Porousness and Culture Collecting

In his essay “Collecting Art and Culture”, James Clifford  writes about a moment when anthropologist Margaret Mead corresponded with Narakobi, a member of the Arapesh tribe who was also a law student in Australia. As part of Mead’s research on the Arapesh, their letters provided yet another wrinkle to her inquiry:

“She goes on to explain that Narakobi, along with the other Arapesh men studying in Australia, had ‘moved from one period in human culture to another’ as ‘individuals’. The Arapesh were ‘less tightly bound within a coherent culture’ than Manus [another tribe]. Narakobi writes, however, as a member of his ‘tribe’, speaking with pride of the values and accomplishments of his ‘clansfolk’…He articulates the possibility of a new multiterritorial ‘cultural identity: ‘I feel now that I can feel proud of my tribe and at the same time feel I belong not only to Papua-New Guinea, a nation to be, but the world community at large'”.

Mead insists on making Narakobi an anomaly. Instead of being an exception to the rule of Arapesh culture, what if Narakobi’s activity was the rule?

“Is not this modern way of being ‘Arapesh’ already prefigured in Mead’s earlier image of a resourceful native paging through The Golden Bough? Why must such behavior be marginalized or classed as ‘individual’ by the anthropological culture collector?”

It turns out that Mead, Clifford explains, “…found Arapesh receptivity to outside influences ‘annoying’. Their culture collecting complicated hers”.

A musical culture is always encountering outside influences. It is always collecting. Everyone within is porous. This goes against what Clifford calls “culture with a small c“:

“…culture with a small orders phenomena in ways that privilege the coherent, balanced, and ‘authentic’ aspects of shared life. Since the mid-nineteenth century, ideas of culture have gathered up those elements that seem to give continuity and depth to collective existence, seeing it whole rather than disputed, torn, intertextual, or syncretic”.

But the problem is that we engage with music in a disputed, torn, intertextual, and syncretic way; a lot like Narakobi and the Arapesh. This is the porous approach of culture collecting that any musician at any time engaged in.

Explaining a music with continuity has to close off possibilities that were open to it. It implies tight knit selection. Porousness contradicts the coherence that music histories and explanations try to emulate.

So would the goal be to resemble the Arapesh in examining musical cultures, be they our own or others? Could it even be to simply admit that the process is messy: that our culture collection of a composer is happening as she engages in or had engaged in her own culture collecting.


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