Thursday, 6 January 2011

The Danger of Culturalism

When thinking about culture one almost exclusively thinks about its very romantic and beautiful sides such as the fine arts, ballet and cuisine. Culture is seen as an accomplishment of the ‘modern west’, a product of one’s sophistication and the flagship of our very uniqueness in this world. Through culture one defines where they came from and who they are. Simultaneously one tries to fit into the role one plays within certain cultural concepts and as well creates them. Due to the importance culture plays in one’s process of identification and identity-forming one considers it to be not only supreme to other cultures but also substantial. The process of culture- and identity-forming is always a process that does not only focus on introspectiveness but also on external perception and distinction from others.

Briefly spoken, in order to remain in a superior position, where one’s concept of culture can’t either be challenged or ‘invaded’, one must draw clear lines that are not to be crossed. Alongside with the border-drawing and ‘othering’ goes the search for so called ‘allies’. Cultural allies can be described as imagined communities. One of the most powerful imagined communities is ‘the west’. Hence, ‘the west’s’ definition of itself and its culture is very antagonistic to its way of perceiving the rest of the world: the so called ‘others’.  One could now argue that therefore the danger of culturalism must lie within the strong antagonism of attributes and characteristics of cultures in general and the way they are valued. Though this is true one must not forget to add a second perspective on the problem: Not only the process of the ‘enemy-image’-creation but also the way they are shaped and reproduced. Therefore the imagined community being in power shapes the hegemonic discourse through knowledge production. It defines who is or can be part of a certain culture or community and who can’t.

This process is currently very apparent in Germany. Germany’s cultural landscape was formatively changed through the post war migration by inviting guest workers from several European countries. What becomes very apparent is that due to cultural backgrounds only those migrants or inhabitants with migratory background, who are not perceived as of the same culture or community, are identified as not uniformly integrable. Their difference and inability to successfully integrate into ‘German/ European culture’ is therefore based on their ‘belonging’ to a certain culture or group that is not consistent with the ‘modern western’ culture. Hence, we see culture not only anymore as time- and place-bound but also as strictly tied to an individual and culture or a cultural background as something one cannot ‘escape’ from. At that very point culturalism and racism show their common mode of function and operation.

Since 1945 the label ‘race’ is rather unfashionable and nowadays replaced by the more innocent looking label ‘culture’. One can change the label; the box one puts people into never changes though, since it doesn’t matter due to which parameters others are being judged. Therefore the terms ‘race’ and ‘culture’ are rather floating signifiers and as such void of meaning and thus apt to receive any meaning. Hence, these terms become universally usable and are free to be filled with anything those dominating the hegemonic discourse would like to fill it with.

Consequently it becomes apparent that the danger of culturalism is in no way inferior to the danger of racism. In fact both describe the same phenomenon and just go by a different name. In times of globalization and daily migration around the planet understanding the potential danger of culturalism becomes very essential for how the future will be shaped and for answering the question whether we are able to learn from the past or not.  

Whenever I hear the word culture, I reach for my revolver. Hanns Johst, Schlageter, act 1 scene 1

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