Moacir P. de Sá Pereira on March 14th, 2007
19th-c. sign in Lithuania

19th-c. sign in Lithuania

I certainly was not expecting to write about this subject in response to last month’s article about the role of the trispalvė in the official workings of the Republic of Lithuania, but Marius brought it up in a comment, and Auksė followed up on it, and it’s become a sort of foundational point on which the discussions about the flag stand, so it seems like some people have an interest in it. The idea, of course, is the idea of the “dying out” of “Lithuanianness,” more commonly referred to as the far-easier “lietuvybė.”

Anyone who has taken some sort of position in a Lithuanian-American cultural organization has had, as some point, that feeling of decline overwhelm the project of the organization. Nothing is as big as it used to be, we tell ourselves. Attendance at Turkey Dance is on a general decline, to give an unscientific example. Blame for this is distributed all over the place, but the overwhelming recipient of the most blame, in my experience, has been (curiously) the reëstablishment of the Republic of Lithuania in 1990.

But the point is that worrying over some kind of cultural decline makes no sense. Even though cultural identity is real and obviously important and useful to a lot of people, it is also totally incoherent when the perceived decline of it causes anxiety, creating a terminological confusion that obscures the potential of a political project that can actually bring some good to the world. In other words, if one is to ask me about my opinion regarding the (real and/or perceived) decline of lietuvybė either in the US or the world, I have to respond, “I’m pretty sure I don’t particularly care.”

In my previous article about the trispalvė, I tried to emphasize the difference between a cultural identity and a political identity, between being a member of a nation and being a citizen of a state. In wondering about whether one should be concerned about the dying out of lietuvybė, however, we only need to consider the cultural identity, using a political (or ideological) commitment as only a point of comparison.

Now, my thinking here has been influenced by a lot of things, but most notably by the recent work of Walter Benn Michaels. His newest book, The Trouble with Diversity, makes a similar argument as I will below, just better. This book—my christmas present to my mother this year—is written for a general audience, so it is not bogged down with the jargon one might expect from a literary critic. Still, the work starts with the main point of Michaels’s previous academic book, The Shape of the Signifier: what we had during the Cold War was a battle between competing ideologies, in which there was a commitment, on both sides, to seeing their specific ideology prevail. Capitalists tried to convince communists to become capitalists, and vice versa (“convince” is being used with all its gallows humor intact).

Since the Cold War, however, and the “End of History,” the conflicts that have erupted have been, instead part of the “Clash of Civilizations.” Michaels takes this sort of shift to investigate the very nature of cultural pluralism, and I am going to re-do that, here, with the specific example of Lithuanian (and, by extension, Lithuanian-American) cultural identity.

Margučiai

Margučiai.

Cultural pluralism (close kin to “multiculturalism”) vitally depends on the idea that no culture is better than another. You have your culture, and I have mine. You paint eggs on Easter one way, I do it a different way. Not better, not worse, just different. This is in marked contrast to ideological difference, in which, if I had an ideological commitment to a certain way of painting easter eggs, I would believe I knew the “best” or “only” way to do it, and I would engage in a project of stamping out other forms of painting easter eggs.

Obviously, that makes no sense.

But if no culture is better than another, why is it a bad thing if a culture dies out? Who actually, honestly, loses when a culture dies? The people who were part of that culture certainly do not—they are dead, or they have abandoned their earlier cultural practices for something that is perfectly acceptable to them in their current daily lives. Similarly, anyone who was not part of that culture also loses nothing.

Still, I’ve heard many times arguments that a culture should be kept alive. From what I can tell, the arguments boil down to two basic points: diversity is good and culture is how a person connects with “who they are.”

The first argument is the easier to dismiss instantly by just inventing limit examples. If diversity is an inherent good, then we should freely accept cultures that have practices that are astonishingly repellent to us, simply in the name of diversity. In our multicultural era, we’re supposed to be ok with cultures that practice clitoridectomy, because, hey… that’s their culture, and they should be allowed to maim young women if that’s the way they were brought up. A more American version is the response to the federal efforts to end Jim Crow. The South had a culture, white Southerners argued, and by having Washington come in and end segregation, the South was threatened with cultural death.

Who mourns the end of Jim Crow?

The second argument is a bit more subtle, but, in fact, makes as little sense to me. Natalija brings up the idea of a “memory of a common past” that unites a people into a nation. I agree that this was a very persuasive argument 90 years ago, but today, especially with between one and five generations of diaspora Lithuanians living in the US, and the post-national movement of rampant neoliberalism, it makes less sense. This “group memory” is supposed to fuel an identification, a sort of internal sense that one’s cultural alignment is predetermined at birth.

