Friday, January 1, 2010

Culture, Now


Rajesh Kumar Sharma

(The following is a reconstruction, and translation from Punjabi, of the lecture given on 20 November 2009 at a seminar organized by Pragativaadi Sabhyacharak Manch, Chandigarh)

When I received the programme chart for this seminar a few days ago , I discovered that its theme would be India's current policy on culture. I wondered if I was qualified in any way to speak on such a matter. The wonder has by no means lessened, but it has prompted me to formulate a few basic questions.

The first question, expectedly, is whether India currently has any policy on culture. Assuming that it has, and assuming also that by India's policy is meant the government's policy, one may ask whether it fairly and adequately represents the wishes and needs of the Indian people at this moment of history. One may go further and even ask whether culture should at all be subject to policy-making.

On the other hand, the brute fact is that whether or not there is a formulated policy on culture, the existence of a government policy - unstated, fragmentary, virtual, but for all that no less real - cannot be denied. Hence, the most important question must be located in the nature of the relationship between culture and government policy. And I think that question could be phrased thus: Is the government's ostensible policy on culture to be treated as expressive of the government's real stance on culture or as a disavowal of its real stance? Within the larger embrace of this question, one may also ask whether or not, and to what extent, the official policy on culture might actually function as a screen for interventions, both active and passive, of an altogether different order and complexion.

How should culture be thought? Should it be thought the way it has been thought, and continues to be thought, in the terms of Western anthropology, as something out there with more or less clearly marked boundaries and available as an identifiable set of practices, values, beliefs, attitudes, etc? As our very own other with reference to which we identify, flatter and curse ourselves? Or should we take Fredric Jameson's way and move on along that way? Is it not time to dump the old imperial-anthropological notion of culture when, driven by the fantasy of a global empire, capitalism now invades all culture? Urban planning, rural decay, management practices, corporate finance, land use policy, media spectacle, accountability of public servants, and extreme complication to the point of opacity in the spheres of law, finance and technology – can these be any longer kept out of considerations of culture?

We have been witness to universities mindlessly renouncing their true vocation, the pursuit of critical thinking, and reinventing themselves instead as factories of 'human resources' for an economy hurtling from crisis to crisis. More recently, projects have been undertaken to 'conserve' the Punjabi cultural heritage by video-recording the folk dances and songs (it is another matter if the dancers and singers happen to be university students). Do not such attempts to 'conserve' culture constitute a disavowal of the imperative to think culture in these difficult times? Moreover, by taking recourse to such conservation projects, do we not confine culture to enclaves? If we believe we can 'save' our culture by consigning it to the magnetic/laser tracks on discs, we are being cowardly and dishonest in the face of the challenge to think. Loads of disks may bury our guilt but cannot deliver us from it. Archiving cultures in transition, documenting histories in the making demands much more than making casual and fragmentary recordings of the simulacra of heritage for consumption in the global market of cultural exotica (which includes 'roots').

The urge to musealize culture can be an evasion of the obligation to understand culture as history-in-the-making. By musealizing culture, we could be gleefully cooling our feverish conscience even as we continue to look away from the reality that is happening and changing all around us.

Jalal Toufiq, the thinking film-maker from Lebanon, speaks of the withdrawal of tradition past a surpassing disaster. What if in our case culture has withdrawn past a long and subtle, and not so subtle, but surpassing colonial and postcolonial disaster? Could it be that we have failed to apprehend the withdrawal and so continue to make such a song and dance about a culture that may actually be only a 'counterfeit' culture, without our even beginning to be aware of it? Perhaps our obsession with a 'counterfeit' culture has something to do with our wish to sleep through the disaster. Why else should we locate culture in the past alone? Are France, Britain, Italy and US cultural orphans?

We must approach culture as our contemporary moment, which of course does not preclude history. History has an inevitable bearing on the present, but that bearing is far from self-evident. What we arguably need to practice, with all possible rigour, is an archeology of culture,which may not only enable us to understand our contemporary moment but also make us its true contemporaries. And only then shall we be able to appreciate why culture matters so much today.

