By Ryan Hamadeh
An article I wrote that ponders the significance of Culture. What secrets inhabit this revered term. We use it abundantly in an ill defined way, but up close it reveals secrets which bestow meaning to our most profound perplexion. Countries to have lost their way in bitter war or societies that yearn for unity will find in the depth of time a long sought healer. How to find unity in ruins? Who can give way to a new beginning? Do the depth of time offer those secrets…
Culture, a term so intriguing but elusive, constitutional in its intention but evasive in its application, transcendent in its ideals but constricting in its appeal; we use it abundantly in an ill-defined vagueness to characterize imaginings, vagrant and unsubstantiated in their use. But close and attentive, it is the womb in which mankind’s expressions take shape, high and lofty they may get when Art, mother of mankind begets.
What about Culture? Why scour with curiosity a topic overused and over-mentioned? The term has become a characterization of any community or grouping of people with definite and particular traits, but can such a loose definition be applied to a foundational term? I chose to talk about this topic because it eludes us with the notion of unity; we come together in culture and grow from it, with it, purpose is bestowed, direction is given and unity oversees. Its harmonious quality and promise for elevation entice the curious mind; and in countries divided, where unity is sought, we look to places where the multiple can resolve, and hope in culture for a possible solve.
In this piece, I attempt to explore a few questions related to the notion of unity found in culture. The first part of the article will attempt to explore the notion of culture in its overarching aspect, it will inquire into the etymology of the term and investigate the role of the individual in society. Following, we will bring to light the importance of heritage, with a concentration towards historical ruins, and link it to the concept of culture. To conclude, a passage will be accorded to the role of antiquities in times of cultural revival.
Culture is defined according to the national center for textual and linguistic resources (Centre National des Ressources Textuelles et Linguistiques) as “the treatment of soil in light of agricultural production”. The literal meaning of the term seems to make reference to the act of engaging soil or a plot of land for the purposes of cultivation and production. As we look further, an additional definition for the term in its figurative sense is given: “the flowering of man’s natural disposition to rise above his initial condition and access individually or collectively a higher state”. Both the literal and the figurative definition of the word bring into play a few fundamental notions. The notion of conception is the first to come into play: prior to any resulting production or growth, we conceive our desired state. The second notion is action: we act on the soil and disturb it; we interfere onto a passive receptacle and change it. We might also extract a final notion, that of elevation: once transformation is in process, we access a new state, a different one, a higher one, one seemingly detached from the previous by which we perceive anew. If we acquaint ourselves with the Latin term cultura, derived from the word colere we discover a few additional notions, those being: to inhabit, to cultivate, to protect and to honour. Culture implies a habitat, a placement or abode from which transformation is given capacity; within this habitat, conceived intentions make us protect those elements that allow for transformation through honour’s regard into fruitful abundancy.
A brief look into the etymology of the word was needed to give us an orientational sense of the term culture. Unlike our previous definition, we come to realise that the act of cultivating is of central significance to the term. Our initial observation would have to be rendered false if we considered culture to simply imply a community of individuals carrying distinctive traits. For a society to take part in culture, it has to abide by tenants which render it worthy of the word. Culture is earned and not given, society strives towards culture to transform, improve and augment itself. As Cicero put it in his Tusculane Disputations: “However fertile a field may be, fruitless it will stay, when culture does not weigh”
“Culture is earned and not given, society strives towards culture to transform, improve and augment itself.”
Having made reference to the etymology of the word, we ought to stress that culture is in a perpetually dynamic relationship between itself and the individual which inhabits it. Both feed of each other and bestow meaning in a mutually reciprocal manner. Nevertheless, both the individual and his environing culture occupy different functions which can sometimes be at odds with each other, thus the concept of counter-culture. The individual is a being that is born into society; he receives from his environment and reacts to it, as such he forges a personal outlook which we call “representation”. He conceives this representation and knows it to be his, through it, a new normal is conceived by which judgement is given capacity. Culture on the other hand, is a social, artistic, ethical inheritance which has been formed deep in time and accumulates along its path the resonance of the present. Culture walks alongside time and informs the individual, whose perception of time is segmented, of those invisible forces which he ignores. Time has a memory which accumulates, swells and projects itself onto the present, and culture is the manifestation of this memory in time. The role of the individual, unlike culture, incarnates the dimension of change, whether it be in its constructive or destructive forms; culture, in opposition to the dimension of change incarnated by the individual, is conceived as a fixed measure of history that slowly adapts with time, it represents a fixed set of values linked to history. In this dual function, both the individual and his culture are in a constant state of creative dynamic relationship. The individual is not an isolated atom that acts untouched or unaffected, instead, he responds to those necessities which culture dictates through its intimate relationship with time.
