Tuesday, 30 August 2016

The "cultural heritage" group neurosis 18: Fuzzy culture

Sometimes, life imitates art and after writing yesterday's post I saw a Google alert in my mailbox about UNESCO and the Strange Career of Multiculturalism in the LA Review of Books and after reading it remembered my favourite scene in Woody Allen's Annie Hall. Apparently, life sometimes is like that.

I titled this episode "Fuzzy culture" not just because of the boundless aspects of culture, but because of fuzzy logic where variables are weighted in various forms of artificial intelligence and elsewhere. The problem in AI, is that it is not artificial at all and really just reflects the opinions and viewpoint of the person writing the code. The results could well vary, person to person. When I built my first expert system, expert systems were part of AI, but in an expert system journal paper, it was suggested that expert systems should be removed from the category of AI because they worked (when Boolean) while AI did not work (at least if practically committed to its title). Boolean systems work because they are applied to things that do not change: Is/is not works very well in mechanistic systems and classical logic but not so well in social systems or in quantum physics and transdisciplinarity.

In the LARB article we see many problems with various "cultural heritage" policies because not only is culture's "fuzziness" not recognized but policies and fuzziness are contrary to each other. We think of the saying: "A camel is a horse designed by a committee."

The ethnocentric/nationalist ideas of culture are not only academically circling the drain but they allow and propagate quite a number of injustices to various cultural frames and the compromises that are made, at best, only please the group who is making them. Sometimes. no one is pleased at all. Even cultural frames can have various embedded attitudes that can vary and the spread of cultural influences is also very fuzzy, as you see in the article:

"Clifford Geertz redefined culture as the web of signs and signifiers (or “twitches, winks, fake-winks,” and “burlesqued winks”) that envelop and entangle us. Writing in 1986, George Marcus and James Clifford argued that culture was a set of political strategies inseparable from the contexts in which they are deployed, therefore implicating anthropologists in the very “cultures” they seek to explain. By 1991, sociologist Janet Abu-Lughod was questioning whether scholars could use the word “culture” rigorously at all without being implicated in a politics that exoticized non-Western others. In his influential Modernity at Large (1996), Arjun Appadurai asserted that the adjectival form “cultural” remained useful but that the countable noun, “culture/cultures,” should be rejected as a dangerous reification."
Janet Abu-Lughod's statement, while applied to "non-Western others" could be expanded to include some situations within the west and within multiple cultural frames at that. We also have many problems with the differences between living cultural frames and the cultural frames now extinct in their original form but continuing in their influences within groups and individuals. As culture is an evolutionary process, fixing it with policies also destroys it to a greater or lesser degree and the motives of policy makers and those who support them are frequently self-serving. Sometimes, the very opposite result to its ideals is what results.

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