Ethnology professor: How globalization and pop-culture takes a toll on national identity

Libertas Klimka
DELFI / Valdas Kopūstas

How has Lithuanian ethnical culture changed over the last 20 years? What was driving the change?

Culture researches and practitioners draw a dividing line of time between the traditional and ethnic cultures. The traditional or folk culture, which is the entirety of Lithuanian peasants’ accumulated material and spiritual treasures, had formed by the 20th century. In other words, it encompasses our ancestors’ heritage that has been captured until then by ethnographers, folklorists and museum workers.

But during the 20th century, when the nation ended up in the tumultuous whirlwinds of history, the material environment, which had laid foundation for the traditional culture, was erased. Hence, no bast-shoes, or fume-full village huts were left. Where else today do we hear a folk song, if not during a haying season? And with the turn of history in the early 1990s, Lithuanians’ lifestyle was again subject to a colossal change, spawning new ways of life. Not surprisingly, today we see most of the population dwelling in urban areas – the country folk have become townspeople. Even nourishment has changed over the years, but it seems we still like our soups.

So where I’m pointing to is that from the entirety of values that our ancestors have garnered over the centuries and, perhaps, millennia, we take for our use just a small part. The rest lies on museum shelves and in ethnology books.

But when it comes to using that part, we’re rather selective: picking just what we need to nurture and enhance our national identity.

We tend to take first things from the spiritual realm: the mother tongue, folklore, folk songs and music, also traditional dances and games. Plus the national dishes and a nice house on the shore of a lake. Maybe some national garments for a national holiday, as well as one or another artefact of the traditional craftsmanship – like a clay jar, a linen tablecloth or a twig-weaved basket for mushrooms.

These traditional crosses still to be found around in countryside marks already withered villages, homesteads or places of past significance.

To sum up, ethnic culture is a continuous creative process, permanently renewing and adapting itself to the nowadays’ culture.

If to delve into the past, until the 20th century, traditional culture was the people’s popular culture engaging all villagers into singing folk songs, retelling customs and using ethno-knowledge. Now we see them performed only on the stage, being shown during some events and, once in the blue moon, on TV or radio.

Since ethnic culture requires a conscious determination to show keenness and certain efforts, it is deservedly called elite.

These distinctions between traditional and ethnic cultures might sound pretty confusing to many.

Indeed, there’s certain confusion between the terms, particularly on the international level, because just some nations have retained their 20-century countryside culture or just its remembrance. Therefore, in the US, for example, there’s no such a thing as ethnology – only cultural or social anthropology. Cowboy culture could be compared with the culture of our farmhands or soviet kolkhoz perhaps, I mean from the standpoint that theirs and ours were impacted by exterior factors in their formation.

Does the 21-century globalization have the same impact on our ethnic culture as the massive emigration did after World War I or the Soviet occupation in 1940? Can any parallels be drawn here?

The social processes of a different time and their impact on cultures cannot be matched against each other for many reasons. Look, the two major waves of Lithuanian emigration in the 20th century – after World War I and prior or after the Soviet occupation – have been determined by quite different historic circumstances, hence their different impact on the social fabric of the contemporary society. The nation’s exodus before WWI and after it engulfed young country men whose biggest dream was to earn enough money to come home and buy a farm.

WWII saw all the best country’s intellectuals decamping, and those who didn’t leave their homes, perished in exile in Siberia.

Meanwhile, today we see our medics, engineers and other professionals leaving. The answer to the question why they hit the road is simple: we don’t know how to manage our own land.

Globalization can be viewed from different points of view, but it’s hugely detrimental when it cuts traditions and the roots that we have cherished for ages.

The easiest way for it to penetrate national culture is through pop culture. The lack of real talents – that is what characterises our pop culture to me – can be easily patched up with vivid, but often gaudy manifestations of globalization.

At that backdrop, a nation state’s essential function is to ensure that national culture overcomes it by the centuries-old vitality of tradition. All other functions, including education, welfare, healthcare and science, I agree, can be realized on a European level, bypassing national borders.

With globalization penetrating deeper into our lives, there’s certainly a threat for existence of a national state. But as much as I’d like to see Lithuania with a clear-cut cultural identity, I have to admit that future Europe will continue being a multi-cultural union with possibilities for cultural collaboration and dialogues. This is, by the way, is emphasized by most EU documents and UNESCO recommendations.

