Cultural Purity and the Refute of the Inevitable Momentum

Cultural Purity and the Refute of the Inevitable Momentum

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Cultural Purity and the Refute of the Inevitable Momentum

In the introduction to “The Pure Products Go Crazy,” James Clifford offers a poem by William Carlos Williams about a housekeeper of his named Elsie. This girl is of mixed blood, with a divided common ancestry, and no real collective roots to trace. Williams begins to make the observation that this is the direction that the world is moving in, as Clifford puts it—“an inevitable momentum.” Clifford believes in that, “in an interconnected world, one is always to varying degrees, ‘inauthentic.’” In making this statement, Clifford is perhaps only partially accurate. In the western hemisphere, where Williams was located, perhaps it can be said directly that the influence of modern society has attributed to the lack of general ancestry, as one culture after another has blended with the next. Perhaps it can be said as well that, as Clifford puts it, “there seem no distant places left on the planet where the presence of ‘modern’ products, media, and power cannot be felt” (Clifford, 14). The intention of this paper is to contend first that there is essentially such a thing as “pure” culture, and contrary to Clifford’s belief, that there are “pure” unblended cultures that remain (while not altogether untouched by foreign influence), natural within themselves. It will be argued as well that the influence of modern society does not necessarily lead to a loss of cultural soundness itself, but rather that a presence of certain cultural practices within the respective cultures has attributed to the lasting “purity” of certain cultures. In this case, we will be discussing the cultures that exist in Haiti and Bali.

To address the first part of my argument, we fist must take in hand what exactly is this “pure” culture that has been mentioned thus far. Clifford believes that cultures, for the sake of the argument being made can be said to be impure cultures, “have had to reckon with the forces of ‘progress’ and ‘national’ unification,” and that essentially this has led to “many traditions, languages, cosmologies, and values [being] lost, some literally murdered” (Clifford, 16). He argues that inevitably, all cultures either will, or have experienced this, and in the end have transformed into an alternate version of themselves. I propose that a “pure” culture is one that has either not had to deal with such circumstances, or has dealt with outside influences, without altering what is wholly exclusive about itself.

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It is this inevitability I am foremost arguing against. I believe that a loss of culture is not an inevitable thing, at least not directly, and for all cultures as believes Clifford.

If it is not an inevitable certainty, this dispersion of culture, what then has caused one culture after another to, so to say, blend with the next time and time again? Furthermore, what cultural practices (as it is my intention to argue that there are) have attributed to a seeming durability of certain pure cultures? And last, even more importantly, how have these practiced enabled this?
First, we’ll take a look at what exactly is characteristic of culture when it becomes impure. “…The loss of local traditions, in an entropic modernity—a vision common among prophets of cultural homogenization,” is the most important aspect of cultural dispersion. In Clifford’s essay, Williams believes that although culture as a whole has been relatively eradicated by modernity, “something is still being given off in isolate specks” (Clifford, 5). These specks however are not wholly what they appear to be; Williams believes that these isolate specks are simply remnants of past cultures still visible. It will be show throughout this discussion that these “specks” are not remnants at all, but mirrors of cultures that still exist today. As stated previously, we will be discussing two examples of these cultures in Bali and Haiti.

If then the loss of cultural traditions is the most important condition of cultural endurance, than it is these certain cultural practices previously mentioned that have helped the people of Bali and Haiti to remain pure as a whole. The question to address then is, what are these practices? Why have they helped these cultures to remain pure? For the Balinese it has been the practice of Cockfighting, and for the Haitians it has been their religion itself, Voodoo, that while being practiced have helped attribute to the lasting of their respective cultures.

