Transmission and the crisis of traditional cultures in the west

It is exceedingly difficult for traditional cultures to survive in the western context. This is due to three factors. First is the culture of mass-consumption, which seeks to reconstruct all cultural expressions into commodified form. Herein the extractive value of cultural practices is paramount, meaning how much profit can this practice deliver for its purveyors. This is a problem in a number of respects. First is that many traditional cultural practices did not evolve within a monetized context. Thus exchange mediums for their transfer did not exist. This means that often these cultural forms were a part of people’s lives. They were not something that was offered in exchange for something else. These exchanges, if they occurred at all were often indirect wherein a cultural practice was transmitted, and the instructors would be provided with needed resources so as to support their work. This is not necessarily compensation. It is more akin to to provisions for the continuation of a necessary element of life being provided.

The second problem is that many cultures do not possess within their asili (essence, ethos) existing conceptual or structural frameworks to maximize their exploitative capacity. In fact the very notion of exploitation, even in its most benign form, is not necessarily a cultural constant. Thus in cultures that do not possess such an asili, the commodification of cultural practice may not be a conceivable possibility. This is in part why Europeans have taken a primary role in the commodification and expropriation of cultural practices, lands, bodies, ideas of non-Western cultures. In many respects, these cultures did not traditionally possess a paradigm of exploitation against which they could both perceive their practices and themselves, which would serve as a first line of demarcation and defense against the predations of the west.

The second factor militating against the survival of traditional cultural forms is private property. This may seem trivial, but the allocation of land in western societies on the basis of private ownership undermines the communal basis of much of cultural life in many societies. This pertains to land, practices, and people–they were not owned by individuals, but rather fall within the purview of the collective in the most expansive terms conceivable–entailing the ancestors, the living, and the yet unborn. Thus land use was a collective endeavor, right, and obligation. Whether we are considering food production, housing, combative traditions, or so on, collective land provided the spatial context in which these practices evolved, were sustained, and were transmitted.

The transition to the western context occasions a number of challenges for practices that were devised in such a context. This entails problems of land access and land use. It also poses challenges with regards to the establishment of traditions that are linked to space. Here the issue of movement, land sales, land loss, failed transmission, and so forth constrains the emergence of true cultural centers enshrining transmission over dozens of generations as we would find in many non-Western contexts.

The third factor, and I believe the most impactful, is the estrangement of the youth from their communities, and with this the process of intergenerational transmission. This means that in many societies youth are estranged from their traditions, as their educations and career pursuits serves to delegitimize their ancestral traditions. The clearest and most devastating aspect of this is the process of brain drain as the intellectual resources of whole societies are siphoned off to fuel the economic engine of the west. While this process is useful for enabling western economies to access a steady stream of highly and semi-skilled labor, this practice also deprives many societies whose economies have been underdeveloped by capitalism to effectively utilize their human capital in their own transformation.

While we are accustomed to thinking about economics in terms of monetized exchanges, economics also consists, more broadly, of the production and distribution of resources. The transmission of knowledge is, in many respects, a form of economic exchange in that it pertains to the production and distribution of one of the most vital resources communities possess. Thus we might consider the economy of a traditional society as having its basis in two distinct domains–the land and its ability to support the life of the community and the people and their ability to work in concert to ensure their survival. the latter is in part a function of transmission, as their capacity to work or live cooperatively is also augmented by worldview and the ideational matrix which it provides. The disruption of processes of transmission is as deadly to a culture as the loss of arable land or water.

In conclusion, when we find traditional cultural practices in the west, they are often confounded by a confluence of these three factors. The monetization of culture optimally positions the consumer class of the west to partake in its dissemination. The inverse is that the diasporic communities connected to that practice often find themselves increasingly unable to participate in it due to the western economic model. The spatial dynamics that frame and enable the survival of cultural traditions is frequently undermined by the inability of diasporic communities to create communal contexts maximally conducive to processes of cultural refinement and transmission. In the absence of this, truncated processes of education are devised, but these are seldom equal to traditional practices. Finally, the youth are most susceptible to the process of westernization and a political-economy that serves to deemphasize the value of non-monetized cultural practices. Further their educations, often regardless of degree of attainment, fails to equip them to see themselves a vital members of collective cultures, nor does it enable them to facilitate a process of economic development germane to their traditional context. In short, their educations often miseducate them about their own realities in the interest of enabling them to serve the interests of the west.

