Cultural Revivals

views updated


The term cultural revival refers to the formation of group identity around a common culture, where a claim is forwarded that the aspects of culture with which the group identifies have been recovered after losses due to colonization, forced or voluntary relocation, oppression, or modernization. Cultural revival is predominantly associated with minority populations and frequently underwrites demands for rights, restitutions, and political or legal recognition as an ethnic group. Much scholarship on the subject has taken examples of cultural revival at face value, undertaking to document the strategies such groups employ and analyze the cultural practices and materials they recover. Work by historians, anthropologists, and sociologists in the 1980s and 1990s, however, theorized the phenomenon as a hallmark of social formations under capitalist modernity.

According to these scholars, cultural revival is a tactic pursuedconsciously or unconsciouslyby minority communities to consolidate political identity and gain recognition through an appeal to foundationalist cultural logicthat is, the belief that "authentic" traditions are unchanging and ancient, unique to and defining of a given community, and properly transmitted only to members of that group through heredity and ancestry.

Critical Approaches

Scholarship on cultural revivals has been shaped by theoretical developments in three major areas: ethnicity, nationalism, and modernity. Since the work in the 1960s of Nathan Glazer and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, theories of ethnicity have regarded ethnic groups as "interest groups": ethnic identity is proposed, maintained, or solidified when political or economic gains accrue to the group through doing so, rather than because primordial ties, distinctive customs, and cultural heritage cannot be relinquished. While early scholars were interested in the persistence of ethnic identification among migrants in an assimilationist United States, subsequent Marxist anthropologists have focused on cultural revivals and ethnic nationalisms. They link them to competition between subnational communities over access to material resources and suggest that the uneven nature of capitalist expansion creates spaces in which marginalized groups bid for access to the benefits of development with culture operating as their symbolic legitimation and means of solidifying group loyalty.

Moving beyond this "instrumentalist" position, but also remaining skeptical of the "primordialist" claims of revivalists themselves, the insights of historians of nationalism have shed light on the crucial role of cultural practices, understandings, and performances in the formation and functioning of cultural revivals, and the affective experience of those involved in them. Like cultural revival, cultural nationalism is predicated on a supposed shared language, tradition, and culture, and an appeal to foundational history, which, no matter how artificially constructed (through the suppression of minority dialects, for example), is experienced as profoundly real and binding. The work of Benedict Anderson illuminated the cultural means through which the abstraction of nation produced for its members a sense of deep loyalty and belongingan "imagined community"otherwise absent in a secular, atomized, competitive, and individualist modernity. An influential collection by Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger similarly troubles the primordialist claims of cultural revivalism while pointing to its cultural and historical significance and the power of its appeal. The essayists in The Invention of Tradition argued that significant bodies of what we regard as "tradition" are, in fact, of comparatively modern origin, "responses to novel situations which take the form of reference to old situations, or which establish their own past by quasi-obligatory repetition" (p. 2). The editors proposed that the rapid changes and violent discontinuities of modernity (including the dislocations of diaspora, colonization, and forcible "modernization" that frequently occasion later attempts at cultural revival) called for the formalizations of tradition that "established and symbolized social cohesion or the membership of groups, real or artificial communities" through ritual performance (p. 9).

Postmodernist interpretations of cultural revival are premised on the axiom that "culture" is a text, which, like all texts, is an assemblage of signifiers from the sign systems of cultural discourse at large. While specific signifiers become attached to specific groups by social convention (a doughnut is associated with the United States, the attribution of heightened aesthetic sensibility attaches to the French), these relations are essentially arbitrary (doughnuts, for example, originated in Germany, and heightened aesthetic sensibility is a rhetorical proposition rather than an empirical claim). Arguments that specific signifiers authentically, naturally, or historically belong to a given groupthe central claim of cultural revivaloperate as "truth claims," attempts to secure and authorize a particular version of reality against possible competing versions. The irony of this analysis for cultural revivalists is that the cultural elements reclaimed by reviving groups can, more frequently than not, be proved to be integral aspects of the sign system of the dominant culture against which the revivalists stake their claim. The idea that an indigenous people lives in harmony with nature, for example, is a recurrent theme of cultural revivals and can be argued to have much more to do with postindustrial Western romantic structures of belief than with the historical lifeways of specific indigenous populations. (See Hanson for a concise, and later controversial, application of postmodernist analysis to Maori cultural revival). Theorists such as Dean MacCannell have gone further in suggesting that contemporary cultural revivals are not only semiotic constructions (like other cultural and ethnic identities), but that they are a uniquely postmodern phenomenon that he calls "reconstructed ethnicity," in which authenticity itself has taken on a commodity value. This fetishization of authenticity, he argues, stunts cultural agency and evacuates the particularity of local cultural expression, as groups come to project and identify with a generalized and interchangeable image of "traditional" values.