As Paolo Virno has indicated, the defining tendencies of culture in these times are performativity and virtuosity. Capitalism has already arrived at the point where it uses technology to source our physiological, cognitive and affective faculties. Martin Heidegger's dark prophecy that technology would one day make the human being its “standing reserve” is being more than realized as our very faculties become the materials of production and reproduction with finance capitalism transforming into posthuman capitalism. Both inner and outer space are being reterritorialized under the new empire of global capital. Amidst such a scenario, when culture becomes the most profit-laden resource, what does an obsession with culture as something located in the past and musealized in sacred enclaves signify, if it does not signify strategies of deflection and self-deception?

It is interesting, and perturbing, that even resistance is being harnessed as a resource by global capital. The spaces of genuine dissent shrink as 'private' media yields to corporate media which, in actual practice, is only the unofficial and obverse face of official media. The confusion and erasure of boundaries can be seen in the media professionals donning the costume of the public intellectual on the one hand and, on the other, some 'intellectuals' flirting promiscuously with the media in the managed carnival of the spectacle. Of course, digital spaces of resistance are also emerging, but in a country like ours, they remain – at least for now – enclaves of a counter-elite, which is not the same as non-elite or subaltern. As a result, the range and human depth of public discourse are shrinking even as channels and blogs proliferate wildly. Maybe we could take that seriously as an index of the crisis of thinking.

Hence the imperative to problematize culture as a practice and as a conceptual category. Culture is not a given. It is not an entity, but a becoming, a process, an apparatus in perpetual mobility. And today more than ever, it is a critical becoming, achieved – though always precariously – through a becoming-critical. We must beware of doing anything that would culturally disenfranchise anyone, much less whole groups of people or entire periods of time. Indeed, the whole question of the relationship between culture and community requires to be revisited. The lessons of fascism are yet to be assimilated even intellectually in our part of the world. Our intellectuals continue to sing worshipfully of their ideas, howsoever muddled, of culture as some perfumed enigma at the inscrutable of particular communities while they turn a willfully deaf ear to inspired interrogations of the received ideas of the community such as in the writings of Georges Bataille, Maurice Blanchot, Roberto Esposito and Jean-Luc Nancy. The tendency to read community, polity and poetry as synonyms must be combated by investing critical knowledges in the field of culture and by pursuing a rigorous lucidity. If at all culture must be located, it can only be in the chimerical spaces between the individual and the community, and between the temporalities of the past, the present and the future and that which bears down from outside the thinkable temporalities. Culture is a space of possibilities – not just in terms of the future but also in terms of the past and the present. As such, it is also a space of 'impossibilities' that await realization in other orders of things.

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9 comments:

Sukh Dev said...

Well, Rajesh, the projects to video-record folk dances & songs may be attempts to document not to conserve the Punjabi Cultural Heriatge.
Secondly, folk dances and songs are part of intangible cultural heritage and the intangible heritage of a community is likely to change faster, more so if the given community is at the receiving end in the situation of a close cultural contact (read conflict). Every community (social group) lives within a cultural stream; it is often a smooth renewal of the past showing fimiliar texture. But the modes, methods & perspectives of development in the recent past hve been such that the cultural diversity is threatened.
In the age when we are talking, walking, and living globalization & consumerism, the cultural fabric, both tangible and intangible (buildings, sites, langauges, robes, food, and everything), is changing very fast. So we as a community are in a flux. However it doesn't mean, we have no culture and we are not 'thinking culture'. What is happening is we moving away from our cultural heriatge but not living without any culture. We may call it a cultural shift. The pressures of emerging life styles as a result of the operative methods & strategies of development moving us into the cultural shift and much of it is happening without any consent of the individual members of the community. That is the existential crisis of 'to be or not to be'; the crisis is not of those only who are on the margin but those also who are at the centre. Yes, the difference is there i.e. some are getting returns while facing the crisis but others are only facing the crisis.
Whatever the differences, it is the similarity that has created the 'imperative to think culture'. Now the culture in which we are living, an imperative of our socio-economic development models, 'thinks' even the conservation of cultural heritage as a commodity or an avenue for employment. And as we live in a culture we have to follow its dynamism and paradigms of doing things.
To preserve or conserve our cultural heritage is a way of relating, contextualising not living it. We can conserve the tangible heritage but we can only document or achive our intangible heritage.
But the documentation must be authentic.
Very best!
sukhdev

Yogesh Snehi said...