Clifford Geertz, in his essay “Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight,” discusses the cultural significance of, simply put, the Balinese Cockfight. Clifford Believes the cockfight, for the Balinese, is an outlet for emotions and sentiment generally looked down upon in Balinese Culture. This practice of cockfighting is a release of innately human actions for the Balinese; it is a means of expressing themselves in a detached form of being. The cocks fundamentally serve as a symbol of the proprietor. The owner of the cock lives out his frustration, his joy, and his pain all through the cock. This allows the Balinese to remain pure to his ideal being, because certain practices believed to savage in the Balinese Culture are either ignored or accepted when it comes to the cockfight. In Balinese Culture many instinctual parts of human existence are denied: any form of animal contact (the cock and a few domestic animals aside), defecation is regarded as “obscene,” and public display of excessive emotion, and even eating is regarded as a repulsive practice. It is these beliefs that would deny (disregarding the cockfight) the Balinese to satisfy many of his or her inner passions. Without a cultural allowance for this, the common Balinese would have to look elsewhere, inherently outside his culture, for this gratification. This would then ultimately lead to a “blending” of culture, and the culture would then share the inevitable fate suggested by Clifford. The cockfight, however, helps to resolve this difficulty. The practice of cockfighting is figuratively a release, in essence a sacrifice; a sacrifice not to the Balinese God or gods, but to the individual participants’ inner passions. It is through the cockfight then that the Balinese are able to answer to their personal desires, those looked down upon by society.

In identifying with his cock, the Balinese man is not just identifying with his ideal self…but also, and at the same time, with he most fears, hates, and ambivalence being what it is, is fascinated by—“The Powers of Darkness”… A cockfight, any cockfight, is in the first instance a blood sacrifice offered, with the appropriate chants and obligations, to the [inner] demos in order to pacify their ravenous cannibal hunger (Geertz, 420).

The point being made is that although the Balinese Cultures disallows quite a bit of social practice, the cockfight serves as an outlet for these deprivations. When practicing the cockfight, the Balinese people are then not deprived of any behavior. Without the need to look elsewhere for an escape (outside the culture that is, as any escape is fundamentally internal to the psyche of the people), the people of Bali and able to remain essentially happy within their original culture. Modernity itself is accepted simply for no other reason other than for the promise of a better life; the automobile was invented for this purpose, as was the television, the radio, and the telephone. All were created with the purpose of increasing the quality of life. These inventions, (which are now staples of modern society) have helped perhaps more than any others to allow for the spread of even more technology, mass migration, and eventually the diffusion of cultures throughout the world. If these “escapes” so to say are not sought after by a group of people within a culture—because they are unwanted—then they furthermore will have no effect on the respective culture. Excluding common moral code then, they people of Bali are denied nothing as far as personal ambition would persuade one to do, as the cockfight allows for the “taboos” of societal practice to be practiced by all. This is not true for the rest of the world, where ethical law and religion hold a strict governing on what is either morally right or politically correct. It can be seen that wit this modernity that institutions such as (organized) religions have suffered; the total numbers of Roman Catholics in the US has nearly cut in half since the 1960s, as has the numbers of protestants and Lutherans as well (www.pbs.com). Had these institutions allowed for an inbuilt release for these deprivations, this might not have been the case. It is the release of such frustrations that have allowed the people of Bali to be satisfied with his position in society as well—because then simply, the only things sought after by the Balinese (although hardly obtained) are material . The cockfight can also serve to elaborate this aspect of the discussion, as the gambling involved illustrates the Balinese’s materiality.

The cockfight, as it takes place in Bali, is an event highly gambled upon. This money, however, has little cultural relevance compared to the actually happening of the cockfight itself. The money lends to the thrill of the cockfight, but in essence the loss or gain (and essentially possessions) of these sums of money really accomplish nothing.

You cannot ascend the status ladder by winning cockfights; you cannot, as an individual, really ascend it at all. Nor can you descend it that way. All you can do is enjoy and savor, or suffer and withstand, the concocted senesta8nkt of drastic and momentary movement along an aesthetic semblance of that ladder, a kind of behind-the-mirror status jump, which has the look of mobility without the jump. [What cockfighting the accomplishes] is to render the ordinary, everyday experience comprehensible. (Geertz, 172)

What comprehensibly is there place in the world—that is, society. Culture in their case has left no room for exclusions. Had it not been for the cockfight, their perhaps at some point would have been some form of social unrest, as has been the case in almost every other (now diminished) culture. With the cockfight then being to the people what it inherently is, a reality check so to say, the people are led by the own practices to accept their places in society. The spoken of “mirror-status-jump” is not in actuality a status increase believed to be true by the people; it is more of a temporary, or false victory over his superiors (or inferiors). False only in the sense however that for all intents and purposes it did not accomplish anything other than the acquisition of personal glory. This is comparable, as suggested by Geertz, to the play (and essence) of sports in modern society. A win in a cockfight really accomplishes nothing, as in sports; it only helps to temporarily prove something to the individual.

