Sunday, November 01, 2009

Reality vs. Authenticity

I've said this regularly on this blog, but I'm going to say it again one more time, achokka' esta hu tungo' na para bai hu sangan este ta'lo: there is no such thing as authentic culture, and there is no culture which is authentic or pure.
I know this may come as a shock to some of you, but its completely true. No matter what you may think about yourself, your culture, your history or your people, they are not authentic now and never actually been authentic or pure. The idea of a people truly embodying or accepting or living "their culture" is not possible, there are always exceptions, always variations, always ways in which cultures are changing or being contested. It doesn't matter if you claim that your language and culture hasn't changed in a 1000 years, that in no way means you can claim any more authenticity than anyone else. The easy answer as to why this is the case is that culture simply doesn't work that way, for it to ever be pure or authentic. The longer answer can be found below.

Since Chamorros are one of those people in the world who gets treated like the morons who don't have any culture or are simply faker or posers when they do have culture, I end up having this conversation very often, even with Chamorros. The past few weeks have been no exception. There is this aura that Chamorros either have no culture, or don't have very much culture, and so when they try to embody their culture it's either this shameful charade of borrowing or simply "making things up" or it's this tragic display of ignorance akin to Bruce Willis' character in The Sixth Sense. Chamorros are a people who in truth died long ago, but continue to walk around under the false impression that they are still alive.

Anthropologically, the Pacific and Micronesia is commonsensically divided into two main indigenous groups, those who had kept their culture and could be studied as authentic embodiments of the ways that humans beings live and organize themselves. Because they had the "fortune" of being "untouched" by modernization, but also were perfectly isolated on their "little" islands, the study of them could not only glean important and accurate information about themselves, but also about humanity in general. Those who did not keep their culture, meaning those who were colonized, had another religion forced upon them, or started the "modernization" of their cultures earlier, are nothing but tragedies of history, they don't give us any accurate information about themselves or anyone else. In truth, they are nothing but petri dishes from which we can analyze their dominators, through which we can discuss the greatness of their exploits or the evil of their deeds.

So for instance, Guam is contrasted to other islands around it in Micronesia, and becomes the example of what it is like to not have a culture, whereas all others represent different variations of having and preserving and embodying one's culture. But the aura of authenticity that some can claim gi minagahet, has nothing to do with their cultures, but is all a part of the contrasting and differentiating that takes place between different cultures at different stages. So Guam becomes that model against which others can claim to have kept their culture, to be more authentic, to be more Pacific, more islander, however you want to articulate it.

This is something which nearly all people invested in the particularity of their culture miss. The idea of your culture being authentic all stems from the idea that it is derived from an original essence, that it has not been tainted or changed along the way but always remained the same.

First of all, common sense tells us that first, there is no such thing as the original form of a culture, and even if you decided that you did want to trace something back to the original form it took, you would find first, that what awaits you there is purely invention (people just made something up, or some people were doing something and others just decided to all do it as well), or that its completely different than the way things are now, simply because things change over time.

For instance, Chamorros are often told that they don't really have a language because of all the Spanish influence and American influence on the grammar and the vocabulary, in addition to the way the English language has simply made speaking Chamorro seem like a pointless or useless thing. The Chamorro from 500 years ago is very different than the Chamorro from 200 years ago, and is even different than the Chamorro of 60 years ago. So, in conceiving the evolution or progression of the Chamorro language, you see a number of traumatic breaks, which seem to signify that although some things in the language have remained, you cannot really say that the Chamorro today is the essence of what it use to be.

The problem with this however, is that the same can be said for any language. Even if there aren't a wide array of other tongues in your particular language, if someone who spoke your language 500 years ago were to hear you speak it now, they would probably call you inauthentic, simply because it wouldn't sound the same. It can't and it shouldn't sound the same, and its moronic that there is some assumption that in order to be authentic, a language should. No language or culture can or should remain the same for long periods of time, it goes against the obvious way that culture and time work. Things change, cultures change and that is another simple reason that there is no such thing as an original form of a culture.

