What is your definition of culture ?
Culture is, by nature, an ambiguous and polyvalent term, which invites us to list what is and is not culture, or what it should be, rather than thinking about it in itself. What is culture? On what conditions can we talk of “culture”? “Culture” is, firstly, classically opposed to “nature” conceived as something innate, spontaneous, and can thus be considered as somehow artificial. But, it can also take a positive meaning, associated to what we call a “cultivated” person, a perfect product of social norms. In materialistic terms, but nonetheless in an essential way, culture is a heritage, a set of works of arts that one needs to protect, diffuse, and which serve as a landmark in a collective history. Finally, in a more anthropologic and broader sense, we can understand culture as a whole system of references – behaviors, languages, ideologies, myths – which influences the way one perceives the world in a society at some point in time.
In the course of this work, we would like to give a personal insight of what culture means for us, without trying to exhaust the topic, as it would be, of course, impossible and perhaps even harmful to do so. Culture is and must remain intrinsically plural as it is a way of life, a personal and collective way to apprehend time and space, a particular way of inhabiting the world through the use of mind and senses. As a consequence, beyond the embodiment of a collective experience normalized through institutions, we try to show how, knitted by social interactions, culture is dynamic and polymorphic, and how, through a personal re-appropriation of a collective imaginary, culture becomes a powerful liberating vital force.
THE COLLECTIVE DIMENSION OF CULTURE.
First and foremost, culture is a collective experience, because it questions our relationship with the rest of the world and the Other. If we have to describe the origin of culture, we would rather talk of “astonishment”. As the Greek philosopher Aristoteles has written at the beginning of his Metaphysics, the astonishment is the origin of the understanding of the world by humans, which is provoked by the discovery of something new and never thought of. Culture, as a collective experience, has its roots in this intellectual and anthropological process, which drives people to discover Otherness.
In line with this idea, culture arises constantly as part of a particular community, and refers to a scattering of ideas and thinking patterns, as a fruit of a specific history, which has shaped people’s minds. Therefore, inside each community, it is necessary that some people are in charge of protecting the continuity of this heritage. From this point of view, culture could certainly not be considered as “culture”, if it would not have been embodied by institutions, like schools, museums and galleries, philanthropic foundations, and, of course, public head departments. Culture is thus a collective experience, which is kept unspoiled by institutions: it becomes the norm for this group, which can define and recognize its identity as the foundation of the community. For example, the creation of UNESCO in 1945, at the end of the Second World War, has clearly demonstrated the unanimous will to build peace through culture, defined as a collective experience structured by a world heritage.
CULTURE AS A CRITICAL AND EVERCHANGING WAY TO RELATE TO SOCIETY.
The foundation of such international cultural institutions, resulting from the political will to ensure a pacific cohabitation, also entails a growing consciousness of an emerging global market, reinforcing the need to curb cultural imperialism and standardization. One can question, however the very role of these institutions. Does globalization go along with a global culture? Nothing is less certain.
Nowadays, despite an overwhelming economic and political power of America, one cannot argue that we are coming towards an Americanized culture. On the contrary, a subtle cultural interbreeding occurs and counters the homogenizing process of globalization. In his famous book, Modernity at large, Cultural Dimensions of Globalization Arjun Appadurai illustrates how the spontaneous process of indigenizing alien cultural forms at the individual level has been a key element in resisting the colonizer, and remains an important issue to nuance the pessimistic vision of a “cultural shock” due to globalization. Cultures are not monolithic blocks of practices inherent to a place or a people and promoted by its power structure. They are rather complex conglomerates of individual ways of life, penetrated by many foreign influences. Even these influences do not go one way: the alien cultural elements are not imported as such, but are adapted to suit and melt in a former set of beliefs and values, they are re-shaped by an intense “work of the imagination”. Thus, although Appadurai underlines the political dimension of culture, conceived as a tool to achieve domination at an institutional level, he shows how culture eventually goes beyond these oppressive aims, and becomes a liberating force at the individual level. The very failure of the British colonizers trying to rule the Indians by numbers is a telling example: these European techniques of “savoir-pouvoir” backfired on them when they became, in the hands of the colonized, a means of democratic awareness and political self-consciousness. Culture is not and cannot be a one-sided “civilizing” (homogenizing) force. When we take a closer look, and see behind imperialistic and delusional discourses of institutional domination, it is rather a differentiating force which allows many ever-changing civilizations to emerge.