Multidimensionality

Humans are multidimensional beings. We can think of this in several ways. One way that comes to mind is based on Michio Kaku’s theory of Hyperspace, wherein humans inhabit four dimensions of space-time (three spatial and one temporal dimension). From the experiential view, our existence is bound within the dynamics of physical space and the arcs of time through which we traverse. I argue that to actually know the human requires a comprehension of this four-dimensionality, as we are in a constant state of becoming.

We can also look at multidimensionality from the vantage point of African deep thought in two distinct ways. One way is with regards to the human scale, the other is with regards to the scale of the universe. I will offer two examples that address this concept on the human scale, and in a later work will examine this on the cosmic scale.

We can think of the human being as reflecting multiple, coalescing, distinct yet integrated facets. The Swahili and Bakongo concept of moyo illustrates this, as moyo has dual meanings. Its most basic meaning is the heart, while its deeper meaning is the life force or the bio-energetic dimension of the human.

Among the Yoruba we find at least two conceptualizations of multidimensionality. First is with regards to the mind itself, or most specifically the head, which is conceived in its most basic sense as ori. Ori is the head, but more than this, it represents the Yoruba idea of destiny, is the seat of the human personality, the locus of one’s character. Each human is believed to select their own head prior to their journey to Earth. Despite this act of agency, the heads are of varying quality, and the journey to the world reveals the imperfections of each ori. While taken literally this might suggest that humans are bound to a fixed unalterable destiny, however the Yoruba’s deep thought reveals that such is not the case. The Odu Ifa states that “If one’s destiny is unfortunate, perhaps one’s internal wisdom is not sufficient.” This suggests that human fate is malleable. Thus just as one might grow in knowledge, or improve one’s character, so too can one’s destiny be amended.

In addition to its role as a center of human consciousness, ori is also an orisha. If orisha is conceptually identical to nTr (netcher) in the culture of kmt (Kemet), which one might define as the totality of all things, then one’s ori represents both the consubstantiality of the human being–that is that humans are inseparable from the universe, not simply residing in the world, but being a fundamental expression of it. Therein ori also reflects the potential of the human being, one’s capacity, via struggle, to achieve one’s full potential, to fulfill one’s destiny. Thus ori, as orisha, represents one’s highest self. In this way, the Yoruba offer a compelling example of multidimensionality with regards to the human being. The human, or eniyan, is simultaneously corporeal and finite, yet inextricably transcendent. Thus in both the Swahili/Bakonogo concept of moyo, and the Yoruba concept of ori, we see the conceptualization of the corporeal and non-corporeal, the physical and the metaphysical, or perhaps the situatedness of human beings within the world and beyond its spatial bounds as an energetic quality.

Utamaduni (Culture)

Kawaida theory states that we are capable of absorbing cultural influences without being absorbed by the cultures from which these influences derive. However this requires that one have a cultural center from which discerning adaptations and augmentations may occur.

Institutions and Identity: Reflecting on Decolonizing Methodologies

I listened to a lecture by Linda Tuhiwai Smith on Decolonizing Methodologies while cleaning the refrigerator. It was rather stimulating. She addressed the ways in which other peoples are grappling with the same issues of identity, political power, cultural reclamation, and survival as are Africans globally. Two points resonated with me most: the imperative of independent institutions and the utility of sub-group identities (so-called “tribes) as units of social organization.

