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A Blog About Culture

Recognition, Situation, Identity, Reality

I like libraries. I am not particularly studious, and I avoided the library like a communicable disease when I was in undergrad. It was too quiet and too intense. My friends told me I wasn’t allowed to study with them because I was only a distraction as I chatted and wandered around looking for vending machines to divest of their Peanut M&Ms. But I do like libraries. I even interned at a reading room after I graduated. I was there for six months, and I would have stayed longer had I not taken a new gig working with a heritage project with a Mongolian immigrant community. I like the smell of books, and I like the way their pages feel between my fingertips. I like looking at the stamped checkout cards and wondering, Has no one really touched this book since 1998?

Technology has done away with that now, of course. I don’t like that I no longer have those little mysteries. I don’t like that technology is replacing libraries, because I am too lazy to deal with technology. When I am researching, I don’t want to have to look things up in a database and then kill my eyes scrolling through a PDF of a journal article. Think of how much easier it is to go to a library, look up a book, find it in the stacks, and then find 50 more books all  on the same subject. That is my method. It works.

My method minus M&Ms

So I have a paper due (I should really be writing right now but I wanted to type this out before I forget), and I wanted to find a couple more resources to add. I pretended to be a student at George Mason University (really this is a public university, so it’s ok) and applied my method. The only bad things about this plan are a. I have to pay hourly for visitor parking, b. I can’t check books out, so I have to read them there instead of settling down to do real work at 2 am like the nocturnal creature that I am, and c. I don’t know where the vending machines are. So really I just started piling books around me like a little fort.

One of the books I found for my topic of cultural tourism (to get credit for the internship that I told you about a few months ago) featured two Mongolian Buddhist ceremonial masks and costumes. The reason I know that is because I recognized the deities depicted. I had researched them; I had given guided tours about them.  Those particular masks. I had learned about them from the man who made them.

Durted Dagva mask by Gankhuyag Natsag and studio team. Photo by Greg Forbes.

Excitedly, I flipped through the first few pages of the book to look for a credit for the cover image. I scoured the acknowledgments and tables of figures, but I could not find a citation for the cover  image, only one for the photographer of a similar plate on a chapter about Mongolian culture. The photographer. No mention of the artist.

Now, I am not mentioning the author of this book by name  because, from reading, it seems as though she “gets it.” The book is on cultural heritage and community partnerships in the tourism industry. She has done her research, including ethnographic field work. It doesn’t seem like she is out to make a buck or exploit the people who were performing the ceremony. It’s possible that they all signed release forms and said that they could do whatever she wanted with the images. In her efforts to highlight cultural heritage, she may have unwittingly neglected to credit the artistry and creative process of the current. Of course, the chapter was all about Mongolian  cultural performances,  but I cannot help but feel as though she was misunderstanding that performative aspect as natural or at least traditional, instead of as activist and conscious.  There was something missing, something that I only could see because of my relationship with the other side of the story, having been told by the artist himself what he was doing.*

So, I feel as though even though her research was undertaken under the best  of intentions, she cannot have helped but to misunderstand just a little bit what was going on. I don’t mean to single her out. All of us misunderstand everything. There is no way to accurately represent the “authentic, “real,” or “relevant” because I don’t believe it’s possible to align all of the aspects of language and experience that guide how we define meaning. It’s humbling to recognize that it can and does happen, even when we mean the best, and when we are actively trying to make a difference to someone. I guess what I am saying is that it is a possibility of which we should be cognizant.

*Ask me or Harold about it if you’re interested.

  • Reclamation of pre-Soviet heritage via reconstruction of felt heritage, not lived experience.
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