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Conservative Political Commentary

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Lady Liberty

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.

Monday, June 13, 2005

The End of Culture in America
posted by Bathus

The moment a people acquires a certain awareness of an activity as being part of its "culture," at that moment the activity begins to cease being a part of that people’s living culture, and begins to be transformed into something else, something that might be art, or politics, or civil religion, but no longer exists as culture. At a certain moment of self-consciousness, culture ceases to exist because culture, in the truest sense, consists of activities that are carried on for the most part unselfconsciously in the everyday course of the life of a people. According to this formulation "culture" is mostly, if not always, unselfconscious. "Non-culture," for lack of better word, is artificial and self-conscious.

One can hardly speak of one’s own "cultural activities." To speak of them as such is to begin to destroy their character as cultural activities. Similarly, one absolutely cannot--not purposefully--preserve one’s own culture because a purposeful act of "cultural preservation" requires a degree of self-consciousness corrosive to genuine living culture.

Culture is never preserved. Culture is lived. And living (in case you hadn't noticed) is a mostly unselfconscious activity. What we call "cultural preservation" is actually a formalized entombment of never-living, dead, or dying cultures.

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The most conspicuous example today of "non-culture" presented as "culture" is Kwanza. Culture might well involve celebration, but culture itself can never be the thing celebrated. Genuine culture cannot exist as a celebration of itself. When a people purports to celebrate its culture, the very activity in which that people consciously engages, ostensibly in celebration of its culture, is no longer truly part of that people’s culture (if it ever were), and the culture purportedly being celebrated has become moribund (if it ever were alive). Such a celebration is, at best, some sort of staged re-enactment, not so different from a re-enactment of a Civil War battle. The staged affair might well be art or drama or political theater; it might even be historically accurate, but it is not culture. It is not the artificiality or the historical inaccuracy of Kwanza that distinguishes it as non-culture. It is the self-consciousness of the endeavor that renders it inauthentic non-culture.

A people’s genuine culture, like an individual person’s breathing, is carried on normally and naturally without thinking, the difference being that when a person reflects upon his act of breathing he can still breathe. His natural rhythm of breathing, burdened by thought, will become artificial and labored, yet he does not stop breathing and expire. But when a people begins to reflect upon its culture as culture, the aspect of culture upon which that people reflects ceases to exist as culture for that people.

Unlike a person who thinks about breathing, yet still breathes, if a people thinks too much about its culture, that people might cease to exist as a people. A culture cannot exist among a people with a refined consciousness of its culture as "culture." Yet a people cannot exist as a people unless its members share a culture.

This formulation of "culture" excludes not only Kwanza and Native American Pow Wow dances, but also all of what we think of as "high-culture," the latter for the very reason that production or participation in high-culture requires self-examination antithetical to unselfconscious action. High-culture is trans-cultural, and therefore not culture of the sort that is attached to or "belongs to" a people. On the other hand, the very word "culture" denotes a civilized refinement of natural growth--the difference between a thing growing wild and a thing that grows in a certain way because it has been attended to purposefully, if not obviously. So one can’t insist upon this formulation of culture as comprehensive. Yet this formulation is somehow fundamentally accurate and sheds some strong light on contemporary American culture.

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Yes, there is a genuine contemporary American culture.

Nowadays one could say that the archetypal American cultural activity is the activity of celebrating culture. In other words, our culture is to "celebrate culture." Our culture is to "preserve culture."

This is both strange and seemingly contradictory.

How strange it is that, with all our Greek Festivals, Italian Festivals, Asian Festivals, Korea Festivals, Polish Festivals, Kwanzas and Pow Wows (and one might even go so far as to include our religious celebrations as well), the foremost cultural activity of American life today is the entombment of non-living or dying cultures, an entombment we accomplish through the very act of "celebrating" these cultures.

How much stranger and seemingly contradictory it is that this hyper-romantic activity of entombing non-living and dying cultures, though excessively self-consciously concerned with the idea of culture, nonetheless begins to qualify as "culture" for us because the activity of entombing is carried on without consciousness of what is actually being done.

We self-consciously believe we are celebrating culture, but the self-consciousness precludes the possibility of any of the cultures we purport to celebrate being our own true culture. At the same time, we unselfconsciously entomb the cultures we purport to celebrate. Thus, not the cultures celebrated, but the activities of mummification and entombment, which we call "cultural preservation," are our true culture. Our self-conscious intent to celebrate diverse cultures is the very thing that finishes them off. At the same time, our lack of awareness that, by "celebrating cultures," we are clumsily yet thoroughly finishing them off, makes these celebrations of culture our genuine culture.

So, as of now, our predominant "cultural activity" in America consists of an interminable wake for dead, dying, or never-living cultures. Would knowledge of that fact begin the process of entombing the contemporary American culture which itself entombs other cultures? Thence the possibility of a return to a more unselfconscious development--from our own shared experience of everyday life--of a genuine American culture, one less strange and contradictory?

posted by Bathus | 6/13/2005 12:24:00 AM
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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Makes Much Sense this definetly outlines how i personally feel and have felt about these conscious cultural decisions that are so often commonly made in america,
and have led me to feel that a large portion of american culture is nothing but false.
Though it seems that the author pushes it a bit to far i do not believe that the mere act of becoming conscious of ones culture
on an individual level for fleeting moments cancels the existance of that culture. Self awareness of ones culture does not put it out of reach as being defining as culture, though I'll agree that culture would cease to exist if that culture is persued for any length as a conscious act.
But its not logical nor proove itself in practice, that merely recognizing it relinquishes its claim on a true culture, though only when it is collectively organized recognition or persued for any length of time through consious choice.
Also what the author describes as the American celebration of dead culture trying to be passed off as real culture, i do not beleive these instances really fit into the author's definition and are one sided in his/her view on culture. America's culture.. attacks and degrades other cultures forcing them into decline.. even for the sole fact that america is a melting pot of mingling cultures forced to get along. ..conciously ritualizing said culture is merely a response from an assault on a foreign culture, that assault is the forcing of people of one culture to get along and "accept" another. perhaps you can classify this act stemming from the collective American need to be liked, excepted, and famous, as a culture in itself in which case this is another way that american culture is destuctive to foreign culture. Not all americans are Trying to consciously direct their culture out of a collective feeling for a lack of culture ... as in the case of Kwanza. Some are clearly trying to keep a culture that wouldnt have been interupted otherwise. One can say that its natural when that culture is dead.. though does not make any sense in the case of the immigrant, who for the most part has a culture that is alive and well in another country, and furthermore if this culture was not attacked would most likely live on With his/her culture without ever paying it much mind. though exposure to diversity and the forced acceptance of such diversity is an attack on an individual diverse culture.
I used to beleive that the United States of America was about appreciating diversity in foriegn or new culture.. I was Wrong, it is moreso about destroying that culture in an attempt to build its own, thus consciously trying to decide its culture at the very foundation, it justifies this act by trying to take a high horse on what is and isnt negative or positive culture. This comes contemporarily in the form of political correctness in america to one end. Which in my mind is a ridiculous form of false culture that attempts to destroy other cultures by taking a high horse on ethics of Dealing with diverse culture, telling people what their Culture should be how they should act respond to and respect other diverse cultures.

12:18 AM, August 04, 2005  
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