Preserving Cultural Practices

Social intervention, social engineering (whatever its goal) is part and parcel of the sociological tradition. Sociology was born to understand social change, and steer it in a positive manner. Not so surprising if one considers how its founders, Comte, Saint-Simon e Spencer, all had a solid background in math and/or engineering. On the contrary, intervention is not part of classical anthropology (and of early ethnomusicology). That has dramatically changed in later years. The trend towards intervention (see for example what we call “applied ethnomusicology”) is today gaining momentum.  


In matters of preservation, protection and/or reviving endangered cultural practices,  I acutely feel my “divided self”, somewhat like Robert Schumann experienced the Florestan vs. Eusebius conflict withing his soul. The emotional and impulsive Florestan in me would like to preserve everything, and entirely incorporate the past into the present. And yet the more rational Eusebius maintains that it is not only objectively impossible, but probably not even desirable to do so. In the end, “my” Eusebius asks whether we should contemplate circumstances and establish criteria that help us decide when a musical tradition, or language, or cultural practice of any kind, could/should be let go, die, and – so to say – rest in peace.


The question leads me to think of my parents, whom I dearly loved, and who have been dead for a long time. I sure wish they could still be with me. And yet, if they could be revived – not as the old people they eventually became, but as they were in their 40s and 50s – it probably would be difficult for me to be the adult person I am now. I would have to recede into the role of the “son” of parents who would certainly worry about me, my choices, and would therefore wish to have a say on how I run my life. That is why, I guess, it is beneficial to each new generation that the previous generation at some point grows old and eventually dies.


Let me take it from a different angle. The idea that languages reflect different views of the world goes back at least to Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf. It has been controversial all along, but it would be hard to deny that languages reflect a detailed knowledge of the natural world: weather, animals, plants, medicine, etc. Once such languages disappear, the knowledge embedded in them is gone forever.  


It would be wonderful, wouldn't it, if Latin could have been preserved as a living language to this day. Latin, if still widely spoken, would make our contemporary world richer. Or would it? Just think of it. Had it been able to survive, we probably would not have the Italian, Spanish, and French, languages directly derived from Latin. And consequently we would not have Dante, Cervantes, or Proust. I therefore wonder whether we should accept that when a language has no longer much more to say, or when the world of which it was part of no longer exists, maybe, we should let it die. Clearly I am in contradiction because Florestan and Eusebius are both part of my “self”. So I take comfort in what Walt Whitman once wrote: “Do I contradict myself? … I am large, I contain multitudes!” 


Let us engage in a thought experiment, one of what we might call “what if” musicology. Just like it would be fascinating to experience Latin as a living tradition, so would it be to experience the Isorhythmic Motet or the Madrigal as living compositional practices. But, had they survived, would it have been possible to have Mozart's “Don Giovanni”, or “Bitches Brew” by Miles Davis? It is hard to say of course, except that whatever is alive and present, does take up social and mental space away for other things to exist. That may be one reason we forget, and let things drop into oblivion. Style Louis XVI would not have existed if Louis XV and Louis XIV had not gone out of fashion. 


I guess what I am getting at is nothing less than a “meditation on... death”. People die, and presumably will continue to do so. And yet death is something we can never really accept. Even in the domain of cultural artifacts or practices, the Florestan in us is constantly looking for the delusion of immortality. But if a cultural practice really is alive, should it not be reasonable to expect it to die at some point? Or do we wish to live in a universal museum where, one day, there may not be mental and social space for anything new? There can only be so many masterpieces in the world, so many great composers, so many musical genres... 


What I am trying to say should be apparent, I hope. I am not advocating deliberate destruction of anything, any more than I advocate murdering old-timers like myself. But there is a natural life span to all things – why should we wish to make things immortal? Even a work of art (and by no means I feel that “music” should necessarily be considered only an artistic endeavour – it is much more than that) really makes full sense at the time of its making. It may continue to make sense for some more time afterwards but, eventually, it is bound to lose the function and the meaning it had for those who originally produced it. New life can be created only if enough space is left for it by the old. Cultural practices, need social space to fulfill their function. Oral traditions well show how, in order to have new music, older styles and practices need to be progressively forgotten; although something of them may in some way survive; just like the phonological characteristics of disappeared languages re-surface in the speech habits of the newer languages replacing them.  


At this point I am reminded of Funes el Memorioso, the character invented by Jorge Luis Borges, a man who had complete and precise recall of everything he had ever seen. He knew by heart the forms of the southern clouds at dawn on 30th April 1882, and could compare them in his memory with the mottled streaks on a book in a Spanish binding he had seen only once. But at the same time, he lost the ability to make sense of these sights and comprehend that the generic symbol “dog” embraces so many unlike individuals of diverse size and form. It even bothered him that a dog at 3.14 pm seen from the side, should have the same name as the dog at 3.15 pm seen from the front. 


At any rate, just like animalists do their best to protect cats, dogs, dolphins and other likable animals, but do not come out in defense of cockroaches, I find it intriguing that not all cultural practices receive equal attention and protection, and are felt worthy of remembrance. Opera is kept alive with the oxygen tent, and a lot of public money (and when the past is kept alive through institutions, it always serves to maintain some form of power). On the contrary the loss of film genres is seldom lamented (nobody regrets that the “western” genre is only seldom cultivated, not to mention silent films). The Minstrel Show is dead, so is the Café Chantant, and nobody is making a fuss about it. Somehow they do not seem to fit into anybody’s political agenda.


And here I stop, at least, for the moment. 


January 2021