Saturday, July 15, 2006

Culture as Disability

A few months ago, I stumbled upon the essay "Culture as Disability", by Ray McDermott & Hervé Varenne (written in 1995). This was in the middle of a heated exchange I was having, with a friend, which made this essay particularly pertinent.

For the first time in my life, I felt that I was – simply a human, rather than an Indian. Hence, if I identified with anyone, this was with all humans rather than just my fellow-Indians.

I had in the past been intrigued by such a view, when I encountered it in, say, literature of enlightened teachers. I was rooted in my Indian life, languages, culture, concerns and bonds, and so I felt entirely defined by my Indian-ness, awareness, attachments. Of course someone who has no roots, who is self-focussed, is entirely unconcerned about his fellow citizens, and so can glibly profess a “global” identity. But to be rooted, and yet universal – I could not understand that from my experience.

And then I had this heated e-mail exchange over a few days – which drove me to just such a position. I could see how a narrow, blind, parochial / tribal attitude could look to an outsider: horribly narcissistic. And the essence of the things I believed in and cared for – had nothing to do with anything so lowly. It could just as well bypass the whole association with national or geographic identity. That is only circumstantial, but once there one can become rooted and be nourished and grow from the richness of the local soil, the history, the culture, the people, the religion. That will define, distinctively, the people of that soil, just as their individual personalities will. But that need not be accompanied by a hard "us versus them" identity, or a prickly sensitivity to an outsider’s perception.

For the first time I awakened to the notion that culture might be a disability or a debilitation or affliction, that binds us to set ways, fundamentally curtails our freedom, reduces us to passive entities instead of active, conscientious, ethical, aesthetic choice-exercising agents.

To much of the world, a lot of our concerns can appear really idiotic, insular, narcissistic, obsessive, paranoid, and at odds with the world and the times. And all that may be the national ideology of one’s country, ingested like mother's milk by all citizens! But can that attitude prevail indefinitely? Just because a mindset is there doesn’t mean its a good thing! It should be flushed down the toilet (along with so many other mindsets prevailing in the world)!

Regression to tribalism - is what flag-waving patriotism strikes me as. I don't hold people responsible for their nation, nor am I responsible for mine. In fact I strongly oppose my nation on most counts. I would like people to be free of any flag-waving tendencies; their patriotism should be expressed differently, through their personality, their way of life, their work. It should be implicit, in the uniqueness and richness of their personality, rather than explicit, in statements and slogans.

Speaking for myself - this tribal / narcissistic attitude is also to be found in so many (Hindu like me) Indians. But I can see how pathetic this appears to an outsider. I am not affected by others' attitudes and perceptions. I do not suffer from a need to embrace a national or religious identity because I lack any other self-definition. And I don't feel traumatised to discard parochial thinking and a tribal identity in favour of a universal human identity, and be concerned about "human rights", "social justice" etc. I am reminded of the lines by our national poet Rabindranath Tagore:

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free;
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls;
Where words come out from the depth of truth;
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
into the dreary desert sand of dead habit;
Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever-widening thought and action--
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.

Can we not be equal human beings on the face of the earth, entirely alike, yet each unqiue by virtue of the little patch of soil we grew in? Can we not cast aside our little obsessions and attend to larger, common problems of all humanity?

Several years ago I had written about "development as cultural rape". I realise there is no basic contradiction between defending culture and denying it as I now did. Each view has its place in its context. The (rare) individual who can discard his cultural garment, and the individual (like most people) who abides unconsciously in implicit ways defined by the culture - are different persons altogether, at different levels of evolution. Interestingly, one can find the rare individual even in very humble settings (like Kabir the Southasian weaver / poet / sage). Only someone who is culturally rich, steeped in his / her culture, who does not have to even think or talk about his / her culture, can confidently discard a garment. Someone who sees his / her culture only as something to grasp will keep it on. That rare individual who is able to transcend his / her culture - would also, I expect, not trample upon others' sensibilities and sensitivities.

I continued thinking on this subject of voluntary embrace of tribalism with much agitation for a long time. Finally, I let it lie, preferring silence to pointless argument. And then I came upon the "Culture as Disability" essay!

I was particularly struck by the concluding lines in the essay:

“… the withering scorn of Balzac's slave boy, the ways they resist being made into less than they could be, or less than they are. Anthropological work must begin with, but not stop with a celebration of their resistance. For their resistance to what they cannot ignore also reveals the hegemony of all the institutions that originally constructed their problems. …”

I would add: being bound in following set ways, even of resistance, we ensure that THE act of resistance, the mother of all such acts - never ever happens. And hence the culture and the hegemony lives happily ever after.


Bonita said...

Your thoughts here are so rich, so deep, and so true. We are entering a new era. Your thoughts reflect it. The earth is one country, and mankind its citizens.

You are on such a good path.

Anonymous said...

Greets to the webmaster of this wonderful site. Keep working. Thank you.

Yves said...

We must of course not sneer at any culture, especially the one we share with our neighbours. (Tell me who is not our neighbour now?)

All my life, from 1942 to 1988, I was a wanderer. Then I adopted my present home town. At first I worked a long way away and never even got to know the place I lived. What brought me especially close to it was co-authoring the biography of its first black Mayor and seeing how disparate cultures can enrich one another.