Friday, October 03, 2008

SOME QUESTIONS CONCERNING CULTURE: Circa December 2000

QUESTION

Discuss one of the two definitions of culture. What are the elements that distinguish a cultural/ethnic subgroup? Using the Cornel West reading to illustrate, what were some of the distinctive “elements” of culture passed on to Charlene Hunter-Gault and Harry Belafonte? What effect did the process and agents of transmission have on their current behavior and belief systems?

Drawing from from Betancourt and Lopez quoted in Rohnez (1984), culture is defined as “a highly variable systems of meanings… learned and shared by a people of an identifiable segment of a population… designs and other way of life… transmitted from one generation to another”; a definition consistent with Herkovit’s (1945) concept of “culture as human-made part of the environment”.

Such a definition is essentialist in character in which the systems of meaning connotes the existence of a body of knowledge; in the postmodern context can be defined as a “grand narrative” and echoing Elkin and Handel and many a cultural anthropologist contains sources of information, knowledge, wisdom historical in character and systemic and phenomenological in nature to be passed down through agencies of socialization so that the junior members of society (in Deweyian terms) can utilize the narrative for their effective and efficient functioning in the society. By “people of an identifiable segment of a population” it is meant to denote a group of human beings (in French term natio, i.e. people) who share similar physical characteristics, ethos, norms, values and language among others and those who share somewhat common historical tradition or cultural “roots” as such as the peoples of Ibo, Yoruba, Yaqui, Iloqanos, Malays, Shan, Kachin, Sioux, Serbs, Celts, and many more. Thus, “people” within the definition of culture offered by Betancourt and Lopez can be distinguished from one another even within the parameters of discussion of the modern nation state in which cultural groups/races may coexist under a political governmental arrangement aligned via pluralistic structurality.

It is to be noted that although this is a flow of information from one generation to another which can be characterized within the essentialist framework of information dissemination top-down, cultural traditions as defined as such can be modified and reinterpreted according to the political, social, economic and technological development of the particular milieu. The core culture would however remain intact (presumably), passed down as highly coded information of which creativity in interpretation of the values may be guarded by the senior members of the society in order for cultural tradition to remain preserved intergenerationally.

Illustrations of the grand narrative of the cultural traditions or coded information passed down from generations might be in the case of wisdom from so-called great books of world’s religious and philosophical tradition such as The Ramayana, Mahabhatta, and The Bhagavad Gita to the Hindus, the I Ching, The Tao Te Ching, and The Analects from Chinese philosophers to generations of Chinese, or the narratives from the four gospels of Jesus of Nazareth passed down to Christians – all these represent knowledge/information designed to be passed down from generation to generation through a variety of media such as parables, drama, music, shadow plays, kabuki theatres , etc. Although the grand narrative used as illustrated above may be argued to be religious texts, I believe that they “speak”, originally to distinct cultural group with claimed universal message in that the antagonists and protagonists, the crisis, conflict, climax, conclusions and lessons which can be drawn from them utilizes specific cultural contexts within the particular milieu. Thus the Hindu texts are rich with imagery of ancient India, the Chinese grand narratives are written with pastoral ancient Chinese civilizations as backdrop, and Jesus’ gospels are stories or parables set in the ancient land of Israel.

Whilst Betancourt and Lopez noted the complexity of the definition of culture and equally so the “interchangeability of the definition with that of “ethnicity,” they argue that “being part of an ethnic group can also determine … [one’s cultural belongingness ]… and [as]… members of an ethnic group interact with each other, ethnicity becomes a means by which culture is transmitted”. The authors also noted that the elements which distinguish a cultural/ethnic subgroup are i) nationality ii) culture and iii) language.

