Wednesday, January 23, 2013

On Culture: Recounting a Memory, A Note by Payman Akhlaghi (2013)

Alternate World MMX01e
by Payman Akhlaghi
On Culture: Recounting a Memory
A Note By Payman Akhlaghi [First Draft]

First Published on
Photo: Alternate World MMX01e, by © 2010, Payman Akhlaghi

One late night, in my early teens, I was walking home alongside my mother, on the streets of Tehran. We might have been coming back from a tutorial in physics, or a family party. The streets were mostly empty of cars and people. Only a few feet ahead of us, a tall lady in black chador, alone, had taken the sidewalks, as well. A private car passed by, slowed down, pulled over, and waited for her. Given the context, the driver's intent was rather clear. The woman, visibly offended, stood still, then after a moment of hesitation, shouted at the driver, in a subdued, almost shivering, voice, "Get lost, you uncultured man!" Whether the driver heard her, he pushed on the pedal, and drove away. Whoever she was, she wasn't what the man had thought of her.

I've often pondered that brief observation. To be sure, Persian language has its own share of acerbic obscenities. Another lady might have resorted to crying out some piercingly memorable if X-rated curses. Yet, the worst insult that this evidently educated lady could think of against what she saw as an attack on her honor was none but the adjective "uncultured", "uncultivated", "culture-less", "a man without culture." (بی فرهنگ, bi-farhang). Her means of defense did not defeat her purpose.

I understand culture most generally as the collection of a society's abstract products and virtual artifacts. But I suspect that the word has found a twofold, contrasting, connotation in today's world. One is heavy, the other is light. One is constrained, retrospective. The other is liberated, prospective. One carries the weight of a hard-earned history, disciplined thought, learned skills, education in arts and literature, traditions and other social habits, a long list of mores and established norms, all burdened by collective long-term memory. The other signifies primarily the "status quo" of such social entities as language, arts, clothing, fashion, media, food, all in the constant flux of a rapidly evolving pluralistic matrix. One cherishes the past, as it's likely to resist change, influx, unexpected turns. The other thrives on tolerance, thinks of today and tomorrows, encourages creativity, originality, even novelty. One is more secure, but slowed down by the inertia of history. The other is less certain, less predictable, and hence the more so exciting for the pioneers. One boasts of its restraining depth, its third dimension. The other is buoyant, present- and the future - oriented, primarily concerned with the vibrancy of its two dimensions. One strives for social coherence and organicism, in principle as in manifestation. The other welcomes collage and social pastiche. One is saturated with prescribed abstract structures. The other leaves most details to be invented and defined on the go.

And the two senses are not necessarily mutually exclusive. That is, they might be both present, albeit in different degrees, in a single society, or in one's view of culture and society. Moreover, my position is neither preferential, nor judgmental. Both conservatives and liberals, such as me, would benefit from a healthy balance between the two perspectives in their worldviews.

The dichotomy outlined above might suffer from too much stereotyping, but the model could still have some merit. I think many authors, when dealing with culture in the first sense, perhaps instinctively refer to the German "Kultur" over the English "culture": Kultur, as in Hans von Bullow's bewilderment at the time he came to concertize in the States; as in Adorno's complaints in his essay on "culture industry". I also suspect that given the early historic influence of European literature and educational system in Iran, through publications and missions, including Alliance Israelite Universelle, and later "American school", Iranians tend to perceive Culture, "farhang", more in the former sense; as apparently did the respected lady of my story.

In conclusion, a basic awareness of such broad differences in cultural orientation, in another society's understanding of the very sense "culture" denotes, could help us relate better and more productively with other societies.

© 2013, text by Payman Akhlaghi. All rights reserved.
© 2010, photo by Payman Akhlaghi. All rights reserved.

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