Thursday, 7 November 2013

Cultural frames and cultural property -- part one

Coca-Cola bottle in China
Anna Frodesiak
One of my favorite papers is The Cultural Frames Approach as an Alternative View to the Ethnocratic Idea of Culture, by Josep Martí, Spanish Council for Scientific Research (CSIC), Barcelona. I came across it when I was looking into the idea of the term cultural property as a pernicious euphemism. The term cultural property is a modern concoction which, in its popular understanding, replaces national treasure. In the application of so-called "cultural property laws", only national interests are represented so we cannot even label them as ethnocentric. Ethnicity as a sub-group of a nation is expressed no better than in the case of Papua New Guinea where it "is estimated that more than 7000 different cultural groups exist" most of them having their own language. Martí's paper shows that, even within a far more homogenous society, the actual numbers of "cultural frames" are almost infinite. He says:
"Moreover it is obvious that within the same country we will never find two persons, who according to these criteria, respond to the same cultural definition."
I first came to this sort of realization in my attempts to reclassify the coinage of the Armorican Celtic Coriosolite tribe (Britanny). Numismatic classification is based mainly on design features and not so much on "official" reductions in their intrinsic value. In the case of Coriosolite coins, there was a 25% reduction in the intended amount of silver in each coin at one mint, yet the previously designated classes were defined only by design features. I came to the realization that the objective design designations could first be represented by series, and then by individual examples. There were no classes within a series that were not subjective. Thus any attempts to perform statistical analyses of the coinage by using classes were essentially useless. In turn, this led me to a very critical opinion of the subject of classification, itself -- I was looking for defined groups, but could find only individuals. I did break the previous six classes of Coriosolite coins into fifteen groups, but made it very clear that these groups were only useful for an approximate idea of where a coin fitted into the chronology of each mint and could not be used for any other purpose.

This realization became reinforced when I read Michel Foucault's The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences in the preface of which he gives the following taxonomy of animals, supposedly, from an old Chinese encyclopaedia:
(a) belonging to the emperor
(b) embalmed
(c) tame
(d) sucking pigs
(e) sirens
(f) fabulous
(g) stray dogs
(h) included in the present classification
(i) frenzied
(j) innumerable
(k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush
(l) et cetera
(m) having just broken the water pitcher
(n) that from along way off look like flies
The verity of the passage is unimportant. Instead, it serves as a reductio ad absurdum to illustrate Foucault's ideas about classification. We cannot be sure whether Foucault either knew or cared about the authenticity of the passage's attribution. I quoted it in a discussion where I offered a classification of the term Celtic on the Celtic-L discussion group  and was delighted to receive this reply from the political scientist Professor Bruce E. Wright which illustrates most of the above topics far better than any example I could offer.

Tomorrow, we will start to look at the dark side: the nature of the "pernicious euphemism" that is cultural property and why it is not merely an example of modern illiteracy.

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