Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Of American Culture

Among philosophers, the question of what creates and defines culture has always been a topic of debate. Those with a good understanding of how culture develops within civilization know that defining a culture, that is, explaining its essence for members of that culture, is always, even in non-democratic societies, a democratic event. There are canonical authorities to be selected and regularly revised, debated, accepted or dismissed. There are ideas of good and evil, belonging or not belonging (the same and the different), hierarchies of value to be specified, discussed, debated and settled (or not).

Moreover, each culture defines its enemies; who stands beyond it and threatens it. For the Greeks, as chronicled by Herodotus, anyone who did not speak Greek was automatically a barbarian, an outsider to be despised and fought against. The French classicist François Hartog, in his book The Mirror of Herodotus, painstakingly illustrates how deliberately Herodotus, civilization's foremost historian, set about constructing an image of a barbarian outsider from the Scythians, more even than from the Persians. It is not coincidental that, throughout history, conquering warlords often sought to wipe out any trace of another culture's existence.

Culture, technically, belongs to institutions, priests, academies and the state. It provides definitions of patriotism, loyalty, boundaries and what might be called "belonging". It is this quasi-official culture that speaks in the name of the whole, that tries to express the general will, the general ethos and idea, that inclusively holds the official past (the founding fathers and texts, the pantheon of heroes and villains) and excludes what is foreign or different or undesirable in the past. From it come the definitions of what may or may not be said, those prohibitions and proscriptions that are necessary to any culture if it is to have authority.

It is also true that besides the mainstream or official or canonical culture there are dissenting or alternative, unorthodox, heterodox cultures that contain many anti- authoritarian strains in competition with the official culture. These can be called the counterculture, an ensemble of practices associated with outsiders - the poor, immigrants, artistic bohemians, rebels, artists. From the counterculture comes the critique of authority and attacks on what is official and orthodox.

The contemporary Arab poet Adonis has written a massive account of the relationship between orthodoxy and heterodoxy in Arabic culture and shown the constant dialectic and tension between them. No culture is understandable without some sense of this ever-present source of creative provocation from the unofficial to the official; to disregard this sense of restlessness within each culture, and to assume that there is complete homogeneity between culture and identity is to miss what is vital and fecund.

In the United States the debate about what is American has gone through many transformations and sometimes dramatic shifts. To justify Manifest Destiny, American media depicted Native Americans as evil, heathens to be tamed or destroyed. They were called "Red Men" and insofar as they had any function in the culture--and this was as true of films as of the writing of academic history--it was as a foil to the advancing course of white civilization; an enemy of justice and Christian values. Today that has changed completely. Native Americans are seen as victims, not villains, of the advance of the US into the Wild West.

There has been a change in the status of Columbus and even more dramatic reversals in the depictions of African-Americans and women. Prominent African-American author Toni Morrison noted how in classic American literature there is an obsession with whiteness, as Melville’s Moby Dick and Poe’s Arthur Gordon Pym eloquently testify. Yet she says major male, white writers of the 19th and 20th centuries, men who shaped the canon of American literature, created their works by using whiteness as a way of avoiding, curtaining and rendering invisible the African presence in the midst of society. That Toni Morrison writes her novels and criticism with such success and brilliance now underscores the extent of the change from the world of Melville and Hemingway to that of Dubois, Baldwin, Langston Hughes and Morrison herself.

Which vision is the real America, and who can lay claim to represent and define it? The question is complex and deeply interesting but cannot be settled by reducing the matter to a few clichés.

A unique perspective of the difficulties in cultural contests whose object is the definition of a civilization can be found in Arthur Schlesinger’s book, The Disuniting of America. As a mainstream historian, Schlesinger is understandably troubled by the fact that emergent and immigrant groups in the U.S. have disputed the official, unitary national fable as it used to be represented by great classical historians such as Bancroft, Henry Adams and, more recently, Richard Hofstader. The disputants want the writing of history to reflect not only a nation conceived of and ruled by patricians and landowners but one in which slaves, servants, laborers and poor immigrants played an important but as yet unacknowledged role.

The narratives of such people--silenced by the discourses of Washington, the investment banks of New York, the universities of New England and the industrial fortunes of the Midwest--have come to disrupt the slow progress and unruffled serenity of the official story. They ask purposeful questions, tell the experiences of social unfortunates and make the claims of "lesser" peoples - women, Asians and African-Americans and other minorities, sexual as well as ethnic. Will their threads not be woven into the fabric of America?

Whether one agrees or not with Schlesinger’s cri de coeur, there is no disagreeing with his underlying thesis: that the writing of history is the royal road to the definition of a country, and that the identity of a society is in large part a function of historical interpretation, which is clouded by contested claims and counterclaims.

With American history open for revision at the hands of powers unknown, is it a surprise that American culture has become as devoid of identity? Ask yourself: what does the world know of America other than excess, frivolity and exclusion? If it is best left to America to define its own culture, what will you hear, other than millions of voices--silenced?

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