The Complex Gooey Muck We Call Culture

Michael Kimmelman offers some rather interesting insights into the every elusive and shape-shifting idea of culture.    Of course, the definition of “culture” is 

the integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief, and behavior that depends upon the capacity for learning and transmitting knowledge to succeeding generations b : the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group; also : the characteristic features of everyday existence (as diversions or a way of life} shared by people in a place or time c : the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution or organization d : the set of values, conventions, or social practices associated with a particular field, activity, or societal characteristic

the act or process of cultivating living material (as bacteria or viruses) in prepared nutrient media; also : a product of such cultivation.” (Taken from
Merriam Webster).

And Wikipedia has a rather lengthy entry on the subject as well.  

What I find interesting with Kimmelman is that he starts off discussing France and moves into the larger landscape of culture and globalization’s role in cultural development but also emphasizes the fluidity/flexibility of culture.  He’s quick to point out (rightly so) that just because certain cultural products are appropriated by others, it’s wrong to assume they mean the same thing.  

This can be seen in many different places and one of the most curious is the case of 3 Dev Adam, a Turkish film from the 1970s.   The plot is standard melodramatic fare, but the characters are appropriated from US and Mexican culture (Captain America, Spider-Man, and Santo).   With Spider-Man cast as the villain, the creators have taken some other piece of popular culture and reoriented it to their liking which would seems to be standard fare within global cultural exchange.  After all, cultural food appropriation has been a main habit of humans as soon as one culture encountered another.  One of their first questions when encountering a new group most likely being, “What have you got to eat?”

With 3 Dev Adam, the fact that they’ve recreated Spiderman and decided to toss in Santo can seem strange to us; 30+ years removed and also, having no basis for associating the two Marvel superheroes and the wrestler (who happened to be a real living person as opposed to the two fictional characters).  But that matters little at least in Turkey in the 1970s where the film was made.   

Equally, intriguing are the series of videos on YouTube featuring a re-dubbed Hitler speech from a film (from what I gathered, it was taken from Der Untergang (2004) ).  Here, too, is something that is mixed and matched with regards to global culture.  The title and the visual cues tell us it’s Hitler at an important meeting during World War II.   As a German film, it’s not immediately accessible to most English-speaking people (and in particular, Americans).  It’s only with the use of subtitles (thereby manipulating the film in some way—adding to it) that it can more clearly communicate its message.  But these films decide to play with the added material.  Indeed, the video is spliced in numerous ways, often using the same clip but adding different subtitles.  In this one, Hitler is devastated about not being cast as The Joker in Nolan’s The Dark Knight but others deal with just as outlandish topics.  Again, people are using cultural products in rather compelling and inventive ways. 

The key here is to realize that this is not new.  For as long as cultures have interacted, they have adapted, appropriated, and re-constructed the cultural products and practices of others.


What are some other modern ways and examples of cultural appropriation and reinvention taking place?

What are some past examples of cultures, societies, groups, etc using the ideas of another to further their own?

What do these incidents (past and present) suggest about our larger conception of “culture,” particularly with regard to the above definition?

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  1. A modern example of cultural appropriation and reinvention is food consumption of humans. The blog says that food is a “main habit of humans.” Our lives revolve around food not only because we need to eat to survive, but because we are presented with a vast variety of foods. As we encounter different people and places we are introduced to different types of foods and the ways their presented. Throughout the years the way humans interact with food has changed. The United States first came out with fast food restaurants that led to take-out and drive-thru’s. A couple of years ago Sonic was brought to the U.S. Sonic is a fast food restaurant where you can get your take-out in three different ways. At sonic you can go through the drive-thru, park your car and order your food at a window, or park your car at one of the speakers to order and a waiter or waitress on roller blades will bring you your take-out to your car. The idea of fast food has been transformed here three different times. In the past the idea of food was transformed many different times because humans were developing. Human instinct is to eat; therefore, the first humans began hunting and gathering food to survive. As humans began to migrate and form different ideas they started herding and tilling. Eventually, new technologies came out further developing the way humans consume food presenting us with new ways of life.

  2. One example of modern cultural reinvention taking place is that of technology taking over everything. Technology is still a fairly new thing that has really only become involved in human lives. In the past years people have almost looked at technology as something to be scared of. Older generations see younger generations using technology for everything and simply do not, nor do they have the desire to understand it. In recent years, however, technology has become essential to life. Everything now revolves around technology from school to work and all the way to healthcare and banking. People use the internet for everything such as things like ordered medications, banking, research, and buying products. Every household in now expected to have a computer with internet and those who do not are looked down upon as if weird and inferior. Students are expected now at a younger age to begin knowing how to use computers for a good majority of their school work including typing papers, doing research, or doing assignments on different web sites that their teachers look at and grade electronically. The business world revolves around technology and computers almost in every aspect of the word business. Almost everything is done using some sort of technology and if you do not have any experience with it, you are going to have a very hard time trying to find a job. Technology went from being something viewed as futuristic and foreign, to being something essential in everyday life. It also did this in only a course of about 10-15 years which is an extremely short amount of time

  3. I highly agree with Zac's remarks to the question of reinvention. I belive that now a days technology is taking over the globe. People use technology most likely numerous times a day, sometimes not even knowing it. Back even ten years ago technology was not what it is like now. We have iphones, almost as light as a feather laptops, and much more. Technology is a must have. It pretty much defines our generation. I liked the point that Zac brought up of how pretty much all households need computers. People pay their bills, shop, and even date people online. The internet has changed our lives and Facebook and Twitter just back up what i am saying. I also agree with Zac on how he said this has all taken place within for the most part a 10-12 year span. To me this is incredible. I can seldom remember growing up as a kid and even a regular standard PC was the "thing to have." Now a days laptops are the new thing and computer monitors are slowly going out the window. Technology is definitely the "real deal" now a days and it is safe to say that there is modern cultural reinvention and technological changes that have already taken place or still are taking place as we speak. Everyday some new electronic comes out.

