Culture : The story of Us, From. Cave Art to K-Pop. By Martin Puchner.

The literary scholar and Harvard professor Martin Puchner's latest book, 

''Culture : The Story of Us. From Cave Art to K-Pop,'' makes the case that this enmeshment has been the rule rather than the exception.

In Puchner's telling, human history is not one of neatly delineated canons and hierarchies that respect geographical boundaries.

''In our debates over originality and integrity, appropriation and mixture, we sometimes forget that culture is not a possession,'' he writes in the introduction, likening the production of knowledge to a ''vast recycling project in which small fragments from the past are retrieved to generate new and surprising ways of meaning-making.

In this account, culture resembles a centuries-long game of telephone, as ideas resound through time and spread across continents. As people migrate, they make and remake culture to help explain the contexts in which they find themselves.

Disparate communities around the world - from adults who are somehow still ''Little Mermaid'' fans to neo-Nazi admirers of Victor Hugo - have fallen prey to a traditional delusion about how culture works.

In this narrative, culture can be owned - by nations, ethnicities, religions, races - the way someone might lay claim to their voice or the color of their eyes. Here, ''culture'' is a constituent part of identity, fixed and unchanging, Suggesting otherwise can destabilize a person's sense of self.

THUS, last fall, when a restoration of a statue of Hugo in the French town of Besancon resulted in the darkening of its face, local neo-Nazis slashed it with white paint and hung a '' White Power '' sign from its hands.

They were proclaiming Hugo's place in the firmament of an immutable French [ read white ] identity. They'd be damned if the author wound up like Ariel, the titular little mermaid who, in the upcoming Disney remake, is played by the Black singer and actress Halle Bailey.

There's a wrinkle to the story, though : The Hugo statue was the work of the Senegalese sculptor Ousmane Sow, Born in Dakar, but educated partly in France, where he was eventually inducted into the Academie des Beaux-Arts, Sow embodies the contradiction at the heart of European Imperialism.

France and other colonial powers created a fiction of cultural ownership that justified their dominion over large swaths of the planet.

They, the supposed inheritors of Greek and Roman civilization - which they ahistorically recast as ''white'' - were obviously superior to the people they conquered. After all, their imperial subjects hadn't inherited the classical world's glories.  

Yet, the rampant exploitation, pilfered resources and forced migrations that characterized the colonial project also gave the lie to the notion that culture belongs to one people or another.

As diverse populations shuttled around the globe, their cultures circulated with them and cross-pollinated, until an artist from a former French colony could fabricate a sculpture honoring a French literary icon and abolitionist.

Rather than being proof of a distinct French civilization, the status speaks to France's enmeshment in a global system of cultural transmission.

Imperialists, tasked with explaining not just their domination of the world but the economic system which that domination brought into being, adopted concepts devised to justify the exploitation of colonialism and chattel slavery - indeed the every notion of ownership that Puchner is writing against.

This ideology represented a new stance toward the past and foreign cultures, emphasizing rigid notions of racial and cultural difference.

Such thinking dismissed the fluid interchange of ideas that gave rise to, say, the Islamic rediscovery of Greek philosophy and its eventual dissemination to medieval Europe. In place of such exchange, thinkers like Thomas Jefferson resorted to false hierarchies and intellectual contortions - see his book, ''Notes on the State of Virginia'' to obfuscate history and validate racism.

Puchner wisely skirts contemporary arguments over race and appropriation, avoiding the cul-de-sacs to which they often lead. But I had hoped for a turn in his argument, an exploration of how racial ideology helped construct that cul-de-sac in the first place.

He ends his book with a stirring call to syncretism as the only way to reinvigorate both the study of cultural history and the creation of more culture. If we're going to stop bickering over what belongs to whom, though, we need to know how we arrived at this dead end.]

The World Students Society thanks review author Ismail Muhammad, a story editor at The New York Times.


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