented that an age of high technology and global capitalism would result in the demise of "traditional" cultures. Today, we more often consider culture and tradition as fluid and dynamic resources which interact with (shaping as much as being shaped by) the modern world, rather than being overrun or determined by it.
Folklorist Barre Toelken sums up the current view of many scholars about the dynamism and vitality of "culture":
Toelken also stresses that folklore and cultural processes are all linked by "a single force: the interactive dynamics of living culture" (49). Thus they can be studied, but such studies will offer greater insight when built upon the premise that cultures always change. As scholars from all fields – including physics – are noticing, the whole universe and everything within it is in constant movement and flux. Native American author and museum curator Tom Hill concurs: "Any genuine culture – if it is a living, breathing culture – involves evolution and change. And the moment we think that our culture is back in the past, back in that museum case, we’re in for it" (1994, 186).
When the modern notion of culture was first imagined by Victorian scholars, it was used to prove the evolutionary model of Western Civilization as the apex of human possibility. These thinkers had Darwin’s evolutionary model to work from, and thereby recognized change as a constant force in earlier history. Ironically, they nonetheless settled upon a view of culture as less dynamic in their own day (the implication being that it had already reached the apex). In the 19th century Edward Tylor defines culture – synonymous with civilization – as "that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society" (1970, 1). Although this definition seems very inclusive and wide-ranging, its ultimate effect is to define, and thus ultimately to limit culture as a particular "whole." Such reification was useful to the Victorians in distinguishing their own civilization, as a bounded whole, from other less advanced cultures in "barbaric" or "savage" stages of development. Tylor accounted for the messiness of his categories with concepts like "survivals" – bits of culture that hang on into the next stage of evolution (1970). Since the West had attained the apex of culture, change and a more dynamic view of culture made little sense. Ideas of high and low culture were born, and it was assumed low cultures would evolve into high culture as the natural order of things.
Twentieth century scholarship of culture came to reject the evolutionary model for its judgmental, hegemonic, often racist overtones. Yet culture was still often reified, considered static, or used to determine boundaries and movements of culture, as in the historic-geographic method of cultural studies. In Native American scholarship, ethnographers and historians often valorized older versions of cultures and lamented changes and adaptations introduced by the West. Yet the Boasians (students of anthropologist Franz Boas at Columbia University in New York in the first half of the 20th century), focused as they were on actual ethnography in the field, did have a complex understanding of culture that anticipates subsequent scholarship. For instance, Ruth Benedict speaks of culture as a living "organism," and as an integrated whole, a "personality writ large" (1934). She recognizes the relativity of cultural values and norms. Yet she too focuses upon a bounded notion of culture as a "whole," like a person, complex, but contained.
As later scholars have noted in regard to Boasians like Benedict: "Boasian culture history, I assert, produced an anthropology that did not depend on ethnographic texts and that agonized over issues other than the Other. Its theme was the relationship between individual creativity and cultural constitution, not the grand encounter of the West with the rest" (Fox 1991, 11). The Boasians, as ethnographers, drew their notions of culture from the real lives and communities in which they lived and worked. Hence their understanding centered around issues still central in folklore and anthropology – the interplay between individual creativity and communal forces.
One of the most influential scholars of culture this century, Clifford Geertz, sees culture as equivalent to a text, and therefore something to be interpreted. Sherry B. Ortner explains his concept of culture: "Geertz argued that ‘culture’ must be seen as the ‘webs of meaning’ within which people live, meaning encoded in symbolic forms (language, artifacts, etiquette, rituals, calendars, and so on) that must be understood through acts of interpretation analogous to the work of literary critics. He explicitly posed this interpretive, humanistic approach against a variety of kinds of reductionist and objectivist work that had become dominant . . ." (1999, 3). While other anthropologists and social theorists attacked Geertz for his "subjectivism, nomimalism, and constructionism," nevertheless Geertz ultimately reifies culture, thereby rendering it static (Ortner, 3).
