From Wayang Dolls to Bar Mitzvah: Culture is about the Story

“Culture is an abstraction until a story is told, and each culture has its proper story.
So, where to begin? I can mention thousands of things that somehow have a relation to culture: a string quartet, a Latin lesson, a baroque baptismal font, a Greek theatre mask, an Alfa Romeo, a wayang doll, a Brioni suit, a Bar Mitzvah, a stone votive statuette of Jizo, a medieval manuscript, a reverence, a mosque, an etching, a computer…the injection that causes the death of a condemned person in an American prison, is it culture as well? And if so, does it form part of the American culture? What about the Sharia Law? The bell that rings in the Stock Exchange? The Big Brother? The Carnival? A song festival? The female genital mutilation? A duel? The Basque hymn that plays when a terrorist is buried? The film about the Quran by Wilders? Is there something that is not culture?”

Excerpt from “Abstractions, Tales” by Cees Nooteboom
Published in El País, March 5th, 2011

Cees Nooteboom is an award-winning Dutch author and intellectual.

It really is the story that ‘breathes life’ into inanimate matter and otherwise mundane objects, allowing them to transcend their material nature and adhere a new status as ‘cultural objects’.

A dagger used to sacrifice people is a weapon, but if it is an Aztec ritual knife, it becomes culture;
a mask is an object, but if it is the Mask of Agamemnon, it is culture;
a stone is ‘nature’, but if it is the Rosetta Stone, then again, ‘culture’…
These ‘objects’ are culture because they tell us a relevant story of a person, a nation, a civilization…they help us understand something otherwise difficult or even impossible to understand.

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