Thus, even if we definitely have to protect cultures from imperialistic ambitions that operate through institutions, we have to bear in mind that there is no “natural” or pure culture since its plasticity makes it hypersensitive to different influences that inevitably broaden its scope and change its meaning. How, then, can international institutions decide what is worth preserving? What stage of the cultural process is to be considered as “cultural heritage”? There is a tenuous – although fundamental – difference between protection and protectionism, conservation and conservatism. Institutions must be careful neither to enact vain barriers in a field that has none, nor to promote a fake neutral liberal ideology, which negates the political and polemical nature of culture. In its 2005 convention, UNESCO tried to tackle this delicate issue, promoting the vision of a multicultural world, enriched by the encounter of different horizons. Indeed, by acknowledging the need to protect traditional cultures, this convention nonetheless emphasized “the vital role of cultural interaction and creativity which nurture and renew cultural expressions”. In the Internet era, allowing more than ever an individualized relation to a profuse cultural material, this statement proves that institutions have taken into account that culture is, to a certain extent, beyond their reach. Intrusive political actions undertaken in the cultural field are always and often quite rightly suspicious. Culture escapes every attempt of planning, so that the role of cultural institutions is only to secure the conditions in which culture can freely develop itself in order to reach its utmost potential.
Indeed, culture does not only consist of receiving and assimilating a set of customs and references, but rather of acting upon them, of leaving a personal mark and meaning on what is given for us to think and live. It is not only a mean of expression, but more essentially, it is the true nature of humankind: culture is to humans what instincts are to animals – an intermediary space that ensures the correlation between life experiences, given meanings and personal modes of individuation. Culture calls for an activity, for a personal transformation that could establish a new transaction in the social group. It is neither taken for granted, nor a treasure from the passing time to protect, nor a set of values to stand up for. According to Michel de Certeau in La culture au pluriel (1974), it is rather « a work to undertake during the whole stretch of social life ». Culture takes shape within cultural operations, demonstrations and productions, always underpinned by a form of social production and transformation. Culture is both a key for understanding and a mean of action. It enables us to play with social rules, to create free and singular paths within constrained spaces. In this sense, culture can be considered as an opening of possibilities, as a source of new fields for the mind and the collective existence. Michel de Certeau writes at a time when ‘mass culture’ is beginning to thrive. He tries to think the way in which culture can remain something creative and free within this ever-growing standardization. According to him, a monolithic culture is a hindrance for the creative activities. Therefore, it is an emergency call to understand how social and cultural diversity can remain alive nowadays. This question is one of the main challenges facing our societies in a transitive era. Both in La culture au pluriel and in L’invention du quotidien (1980), de Certeau explores ordinary processes of active cultural appropriation. He focuses on the individual interiority of each human being. As culture is for him an intimate way to be free, to oppose oppression and to produce something that goes beyond what is expected from you. He brings into focus diffused and often invisible forms of creative operations. He draws a metaphor, that he calls « cultural poaching ». On the one hand, landowners are associated to the institutional producers of meaning and culture who promulgate the meaning of the cultural goods to the consumers, through the definition of their access and uses. On the other hand, he compares the consumers to poachers on these lands who manage through the re-appropriation of the established system, to rebuild their own everyday life. The ordinary man, the consumer of the institutionalized culture, always introduces his own tactics of resistance, not from the outside but from the inside, from the very cornerstone of the system. He gives two very telling examples. The first one is about the activity of reading, that could serve as a model for the activity of receiving and producing culture. When a reader steals part of the work from its author, it modifies it through his own interpretation, by producing singular concretions within the given text. From L’invention du quotidien, in a chapter called « Walkings in the city », de Certeau takes the example of the city of New York, that has been thought and built in an effective and consistent manner by planners and architects, on the one hand. At the same time, New Yorkers see their city through a more personal, singular and moving way, on another hand: each of them creating his own place within these spaces. What is interesting is that both views – the overarching and static view, as well as the plural and living one – exist together, and that none could boast about being the exclusive truth. The city refers to both an objective reality that appears on a map as a unified, disciplined and stable entity, and to a subjective, physical and intimate relation a walker has with it, composed of unexpected events and daily surprises that shape his daily city’s experience.