Geertz’s notion of culture spurred a generation of ethnography and interpretation of cultural production. The notion and practice of "thick description" that he contributed are still valuable. Yet Geertz is criticized for being too bounded, for seeing culture as "‘contained’ in a location, and / or attached to a particular group" (Ortner, 7). Lila Abu-Lughod finds this troubling in her study of the presence of television in Egypt: "Television . . . renders more and more problematic a concept of cultures as localized communities of people suspended in shared webs of meaning" (in Ortner, qtd. 7). Culture has never been seen as other than complex, yet the full measure of its complexity, the extent of the "web" is now emerging as a process as vast and overwhelming as life itself, not one bounded life or personality as in Benedict, but systems of life and cosmology. Hence the relevance of explanations from biology and physics, as in Toelken’s discussion. Michael Jackson notes the appropriateness of a biological metaphor for culture, when he reminds us that "culture has a biogenetic base" (1989, 121).
Limiting and defining culture enough to render its study meaningful frustrates many scholars and lay people. For instance many of the Native people I knew in the field felt uncomfortable with the word culture and the idea of someone studying their culture, even while they used such concepts themselves. I tried not to impose on consultants a sense of having to explain their culture during interviews, but they still seemed to feel the burden of the idea of culture. Identifying and using the term culture thus becomes ultimately necessary, since it is a term so well known and considered by Native people themselves. Like Abu-Lughod and others, Greg Urban adds the useful perspective of culture as localized and connected to discourse: "culture is localized in concrete, publicly accessible signs, the most important of which are actually occurring instances of discourse" (1991, 1). Culture is ultimately useful in understanding and contextualizing people’s narratives and other instances of discourse. But nobody has one, clearly defined "culture" that works as a boundary to contain him or her. We all negotiate, build, and refashion our cultures as we live our lives.
The usefulness of such terms depends upon a willingness to recognize them as merely tools, not truths, as Michael Jackson explains:
Being too abstract is the equivalent of being empty, in Jackson’s conception. As a way into the culture under consideration, the term is helpful as a way of thinking about a group of people.
Cultural renewal occurs individually, flowing from and shaping individual lives, while shaping and resonating with larger patterns of tradition, worldview, and culture. Human creativity draws upon unique combinations of community life and personal inspiration. Tradition flows into and from this process of convergence: "History, culture, and the human actor meet in tradition," which is "volitional, temporal action" (Glassie 1995, 409). When humans commit to willful acts of creation intended to express cultural or social connection, they are participating authentically in traditional culture (Glassie 1995, 400-401). Throughout time and space cultures change and adapt rather than die.
Dell Hymes understands tradition in equally fluid and emergent terms: "The traditional begins with the personal. Its distribution in history, in a community, is important, but secondary, not defining. Something partakes of the nature of the traditional already when the effort to traditionalize has brought it into being. . . . Intact tradition is not so much a matter of preservation, as it is a matter of re-creation, by successive persons and generations, and in individual performances" (1975, 354, 355). Folklore and tradition both rest on notions of situation, creativity, and performance.
One of the Native American consultants with whom I worked also understands culture as a dynamic process: "I don’t think it’s that at all [i.e., culture is not being poor, uneducated, and unemployed on the reservation]. I think it’s the – well, we talk about culture as the essence of life, and how, the way we do things, the way we do, the way we look at things. It is Nishnaabe to me, being Native." To John Cappa, "being Native" is a matter of worldview and actions – how we look at the world and how we act in it. When he hears "culture" he thinks the speaker usually intends it to mean how a group of people lived during a particular period – e.g. his ancestors or community being poor. But it is more essential than that, more like life itself: "the essence of life," based on actions, "the way we do things," and worldview, "the way we look at things." He thus intuits from his experience the same message that scholars offer about the fluid nature of culture. Culture, like identity, is a matter of lives and imagination.