I really liked your argument.

Dr. Sukhdev Singh said...

Well, Rajesh, the projects to video-record folk dances & songs may be attempts to document not to conserve the Punjabi Cultural Heriatge.
Secondly, folk dances and songs are part of intangible cultural heritage and the intangible heritage of a community is likely to change faster, more so if the given community is at the receiving end in the situation of a close cultural contact (read conflict). Every community (social group) lives within a cultural stream; it is often a smooth renewal of the past showing fimiliar texture. But the modes, methods & perspectives of development in the recent past hve been such that the cultural diversity is threatened.
In the age when we are talking, walking, and living globalization & consumerism, the cultural fabric, both tangible and intangible (buildings, sites, langauges, robes, food, and everything), is changing very fast. So we as a community are in a flux. However it doesn't mean, we have no culture and we are not 'thinking culture'. What is happening is we moving away from our cultural heriatge but not living without any culture. We may call it a cultural shift. The pressures of emerging life styles as a result of the operative methods & strategies of development moving us into the cultural shift and much of it is happening without any consent of the individual members of the community. That is the existential crisis of 'to be or not to be'; the crisis is not of those only who are on the margin but those also who are at the centre. Yes, the difference is there i.e. some are getting returns while facing the crisis but others are only facing the crisis.
Whatever the differences, it is the similarity that has created the 'imperative to think culture'. Now the culture in which we are living, an imperative of our socio-economic development models, 'thinks' even the conservation of cultural heritage as a commodity or an avenue for employment. And as we live in a culture we have to follow its dynamism and paradigms of doing things.
To preserve or conserve our cultural heritage is a way of relating, contextualising not living it. We can conserve the tangible heritage but we can only document or achive our intangible heritage.
But the documentation must be authentic.

Very best!

sukhdev

Devi Prasad Mishra said...

प्रिय राजेश जी


नये साल 2010 के लिये अनेक शुभकामनाएं । इसी तरह से नयी सोच को प्रस्तावित करते रहिये । निरंतर ।




देवी प्रसाद मिश्र

Badri Raina said...

excellently well said:
dilip swamy and me on "subversion of universities", special number of Seminar years ago; surf net;
also in many other places.
culture is not a preserved hothouse; if is in the dynamics of what we live from day to day; and in how change responds to the given hothouse.
www.killingtrain.com/badriraina may give you a link to the Seminar article; of just google against my name.
also, read "teach them not to think" Znet (www.zmag.org/zspace/badriraina);

best,

br

Rakesh Sharma said...

. . . thought provking. about culture i am of the view that - --- earlier our culture was agriculture-- now we r changing to ---culture is agreeculture---. we r being pushed into this in our daily life --- u pay the TT in train for a berth by agreeing to his demand as well as any where n every where-- so what is the solution --- this sort of agreeculture is creating a breed of impotent intellgentia --- rakesh sharma

Badri Raina said...

just read your excellent note on 'culture';
congrats.
here is my contribution: 'culture is the conglomerate NOW';
much love,
br

M. L. Raina said...

I just read your piece on culture(wonder why it eluded me all these days). I agree with your ideas of culture as constant renewal and remaking.But there is still an element which remains unchanged and that constitutes what we in daily communication call culture.This 'something' is 'adaab', the spontaneous touching of feet of elders(a practice I frown on but havent been able to scotch') and other manifestations of everyday interaction. This is also manifest in some crudieties of behaviour such as throwing out of paan-smeared
globules at public places and similar practices.These can not be denied,just as the higher attempts to remake elite and non-elite practices at intellectual level can not be denied. By yoking together Jameson and his glittering band of cultural theoerists.We cant shut ourselves off from what stays as a residue in every cultural formation.I think culture is what you are after all your inherited frills and fripperies are shorn away. Call it reactionary,wont you?

Rajesh Kumar Sharma said...

Not reactionary. Hard-headed!