Tuesday, April 12, 2011

What is culture? Does Bernard Martinez understand it?

In the previous post, we provided a translation of a long interview with Bernard Martinez that was published in Tiempo. It is an amazing thing: as the reporter pressed for specific accomplishments, Martinez repeatedly said (1) we've been busy getting our act together, and (2) we don't have any money.

But he also evaded every attempt by the reporter to get him to acknowledge that Honduras has a series of recognized cultural groups-- Garifuna, Chorti, Lenca, Tol, Pech, Miskito, to name just the first to come to mind. The reporter pressed him on why the ministry no longer is extending the efforts of the Institute of Anthropology beyond Copan, as was intensified under the administration of Rodolfo Pastor Fasquelle. He asked about the existing structures for promoting culture, Consejos de Cultura, which Martinez is basically replacing with decentralization (read: dumping) responsibility onto municipal governments.

To all these questions, as the reporter, in frustration, finally expressed it, his answer was "we don't have the money". So, the reporter said, do you think maybe the people might ask why we need your ministry?

And staggeringly, Martinez agreed that this question might be there.

Most bizarre, though, was the insight into the guiding understanding of "culture" which Martinez purports to base on the UNESCO definition of culture. Again, the reporter clearly found it unusual as well, ending by asking him if Porfirio Lobo Sosa shared his understanding of culture; and how many people in Honduras, anyway, did share this understanding.

Martinez allowed that he doesn't know, and ventured that Lobo Sosa probably doesn't fully understand it.

No wonder. Martinez seems to fully misunderstand the UNESCO definition of culture, which the Tiempo reporter appended, helpfully, to his article. While Martinez never specifies where he is getting his concept, the reporter, we think rightly, draws on the 1982 Declaration of Mexico City of the World Conference on Cultural Policies. That document declared
that in its widest sense, culture may now be said to be the whole complex of distinctive spiritual, material, intellectual and emotional features that characterize a society or social group. It includes not only the arts and letters, but also modes of life, the fundamental rights of the human being, value systems, traditions and beliefs;

that it is culture that gives man the ability to reflect upon himself. It is culture that makes us specifically human, rational beings, endowed with a critical judgement and a sense of moral commitment. It is through culture that we discern values and make choices. It is through culture that man expresses himself, becomes aware of himself, recognizes his incompleteness, questions his own achievements, seeks untiringly for new meanings and creates works through which he transcends his limitations.

This does not, as Bernard Martinez thinks, mean that culture is simply a quality of a person. It is-- note the text above!-- a quality of a society or social group.

We freely admit that we are not quite certain that our translation of Martinez' statement of his understanding of the UNESCO definition of culture is quite accurate. Here's the original Spanish: feel free to propose your own definition:
Habla de que la cuestión cultural es la persona misma cuando define palabras muy claras como explícitas o implícitas en el que su comportamiento religioso, su comportamiento personal, su conducta con el resto de la sociedad hace que la persona sea la cultura misma en sí.

What seems undeniable here, though, is that Martinez doesn't know what he is talking about. The Mexico City Declaration goes on to define why culture matters-- that it is a social group's "most effective means of demonstrating its presence in the world"; that it "contributes to the liberation of peoples"; that "cultural identity and cultural diversity are inseparable".

As that document says, "All of this points to the need for cultural policies that will protect, stimulate and enrich each people's identity and cultural heritage, and establish absolute respect for and appreciation of cultural minorities and the other cultures of the world. The neglect or destruction of the culture of any group is a loss to mankind as a whole".

The answer to that challenge cannot be "we don't have a budget". But if you "understand" the UNESCO definition of culture as Bernard Martinez does, then it is up to the individual to foster his or her culture.


John (Juan) Donaghy said...

The privatization of culture?

RAJ said...

Yes; culture as a personal characteristic, rather than culture as something that binds a group together.

Beyond this neoliberal individualization, the shift to municipalities is not just decentralization-- it is also a claim that culture resides in governmental entities. But culture is a characteristic of groups of people, not of states or cities.

The only meaning of culture that could work to make sense of this policy direction would be the sense of culture as "cultivation": elevating the masses by promoting sensibilities through, for example, the arts.

All of these are powerfully reactionary.