The relationship between nature and culture, the actions of nature and man, has determined philosophical thought for centuries as the definition of that which is human, of scientific thought as the taming of nature for human benefit, and artistic creation as an imitation of nature. Stating the problem of culture and trying to define it entails entering that crossroads. Sigmund Freud proposes an original reflection. He tries to establish a relationship between the discontents of individuals and the discontents that culture produces. Freud”s thesis is controversial because it posits culture as a problem and not as a source of human happiness.
How do we define culture at the beginning the twenty-first century? What should we expect from that “erotic drive” that makes individuals constitute themselves in groups? The end of culture is not the individual but a group of individuals, a town, a country. The human activity we call culture implies a dominance of nature it is the product of humans not of nature. Therefore, when we speak of cultivation—the words “culture” and “cultivation” have the same root—we designate an intervention of humans over nature. In the concept of culture, all types of productive and creative activity are included: scientific work, architecture, agriculture, culinary customs, fabrics, arts, literature and philosophy. In short, everything that makes human presence on earth more pleasant. When Freud published Civilization and its Discontents in 1930, he wrote of man”s search for happiness. Culture should make humans happier or it should translate that search into happiness.
Culture, a human product, can pursue useful as well as useless ends. The most useless one would be the search for beauty; that is to say, the types of activity that only produce contemplative pleasure: cultivating flowers, writing a poem, composing a song or a sonata, writing a novel. The search for beauty and the horror of aging that characterize our societies are not related to the utilitarian ends of culture. We can say, however, that beauty and happiness are the results of culture.
Freud`s work, a mature work, identifies an obvious problem. Human beings are not happy; culture and civilization have not succeeded, despite progress, in providing happiness to humans during their walk through life. Freud questions culture from the familiar grounds of that which it created: the individual. He then makes a diagnosis of culture: it produces discontents.
Freud proposes several hypotheses. First, the individual”s acculturation process supposes giving up pleasure. In other words, culture represses less civilized “urges”. The sublimation process required by culture may only be reached through repression, which in turn produces discontent. Culture implies a subjection to the group on the part of the individual. This subjection is paid for by giving up pleasure. Culture doesn`s make us happy because it is the result of giving up satisfaction and is exerted on the moral conscience of guilt.
Freudian interpretation points to a problematic vision: we see in culture a “good” and “positive” side but also the sacrifice or cost that it entails in order to pursue happiness and beauty. Why would we undergo what culture implies? Once again, Freud appeals to his thesis on the formation of individuals. We make culture and pay a mythical crime, a “symbolic” murder, that of the father, which is instituted by family and social groups. Through culture we “expiate” that guilt. Let”s not forget that Christianity has made this scheme its center. In fact, of all the urges we should repress, the most terrible and difficult to control are the aggressive ones; hate toward others, violence, and what Freud calls the “death wish” of the individual.
Individuals not only want to be happy and love life but they simultaneously destroy themselves and others. Death conquers life in that struggle: Freud says that the Christian commandment of “love thy neighbor as thyself” opens the wound because men don`s really love each other but rather make wars and kill each other. Culture would have to be a remedy to that destruction, to that “death wish”, or it would work with it. But it only achieves its suppression by repressing and operating on guilt. No one loves their neighbor instinctively, but culture rises above those contradictions. It tries to intensify the urge of Eros, love without sexual intentions, which contributes to the group`s cohesion.
Of these theses regarding culture, what can be pertinent about this vision in order to understand the twenty-first century and the future culture of Puerto Rico? We have evidence that war has not ceased although it has been transformed, globalized, and become more technological. Nevertheless, it continues to be violent and painful. We have also confirmed that globalization has enriched few and impoverished a majority; that there are a large number of human beings being displaced by war and misery.
Humanity, despite its “progress” has also produced devastation (such as global warming). However, the concept of sovereignty, the role of the Welfare State, and the development of technology with its impact on mass media, impose other considerations. Freud”s diagnosis continues to be pertinent. His vision highlights the obstacles we need to keep in mind when defining the cultural activities of human beings. The converted theses that culture tries to make all discontent disappear acts as a sedative, like a drug that relieves the pains of the Puerto Rican society while the social body disjoints because of its own inability to cure the symptom. Puerto Rican society shows many dysfunctional symptoms in the social and political environment. By denying its discontents and presenting a festive and smiling countenance, however, its body no longer has the transgressing power to combine phases of repression with periods of lavishness. All points to a disintegration of the structure of law and authority.
