tending to culture

The word we use for "culture" derives, in part, from ἀποικίαι - "colonies". The point being that on arriving in a new land, after "moving around", one must settle it: tend to it by tilling it, caring for it, guarding it. From agricultural husbandry, the word took on meanings of reverence, and came to signify "collective customs and achievements". In this scheme of things, learning is equated with agriculture: with its connotations of the time and labour involved in such achievements, as most beautifully put in Agricola's essay The Fallow: "It is "ploughing time" for the world again, and ploughing time not only because we turn from instruments of war to those of peace, symbolized since the days of Isaiah by the "ploughshares" beaten from swords, but because we must turn to the cultivation with thoroughness and patience not only of our acres but of the minds that are alike to have world horizons in this new season of the earth."
This agricultural approach does not only apply to learning: in that it takes effort to thoroughly understand a context different from ours (for, in the end, we come to realise that we ourselves can be different from how we imagined), but it also lends us an opportunity to revisit the topic of culture, what we mean by it, what our expectations are from it.
We are quick to pour libations on modern day achievements, except we fail to remember, for example, that the Romans built road systems almost twice as long as the US interstate highways and that one such road contained as much stone mass as the Pyramid of Giza. Without the aid of mechanical bulldozers.
We are quick to say that we are a global society but writers like Ricoeur question how "international" we are. "No one can say what will become of our civilization when it has really met different civilizations by means other than the shock of conquest and domination. But we have to admit that this encounter has not yet taken place at the level of an authentic dialogue. That is why we are in a kind of lull or interregnum in which we can no longer practice the dogmatism of a single truth and which we are not yet capable of conquering the skepticism into which we have stepped."
At this crossroads, I wonder how we tend to our culture. I'd forward that thoroughness and patience wouldn't hurt, as well as some kind of work ethic and check balance for the ego. Also, if "culture" comes from "colonising," how can we perform it respectfully, without the shock of conquest and domination?


It seems pretty clear what the answer to the question isn't. For example, in a book review of a book called The Politics of Culture, we learn how so often "cultural policy" presents only the most watered-down version of culture, instead of presenting works that genuinely speak to universal human values. Mirza's example is that we are all able to enjoy Greek epics though they belong to another time and culture, yet instead of addressing the specific ways of life in those plays in addition to enjoying their universal qualities, the contemporary approach is to "transcend" them. Similarly, while there is democratization in art, it reaches absurd proportions, as seen in this brilliant example she gives of a teacher telling her class to make collages like the ones on the wall at a modern art gallery. When they'd done, a child asked why, if his version was good, it wasn't also on the wall. "This was not a question that could be answered in the PC, relativistic terms that prevail in arts education today. And a satisfactory response would need to explore ideas like transcendence and critique as well as asserting authority."
This resonates in the quote by Ricoeur. We are stuck, because we are not addressing different civilizations beyond the context of conquest - in this case, conquest by the authority of cultural policy. Even children can see universal values beyond sameness and difference: it isn't impossible to address difference, but certainly difficult to do so in a large public forum (which is surely partly why public policy seeks to evade such dialogue). The answer to the question above may be doing our part to talk about such things.
Part of the answer lies in marking space for dialogue about difference. There is no short cut - as we know from the tilling of culture. It will be a difficult endeavour, and require patience. But, whenever we can, we ought to conduct critical dialogue. Is art it doing its job? Does it have a job? What is beneath the tip of the iceberg of culture? The Titanic, with all its hubris, hit an iceberg. The Titanic is in so many ways still a trope of our culture: one of technological development, international travel, tickets for sale...
From the beginning of time, it seems there has been trade. Bartering, buying, selling - there are other currencies aside from the monetary. Wealth grows when we tend to other fields, turn them over, let them rest. Time is a currency. So is love, arguably.
If time and effort were applied to such other directions, other bounties may be had, life, more beautiful. The testimony of scientists who have made discoveries suggests that answers do not have to be where we expect them.


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