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Choose It or Refuse It

Had a day full of sound and fury, accomplishing nothing yesterday. So I'll try to start this one right. peadarog admonished me for putting my thoughts on multiculturalism and colonialism as it relates to storytelling and appropriation behind a f-lock. Shaking out the personal references, I've had a chance to put together my rambling thoughts on it into a kind of less-rambly exposition. Put some use to that long-neglected university degree, with some apologies to James P. Carse, who was a huge influence on me when I was apple-green at seventeen:

Let's start with a false but convenient dichotomy. Let's make a distinction between societies and cultures.

A society is made up of many things, but for our purposes, let's say a society is a voluntary collection of a people or peoples, a language or languages, and a method or methods of ranking. I say "voluntary" because rebellion and dropping out are the means by which one society leads to another. People can volunteer to leave or join societies. Immigration and conversion are two well known routes of moving from one society to another.

Within a society, there has to be a certain amount of agreement, or rules, that define how the society will continue. There are also stakes to be had, which we call a society's values. Wealth, honour, distinction, praise, and celebrity are all common stakes that are being competed for within a society. The rules define the value of these stakes. One has to have found a means within the rules to the acquisition of stakes for those stakes to be of value. Adultery of this value by breaking the rules is an essential adhesion-force in societies, and if rules are disregarded enough, a society is said to no longer exist.

The process of colonialization occurrs when one society's rules inveigle another to the point where one society is able to parasitize the other. The parasite is called the colonial power, and the society under dissolution is called the colony. It is accomplished by replacing peoples, language, or rules/ranking with those of the parasite society. Because of the internal cohesion-force of societies, this situation almost never goes well for the parasitized culture, because conflicting directions of censure tend to force splits within the society. Conflicting loyalties and conflicting senses of justice war with each other. This war occurs in all aspects of a society, in the mind, in the family/social group, and in the economy/judical system/stakeholder's marketplace.

The "global society" or globalization, is the ultimate parasite in this case. It provides a set of international and intersocial rules which serve the most dominant stakeholders. From the perspective of globalization, all societies are fodder for parasitization.

By contrast, a culture is also a voluntary collection, but instead of people, it's made up of symbols, traditions, and a narrative or iconology that arises from the combination of symbol and tradition. The stakes being competed for within a culture are more subtle and difficult to define, but they boil down to "meaning", where the persistance of a cultural icon is dependent on the meaning it provides and the meaning that is re-inforced/re-inculcated through a placing of importance on the icon and the repetition of its narrative.

In this way, a culture doesn't have rules that enforce it, but may adopt rules and rule-systems into itself in order to acheive meaningful narrative/iconology. In this way, cultures which exist within provincial or isolated societies become very integrated into the societies in which they arose, and it may be hard to distiguish, in many cases, where a social cohesion is being replaced with a narrative. Biblical interpretation has become a bugbear of European culture and its colonial offshoots, for example, and the shifting cultural underpinnings of religion frequently come into conflict with social authority.

Another social intrusion into culture is the "definitive narrative". This occurs when the rules of a society attempt to enforce a single narrative from a culture and attempt to enforce it in any other stakeholder arrangement. Copyright and academic tradition fall into this category of social-cultural interaction. Culture is "dead" when it can no longer adapt or generate new narrative, so this is a social triumph over culture which may occur on any scale.

But cultures are also social bridges. They provide a no-social-stakes arena through which individuals and groups of one society can participate in the society of another group. The cultural meaning that arises from these meeting-places often becomes a dynamic force in both socities, since it provides new narratives and new means by which conflicts between social cohesion-forces can be adapted and circumvented.

But except in extremely isolated situations, which are very rare in our current state of exploration and communications technology, there is no clear boundary between one culture and another. Cultural influences can be said to have greater or lesser meaning closer to certain centers and away from certain margins, but in any living culture, real barriers between one culture and another are not definable.

So, ultimately, there is one culture. Anyone from any society can participate, and the stakes are only to achieve as much meaning as possible.


( 19 comments — Leave a comment )
May. 19th, 2012 12:33 pm (UTC)
Excellent post in my humble opinion. I like the society/culture distinction. I have never thought about it in that way before.
May. 19th, 2012 02:23 pm (UTC)
I too really like that distinction. Thanks for prompting Barry to formulate his thoughts for the general public!

May. 19th, 2012 02:24 pm (UTC)
As always, I am a humble servant of society, no wait! Culture! No... no... it's definitely society. I think.
May. 19th, 2012 02:30 pm (UTC)
So long as it's not colonialism I think we're good :-P
May. 19th, 2012 02:32 pm (UTC)
Too true!
May. 19th, 2012 08:44 pm (UTC)
Thank you. Can't say I spent much time on it, but it's a pretty ingrained narrative, so that's not unusual. Did notice a problem, though:

Adultery of this value by breaking the rules is an essential

Should read "Censure of adultery of this value by breaking the rules is an essential" for obvious reasons.
May. 19th, 2012 02:23 pm (UTC)
I echo peadarog, and to it I add, I really loved your explanation of colonialism. Brilliant.
May. 19th, 2012 08:45 pm (UTC)
May. 19th, 2012 03:00 pm (UTC)
Here via asakiyume.