  4. Some other examples of cultural appropriation and reinvention are, how people to Yoga and create posses that were really created in India not by the Yoga instructors but they never give India any credit. And when people plagiarize off of website and use it as their own work. One big example of cultural appropriation and reinvention is music. Music is everywhere and influenced by so many different cultures and societies. People hear music everywhere whether it is in a car, on TV, on the radio, in movies, and even in TV series. A lot of the genres of music are taken from others without any recognition to the influences. An example of cultures, societies, groups etc using the ideas of another to further their own is other societies using traditions (ex: imperialism) as their own in the Axial Age. Another example would be white men or woman depicting African American culture a certain way when really it is a different way. Like how the depict it as African American’s music being rap when in reality they started Jazz and made it widespread. These incidents, both past and present, suggest that our larger conception of “culture” is a mix of a little bit of everything. A group of society’s culture is really influenced by surrounding societies. It seems like people cannot really claim that their culture is original or expect no other society to have same aspects to their culture.

  5. I have to agree with both Joe and Zack on the technology front. Now a days, technology is practically running everything we do. Why, just some years ago, most people only had one home telephone and MAYBE a few televisions. Now, home phones are rarely used. Cell phones have taken the place of home phones and answering machines. And laptops and computers are slowly taking the place of televisions. Now that T.V. shows are readily accessible online, people don't bother watching T.V. as much as they used to. Either they watch it online, or they record shows to watch at their own leisure. Same goes with Netflix and Block Buster. The once highly popular movie store is now facing bankruptcy because of Netflix, which offers movies to be delivered to you through mail VIA internet accounts, and now even gaming systems. Heck, gaming systems are even becoming more technologically advanced. With the PS3, Wii, and XBOX360 coming complete with internet compatibility and gaming online, they're slowly turning into mini-computers. The PS3 can go online, play games, and play Blu-Ray discs, completely knocking out three things in one system for one price. Technology has grown a lot through the ages, but especially in todays modern world. Phones and laptops are becoming high powered mini machines, reading to smash the competition, and leave older models in the dust.

  6. An example of a way in which societies in the past have adapted another society’s ideas or culture and made it work in their own is with religion. Around the time that religion was spreading around the word, some places took a religion and adapted it. These places adapted the religion so that it would fit better in their own culture and it would relate better for the people living in that place. One religion could be practiced and worshiped in different ways in different places, but still have the same fundamental background. This is how different types of a certain religions developed; like Christianity turned into Protestant and Catholicism. This change between different cultures still happens today. Some modern ways in which culture is changed from place to place is hand gestures and greetings. In European countries, all people greet others with a hug or a kiss on the cheek. In the United States this is seen as awkward and “gay”. Hugs and kissing is reserved only for loved ones in the United States. Another example of the difference in gestures throughout the world is the “ok” sign with your fingers. In the United States, it simply means ok but in France and Australia it is extremely offensive and it means “your anus”. In Turkey, it means someone is a homosexual. It is extremely apparent that something as simple as a hand gesture is so drastic in different places. Another example in modern culture of changing something from one place’s culture to another is the type of things that are seen as taboo in certain countries. For example, public nudity in Europe is very normal, and not in any way obscene, which is extremely different from many other countries in North America or countries in the Middle East. Cultures throughout the world have very different views and ideas, what is normal in one country may be completely out of line in another. These differences in cultures arise for many different reasons, but it is amazing the differences in the littlest of things from place to place.

  7. One cultural appropriation of today that used to be illegal not too long ago is alcohol. Most people drink over the age of twenty one legally and there are some that do so illegally. Even though it's strange to think about, alcohol used to be illegal about eighty years ago. To think, that something like alcohol that most people consider acceptable now used to be illegal during the prohibition during the 1920's. An example of using ideas to further their own occurred during the invention the automobile. The automobile was created over long periods of time with constant improvements in technology. It started off with the carriage, then the model T and has evolved into bigger and more powerful cars such as the hummer. These incidents show that culture is an ever-changing idea. Society is made by what people deem to be acceptable. Over time, the view of something is altered in minor increments. The rate at which society changes is incredibly complex and is at times unpredictable. In different parts of the world, ideas, subjects, people and objects are all judged differently to some degree. This shows that culture is an extremely important ideal and is not to be overlooked, but rather to be expressed in varieties of ways in different countries.

  8. I agree with what Zack said about technology being an example of cultural appropriation and reinvention taking place in today’s society. Through the years, technology has begun to develop and take over everything that people do in everyday life. For example, people use technology to make agendas, check their mail, and use it for other personal uses. If you look back 20 years ago, technology was viewed much differently. We didn’t have the technological advances that we do today such as cell phones and email. I remember growing up and seeing the size of cell phone starting to decrease as the years went by. I also agree with Zack when he says that technology is highly used in school. If you go to any school in the world, you would notice that almost every student has a laptop and uses it to do all of their school work. We rely so much on technology today that it seems like if we didn’t have technology, the world would stop. It seems like the older generations can live without new technology to live their life where as the younger generations today needs technology to get through everyday life.


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