“Culture is never neutral or disinterested”, Isabel Capeloa Gil


Isabel Capeloa Gil (CECC) esteve presente no encontro Matters of Culture e apresentou, dia 9 de Fevereiro de 2016,  um ‘statement’ com o tema “Conflict in Culture Studies”:

Having increasingly acquired prominence over the past decade and a half, the study of conflict in the field of culture could be easily mistaken as the serendipitous result of living a conflict-torn temporality. But this would be a naïve assessment. There are no more conflicts today than in the past, and more importantly conflict and culture are not simply brought together by a representational nexus or by political design. In other terms, culture’s relation with conflict does not simply happen by dint of representing a lived violent event or a conflictual interaction, nor can it be subsumed to a supporting role in the geopolitics of what Samuel Huntington named the global civilizations and their ‘fault line conflicts’ (Huntington, 1996:207). And yet, even though the argument I take here refutes the determinism that binds culture with violent conflict, it is no less true that without conflict there is no culture, and that without culture there are no conflicts.

  1. A brief genealogy: Foundational texts in the Greek and Jewish traditions already expound an embedding of conflict and culture. Hesiod in Erga (vv.14-26) distinguishes between bad conflict, associated with Eris, the producer of strife and communal disruption, and good conflict, connoted with the reuniting of social bonds through the work of sacrifice. This same distinction between disruptive and productive conflict is laid out in multiple texts of the Jewish Bible, in which case the wars with Babylon or Egypt would be an example of the former whereas Isaac’s sacrifice speaks to the latter. In this mytho-poetical dimension, conflict results from the tension between the social and human realm and transcendental norms, a tension that is ultimately resolved through ritual practice. Another strategy equates conflict with aggressiveness, namely with the human biological propensity to act violently, as it comes across in the widely diverse and even contradictory approaches of Thomas Hobbes’ liberal thinking, Freud’s cultural theory or even Eibl-Eibesfeldt’s behavioral analysis. In this context, culture acts as a repressive external set of norms working to curb the violence within, its work has a corrective dimension that rests on a conflictual interaction with an essentially violent nature.

A relevant marker of change is apparent in the turn taken by early 20th century sociology. In 1918, in the conference, ‘The Conflict of Modern Culture’, Georg Simmel defines conflict as a sociogenetic structure within the cultural. Culture is no longer observed as a repressive mechanism and the corrective of an ‘imperfect’ nature, but rather a process of socialization that integrates difference. Hence be it in the form of a productive and creative mechanism, conducive to artistic production, or as a disruptive action epitomized in war, conflict is the work of culture. Simmel’s work is groundbreaking in suggesting that culture is structured upon the negotiation of difference and that part of this process will be inevitably unsuccessful and lead to violent strife. Consequently, the principle of identity is perceived to be founded on the collision (productive or disruptive) with difference.

  1. Conflict is inscribed in the very matrix of the cultural. The production of culture is marked by difference and it is the interaction amongst these distinctions that structures the flow of energies amongst the several threads of the web of culture. Conflict, in this basic assumption, is understood as the play of the differential, supporting key themes of the study of culture such as identity and diversity, memory and trauma, the translation of cultures and globalization, dislocation and emplacement, mediation, integration and exclusion. Hence, if there is no culture without difference, there is no culture without conflict. Be it as the necessary tension that structures dialogue or as the ‘enormous opposition’ (GT, KSAI: 25) between what in Nietzsche’s terms would be the drive for form and structure and the drive for creative dissolution that grounds the work of art and culture[1], conflict is what makes the work of culture possible.
  1. Conflict lays bare that the work of culture is set on coming to terms with the existence of cultures. The cultural has an existence which is not its own alone. It is sustained by a condition of interdependency, of mutual engagement, which is always situated and precarious, and it is a circumstance of a creation/production that does not belong to itself, whose meaning is ultimately negotiated for, by and with its others. Culture then allows us to address plurality and deal with the existence of otherness.
  1. Culture is never neutral or disinterested and hence it will inevitably be present when difference is transformed into strife and war. In approaching conflict situations from a cultural perspective, one is struck by two dominant processes: first, the ways in which a cultural system successfully reproduces and even consolidates itself by inscribing conflict into its dominant practices and, second, the ways in which a conflict constitutes a symbolic encounter that threatens to affect deeply, even to transform, the meanings that make up the fabric of any culture. Thus, conflicts lay bare the normative mechanisms of a cultural system and the vulnerable, incomplete and provisional character of that normativity. It follows that conflicts – their regulation, representation and particularly their recollection – constitute privileged loci for cultural analysis.
  1. As a cultural marker of a situated production of knowledge, conflict, as dialogue and difference, inhabits the production of critical thought. The ways in which knowledge is produced within the field of culture reflect the work of conjuncture, institutional abode and lived experience. Clearly how and what we think in academia is not simply the result of disciplinary difference, but also of the contingency of time and the multiple spaces inhabited by scholarly subjectivities. Research practice in the humanities promotes a renewed questioning, an inspection of received postulates, a self-reflexive attitude on the norms and the practices that regulate the field. This is perhaps the utopian approach that got so many cultural studies scholars on the wrong foot, but I would argue, this is also the horizon of relevance of a field continuously in the making and necessarily in need of embracing modes of scholarly production beyond the hallowed space of western academia.

Arguably, then, conflict speaks to the very work of critical thought, when it is understood as a practice of interference. This is metaphorically condensed in the literary formula of Herman Melville’s “Bartlebly the Scrivener’s” assertion ‘I prefer not to’. In fact, culture studies is defined by a strategic conceptual injunction to do otherwise. Rather than reproducing accepted knowledge, culture studies recuperates the task of the humanities as a practice of interference in the dominant organization of knowledge. As Jacques Rancière puts it in The Politics of Aesthetics, its work is about: “ways of doing and making that intervene in the general distribution of ways of doing and making” (Rancière, 2004:13). The defining attitude of a culture studies scholar is that of a cosmopolitan criticality that is proper to the humanities, looking at the plurality of cultures and embracing that difference in language, value, memory, religion and all the other different markers that structure our ecology of cultures. Embracing this difference is not a naïve stance. It means to be aware of the tensions, of the conflicts, albeit continuously struggling to avoid any reification about the ultimate inevitability of war.

Isabel Capeloa Gil, Lisbon, February 2016.

[1] “Their two deities of art, Apollo and Dionysos, provide the starting-point for our recognition that there exists in the world of the Greeks an enormous opposition, both in origin and goals, between the Apolline art of the image-maker or sculptor […] and the imageless art of music, which is that of Dionysos. These two very different drives exist side by side, mostly in open conflict, stimulating and provoking one another to give birth to ever-new, more vigorous offspring […].” (transl. Ronald Speirs, 199:14)


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