Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Cultural frames and cultural property -- part four

George Orwell
At the start of the final chapter of Archaeology Under Dictatorship, Michael L. Galaty and Charles Watkinson (editors), New York, 2004, Bettina Arnold says:
While compromise is an inescapable aspect of life, it can constrain activity to the point where the basic tenets of a discipline are undermined, requiring the practitioner to choose between prescribed practice and professional survival. This occurs on a kind of sliding scale in all modern nation-states engaged in archaeological research, but is particularly marked in dictatorships, in which the operating principle is that the state determines the scope and the focus of the production and dissemination of knowledge about the archaeological past.
The book contains a broad selection of ways in which the interests of  dictatorships have been served through archaeology, for example, archaeology in Libya under Mussolini was only interested in the Roman period: the Fascists wanted to portray themselves as the "new Romans" and by doing so, not only justified conquest but glorified it. yet the Roman model also served Napoleon and the French Revolution had more than a slight effect on the American Revolution. To this day, Roman iconography and other allusions are core in the U.S. It is clear that it is not so much what is emphasized, as how it is emphasized: we can say, with equal truth, that the Romans brought other cultures under their yoke, and that they brought civilization and order to barbarism. The connecting quality being "greatness".

While the theme of the above book is dictatorships, we cannot accurately describe the phenomenon as "archaeology under dictatorship" as a theme and all other state archaeology as unique examples. Another theme: archaeology under communism was the subject of TAG2010: the 32nd annual meeting of the Theoretical Archaeology Group. Nor do we have to restrain ourselves to political theories for a theme, I often encounter "modern archaeology" compared to "mere nineteenth century antiquarianism".

The archaeological and historical past are the brushes, paints and canvas used to create any picture we choose. It can be the source of great fun for all, and it only becomes insidious when we attach to it claims of being "scientific", "objective" "official" or "moral".  So designated, it can be used to bully, coerce and capture the minds of people for ulterior motives. It thus ceases to be pure art and becomes, instead didactic.

In Mythic Worlds, Modern Words: Joseph Campbell on the Art of James Joyce (The Collected Works of Joseph Campbell) we read (p.21):
Pornagraphic art is art that excites desire, It is not proper art. If you see a picture of a dear old lady, for example, and you think, "What a lovely old soul! I'd love to have a cup of tea with her" -- that is pornography. You are exciting desire for a relationship to the object. Or you open a magazine and see a picture of a refrigerator and a beautiful girl standing beside it and smiling, and you think, "I would love to have a refrigerator like that." This is not art, Joyce says, it is pornography. ... Another type of improper art is art critical of society, art in the service of sociology. Such art excites loathing, and Joyce calls it "didactic art." Those who produce such art I call "didactic pornographers."
In an earlier post, I told of my realization that all classifications are subjective, and while the objective existence of a series of coins can be easily proven, attempts to classify specimens in groups must always be subjective. There is the whole and then there are individual examples. We can extend this to culture. To be precise, we can say that the word can be defined, and it is something that is expressed by all human beings, yet as soon as we decide to subdivide culture we can only objectively do so by presenting each individual. To be practical, however, we have to attempt some sort of classification and that is quite alright providing that we make no claims about their existence as an objective reality. Martí's ideas about cultural frames preserves the honesty of the objective method as we can find no two people who share, exactly, the same set of cultural frames.

The most subjective and unscientific expression of culture is that of a nation. UNESCO takes it one step further by trying to unite separate nations with singular agreements concerning the components of culture and the individual is thus utterly negated.. We can, of course, objectively prove that individuals do exist as no two people share the same dna. If we attempt to circumvent this situation by defining any living entity as a set of genes, then it is possible to find applications in this genetic make-up, but we run the great risk of disaster because nature is so much more. Unfortunately, our errors do not come to light until after the fact. The success and survival of anything depends on diversity, so when I hear of the possibility that agreements about cultural property as defined by nationalism are dependent on agreements about genetic modification, I see only extinctions. But cheer up, life will persist! It does not have to be human, but it will always consist of individuals.

Tomorrow: How UNESCO can prevent the advancement of our species through education.

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