Dr Juliette Tuakli


I agree with Appiah 100% about the irrepressible promiscuity of culture, I have always emphasized that insistence upon cultural purity is a recipe for cultural sterility. The most vigorous products, in the long run, are hybrids, and no culture that hopes to live long wants to inoculate itself against change. But, human nature being what it is, people always yearn for the reassurances of unchanging things, a yearning that reflects, I think, our hope for the immortality that will always elude us. Fear of change is fear of death. Both fears are as understandable as they are impotent.

On a practical level, however, there are difficulties with Appiah's argument for cultural promiscuity ("promiscuity" is a much better metaphor than "contamination," a scarier term with unpleasant connotations). The case against the cultural preservationists is not as simple as Appiah appears to make it, although in justice to him I have to confess that I have yet to read his entire article--I'll revise these conclusions if Appiah speaks meaningfully to my point. And my point is this: culture is a commodity as well as a process, and we would be foolish to leave cultural interchange to the mercy of the so-called free market. Appiah seems to believe that we would be much better off if we took a hands-off approach to the cultural marketplace. But that marketplace is rigged in favor of the rich and powerful (aka Hollywood and its counterparts in London, Tokyo, Berlin and Rome), as the French well know when they insist that a certain minimum percentage of movies shown in French theaters be French movies. Governments intervene in the making of culture in countless ways--through the languages and texts chosen for schools, through taxes and subsidies and grants of all kinds. And when governments do not intervene, private foundations, also known as very rich people, put their fat thumbs on the scales. Classical music , opera, poetry and most serious theater as we know it would disappear without government and foundation support. Appiah has defined cultural preservationism much too narrowly, and the figure he attacks is very much a straw man. Cultural preservationism for Appiah is the foolhardy attempt to inoculate certain privileged cultural expressions against change. But this attempt, however foolhardy, is simply part of a much larger competition for cultural prestige and the economic benefits that accrue from that prestige. Cultural preservationism is but one small facet of a much larger struggle for cultural prestige. Since I have little faith in the freedom of the cultural marketplace, I do not trust the free market model that Appiah seems to defend. His entire argument, now that I think of it, is rooted in the 19th century individualism of Mill.

So I say that cultural preservationism, like cultural promiscuity, has also always been with us. The question is not whether preservationism should be practiced. The question is how do we make preservationism serve cultural vitality . And of course everything depends on what we mean by "culture" and what we mean by "vitality." The irreducible difficulty of defining those key terms will always be with us. I have not even begun to touch on the fact that 5% of the USA's exports are cultural goods--films, CD's, books, video games, etc.