Role Of Culture In Nation Identity Cultural Studies Essay

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The main debate set out by this question is how pertinent culture is in identifying a nation. This question is important because it debates how culture is no longer self-sustaining and not just the identity of a numbered few, but part of a much larger sector- the nation. Keeping in mind the delicate nature of the question, the essay will look at both sides of the argument, then draw upon the conclusion that culture's main use has become the performance and reflection of the identity of a nation.

The essay's main argument is the tug-of-war between culture's function as performing the identity of a community, neighbourhood, and that of a nation-state. The most significant aspect of the question, accordingly, raises the following query- what is culture's greatest use, and as defined by who, the people that perform the culture or the nation-states that dictate the use of culture? In answering the question, this essay will look at one major case study- the aboriginal Australian culture and the dimensions it is involved in with the Australian nation-state.

Before the essay answers the question however, it is important to define various terms. Culture is understood as encompassing a great number of 'things', therefore it is necessary to cap it off at a certain point for ease of understanding in the essay. Culture is defined here primarily as systems of knowledge shared by a group of people, the sum of totality of the learned behaviour of a group of people that are generally considered to be the tradition of that people and are transmitted from generation to generation. Two meanings of nation can be understood in this essay- one where "two men who are of the same nation if and only if they share the same culture, where culture in turn means a system of ideas and signs and associations and ways of behaving and communicating and the other where "two men are of the same nation if and only if they recognize each other as belonging to the same nation". A category of persons (say, occupants of a given territory, or speakers of a given language, for example) becomes a nation when the members of the category firmly recognize certain mutual rights and duties to each other in virtue of their shared membership of it. Evidently, both the nations in the above definitions are not the same- one may recognise that the other is from the same nation, but not necessarily the same culture. While the first definition presupposes culture as a base for a nation, the second definition relies on mutual recognition. In formulating the argument, the second definition of nation will be used (as it is understood as nation-state [it will be specified as nation-state]).

As can be already seen, culture and nation are two completely different entities which may not always go hand in hand with each other- what happens when only a few cultural traits are shared? More importantly, not every nation-state has a singular culture that is shared equally by everybody. Where does the recognition of mutual rights come in there? In the case of Australia itself there are, by the above definitions a plethora of nations but only one single nation-state. One of these nations would obviously be the aboriginal Australian 'nation', where a singular culture is shared between the aboriginals, yet due to insufficient mutual recognition (with the Australian nation-state) they do not form a nation.

The basic tenet of this whole debate can be brought down to a singular concept- that of othering. By definition, othering is a concept that defines and secures one's own positive identity through the stigmatisation of an "other". Whatever the markers of social differentiation that shape the meaning of "us" and "them," whether they are racial, geographic, ethnic, economic or ideological, there is always the danger that they will become the basis for a self-affirmation that depends upon the denigration of the other group. In this essay, the markers of differentiation can be clearly cut out as culture and various cultural practices. It is these markers that go on to eventually become the objects through which the 'other' is established.

The 'other' is an important theory for both aboriginals and the Australian nation-state. It is how one group recognises itself- through its difference with another group. Aboriginals recognise themselves as different to the white Australians through the different cultural practices, rituals and ways of life. Aboriginal culture, be it specific art forms, traditional musical instruments, mythology, or recreational sport is seen in direct contrast to mainstream Australian art, music, and sport precisely through the othering process- the aboriginal culture is precisely what the mainstream Australian culture is not.

Culture here takes on a new spin. It not only differentiates one from another, but serves a higher purpose. According to Appadurai, the production of a neighbourhood is an exercise of power over some sort of hostile and intimidating environment. Given the history behind the immigration of white Australians, it is evident how aboriginals would have banded together opposed to the unfriendly environment posed by the immigrants. For instance, soon after the first generation of aboriginals felt the effects of colonisation, it became evident that their landscape had been altered- deaths brought in from European diseases created gaps in the kinship system, left many children without close guardians, made marriage partners difficult to find, ceremonies hard to carry out and loss of valuable knowledge as many important elders had also died. Some of this anxiety remains in the ritual repetition of these moments, long after the foundational event of colonisation as is visible in the cultural practices that aboriginals still perform. Despite the steady assimilation of aboriginals in mainstream Australian society, they continue to retain a lot of cultural practices such as upholding the kinship system, older people teaching younger people traditional stories, hunting skills and fear of malevolent spirits. Moreover, the aboriginal community is recognised for its cultural conservatism in not changing its patterns of art, rites of cremation which have carried on for 40 000 years and mythology. Since this is exactly what defines the community, it is something that remains unchanged. Culture's function is, in this regard, to perform the identity of its practitioners, its own nation, to 'other' other communities.

