The seminar will bring together scholars from different disciplines to address these questions. It will explore the various notions of culture underlying contemporary debates, the artistic forms with which writers and other artists have reflected on these notions and their social and political implications.
Culture emerged as a keyword at the turn of the eighteenth to the nineteenth centuries, as a term imbued with changing meanings and questions in reaction to the experience of modernization. Its inflationary use in more recent times draws attention to the experience of more recent changes, from decolonisation to the contemporary process of globalisation and the increasing migration of people both within and across national borders. International migrants according to estimates today account for the world’s fifth most populous “country”. Dramatic changes in demographic composition are being further fuelled by ongoing forms of political integration such as the process of Europeanisation. In this context, the multiple meanings invested in the word culture are markers of real, often violent contemporary conflicts as well as of their frequent mythification. From multiculturalism to wars in the name of culture, from disputes on history to debates on state policy, the question of culture(s) has evidently become a central concern in responses to the nature of contemporary society and its future, even as it stands in apparent contradiction to the decidedly economic forces driving the processes of change.
Not surprisingly, the use of the word culture, and its often-unstated assumptions, has given rise to considerable theoretical controversy. What exactly do we mean when we talk of culture? Is it associated with language, ethnicity, religion, nationality, a civilization, a way of life or everyday social practices? Is it conceived as relatively unchanging, as something that is threatened by the impact with other ‘cultures’ or as a set of ideas and practices that is subject to historical and social change? How are these notions of culture affected by the changing forms of political, economic and military domination and the vicissitudes of the postcolonial world? Questions of representation and interpretation of cultures have greatly impacted on these theoretical debates, both in the field of the social sciences and in the study of literature, film and the arts. Curiously, the debates have even entered the field of the natural sciences as seen in the coining of the word ‘meme’ as a unit of cultural information in analogy to the word gene.
Department of Germanic & Romance Studies
University of Delhi, Delhi – 110007
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