Why does Zamyn place 'Culture' at the Centre of its Analysis?

Every definition or description of culture comes from the cultural assumptions of the investigator. Euro-US academic culture, shared, with appropriate differences, by elite academic culture everywhere, is so widespread and powerful that it is thought of as transparent and capable of reporting on all cultures. It is, however, also a multiform cultural system, marking the descriptions and definitions it produces. Cultural information should be received proactively, as always open-ended, always susceptible to a changed understanding. The specialist speaks from the ever-moving, ever-shifting ground of her or his cultural base, knowingly pushed back or unacknowledged as transparent.

Culture is a package of largely unacknowledged assumptions, loosely held by a loosely outlined group of people, mapping negotiations between the sacred and the profane, and the relationship between the sexes. On the level of these loosely held assumptions and presuppositions, change is incessant. But, as they change, these unwitting presuppositions become belief systems, organised suppositions. Rituals coalesce to match, support, and advance beliefs and suppositions. But these presuppositions also give us the wherewithal to change our world, to innovate and create. Most people believe, even (or perhaps particularly) when they are being cultural relativists, that creation and innovation is their own cultural secret, whereas others are only determined by their cultures. This habit is unavoidable. But if we aspire to be citizens of the world, we must fight this habit.

When the tendency to think of our own culture as dynamic and other cultures as static is expressed by a powerful group towards less powerful groups, a political problem arises.

This problem surfaced in the 1960’s, when the volume of migration from the old colonies increased greatly. A new sub-discipline called ‘Cultural Studies’ emerged, first in Britain, then in the United States, and now available in universities worldwide. This is a happening within academic culture. The Cultural Studies position can be roughly summarized this way: colonizers founded Anthropology in order to know their subjects; Cultural Studies was founded by the colonized in order to question and correct their masters.

This dichotomy is an academic perception in the metropolis. There is, in fact, an internal line of cultural difference within ‘the same culture’. This holds not only for the nation of origin but also for the state to which the cultural minority has immigrated. The academy is a place of upward class-mobility, and this internal cultural difference is related to the dynamics of class difference. It is related to the formation of the new global culture of management and finance and the families attached to it. It marks access to the internet.

It also marks the new culture of international non-governmental organisations, involved in development and human rights, as they work upon the lowest social strata in the developing world. Before the advent of modernity, the country to town movement, the field to court movement, the movement along the great trade routes operated to create the kind of internal split of cultural difference within the same culture that may be the real motor of cultural change. Across the spectrum of change, it is the negotiation of sexual difference and the relationship between the sacred and the profane that spell out the rhythms of culture, always a step ahead of its definitions and descriptions.

The word ‘culture’ belongs to the histories of Western European languages. If we want to move into the elusive phenomenon in other places, below the shifting internal line of cultural difference, we will not look for translations and approximations of the word. Such synonyms carry on their back the impulse to translate from the European, which is a characteristic of the colonized intelligentsia under imperialism, and thus is the condition as well as the effect of that differentiating internal line. They will not let us go below it.

We must rather learn a non-European language well enough to be able to enter it without ready reference to a European one. We may encounter Creole versions of the word ‘culture’ which will complicate our argument. But they are neither the same word nor its translation.

Anthropologists and comparative historians learn field languages but customarily do not enter them so that they become languages of reference. Cultural Studies investigators typically do not relate to their native languages or the languages of their immediate or remote places of origin as languages of reference. The only route for learning languages in this way is through instruction in reading verbal art in these languages and instruction in philosophizing through ethical systems in them. This would require educational reform.

Such efforts might make us realize that all cultural process, even in the belief-system and ritual sector, moves because human beings imagine and create fictions of all kinds, including the rational fictions that extend philosophy; and that it is not possible for one of us to have access to an exhaustive sense of all the cultures of the world. Study of diversity in metropolitan space should make us aware of the limits to the production of cultural information outside the metropolis.

Let me qualify everything I have said by suggesting that in the field of culture alive there are no mistakes. Cultural continuity, made possible by cultural change, is assured by cultural explanations, coming from all sides, insiders and outsiders, rulers and ruled. The study of cultures is part of culture – the anthropologist’s picture of elders initiating young men and women, as well as these very words you read. Culture is a place where different explanations always collide, not just by races and classes, but by genders and generations. Culture is its own explanations. It is possible that the assumption of a collectivity sharing a culture is not an essential truth, but a millennial increment of the need to explain.

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, University Professor at Columbia University, for Zamyn

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