Learning from folklore / Reversed colonialism 2.0

It is characteristic for folklore activities that they include people non regarding age, gender, or body shape. I’m at my son’s capoeira graduation, batizado, and I see kids, 50 year old men, young people, tall or small, skinny or heavily build people, all engaged in the same activities, each with his/her own personal style. It’s playful, concentrated and including.  In comparison, elite or popular cultural activities favour certain characteristics in people. Becoming a  ballet dancer is excluded if you are not build in a certain way. Being a pop singer requires that you are born with a certain look ( singing talent is less important..)
Popular cultural activities are normally judged according to numbers. It is important to know how many people attended the concert, bought the CD, etc. Elite cultural activities are judged according to their apparent ability to give the audience a transcendent experience. In that sense, pop culture parallels the mechanics of market economy,  and elite or avant-garde culture lends from religion. In both cases there is a clear division of labour, each part of the process being taken care of by specialists ensuring that the consumer/art lover understands that this particular product/ art work is ‘the best you can get’ (for the price).

In this dualistic scenario, with its clear division between producer and consumer of cultural products, conditions are fragile for both parts. The pop-expert-salesman and the art-expert-priest are dependent upon having a large number of people supporting them, buying their products or accepting their high placement in the hierarchy; the current crisis in the cultural industries stemming from the recent technological  developments, and the crisis for elite cultural institutions fighting to  maintain public funding, exhibit the frailties on the expert-producer side. The tragic life and recent death of yet another pop icon/ victim, Whitney Houston,  underlines the costs for individuals fuelling the all-devouring industry of pop.

From the perspective of the consumer, there is a corresponding fragility in the sense that deposing the responsibility and the capacity for cultural expression and development in the hands of a centralised elite leaves us ordinary people with few possibilities of making useful translations of our cultural experiences into valuable, lasting and socially sustainable  changes in our lives. The pop culture scheme provides us with one-size-fits-all solutions developed through a social darwinistic race towards ever more unattainable ideals for how you should look, feel and perform. The elite art scheme leaves you puzzled and without a clue until the art-expert-priest gives you the explanation that there is no explanation other than that the art work transcends your everyday life experience and brings you to a higher level of consciousness. Which you accept because you know that you don’t possess the decoding capacities to have direct access to this level without a guide/priest.

Learning from folklore

In contrast with the dualistic producer-consumer scheme, with its roots in industrial society, folklore activities give the participants much broader and socially sustainable options. Folklore thrives in communities  where government is more or less absent, or if present then in an oppressing way. In welfare states, like Denmark, government is very  present and most of the problem solving activities are institutionalized. This is very effective and it allocates time and energy for the individual to pursue his or her goals, which – according to our protestant-industrial ethics – is to excel in an expert function solving problems for others, so that they can allocate time for their individual  goals and so on.

The question is not why our folklore has died out and what we can do to revitalise it. This approach would at its best convert historical documentation into curious art-pop products, competing with the huge amount of products that have already won the race. It’s much more interesting to ask what folklore is made of and what capacities lie in us for doing it. Folklore as process, not product.

Folklore activities are embedded in collectives, with a large degree of diversity of the participants in age and gender. The different forms of what we term as dance, music, narration etc., are intertwined, with unclear boundaries between modes of production and perception. Since no money is involved, questions about authorship are superfluous. New forms are being developed in collective creative processes embedded in everyday life situations.  Folklore enhances the feeling  of belonging, of ownership, and since expertise is rooted in the collective itself,  there is a short path for each participant to autonomous reflection upon ‘how we do things here’ and there is a short path for making changes according to developments in other processes, such as pop culture,  technological developments, political changes, climate changes etc.

Seeing folklore not as a set of cultural forms and products, but as processes  in which we all have the capacities of engaging, opens up for a reflection on how we can find inspiration in folklore to change the current paradigm, based as it is on the producer-consumer dualism of industrialism.

How do we translate the capacities that folklore activities make apparent,  into activities that can create substantial changes in our individualistic and alienating welfare society?

The most common strategy, which has been active since the 1970ies, is a sort of reversed colonialism, where enthusiasts immerse themselves into folklore activities in different parts of the (third) world. Back home they serve as hard-working entrepreneurs,  establishing a local milieu for that specific folklore activity.
As is the case for my son’s capoeira group, some of these milieus succeed in bringing parts of the characteristics of folklore into the participants’ lives. Still, the imported folklore traditions do not really threaten status quo, since the existing structures for leisure activities gladly suck them in adding to the variety of harmless spare time activities. Local policies welcome them as they fit in with strategies for inclusion and diversity.
If the new elements of ‘ethnic’ expressions succeed in reaching a larger audience, it is in the form of spectacular shows, focusing on the performative aspects of the given activities, thus draining them of their inclusive and empowering sides.  Another way is when  pop culture parasites the expressions, carefully leaving  out  their subversive or reflective components.

