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Culture collecting and two words of caution | WE THE CURIOUS vol.3 no.1

Culture collecting and two words of caution | WE THE CURIOUS vol.3 no.1

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Published by Mackenzie Hawkins
Who's beyond culture? Margaret Mead, a National Geographic explorer, and a Zen Buddhist....
Who's beyond culture? Margaret Mead, a National Geographic explorer, and a Zen Buddhist....

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Published by: Mackenzie Hawkins on Jul 09, 2011
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10/17/2012

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Culture collecting
and two words of caution
 
 Culture collecting and two words of cautionWE THE CURIOUS vol.3 no.1
“Speaking their language, eating their food, sitting barefoot and cross-legged uponthe pebbly floor, I did my best to minimize the differences between us.” MargaretMead was just 23 years old when she did her first fieldwork on the islands of Samoa. She was in search of contrasts—contrasts “vivid enough to startle andenlighten those accustomed to our own way of life and simple enough to begrasped quickly.” She found them. With
Coming of Age in Samoa
, first publishedin 1926, Mead made her mark, the first of many to come, as a culturalanthropologist. The book certainly did startle her Western readers. In the finalchapters, Mead argues that, when compared to the “coming of age” process of theSamoans, the choices that Western children face are “dazzling”—and even“appalling.”“Our young people,” Mead writes, “are faced by a series of different groups whichbelieve different things and advocate different practices, and to each of whichsome trusted friend or relative may belong.” In the West, for example, “a girl'sfather may be a Presbyterian, an imperialist, a vegetarian, a teetotaler, with a strongliterary preference for Edmund Burke…. But her mother's father may be a LowEpiscopalian, a believer in high living, a strong advocate of States’ Rights and theMonroe Doctrine, who reads Rabelais, likes to go to musical shows and horseraces.” The specifics of Mead’s description are dated, but they still capture theextent and the conflicting nature of our choices, their myriad combinations andsubtleties. Mead goes on to depict in detail an agnostic aunt who is an ardentadvocate of woman’s rights and Esperanto; an elder brother who writes mysticalpoetry and plans to “devote his life to seeking for the lost secret of medievalstained glass”; a scientific-minded uncle; and a mother who is a pacifist and “very
 
much interested” in Indian philosophy. “And,” Mead concludes, “this may bewithin the girl's own household.”Given that “our civilisation is woven of so many diverse strands,” it is no wonderthat Westerners tend to view culture as a mosaic of extras that we add on to life.We can go anywhere, especially in this “flattened” world, and collect anything: art,ideas, customs, costumes—culture. Often in the West, we think in terms of “cultural experiences,” as if it were somehow possible to have a non-culturalexperience. “We don’t think of ourselves as a culture in the West,” anthropologistWade Davis told
 Discover 
 
 Magazine
in an interview. “We think that we somehowexist outside of time and culture. We’re the real world moving inexorably forward:Get with it or lose the train. When the truth is, we’re the anomaly.”There’s a wonderful picture of Mead in traditional Samoan dress, standing betweentwo young Samoan women. They all have headbands; they all have beadednecklaces; they all have smiles. But the two Samoan women will go on to live thesame “life arc” as their mothers’ and as their mothers’ mothers and on and on, back for countless generations. Mead, on the other hand, was the classic Western seekerof novelty. Raised in a culture of choices, the 23-year-old Mead was inspired tocompare and contrast still more cultures and more choices in the hopes of improving the lives of adolescents in the West. She carried with her, always andeverywhere, an unquestioned belief in progress—personal progress, societalprogress, the progress of human kind.
Giving up adding on
“Expect nothing.” That was what the Zen master told Peter Matthiessen asMatthiessen was preparing to leave for Nepal on an adventure and “spiritualquest.” In his classic book,
The Snow Leopard 
, Matthiessen is, if nothing else,

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