Thursday, October 11, 2007

Kicking Around Culture

The color of your skin is not your culture. It may feel like it on occasion, and all the banging on about "white" or "brown" power – powers of every shade short of translucent – of "mighty white of you" or "browner than [e] looks" certainly makes it appear so. It's easier than listening to what someone says or sticking around long enough to see what they do, how they do it, and who and what are involved. It's also nonfunctionally divisive and bullshit.

If you're living in the year, if you are an American, you are part and parcel of American culture. You are not a subculture. You are not an addendum. You are a part of American culture. You may also be part of Ojibwe culture, or Chicago culture, Native in Chicago culture, punk or gaming or emo culture. American culture is not White. It is not White and Black. It is not defined by an accent or the shape of your nose, what television channel you watch or what newspaper you don't read, the color of your eyes or the texture of your hair.

American culture is a port culture. Due no doubt to generations of genocide, misinformation, slave markets going in many directions, immigration from the eastern hemisphere and travels around the Americas, due to passing and submission, and due defiantly enforced nationalistic or ethnic or social identities, it is a port culture; not a melting pot or a stew, but a busy kitchen where the soufflé may feel very separate from the teapot and its water and leaves, the cornbread may come to believe it is defined by the cast iron pan it is traditionally prepared in, or the knives that they are defined by their alloy or sheen and not their sharpness.

We speak of "walking between two worlds" or of being an ethnic "subculture" but is this the same as having a political public face and a secretive, honest, politic? Is this ethnic subculture in the same sense as a music scene or a sexuality? Am I the only one for whom the focus is reflexively on what I am not, rather than what I may be? How do you doubt what you are, unless it's a doubt of measure and not type?
Is subculture defined by diet, by mores or clothing? By historical example or an hour ago's? If a subculture can be an ethnicity, how to distinguish betwixt ethnic subculture and any other, or between the sub- variety of ethnicity and the default or primary? Is ethnicity defined by race, racial characteristics, or – in the case of mixed-racial individuals or those in diaspora, or simply moved from their traditional territories – is ethnicity defined in percentiles? Why did one invader's cultural matrix become our default and which one is that default? Are we still a British colony? Do the times when slaves outnumbered free citizens mean that we evolved out of a slave culture? Does seniority enter the picture, making us then a direct route from Native to now? What does pretending a Native identity even get us, beyond being a continental identity, and even that false? Pan-Indian movements may have political potency, but as cultural currency? As culture?

American culture is neither about the long-stranding strains or the newly arrived. Nor, even the leaving. American culture is a port culture; it is the exchange and the frisson that fuels, that gives it shape and directive. This may be painful, it may cause us to consistently doubt our own cultural definitions, to embrace or acknowledge elements we wish not to pertain to us, to our culture or our existence, but ultimately, we share the same space, the same television and radiowaves, without sacrificing any other cultural identity or set of reflexes. To be Native and American is not to be one or the other first, or to restructure one was the dominant and the other as subclause or subculture, any more than it would mean such to belong to a city's culture or any other nationality's.

To be Native American, to be African American or Asian American, Algerian or Korean American, cannot be taken to mean being a subset of American without retarding the functionality and beauty of what I consider that central conceit of American culture, the port sensibility, the mutable and frictional state. It is unnecessary to sacrifice any previous cultural complexes, any hereditary matrices, or to adopt a pseudo-anglican or germanic sensibility, to pretend that New York City is more American than Las Vegas, or Vegas more American than Pine Ridge.

Consecrating social pretenses, determinedly regulating cultural qualifiers for others or for self, tends to strangulate and degrade. It is detrimental. As on an individual basis, divisiveness, establishing inviolable rules and exclusionary strictures can drive any culture to be, in fact, infarct, and nonetheless is demonstrative of a paranoia of regression or death on the horizon. Why not, instead, embrace that we are in progress, that we are a living, potent culture that can take whatever is dished out, that can not only survive, sustain in the face of, but thrive on, anything. A proud culture can be efficiently omniphagic, unkillable and perpetual, without a sense that anything integral is ever being subsumed, ever lost.

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