Any argument on authenticity is always implicitly (this means whether the person arguing knows it or not), based on an assumption of a time from which a contemporary form is either continuously connected to or rudely disconnected from. But if Chamorros have a history which stretches back 4,000 years, then wouldn't the real original form be whatever those first people were like when they arrived in the Marianas oh so long ago? So, logically, according to this argument, even the Ancient Chamorros of the 16th century, right when the Spanish were first visiting Guam were most likely not authentic either, since they had no doubt changed quite a bit since being the first people to arrive on Guam.

Furthermore, even if you'd like to say that your people have never been influenced by the outside world and have kept their traditions strong and preserved, that doesn't address that cultures are always diverse, even if they are allegedly "isolated." There are always different ways that people identify themselves. For instance in the case of Guam, let me quote from an article on the "Transmission of Christianity into Chamorro Culture" that I wrote from the website Guampedia. It addresses this issue of how if you haven't been touched by the modern or outside world you are somehow pure or authentic:

Even 500 years ago, prior to Guam being colonized, when everyone on the island was who we would consider to be Chamorro, and the island had yet to be inundated with “foreign” influences, you would not find a pure, uniform culture. At that time, Chamorros divided and identified themselves based on issues of village, island, clan, spirits and belief. Each person, each clan, and each village might have very different ideas about who really is Chamorro, or what a Chamorro is or should be. This is the same today, as Chamorros are divided in a multitude of ways. There are Chamorro Catholics, Protestants, Mormons, and Baha’is. Different families have different practices for weddings and parties, and have different relationships to the land. Chamorro culture has always been diverse, even prior to “outside” influences.
But all this discussion completely misses the fact that any representation of culture is always ideal and usually has very little to do with the way people actually live. Every culture says that its people believe in respect, or have some sense of honor or obligation to family, or that they are hardworking. All cultures claim a similar set of positive traits as being the core for how they live, how they see themselves. We all make these claims, we all probably hope that these claims are true, but these ideas are never actually ones that you could determine the boundaries or the borders of a culture, or even accurately portray its spirit.

All cultures which claim to be about hardwork are also lazy, all who claim to be about respect are also full of disrespect, any who believe in family closeness...well you get the idea. Any of these positive assertions of what a culture is are ideal and not real. They don't capture the reality of a culture in any way at all, and if they did, then how do we explain all the inconsistencies and all the exceptions? Are those who sometimes disobey their parents, sometimes not really Chamorro? Are the families who are estranged from each other not really Chamorro families anymore?

But, the same also goes for practices and rituals. Most articulations of the way a culture is, come equipped with a certain list of practices through which we can determine who is really of that culture or not. But for every person you claim carries out these rituals faithfully and in full belief that this is what the people of that culture do, you can find someone who does not.

All cultures, whether they have been touched by "the taint of civilization" or not, are divided. They are heterogeneous and never homogeneous. Any attempt to argue that they are uniform, that they are authentic, that they persist in continuity with their original form is completely false. Any claim you can make to the people of a culture being like this, or all doing this certain thing, can easily be disproven. Any argument you can make that this thing is unique to us or belongs only to us, can be easily disproven as well. Even if you attempt to say that your people all look the same or talk or think the same, this can easily be disproven or complicated as well.

The difference between other cultures in Micronesia and Chamorros is that, the ways in which Chamorro culture has changed over time is clearer and sticks out more. Most people from other islands have no idea how their cultures have changed, borrowed or being influenced by others, but in the case of Guam, there are very significant moments or events, which allow the story of their cultural death to be easily disseminated and accepted. The traumatic colonial history of Guam allows other islanders to maintain their own fantasies about how they have been able to maintain their own cultures, whereas Chamorros have succumbed to the lures of Americanization and modernization and lost so much.

