'Low' and 'high' culture

All this talk of culture is driving me mad, particularly talk of “high” and “low” culture. The discussion proceeds too much as though “low” and “high” culture are states found in nature that we merely discover and name. It is as though it is not we who bring them into being on our decisions and discriminations, or who then use them to entrench pet values.

Having determined that certain movements of the body is low culture some promote that the next step from the evidence of low culture in Kadooment is to proceed to despair about the future and validity of our country. However, perhaps we need to reflect on the premises and assumptions driving much discussion of low culture before we conclude that Barbados is going to the dogs.

If we were to determine that the splits and leg raises between male and female dance partners in the ballet were suggestive of sexual play, I doubt that this would automatically withdraw from that art form its assigned capacity to improve human faculties of thought and emotional intelligence. If it does not, then perhaps the discernment of the sexuality in movements of bodies in street dancing is not the real issue.

After all, it is not really sex on display, it is performance, or dare I say, art. Perhaps if we were to unfold a significant difference between ballet and street dancing, it would be instructive.

The difference I want to propose that enables us to view street dancing as the sexual act itself (or very nearly so) and not as performance capable of improving thought and uplifting emotions has to do with the frame.

Newspapers are trying to get away with the claim that their photographs are merely windows on, and they, like Columbus, discoverers of culture found lying on our streets at Kadooment. This is hardly reasonable. It will be a challenge to discover modern photographs that look directly in or up the crotch of female ballet dancers on stage, or that with such faithfulness attempt to isolate the sexuality that is undoubtably suggested by female and male costuming in the ballet.

Someone aims, cocks and fires the camera in ways that might otherwise be deployed, and the knowledge that the camera is aware is not far from some performer’s minds. Take the issue of timing.

While the camera of the newspaper photographs targets the body in full correspondence with the sexual script, it never manages to get the expressions before and after certain acts. It may be too much to ask, but if the camera is the mirror that we insist it is, it ought to register the laughter, the audacity, the attack on hypocrisy, the lack (or indifference to, it seems to me) of real sexual arousal of performers that attends such dancing, the recapture of a final freedom- freedom of the body.

They never follow the performers and append a script that proposes motivations, or values, or even attitudes. This perspective might engender unravelling of the entanglements that carnival photography now promotes between sex/culture/low/street dancing.

When Plato said he would keep poets from his republic, it was the tendency to assign the label “low culture”, followed by the designation that no thought or only thought to do the dog attends this culture that led him thus. Some commentators on Kadooment street dancing do much the same assessments now, with all of Plato’s God-like stance.

Some may argue that what we see is actually display and not dancing on the streets. The distinction is probably not worth the effort to make, as both intend to disturb some order. This is an order Barbadians are constantly reminded of when we are told that Crop Over was never meant to be the people’s festivals it now is.

We are also reminded of that order in the attempts to discredit claims that wuk up is a part of an African culture. Many revellers fling hips and wuk-up in spite of that order, including members of the now mainly white Blue Boxcart band (that band no longer hosts only white revellers). Whether they claim Africanity of not, they do its work which challenges institutional orders. But this also needs to be more explored than the current moralising allows.

Normally the streets belong to the state and police edict and not to people as we wrongfully assume. Therefore, crowds performing on the roads on their own authorization are probably doing nothing but display (unless of course they are rioting which is by no means performance). But even if we single some performances out as display, how should we take this?

If we take the position of at least two authoritative observers, Dr. Henry Fraser and Ridley Green, we see a curious collapse in their attempts to discredit the Africanity claim. They entangle the claim about the Africanity of wukking up to the current offending photographs.

The claims about the Africanity of wukking up and the pictures from the last Kadooment, some of which many rightly abhor, address two different types of performance: the percussive and circular flinging of the hips which we call wukking up and the performance that is usually associated with pole dancing in strip night-clubs, which these photographs suggest.