In Puerto Rico, the terms “culture” and “cultural activities” used by mass media, designates a diversity of productions that include craft work, as well as the commercial artistic and folklore sectors. It would be necessary to distinguish all manifestations and prioritize those that create uneasiness and tend toward “uselessness;” those that are of no interest to the market. We are not talking about the quality of those cultural expressions. It would not be necessary to oppose “high culture” against a “mass culture.” There is a complicated relationship between money and culture that confuses the relationship of society with its symptoms. For most, culture is another version of the consumption that tries to alleviate discontent rather than to point it out or think about it. What role does the State have? What should it promote? Is it superfluous to invest in culture? What relationship is there between culture and memory?
The term “culture” also possesses other meanings. It also refers to the legacy left by the previous generations, to memory and history. All generations receive a legacy, an inheritance, and with it what we could consider a transmitted memory: a generation gives something to the next, a patrimony, organized in terms of customs, religion, music, writings, arts, language, and a vision of the past, what we call history. But inheriting culture is not limited to learning by heart what we receive from the past. It is a legacy that we are given, because no one chooses where to be born, their language, customs, or history. All this is received at birth, before we are properly constituted as individuals. It has already been decided for us by our culture, group or family. We are subjects of culture.
It is not enough to receive that legacy. In order to inherit it well we should try to transform it. It would at least be necessary to reinterpret it. That process of studying, revisiting, reading and reinterpreting what is considered the cultural memory determines whether a country has a dynamic relationship with its past. You can remain passive, paralyzed with such a legacy. For example, folklore incurs in that practice when it tries to rescue a sacred past, because it forgets that the perception of somebody today won`t ever be that of the past. The past is somewhat unrecoverable. Historians reconstruct it from documents and extrapolate but they cannot have absolute certainty of what happened. Historians know this. Therefore, can we wonder what it is to inherit a culture, what is the role of the subjects faced with that legacy? In that sense, the task of culture would be to reinterpret that legacy, until it becomes unrecognizable. It is innovative and original how art and writing are always the result of a fusion between the legacy and the imaginative capacity that an artist or scientist possesses for storing them. We can say that memory is a task of culture. But, what is memory or History?
There is no longer such a thing as History, only an “official” version that is suspicious precisely because of being “official”: a possible version, among many, of what happened. History has always been presented from the point of view of those on top. Let us distrust it then. Today, we usually speak of representation. Every experience is told, narrated, and eventually represented. It is necessary to clarify this before rushing to think about contemporary culture. History doesn”t advance automatically. The passing of time doesn”t necessarily imply Progress.
“Man” has lost all relevance as a philosophical concept product of European humanism from the moment that it was demonstrated that the term stealthily designated a “white, European, rational, and virile man.” “Man” does not include us all, men and women. Therefore, it is not a concept that helps broaden our notion of democracy. In its place, human sciences today refer to “subjects” in order to designate a complicated cross between culture and their moral imprints, one the one hand, and individual autobiography and gender constructions on the other. The problems of language and representation determined that conceptual displacement.
French thinker Michel Foucault speaking of literature declares: “From then on (referring to the poet Mallarmé,] one can say that literature is the place in which man doesn`t cease to disappear for the benefit of language. Where man speaks he no longer exists.” Man doesn`t speak. Instead, language speaks for him; that is to say, he controls less than what he rationally plans to control when speaking. When he speaks, he does it in a language that is imposed on him, since he did not choose it. He drags a legacy given to him by culture, a legacy that is not chosen, and regulates him beyond what he knows. The subject, no longer “the man of reason,” rises in that difficult tension between the world he perceives with his senses, with his sexuality; and the world that he captures by means of language and that he must give meaning to. “Man no longer exists.” For that same reason, art, literature, philosophy, history, and science have transformed into reflections of their own disciplines. Definite knowledge and its production have been displaced.
Culture Critics and Professor
University of Puerto Rico- Río Piedras
Author: Proyectos FPH
Published: September 27, 2010.
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