To say that in the language of ethnographers, Europe will continue to be a meadow by a river, full of flowers, each bloom different in shape, size, smell and colour. Only a vividly colourful meadow can be nice, and Lithuania’s bloom is distinctive, but we have to do all so that it does not wilt away.

Which of the national traditions are endangered most because of external impacts? And which traditions do you believe are hardest to bend?

The strongest ones are obviously those related to our corporeal nature – I mean to live in one’s own house surrounded by lush nature, to spend leisure engaging in nature-related activities, like fishing, picking mushrooms, hunting, tasting – outdoors – new dishes and drinks and then, at the end of the day, crooning a sweet folk melody. Spiritual things always require extra efforts, as only a small part of the society can reap the fruits of elite culture, which, as I mentioned, ethnical culture is.

Don’t you see a possibility that the encroaching globalization will gnaw our ethnical culture to a point where the impact becomes undesirable?

Paradoxically, despite the scope of globalization, it is the nations strong ethnical heritage-wise that put brakes on the speed of globalization. Look, for example, at the Danes, who, while very pro-EU, are extremely proud of their customs and traditions. How wonderful it is to see them walk out on the streets and celebrate the Flag Day and other national holidays! Their neighbours, the Norwegians, are on par in terms of celebrating national holidays – they are doing that getting together for them in large families.

And last but not least example is Scottish soccer fans wearing their traditional kilts. There are quite many examples like that across Europe. Despite the scope and speed of globalization, Catalonia and Scotland, with the brewing political processes for independence, are effectively based on their ethnical identity.

What can mitigate globalization effects?

The preemptive measures have been laid out in philosophical works by Stasis Šalkauskis and Antanas Maceina. A national school has to be a working thing; this is what we should be striving for. But how much of the teachings are left in today’s education system?

Our Latvian brothers have included a dozen folk songs in their secondary education curriculum. And what about us?

We have done none of that.

Scandinavian countries, as well as France, protect national culture by law, which gives it more advantages in mass media and information dissemination.

Frankly, I really miss a well-crafted, catchy and ingenious TV programme on our national broadcaster’s air.

What could come in defence of ethnic culture in the wake of languishing countryside and its rural centres of culture?

Yes, indeed, the traditional countryside that has always been the fosterer of the traditions is dying away. But interestingly, more and more people from intellectual professions – like writers, artists and others – do move out of urban areas and go to rural areas, where they successfully do what they know best. I believe that local rural communities and activity groups could take advantage of their presence there.

You have recently published a book, “A Small Coffer of Lithuanian Traditions”. Tell us a little about it. A review of your book I came across said that you tend to speak about natural phenomena differently. What is the difference?

The book was written in a bid to try a little bit, at least, to fill up the void of an ethnical culture textbook. Its publishing was confirmed yet in 2012, but the project has been collecting dust ever since. It’s disappointing that in the Ministry of Education and Science no one really cares about publishing such a necessary book. As a matter of fact, it seems to me that there no one is especially preoccupied with preparation of teachers able to speak ardently about the nation’s culture and history, thereby foster national identity and bolster love to the Motherland.

Isn’t that something the teachers have to speak in civil education classes?

To answer your question on the differences, in the book I reviewed not only traditional Lithuanian holidays, but also exerted to exhibit Lithuanians’ spiritual connections with nature, signify the importance of an own home and sought new reverberations of old Lithuanian mythology in Lithuania’s modern worldview. The eternal circle of nature is, nevertheless, at the cusp of the book. It cannot be surprising as this year is devoted to the 300th anniversary of Kristijonas Donelaitis.

Those who happened to flip over the book perhaps noticed that I was trying to combine both spheres of my scholar work – history of science and culture and ethno culture.

Let the reader decide if I was good at it. Importantly, I hope a traditions-cherishing teacher will find it useful to shuffle a bit the routine of his or her class.

Meanwhile, I’ll be more than happy if the book will prompt families to spend more time with their children and perhaps discuss some of the issues I focuses in the book.

For ethnically mixed families, the book will hopefully serve as a means to overcome adversities out there and better know the cultural differences.

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