Reversed colonialism 2.0

The failure of this, let’s call it first wave reversed colonialism, in (re)implementing the capacities for local communities in the welfare state of  being self-supplying in reflective, inclusive and open ended cultural activities, lies in the way that the pioneers of the movement(s) proceeded. By imitating the cultural forms, and copying the whole paraphernalia of clothes, language, colours etc, these milieus exposes the new influences for either rejection or exoticism. Hybridization is not an answer to this problem since the blending of the two systems will stem from a surface understanding of the new system based on criteria from the old.

In the aftermath of the financial crisis, a wave of new approaches to finding solutions to the challenges we face is rising. The central keyword is sustainability. Following the wave of ecological sustainability, (old-)new solutions to economic sustainability are now building up in the form of socioeconomic companies and collaborative consumption. With these version 2.0 of the ecological and economic movements of the 60ies and 70ies, it makes sense to look for a new development in social and cultural sustainability along the same lines.

A reversed colonialism 2.0 should focus, not on the surface aspects of folklore activities, but rather on the underlying processes of culturally and socially sustainable communities, where folklore thrives.

The What and How of cultural sustainability

The 2.0 of reversed colonialism has to do with a second level of reflection, that takes into account not the surface structures of third world folklore activities, but the generative capacities that we all have for cultural sustainability. The elements of folklore that are important for the what of this old-new project include:

  • The decentralisation of expertise. Knowledge about how to produce culture and how to reflect upon cultural production is monopolised in silos of experts in cultural production, diffusion and reflection. There is a need for empowerment on the local plane, enabling collectives to make qualified and reflected decisions about their cultural development.
Read Thomas Bretts post about the rise and fall of music-experts.
  • Inclusive and open ended processes. There is a need for challenging hierarchies of age, gender and minority/majority groups. We should learn from collectives where cultural processes are open for people across barriers and that are open to new influences from other processes, while including new elements through hybridisation.
  • Collaborative creative processes. The processes of cultural creation should be liberated from the grip of the assembly line model, and we must (re)learn to work in collectives, sensitive to local context, where the participants contribute according to their unique personal background and capacities.
  • Cross modality. In our current paradigm, there is a hierarchy of the modalities of expression/reception ranking the visual at the top, then the auditive, etc. We split activities that imply hearing, looking, moving, or tasting etc. up in different incompatible activities. Since our lives are embedded in a cascade of impressions, the myopic favouring of  one or two channels of perception impoverish our experiences, and the false splitting up of sensorial information in our cultural activities impedes a change in our culture of myopics. In culturally sustainable communities, any impulse can lead to activities in any combination of modalities, and an activity combining one set of modalities can be translated into a new set of modalities.
  • A broad concept of reflection. The logico-deductive way of thinking is child of the industrial paradigm, and binary thinking pervades our welfare societies within education, politics, production, and any area you can think of. A culturally sustainable approach flattens out the hierarchy of meaning making activities, and welcomes other kinds of reflection. Gesture, movement, sound, etc. are all possible vehicles for coding of unique information, the implication of which for innovation, cultural development and problem solving in general is highly underestimated in our era of stubborn rationalism.
  • Collective memory. Culturally sustainable communities have intelligent and diverse techniques for storing information about methods, tools and procedures for collective cross modal reflection. In our surface analysis of folklore, we talk about tradition, family and proximity, deploring the rootlessness of modern society. The challenge is to find adequate forms of storing both analogue and binary information in a way that allows us to retrieve useful information across time and space.
Key to the what of cultural sustainability is a flattening of the existing hierarchies within
  • modes of expression/perception (visual <> auditive <> movement)
  • in types of reflection (binary or analogue)
  • and in expertise (expert vs. consumer).

It is the redistribution or democratisation of the processes of cultural expression and it is their embedding in collectives. And it is the empowerment of these collectives, providing them with a ‘cultural filter’ through which new influences can be integrated, making the collectives adaptable to necessary changes, while safeguarding them from damaging attacks from outside political, cultural or commercial forces.

An impulse that might take one form or another according to context. Like this hybrid between flower and leaf, – what happened?

