In some regards, the idea of culture is highly mutable and subject to widespread variations in characterization. Quite in fact, the concept of culture is highly implicated in the weaponzation of words that may be used by one nation to subjugate another. Ideas about how cultures interact, about which cultures are superior and indeed about whether or not the practices of some peoples should even be called cultures have been subjected to rationalization as colonialist nations have subjugated various parts of the developing sphere. It is this understanding that inclines Saids (2002) perspective in “The Clash of Definitions.”
Here, Said opposes the idea that there are distinct incompatibilities which persist between civilizations. Instead, he argues that this is the impression which has been foisted upon us by the shifting notions of what is meant by culture, particularly as this depends upon the perspective of hegemonic ethnic groups. This speaks to the dynamic conception of culture at the heart of Saids argument. Namely, he argues that this is a highly mutable thing which may differ depending upon the identity or agenda of its beholder. To the point Said argues that “anyone with the slightest understanding of how cultures work knows that defining a culture, saying what it is for members of that culture, is always a major and, even in undemocratic societies, a democratic contest. There are canonical authorities to be selected and regularly revised, debated, reselected, or dismissed. There are ideas of good and evil, belonging or not belonging (the same and the different), hierarchies of value to be specified, discussed, rediscussed and settled or not.” (p. 1)
These different features, Said argues, vary according to the moment in history, the collective will of a people or the specific dominance of an encompassing cultural force. In some ways, this differs from the idea of culture as a real and persistent set of characteristics to be preserved against such distortions. Quite to this point, Cabral (1973) helps to explain and predict the unlikely success experienced by small and poorly armed villagers at outlasting the occupation of technologically advanced and resource affluent imperialist forces. Cabral contends that there is a certain continuity and psychological power that are steeped in cultural identity. Where these features are not obstructed, a colonial power will have little longterm success in making the subjugated territory its own. By contrast, Cabral remarks that “history teaches us that, in certain circumstances, it is very easy for the foreigner to impose his domination on a people. But it also teaches us that, whatever may be the material aspects of this domination, it can be maintained only by the permanent, organized repression of the cultural life of the people concerned. Implantation of foreign domination can be assured definitively only by physical liquidation of a significant part of the dominated population. (p. 1)
As Cabral states rather convincingly, there is an inherent incompatibility between the simultaneous political and/or economic dominance of a peoples and the respectful preservation of their culture.
Indeed, Cabral points most critically to the notion of democracy as an indicator of freedom or self-representation, instead arguing that this is a rhetorical vestige of western societies and typically serves as a path for the installation of sympathetic leadership in occupied nations. In other words, Cabral sees this as another means to imperial domination and cultural whitewashing that is obscured by discursive distortion. This distortion is committed with great potential consequence to the survivability of a specific occupied culture. Yet more gravely though, Cabral notes that some occupying forces have dispensed altogether with rhetorical efforts at quelling the unrest of the occupied.
As Cabral argues instead, any form of foreign occupation must inherently carry forward its own structural mechanism for imposing an unnatural system upon a domestic culture. Cabral points to such examples as Apartheid in South Africa, indicating that those who would seek to validate foreign occupation have done so only through the fabrication of an altogether new and inherently racially oppressive cultural reality. In a certain regard, this highlights a danger in accepting Saids dynamic understanding of culture.
By allowing culture to be too liberally shifting according to the perspective and whims of any given beholder at any given time, we risk validating the cultural genocide that is often perpetrated in the name of such forces as democracy, economic progress and global interdependency. Even as these forces are characterized as inherently improving the lives of those impacted, this view is itself highly entangled in what Cabral sees as a false set of cultural hierarchies. Saids impression that culture should be seen as dynamic and changing manifests as a direct threat in Cabrals view. The latter argues that “culture is simultaneously the fruit of a peoples history and a determinant of history, by the positive or negative influence which it exerts on the evolution of relationships between man and his environment, among men or groups of men within a society, as well as among different societies. Ignorance of this fact may explain the failure of several attempts at foreign domination — as well as the failure of some international liberation movements.” (p. 1)
By trivializing culture as a function of perspective and as a variable implicated only by time and space is to make way for the rationale that has allowed so many peoples already to be wiped off the face of the earth.
Bederman, G. (1995). Manliness & Civilization: A Cultural History of Gender and Race in the United States, 1880-1917. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Bender, T. (2006). A Nation among Nations: Americas Place in World History. New York: Hill & Wang:
Cabral, A. (1973). National Liberation and Culture. In Return to the Source: Selected Speeches of Amilcar Cabral. New York: Monthly Review Press: 39-56.
McClintock, A. (1995). Imperial Leather: Race, Gender and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest. London: Routledge.
Said, E. (2002). The Clash of Definitions..