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.


      • Kamau Rashid, Ph.D.

        Hii ni swali nzuri (This is a good question). Asante kwa kuuliza (Thanks for asking).

        I think that part of the answer lies in our collective capacity to prioritize the preservation of our culture. This requires that we see ourselves as 1) a distinct cultural community; and 2) as a group whose survival, both in cultural and physical terms, is imperiled.

        This consciousness requires action, the second step. That action, I believe, necessitates that we build collective structures (i.e., institutions, organizations, informal associations, etc.) that are dedicated to the retention, reclamation, and refinement of our cultures.

        The third step calls for a scaling up of action, wherein we look decisively at the question of sustainability, which means that we have to see that our culture is not just related to the performative (music), aesthetic (visual art), kinesthetic (movement), or cosmological and ethical (i.e., religion or spirituality) aspects of culture. Culture was also the sum of the vital social systems needed by communities to survive. This means that culture included food production and distribution, governance, internal and external security, health care, transportation and logistics, housing, and textiles. Thus our efforts must be comprehensively linked with our efforts to support and concretize sovereignty in the world.

        Therefor central to cultural recovery is land, that is the physical spaces that are unambiguously committed to our collective charge. In this sense, number three requires us to build or rebuild the vital structures necessary for African life and well-being. This may require that we consider that some physical spaces are less conducive to such an endeavor. In fact we might consider that some spaces are deeply corrosive to such an endeavor. We, united in struggle must decide.

  1. Dr. Nyela Wells

    This piece is very eloquently stated and so unabashedly spoken. I am a recent graduate of the NLU Adult and Continuing Education doctoral program. Your work inspires me a great deal. I attended one of your presentations at NLU and I will continue to follow and learn from you.

    Thank you!

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