The question asked by this black supporter of the Africanity claim is: whose purpose is served to equate the two? Even so, one might well ask, why would a support for the Africanity of wukkin up attract discredit? Why would one’s claim about the Africanity of wukking up enable that claim to be used in an attempt to embarrass one away from that position? Can we uncritically accept Dr. Henry Fraser’s Designation of wukking up as “our most degrading behaviour”? (The Barbados Advocate wed. Aug.22, 2012)

The link I would more readily make with the notorious photographs would be more obvious: this public body of the street performance with its secret counterpart. Consider what these public bodies stand in contrast to as it relates to secret bodies: historically high levels of child incest, intimate partner violence, misogyny, refusal to find useful alternatives to child beating, trafficking in children and women for sexual purposes, tacit approval of rape in prisons. Consider also the images yet unpublished of actual soldiers out now at Kadooment with real rifles on the ready among the host of dancing bodies.

In their determination of what they will or will not publish, newspaper editors discriminate according to very select criteria that probably have less to do with protecting public morality and more with sales and the protection of the status quo. This is despite the existence of the professional code of ethics which Rickey Singh reports exists. (Nation 24 Aug.)

For instance, both local newspapers refused to publish Kamau Brathwaite’s remarkable Cornrows photograph and short poem, sent at the same time as some of noted Kadooment photographs. Why not the dissemination of these Africanity images? Why not a published serious investigation of the Africanity of wukking that is not tied to an automatic discredit of the use of hips in dancing?

Editors are not above manipulating photographs to make the most of perspectives they support or which will harvest the most sales. After all, they could have offered even the referred Kadooment photographs in ways that did not disseminate their messages further. This point is made more significant when it is recognised that these acts formed the smallest part of Kadooment wining.

However, newspapers are no longer the only culprits of the perspective that sees the street dancing body as offensive to the moral fabric of the earth. Occasional private cameras seek out and order this predetermined perspective. Performing citizens with the problematic need to centre all attention on themselves by all means necessary, also organise to demonstrate it.

But what if the intrepid camera persons sought other angles? And what if editors decided not to feed us on the steady diet of what is more and more becoming pornography. This definition is applied to what the media shows rather than what the dancers on the street do, as pornography is defined as the depiction of sexual subject matter rather than the act itself, and there is no doubt that many define what they see in the media at kadooment as sex. On the street one can deny the attention-seeking performers the spotlight they seek by ignoring them and explaining to one’s children about this adult foolishness.

Admittedly, though it is not the only kind, outrageous behaviour does exist in Kadooment. That is the nature of the carnival where attack is made on normal codes of behaviour. Scholars identify this and follow its trail into some novels. For example, Mikhail Bakhtin identifies the carnivalesque in the work of celebrated 16th century French writer, Francois Rabelais (Indiana University Press, 1984). I follow his example in my study of George Lamming’s In the Castle of My Skin (Caribbean Chapters, forthcoming).

It would not make sense for people who criticise to devote their abhorrence only to the performances on the street as they now do. We give our children texts to study that do far more than what street performers do, yet rightfully expect their thought and emotional intelligence to be engaged by these texts.

Although men are equally guilty, the street performance is also the occasion where some women reject all normal attempts to control the female body. As we see from many reports it is also where attempts at such control are consolidated under the dubious notion of garnering “respect”. Gordon Rohlehr identifies that newspapers as far back as the 19th century attacked women for “jamette” dancing in the streets at carnival.

The dubiousness of couching the critique in terms of respect refers to the fact that the disrespect that causes misogyny and sexual harassment of women in several spheres is a normal state of affairs that comes unprovoked.

Unless the state is willing to outlaw the festival, outrageous behaviour will continue. I do not suggest that such action to outlaw should be made for all sorts of reasons, including the most important, that I, like many, enjoy the freedom of the streets on that day. I admit I could do with not seeing some of the behaviours exhibited, but that is the nature of the freedom some seek, and if they hurt no-one, I could live with that.

The moral fabric of the society that we could consider is hurt is compromised by everyday behaviours and attitudes, so I am not excited over its damage by Kadooment pole dancing much as I would wish it were not chosen for the streets. In the meanwhile, more complex understandings of the culture than simple ascriptions of “high”, and “low”, and “degrading” always inextricably cojoined with Africanity need to surface.


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