The positive suggestions of refinement and significance that are evoked by the idea of culture seem seldom questioned. Considering the disproportionate celebration of culture as opposed to its critique, this unchallenged popularity merits the odd investigation. Indeed it is interesting to see how the quest to profess and acquire acknowledgement through such a notion has become the driving force of so many.
Quoting British poet Matthew Arnold in Culture and Imperialism, Edward Said notes how “culture is a concept that includes a refining and elevating element…” This concept seems so vital that, in 1946, it was deemed necessary to establish an entire United Nations body, UNESCO (Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation), for its care and preservation [and inevitable politicisation].
The Oxford English Dictionary offers three definitions, the first, in sync with Arnold’s, pertinent to the leisurely largely on the basis of direct consumption of art, music, literature…etc. The second is about patterns of living and customs of societies and their traditions. The third is biological: bacteria and things that grow in agar plates. Although each of the definitions describes a distinct pattern, a system, or an expression of life, the first relies almost entirely on social constructs and variables, such as taste, wealth, and class. On the other hand, culture, in the biological and ethnographic sense, is a technical term, ideally, without social value or hierarchy.
Although, culture as a technical term ought to have no social value, it is this lack that inevitably places it in a spectrum of superiority and inferiority as counterpart to the high arts. When one, therefore, argues that the mendacities of daily life are as significant in the cultural sense as paintings hanging in a national museum, they demonstrate failure in the critical sense. Not because of their democratic approach towards all things human, but by their willingness to surrender to a system of value that has already pre-established definitions of worth. This is derivative of a need to justify and give worth to practices and products that have generally been deemed valueless because of that very system. Calling things cultural is not an assertion of worth across the board, but a striving to acquire recognition through association with culture. Trying to change the system from within is an approach that is fundamentally flawed and usually pointless - American activist Audre Lorde made this rather clear.
Culture in question here is one where social interactions become reliant on the productivity of individuals or societies and the set of goods and services they produce and consume. Therein come hierarchy and class. This set of products, interactions, and transactions develops and becomes sustained by an almost mystic aura, alluring and logically inexplicable, what Karl Marx described as “commodity fetishism.” Culture thereby acquires a fetishist dimension, wherein the very act of its consumption and production is a somewhat spiritual, mystical exercise. This inbuilt mystification deliberately confuses between the technical/objective and the social/subjective.
Enter the artist, musician, creative, curator, academic, clergymen, politician, and professional. The sustainability of culture is down to these agents. Not through direct fabrication/creation of material or product, but through the discourse that their agency and position generate. Mysticism in the sense that production for a creative does not rely on a fixed set of media, technique, process, and product, but on her/his ability to transform material into a commodity whose value is never based on the cost of production or material but on their importance and their position in a hierarchy of reputation. As if by magic, an artist can render an inherently worthless object or medium into a profound work of art of great monetary and social value regardless of skill or quality. Thus capitalism, as a class system, is sustained and reinforced by these players.
Therefore, culture, once identified, immediately bestows superiority and importance on one entity as opposed to another. The prerequisite is that this entity must be recognised as culture by the mentioned agent or an equal. To become subject to qualitative and quantitative categorisation and always isolated from the immediate moment, culture is only recognised once it has occurred. It follows that individuals or societies who become aware of their cultural potential automatically lose intimacy with whatever it is that has been deemed so. They, in turn, become - in varying degrees - removed from these newly formed subjectivities. The anxiety and sense of loss generated by this knowledge and self-awareness drives the need to reconcile oneself with what has supposedly been lost. This estrangement not only makes one aware of culture, but also is, in and of itself, a result of this awareness and knowledge. The result is an insatiable sense of loss and lacking that can only be sated through conscious (and conspicuous) consumption and production. This, in turn, becomes directly responsible for the evaluation of social interactions on the basis of the possession, production, and consumption of culture - as a commodity, desired, demanded, produced, and reproduced through social transactions. A very good example of how the emergence of the desire to own is in sync with the emergence of a leisure class, as described by Norwegian-American cultural theorist Thorstein Veblen in his book, The Theory of the Leisure Class.
Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek explains this notion of how this feeling or impression of loss actually generates and creates the very entity that has been lost. He cites the example of how in many instances colonialism generates the actual culture it is oppressing. That is to say, colonialism promotes a culture where one does not exist, such that it becomes the object of veneration and struggle; one that the colonised feel they have lost and need to redeem and rebuild. Thus the coloniser subtly propagates and reinforces fragmentation and establishes divisions under that pretext.
Consider the unremitting sense of threat of living under Israeli apartheid and occupation, the constant reminder of the loss and trauma of the Nakba in 1948, and an ever-inventive colonial industrial complex. This genuine fear of repeated dispossession thus creates the framework and the dynamic in which symbols become of paramount importance and the object of the struggle. This desire is furthered by an internalised sense of worthlessness that has been consolidated by the occupation. Estrangement here is actively and principally imposed by the coloniser. The feeling of loss is further augmented when these symbols are stolen or appropriated by Israel (hatta, falafel, language…etc.).
Coupled with the class anxieties generated by its possession and generation, culture, as a fixed set of values, symbols, slogans, images, identities, and constructs, has become a pillar in the Palestinian struggle and cause. A poignant example is the attitude towards historical dress and costume in Palestine. The hysteria surrounding collecting, exhibiting, preserving, and celebrating it demonstrates this. An ever-strong conservationist and revivalist narrative seeks to enforce a binary wherein the contemporary is seen opposing the old on the basis of a supposed (and erroneous) “tradition” and “authenticity.” That this should somehow serve as proof of the Palestinian narrative is ludicrous! This not only succumbs to an oppressive and warped approach, but it also ignores and therefore strengthens the many problematic aspects of dress, as a sacred set of untouchable and unchanging truths. Culture and heritage, as opposed to what some might regard, are mere subcategories of political strategy.
Could culture, therefore, exist without an effective estrangement of that particular set of rituals and images from the daily lives of its subjects? Does it only become relevant when it is under threat from colonialism, modernisation, globalisation, etc.? Could the perception that institutions and individuals protecting and saving heritage from this threat be an obfuscation of a colonial practice that ensures the removal of a once-stable economy from the central quotidian domain into the utterly obsolete? Therefore, when individuals and society consume and fetishize their own hyper-stylised and hyper-commoditised heritage at specific junctures and instances - weddings, funerals, religious and national holidays - they are, in effect, entrenching this divide. And so could this celebration of authenticity, deemed central to almost any emancipatory struggle, be at its very root a colonial effect?
Ironically, Zizek sees that being torn from one’s original constellation and being more bereft of roots/culture/heritage than the oppressor allows one the unique chance of becoming more universal and emancipated than the oppressor. Culture, it seems, is more an imposed, constructed want rather than a basic or liberating need.
Omarivs Ioseph Filivs Dinæ
Udvikling Magazine Denmark NR 1 · 2014 · feb/mar · 41. ÅRGANG
The Ceremonial Vniform :: Official Portrait - Abu Saleh & Abu Zuhair ©Omarivs Ioseph Filivs Dinæ & Tarek Moukaddem MMXIII
Keep your eyes and ears open! Soon to be revealed: My latest collaboration/project with Tarek Moukaddem, “Studio El Sham”
©Tarek Moukaddem & Omarivs Ioseph Filivs Dinæ MMXIII