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“Culture”: a user’s guide

What is national culture, really, and how should it be understood when it’s time to travel and deal with people “from outside?”

Prácticas en las Indias

puerosetvexiliosWhile the word “people” is in ever-greater danger of sliding, the word “culture” was born in a dangerous place, because, in spite of how it might appear, it’s very much a political term, a concept formed and created in the bosom of German romantic nationalism. It carries such amibiguity that Gustavo Bueno, a notable archaeologist of concepts, ended up exclaiming that

No one understands what Culture is, as no one understood in the days of yesteryear what the Grace of God was. Culture is a myth, and an obscurantist myth, as was the myth of Grace in the Middle Ages or as was the “twentieth-century myth,” the myth of Race, in the first half of that century. In a certain way, it could be said that the myth of Culture incorporates, additionally, through the nationalisms of the end of the century, many of the functions that the myth of Race performed until the end of World War II.

What Bueno is telling us in his book on the topic is that culture, once it ceases to mean the “cultivation” of knowledge itself and begins to refer, as Herder says, to who-knows-what characteristic of “people,” it can’t be anything other than national culture, and as such, the product and central object of the “Culture State,” which is the nation-state.

In reality, if we develop the idea, understanding why it emerged and expanded in the nineteenth century, national culture operates as a playpen more than as an identity. That is, it’s not that we have a culture for some mysterious reason, and so we need a state to protect it, it’s that the State needs to instill an exclusive culture in us to be able to present itself as the expression of our identity. That’s why, in fact, as we wrote in “From Nations to Networks“:

National culture is nothing more than the collection of social and media imaginings that live in a permanent exception to national reality, an exception that waterproofs it against interaction with foreigners (by definition, aliens), and at the same time, destroys the meaning of nationals outside of the national territory (if everything that addresses this reality is exceptional and has local causes, how much I know and what I think has no validity outside). The national is an orphan, or an autistic person who has difficulty creating meaning outside of the relationship with their State-territory-nation. That’s why nation-States give themselves a folklore of national animals that die if they cross the State border, from the Puerto Rican coqui to the Iberian lynx, a Disneyfied model of the main national virtue, not being able to exist outside of the borders of the State and its imagination.

That’s why culture and its constituent role will be the tool that allows the State to subsume all conflicts in the bosom of the nation, which is to say, to assure its survival independent of the nature of the political, economic, and social conflicts and antagonisms of the times, restricting them as much as possible to the forms and figures of its own administrative management.

That is to say, the nation-state will make its cultural/identity policy a secular version of the medieval empire of faith and its control of heresy.

And what does that mean when I deal with “outsiders?”

The State, the media, and education are creators of national culture. And although some people understand that it constitutes them, in reality, they are only the ones who choose to be constituted by it. As Foucault describes, from its origins, “biopolitics,” the conditioning that the State and large-scale organizations subject people to, works “statistically,” which is to say, it is a constraint, but not determinant, on each one. And it also varies over time as a function of different capacities and crises. This is something that is accentuated with decomposition.

So, “cultural studies” and trend reports are useless to me?

Statistical matters must be understood statistically, which often means that, concretely,they contribute little. National culture operates as a context that delimits what’s acceptable, but it doesn’t tell us anything at all about the person or the real community in front of us… which is what matters to us. It doesn’t do me much good to know that roast beef is traditional and even part of national identity in Uruguay, and txuletón in Biscay, if I don’t know it the person I’m dealing with is a vegetarian. I can have good statistics on the most widespread values in China, but in reality, the family business culture of a concrete businessperson probably has nothing to do with them.

What makes sense, then? Studying ideological frameworks, the evolution of consumption patterns, the evolution of social archetypes… and understand them as a framework, as a changing space, not as the result of “nature” or an “immanent spirit.”

Translated by Steve Herrick from the original (in Spanish)

«“Culture”: a user’s guide» recibió 2 desde que se publicó el Jueves 11 de Abril de 2013 . Si te ha gustado este post quizá te gusten otros posts escritos por David de Ugarte.

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