With respect to number one, we have sought to address this since the 17th Century, though I suspect that most of us have greater affinity with and knowledge of how this has played out since the 1960s. This imperative remains. There is no cultural institution (which is any all institutions, since culture is the totality of everything that humans produce) that exists outside of our purview that seeks to restore us as Africans to who and what we were prior to our encounter with Europeans. No matter how well-meaning or “charitable” the stewards of these alien institutions may be, we are culturally colonized. What’s more, most of the institutions under our purview do not see the necessity of our cultural restoration. We (and by “we” I mean those of us who are engaged with this “culture work” or perhaps more appropriately this Sankɔfa process of re-Africanization) are mining for fragments among the ruins and foraging for food in barren lands, while simultaneously seeking to reconstruct ourselves from the best of our collective past. The only effective vehicles for the expansion and intergenerational sustainability of this work however are our own cultural institutions, those institutions that are unambiguously committed to the reclamation of our culture and the restoration of our sovereignty in the world.

With respect to the second point, we spend far too much time seeking to explain ourselves to people who are hostile to our work. While I am all for educating and building bridges to members of the African community who are like-minded or sympathetic, we need not expend precious time or energy trying to convince people who are what Baba Mwalimu Baruti calls “lost souls” of the merit of our project. To use Ayi Kwei Armah’s analogy, no amount of water diverted to the desert will make it a wetland. Such changes are often illusory and short-lived. Our work should be to maximize our structural capacity, building those systems which have the greatest potential to both establish and expand our freedom, but also to educate our people and ourselves in the actual work of nationbuilding. We need a smaller unit of analysis than the approximately 38 million Africans that exist in the U.S. We need to create viable models of what our vision for our people looks like on the scale of dozens, hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands, and so on. We need to cheapen talk by demonstrating in word and deed our execution of our collective charge. We should anticipate an ever-widening circle of affinity, but make no mistake about it, at the center of that circle is the arduous toil of liberatory struggle. No amount of impassioned rhetoric, whether it is delivered oratorically or textually will suffice as a substitute. Those of us who consider ourselves nationalists, Pan-Africanists, socialists, and the like can ill-afford to believe that our works can only manifest themselves once they have gained the assent of the masses. Maroons freed themselves, fought the enemy, and created sovereign communities whilst the masses were in chains. We need to embrace maroonage as a living modality of struggle in situations where we constitute a numeric minority within a larger body. We need to embrace the cunning, work ethic, resolve, and objectives of the maroons–accepting nothing less than unfettered self-determination.

Abibifahodie!

Kheper and Maat: The Kemetic conception of the consubstantiality of the cosmos and humanity (an excerpt)

Yet we are reminded of Dr. Carruthers’s thinking about centrality of Maat as a governing principle in the affairs of humanity. Maat provided the basis for Kemetic governance, established the form and character of Kemetic deep thought, established the conceptual framework from which the Kemetyu (people of Kemet) studied the cosmos, and so on. Thus Maat’s role in the terrestrial (ty gbb or Earthly) sphere, like her role in the celestial, was the establishment of transcendent order. This is even apparent in periods of calamity or social upheaval, where Maat is invoked as the natural condition, which subsequent to the expulsion of isfet (disorder), must be restored. The ontological significance of this point cannot be understated, for while Maat is the antithesis of isfet, Maat is the natural and optimal condition of the world. Isfet is an aberration, one that can only be corrected via Maat’s reascension.

Just as Kheper represents an iterative cycle, this cycle is bound within the ethical and cosmological framework of Maat. And while the disruption of Maat may occasion the dominance of isfet during periods of crisis, isfet was always perceived as an ephemeral condition. This view was based on the worldview of the Kemetyu which viewed time on both the cosmic and social scales, cosmic time pertaining to the grand scale of happenings since the sep tepy, and social time pertaining to the affairs of humanity. These were not opposing temporal frameworks, as the sep tepy was frequently invoked as a standard via which Kemetic society could be measured. This is also evident with the invocation of weheme mesu (the repetition of the birth), which like the invocations of sep tepy called for a restoration of Maat in national life. This circumstance offers the greatest profundity with respect to the significance of these ideals for African people today.