11 September 2006

The Peculiarities of Cultural Authenticity

Over at SLATE "Today's Pictures" are a series entitled "A Train to Tibet." The introductory comments read as follows: "The controversial and difficult completion of the Tibet railway, the longest high-altitude railroad in the world, is being hailed in China as one of the world's great engineering marvels, as well as a significant factor in the rapid decline of Tibetan culture and the fragile ecosystem surrounding the railway. Gueorgui Pinkhassov recently followed part of the train's route from Lhasa in Tibet to Golmud in China. The railroad now connects Lhasa with Beijing. " Many of the images in the series are striking or surprising. But the captions are a bit preachy and off-base. For example:

The caption to this one reads: "ERDAOGOU, Tibet—A train on the railway line between Lhasa and Golmud, 2006. © PG / Magnum Photos."

Then, the caption to this photo reads: "TIBET—Traditional daily life goes on near the railway line linking Lhasa to Golmud, 2006. © PG / Magnum Photos."

I suppose I must've skipped my undergrad anthropology classes on the days when we learned that billiards were a traditional Tibetan pastime!
PS: For readers interested in political theory, I actually have published several academic papers on the difficulties surrounding recent attempts to accord normative status to cultural traditions and, in particular, with what I see as the problems fatal to even the best efforts to defend cultural authenticity. Here are citations:
"Why Respect Culture?" American Journal of Political Science 44:405-18 (July 2000).

"Inventing Constitutional Traditions." In Constitutional Culture and Democratic Rule, ed. John Ferejohn, Jack Rakove, and Jonathan Riley. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

"Liberalism and the Politics of Cultural Authenticity." Politics, Philosophy, and Economics
1:213-36 (June 2002).
(ADDED: Later that same day ...)


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