California Literary Review

Archival Culture(s)

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March 26th, 2007 at 4:46 pm

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It is scarcely news that in a vast, pluralistic country like the United States, minorities should feel themselves threatened with absorption into the larger society, and that they should cling to some form of cultural identity. It begins poignantly when school children pledge allegiance to “ … one nation, indivisible, with freedom and justice for all.” Or used to. Experience, however, suggests that this ideal remains but an ideal after 200 years, and ethnic groups stubbornly identify themselves by their language, music and dance, art, religious practice, “traditional” cuisine and (holiday) costumes. Ethnicity, if it is not language, education, or religion that differentiates a group from our English-speaking society, has been politically conflated with “race,” and the identification of race with “culture” throws up unfortunate consequences.

On one hand it raises questions of adaptation and assimilation; on the other, it evokes nostalgias reinforced by the pressure of prejudice and racism for lost “homelands” beyond the seas or south of the border and through the entire southern hemisphere. Worse, when a group feels its cohesion threatened and fears the loss of its cultural identity, its anxiety seeks comfort in “traditions,” although their preservation detached from their native landscape is usually a ritualized observance, self-conscious, and often absurd. For the individual, the price of confusion over identity can be steep.

Most struggles to maintain ethnic identity through “cultural” activities display a synthetic quality; they are would-be, and lack vitality. Nostalgia yields kitsch, stereotypes exploited for trade and tourism, pop variations ad infinitum in music, costume, fashionably dressed in political, commercial cliché. Worse, criticism of the productions of “cultural entities” can be risky, compromised by hypocrisy and bad faith, which vitiates standards. How do you review an incompetent theatrical performance, when it has been supported by a corporate grant to a repertory theater that is obliged to mount plays funded by such grants, in order to qualify for municipal monies allocated to satisfy minorities’ political demands for representation? The aspiration of minorities for economic opportunity and political equality is turned into instruments that suppress critical thought when their cultural expression is confused with the demand for social justice. Most of what was the theater of ideas during the past century, for example, has devolved into slick agit-prop for very narrow ideologues, including movies and television, and the “hundred flowers” of porno-fashion ads.

When, as today, large numbers of individuals from minority groups seek to attain higher levels of education and enter a professional class, the question of “culture” can be painful. The necessity to acquire fluency in the dominant American culture in order to rise above the poverty of the urban ethnic enclave entails the dilution, if not destruction of an individual’s ethnic and racial legacy. Indeed, there may be no imminent, let alone reasonable solution to the dilemma of the minority individual who, despite a superior education afforded by our egalitarian mores, seeks to remain ensconced in ways of home and family, even while challenged with integration into the class-structure of Western society of a post-industrial, media-homogenized, consumerist country.

Because the culture of our larger society is by and large white and commercially-driven, including the latest rapsters and their globalizing clones, the present generation of ethnics strives to find cultural preservation in the university environment, which has been under pressure for thirty years to admit all the diversities, so to speak. In consequence, what has been achieved is largely the intellectualized product of “culture” resurrected from records. An “archival” culture, however, has something of Dr. Frankenstein’s monster about it; it may revenge itself on the society that created it.

How does higher education in California cope with the problems raised by the demands of minorities? The University of California, which consists of 10 separate, autonomous universities, has declared that the “knowledge and awareness of the history, roles, culture and contributions of ethnic groups in the development of California and the nation are essential components of an undergraduate education …. ” Furthermore, it wants to say that while “California bears a strong orientation to European civilization … it is also oriented — historically, geographically, economically, and culturally — to the Asian and Latin American Worlds in a way that most of the United States is not.”

How is this principal put in obscurantist academese?

“Campuses should develop curricular change and other policies that enhance the international, multicultural, and global learning experi­ence of students…[because] California is a multi-racial and multi-ethnic community that is continually fed by new ethnic groups that grow at a rate far greater than that of the population at large. The presence of ethnic groups makes of California complex society where linguistic and cultural traits are maintained while the members of these groups attempt to participate fully in mainstream cultural activities. The maintenance of linguistic and cultural practices distinct from those of the larger population should not be seen as disloyal or conflictual, but as complementary and enriching.”

At UCLA, for example, we established in the 1960’s four Centers for the study of four major groups: the Afro-American Studies Center, the Chicano Studies Center, the Native American Studies Center, and the Asian-American Studies Center. These Centers were created as a response to the militancy of students during the ’60’s and ’70’s. Their activities are meant to provide bases for the production of documents to support a cultural awareness in general among the student population. The question, however, remains: Why should a Mexican-American, Japanese-American, Chinese, Indian, or even an Afro-American with 400 years of native-born ancestry, for instance, have to learn in school about his or her own history and culture? The answer may be because those histories and cultures have become increasingly etiolated as families or individuals, uprooted or emigrating from their origin elsewhere, grow remote in space and time from their beginnings. Exotic village cultures are as lost as the era before World War II. Our various “cultures” today exist in scattered regional enclaves, but principally in records maintained in the university libraries of our archival civilization. The cultural power that students dream of finding or saving is something (re)imagined in poetry and fiction, or in poetry (re)constructed from a fading oral tradition and recorded by curators and ethnologists who imagine themselves poets.