Therefore, culture is above all a flexible and dynamic activity, whose movement always escape to planification, to calculation and to a utilitarian dimension. M. de Certeau defines it as a “soft” region, that is continuously exploited by the political and the institutional, namely the “hard region”. Culture is the area that contains this polymorphic struggle between the “soft” and the “hard”. Inherently, it oscillates between two shapes: one of permanency and another of disruption. Indeed, on the one hand, phenomena and their crystallization are piling up in the thickness of mentalities, becoming social rituals, a blurry substance where the millennium blends with the present. On the other hand, upsurges, deviances and inventions, enable culture to expand so that it draws “the hope of another day”, the hope of future generations. Indeed, if culture can be a mean to dominate and subject the masses, it is also the only way through which individuals can achieve freedom, through their everyday involvement, through the singularity of their practices, of their unconventional customs. Our traditional cultural heritage is challenged by disruptive and transgressive practices that reconsider the normalized opposition between production and consumption. Cultural consumption becomes a way to produce meaning and cultural practices, in a way that escapes the mainstream logic of production. According to de Certeau, « to a rationalized, expansionist production as well as a centralized, noisy and spectacular one, corresponds another type of production, called ‘consumption’. This one is sly, dispersed, but it penetrates itself everywhere, quiet and almost invisible, since it does not distinguish itself through its own products but through ways to use the products set by a dominating economic order ». Users inject unpredictable elements into the dominant cultural system, thereby making their cracks and rifts visible. Culture is this way of bypassing the system from inside, this way of playing with its flaws, this way of inventing leeways within constraints, to achieve at the end a form of cultural freedom and singularity. Therefore, what is often called « popular culture » should not be categorically opposed to « high-culture », and should not necessarily be assimilated to a « counter-culture ». On the contrary, it stems from this reflection, that it is rather a culture within the culture, even maybe a culture that makes the culture its own, that questions its norms and established certitudes by playing with them, making them more pliable and porous. With time, the innovations coming from the popular culture will be recovered by the high culture, forming parts of the system, leaving spaces for new cultural ways of doing and living to emerge. Therefore, the opposition between conformism and non-conformism seems less hermetic than what is usually thought. They are interdependent: we cannot live in a common order without the possibility of transgressing it, as much as transgression would be impossible without an order to transgress. This endless movement is what makes culture such a complex and infinite human matter – in both senses of the word. As an act, culture must be ephemeral not to become institutional, it must open the possibilities rather than unifying them, for it to become a power of resistance. Culture is made of precise but unpredictable movements, that distort, challenge and gradually change the balance of the social constellations. Thus, it is something that stems from habits and daily life, something that is also deeply personal and intimate.
THE IMAGINARY DIMENSION OF CULTURE : A LIBERATING VITAL FORCE.
In this personal apprehension of culture lies our relationship with collective imaginary. One’s culture is woven of imaginary; therefore, on the one hand, it becomes a source of establishment of power relations and an incredibly liberating vital force, on the other hand. According to Pascal, imagination has an ambivalent power. First of all, it puts in tension the relations between distinct sovereign collective imaginaries, which can be either belligerent or benevolent. Moreover, it obscures the personal relationship that an individual has with the collective imaginary of the community to which he belongs. Our analysis will be based mainly on postcolonial studies.
According to Benedict Anderson in Imagined Communities: “Nations are imagined political communities”. A nation is imagined as limited, as a community, and as sovereign, based on the production of cultural artefacts, gathering symbols, myths, common destiny. Once these cultural artefacts have been created, they became modular, capable of being transplanted, with varying degrees of self-consciousness, to a great variety of social terrains, to merge and be merged with correspondingly wide variety of political and ideological constellations. Consequently, each individual is tied to a collective imaginary, that situates him within a global system of power relations between imagined communities. As a result, it conditions his social interactions with the Other and the self-definition of his own identity. Yet, Pascal defines the “imagination” as an ambivalent power. First of all, it is primarily “a mistress of error and falsity”, because it is an enemy of reason and does not refer to the actual truth but rather to a fictional one. On the other hand, the imagination is seen as an imaginative faculty, capable of producing truth, of creating imaginary, and thus of establishing respect, influence, power. It implies that each individual’s imagined self-projections are based on deceitful and false beliefs, that have been mythicized, and have in turn been internalized by the individual to the extent that it affects the reality in which he operates.