Until now we have only spoken of the Balinese Culture, primarily of the cockfight and it’s effect on the cultural purity of the Balinese. Where else then can we find a similar situation, where an ingrained cultural practice has helped the culture to remain pure among outside influence? (Keeping in mind that an impure culture, according to Clifford, is simply one in which “many traditions, languages, cosmologies, and values [are] lost.”) As mentioned earlier, this can be found in Haiti.

The people of Haiti accomplish much a similar feat as the Balinese by a wholly different means. What has attributed to the purity of the Haitian Culture is not so much an occurrence such as the cockfight, as much it is their religion itself; that of Voodoo.
Before we go on further, I must first try and elaborate as to what Voodoo actually is.

Voodoo is a religious philosophy; that’s about as near as you can come to a simple definition of a way of life which is bewilderingly complex. It is the Haitian peasant’s heritage from the past and his faith in the future. It is drumming and singing and dancing; communion with the ancient gods of Africa, and communication with the dead. It is older than Haiti, perhaps older than Christianity, and so deeply rooted in the consciousness of the people peasant that if he deprived of it and given no substitute he would be left dangling in space. (Cave, 171)

What gives Voodoo its tremendous influence is that, much as the cockfight, it is practiced by everyone. Voodoo can be found anywhere, including some uncommon places.
For example: the woman who sells you mangoes in the market may very well be a mambo, and the boy who carries your fruit may be drawing an expert veve in some nearby hounfor a few hours later. The practice is more than a religion; it is their culture itself. The practice of which has helped the people of Haiti to remain pure in culture. Voodoo itself is so important to the people of Haiti, that they would not be able to function without it. The mention of Christianity here is a very important one; the people of Haiti have accepted this outside influence among their culture.

This being the case, (as has been the case throughout the majority of history) Haiti should have accepted along with Christianity a steady decline of it’s own culture . However, rather than the people seemingly infusing Christianity into Voodoo, they simply acknowledge its presence and accept that it’s there, without changing their practices. “Voodoo itself is denounced by the church, but many Haitians will go to church having come from all night Voodoo rituals” (Cultural Survival Quarterly). It is not a question of a simple practice to the people of Haiti; it is a means of existence. Voodoo is why they exist, what purpose they serve. The practice of Voodoo, as stated, is more than a release of tensions, or a game, or a sport. Voodoo is neither above nor below anyone. In Haiti, as in Bali, class distinctions exist, but are not as relevant to the people as they are to an outside observer. Voodoo helps to untie everyone, if not with the same cause but with the same purpose; with a unified function there is little need for outside influence. This outside influence, that of the modern world, is as steadily available to the people of Haiti as it is to the people of Bali; this influence, however is just as steadily ignored.

In Bali, a person is born to one class or another, and there is no room for advancement. The cockfight then, as stated, helps to serve as a symbolic progression for the winner, representatively giving the fighter (as the cocks in essence are extensions of their owners) a sense of accomplishment, as short lived as it may be. In Haiti, one can similarly indirectly climb the social ladder through voodoo.

Some houngans…attain their position by demonstrating an affinity with the loa. Some undoubtedly work up through the ranks, acquiring knowledge through absorption. In general, however, it would seem that vacancies in the priesthood are filled through a transference of title, and a man becomes a houngan or a woman a mambo, by inheriting “secret” forces passed on at death by a predecessor. (Cave, 212)

These figurative ascensions in the social ladder allow the people of Bali and Haiti alike to accept there given roles in life without being frustrated by cultural placements on their levels in society. The inability to climb the social ladder in reality, so to speak, has led to groups of people in many cultures throughout history revolting. Cultural devices such as these allow the people to “know their role.”

Practices such as the cockfight and Voodoo in essence, do just that. The practices of such have added to the stability of the Balinese and Haitian in more ways than one: by keeping the practitioners moral, by keeping them satisfied within the limits of their (few) cultural restraints, by essentially making sense of their world, and by keeping them happy with their role in their society. Thji is the essence of what Clifford argues against, as he believes all cultures are “inauthentic.” Clifford argues that Identity is conjunctural, not essential; I believe this is the case only in a culture that has run its course. The “pure products” may go crazy, but the importance of the matter is that the products going crazy are “pure.”
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