Understanding culture: a more cautious approach

By Paul Bisca

This past weekend, Emma Sheppard ’09 directed my attention to an article written by my friend Victor Llanque Zonta’08, who presented an extremely critical view of the Cultural Show organized in November by the Macalester International Organization (MIO) in last’s week edition of The Mac Weekly (“Culture as commodity,” page 17). As a board member of the MIO in charge with public relations, I feel indebted to respond and offer clarification.To begin with, Victor’s article raised some important questions regarding the authenticity of culture and the ethical consequences of divorcing it from the realm of politics. While these concerns merit reflection, their relation with the MIO Cultural Show is quite inappropriate, for MIO’s agenda is not political in nature.

According to our charter, we strive “to represent the diverse Macalester international student body and encourage interaction between international and American students.” The Cultural Show was an attempt to live up to our stated goal. Thus, international students gathered for two hours on a Friday night to display their talents and the traditions of various cultures, while domestic students were a driving force in the planning and organization of the event.

Yet according to Victor, “the performances were ethnicisized, racialized and nationalized,” which “reflects the process of ‘otherization’ in which marginalized peoples are subject to judgment by the colonial gaze.” This implies that what is needed is a more adequate understanding of culture, void of the sin of “commodification” of which both the organizers and performers were guilty.

Let me be clear: the MIO is, at least, a forum of discussion, at best, an imperfect mirror of our world’s cultural heritage, but certainly not an instrument of activism. Who are we to tell the audience how they should perceive a dance, chant or costume? Do we possess the legitimacy to make such judgments? Rather, each person in the public is free to understand a performance how he or she sees fit and makes the final call on whether he or she chooses to study the intricacies of a cultural exhibit in greater detail. Given this context, then, Victor’s assertions are inaccurate.

A special point of concern was Victor’s innuendo that Macalester is becoming “just another neocolonialist institution like museums, corporate ethnic restaurants [.] amusement parks and tourist agencies.” Here I disagree wholeheartedly. Let alone the fact that his statement begs numerous questions regarding the basis on which this judgment was made, going so far as to assert that a even a Cultural Show put up by a bunch of students is indicative of power relationships established by some neo-imperialist intrigue is a symptom a contagious intellectual disease, which ascribes unfavorable processes of social change to external malevolent forces most likely headed by some mad man in a dark room in Washington, DC.

I realize that the wounds left by colonialism are painful and healing takes time. Yet explaining even the actions of some students who happened to be dancing the “lambada” or performing the “haka” through such a paradigm is a hasty oversimplification. I myself come from Romania, a country which has been throughout its history subject to Habsburg, Ottoman and Russian / Soviet imperial whims. Yet deciphering the history of my country only through this triangular relationship to such an extent that even forms of entertainment are determined by it would be erroneous.

Finally, Victor concludes by underscoring the risks of “objectifying, commodifying and appropriating the cultural traditions of other people for our own shallow amusement in the name of depoliticizing multiculturalism.”

Let me conclude by stating that as far as I am concerned, there was nothing shallow in what we did. Whether it was professionally done or not, whether the acts should have been more original or not, one can debate and we are open to constructive criticism. What we engaged the public in was not a philosophical dialogue about the symbolic meaning of cultural representations, nor should we have done so.

But one cannot doubt the sincere effort of all organizers to do their best and offer the public the sense of reward for having chosen to attend our show on a Friday night. Consequently, implying that “shallowness” was a characteristic of our event is a slightly imprudent gesture on my friend’s part, both as a message for the organizers, but most importantly for the audience.