Claude Lévi-Strauss : Between Cultures
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THE IMPORTANCE BETWEEN CULTURES
Below is Claude Lévi-Strauss's article on the importance of the relations between the cultures and to showing the complementarity between “allegiance to oneself”, and the necessity of “the opening to the others”, nevertheless often forced. On the other hand, an “opening to the others”, without the will to stay “faithful to oneself”, is not it a way of living as amnesic ? For people, to stay “faithful to oneself” is first of all to preserve the spoken and written language, indispensable base to develop its culture, for its evolution by exchanges with " the other cultures and for its perpetuity ".
Conservation, constraint and culture
(By Claude Lévi-Strauss)
It is good to raise problems, but we shall be careful not to believe that, by the way we raise them, they lead inevitably to a solution. Those formulated by the preparatory documents at the World Conference on the cultural policies are real and grave. We can, however, wonder if their statement does not cover contradictions seems on two plans. On one hand, « the allegiance to oneself » and « the opening to the others » are they really compatible, or is it necessary to recognize to it paradoxical terms? On the other hand, is there no contradiction to imagine that the originality and the creative power, which, by definition, have an internal source, can be aroused or stimulated by the outside ?
Let us consider both problems separately, before considering that both can be joined. On the first one, it is necessary first of all to call back some following points:
1). No any society nor culture can live in isolation any longer without ossifying or languishing, and in both cases decaying. The comparison between country of Europe and that of America in the XIVth century shows it well: on one side, a complex and enriched civilization by different contributions - rediscovered by the classical antiquity, the influences come from the Islam and from Far East following the crusades, tartar invasions, following the trade expeditions and the diplomatic missions; the other one, societies also produced by a long history, but since dozens millenniums had lived in closed vase on the scale of a continent. From where, in spite of a cultural development comparable to that of Europe and even in some respects superior, fragile blooms then fast failed, deficiencies and deformities, a social and mental organization without flexibility and less diversified, or we can see the causes of the collapse of the pre-Columbian civilizations in front of a few conquerors.
2). Nevertheless, the contacts and the exchanges between peoples, upon which we always have to call in order to take the blooming of the cultures, occurred in the past in occasional ways, and on a slow rhythm both by internal resistances and the mediocrity of the communications as well. In XVIIth and XVIIIth centuries, when a cosmopolitan culture blooms in Europe, it took time so that the great thinkers or the artists of the various countries can meet; even the letters as they addressed took weeks or months before reaching their addressee. Was not this slowness of the communications a positive factor, in the same way as the communication itself? A balance that came true so spontaneously between both tendencies of which the Unesco documents said it is the necessity: allegiance to oneself, and the opening to the others.
3) It is this balance which breaks today the speed of transportations and communications; these became even practically immediate. As a result every culture is submerged by the other culture productions: translations in books, albums, temporary exhibitions with continuous jet, which come to irritate and dull the taste, minimize the effort, blur the knowledge. We could almost say that, for every society or every culture, the contact from the others is so massive and so accelerated that nobody would know how to create for own account or renew with the same rhythm. Furthermore, the way of controlling the means of transportation and the communication unevenly distributed between the cultures, puts someone, deliberately or not, in favorable position to invade and dominate the others.
Maybe this "hypercommunication" is a pathological way appropriate for the contemporary societies; but it is also a fact which it would be vain to be able to oppose it. But be conscious of the results at least : it transforms more and more the individuals to be consumers rather than to be producers of culture; and paradoxically, this culture, which they consume passively, becomes poor and poor and original less, because the foreign cultures arrive and deprived of their authentic coolness, already contaminated and crossed because they received from the others and, mostly, from ours. Instead of between the cultures exist distinctive distances as in past, differences of potential among which everyone extracted the necessary energy for self development, the cultures tend to become slack, because between ones and anothers it already happends and continues any kinds of hybridizations.
Claiming to remedy out of that way, by getting cultures that they agree to respect and even taste the originality of each, would only be remaining on the same hillside. It would be underestimate that, according to Nietzsche's formula, « a strong will for its own yes and its own no » stimulate any creative effort: because the faith in appropriate values implies inevitably a certain deafness towards other values, until even refuse them. Every culture can remain only of itself the force to persevere in her being and to be renewed according to hers appropriate genius, at the risk of remaining closed from the others. Nietzsche continued: because if the capacity to appreciate another culture is a conquest, this conquest will always dangerous.
