The Dawn: March 11, 2016

PUNJAB NOTES: Memes: The past threatening the present

Mushtaq Soofi 

Culture is something that is both ubiquitous and elusive. Ubiquitous because it’s what people live and live with, day and night knowingly and unknowingly.

Culture is elusive because if you try to grip it with all its apparent concreteness, it slips like sand from your palm defying generally acceptable definition.

Culture in general perception is invariably linked with the past as it is usually conceived in terms of heritage and repeatedly lived experience transferred from the previous generations to the present ones.

The paradoxical nature of the phenomenon is revealed when we notice the fact that it is a spillover from what preceded. In other words at a level we witness culture as the shared past being lived as present.


Customs, rites, rituals, community behaviour and partially code of conduct testify to reality of the past that plays role in the making of culture. The past surreptitiously resurrects itself through its subliminal messages as a dynamic force that helps sustain what is as spawn of what was in a process that solidifies and sanctifies the actions of previous generations as if they are relevant for future irrespective of changes that constantly happen in society.

In a society like ours semblance of sacred linkages with the past tends to make culture a fetish, something to be venerated and worshiped, not questioned.

All the horrible crimes against women for example are not only perpetrated but also condoned and at times glorified in the name of cultural traditions which are little more than flotsam of bygone era.

Weight of the dead weighs heavily on the mind of the living that are torn between urges of contemporizing their lives and acquiescing to the dictates of traditions which have assumed the status of taboo not to be trifled with.

What stands out and invariably becomes conspicuous in the matters of culture is the concealed past insisting on being accepted by the people as unchanging and unchangeable reality.

And that is what makes culture regressive creating umbra filled space which presents itself as the perimeter of social arena illuminated by an afterglow, ginned up by secret charm of distant times.

The up-side is that conceiving culture without anchoring it in the past is extremely difficult if not impossible. It transfers accumulated human experience that stands as an emblem of human achievement as well as a guide for future action.

Whether individual or collective, what gives life meaning and sense of order is continuity without which we will witness at best the unrelated fragments of human activities and at worst unmanageable chaos rendering life impossible to be conceived in its totality.

In the sphere of what we call culture, the relationship between the past and the present is of crucial importance. Finding balance can help solve the conundrum but the balance hinges on critical approach coupled with principle of selection that can build bridges between the past and the future without making the acceptance of historical throwaways mandatory.

Legacy or inheritance must not be allowed to stand in the way of realizing the present human potential which may require doing things differently and living differently due to the changed conditions.

But at the same time potential, real or imagined, must not allowed to be used as a ruse to deny the significance of tangible and intangible assets created by previous generations, some of which have enduring relevance.

What enriches and emancipates individual and society in terms of way of living constitutes the essence of culture regardless of the fact whether it comes from the calm waters of the past or the turbulent waves of the present.

Uncritical acceptance of cultural practices burdens the people with what enslaves it in an aura of sacred mystique which is hollow that consciously and sub-consciously compels the people to meet their contemporary needs of all kinds with the instruments that are anachronistic.

The greatest challenge in the domain of culture has always been and is sifting the dead from the living. Each generation has to grapple with this challenge regardless of the means at its disposal and the ensuing consequences. What poses the insidious threat is the force of habit; an outcome of cultural practices repeated endlessly, that has visible and invisible presence in the matters of culture. Individuals and institutions need to be reminded that fighting against the force of habit, whether individual or collective nature, is a formidable task that requires critically conscious effort to examine memes of the past that are bandied as natural and normal.

One has to be alert to the real but deceptive possibility that natural may be manufactured and normal abnormal. Repetition ad nauseum has the power to project the manufactured as natural and abnormal as normal. We tend to internalise all the cultural irrationalities by osmosis.

Culture is a tricky slope and one has to watch their steps in order to inherit the enriching past that makes the present fulfilling and the future pregnant with possibilities for all of us in a process which ensures continuity. —

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