After a long intellectual turn amongst anthropologists of resistance to the idea of ‘culture’ as a tenable object of positive analysis, there have been increasing returns to the idea of ‘culture.’ It has been said that a national culture is borne for and through the rise of the nation-state, and that it is the handmaiden of this particular, historical political formation. This position directly counters the naturalized way in which politicians talk about “our” culture as if it were a plain, transparent, unproblematic “thing” without mention of the work that goes into reifying disparate, diverse elements into a single mold nor of what has been left out of that mold and why. To take the most obvious example, Islam has a much longer history in the Philippines than does Roman Catholicism. If one argues that there are far more Catholics than Muslims in the Philippines, that does not negate Islam’s cultural validity in terms of what it can mean to be Filipino. The Tiboli tribe counts far smaller numbers than does Islam in the Philippines, but one would not discount such indigenous culture as invalidly Filipino. If the reason that the Tiboli tribe feels “authentically” Filipino is based on longevity, then again we’re arguing for points that support Islam’s “validity” as part of Filipino culture. If it is its indigeneity that supports the Tiboli tribe’s authenticity, then we’re equally discounting Catholicism and Islam while ignoring the ways in which both imported religions have been adapted and negotiated.
In the abstract, I believe that there can be said to be such a thing as national or regional culture, but that it is not fixed nor is it univocal. It is of course possible to, as an exercise, map a region, bound it, and lift from it a list of similarities (ignoring differences) whether historically- or religiously- or linguistically-derived. However, the question then becomes of that “culture’s” legitimacy. For whom and by whom is this culture mapped and policed?
With regard to national culture, it depends on how one defines the nation, but are there certain real things that distinguish the Philippines from Vietnam in a cultural sense? Yes, in the same way that though all land masses exist on the same planet, even slight variations in temperature, volcanic activity, etc. can create land forms that are particular only to one area on the planet and would be impossible elsewhere. There are differences that can be said to be unique to one place due to historical and ecological accident, but then how does one bound those unique features into a coherent, single culture?
Where does one start or stop mapping this culture? The question becomes: for whom is this culture unique and coherent? If there is said to be some legitimate, authentic culture, it must necessarily be understood as unstable, changing, and contingent, as culture is filled, transmitted, and created by people—culture is peopled. So as the people change, the culture must also change.
Does the audience for one’s performance of culture alter its “legitimacy”? If the audience for a performance of a ceremony is one’s child is that different from the audience of a group of tourists? Alternatively, is it not audience but the fact that one is conscious of the performance what distinguishes it from an unconscious, perhaps more “legitimate,” performance? But if it is unconscious, then who is deciding that this particular act constitutes something “cultural,” something of a certain culture? Ostensibly some onlooker or outsider classifying and analyzing. Performance then, or at least the relation of one culture to any other, seems to be defining. Culture requires difference, against which it can become visible.
Such questioning may seem academic (and it is), but at the least it remains useful to denaturalize things which we may too easily take for granted, and to remind ourselves, in this age of nation-states, to be inclusive and evolving in our ideas of national cultire.
Nicole Del Rosario CuUnjieng is a PhD Student in Southeast Asian and International History at Yale University.