I’ve always believed that culture of a people is the soul of a people. And it expresses their highest hopes and aspirations. And in that hope, and in that aspiration, there is a political statement” so said Harry Belafonte in an interview with Cornel West in which Belafonte alluded to some of the elements passed down onto him. A critical reading of the interview text would reveal that the artiste derived his cultural influence from the wisdom of his mother, the technologically and ideologically incorrect image of Tarzan on Television, his environment that is Jamaica, the politically liberating image of the Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie driving the Germans away, Marcus Garvey, and his life long education is search of the meaning of Black liberation though diverse and intensive readings, friendship with Paul Robeson, and his perception on class division and cultural industry among contemporary African-America people. Essentially, Belafonte’s concept of art is arts de l’engage (committed art) as opposed to art de l’arte (art for art’s sake) has guided his belief as an artist committed to the struggle for liberation of the oppressed Afro-American. The effect of all these have made him an individual who believe that through his art (songs, movies, etc.) he could enlighten his people of the imperativeness of looking at the situation of Black oppression through class consciousness and the perversion of culture manipulated by those who owes the means of (cultural) production. I was attracted by his criticism of Black expression as embodied in late twentieth century music in which he said:

And those who are paid to do it, who want to live and got on the air and have money. It is a catch-22. Everybody’s caught in a circle of self-destruction. (p.19)

And in relating the Catch-22 phenomena with monopoly capitalism, Belafonte observed what Black culture has come to evolve into:

I think black culture as it sits in America, and as it sits in other places in the diaspora, is under the greatest onslaught of negativity that has ever existed because of what monopoly capital is doing to control all the forces that buy and sell art, and determine the tastes of the public, and instruct and condition people in a way (George) Orwell didn’t quite imagine… Because technology in the hands of oppressor is the new legacy to domination in the future. (p.18)

The illustrations above characterize Belafonte’s perception of what the future of the Afro-American man/woman would be like; a perception somewhat pessimistic and largely critical based upon a political-economic class analysis, derived from his cultural historical background as an immigrant of Jamaican roots. It is not to say that Belafonte is through and through dismal in his outlook; it is important to note that his critical view and the culture industry, crypto-capitalism, pseudo-consciousness of the Black youth and technological control are in itself relevant for those concerned in the struggle for liberation to look at structural changes necessary to address and act upon the injustices. We see quite a different view of those issues in Charlene Hunter-Gault’s analysis.

“We’ve got to bring up a generation of young people who think of themselves as kings and queens and little black princes and princesses. Because when you think of yourself in that way, you carry yourself a certain way” (p.83) so said Hunter-Gault at the end of her interview with Cornel West; a powerful statement positive in its undertone derived from a lifetime of upbringing by parents whom she attributed to have given her the “armor” and “the coat of-arms” she has since worn like a red badge of courage.

Particularly remarkable is the story of how her father put so much emphasis on her “first rate mind” which cannot produce anything less than an A in her grades and how this strict sense of importance in education has carried her a long way into making her think like a highly intelligent “princess” and “queen” and to give her the gift of passing on to others the motivation and imperativeness of thinking of oneself as kings and queens. One of my favorite songs by an Afro-American princess, Whitney Houston is “The Greatest Love of All” which clearly echo Hunter-Gault’s message and one which I constantly use in my training workshops on human motivation.

She looked at the plight of the Afro-American people as something which can be changed and in fact is changing for the better albeit analysis of the predicament have often painted the situation as dead-end. Hunter-Gault takes prides in seeing the Afro-American coming out of slavery into evolvingly participating in the political and economic life of a Middle America. She sees positive happenings in the music industry and believes that there will be a time when black and white will become equal partners in global economics. She is futuristic in her outlook, not allowing a great deal of the past to haunt her in her analysis of society.

Unlike Belafonte who educated himself and look at the class condition as primary in the struggle, Hunter Gault had parents who helped her instill the necessity of “being the best and nothing less” and acknowledged that although there is certainly class distinction in Black and White America, one need not dwell in the past but look at the future through building and strengthening the “armor” within. Thus, she believed that:

“If you think of yourself as a victim, you go down on the street looking like a victim, with your head down instead of up. And that’s what we’ve got to do. Have our young people watching around with their heads up and their eyes on the future.” (p.83)

I learned a great deal from the two powerful perspectives on the Afro-American people echoed by the equally powerful personalities in Belafonte and Hunter-Gault. In them are powerful messages regarding how one can be socialized in the same culture yet having differing outlook in how culture should evolve.