We could quote about contemporary societies where the young generations have no more means to make a simple idea in their authenticity of it were the big works, let us say theatrical or lyric, of their past. Of claimed "creators", in fact the productions of a rudimentary syncretism do not see any more in these works than a raw material that they assume the right to model in their whim. A culture constituted during the centuries cannot evolve any more nor even to question it, because we do not know any more what it is.
Maybe the best choice - at least, the least bad - is it the one made by the contemporary Japan of a culture for two speeds or, for another way, for two sectors: first, where it authorizes, it encourages even the interbreeding and the adventure, and where the novelists, the artists and the musicians who write, paint, sculpture or compose with the Westerner style have the free field; second, wildly reserved for preserving of the traditional culture. So they are protected - but for how long? - the conditions of a sincere creation: because we cannot decide where we shall go if we do not know, first, where do we come from.
We so fall into another problem. This one is also a paradoxical aspect: any creation supposes a will of conservation. He can exist of authentic creation only in a confrontation in constraints where the creator tries hard to turn and to surmount. Subjected to the fastidious rules of the former corporations - we know it, it made of bans more than prescriptions - the learning has never sterilized the invention's faculties. As still, sometimes, today in the Japanese system of the iemoto, the painters, the sculptors and the former artisans, formed in the hard workshop's discipline, bring the sensational proof of professions, passed on in the course of the generations by authority, did not exclude, but supported the creative genius.
A program of « promoting the individual's creativity » and to « favor their capacity to discover » does not have much of hope for theoretical constructions. It frames any plan in traditions and particular constraints in every culture and a long usage inherited from the past, is the best the appropriate to stimulate the creativity and to maintain it. Creating is always fighting against resistances: material, intellectual, moral, either social. Creating supposes first of all that we completely likened to a knowledge, summarizing the experience, accumulating in the course of the generations, in connections with a certain type of subject or object; then, that these resistances remains, otherwise claimed creation would be nothing: it would be enable to have a form, because it results from a deal between the project which remains vague of the creator and the obstacles it meets. These obstacles are those who oppose the artisan and the artist : materials, tools, technique; to the writer, the vocabulary, the grammar, the syntax; and to them all, the opinion and the customs. Claiming to free the creator of the inherent constraints to any reality - and the society is one - would not have more direction than to release the sculptor of the wood or stone constraints; or the writer of the language rules on which depends that he can simply make his readers understood.
It would also be necessary to clarify the meaning of the word "creativity". Is the creator the one who, in a absolute way, innovates, or the one who tries to enjoy by working for his own account, even if what he makes, the others made it before or make it as well as him? The big innovators are, of course, indispensable to the life and to the society's evolution. But, besides their gifts it could not depend only on the education that they received nor, more generally, from economic, social and moral conditions on which the reformer can act. We have to wonder how it would be a society which would like to make everyone of its members an innovator in power. Such a society could not progress nor even reproduce. Liking the novelty, not for her success which is always rare, but for the novelty itself, it would make cheap of her experiences, annoys that it would be to replacing relentlessly the other thing instead.
On the other hand, if we expect more modestly from everyone that he finds an intimate satisfaction in works, not absolutely original, but where he can invest his knowledge, his address, his personality. If we try to reintroduce in the industrial society, and to protect those which are not, a working quality excluding the routine and allowing all to feel creative. Then we shall recognize more easily that the society as those whom study the ethnologists, who does not have enough taste for the novelty, and all the ideal of which is to remain such as they imagine to have been created at the beginning of times, know nevertheless how to maintain their member a creative spirit. Each or almost is, indeed, able of producing by himself the craft objects of which he has, to hold his part in the songs and the dances, and even - it is with an uneven talent - to sculpture and to paint the religious or ceremonial objects in which we learnt to recognize of admirable oeuvres of art.
There are lessons we can take advantage from them. The organization that Unesco called the participants to the World Conference on the cultural policies is also a creation: creation of the conditions the most favorable to the creation itself. The danger would be to believe is only a question of eliminating barriers, of releasing a spontaneity which would lavish inexhaustibly its wealth since it would not be any more hindered: as if, in order to create, first you should not learn; as if, finally, the problem of the contemporary societies was not for some to look for, for the others to protect an implanting-root of traditions and disciplines which, negative and despicable towards the only systematic, expressing the fact that we never create that from something that it is necessary to know deeply and of which we have to be free first, it would be then able to oppose to it and exceed it.
In "Culture pour tous et pour tous les temps", Éditions Unesco, Paris 1984, pages 95 to 104.