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I do know everybody else understood Norberto Chaves’ discourse differently. But let me try to show my own point of view.

I am talking about the third of Chaves’ presentations at the Encuentro Latinoamericano de Diseño 2007 of the Universidad de Palermo.

He said that our society is placing consumption in the place where love should be. He also said that mostly this is because when new technologies are created they do not have social norms to regulate them. Those norms must be developed by every kind of worker that deals with culture, which includes designers.

His favorite examples are about electronic gadgets, like mobile phones and the infamous iPod which prevented him from having his so esteemed vermut.

I do agree with him in many respects. I do think consumerism is a big issue both designers and everyone else have to deal with as soon as possible. I do agree that we need to value our culture more. I do agree we have to fight to enhance the freedom, both our own and everyone else’s freedom, and i do also think this is a long and difficult fight.

I even focused my graduation work in mobile phones, so as to investigate ways that mobiles could set people free instead of imprisoning them. My phone’s form was taken up by a giant volume dial, so that making it behave would be direct, instinctive.

But if i do agree with most of his suggestions about what we should DO, i have reservations about WHY we should do it.

To simply deny the novelties does not solve the problems they bring. And Norberto Chaves’ attitude, even if he is not openly crucifying iPods and mobile phones, puts them in an unquestionably lower level than all the rest of culture. He passes a moral judgment on the role such things can play in culture.

And that leads us to this, the center of my criticism. I believe Norberto Chaves proposes a form of understanding culture that is akin to erudition.

Why is this important? The first anthropologists studied non-European societies as “societies without culture”. Their inhabitants where considered inferior to Europeans for their lack of culture. Culture, they thought, was a vast and rich learning, and also schooling. In other words, culture was science and European arts, and things that one should learn in school.

But you need to use the values, moral systems and categories of the culture to understand it (and not yours!). If you don’t you will judge the culture, but you wont comprehend it. The reason is that morals, values and categories are part of culture. They only make sense in a specific society, with specific environmental conditions, specific inheritances, specific ways of living. There are moral judgments implied by saying things like:

  • which culture is more or less developed
  • which cultural forms are preferable
  • which cultures are more or less free, which have more or less humanity, which have more or less love
  • which are ugly or beautiful
  • which are worth meeting

Now, how exactly does Norberto Chaves moralize culture? In his perspective, culture is always something to be achieved. You have to seek culture. “Culture is something to be savored”. And what’s more, it is a spiritual matter.

It is true, he does cite lots and lots of examples of autochthonal cultural forms. But he does so in a moralizing way: he always proposes that to have culture is better than to not have it. The very title of his talk denounces this: “the cost of the absence of culture”.

But the problem is: there is no “absence of culture”. Culture, in the anthropological (and relativistic) way of thinking it, cannot be “lacking”. If you do cut your spaghetti it does not mean you are without culture, but simply that your culture have no problems with cutting them. It is impossible to declare some behaviors not-cultural.

Let’s analyze one of his examples: he says that people answer a call in their mobile instead of talking to the person just in front of you because we are valuing more the phone than the person. This is a moral judgment. A cultural analysis would question what are the values and aims and issues being dealt with in the moment of answering a phone. For example, the fact that someone calls you means that (most likely) you gave them your phone number on the first place — and, therefore, they have passed your approval already, what may not be true of the person in front of you. Also, there is the issue of cost by minute of call, there are issues of looking important because of being called, and many others.

I do not mean that people should give precedence to their cell phones over the persons in front of them. I mean that cultural questions are not about right or wrong. Cultural issues are complex negotiations involving lots of players.

My aim is not merely to bash Chaves. To study culture is (to me) a way to free ourselves from our own presuppositions, but Norberto Chaves’ way of putting it can only serve to impose his own moral standards. To save society from consumption under his banner is simply to follow his neat and organized vision of what the world should be. Rather than defend love from consumption, we ought to understand consumerism. Rather than escape ugliness, we ought to embrace other forms of beauty. Rather than perfect our own society around fixed, prudent, wise moral values, we ought to explore new forms of feeling and relationship.

It is a lie that new technologies make people care less about people. “All this is not about divorcing the physical to live digitally. MySpace has more to do with offline structures of sociality than it has to do with virtuality. People are modeling their offline social network; the digital is complementing (and complicating) the physical.” [danah boyd]

No matter how much i google, i cannot find out where did he graduate, what is his formation. His biographies only show the important things he’s done (director of that, principal of this, author of so and so). I cannot find out what where the experiences of his youth (that according to him are the ones that make us what we are). But his point of view has all the trappings of someone who has read anthropology books after he had graduated, and therefore has absorbed the concepts but not the attitude of cultural relativism.

No matter how much he sends us to eat tortillas, talames, tacos, and so on, he is still talking about culture as erudition if he is a connoisseur of Latin-American foods. Erudition does not imply expensiveness, or sophistication, but simply a vast and broad array of knowledge. As for example tasting the tortilas, the talames, the tacos and a long list of other foods i’ve never tasted (but would definitely like to).

If it is still not clear how much he uses his own moral values to judge culture, consider this. He stated that he refuses to go to the orient. But “it is only by appreciating a culture that is profoundly different from our own, that we can realize the extent to which our own beliefs and activities are culture-bound, rather than natural or universal.” [en.wikipedia] I could agree with him if he said that Latin America has a richness of culture to grant a full lifetime of learning, but notice that he did not send that message. He did not say “I have no interest in”, he said “I refuse to”. He simply wont accept a vast array of cultures, curiously the ones more likely to be different from his own.

I would also like to note that i could have said all of that to him, there, at the time. It would be easier to understand said than written. But instead of listening to my criticism, he adopted a defensive position, rereading to me a passage he had read but minutes earlier, as if i was stupid. Not exactly what i expect from someone who says we should be open to life and stuff.

But i couldn’t care less, really. I just write all of this so that Amy can understand my point of view. ;-)

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