I keep turning over the relationship between force and culture over in my head. It’s an old concern for me, and Gordon’s recent post about the potential failures of multiculturalism as a conceptual apparatus for dealing with the lived reality of cultural diversity has helped catalyze a few insights out of the churn.
I keep returning to the importance of conceiving culture as an embodied expression of spiritual life, as a means of life and vitality generally. That materiality means that culture is necessarily caught up with space and location, intimacy and enclosure. The conflict between ‘civilzation’ and culture can be articulated around this, where the infrastructure of a society can disrupt and replace, overwrite, the culturally ordered spaces that give flesh to its spirit.
The failure of multiculturalism as a political agenda can also be examined in this light, because what multiculturalism tended to presume was that cultures were largely conceptual and aesthetic, something that could be easily represented. Obviously, cultures are profoundly conceptual and aesthetic, but both of those derive from a more difficult to quantify lifeworld. The drive to show people different cultures became readily conflated with a proper experience of the culture.
(The domain of representation being that of Yesod, that nourishes and is nourished by the spheres of Hod-Concept and Netzach-Affect. Yesod, though, being the projection of the bone of reality that is Keter-Malkuth.)
Ironically, the effort to show more cultural diversity created a situation that undercut actual cultural diversity, because the effort to show more provided less opportunity to experience a few. I don’t think we can blame multiculturalism for this. Rather, it is a result of the deeper conflict between the structure of capitalist civilization and culture in general. Here is Adorno looking at the scene from as it is beginning to develop in the mid-twentieth century:
“The spokesmen of unitary tolerance are, accordingly, always ready to turn intolerantly on any group that remains refractory [to the standards established by the elite]…The melting-pot was introduced by unbridled industrial capitalism. The thought of being cast into it conjures up martyrdom, not democracy.”—Minima Moralia (103)
Multiculturalism as a political program only becomes possible in a society where culture has been profoundly vitiated, where it can be mistaken for its representation.
For that very reason, I am also suspicious of nostalgia, the desire to return to some previous moment in culture. Once lost, it is doubtful that a culture can be reconstituted, especially since the models we have of the past are detached from the lifeworld that made it vital and dynamic. The option that lies before us seems to be that of casting ourselves into a new world, carrying with us the images and ideas that will be transmuted by being grafted to a new form of life.
(I’ll admit that nostalgia provides a vehicle for moving into a new world, providing a sense of continuity that helps ameliorate the distress of novelty; we won’t be able to escape some nostalgia. The nostalgia needs to be fiercely moderated with a critical sensibility, an eye to the shape the world is taken, adjusted accordingly, lest it become little more than the dream of a lotus eater or turn savage when the world provides poor ground for it.)
I don’t think we are quite at the point where a new world has become possible and, as some have worried, there is the possibility for this world to slump its way for the length of our lives. Projecting ourselves into a new world prematurely also dooms that world to the maw of the still-living one.
There are opportunities to be had for experimentation toward a future within the cracks of the present. The challenge here is to make and preserve the spaces necessary for such experiments to come to term and to find ways to do so alongside others undertaking their own experiments. Since this requires space and space is at a premium, it becomes a matter of learning to coexist.
Some of this can be avoided, of course by focusing cultural life on the home and commons procured by the cultures (temples are a good example of this). There are limits to this, though, because a vital culture engages the whole of a person’s life and a whole of a person’s life cannot be easily contained in such narrow bands of space without turning oppressive.
Where two cultural projects share a space, they are prone to come into conflict, because it is the organization of that space which allows them to flourish. Attempts to organize the same space can lead to discord in the space and conflict between those sharing it.
With negotiation, though, what can’t be accommodated in space can be accommodated in time. The tensions between rival forms of life can be partially moderated by giving over the same location to each but at different times. (e.g., shared streets, but different festival times). We do that to some extent at present, but there are more profound expressions of it yet to be achieved.
Let’s emphasize the first two words of that last paragraph: with negotiation. That requires quite a few shifts in perspective from our present situation, where the ‘civilization’ in which we live is structured by deeply etched demands to which we are forced to accommodate ourselves.
Finding ways to cultivate habits of negotiation without subjecting ourselves to the unyielding demands in which we are embedded is tough work; the tenor of frustration and vitriol that makes its way into many discussions these days bears witness to this. Tough work does not mean impossible work, though, and we can commit ourselves to slower and more stable negotiations.
In the immediate future, this is likely to be more about practicing to negotiate than bringing negotiations to successful conclusion.
Where possible (and it’s not often possible in these unstable times), it will be advantageous for us to work toward more people having the means to represent their own culture, to themselves first and others second. That starts in our immediate environment with attending to all the forms of cultural life that have been driven to the margins in capital, but it extends outward into the whole global chain of production.
It encompasses not just our relationship to other people, but to the expanding web of life in which we as people are embedded. This expands the circle of negotiation to include ecosystems, both our specific relationships to the elements of it, but also our shared consumption of it.
It is less important whether this or that culture is represented, than whether this or that culture has the means to represent; does it have the space, the place, to facilitate life?
Breadth of vision differs from scope of action, especially now. We can scan the terrain, but our capacity to influence is minimal and so efforts will likely end up being small, the light scraping which later moments might catalyze into deeper channels, like acid etching into an intaglio plate.