On the Use of Culture

In one of Georgian classic movies an elementary school teacher asks her students what benefit people get from the barn-door fowl. For the hen, the duck and the goose children answer pretty quickly: down, eggs, meat. However when asked about the benefits people get from keeping the rooster, one lad couldn’t recall any of such. After some struggling finally he answered: “it poops.”

Now back to why I started writing this post. Recently Georgian government announced one of Georgian highland regions Svaneti to become an international ski resort. And not just a regular one, but a year-round one – the mountains there are tall enough to hold snows even during the summer. Plus, the resort is within the driving distance from the sea coast. The idea is that a vacationer will be able to swim the sea and then to ski within the same day.

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A village in Svaneti. 2010

However, the thing is that until very recent Svaneti remained one of the closest and traditional regions in the Caucasus. Even during Soviet times, when the most development of the region happened, it remained very loyal to the ancestral traditions. After the collapse of the Soviet Union Svaneti has turned into a crime’s nest, that was virtually uncontrollable by the state. Even locals would be robbed on Svaneti’s roads for more than fifteen years, not mentioning all sorts of tourists and mountineers, who later would think twice about going to Svaneti again. As a result, the region was little influenced by the outer world and most of the traditions and customs were preserved as they were, say, a century ago.

Now it is expected that the touristic boom in Svaneti will change the lifestyle of people, who live there. Locals will have to adjust to the new environment. Those, who have left Svaneti for valley years ago will return and the secluded region will turn into the fussy ski resort.

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Illuminated Mestia, the major town in Upper Svaneti. 2011

I started documenting Svaneti a couple of years ago and immediately dug it as a very photogenic and ethnographically interesting region. Later I got interested in more detailed anthropological study of it. To me personally the development of tourism in the region was a sort of an intrusion and even the destruction of very interesting cultural layer. But of course it was the first emotions. Along with that I understand and welcome the economic growth that the local population will benefit from. But at the same time the unique traditions may fade away.

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Slaughtering of an ox for a celebration in Svaneti. 2010

Now, the question is: why do we care at all about the preservation of local culture? And does the word “preservation” apply to culture? Another question could be: what is the benefit we get from studying local traditions and customs? Why should we care about them at all? What will we lose if they vanish? This is the question I keep asking myself while working in yet another region: what is the practical use of the local traditions I am observing? May be they are like that rooster: useful at the first glance, but difficult for a little boy to define the benefit coming from it?

A friend of mine had this explanation: we need to “preserve” traditions in Svaneti, because in case tourism doesn’t work there, people can return to their original state of being. In other words, he meant that traditions include agricultural skills, everyday wisdom and social structure. So if nothing works out, people still will have some basis to stand upon.

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Tradition of remembrance of the dead in Svan village. 2010

But culture is not only agricultural skills. Technological development changes those skills, social structures change, but it doesn’t mean that cultures are “vanishing.”

Anthropologists explain culture as a tool for society’s survival. It constantly changes along with environment and can exist only in human minds. But it could also mean that the culture is indestructible (as long as human beings are alive), since whatever happens to it and however it changes, it’s there. On the other hand sometimes we intuitively speak about destruction of cultures, even cultural revolution or stagnation.

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Preparing a boar for holiday immolation in Svaneti. 2010

Of course it just depends on a way we use the term, and that’s why we need to define what exactly we mean by word “culture.” But whatever we mean by it, it also depends on how we feel when an all-year ski resort brings booming nightclubs to a place where people still say half-pagan prayers for the fertility.

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A Svan village elder. 2010

P.S. Is it a cultural aspect that Japanese people stayed calm and organized in the aftermath of the recent earthquake? Almost no looting, well-organized queues, people followed the safety instructions and helped others. Not many other nations did the same. But where exactly does this attitude come from? A good discussion topic, to my mind.

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