Tag Archives: language

Prolegomena to Australian Culture

The terrible “Australian” identity debate continues to stumbles around like a drunken bogan. I feel forced to comment because of the subtitle of this blog (the “cultural critic” part) and because of the pathetic nationalist culture statement made by the imbeciles and criminals based in Canberra.

I don’t want to dignify anything that they have said by even commenting on it. Instead this will be a partial prolegomena (I don’t believe the spell checker knew that word – “you know, prolegomena, the clarification of the ground in preparation for further discussion, as in Kant’s Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics” – thanks to Richard Meltzer’s Aesthetics of Rock for clarifying that). So before anyone says anything more there are a few things that need to be clarified.

Recently the word “culture” has been applied to many things from the “work culture of Systems Administrators” to “deaf culture”. Discussion of “Australian culture” assumes that culture is a singular noun and this may be a grammatical error. The word “culture” may be a collective noun like “water”, “wool” or “dust” so that you have “some culture” or a “lots of culture” and not “a culture” anymore than “a water”, or “a wool”. A quantitative examination is a better foundation for discussion of culture rather than an examination identifying a unit.

Culture is more than the arts; it includes language, education, science, ethics, etc. It is the way that people behave in business, in medicine, in government etc. The limited understanding in Australian major political parties culture policy reduces culture to the arts. This is a narrow, limited understanding of culture and it is typical of the lack of depth to most Australian politicians understanding. Artists are culture workers, that is people working directly on their culture and not as a by-product of a culture.

A culture has material expressions, e.g. fashion, food, figures of speech, activities that identifies and defines the culture to both it members and others. That is cultures have identifiable clothes, food, dance, customs and practices. Vague claims about “mateship” or “ANZAC spirit” are not evidence of a culture. Furthermore, while I am stating the obvious, neither are national constitution (flag, etc.) nor geography evidence of a culture.

A language, in and of itself, does not constitute a culture. There are many languages that have no culture: trade languages do not belong to any one culture but facilitates communication across cultures. Likewise computer languages facilitate operations and communication without belonging to a culture. English is a language that has become free, in the processes of attempting to global dominance, of its original culture. As a language, English, does not necessarily signify any culture but particular expressions can identify the culture of the speaker. Slang, in itself, is not evidence of a culture; a person speaking Singlish is no more authentically Singaporean than a person speaking standard English.

There is so much that could and should be noted: Why have a culture? How do cultures develop? Are all cultures equal? This will have to be part one of this prolegomena.

Unpopular Culture

Warning: may cause reader to think.

We all know, or at least, think that we know what is ‘popular culture’. Popular culture as distinct from high culture; does that the definition of popular culture implies that high culture is unpopular? Is there such a thing as ‘unpopular culture’?  If you took the warning labels seriously you would think that almost all culture is unpopular.

For example, almost all of the arts documentaries shown on the ABC and SBS about the visual arts, music or literature come with warning notices: nudity, drug references, and offensive language. Some of exhibitions that I attend come with warning labels about nudity or just things that might disturb some people.

In February of 2008 officials from the London Underground banned a poster with a 16th image of Venus by Lucas Cranach the Elder. The image was advertising an exhibition at the Royal Academy. Officials had originally said the poster breached their guidelines, which bars ads that “depict men, women or children in a sexual manner, or display nude or semi-nude figures in an overtly sexual context.” The London Underground changed their minds after MPs and other people started calling them idiots.

The Age (March 6, 2008) reports a parent’s complaint, supported by the Shadow education minister Martin Dixon, about a single word in Mark Haddon’s novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time. The novel is set reading for Year 7 at Melbourne’s Girl College. If teachers are not responsible enough to determine suitable reading for children then what qualifies other people to make that judgement?

Some of the CDs that I listen to have warning labels about “strong impact coarse language and/or themes”; we have Tipper Gore, Al Gore’s wife, to thank for these. Are these warning labels evidence of ‘unpopular culture’? I have a Fatboy Slim CD with a “warning: this recording contains explicit language”. The people who put the warning label there should have looked up a dictionary to find out what ‘explicit’ means but these self-righteous zombies are too self-righteous to be corrected by a dictionary. I think that they were trying to say was “this recording contains common language”.

These cultural warning labels exist because organizations have guidelines about cultural sensitivity and guidelines about suitability for juveniles. Protection from litigation is sometimes postulated, but this is dubious, as I have never heard of someone suing because they were shocked by a nude, course language or drug references. These guidelines are not based on expert opinion, such as teachers or academics, but are based on prejudices.

I don’t condone censorship in any form, including these euphemistic ‘guideless’. I don’t know of any evidence that these warnings are doing any good. But they do subtle harm, as I have shown in this entry, by prejudicial censoring, by implying danger through ‘warnings’ and by the institutional misuse of language. These institutions do not pander to my cultural sensitivity to censorship, nor to atheists desire not to be exposed their young children to images of Christian sadomasochism; the cultural sensitivities that the institutions do largely pander to are Puritanical wowser politics. The same political-religious forces that supported censorship have their opinions supported by these ‘guidelines’.

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