While you can argue about the maintenance of certain practices or ideas, no one can actually claim to have kept their culture in any original form. We can all preserve our languages, but no one can actually claim to be preserving their language in its original form, and no one should even try to claim that actually. We can protect certain rituals, art forms, but we should never delude ourselves into thinking that what we are protecting is the original form.

But this is something that always confuses me. I know that this drive exists to protect and preserve only that which comes from the original source, but I don't really understand why. If something is worth protecting, then protect it, and the originary essence of it, or the authenticity of it should have nothing to do with it, since its meaningless anyways, its all just an illusion. If you are committed to your people, then you should try to preserve what helps them, you should try to change what doesn't, and if things were lost along the way, you should have no qualms or regrets about trying to reinvent them or bring them back. Once you get rid of the stupidity of belief in authenticity, then you can actually see what you have. What is the universe of multiple meanings, relationships and overlapping practices that make up the mess which you pragmatically refer to as your culture?

Once you get past the lure of authenticity, than you can truly understand your culture, and the complex organism that it is. Authenticity stems far more from ego than anything else. It is something driven by the ego of a single person or a group within a culture, a way of asserting yourself as those who truly know or truly embody what that culture is. Or it is a way of establishing yourself as being truly cultured or truly possessing what makes you who you are, against others who don't have it.

Any plea or claim to the authenticity of culture moves it out of the real world and into the abstract world. There can be some comfort in claiming authenticity, because it can stand in for the actual practice of preservation or revitalization. But this means that at the same time, it can be your greatest enemy. If you claim to be authentic or be a part of something authentic, often times it will slip away or it will be slipping away right beneath your eyes. You will be too busy talking about how authentic you are to even notice that the world has changed beneath you, and that idealized image that you were proposing to everyone and seemed to vibrant and alive, is now faded, dusty old, and taibali. While you are speaking so proudly of how you kept all your traditions or your language, it is most likely slipping away from your very fingers. The idea of authenticity makes it seem like there is some spiritual power or destiny which maintains your culture for you. Even if you boast that you know how to preserve or protect your culture best and have done a fantastic job of it, that belief in your authenticity will sometimes blind you from seeing the obvious that culture is not simply something passed from one generation to the next, and you accept it and just send it on.

This is my final objection to any idea of culture as being inauthentic or authentic, is that this view tends to enable the idea which I was just critiquing in the previous sentence, and that culture should never be seen as some neutral force which is passed from one generation to the next. It is not ever a heritage in the sense of some clear essence that is just bestowed upon you, it is always a world of choices and a world of options. It is a gift from previous generations which you can never fully understand, which always appears to be changing, always appears to be on the verge of being lost or being threatened in some way. No matter what you do the cultures you claim will always change. But you nonetheless play a role in the direction it flows. If you choose you stop speaking a language, if you choose to teach it to your children. If you choose to continue a certain practice or let it languish, if you try to revive something that was lost, these are all acts which make up the tendencies of a culture. They are never acts from which you could make any real claim to how a culture is or what is authentic about it, but they nonetheless have an effect on what people think and feel and how they perceive themselves in the world.

So my advice to everyone, especially Chamorros is that when confronted with the choice between reality or authenticity, always choose reality. The most powerless people in the world are those who imagine that others dictate what their culture is or isn't. If we look at the case of Chamorros alone, we are horrendously stupid to accept the idea that we lost our culture long ago and that therefore we can have no claim to reviving it or dictating its course today. If we wish to bring back practices such as traditional navigation or anything else, there is no one who can tell us that we have no right to do so. If you wish to assert idealized visions of your culture, then do your best to ensure that you live as best as you can what you say. If you believe in inafa'maolek or respetu then live it, don't just speak it, but figure out how to live it as well. Not just amongst your family or your friends, but what does it become in terms of economy, politics, environment and so on?

Unu sinangan mas, ya pues fakpo': This is the very true secret of culture, an obvious one, which sadly we should all have stamped onto our foreheads: culture has always been, and always will be, whatever we choose to make of it.

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