QUESTION

Why do we think of race as a social construct instead of a biological reality? Discuss an ethnic group that has been racialized over the past 30 years. What do you think of this practice?

The conceptualization of race as a social construct instead of a biological reality is beginning to be a popular research-focus phenomena in the study of race, ethnicity, and culture because of a growing body of research which is suggesting that physical and genetic characteristics in such conceptions have its limitations. As written by Betancourt

and Lopez (1993), the study of race, culture, and ethnicity is beginning to be perceived as more scientific if there is an inbreeding of cross-cultural research with the fields of socio-economic research and psychology; the latter as a field which has tremendous potentials for explanatory insights when interdisciplined with comparative findings in cross-cultural research.

Betancourt and Lopez (1993) in “The Study of culture, ethnicity, and race in American psychology,” is arguing for a new theoretical framework which goes beyond the paradigm of biological construction and limitations of experimental psychology and the multitude of research on the sociological and comparative cultural limitations of the studies in race, ethnicity, and culture. They believed that the professional and scientific ethical status of mainstream psychology (presumably essentially “white” in orientation and ideology) can be enhanced with contributions it can make cross-culturally to “ethnic psychology” using experimental methods of the field.

Conceptualizing race as essentially a biological construct and advancing claims using those parameters can be a limiting act in theoretical frameworking as genetic arguments of “superiority in intelligence” for example is beginning to be debunked because of current research status which identified the “dubiousness” of looking at racial differences based upon physical and genetic characteristics. As quoted by Betancourt and Lopez (1993):


the classification of people in groups designated as races has been criticized

as arbitrary, suggesting that the search for differences between such groups

is at best dubious. … specifically there are more within-group differences in

the characteristics used to define … races. (p.91)

The authors used extensive arguments to advance the view that scientific findings in the medical field that in a study of Caucasoid, Negroid, and Mongoloid of their genetic systems, it was found that “differences between individuals within the same tribe or nation account for more variance (84%) than do racial groupings (10%)”. (p.91)

“Theory in ethnic minority “ research is thus proposed as a hybrid of fields merging sociology, psychology, and cross-cultural research fashioned then, into an experimental (measurable) orientation so that this new perspective will professionally and ethically move beyond dubious and delimiting biological constructs. As the authors note, it is only with this theoretical nature that the study of race, culture, and ethnicity will help mainstream American psychology become inevitably, more credible.

The discussion of race and the racialization process as a social construct with particular reference to an ethnic or immigrant subgroup’s Americanization over the last decades can best, I believe, be illustrated by the case of South Asian and Arab Muslims who have been Americanized beginning in the 1960s when the racialization and the Americanization process for them began. As ethnic or immigrant subgroups which are varied within their South Asian and Arabic (Middle Eastern) stocks, they migrated to the United States first by identifying themselves as either South Asian and Arabic Muslims but thirty years after their descendents can aptly be called American Muslims of Indian or Arabic descend. Thirty years of racialization and socialization process in one have undeniably add to their

character the “American” dimension as such as what happened when the waves of immigrants from Europe first set foot on the shores of America hundreds of years ago or when the Africans were brought to the plantation fields in the 1700s.

By race or ethnic group, Muslims in America have grown from 0.4% of the total United States population from 1970s to the year 2000. By race or ethnic group too the composition of Muslims is such that South Asians constitute 2.4%, Arabs 12.4%. others 21.2% and African Americans 42.0%. (Newsweek, March 16, 1998, p.35). Perhaps the opening paragraph of a feature article on the Americanization of an Arab best illustrate the nature of racialization over thirty years of an immigrant subgroup:

In El Cerrito, Calif. Shaheed Amanullah knows its time to pray, not by

a muezzin’s call from a mosque minaret, but because his Power Mac has

chimed. A verse from the Koran hangs by his futon. Near the bookcases –

lined with copies of Wired magazine and Jack Kerouc novels – lies a red

Arabian prayer rug. There’s a plastic compass sewn into the carpet, its needle

pointing towards Mecca. At the programmed call, Amanullah begins his

prayers, the same time as those recited across the globe – form the Gaza strip

to Samarkand. (p.135)

While racial socialization has been happening since the day the South Asians or Arabs first migrated in waves as subgroups, enculturation into the American culture has also taken shape. In the process, however, something which goes beyond ethnicity, i.e. religious being-ness, form the basis of spiritual strength underlying the social construction of being-ness and existence of these subgroups.