While some thinkers in the postmodernist or poststructuralist camp believe the essentialist logic of cultural revivalismthe idea that members of the group are distinguished by their unique possession of an inherent, authentic, and unchanging essence expressed through cultureto be an inherently unsound basis for a resistant politics, and devote their critical energies to discrediting such claims, others (among them, Gayatri Spivak) understand it to be a strategic necessity that can authorize beleaguered minorities (with "scrupulously conscientious" aims) to speak as political subjects within a dominant system.

Fourth World Revivals

Perhaps the most dramatic and effective cultural revivals have been those of "Fourth World" populations, defined as indigenous peoples who hold the status of political and/or numerical minorities within the nation-states that encompass their ancestral territories. These groups include North American Indians, New Zealand Maori, Australian Aboriginal, Norwegian Sami, and many others. In these contexts, cultural revival appears as a logical response to histories of state-supported genocide, assimilation, and the disruption or prohibition of cultural practices. Where such state strategies attempted, usually deliberately, to erode ethnic allegiances that opposed state hegemony, cultural revival seeks to reconstruct these communities and networks as the first step in resistance to domination. It thus indirectly addresses the conditions of socioeconomic deprivation, prejudice, and lack of opportunity that have for these groups been the corollaries of colonization, by validating cultural identities devalued by dominant or colonial culture, and providing the basis for collective pride, unity, and action. The long-term sustainability of such initiatives, however, is frequently determined by existing institutional and governance structures, both within and outside the community in question.

An example of a successful Fourth World cultural revival is the case of New Zealand Maori. After the devastating losses of a century and a half of colonization, cultural assimilation, and urbanization, a "Maori renaissance," beginning in the 1970s, was centered around the fight for rights to land illegally taken during colonization and was inspired by independence movements in still-colonized territories and civil rights struggles in the United States. Early goals of this revival were the promotion of Maori language learning (spoken by less than one percentage point of the population in the 1970s) and the rehabilitation of knowledge of Maoritanga (Maori culture, custom, and identity), particularly among the youth of the community. In both of these matters, the Maori revival has been extremely effective, fostering Maori language use throughout the population and training a whole generation of Maori political leaders whose primary commitments are to their ethnic community and who understand themselves as acting in consonance with Maori priorities and customary protocol. Aided by the resilience and strength of tribal networks that survived the ravages of colonization, the united front presented by early protests forced a reconsideration of land-rights policy by the state, and subsequent restitution processes have led to the recognition of Maori cultural considerations as an integral element in national governance. While claims to authenticity were strategically important in legitimating the revival during its early stages, primordial arguments have given way with the securing of state recognition to a broad understanding that Maori culture is a living, inventive, and syncretic set of practices that provides a flexible basis for collective identity and action in changing conditions.

In contrast to these Fourth World examples, the rhetoric of cultural revival is rarely observed in postcolonial states where previously colonized ethnic groups have gained the power of self-governance, giving further credence to the theory that cultural revival is a tactic pursued predominantly by the politically marginal. In postcolonial states, culture-based claims are more likely to be suppressed in favor of the liberal individualist humanism that legitimates Western-style government, or alternatively, to be branded as divisive and backward.

Ethnic Nationalisms and Race-centered Solidarities

Similar processes of politically motivated cultural revival can be seen at work even in cases where cultural continuity has been violently severed, and collective heritage has been erased by historical traumas such as occupation or slavery. An example of this kind of revival is the race-based solidarity forged by black nationalists in the United States. Recognizing the failure of strategies of racial accommodation and integration in the face of continued structural oppression, black nationalism offered not only a framework for analysisthe black nation was colonized by white Americabut a strategy for resistance: collective, anticolonial struggle. Advocates such as Harold Cruse argued in the language of cultural nationalism, claiming that championing an autonomous cultural heritage would not only create unity in a vastly diverse population, but it would also foreground and counter the colonial exploitation and derogation of black culture by whites within the United States, with all its destructive psychological effects, and suggest radical alternatives to liberal accommodationism of civil rights. Movements such as the Harlem Renaissance, Negritude, and pan-Africanism were cultural revivals in that they recognized, celebrated, and discovered cultural continuities with a shared African heritage, fostered invented traditions (such as Kwanzaa), and authorized their ideological claims through reference to this resurgent culture.

Theoretical Trajectories and Contemporary Contexts

While it may seem at first glance that cultural revivals work to undermine the political hegemony of the nation-state, and oppose themselves to dominant cultural and economic interests, these relationships are complex and frequently ambivalent. A new generation of research on cultural revivals parses their role in the sociopolitical formations, economies, and belief systems of nations.

Antimodernism, revival, and the tourism and heritage industry.

