Friday, August 31, 2007

83. Cultural Equity

As I mentioned last time, I'm planning at least one post, or maybe a series, as a collaboration. The idea was to do some writing on cultural equity and then hand the result over to my collaborator (who will remain a mystery man for now). The problem is that, as usual, I've gotten involved in a long argument that needs a bit more elaboration before my collaborator can be expected to sink his teeth into it with any degree of relish, and contribute meaningfully from his own area of expertise: indigenous rights. So please excuse this non-collaborative post, which will eventually, I hope, morph into the promised collaboration.

As I mentioned in the previous post, Alan Lomax founded the Association for Cultural Equity in 1983. In 1996, after he suffered two debilitating strokes, his daughter, Dr. Anna Lomax Wood, took over the helm and has very devotedly and capably directed it since. For more on this still very active organization, with which I’ve been associated for the last few years, I urge you to check out their remarkably rich and impressive website: Here is an excerpt from their mission statement:

ACE’s mission is to facilitate cultural equity through cultural feedback, the lifelong goal that inspired Alan Lomax’s career and for which the Library of Congress called him a Living Legend. Cultural feedback is an approach to research and public use that provides equity for the people whose music and oral traditions were until recently unrecorded and unrecognized. Cultural equity is the end result of collecting, archiving, repatriating and revitalizing the full range and diversity of the expressive traditions of the world’s people . . .
While Lomax saw cultural equity in terms of justice and equality, I wonder whether he also considered that other meaning of the term “equity,” the one that’s used when we invest in a stock. As he had strong socialist sympathies, this notion, with its capitalist overtones, may not have appealed to him. But aren’t the traditions Lomax championed a kind of equity in that sense as well, as a sort of “common stock” in which our ancestors have been investing since the dawn of humanity, and in which we all share an interest? In that case, what’s at stake is not only a matter of fairness, equal justice for all modes of cultural expression, as important as that surely is, but the preservation of a common heritage, that infinitely precious cultural “equity” of incalculable value to every living human being. As Lomax implies several times in his essay, there is a strong analogy at work linking our efforts to preserve the natural environment, all but universally applauded, with the need for similar efforts on the cultural front, equally important for the well being of our human environment, but unfortunately far less well understood.

If the revisionists of the Kalahari debate are right, then there is no such “equity” to be preserved. If, in the words of Wilmsen and Denbow, “'Bushmen' and 'San' are invented categories and 'Kalahari foragers' an ethnographic reification”; if, as now seems the prevailing ideology among all suitably “postmodern” anthropologists, there is no such thing as “indigenous peoples” at all; if, in fact, the whole idea of culture itself must be understood as an unfortunate illusion, a social construct of dubious value; then what we really have is a relentless process akin, as Lomax suggests, to social Darwinism, in which, since the beginning of life itself, the weakest must inevitably give way to the strongest with the result that only the strongest will survive, to the benefit of all future life forms.

This does indeed seem to have become the prevailing ideology in the field of ethnomusicology, which now sees music as subject to processes of continual change, in force from time immemorial, through which all those traditional forms so beloved by misguided “purists” must inevitably, as has always been the case, give way to those innovations which prove most successful among later generations. To give one example out of a great many that could be cited, here is Michelle Kisliuk’s response to Lomax, from her book on the music of the Aka Pygmies, Sieze the Dance: “Despite Lomax’s good intentions . . . , a study of aesthetics not grounded in lived moments, in the agency of real people, and positioned in terms of the biases of particular researchers, inevitably risks reifying what is by nature specific and ever-changing” (p. 147).

What gives the game away in this case is the word “nature.” All the formidable evidence marshaled by Lomax (and so many others) in support of the notion that certain things may indeed have remained essentially unchanged over countless generations is discounted, and an untested assumption elevated into an eternal truth, by the authority of nature itself! Since “nature” has decreed that all things are “specific and ever-changing,” then all attempts at generalization can be dismissed as “reifications,” continual change from one musical style to another is “only natural,” and thus it is a mistake to argue for either indigenous rights or the preservation of musical traditions. Of course Kisliuk doesn’t really believe all that, as is clear from just about every page of her excellent book, where she continually marvels at the strength and beauty of Aka traditions and defends their indigenous music and belief system against the inroads of over-zealous missionaries: “But the sounds coming at me – loud, forced, unison voices with banging drums – finally so appalled me that I had to escape” (p. 155).

A similar problem was encountered by a man for whom I have always had infinite respect, my beloved teacher and mentor, the late David McAllester, whose essay “The Astonished Ethno-Muse” (Ethnomusicology, vol. 23, no. 2, 1979), a paean to the “one great constant in human culture – which is change,” was especially influential in turning the ideological tide of musical ethnology. McAllester woke up one day to realize that the Navaho people, in whose traditions he’d immersed himself, had, for the last twenty years, been ignoring these traditions in favor of the likes of Waylon Jennings and Don Williams. Country and Western, along with Rock, had become as popular among the Navaho as in the nation at large. A trip to Australia, where “Country and Western is the current popular music of both urban Aboriginals and those on the reserves,” confirmed the revelation. This quickly led to another “awakening,” the realization that “all music is ethnic music . . . We are so captivated by the panpipes in the hawthorns that we hardly hear the music on the TV show in the living room.”

McAllester’s call for a new kind of awareness among ethnomusicologists made a great deal of sense at a time when the field was indeed getting all too bogged down in a narrow and ultimately self defeating absorption in the minutiae of the esoteric and remote at the expense of that which was current, lively and popular, yet all too easily – and unfairly -- taken for granted by the scholarly world. Nevertheless, his core argument comes dangerously close to exactly what Lomax had warned against -- social Darwinism:

After all our impulses to cherish and protect, we should realize that human culture is not a flower with fragile petals ready to drop at the first frosty touch of a new idea. Culture is more like an irresistible plague, pandemic to humankind. New ideas are the food it feeds on, and these can no more be stopped than the perpetuation of life itself (p. 181).
But what if certain specific cultures were in fact fragile flowers, which were indeed dropping at the “frosty touch” of new, more popular, and more powerfully connected, ideas? I wonder whether David really thought through the consequences of what he was writing here, because the Navaho traditions that meant so much to him were in fact, along with so many other, equally fragile, yet important, traditions, dropping to the ground all too quickly, as he himself cheerfully reports. Was that really his point, that the demise of certain traditions doesn’t really matter, because something he refers to as “culture” (talk about a reification!) is healthy enough to roll over all such impediments and ruthlessly (“like an irresistible plague”) perpetuate itself through some variant of Darwin’s basic principle: survival of the fittest?

No comments: