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Power and culture

July 19, 2010

Power and culture are mutually constitutive, but power has the upper hand.

Example: sovereign states today, with the power to monopolise the legitimate production of culture within their borders.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. culture geek permalink
    July 19, 2010 11:28 pm

    …but culture created the concept of the “sovereign state”. Discuss.

  2. July 20, 2010 8:29 am

    Thanks, culture geek.

    Yes, the notion of ‘sovereign state’ is a cultural artefact. Yet it is one that has had, and continues to have, huge cultural consequences around the globe. A sovereign state (e.g. Canada, Brazil, Germany) wields an enormous influence over the cultural lives of its citizens and permanent residents. It holds the monopoly, no less, over what counts as legitimate and illegitimate cultural practices and institutions within its borders.

    In all territories there will be resistance to, as well as support for, state interventions in the cultural realm, but ultimately it is the state that has the final say.

    (This applies particularly to strong states; the weaker the state, the less ability it has to intervene in the cultural lives of its own citizens).

  3. July 20, 2010 9:20 am

    personifying complex processes, interactions and relationships (better descriptions of “power” and “culture”) does not enlighten anyone. It is bad anthropology. At worst, this kind of language plays into the hands of powerful people who want to keep their privileged positions veiled in mystic status.

  4. July 20, 2010 11:18 am

    Hi Alex

    Thanks for posting. I think you may be taking my phrase ‘power has the upper hand’ too literally. I didn’t mean to say that there is a living being called power that has arms and legs. It was merely a shorthand (so to speak) to refer to how ‘powerful people’ (your apt phrase) have the ability to shape those ‘complex processes, interactions and relationships’ that unfold over a territory over which they exercise UN-given sovereignty (a virtual cultural monopoly). I hope my reply to culture geek makes this more clear.

    At the back of my mind were recent events in Spain, where the Constitutional Court in Madrid has recently curtailed Catalonia’s statute of autonomy, prompting a huge demonstration in Barcelona just over a week ago. Catalan culture (its entangled web of cultural practices and institutions) is -at least for the time being – inextricably tied to the Spanish state. Just as Catalonia is an autonomous political entity within the Kingdom of Spain, its culture is autonomous yet profoundly shaped by powerful state agents in Madrid and Barcelona. (NB – these are not the only cultural agents, but they are highly influential).

    The surest way for Catalonia to attain greater cultural distantiation from the rest of Iberia, I suggest, would be political independence. Witness, for instance, the cultural distinctiveness of Portugal (in its language, cuisine, music, education, etc.), attained since independence from Spain in the mid-seventeenth century.

  5. July 20, 2010 8:42 pm

    Power is not only the capacity of one actor to exert control over another, of course. Foucault and others would have something to say about intrinsic rather than extrinsic concepts of power …

  6. July 21, 2010 9:37 pm

    Hi Tim, good to see you here.

    I don’t think I’ve talked about exerting control but rather about shaping or influencing, namely about “‘powerful people’ who have “the ability to shape those ‘complex processes, interactions and relationships’ that unfold over a territory over which they exercise UN-given sovereignty”.

    This is not an extrinsic conception of power, it’s intrinsic to the cultural world in question. To continue with the Spanish example (but the same could be said of other strong states), the point I’m making is that Spanish politicians, financiers, media barons and other powerful agents are (a) embedded in the Spanish culture area (= polity) and (b) able from this privileged position to shape the (re)production of cultural practices and institutions (including laws) across the entire territory. They are both the products and co-producers of Spanish culture.

    I am not suggesting they are the sole cultural agents, only that they have a disproportionate amount of political, financial and cultural capital at their disposal.

  7. Valentine Lesele permalink
    July 26, 2010 10:31 am

    I am going to be a little bit out of the question but I need to know this. Do you think or believe that colonial forces have given up total power on former colonised countries? If yes, could you please provide me with examples and explainations. If no,state why.

    • Valentine Lesele permalink
      July 26, 2010 10:34 am

      I think I was not specific on my subject, focus more on the cultural side.

  8. July 26, 2010 2:49 pm

    I am no expert in the matter, but my understanding is that both France and Britain (to name the two largest former colonial rulers in Africa) have struggled to maintain as much influence as they can in the region amidst radically changed geopolitical conditions following the 1956 Suez disaster and their diminished standing as world powers, a protracted cold war, the rise of the EU and China as powerful players alongside the US, etc.

    Take France’s recent – and controversial – ‘honouring’ of the armed focers of 13 former colonies in Africa in Paris. This is from France’s Ministry of Defense:

    L’Afrique est l’invitée d’honneur du défilé militaire du 14 juillet 2010. Pour célébrer le 50e anniversaire des indépendances des pays africains, des unités de treize pays francophones d’Afrique descendront l’avenue des Champs-Elysées.

    « La présence de détachements des forces armées africaines sur les Champs-Élysées, leur défilé devant leurs aînés, anciens combattants de l’armée française, sera une image forte de cette année 2010 », avait déclaré le secrétaire d’Etat à la Défense et aux Anciens combattants, Hubert Falco, en avril dernier, à l’occasion du lancement du cycle « Force noire » au musée de l’Armée.

  9. July 27, 2010 10:08 am

    PS – what specific cases did you have in mind, Valentine?

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