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Bob Geldof – the “saviour” of the cultures of the world?

19 April, 2007

I just came across a post on the Norwegian-German blog (also on our blogs-we- like-list) about Bob Geldof and his latest project: together with the BBC he is planning to digitally document all living cultures. As the blogger points out, Geldof’s premise is that the cultures of the world need saving before they are all homogenized. He apparently wants to “capture all 900 of the separate groups of people anthropologists believe exist in the world”. Here we see again the widely popular notion of “cultures” as distinct, static and unchanging entities threatened by Western-led globalization. It seems a pity that this outdated view should be perpetuated by the BBC who in its reportages so often manages to portray a very different image of the cultural dynamics in globalization: i.e. in which a new diversity is created by the encounter between global consumer goods, media, ideas and institutions with local ways of doing and thinking. One of my own recent examples comes from Calcutta, where my husband and I went into a discotheque. On the surface this looked very much like a club in Berlin or Barcelona, yet here we were at 4 in the afternoon, surrounded by a colourful mix of (upper)-middle class youth (18+), wildly dancing and singing along to bollywood songs (especially Tu Hi Meri Shab Hai from the film “Gangster”). People drank few alcoholic drinks, dressed modestly and all would go home at 9 o’clock, just like good girls (as everywhere else nobody worries about the boys) are supposed to. A few years ago Marie Gillespie has written about the same day discotheques in London, which cater to the Punjabi youth of Southall.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Pal Nyiri permalink
    24 April, 2007 11:46 am

    Soo, Joana, have you found a place for this in our book?

  2. 26 April, 2007 12:57 am

    Interestingly I went to a night club a couple of times in New Delhi in the mid-90s and that kicked off at around 10-11pm at night – ladies entrance was free, men had to pay 300 Rupiah (or something like that) – and went on ’til the early morning. It was in the basement below one of the 5/6-* hotels (the Hyatt Regency, i believe)

    Some of the upper middle class kids were very drunk and dancing to a global mix of music, a lot of which was Euro-American, and there was some seriously wild snoggin’ going on in places, reminiscent of 13 year old first timers in a European disco.

    There was charas smoking and vomiting in the toilets, – so there is another good mixture of things in culture: charas is of course a very Indian thing, but it took foreigners to collect it in the mountains and bring it to the night club for the urban youth to enjoy. People were also droppin’ acid.

    In other words, although there was certainly a mixture and interchange of culture, it was a much more Euro-American flavoured experience than the one you describe.

    The idea of Mr. Bob Geldof, whose disgraceful activities in connection with the G8 in Scotland, 2005 did a lot of damage to alternative, radical politics in his own culture (see below) through his domestication of dissent, – to record indigenous cultures could be a good one… if done the right way:some indigenous peoples are already doing this by themselves and wanting to do so, all they need is some sort of bottom-up help, some facilitation and support in learning how to use the recording technology/equipment. — The last thing they ever bloody need is another conquest of some fallen rock star coming in with his crew and fancy gear to take away the image of their souls for someone else’s enjoyment somewhere else.

    The following is from:

    “One activist told me that the July 2 demonstration had “fluffy” politics, “as if a bit more aid and the changing of trade laws from within capitalism would be enough to end global poverty”. This reflected the liberal politics of the church and NGO organisers.

    However the Voice reported that a more radical message was presented from a platform organised by the Stop the War Coalition at the march. Speakers on the platform included environmental campaigner George Monbiot, former weapons inspector Scott Ritter and newly elected Respect MP George Galloway. “Speaker after speaker took up the theme of the link between poverty, globalism and war”, the paper reported. “Monbiot denounced the ‘false consensus’ behind the [official] march and suggested that Overseas Secretary Hilary Benn who joined the march should have carried a ‘down with me and all I stand for’ banner … Galloway ridiculed the claims by Bob Geldof that [Prime Minister Tony] Blair and [finance minister Gordon] Brown were the Lennon and McCartney of the anti-poverty movement and suggested that Burke and Hare — the infamous Edinburgh grave robbers — was a more apt comparison.” ”

    See also:

  3. Greg Downey permalink
    28 May, 2007 7:35 am

    While the suspicion of Bob Geldof’s digital archive of world cultures (I’m reminded of work by theorists such as Alan Lomax), this sort of misguided project does point to a crucial issue: of the more than 6000 language spoken in the world today, about 3000 are on the verge of extinction. Hundreds of languages, including especially Native American and Aboriginal languages, have no adolescent speakers, some have no speakers under the age of 50.