What is relevant in answering the question of practice of socialization -- be they of South Asian, Arabs, or the Afro-American Muslims – is that prior to becoming American Muslims, there is an identification of racial subgroups such as South Asians, Arabs and Afro-Americans although the ancestors of these groups can be traced to have come from a multitude of ethnic groups from their motherlands; South Asians from various Asian subgroups, Arabs from a multitude of tribal groups and Afro-Americans from a descendent of different ethnic groups of Africa. Racialization then first occurs in America wherein their multitudeness converges into “South Asians”, “Arabs” and “Afro-Americans” with religion – a “cosmopolitan ecclesiastical construct” – binding them spiritually.

The practice of racialization I think for whatever historical reason it has come to evolve into, is a positive one in that the American constitution can and has been providing these racial groups the guarantee for freedom to practice their faith; perhaps in ways much better than they would have enjoyed in their respective motherlands. It can perhaps give the younger generation of these racial subgroups to prove that their religion cannot necessarily be equated with violence, extremism, and terrorism as popularized the “free media” of the capitalist world. America, “the land of the free”, can be a fertile and productive ground for such a chance of racialization.

QUESTION

What is cultural essentialism? Do you believe in this concept? Do you think cultural essentialism helps or hurts the cause of unity? Using the readings and class discussions, construct arguments for and against cultural essentialism.

In looking at the question of cultural essentialism, the arguments for and against it, on whether adherence to this concept divides or unites, and lastly to offer my own view on this important concept, I begin with the general statement that “cultural essentialism’ is the belief that in every civilized society or a cultural group, there exist a core culture which governs the “life sustaining” forces of that particular culture. From the core, moral or religious doctrines are derived, cosmological view or metaphysical conception is drawn, knowledge base is founded, principles and ethos are constructed, and socializing agents as cultural values transmitters are established so that the core culture can continue to be passed down from one generation to the next in order for society to be maintained of its order and harmony although technological, political, economic, and ideological winds of change may be sweeping seasonally into the house that the core culture is living in.

Peter J. Paris called it “religious social ethics” in which whose “goal has been that of providing a framework for a moral theory that fits the relevant historical data.” (p.162). In summarizing his work on the core value of the African people necessary to be rediscovered by the Afro-Americans, Paris called for a systematic transference of essential ideas about the culture; ideas which fit into the definition of a moral theory:

[A] moral theory of virtue requires a set of social conditions that will

facilitate the realization of its desired ends namely, the development of

morally virtuous people. In other words, moral development is dependent

on a community’s capacity to facilitate it. If for any reason a community

fails to provide an environment that is conducive for the development of

moral virtues the converse will certainly occur. That is to say, the moral

character of the community will be reflected in the moral development of

its children. (p.162)

We can discern through the quote above, albeit brief, the essential tenet of the core culture theory; a grand narrative to be passed down for cultural preservation. Paris’ illustration of the core cultural theory above can also be equated with those of Charles Taylor’s in Multiculturalism particularly in his the latter’s view on the “politics of recognition” as in the case of the French Canadians, to a certain extent Harry Belafonte’s view and in the preaching of many an Afro-American religious leader as such as Marcus Garvey and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

If we construct arguments against cultural essentialism, we may be faced with a problematic spin. On the other hand, by rejecting entirely the value of tradition and grand narratives sacredly guarded by the elders, we may be denying the essence of the religious social ethics inherent in them. On the other hand, by becoming an advocate of this concept, we may deny the ability of our postmodern self to utilize the power of our mind to deconstruct the excesses of traditional values and limit our ability to create newer paradigms; designing our own history and experimenting with personal narratives of the subaltern genre. In summary, there are positive aspects of essentialism which can be allowed to survive as much as there are excesses which must be made to die off.

