Culture as Second Fiddle

Always the bridesmaid, never the bride. That still sums up the way we view culture today. We undervalue its place in the world, always elevating the importance of the economy as a factor in social change. Culture, to change the metaphor, still plays second fiddle, following the lead of the economic conductor.

I thought the situation had changed until I sat in a seminar presentation recently in which the same arguments were hashed out: that the economy determines all social relations and that culture is derivative, responding to transformations but rarely generating changes itself. The discussion, in other words, zig-zagged between materialism and idealism. Is this conversation not tiresome?

What do I mean by culture? I have in mind both culture as the arts (popular and non-popular) and culture as identity (ethnic, racial, gender, national).

We underestimate the power of culture in social life. Beholden as we are to materialist explanations, we prefer the hardness of economic factors to what we consider soft ones such as gender, ethnicity, nation, love, art, and friendship.

So it was with relief that I read Nurdan Gürbilek’s recent book, The New Cultural Climate in Turkey. As Turkey’s foremost literary and cultural critic, Gürbilek describes the wonderful power of culture in society. Writing on the social transformations Turkey experienced after the military coup of the 1980’s, she shows the intense involvement of culture in the decades since then. She demonstrates, for instance, how intellectuals, pushed to the margins, jailed, and tortured, gained power by seeking refuge and freedom in cultural institutions.

Barred from politics, they appropriated culture. They entered the political struggle by occupying key positions in publishing houses, television, film, advertising, and magazines. Facing the violence of the police, the army, and the censor, they began their own quiet revolution from the perches of unofficial, and seemingly, ineffectual society.

Of course, we have seen this pattern before. In my own research, be this on nationalism, aesthetics, or recently on friendship, I have discovered that cultural phenomena can generate social change themselves rather than merely responding to transformations around them.

Nationalism is a perfect example of a cultural factor that can act as a force in itself. Colonized peoples, feeling themselves oppressed by foreign rulers, have often turned to culture (as identity and as artistic production) where they preserve something vital and untouched by the foe. And on the basis of this culture (traditional identities, inherited institutions, folk art, ritual), they try to build a new society, different from the neighbors and the colonial rulers. I have studied this in Greece.

In the decades leading to the Greek War of Independence of 1821 against the Ottoman Empire, Greek intellectuals living in Europe and within the Empire, sought to reformulate Greek identity. They provided a new geography of Greece, uncovered the links to the ancient past, reconsidered the ties of Greece to Europe, and tried to create a new type of language. In short, they sought to convince the peasant populations that Greek society was belated, that it lagged far behind developments in western Europe. Trying to rouse Greek populations with the arguments of belatedness, they sought to place culture at the forefront of their program of social engineering.

It would be foolish to argue that culture caused the Greek revolution, just as it would be ridiculous to say that Facebook has led to the uprisings in the Arab world today. Such a momentous event had many causes -- social, economic, geo-political, and cultural. But culture played a key role in Greek modernization and continued to be influential right up to the twentieth century.

We have seen this situation of belatedness in many postcolonial revolutions in Latin America, Asia, and Africa. Facing the overwhelming military might of the colonial power and recognizing the latter’s economic advances, intellectuals could argue that the spirit of indigenous identity was untouched by colonial violence. This culture was noble and worthy of recognition by others.

I was surprised to have discovered this very same strategy in eighteenth century Germany. Middle class intellectuals, prevented from participating in the French-oriented courts of the aristocracy, created and took over new sites of the university, the newspaper, café, gallery, printing house, and school. There they built the characteristics of German identity. So that when Bismark unified the various German states in the late nineteenth century, he had at his disposal a project of cultural unity at least one hundred years in the making – a project spearheaded by intellectuals.

Gürbilek demonstrates that this process continues to take place today, that intellectuals can have power, and that culture is implicated in social developments as an active agent. It does not hover up in the air, like a kite blown by the winds of revolution. It is a force to be reckoned with, one capable of generating change itself.

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