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Cultural Revivals

Critical Approaches

Scholarship on cultural revivals has been shaped by theoretical developments in three major areas: ethnicity, nationalism, and modernity. Since the work in the 1960s of Nathan Glazer and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, theories of ethnicity have regarded ethnic groups as "interest groups": ethnic identity is proposed, maintained, or solidified when political or economic gains accrue to the group through doing so, rather than because primordial ties, distinctive customs, and cultural heritage cannot be relinquished. While early scholars were interested in the persistence of ethnic identification among migrants in an assimilationist United States, subsequent Marxist anthropologists have focused on cultural revivals and ethnic nationalisms. They link them to competition between subnational communities over access to material resources and suggest that the uneven nature of capitalist expansion creates spaces in which marginalized groups bid for access to the benefits of development with culture operating as their symbolic legitimation and means of solidifying group loyalty.

Moving beyond this "instrumentalist" position, but also remaining skeptical of the "primordialist" claims of revivalists themselves, the insights of historians of nationalism have shed light on the crucial role of cultural practices, understandings, and performances in the formation and functioning of cultural revivals, and the affective experience of those involved in them. Like cultural revival, cultural nationalism is predicated on a supposed shared language, tradition, and culture, and an appeal to foundational history, which, no matter how artificially constructed (through the suppression of minority dialects, for example), is experienced as profoundly real and binding. The work of Benedict Anderson illuminated the cultural means through which the abstraction of nation produced for its members a sense of deep loyalty and belonging—an "imagined community"—otherwise absent in a secular, atomized, competitive, and individualist modernity. An influential collection by Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger similarly troubles the primordialist claims of cultural revivalism while pointing to its cultural and historical significance and the power of its appeal. The essayists in The Invention of Tradition argued that significant bodies of what we regard as "tradition" are, in fact, of comparatively modern origin, "responses to novel situations which take the form of reference to old situations, or which establish their own past by quasi-obligatory repetition" (p. 2). The editors proposed that the rapid changes and violent discontinuities of modernity (including the dislocations of diaspora, colonization, and forcible "modernization" that frequently occasion later attempts at cultural revival) called for the formalizations of tradition that "established and symbolized social cohesion or the membership of groups, real or artificial communities" through ritual performance (p. 9).

Postmodernist interpretations of cultural revival are premised on the axiom that "culture" is a text, which, like all texts, is an assemblage of signifiers from the sign systems of cultural discourse at large. While specific signifiers become attached to specific groups by social convention (a doughnut is associated with the United States, the attribution of heightened aesthetic sensibility attaches to the French), these relations are essentially arbitrary (doughnuts, for example, originated in Germany, and heightened aesthetic sensibility is a rhetorical proposition rather than an empirical claim). Arguments that specific signifiers authentically, naturally, or historically belong to a given group—the central claim of cultural revival—operate as "truth claims," attempts to secure and authorize a particular version of reality against possible competing versions. The irony of this analysis for cultural revivalists is that the cultural elements reclaimed by reviving groups can, more frequently than not, be proved to be integral aspects of the sign system of the dominant culture against which the revivalists stake their claim. The idea that an indigenous people lives in harmony with nature, for example, is a recurrent theme of cultural revivals and can be argued to have much more to do with postindustrial Western romantic structures of belief than with the historical lifeways of specific indigenous populations. (See Hanson for a concise, and later controversial, application of postmodernist analysis to Maori cultural revival). Theorists such as Dean MacCannell have gone further in suggesting that contemporary cultural revivals are not only semiotic constructions (like other cultural and ethnic identities), but that they are a uniquely postmodern phenomenon that he calls "reconstructed ethnicity," in which authenticity itself has taken on a commodity value. This fetishization of authenticity, he argues, stunts cultural agency and evacuates the particularity of local cultural expression, as groups come to project and identify with a generalized and interchangeable image of "traditional" values.

While some thinkers in the postmodernist or poststructuralist camp believe the essentialist logic of cultural revivalism—the idea that members of the group are distinguished by their unique possession of an inherent, authentic, and unchanging essence expressed through culture—to be an inherently unsound basis for a resistant politics, and devote their critical energies to discrediting such claims, others (among them, Gayatri Spivak) understand it to be a strategic necessity that can authorize beleaguered minorities (with "scrupulously conscientious" aims) to speak as political subjects within a dominant system.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Cosine to Cyano groupCultural Revivals - Critical Approaches, Fourth World Revivals, Ethnic Nationalisms And Race-centered Solidarities, Theoretical Trajectories And Contemporary Contexts