My arguments unfavorable to core culture theory is that whilst values such as honesty, piety, religiosity, industriousness, peacefulness, and harmony must at all cost be guarded and transmitted, the ritualistic, paganistic, and “linguistic gatekeeping’ aspects of cultural essentialism must be destroyed in order for irrationalisms in the core values be withered. If cultural essentialism means taking in faith and practice the ritualistic, ultra-denominational, racist, communitarian, and ideological aspect of religion for example to the extent of breeding hatred against others in the world we ought to share as living space, then the religious/cultural texts or doctrines of essentialism must be reanalyzed and deconstructed. If core culture means bowing down to rulers – religious and political – however corrupted they may be, then such essentialism must be demystified so that rulers as such can be overthrown. If essentialism means bowing down to man-made objects mistaken as God’s representation whereas worshipping must first be made onto oneself wherein the Forces within reign, then paganistic essentialism as such ought to be rejected. Did not God created human beings in God’s own image which means that whatever the image we carry as human beings must contain God’s attributes to be “rediscovered”, “reconstructed, “re-destroyed” and continually reconstructed then?

In such a conception of the Self, should not the case be that one need to worship one’s Inner Self which contains Inner Beauty, Love, Harmony, Peace, and the message of Sages and prophets within culminating in the so-called Image of God? I believe in this postmodern metaphysical concept of essentialism; that there are never-ending cycles and veils of interpretation of the Essence in oneself, the Inner Conscience, beyond any cultural and archetypal symbols to be passed down from one generation to another. If Jesus is Love and Moses is Deliverance and Adam is the Father, how do we find meaning within these concepts and bring them “closer to our jugular vein” so that we may not merely in the pure Essentialist tradition, continue to believe that the stories in the Bible are stories of the peoples who live in times uncharted by modern history. We can then find the beauty in the story of Creation as it will be unveiled to us by the day in front of our eyes within our own conscious self in a subaltern narrative form – and not of one story of creation which is at odds with Einstein’s conception of the birth of universe.

By bringing ourselves to such an understanding of essentialism thus, -- one which is beyond cultural domain and ritualistic- paganistic advocacies – we may find that it ought to unite more than divide for the question then, must no longer be differences in some tribalistic “religious moral ethics” but one which is living, growing, and life-affirming within the universe of personal existence called “The Self”. If there is the belief that we begin with Adam and Eve, we as a family of human beings must return to Perfection. Between Adam and such Perfection, in my conception of essentialism, must lie the Evolving Self – one which lives not solely in the past nor in the future, but imperatively in the ever-changing present!

QUESTION

Some would argue that music is an “essential” element in understanding the culture of subgroups. If so, what is hip hop and how does it help us understand about the populations from which this artistic expression originates? According to our guest speakers, and the readings, what is one of the current struggles faced by the hip hop community and how does this struggle reflect a broader issue in Black/Latino communities?

Hip hop, as defined by Mr. Pee Wee and Mr. James Moody is “Black and Latino manifestation of oppressed creativity” and claimed to be a culture in itself which originate two decades ago in Harlem, New York City and one which has undergone transformations and reinterpretations as well as a tug-of-war between “old and new” schools. The cultural producers and self-proclaimed originators cautioned us to differentiate between hip hop and rap of which the latter is a “white manifestation of hip hop to package and sell”. In hip hop contains the cultural manifestations of dancing, emcee-ing, deejay-ing, and graffiti drawing. From it evolves a temple, a high priest in the making perhaps, disciples, documentation of history, distinctness of language, and the construction of the principles of ethics and virtues to be passe down to followers, and all other elements which will, I believe, be produced and reproduced. Hip hop, in essence, is claiming itself to be a musically-based culture which is aspiring from a subaltern voice of inner city living to be channeled into the mainstream with the help of agencies of socialization predominantly such as print and electronic media technology.

