3rd Annual Encuentro Lima, Peru 2002
Seminar Course Project
|Interview with Lourdes Arizpe|
In her Key Note address, Doctor
Lourdes Arizpe highlighted issues of cultural preservation, as well as,
perpetuation through performance, around which the discussion revolve
at the political level, within national cultural commissions and the United
Nations. (link to speech).
Doctor Lourdes Arizpe, is a
Professor of Anthropology at La
Could you tell us how you
began your interest in bringing cultural
Dr. Arizpe: Thank you for your invitation to be here. What I can tell you is that I had been working on culture for many, many years now and it was actually a group in Latin America, that in the 1970's began to discuss culture in relation to politics. At this time, we were also finding that anthropologists in India, in many African countries were also finding in their research that cultures were changing very rapidly and many, many cultural elements were being lost in this transformation. So, we started looking for ways in which development could be incorporated into cultures, in such a way that whatever the people wanted to preserve, conserve, of their cultures, could be still safe guarded, while at the same time, people could become modern in the new sense.
I used the word "acted" as Assistant Director General of UNESCO....
Dr. Arizpe: I noticed that....
And I did so very specifically because you talk about your "performance", and the performance level of political interaction. Is there room for more performance in politics?
Dr. Arizpe: Oh, I think politics is a performance, because in politics, politicians have to convince people and so they have to act in a certain way according to different audiences. So I think its inherent to whatever politicians do, but its never, of course, considered a performance, it is considered a political capacity. When you have political capacity, it means that you can convince anybody of anything. But it is very interesting to see how one has to develop this ability to perform with different audiences. In my case, I remember very well, the very first field work that I went to as a student. I was left by my supervisor in a little village, in front of the houses and she said, "Well, go ahead, knock on the door and do your survey.'" And I remember knocking on the door and having no idea how to talk to a farmer, a Mexican farmer. And there I slowly began to learn how to speak to them, until it became a second nature to me and it became a second nature to me to be able to learn the languages of many, many different groups. This is an art, it is what in Spanish we call, oficio, and I find there is no English equivalent for that word, which means learning how do something. In French, it's le metier, in English it would be the 'know-how," but its not exactly that. So, it is an oficio, to learn to be able to speak to anyone, whether they are farmers, or artists, or intellectuals or politicians or diplomats. And this I find an enormous enriching of one's personality.
Do you discuss that with the people that you learn about, do you discuss your uncertainty. In that case, when you were a student, were you able to discuss that with the people you were working with, to be able to bring the understanding to another level?
Dr. Arizpe: That's a good question. I think basically what I did, is a developed empathy, which as you know, is one of the principles of the anthropological method. If you don't have empathy with the people that you speak to, you can not really understand their language and I mean not language in terms of words, you can always understand words. In order to understand what is behind the words, the sense in which people are saying things, you have to have empathy. I think that's the most important thing. And I would say that I am now capable of having empathy practically with all kinds of audiences, although there are certain audiences that I can not empathize with, of course, because there are cultural practices that I don't agree with. But I think that learning to speak and especially to convince, because the whole first part of my work has been research, so it was only observing and then of course, I very much participated, since the 70's and 80's, I think that all anthropologists realized that they were a part of whatever they were studying. So, in that sense, we don't do participant observation, we do observation and participation at the same time. So in that sense, you must always be conscious that you are part of whatever process you are looking at. But what is important is, to be able to read that subtext of different discourses that you are listening to and that you helping to construct. That's the other very interesting thing about being a researcher, that you are constructing an interpretation of the world, which one finds, much to one's surprise, that it becomes the standard way of understanding something. And, in my case, I have found that some of my books have become school texts, and now they are taken as the 'truth' which is a bit disquieting because one knows that in constructing a discourse, there are always things that one leaves out. That you can not describe reality, without in a sense condensing it and in that condensation, there is always a selection. To the best of our ability, that selection must always be based on solid theory and a very deep knowledge of a subject you are studying. But it is in the end a selection, and every generation has a way of selecting and this is why in the social sciences and humanities that it's the accumulation, generation after generation, that really allows us to go deeper into an understanding of the world and of people.
How often do the negotiations return back to the originating place? For instance, you have a discourse on culture and things are decided, is there a two -way street for that? Is there a two-way flow of information that what is decided at that level can, I guess in a way be "peer reviewed" by the people who are actually manifesting that culture?