But even nation-states use the 'othering' concept- in Gellner's words, it is not shared attributes, but mutual recognition of being from a common nation that separate members from non- members. A nation-state recognises itself as opposed to what another nation-state is not. Having a unique identity not only allows a nation-state to set itself apart from its contemporaries, but also marks what is exclusive to one nation- something another nation-state cannot have. And of course, culture is the primary bait used in identifying a nation-state. Culture, by this extension, becomes nationalism.

This point sets into motion another component of the debate- how good or bad nationalism is. In the first instance, nationalism can be seen as good precisely because it is a sentiment associated with a nation. What is of concern however, is the bad of it- nationalism can also be viewed as an irrational doctrine, which could acquire sufficient power so as to generate nationalist sentiments which may not be beneficial for all members of a nation-state. Reiterating a point made previously, social differences become the basis for self-affirmation that denigrates other groups. Nationalism in this sense becomes the striving to make culture and polity congruent, to endow a culture with its own political roof, and not more than one roof. This 'roof' consists of the ideologies and beliefs of the reigning majority and it is under this roof that decisions are made about which culture is to be pronounced as a nation-state's own. The most important factor here is that it has to be unique, so as to accurately represent a nation-state. But this is exactly where problems stem as well. Where there is a nation-state with plural cultures, how is the truest national culture decided? As mentioned before, the reigning majority, in this case the Australian nation-state presides over this decision. States seek to monopolize the moral resources of community, either by flatly claiming perfect coevality between nation and state or by systematically museumising and representing all the groups within them in a variety of heritage politics that seems remarkably uniform throughout the world. What ultimately happens is a homogenisation of cultures- while on the surface the state parades a multi-cultural front, behind the scenes there is a strong pressure to be part of the 'norm'- a singular dominant culture. Indeed this was the popular policy followed in the over decades in Australia where aboriginals were forcibly assimilated into mainstream white Australian society. Those not living in the way white people would have liked were called the 'the Aboriginal problem'. Children were forcibly separated from their parents by the state under the grounds of 'neglected and under incompetent guardianship'. Laws were put in place to facilitate the ease of removing the children. The Aborigines Welfare Board's report stated that when children were placed in a 'first class private home', the superior standard of life would 'pave the way for the absorption of these people into the general population'. Over time however, given the resistance, media criticism and vox populi, nation-states try to appease nations by exercising taxonomical control over difference; by creating various kinds of international spectacle to domesticate difference; and by seducing small groups with the fantasy of self-display on some sort of global or cosmopolitan stage. The first step that was possibly taken towards acknowledging the wrong doings of the state and appeasement was the apology rendered by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to the Stolen Generations.

But perhaps the best embodiment of Appadurai's statement was the movie Australia, a film that showcased the Stolen Generation during a time when it was most prominent (1930s). But this wasn't all. In 'embracing' the diverse aboriginal culture, the Australian Government also began an advertising campaign that promoted Australian tourism. In the past, tourism campaigns' foci would be centred around depicting Australia as a metropolitian nation with endless outback and exotic animals. In the recent years, given the embracing of the aboriginals the tack seems to have changed to one where the aboriginal culture is honoured and seen as deeply rooted within Australian society. While how the aboriginals perceive this is an entirely different matter, what is imperative is the nation state's attempt to project a culture (which up till recently wasn't considered worthy of being acknowledged) as it's own in an attempt to 'other' other cultures. A minor digression can be made to illustrate how the aboriginals now not only have to retain their identity and culture against other nations but also against the Australian nation-state, for it now claims aboriginal culture as part of its make-up.

Yet another point is the consequence of having identity as the greatest indicator of a nation- the increasing tensions between nation-states. It is a commonly known fact that culture is shared- at some point, similarities between cultures are inevitable. But when this culture is proportionately tied with the identity of a state, problems occur. This happens because each state's culture has to be different to that of another- aside from geographical boundaries, how else will one state know how it differs from another? This in turn causes immense issues. Case in point- Indonesia and Malaysia. Stemming from a mistake made by a private TV channel, Indonesia accused Malaysia of stealing its cultural heritage, which sparked a major row between the countries over who was the rightful owner of a few disputed songs, art and dances.

Ultimately, this is not a yes or no argument. The answer to this question depends on which situation one is looking at it from. As a performer of culture, one would believe that culture's greatest use is to set one sector apart from another, distinguishing one community from another and nothing more. Where a nation-state is involved however, culture becomes the state's property, something to use in validating its existence in opposition to another state. Culture becomes an important issue in the 'being' of a state.