Looking at hip hop from a post-industrial tribalistic point of view, this cultural manifestation can help us understand that the socio-economic condition and the alienation the inner city Black and Latino subgroups is preconditioned into is needing of such expression as a form of rediscovering of self-esteem and as a form of political recognition. “Political” here is meant in the broadest sense “the constitutional and unconstitutional arrangement of power relations” and in hip hop, power means the push for visibility so that the dispossessed younger members of the targeted Black and Latino youth can be attracted to this new culture so that a kind of “enlightenment” project can be carried out. It is claimed that the hip hop culture has an essentialist core acronymed as SILVER – self, intelligence, love, vision, evolution, and revolution. It should then be interesting to follow the development of the progress of such a cultural transmission project from a culture “given birth” circa 1970s.

Just as words such as “race”, “ethnicity”, and “culture” can be interchangeably perceived because of their subjective nature and cross-breeding tendency in their utilization, I must say that “hip hop” and “rap” as musical forms is in that category of linguistic complimentarity because of the elusiveness of their meaning. In Chapter Two of Black Noise hip hop is defined as:

a cultural form that attempts to negotiate the experiences of

marginalization, brutally truncated opportunity, and oppression

within the cultural imperatives of African-American and Caribbean

history, identity and community. It is the tension between the cultural

fractures produced by post-industrial oppression and binding ties of

Black cultural expressivity that sets the critical frame for the

development of hip hop. (p.21)

If we compare the above with the definition of rap music, we may see the close link between both forms in which rap music,

[i]s a Black cultural expression that prioritizes Black voices from

the margins of urban America. Rap music is a form of rhymed

storytelling accompanied by a highly rhythmic, electronically-based

music. It began in the mid-1970s in the South Bronx in the city

of New York City as part of hip hop, an Afro-Caribbean youth culture

composed of graffiti, breakdancing, and rap music.

We can say that the slight difference in the definition and how hip hop and rap have progressed are also a cause for struggle by the hip hop community. It is a question of “cultural appropriation” in that the hip hoppers claimed that the huge global success of rappers are partly due to the adulteration of the noble values hip hoppers originally plan to propagate, which instead has worked to the benefit of rap music industry. This is an issue faced by cultural originators from the Black and Latino community which can be at the mercy of recording companies and electronic cultural producers which see more value in marketing messages of violence, gangsterism, anti-family, irrational hedonism, eroticism, sexual perversion, foul language use, and the like through rap groups living and breathing images of destructive counter-culturalism. The hip hop community believes in “reforming its wayward child” – rap – and propagate the message of positive self-esteem, love, intelligence, and respect, with regard to the building of a more progressive Black and Latino community.

The issue of old versus new culture in the hip hop – rap continuum of claims to cultural originality reflects the broader issue of liberation in Black and Latino community. As mentioned earlier, through hip hop, what is programmed to be achieved is a pride in the self and community of which has been lost through marginalization and all forms of structural violence over the years of existing as immigrant subgroups. In Black Noise and Welcome to Terrordome for example, the struggles are well narrated and what grew out of these is hip hop and rap which attempt to raise the younger generation’s level of social consciousness and praxis through such as postmodern genre of musical-artistic expression. Although artists like the essentialist-socialist Harry Belafonte would see rap and hip hop as nonsensical and devastatingly oppressive, and as a consciousness clouding form of cultural perversion, the progressivist-capitalist Hunter Gault applauds its existence as a creative form of expression which must be channeled positively so that the younger generations can continue to do newer things and be happy at doing them.

Thus, through hip hop and rap as an interesting post-modern tribalistic phenomena of cultural expression with global manifestations, they can provide contemporary sociologists the opportunity to look at culture of subgroups and also help political economists understand the inner-workings of culture industry on a global imperialistic scale with its fashion, language, and lifestyle ‘lock, stock, and barrel” becoming the message and the medium all at once transmitted to the four corners of the free world made safer for “democracy”.

VIVA HIP HOP!

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