Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Cultural Literacy is not Cultural Purity

Oh, Nantes. How I love thee! Wandering around the city today, I noticed how strangely satisfying cheap towns can be to live in. There’s something soothing about visiting a place named “Cool Burger” and getting a lunch for a few euros that seems to have been constructed by someone with only the most rudimentary knowledge of how food works. Unlike in the big cities, nobody in cheap towns stares at you, one never feels like they’ve been entered into a rich douche-bag fashion show, and there’s more randomness.

There’s also more culture in a very real sense in the small towns. Paris is overflowing with high culture, but Nantes has everything from high to low to just plain weird culture. It’s also considerably more multicultural; the poorer towns attract immigrants from all over, many of whom bring their food and art and music. On my block, there is an African restaurant with remarkably primitive paintings all over the walls, an eastern European bakery whose window display is filled with dozens of Russian nesting dolls like a nest of baby chick Babushkas waiting to be fed by a mother (I like to imagine Stalin feeding them!), an independent theatre/ diner, a blues place where I imagine people sing Les Sarko Blues, and a Mediterranean restaurant with brilliant fired tiles along the wall. It is like the It’s a Small World ride with dog shit and drunks!

Some people complain about “the doctrine of multiculturalism”, but saying that you support multiculturalism now is about as obvious as saying that you support the idea of gravity. Acculturation is inescapable unless you’re rich and it’s really one of the better facts of modern life. It seems important to point out that, after all of our conversations about the western cultural tradition, what we seem to be interested in is not cultural purity, but simply cultural literacy. Cultural purity is a fantasy of obsessive-compulsive small minds, it rarely ever exists, and, worst of all, it’s simply boring (unless, of course, Amish communities fire your imagination). Cultural literacy is a baseline competence in a specific heritage, a connection to that culture serving as the ground for connection to other cultures. It’s also something of a historical sense, I think. It bears repeating that the last thing that could threaten the survival of a living culture is contact with other cultures; the history of human civilizations suggests that the opposite is the case. And the few “pure” cultures are still living in huts.

And I think it goes without saying that the first thing you notice about the defenders of “cultural purity”, who always seem to imagine a culture as some sort of fragile biological entity that arises spontaneously but which can be infected by other cultures and destroyed, is that they generally seem to be cultural illiterates.


Holly said...

My take on the drive for cultural purity is this: it's a total misnomer.

What those people actually are reacting to is over-stimulation, they're overwhelmed by all that exciting information coming at them from every direction. They learn about other cultures, other ways, and they react with rejection.

It's not really their culture they want to defend, it is their own emotional well-being they want to defend. But it's not adult to say, or even admit to thinking... wow, I'm overwhelmed to realize how big the world is, and how small I am in it. I'm embarrassed to be so trivial, and so I'm going to make a really big deal of the things I am comfortable with.

And it's EASY to build a "movement" in that direction, because lots of people get overwhelmed in this way. It is a consequence of the adolescence of the information age, I think. Part of the maturing process. I don't think it's the kids who are growing up fully bedecked in personal electronics who are alarmed to discover that the world is fully of people they've never seen or met, but who have real needs, and real wants, and real contributions to their own experiences.

narrator said...

The cultural literacy is dependent on that cultural knowledge (your own) in significant ways. If you understand the muddled origins of, say, "British Cultural Identity" (Celtic + German + Roman + Scandinavian + French as a start) or "French Cultural Identity" (Celtic + German + Roman + ...), or even Midwestern American (German + Scandinavian + Polish + Native American + Dutch + English + New England + ...) you will understand that there is no threat, there is only ever-evolving, ever changing, societal assemblies which perpetually strengthen.

Monocultures (static cultures) are not just prisons, they make their children roadkill on the path to the future.

You know, wandering through the marketplace by the Guildhall in Derry (NI) earlier this year, I counted 14 different non-Irish/non-Scots-Irish ethnicities, each with great food, each with rich language, each bringing really powerful transfusions to a place that had been locked into a static state for so long. That does not make northern Irish culture less "Irish," but it will slowly alter what being 'northern Irish' means. And I am sure it will alter that in ways almost universally positive. But even if it is not 'universally positive' it is completely inevitable. You can hide yourself off in a museum and die, or you can join humanity and live.

Rufus said...

Holly: I'd definitely agree that they're trying to defend their emotional well-being from overstimulation. I'm not sure about the other part- are you saying this will pass once we're fully into the information age?

Ira: I think living in such places does add to your mental furniture in positive ways. I'd have to say that Toronto, which is incredibly multicultural, was a lot more fun to wander around than the monocultural town where we live now.

Holly said...

Will it pass? I don't know. I think it'll evolve. In what way, I can't even guess.

clairev said...

as a complete side-note, this post made me think of homer simpson in chocolate land, running around and biting everything with glee.

except this was rufus running around and adoring everything with glee.

you are cute.