Scholars have noted the constitutive place that appeals to lost heritage have in the rhetoric of modernity. If to be "modern" is to be severed from one's ethnic past and the holistic sense of community it represents, critiques of industrial modernity tend to be expressed through the idealization of heritage and the cultural integrity of "primitives" or "exotics." This yearning for a lost wholeness and authenticity results in support for salvage and preservation efforts that in turn present the "lost" or "recovered" cultural materials for the consumption of the dominant, modern culture, frequently as tourist or heritage attractions. The ironic structure of belief underpinning this process has been called "imperialist nostalgia"where imperialist or capitalist expansion causes the ongoing damage and erasure of traditional lifeways, and is "nostalgically" lamented by its agents even as they continue to perpetuate it, or "ethnological antimodernism," expressing one's commitment to the superiority and normativity of modernity through a romantic, consumerist overvaluation of "premodern" peoples and their cultures.

In material practice, this can lead to an uncomfortable symbiosis as the group in the process of cultural revival becomes a symbolic resource and economic asset for the very state that is responsible for their oppression as an ethnic minority. The power to articulate cultural identity, meanwhile, remains clearly in the hands of the state, the market, or the dominant ethnic interest: cultural identities are validated insofar as they conform to hegemonic agendas, and particular forms of cultural expression (a ritual, distinctive costume, or festival, for example) are selected for preservation and display while others are neglected or actively repressed. At best, cultural revival under these conditions can offer some minimal form of recognition, representation, or leverage that can be capitalized on by a minority group.

Theorists such as Barbara Kirschenblatt-Gimblett have elaborated these observations, suggesting that the action of naming and presenting a set of cultural practices as heritage constitutes in itself an ironic form of cultural revival. The culture that becomes "heritage" is both given a second life (endowed with cultural and economic value by its prospective consumers) and declared dead in the same gesture, as it enters the domain of cultures deemed to belong to "history." An instance of this is the preservation of closed Welsh coalmines by local governments with the aim of reconstituting them as tourist attractions that feature the lifeways and work of the colliers of a past age. This development strategy obviously has mixed implications for those for whom this way of life is a living concern and whose political energies are devoted to encouraging reinvestment in coal production by the British government.

Liberal multiculturalism.

Some scholars have examined the paradoxical codependence of cultural revivals and the states against which they articulate themselves through the lens of political discourse and juridical practice. Anthropologists such as Elizabeth Povinelli, drawing on work in radical political theory, have noted that liberal multiculturalism demands the demonstration of cultural difference to validate its prevailing ethic as a "rational, non-violent form of association based on competing knowledges and moral values" (p. 6). Yet the national recognition of difference is always conditional, disqualifying differences that prevailing morality finds repugnant, however irrationally, or that are incompatible with Western constructions of "tradition" (preferring, for example, continuity over revival, spiritual over economic or material orientation). This logic is particularly conspicuous in cases where revival is accompanied by legal procedures for restitution. As in the Aboriginal land hearings that Povinelli discusses, court proceedings function as public revival rituals, occasions for the collective demonstration of national repentance and the celebration of majority tolerance, which center paradoxically around the state's legislation of what constitutes "traditional custom," and its demand that aboriginals not only identify with but perform this version of culture as a prerequisite of their recognition as political subjects.

Globalization and revival.

The phenomenon of cultural revival is entering a new phase with the changes in social and political formation that accompany globalization, giving rise to cultural revivals that operate above the level of the nation-state, linking members of an ethnic group residing in geographically distant locations, and appealing for recognition not just to national governments but to transnational publics. Scholars of contemporary cultural revival are beginning to focus on the new strategies and discourses that emerge as revivals are shaped by their challenge to transnational rather than national relations of ethnicity and race, and operate predominantly through the dissemination of images and discourse in communications media, rather than through the immediacy of cultural performance and territorial sentiment. What new forms of affinity and belonging do global revivals draw on? What new ideas about culture do they produce, and which old ones do they perpetuate? These may well be the questions asked of cultural revival in the future.

See also Ethnicity and Race ; Ethnohistory, U.S. ; Modernity ; Nationalism ; Practices ; Tradition .


Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso, 1983.

Hanson, Allan. "The Making of the Maori: Culture Invention and Its Logic." American Anthropologist 91, no. 4 (1989): 890902.

Hobsbawm, Eric, and Terence Ranger, eds. The Invention of Tradition. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

Kirschenblatt-Gimblett, Barbara. Destination Culture: Tourism, Museums, and Heritage. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.

MacCannell, Dean. Empty Meeting Grounds: The Tourist Papers. London and New York: Routledge, 1992.

Omi, Michael, and Howard Winant. Racial Formation in the United States: From the 1960s to the 1980s. New York and London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1986.

Povinelli, Elizabeth A. The Cunning of Recognition: Indigenous Alterities and the Making of Australian Multiculturalism. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2002.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. The Post-Colonial Critic: Interviews, Strategies, Dialogues. Edited by Sarah Harasym. New York: Routledge, 1990.

Wilmsen, Edwin. "Introduction: Premises of Power in Ethnic Politics." In The Politics of Difference: Ethnic Premises in a World of Power, edited by Edwin N. Wilmsen and Patrick McAllister. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.

Wood, Robert. "Touristic Ethnicity: A Brief Itinerary." Ethnic and Racial Studies 21, no. 2 (1998): 218241.

Margaret Werry