(I wrote this a while ago but am only now getting around to posing it)
Several overlapping events in my life have got me thinking about how much of our lives are not up to us: the food taboos I currently labor under because it is Passover, the fact that I will be a father in a few months, and the recent module I taught on female genital cutting in ne of my classes. Of course, all of these things are about choices: I don’t have to avoid leaven, could have chosen not to have a family, and many students in my class, I am sure, desperately wish I had chosen to less sensitive subject. Still, my compelling need to do all of these things — and then to yoke together such unlikely topics in a blog post — has made me suspicious of the enthusiasm with which some greet some cultural innovations.
In our class we read Michelle Goldberg’s excellent Rights Versus Rites, which provides a good overview of recent events in debates over female circumcision — and particularly the position of women like Fuambai Ahmadu, for whom female circumcision is an empowering, decolonizing experience and who oppose readings of the practice as simply oppressive. One way the class found to reconcile the opposed claims of African feminists was to argue that the practice be optional — if people wanted to go through it, then fine. If not, not.
This approach could be criticized on two fronts. First, the ceremonies Ahmadu describes are done on girls, not women. As anyone who has filled out an IRB can tell you, children cannot provide consent to a lot of things in their lives. Indeed, we regularly force choices upon children that they would not make themselves (we do not have a world full of uneaten vegetables and unmade beds) or that they could not make themselves (which language, for example, they will learn). Hard choices about socializing children force one to think about what one is really committed to, because they remove the easy out of passing the buck to someone else’s autonomy.
Second, though, is a more elusive point — that making things optional takes away from their power and, ultimately, their importance. Giving people the choice to participate or not fundamentally alters (and impoverishes) communal life. It is the unchosenness, the inevitability of these things in our lives that make them so powerful. It is the unchooseability of lifeways that subordinate people, for instance, that makes them so particularly repugnant. In more happy circumstances, it is the givenness and centrality of these things that make us chose them even in voluntaristic situations (like mine) where we feel compelled to take up food taboos although we could chose not to. It is a reminder that culture is not something we chose, it is something that makes us.
I’d like to apply this position to current attempts to resist/undo global cultural homogenization through innovation, novelty, remix, etc. These are well and good but I think we should also remember truly vibrant creativity has deeper wellsprings in commitments which are unchosen even if (of course) how those commitments are realized change and grow over time. It is easy for us to celebrate today an infinite multiplication of new and different things — the five thousandth traditional instrument sampled in the name of World Music — and such a celebration is not unwarranted. But we also need to recognize this for what it is, and what it is not. There is a genuine, overlooked value in a slower, less instantly innovative, but the ultimately more powerful force of the arbitrary and conventional formations of meaning that make us who we are.