    While I agree that the notion of culture implicit in these projects is deeply flawed, I also find the ‘culture is endlessly productive and fluid’ discussion misses the sense of tragedy that comes from the disappearance of ways of life, languages, and knowledges about the world and what it means to be human. Yes, there are no clear boundaries between cultures, but whole clusters of cultures are on the ropes in different parts of the world. Although it’s critical for anthropology to engage the modern world with all of its creativity and multiplicity, are we really so far from our roots that we do not care about those who opt out or who have never been included in ‘modernity’, those groups who may never choose to live their diversity as a sort of consumption pattern or playful ‘signifying practice’?

    I disagree strongly with Geldof’s approach for a number of reasons, although I do agree that their are people maintaining ways of life, languages, and knowledges that are fragile. Reasons for disagreement:

    1) The digital archive is a technological solution to a human (read: ‘political, social & economic’) problem. We really need the political will to provide robust indigenous rights and enforcement mechanisms, not digital recordings of languages we think might disappear.

    2) The digital archive fatalistically assumes that these cultures will disappear and that we need to fight a desparate rearguard action that’s doomed to failure. In the process, it blinds us to the real political struggles that so many indigenous groups and tiny cultural minorities are fighting.

    3) The digital archive can’t possibly preserve what it sets out to. It’s simply incoherent, as if computers are going to pass on ‘culture’. While it may be possible to photograph documents and put them on line, ‘preserving’ them for future generations, there’s no way that this will work for the diversity of ways of life out there. It’s like asking a computer to remember dance steps.

    4) Usually, digital archives focus on language and visual culture. It’s very difficult to preserve other forms of knowledge that are less amenable to recording or photographing. My own intereest is in skills, so I feel this sort of gap is irremedial, but we always think our own area of interest is absolutely essential (probably a psychological defense against the feeling of futility and meaninglessness in our academic lives).

    It’s interesting to note that some of the ‘archival’ ethnography of earlier generations of anthropologists HAS actually been useful to indigenous groups trying to reinstate cultural forms of knowledge. For example, some Native American groups that have decided to teach indigenous language in schools use older people who can still speak the language and linguistic anthropology texts created by a previous generation. However, I doubt that the vast majority of current anthropological ethnography would be useful this way (and a large majority ofd previous ethnography was probably also useless, so I don’t mean to be saying contemporary anthropology is particularly guilty of this).

    My advisor, Jim Fernandez, use to talk about the ‘archival function’ of ethnography, and I think it is something that contemporary anthropologists undervalue. All the usual postmodern caveats apply, of course (partiality, perspectivism, dynamism of cultures, lack of boundaries, political nature of choices, co-construction of culture in production, etc.). But among the capoeira practitioners I studied, earlier anthropological works were absolutely crucial for current practitioners; they consulted them for insights into earlier practice, ritual structure, history, song texts, etc.

    I think that the ‘dangers’ of this are exaggerated. The impact of ethnography seems to me to be much less severe than the constant bombardment of other forms of media. We all know the well rehearsed complaints about how ethnography ‘freezes’ culture, creates new forms of authority, leads non-members to be ‘authorities’ on a culture, etc. But there’s a balancing worry, especially among minorities and indigenous peoples in aggressively assimilationist states, violent regions (where they are especially vulnerable, e.g. the Twa in Rwanda), or in the ‘least developed’ countries, where the damage of privation and the promise of ‘development’ can be equally dangerous.

  4. Nursel Guzeldeniz permalink
    29 May, 2007 8:35 pm

    Greg’s post on the ‘archival function’ of ethnography reminded me of the Australian film maker Rolf de Heer’s film ‘Ten Canoes’, a story about the Yolngu people in the traditional times. The film, a feature film, is based on the anthropologist Donald Thomson’s ethnograhic work and photographs on the Yolgnu people in central and north-eastern Arnhem land in the mid-1930s. His ethnographic work and especially the photographs helped to figure out how the Yolgnu lived before the influences of the colonisation.

    As Greg mentioned, today indigenous people face loss of culture, loss of language, loss of land, and they face many environmental problems as a result of modernities progressive affects. I think ethnography about these cultures become more important in relation to indigeneuos rights including cultural rights to continue their distinct identity and to form a political consciousness based on a distinct identity to demand rights in relation to education, land, language, recognition, protection of environment from their governments.

    I don’t know Geldolf’s project in detail. But if he can conduct a serious ethnography project in relation to such indigenous rights to better the welfare of these people and if he can engage as many indigenous people as possible in such a project, it would have much better long-term political outcomes in terms of indigenous rights. I don’t know if there is any international institution which advocates indigenous rights and which connects all indigenous people all around the world so that they can learn from one another’s experiences. But If Geldolf acts in a smart way, he can possibly bring people together to achieve this.


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