Doctor Arizpe: That's a very complicated question. When I arrived at UNESCO, which would be sort of the top level of international negotiations, and I heard the ambassadors speaking around a table, I would suddenly say, "I have been to the villages, I know what is happening in the villages, these people are not realizing what is happening in the village, what they're discussing has nothing to do with what's happening in the village." And slowly I began to realize that it does. What happens is that there are all these different levels of negotiation. But at each of the levels there is a different dynamic of negotiation, which unless the negotiation goes well, you don't go to the next level. so that actually although there might not be a lot of information from the village to the top international political organizations, the basic questions of local peoples do get to the highest level. There are of course, instances where in some countries, the political power is so centralized that they have no impact on what happens at the village level and that is where things go absolutely wrong. But even there, it happened to me, it used to surprise me , when I received letters sent to UNESCO, from villagers in Uruguay saying that they had read that UNESCO had brought out a document which would protect a certain kind of cultural site and that they would like to have more information so that they could pressure their government into taking it into account. Which was lovely because UNESCO does have this possibility. And in the beginning, this was built into the governing structure of UNESCO because there was government representation, which as usually made up of great intellectuals, great poets, they were all ambassadors to UNESCO. This changed in the 1980's when the United States left and governments decided that they wanted to control much more of what UNESCO did. So now it's strictly governmental representation, now that has changed the picture of UNESCO completely. So you now have that strictly governmental representation, but at the same time there is this awareness in UNESCO from the very beginning that civil society had to be represented. And so, unlike the United Nations headquarters, which is only governmental representation, as Javier Perez Aquillar has said may times, it's not the United Nations, its the United governments. So unlike the United Nations headquarters, UNESCO made an effort at having national commissions in every country, where civil society and especially, artists and creators would be represented. This has worked very well in some countries. Unfortunately, in may other countries, it hasn't worked, because instead of this being a commission which is elected by the artistic constituencies, the cultural constituencies, the educator constituencies, they are appointed my ministers and so you don't really get the representation of civil society. But the idea is that the national commissions would bring the voice of all of the different constituencies in the country to UNESCO and then one could negotiate between the governmental and civil society. This has not worked as well as it should so it is time for a renewal and it is time for bringing back into UNESCO, the constituencies of young people from all over, all countries, from civil society. So this is needed, there is great awareness that this is needed, but of course, this being international politics, it becomes very complicated. How to transform? How to reinvent? Because this is what is needed to be done.
You spoke about concepts that people might consider either abstract, such as the intangibles of patrimony, as well as having defined certain things. I think there are people who take a bit of umbrage at that idea, that "who has the right to define?" But it seems that is creates a necessary tension, that part and parcel of definition is tension, a positive form of tension. How can performance play a role in embodying the abstracts of those concepts and also in keeping the dynamic alive of the definition?
Is there a place for mourning in culture? Some aspects are not preserved, through lack of resource, change of environment. Is there a place within peoples to express mourning for those losses through performance or at a political level?
Dr. Arizpe: That's a lovely way to put it. I think there is space for mourning, because it is impossible to keep everything. What's interesting is that there are some cultures that are not concerned with keeping. I remember when I was in India, in a Minachi temple, and I saw this beautiful sculpture of Shiva and people were touching it, and putting ointments on it. And I was shocked, I said, "Well, you should put this in a museum!'" And my friend looked at me and smiled, an Indian friend, and said, "Why should we? We can do it again." And that opened a whole new way of looking at cultural heritage for me, because humans can do it again. However, there are great, great works of art, of architecture, that are worth preserving, they are masterpieces which might be done again, but not in the same way. So it is worth conserving that which was done by masters and mistresses, men and women, who had the highest level of quality of art. And there are some things that simply will have to be recorded and left and mourned. It is estimated that there are some 6,000 languages in the world today and what is extraordinary and this is the reason I say we are at a historical crossroads in terms of cultures, is that about half of these languages are going to be lost in the next thirty years. So there is an enormous reason to mourn. We can record as many of these languages as possible, but we can not keep them all. And I always remember a story by Jorge Luis Borges, called Funes, el memorioso, where he describes a man who gets up in the morning and suddenly he has lost the capacity to forget. So he remembers everything. He remembers when he gets up, when he takes a shower, when he comes out the door, puts the key in the key hole, shuts the door, and at the end of the day, he goes out of his mind, because we don't have the storage capacity to remember everything that we do. Even in a single day. So you can imagine, we are six billion people, we can not remember every creative or performative act of so many cultures, some must be left to the side and we must keep walking, forward, into another cultural future.
In this seminar, what would you like to keep walking into the future and what would we leave behind? Well, we'll take the positive..what would you like to walk away from this seminar with or have participants walk away with?
Dr. Arizpe: I would say, walk away with the liberty of creation that one feels at the seminar because this is the key to everything. The key to a better world is not conserving everything that exists, it is not taking care that things stay as they are. It is creating a new world. The new world is happening, right? It is very different to have different processes, like trade and financial flows that change our lives, or have this invasion of new images, through telecommunications, multimedia, tourism, migrations. It is another thing to be self-reflexive about the changes that are happening in the world today and we are far behind in this relation, because there are so many forces that just want to get ahead with economic globalization, with democratization of different countries, with everyone having a certain standard of life and certain access to things. Yes, but that is not enough. We need meaning. I see a great challenge today in finding new meanings because so many conflicts that we see, so many desperate acts come from the fact that people are no longer finding new meaning. And they are not finding any meaning, because the constitutive aspects of culture have been completely left out of development models and completely left out of contemporary politics. Contemporary politics is about managing; managing globalization, and giving no attention at all to thinking globalization and thinking about the world. And unless we think about the world and find new meanings, philosophical, ethical, social, so that there is some reason to continue to be alive and living in a community, I think we are going to go into the wrong road. It is very important that we find again this capacity to think about the world and performance is a way of thinking about the world because it is expressing an experience, an idea, a vision, and being able to have an immediate response from the people who are watching. It is this liberty of instantaneous response that is going to bring about the new things that we need, these new meanings, so this is why I have always kept insisting that culture, at this moment, in the contemporary world, is so extremely important. Because unless we become self-reflective, unless there is more support given for this kind of philosophical and ethical explorations, we are going to end up in a world that might have very modern economic or political process, but where people will not find a meaning and a way of living in this world.