Michaels, who is writing more about racial (as opposed to ethnic) identification, describes how unreasonable this position is very well:

We may inherit our diseases from our ancestors and our eye colors and our hair texture, but we don’t inherit our … books and music and art. If none of the students in my class has read either Emerson or Douglass and if biology can’t connect the white ones with Emerson or the black ones with Douglass, what sense does it make to say either one belongs to their heritage? Indeed, does it really make sense to say there is any such thing as heritage? There are some things we inherit (our genes), and there are some things we learn (maybe Bantu or English, Emerson and Douglass). But there’s no necessary connection between them. There’s no reason why people with a certain set of genes ought to be reading a certain set of books and thinking of those books as part of their heritage… There are just the things we learn and the things we don’t learn, the things we do and the things we don’t do.

So are we born Lithuanians? If we are, how do we inherit it? Do Lithuanians, as a lecturer offensively put it at Kongresas, have a genetic predisposition to liking cepelinai? Once you start saying things like, “I was born x,” then it becomes a question of birthright, and what was once just a discussion about cultural values (“I paint eggs this way, since I was taught to do it that way”) becomes a racial discussion (“I paint eggs this way, since I was born to do it”). A great example of this is the surprisingly offensive shirt—far more offensive than anything I’ve ever sold on the Lithchat store—I saw for sale at Kaziuko mugė this weekend that read on the back: “The good news is, I’m Lithuanian. The bad news is, you’re not.”

Писанки.

Писанки.

But, then, (now paraphrasing Michaels), who determines what counts as “Lithuanian Culture”? It’s what Lithuanians do, one could say. But that, then, means that you know who the Lithuanians are. How do you know that without a recourse to a racialized past? It simply cannot be done. Even saying something like, “I paint eggs this way since I’m Lithuanian and it’s best for me” requires some sort of pre-cultural way of marking someone as Lithuanian, so it must be biological or genetic. And that, dear friends, is politically repugnant, like the shirt mentioned above.

Furthermore, what is true for culture becomes true for language. Natalija in her comment refers to a “density of linguistic or cultural ties” in the process of making a nation, which suggests that a unified language predates the nation. As we’ve seen, however, countless times (from the imposition of Parisian French on a majority population that could not understand it to the artificial splitting of the difference between several dialects done by the Suvalkiečiai peasant intellectuals of the late 19th century in inventing “Lithuanian”), that’s a fantasy used to provide a prehistory to the national moment. But speaking a language, as something that one is taught, is no different than painting eggs in a certain way.

As such, why would it be bad if the Lithuanian language died out? Gaelic more or less died out, and Irish culture is still very alive and very healthy, as we’ll experience this upcoming weekend. Similarly, should the Lithuanian language die out, it’s not like people wouldn’t be able to communicate anymore—without doubt, the last speakers of Lithuanian will speak some other language as well, with which they will be able to communicate with their neighbors and with which they will be able to pursue meaningful lives. I generally think Lithuanian is safe, of course, as long as the Republic insists on using it as an official language. Either way, as Michaels writes, “whichever [languages] people end up with will be just as good as the ones their ancestors used to have.” As Lithuanian is, ultimately, no better than any other language, its disappearance can’t really be considered a bad thing. A historical and aesthetic argument can be made for keeping the language “alive”—in the sense that there exist people who can use the language to work with historical and aesthetic objects that utilize the language, but not a cultural one… or at least not a very convincing one.

Michaels writes polemically, and he is leading to a point that can be generally simplified as such: All this ado about languages and cultural identity and diversity and multiculturalism and “difference is good” serves a specific purpose, and that purpose is to distract the discussion away from actual, substantive inequalities in the world, namely economic ones. As he explains, though I may say to someone, “I paint eggs this way, and you do it that way; we’re both cool,” I would never, ever, say, “I’m outlandishly wealthy and you’re poor and starving; we’re both cool.” The fascination with cultural issues gobbles up time that could be spent on issues of economic justice.

I don’t need to push my argument that far in that direction, but I can say that, should I ever have grandchildren, I will be far more concerned that they grow up with good ideas of citizenship and social justice than that they grow up speaking a certain language or painting their eggs a certain way on Easter.

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  1. What use are dying languages?

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