Or else you find that large language classes in Japanese, for example, are attended by only a handful of Caucasians, the rest being Japanese-Americans who have no need to learn the grammar of a language still spoken at home. Easy “A” grades for them.

The University expects, rather hopefully,

“to develop ethnic courses and integrate them more fully into the general education component of an undergraduate education … [since] the lack of knowledge about ethnicity in general, and of the ethnic groups that likely will make up the majority of the state’s population by the turn of the century, has created an atmosphere of serious misunderstanding, an atmosphere that is the pathway to misconceptions, stereotyped characterizations, prejudice, discrimi­nation and oppression…. [T]he history of the experiences and ex­pressions of ethnic groups … is .. .knowledge vital to the understanding of contemporary California society and indispensable for the improvement of the lives of minorities. Such knowledge is best gained through formal presentation of material in … structure[d] course[s].”

All that is anxious, wishful thinking. Ethnics, whether Chinese or Egyptian Arab, may study social anthropology in order to learn about what they once were, or for greater self-awareness, or as a means of therapy, a way to bolster self-esteem or restore pride in their lost past, as if the ghosts of vanished societies can be redemptive. A sharp thinker once wrote, “The past is a foreign country.” Emerson put it perfectly when he said of a museum exhibiting dummies dressed in the clothes of his grandparents’ day, that it was lifeless, lacking the brilliant gleam of a living eye. But students intent on acquiring the knowledge they need for professional life — engineers, business majors, science majors — are seldom interested in the Humanities, let alone Ethnic Studies, since they realize that knowledge is acquired to increase a person’s economic viability and autonomy in today’s swiftly-changing technocratic society.

It may be hypocritical to assert that courses dealing with ethnicity are designed to foster what is imagined by university professors to be “culture.” As the product of two generations of neo-Marxist teachers, the idea of teaching ethnicity is not very different from the “folk” cultures fostered under Stalinist bureaucracy. Ethnic Studies might be educationally useful for some white Americans of what is disingenuously termed our “mainstream culture,” since perforce they know little or nothing about the ethnic groups proliferating in their midst. Conceivably such courses could be helpful in accommodating social tensions because they afford a democratic means of political manipulation, for supporting “culture.” Notwithstanding, Ethnic Studies is quintessentially a university notion: it mistakes documents for reality. And providing an Ethnic Studies center or department is your typical administrative device for defusing the unhappiness of minorities in a pluralistic society headed always towards the Western achievement (eclectic only in dress, music, arts, and cuisine). It is also a vicious product of the ignorance and anxiety of our school bureaucrats — scientists and sociologists — for, by politicizing scholarship, it avoids critical thought about values. In essence, our Ethnic Studies centers exist to placate political demands; unfortunately, academics rush to develop and elaborate courses of study that are products of their long hours of lucubration in a library … or surfing the worldwide web’s inchoate cloaca of unfiltered documents.

And, what sorts of “culture” do they promote? Apart from open-air dance and music at the noon hour, together with stands offering samples of “ethnic cuisine” for luncheons on the grass, and corridors of tables, behind which stand students and others proselytizing religions from everywhere, arts and crafts, advertising, clothes, documentary films, they feature a culture constituted, rather re-constituted, by academics and students. It may not be “authentic”; yet it is not altogether ersatz; rather, mere quasi-kitsch, and not irredeemably commercial. The Getty Museum of Los Angeles, to maintain some public for its limited collections of art, and aping the sort of shows found in our natural history museums, has gone into the same business since 2000.

Which isn’t surprising, since what is reflected by society is first developed and manifest in our colleges and universities. “Culture” today means consumer items in the form of handicrafts; museum exhibitions; and most commonly, “folk” performances; in short, “showbiz.” Such are the products of our archival approach to the ways of all the other worlds that once were and are no longer, or exist in resurrections by the archæologist, dressed-up and preserved for makers of tv “documentaries,” or tourists venturing forth an hour or two from a cruise ship.

  • Leslie Kitchen

    Knowledge is meaningful to the person who wants to acquire it. That desire has an emotional base. The act of accumulating and sharing the knowledge is values-laden. This business of delivering magisterial statements denigrating the correctness of the emotions and values of others is obnoxious and deeply, sadly divisive. It stems from a sense of cultural superiority that is only alive in the author’s imagination.

    It is obvious from this and other writings that Mr. Kessler possesses a fine intelligence. It should also be noted that he often writes with great passion. An essay such as this, however, serves as an example of the insuffiency of intelligence and passion when unaccompanied by the greater clarity that could be provided if authors such as Mr. Kessler could leaven their thoughts with more generous portions of empathy and decency.

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