DeMallie further develops his definition of culture with consideration of the dynamic and fluid nature of culture. He notes that both symbols and their associated meanings change over time and according to various outside and inside influences, "providing the dynamic that keeps human groups in constant flux" (1988, 2). Such fluidity of culture is universal and natural. Given this fluid and dynamic definition of culture, "authentic" need only refer to moments of creativity or interpretation, "when individual commitment brings social association" (Glassie 1995, 401). So long as one acts freely, with desire to connect to the "traditional" within a society (i.e., the work and ideas of other society members which are also willful, creative, and consciously connected to values or ideals of a social group), resultant creations, expressions, or interpretations are authentic.
The understanding of fluid, complex, expressive dynamics such as culture must itself be complex and fluid. Potential disputes over authenticity or meaning of given cultural patterns and symbols stem from concern over who qualifies to decipher or attribute meanings to cultural productions. Necessarily the interpretations of symbols are filtered through my biases and understanding, as is true of all scholarly analysis. DeMallie realizes the subjectivity of any such cultural interpretation (whether from an insider’s or outsider’s perspective) among Native Americans: "given the impossibility of intersubjectivity among members of even the most homogeneous of groups, any people has the potential for many variations in the interpretation of ‘culture,’ of the meanings that structure and give form to their world" (DeMallie 1988, 2). There is an embedded fluidity in cultural production and interpretation, which is generally not consciously examined, except by certain philosophers within a culture or outsiders such as scholars (DeMallie 1988, 3). My presence as a fieldworker provoked definition, symbolic expression and consideration of the meanings and expressions of culture within the community where I worked. Such fieldwork "forces identification and definition of cultural symbols" (DeMallie 1988, 3).
Anthropologists and folklorists continue to struggle over the problem of culture. Lila Abu-Lughod identifies the problem existentially as lying in distinction between self and other implicit in the term and in ethnography. Culture is hard to define, she says, yet remains "the true object of anthropological inquiry" (1991, 143). And the very concept of culture is a way of distinguishing self from other: "Culture is the essential tool for making other" (1991, 143). Culture essentializes and over-emphasizes coherence (Abu-Lughod 1991, 143-147). Because of such problems, along with a tendency to imbue relationships with power, Abu-Lughod suggests that "perhaps anthropologists should consider strategies for writing against culture" (1991, 147). She means by this that ethnographers should reorient themselves away from big, comprehensive studies which present "a culture," and instead offer a focus on "connections and interconnections," involving particulars, including the place of the ethnographer in the community and in the study. We should present specific life stories and texts, and using terms such as practice and discourse, which are "useful because they work against the assumption of boundedness, not to mention the idealism . . . of the culture concept" (Abu-Lughod 1991, 148). By presenting fieldwork-based ethnographies and refusing to generalize, "one would necessarily subvert the most problematic connotations of culture: homogeneity, coherence, and timelessness" (Abu-Lughod 1991, 154).
The fieldwork situation and scholarly analysis must be recognized as keyed and subjective events that represent only a moment or particular interpretation of very complex interrelationships and symbol systems that comprise culture. Yet as Abu-Lughod points out, presenting moments of culture, without generalizing about "a culture," is valuable and evades many problems. Such generalizations and ideas of boundedness trouble scholars and culture members alike. The concept of authenticity rests on ideas of culture as bounded and static. Once we are open to the idea of writing against culture, presenting real life stories and specific situations as ethnography, we realize Momaday’s understanding of identity as a matter of individual imagination and enactment (1998, see opening quote).
The notion of culture as emergent, like life itself, also finds voice in Raymond Williams idea of culture as a process in which, "new meanings, new practices, new significances and experiences are continually being created" (Williams 1973, 11). Richard Bauman, who praises this definition as insightful, likewise recognizes the emergent quality of narrative performances, "for the emergent quality of experience is a vital factor in the generation of emergent culture" (1984, 48). Recognizing emergence in verbal arts, culture, tradition, ritual, etc., keys us to face forward, according to Bauman, thereby rendering us "able to comprehend much more of the totality of human experience" (1984, 48). As unbounded, mutable, and emergent as life itself, culture and cultural expressions are to be discovered, created, and re-created by each generation, even while that generation, in coming to life, will come with awareness of and connection to the past.
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