For example, Edward Said studied and interpreted the relation between the colonial system and the European representations of the Other non-European. It is through the creation of a system of dichotomous representations that Orientalism has produced stereotypical images thus making the difference between Europeans and the Orientals. The West builds an image of this Eastern culture by presenting it as inferior and reducing its developed civilizational image. Orientalist discourse has produced a sensual East, not yet developed, ignorant, irrational, in opposition to a democratic, modern, rational and moral West. According to Edward Said, Orientalism has worked and continues to serve the hegemony of the West on the East. More precisely, the author explains how the Western domination is based on (distorted) representations of “the Orient” through childish, dangerous, barbarous and static images. Indeed, Said highlights the three meanings of the act of representing. First, it shows the nexus between knowledge and power. In Foucault’s sense, this interdependence leads to the production of “the Orient” influenced by the colonizer/colonized relationship. Second, through its symbolism, representing resonates in the imaginary of the Western consciousness, consistently to a certain style of thought. Therefore, it reveals more what is the West than what is the Orient. Third, it establishes a specific mode of discourse woven by myths and fantasies that finally is internalized by the oppressed, who finally believes in its truthfulness. Thus, the liberation of the former colonies depends on their ability to undo these representational mechanisms, which racialize all cultures and mythicize differences of (non-white, non-European) identities, so that it belittles a psychological domination and builds a machinery of social oppression, seeking to “provincialize Europe”. In other words, it is necessary to deconstruct the mechanism according to which, apprehending any historical reality is necessarily tied to its historical development, where the historical temporality is seen as a measure of the cultural distance between the West and the rest of the world.
Entangled in a collective imaginary, made of myths and truths, the individual struggles to think and to live his own culture. He does so, not in view of preserving and revitalizing his traditions, but rather, more in a creative process that would breathe a combative force and would liberate his consciousness in the present moment. First, that is why, at the level of the individual’s consciousness, a psychological emancipation is necessary. For example, Léopold Sédar Senghor thinks of African Art as a language of an “African ontology”, as “an ontology of vital force”. It is based on the experience of the African art, at the limits of the African Being, that will, in turn, allow a psychological liberation. Liberation is derived here from an experience of limits. In other words, it is derived from the transmutation of the fear of seeing unity lost in African art (eg. - the discontinuity in the lines of the African masks) into the surprise of sensing an energy that would allow the re-appropriation of the self. As an example, in the 70’s, under the Nigerian dictatorial regime of Colonel Obasanjo, Fela Kuti invented a new music genre, the Afro-beat. The multiplicity of rhythm contrasts and condemns the binary logic of the military march of the regime. Each part of the dancer’s body follows a beat to the point he feels an internal dislocation of himself, of his arms and legs. The climax of a song like Zombie is not a break, but rather a sort of going into a trance. At that moment, the dancer takes his body over again, and he takes possession of his physical embodiment, in order to resist the robotic mechanic of a non-livable political authority. Second, that is also why, at the national level, a political liberation is necessary. Frantz Fanon defends the authenticity of a national culture. By freeing itself from any backward-looking view of culture and by working to the unification of a common culture to the elites and the people, it would refuse the compliance with the European cultural domination.
To conclude, each culture echoes to a specific collective imaginary that influences the-being-to-the-world of the individual and his way of seeing the rest of the world within a web of power relations. At the same time, once it has been re-appropriated by the individual, culture becomes what provides company in our spaces of solitude, using a collective imaginary as a powerful force of personal emancipation psychologically and politically.
Appadurai, A. (1996), Modernity At Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization.
Chakrabarty, D. (2008). Provincializing Europe.
(de) Certeau, M. (1974), La culture au pluriel
(de) Certeau, M., (1980), « L'invention du quotidien Tome I », Arts de Faire.
Diagne, S., B., (2011), African art as Philosophy.
Pascal, B., Les Pensées.
Said, E., (1978) Orientalism.
United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), The 2005 Convention on the protection and promotion of the diversity of cultural expressions.
In English: Culture in the plural.
In English: The Practice of Everyday Life.
L’invention du quotidien, I. Arts de faire, Gallimard, 2002, p. XXXVIII