December 15, 2012 § 2 Comments
I published recently a transcript of a radio documentary I had made that explored the question of ‘Who owns culture?’. Perhaps the most fractious of recent debates around this question has been over ‘Kennewick Man’, an ancient skeleton found on the banks of the Columbia River in America’s Washington State. The 9000-year old skeleton became the focus for two major controversies: What is race? And who owns history? I tell the story of Kennewick Man in my book Strange Fruit: Why Both Sides are Wrong in the Race Debate. I am publishing here an extract that lays out part that story, looking at the question of the ownership of culture and history and of the clash between scientific rationality and cultural identity. I will publish a second extract next week that delves into the debate about race posed by Kennewick Man.
From Strange Fruit: Why Both Sides Are Wrong in the Race Debate (Oneworld, 2008), pp190-195, 204-213, 216-218
Will Thomas was waiting for the start of the annual hydroplane race on the Columbia River, near the town of Kennewick, in Washington State, USA. Larking around with his friend Dave Deacy, he decided to amuse himself by wading through the water. A few yards in, his foot hit something round. ‘Hey, we have a human head’, he joked. But that was exactly what it was – a brownish skull, covered in mud. It was 29 July 1996 – and the beginning of an extraordinary story of skulls and bones, history and politics, race and science. « Read the rest of this entry »
December 11, 2012 Comments Off
I mentioned in my last post the attempts by the UN, UNESCO and WIPO to give certain groups, particularly indigenous groups, control over traditional culture, and of the dangers inherent in such an approach. I am publishing here the transcript of a BBC Radio 4 Analysis programme that I wrote and presented in 2004 which explored the issue of ‘Who owns culture?’. You can listen to an audio of the programme, too.
‘Who owns culture?’, Analysis, BBC Radio 4,
29 July 2004
Taking part in the programme, in order of appearance, were Jack Lohman, Director of the Museum of London; Lola Young, cultural consultant; Michael Brown, Professor of Anthropology, Williams College, Massachusetts, and author of Who Owns Native Culture?; Robert Foley, Professor of Human Evolution, University of Cambridge; Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum; Norman Palmer, Professor of Law, Art and Cultural Property, London University; and Adam Kuper, Professor of Anthropology, Brunel University.
December 8, 2012 § 3 Comments
I took part in a meeting in Geneva last week convened by the UN to help advise the Special Rapporteur for Cultural Rights on a report she is presenting next year on artistic freedom of expression. The UN’s record on free speech has, particularly in recent years, been abysmal, so it was a useful and fascinating discussion, illuminating many of the contemporary faultlines of free speech. All the participants, activists from around the world, were free speech advocates. The issues that have caused much concern in recent years – that of blasphemy and the ‘defamation of religion’ – created little debate here. There was unanimous acceptance that neither should be reason for censorship. There were, however, serious differences between those who, as one participant put it, ‘take the human rights approach and those who adopt the First Amendment approach’. He himself, a representative of a free speech NGO, adopted, in his words, ‘a human rights approach that balanced rights against each other’ and so ‘rejected the First Amendment view of free speech’.
October 23, 2012 Comments Off
It’s an old Arab proverb. It is also the great title of an international conference in Oslo this week on free speech and artistic expression which will bring together artists, writers and activists from across the globe – from America to Pakistan, from Burma to Britain – to discuss and debate censorship and ways of combating it. From the introduction to the conference:
Over the two days of All That is Banned is Desired, artists, journalists, activists, scholars, curators and others will respond to censorship of the arts around the world. We will discuss and investigate why, where, and how artistic expressions is condemned, banned and persecuted. In particular, we will focus on the three principal agents of censorship — religion, state and market.
Although the effects of censorship can be easily identified in cases where artists are imprisoned or killed, the social and economic repercussions of censorship are more difficult to measure…
Censorship is characterized by the contradictory fact that by imposing limits it provokes reactions to those limits. By limiting freedom it helps fuels the desire for even greater freedom, as the title of the conference evokes: ‘All that is banned is desired’. « Read the rest of this entry »
October 26, 2011 § 3 Comments
It has long been known that different groups of chimpanzees have different cultural habits. Now, new research has revealed the degree of behaviour plasticity among orangutans, plasticity that gives rise to cultural differences between different groups, each possessing behaviours specific to that group, and each passing on such behaviours from one generation to another.
For many, the empirical discoveries about ape cultures are important not just because of what they tell us about the mental abilities of the Great Apes, but also because of what they tell us, or potentially tell us, about humans and human cultures. (‘Great Ape’, I know, is often seen as synonymous with the family Hominidae, which includes humans; here I’m using the term to refer to non-human members of Hominidae.) In particular, many see such studies as shining significant light upon the common evolutionary roots of human and Great Ape culture. ‘Now we know that the roots of human culture go much deeper than previously thought’, Michael Krützen, the lead author of the orangutan study suggests. ‘Human culture is built on a solid foundation that is many millions of years old and is shared with the other great apes.’
In one sense, of course, this has to be true. Humans are evolved beings and our propensity for culture must have evolved at some point in our evolutionary journey. If the Great Apes possess the same cultural propensities as humans do, then there are likely to be common evolutionary roots for those propensities. But do they possess the same cultural propensities? « Read the rest of this entry »
September 3, 2011 § 4 Comments
In June I wrote a post questioning Brazil’s ‘no contact’ policy towards uncontacted Amazonian tribes. A version of that blog post was published as an essay in Göteborgs-Posten. The essay (like my post) attracted a lot of critical comment. It led to a short debate last week on the pages of the newspaper between myself and Dan Rosengren, associate professor of social anthropology at the Institute for Global Studies at Göteborgs University. The Swedish version of the debate is not available online, but here is an English translation.
Kenan Malik recently wrote about the immorality in denying ‘unknown tribes people’ the progress of civilization, and in doing so expresses antiquated notions belonging to the 19th century. His premise is that modern society is superior to indigenous people. If Malik had bothered to study the matter he would have realized that the isolation of these groups is a result of their previous contacts with the industrialized society. A contact which, in the early 20th century, led to the extinction of nearly 80 percent of the indigenous people in the western part of the Amazon forest in order to provide rubber for car wheels to the industrialized society. This is normally called genocide, but in this case it is tantamount to ‘the progress of industrialization’. « Read the rest of this entry »
June 25, 2011 § 12 Comments
The Prime Directive. As any self-respecting Trekkie knows, it is Star Trek‘s most important ethical rule. And possibly the most stupid. ‘Thou shalt not interfere with the natural evolution of another culture by giving primitive peoples technology or knowledge beyond their years.’ Or as Starfleet Regulations put it:
As the right of each sentient species to live in accordance with its normal cultural evolution is considered sacred, no Star Fleet personnel may interfere with the normal and healthy development of alien life and culture. Such interference includes introducing superior knowledge, strength, or technology to a world whose society is incapable of handling such advantages wisely.
In the Star Trek universe, the Prime Directive has particular force in the case of ‘pre-warp’ civilizations – societies, that is, that have not yet developed warp drive and hence are incapable of interstellar travel. Such peoples are to be denied not only advanced technology but also any knowledge of extraplanetary civilizations or of the possibility of interplanetary travel. In the words of James T Kirk prior to a mission to a ‘primitive’ planet, which the Enterprise crew were about to visit by disguising themselves as locals, ‘No identification of self or mission. No interference with the social development of said planet. No references to space, other worlds, or advanced civilizations.’