Culture reinvestigated

If Cultural Essentialism means taking in faith and practice the ritualistic, ultra-denominational, racist, communitarian, and ideological aspect of religion for example to the extent of breeding hatred against others in the world we ought to share as living space, then the religious/cultural texts or doctrines of Essentialism must be re-analysed and deconstructed.


Azly Rahman

The festive season brings me to this argument I am having silently with myself: Must core values of a society be preserved, through the rites and rituals and pomp and pageantry of that elusive concept called ‘culture’? Race theorists would call for a debate between the ‘Essentialist’ and the ‘Progressive’ schools of thought on culture.

lewd vulgar sodomy stunt display by umno bn puteri umno supporters at permatang pauh nomination day 180808 01In looking at the question of Cultural Essentialism, the arguments for and against it, on whether adherence to this concept divides or unites, and lastly to offer my own view on this important concept, I begin with the general statement that “Cultural Essentialism” is the belief that in every civilised society or a cultural group, exists a core culture which governs the ‘life sustaining’ forces of that particular culture.

From the core, moral or religious doctrines are derived, cosmological views or metaphysical conceptions are drawn, knowledge bases are founded, principles and ethos are constructed, and socialising agents as cultural values transmitters are established. So that the core culture can continue to be passed down from one generation to the next in order for society to be maintained of its order and harmony although technological, political, economic, and ideological winds of change may be sweeping seasonally into the core culture’s residence.

African cultural theorist Peter J. Paris called it “religious social ethics” in which whose “goal has been that of providing a framework for a moral theory that fits the relevant historical data.” In summarising his work on the core values of the African people necessary to be rediscovered by the Afro-Americans, Paris called for a systematic transference of essential ideas about the culture; ideas which fit into the definition of a moral theory:

[A] moral theory of virtue requires a set of social conditions that will facilitate the realisation of its desired ends namely, the development of morally virtuous people. In other words, moral development is dependent on a community’s capacity to facilitate it. If for any reason a community fails to provide an environment that is conducive for the development of moral virtues the converse will certainly occur. That is to say, the moral character of the community will be reflected in the moral development of its children.

martin luther king crowd 170105We can discern through the quote above the Essential tenet of the core culture theory; a grand narrative to be passed down for cultural preservation. Paris’ illustration of the core cultural theory above can also be equated with those of Canadian philosopher of ethics Charles Taylor’s in Multiculturalism particularly in his the latter’s view on the “politics of recognition” as in the case of the French Canadians.

This to a certain extent is American culturalist Harry Belafonte’s view and prevalent in the preaching of many an Afro-American religious leader as such as Marcus Garvey and Dr Martin Luther King Jr (above).

Denying essence of ethics

If we construct arguments against Cultural Essentialism, we may be faced with a problematic spin. On the one hand, by rejecting entirely the value of tradition and grand narratives sacredly guarded by the elders, we may be denying the essence of the religious social ethics inherent in them.

On the other hand, by becoming an advocate of this concept, we may deny the ability of our postmodern self to utilise the power of our mind to deconstruct the excesses of traditional values and limit our ability to create newer paradigms; designing our own history and experimenting with personal narratives of the subaltern genre.

In summary, there are positive aspects of Essentialism which can be allowed to survive as much as there are excesses which must be made to die off.

My argument against core culture theory is that whilst values such as honesty, piety, religiosity, industriousness, peacefulness, and harmony must at all cost be guarded and transmitted, the ritualistic, paganistic, and “linguistic gatekeeping’ aspects of Cultural Essentialism must be deconstructed and reconstructed in order for irrational strands in the core values be withered away.

mawi concert 1 in kota bharu 041005 woman prayerIf Cultural Essentialism means taking in faith and practice the ritualistic, ultra-denominational, racist, communitarian, and ideological aspect of religion for example to the extent of breeding hatred against others in the world we ought to share as living space, then the religious/cultural texts or doctrines of Essentialism must be re-analysed and deconstructed.

If core culture means bowing down to rulers and leaders – religious and political – however corrupted they may be, then such Essentialism must be demystified so that rulers as such can be overthrown. If Essentialism means bowing down to man-made objects mistaken as god’s representation whereas worshipping must first be made onto oneself wherein the Forces within reign, then Paganistic Essentialism as such ought to be rejected. Did not god create human beings in god’s own image which means that whatever the image we carry as human beings must contain god’s attributes to be “rediscovered”, “reconstructed, “re-destroyed” and continually reconstructed then?

In such a conception of the Self, should not the case be that one need to worship one’s Inner Self which contains Inner Beauty, Love, Harmony, Peace, and the message of Sages and prophets within culminating in the so-called Image of god? I believe in this postmodern metaphysical concept of essentialism; that there are never-ending cycles and veils of interpretation of the Essence in oneself, the Inner Conscience, beyond any cultural and archetypal symbols to be passed down from one generation to another.

Einstein’s conception

malaysian chinese community people 170807 candlesIf Jesus is Love and Moses is Deliverance and Adam is the Father, how do we find meaning within these concepts and bring them “closer to our jugular vein” so that we may not merely in the pure Essentialist tradition, continue to believe that the stories in the Torah, Bible, and the Quran are stories of the peoples who live in times uncharted by modern history. We can then find the beauty in the story of Creation as it will be unveiled to us by the day in front of our eyes within our own conscious self in a subaltern narrative form – and not of one story of creation which is at odds with Einstein’s conception of the birth of the universe.

By bringing ourselves to such an understanding of Essentialism thus – one which is beyond cultural domain and ritualistic-paganistic advocacies – we may find that it ought to unite more than divide for the question then, must no longer be differences in some tribalistic “religious moral ethics” but one which is living, growing, and life-affirming within the universe of personal existence called “The Self”.

If there is the belief that we begin with Adam and Eve, we as a family of human beings must return to Perfection. Between Adam and such Perfection, in my conception of Essentialism, must lie the Evolving Self – one which lives not solely in the past nor in the future, but imperatively in the ever-changing present!

While the opinion in the article is mine, 
the comments are yours; 
present them rationally and ethically.