How can this be achieved? It doesn’t make sense to try to recreate the conditions of pre-industrial society, where local communities drew  upon tradition, family and religion for collective problem solving. These archaic entities simply do not have the flexibility any longer to include new elements and processes in the growing interrelatedness of our global societies in a sustainable way. The back-to-the-roots dream of first wave sustainability pioneers doesn’t do the trick. Our current solution, where we have deposited the responsibility for collective problem solving in ever growing mega-organisations certainly doesn’t either.
Let’s take the example of education: Solving the problem of preparing the next generation for developing healthy societies has been allocated to a silo called the school, totally isolated from the actual problem solving activities in the surrounding political, commercial or non-governmental organisations. Since we measure the outcome of this problem solving activity using a binary approach, we push schools towards an ever increasing focus on logico-deductive thinking, thus ruling out the other, analogue ways of reflection. Nevertheless, the actual problems our societies face are more and more complex and their solution requires cross modal thinking and a cross disciplinary approach.
Analogue approaches to evaluation need to be locally embedded, and they require broad skills from those who engage in understanding the scope and character of the problems, the solution of which should be in the hands of the same people who have this direct, analogue and reflected contact with the problems. Our current binary approach to evaluation contributes to the elephantiasis of our organisations with their myopic focus on each one specific problem to solve. Based on our market economy, each silo will fight for its on self-preservation, and there is no logical relationship between the scope and character of the solutions found and the size and relevance of the problems they solve.

The Where of cultural sustainability

Since our current paradigm keeps us busy in a vicious circle of evaluating according to binary approaches, expanding silos, and centralising problem solving activities, there seems to be little sense in trying to make the relevant changes from within the system.
Cultural processes have the capacity of flowing in and out of the other processes, setting up mirrors for the different problem solving activities, and functioning as interpreters between seemingly incompatible systems. They thrive where there is little regulation, in open and porous spaces, and as the central spaces are occupied by the silos, the sites that are left are the street and the web.
The challenge is how to direct all the vibrant energy from these sites into sustainable problem solving activities. Collaborative consumption  is an economically and ecologically sustainable way of solving the problem of distributing goods to ordinary people. Københavns Fødevarefællesskab, KBHFF, is a “member-based and member-driven food co-operative” in Copenhagen, Denmark. By taking this problem solving activity in their own hands, they not only become independent from the one-size-fits-all solutions of the food industry, but as a side effect, since the activities are on a local scale and based on volunteering, the co-operative also work as a vehicle for social sustainability. People meet, talk and collaborate across differences in age, gender and social/cultural backgrounds.
After three years of existence, the KBHFF now has 3 -4000 members, and it is a vibrant organisation that contributes to changes in the culture around food consumption. The backbone for this project is the Web, offering easy, flexible and accessible solutions to the organising of activities, and sharing of knowledge about procedures. The success of the project is probably due to the combination of a real life, socially sustainable element with a virtual, ‘procedurally sustainable’ element.
Learning from the model for collaborative consumption, we might look for the site for a change in our cultural sustainability in a sort of street/web hybrid, where procedures, methods, and tools for analogue reflection, or reflected expression through sound, movement and narration, are being developed in collectives that are locally active, but connected to similar collectives through the Web, the Web being the site for storing and diffusion of knowledge about the how and what of these culturally sustainable activities.
A search for a new cultural sustainability raises the following questions:
  • Who is going to kick-start it? What is the agency of change? Since the actors within the established silos of problem solving are busy administering a centralised bureaucracy of binary procedures, we might think that those working with artistic processes are the right ones to take up the task. Since the artists’ activities are still embedded in a dualistic production-consumption scheme, in order for these experts to be converted into facilitators of cultural sustainability, a radical recalibration of their approaches is needed. There is a huge resource of competency for analogue reflection in the activities of artists, that can be routed into problem solving activities in all areas, enhancing the building up of competencies needed for culturally self-sustaining communities and organisations.
  • How can we make it last? Since the institutions of family/tradition/religion are no longer able to maintain knowledge about cultural processes in a sustainable way, and since no anchoring in a local community seems possible, due to the atomised life style of our welfare society, how can we make sure that the lessons learned in building up cultural sustainability are not lost in the flow of events? It seems that the most important competency we must build up is our ability to handle virtuality. As opposed to the industrial paradigm, where the approach to problem solving required the building of physical walls, and the proliferation of physical products, a culturally sustainable approach must supply us with tools for handling the  ephemerality of analogue reflection. Actually, the tools are already there, the recent developments in technology having provided each of us with devices containing functionalities and infrastructure that makes us fully capable of create, distribute and reflect upon cultural activities in culturally sustainable collectives.

The technology is there. We just need to learn how to use it.


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