“The individual is not an isolated atom that acts untouched or unaffected, instead, he responds to those necessities which culture dictates through its intimate relationship with time.”
Having looked into the etymology of the word and clarified the role of the individual in society from that of culture’s, we will now investigate the notion of heritage with an emphasis on the role of antiquities. Heritage, as the name suggests, implies all things, material and immaterial that we have inherited, be it our buildings, monuments, landscape, books, music, folklore, language, tradition or other. There is a fine line between culture and heritage; whereas culture also implies things brought down from the past, it has an additional dimension represented by its creative and transformational quality. Culture’s broader scope subsumes heritage within it. Heritage is multidimensional since it refers to a multitude of expressions brought down from the past. When heritage is conceived in its cultural form, it offers a historical orientation by which a people aim towards whether they are conscious of it or not. Cultural-heritage bestows a historical orientation because it manifests a thought process that aims in one direction and is nurtured by a system of values. Those values are associated with civilisations and each civilisation promotes a cultural conversation unique in kind and purpose; the West for instance occupied itself with the question of measure, proportion and universal law, whereas the East sought for man’s identity within the cosmos. The West’s cultural conversation, born out of the Greek narrative, placed the individual center stage from which they sought to understand the principles governing reality. The East’s focus was not on the individual per say but viewed the workings of the cosmos as immanent to this world, their focus sought to bring harmony with a cosmic reality. These diverging outlooks on life gave way to thought processes and value-systems that are unique to each civilisation.
“Cultural-heritage bestows a historical orientation because it manifests a thought process that aims in one direction and is nurtured by a system of values.”
“Having mentioned that civilisation emerge out of a cultural conversation which bestow a thought process and a value system, we can now proceed to talk about ancient ruins. Ancient ruins, with abundant elegance, defy the vicissitudes and decay of time, they stand there triumphant, dictating as it were the transcendent laws of eternity. They are the envy of every poet who covet their immortal allure; poets sit in silent contemplation, enchanted by their beauty undying, craving to uncover their eternal mysteries. Ancient ruins, far from being remnants of a past long gone, are active in the flow of the present moment; the initial creative act is embodied in their form and triggers a motion for posterity to assume. The posture which they exhibit, governed by idealised proportions are a manifestation of a creative mind that has pierced those governing principles to uncover universal truths. Through ruins, the geniuses of an age seek to retrace the forgotten steps of their ancestors; they begin by admiring the external beauty bequeathed to them, contemplating all aspects of its exterior to then absorb it by the mind’s eye once their sight have cessed to give way. From within, the mind takes charge and a new horizon is formed that transcends the temporal to strive for the eternal.
“Ancient ruins, far from being remnants of a past long gone, are active in the flow of the present moment; the initial creative act is embodied in their form and triggers a motion for posterity to assume.”
The beginning of the Renaissance in 14th century Italy saw poets yearn for the long-lost splendor of the Greco-Roman world. Dante in his famous trilogy calls upon Virgil, the Roman poet, to guide him to the elevated planes of the promised Paradiso. So does Petrarch, who finds in Cicero a promise for the new human age of the Renaissance. Both Dante and Petrarch entertain a lively, passionate relationship with the dead poets of the Roman age; Virgil is more life like to Dante than any of his contemporaries, Dante revives Virgil more than 1000 years after his death to lead the way in the mastery of his immortal work. Antiquities act in the same way, they offer a physical representation of an immortalised spirit, ready to be revived when conditions give way.
“Harmony requires truth since it is truth’s child.”
In an age when the poetical has lost all sense in favour of an artificial modernity, there is a pressing need to find anew the path to which we have fallen astray. In solitude and reverence do past spirits find new ground, and erecting such a ground should be a global effort, universal in scope. The dynamics which drive our international political scene has changed very little from ages past where dominance of the self is conceived as the only way forward. Creating a so-called peaceful outcome by imposing a homogeneous world view is the antitheses to the notion of peace since peace implies the harmony of the multiple through a shared effort for unity. But for such a harmonious international symphony to be erected, all countries should search to revive the authentic spirit of culture that is unique to each nation. Artificial modernity is no culture, it cannot build anything enduring or truthful in nature, and harmony requires truth since it is truth’s child.
Feature Image: The Parthenon by Frederic Edwin Church (1871)
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