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Culture in the global village – public lecture

Tradition and culture in the global village – public lecture

In a world connected by modern information technology, culture and tradition are constantly in the news. Cultures are frequently described as "dying out", "fighting for survival", being "saved", undergoing a "renaissance" or being "polluted" by the West.

But in a free public lecture to be given at Victoria University on July 13, distinguished American historian Professor James Clifford questions notions of culture and tradition.

Professor Clifford, author of The Predicament of Culture and Routes: Travel and Translation in the Late Twentieth Century, suggests that many "cultures" are inventions created when groups of people are uprooted or threatened by a dominant group.

"Thus the 'Third World' plays itself against the 'First World,' and vice versa. At a local level, Trobriand Islanders invent their culture within and against the contexts of recent colonial history and the new nation of Papua-New Guinea. If authenticity is relational, there can be no essence except as a political, cultural invention, a local tactic," he said in The Predicament of Culture.

Professor Clifford questions who has the authority to speak for a group's identity and what the essential elements of any culture actually are.

"This century has seen a drastic expansion of mobility, including tourism, migrant labour, immigration, urban sprawl. More and more people 'dwell' with the help of mass transit, automobiles, and airplanes. In cities on six continents foreign populations have come to stay – mixing in but often in partial, specific fashions. The 'exotic' is uncannily close. Conversely, there seem no distant places left on the planet where the presence of modern products, media and power cannot be felt."

Dr Teresia Teaiwa, Director of Victoria's Pacific Studies Programme and a former student of Professor Clifford's, says his research has placed the work of those who study culture under the spotlight.

"As a historian of anthropology his work has helped many understand first that our knowledge of cultures in the past doesn’t come raw, but has been filtered through the almost literary production of culture in travel writing and ethnography; second, that claims to indigeneity in the 20th and 21st centuries are not necessarily backward-looking.”

Pacific Studies lecturer, April Henderson, whose PhD on hip-hop and Samoan diasporas is being supervised by Professor Clifford, says he highlights the dynamic ways indigenous peoples of the Pacific, and elsewhere, manage and negotiate diverse environments.

“His work suggests that places like Papua New Guinea might be understood less as pre-modern societies thrust into the modern world, but rather as almost quintessentially post-modern in terms of having an incredible pre-colonial linguistic and cultural diversity overlaid with the complex connectedness of the globalising world."

Professor Clifford, who has a PhD from Harvard University, is Professor in the History of Consciousness Programme at the University of California at Santa Cruz.

Professor Clifford's public lecture will be held in the Hugh McKenzie Lecture Theatre 206 (opposite gate 2) Kelburn Campus, Victoria University at 6pm on Tuesday July 13. To attend: RSVP to info-desk@vuw.ac.nz or call 04 463 5283

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