Colonists as parasites. Wow. Thank you for giving me a new way of looking at that relationship.
May. 19th, 2012 08:47 pm (UTC)
Yes, absolutely. Take a look at this video of just how complex the process of parasitism is in the very simplest lifeforms. Compared to that, the East India Company is child's play: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EWB_COSUXMw
May. 20th, 2012 04:14 am (UTC)
Oy, I've heard of the parasite that turns ants into zombies and makes them climb to the tips of grass to be consumed by sheep, but zombie snails are much more graphic. :P wowzer.
May. 20th, 2012 09:48 am (UTC)

May. 19th, 2012 04:21 pm (UTC)
The process of colonialization occurrs when one society's rules inveigle another to the point where one society is able to parasitize the other. The parasite is called the colonial power, and the society under dissolution is called the colony.

I would say "consume" rather than "parasitize." Colonialism by force, which is what we normally think of when we refer to "colonialism," is essentially analogous on the organism level to one animal eating another animal. "Parasitism" is more similar to the social phenomenon of "infiltration," or at its most overt and violent, "hostile immigration." France tried to consume North Africa in the mission civilitrice of the mid 19th to mid 20th centuries; North Africa is now returning the favor by trying to parasitize France.

May. 19th, 2012 06:23 pm (UTC)
I can see linking colonialism with consumption, but I think the unusual metaphor/analogy of parasitism is interesting precisely because it's not one that usually comes to mind, and in thinking about ways in which it might apply, you can see colonialism in a new way. We tend to think of colonizers as powerful--and they *are* powerful--but this analogy also shows how they're dependent. It also really brings how the relationship is unhealthy for the colonized into very clear focus--I was really struck by what Barry said about how the colonization affects all levels of society and all relationships.
May. 19th, 2012 08:52 pm (UTC)
Well, I'd demur on that, for two reasons. First, the artificial framework I've put together here doesn't have the idea of a society "consuming" the other. It just doesn't fit. Which is not to say that consumption is not the driving force, only that in the narrow philosophic framework I've proposed, consumption is not a factor.

The second one is that "consumption" is an economic term which deals with resource use. Even in economic terms, I think the colonial relationship is not so much the consumption of the base resource as the turning of the local economy into a system that benefits the colonial power. I'd call that "parasitism", or at very very very best "symbiosis", although I can't think of any examples of the latter.

However, the exploitation of the natives of Hispaniola was pretty much a consumption. There are other historical examples, I'm sure.
May. 19th, 2012 07:16 pm (UTC)
Another social intrusion into culture is the "definitive narrative".... when the rules of a society attempt to enforce a single narrative from a culture and attempt to enforce it in any other stakeholder arrangement.

Would the idea of "authenticity" fall into this? Because that strikes me as the attempt to force a single narrative from the culture onto the rest of the culture.
May. 19th, 2012 08:54 pm (UTC)
Yes, I would think so. Authenticity is a social construct, an "award" given to the most authentic representation of a cultural norm. Personally, I think it's a kind of totalitarian ethic, and not one that I would endorse in any venue except a library, where history is supposed to be "stopped" for the better recording thereof.
May. 20th, 2012 10:03 am (UTC)
Personally, I think it's a kind of totalitarian ethic,

Me too. I think there's value in tracing the development of ideas or design motifs or songs or whatever, and when you're doing that, you can find yourself thinking things like, "Okay, but what did basket design look like before they added in the cell-phone motif"--or I guess, more likely for the sorts of circumstances we're talking about, "Okay, fine, that Anglo-American is singing that Spanish-language folksong with Nahuatl words mixed in, but what did it sound like when it was sung in Mexico?" But they're all culture.

Also, cultural authenticity seems to imply that there's an Ur cultural state that other things are deviations or corruptions of--but all cultures and societies are always changing. So rather than talk about authentic religious traditions or authentic marriage customs or authentic cuisine, I think people are better off talking about religious traditions or marriage customs or cuisine at a certain point in time or a certain location.

I guess there can be patently inauthentic things: when a con man claims to be Zulu warrior king or an Apache medicine man with an eye toward cheating people for personal gain, then that's inauthentic. And I guess--and I suppose this is partly what people are talking about when they talk about authenticity--there can less dramatic examples of this: if Joe Blogs learns some mixed martial arts moves from his friend in the army, who tells him it's Tae Kwon Do and then when he gets out, sets up to teach others, then what he's teaching is likely to bear less relation to actual Tae Kwon Do than what you'd learn in a class taught by someone who's connected to a demonstrable lineage of Tae Kwon Do instruction. .... ehhhh, I'm drifting here.
May. 21st, 2012 12:02 pm (UTC)
I have a novel where this comes up. My protagonist and her aunt are invited to a party at a local bigwig's house, and among the things that happen is that they are dressed in "authentic" local costume, which neither of them wears anymore. Then they are singled out by the hostess as some sort of special case of underprivileged working against the parochial forces that be to earn a life for themselves, which they become insulted at...

Which I guess is my indirect way of saying that there is a feast of contradictions and complications that bedevil this topic, and it's never entirely clear cut, since language has no third and fourth case conditional clauses for what might have been real if something else had not happened, assuming a continuing tradition that did not actually occur because of the original event....

Life flows around the rocks, like the river.
( 19 comments — Leave a comment )