In the last week, reading about culture and decolonization has answered a lot of my questions from the semester. The question came up in class, “what is culture”? While I do not feel equipped to necessarily answer that question definitively, I can say that culture is informed by an epistemological understanding of reality and can vary wildly from person to person…or not very much at all.
Epistemology is the philosophical study of the nature, origin, and limits to human knowledge and how that informs a person’s beliefs. Colonialism refers to the globalization of Anglo-European beliefs in such a way that it is erasing and replacing the reality of many indigenous people, often through violence and conquest.
To illustrate the worlding of other cultures, the film El Abrazo de la Serpiente is given as an example by Maria D’Argenio. Maria is a senior teaching fellow at University College London where she teaches classes such as “Introduction to Spanish Film”, “The Latin American Supernatural”, and “Race and Ethnicity in American Cinema”.
In the film, an Amazonian shaman named Karamakate is helping two white men find a sacred plant called the yakruna. During the first expedition in 1909, Karamakate is still very much embedded in his culture. As they reach their destination, they see Colombian soldiers invading during what became known as the rubber boom. When the story returns in 1940, we see Karamakate having forgotten much of his old customs.
The story illustrates how the Amazonian culture experiences their reality and how the forces of violence and colonization put that experience at fatal risk, overwriting the customs of people who had long inhabited that land.
The point is that the lived experience and epistemology of the Amazonian people knew things about reality that came only from the lived experiences of their bodies.
Another example of this might be like the circumcision debate in class. In the group, you have people whose bodies are living in a particular set of customs and cultures. Someone outside of that set of lived experiences has looked at the practice and decided that it is barbaric. Then they enter that community and tell them that they are wrong for what they are doing.
This is the effect of colonialism on the world. There has become a set of practices, customs, and epistemologies that have become the “standard lens” for how all other things on earth ought to be, despite people living in different realities.
Decartes theorized about a difference between body and mind. It is the same reason why the first attempts at artificial intelligence failed. It is not a matter of knowing the correct steps for any given practice, the practical understanding comes from actually doing those things.
And those doings are only possible through what our environment opens up to us. To make a binary judgment of right or wrong in any culture minimizes the lived experience of those people.
For design and research then, it must be practiced through a lens of understanding that my own view is limited by a particular set of experiences in the world. Researching any other social phenomenon should be used as a tool of understanding my own ethnography rather than diagnosing someone else’s. Further, as a way to understand why I don’t see something the way someone else would.