Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Postulating on Cultural Performance

In Market Day in Provence, de La Pradelle illustrates how the streets of Carpentras serve as an elaborate set for the market performance that takes place every Friday.  This performance is marked by the differentiated roles of vendors, buyers, and other actors—some of which are consistent routines repeated week after week while others are one-time occurrences (typically tourists or market newcomers).  The repeated weekly performances become rituals, and de La Pradelle illuminates the importance of these rituals for the performers by relating accounts of Carpentras market-goers—sellers and buyers alike—praising the market life: vendors acknowledge how selling at the market becomes a way of life while market patrons praise the experience as a once-a-week opportunity to really experience a slice of Provençal life.  This loyalty to the market performance is pronounced and somehow sustained despite the fact that all parties involved are seemingly aware of its fraudulent nature.  Vendors may call young and old women alike by the same pet names or inquire as to the general well-being of a customer’s hometown to cultivate the sense of a true friendship while really inquiring about nothing truly personal.  Customers respond willingly to vendors’ playful banter and excitingly rush about chatting with fellow consumptive market-goers they otherwise have no interaction with during the rest of the week.  A relationship otherwise marginalized Saturday through Thursday suddenly becomes intimate on Friday when both actors set foot on the market stage.  And it is not just the relationships which are shams: a few vendors admit to adopting a Provençal accent while selling in the Carpentras market in order to “prove” their authenticity, or in real terms cater to those customers who want to believe in the traditional Provençal producer and provider.  Others even dare to project a role as producer in spite of the fact they have little to do with the actual production and instead purchase their wares from a wholesaler or even from a supermarket chain.  The performance elides these inconsistencies, however, and the performers themselves seem perfectly content to keep it this way.  My question is…why?

Sure, we can argue that the market is steeped in rich Provençal tradition and serves as the one remaining link to the nostalgic time when market-goers were not so much actors playing pretend as they were legitimate producers and providers striving to satisfy their economic needs.  I’m not suggesting that in “days of yore” market-goers did not benefit from the social and cultural constructs of the market, but even the market-goers of today depicted in de La Pradelle’s book admit that the market served much more of a necessary and functional role than it does today.  Present day, the market behaves similarly as before but only in pretense.  The actors, however, cling to this pretense for nostalgia’s sake or to preserve a piece of the culture with which they continue to identify.   But by identifying with a piece of culture no longer relevant in present populations and recreating it under false as a charade, aren’t market-goers actually confusing their “true” culture?  At what point did the market turn from legitimate to sham?  Are current marketplace actors living a cultural lie in that their sense of what the market is and does is based on nothing more than the cultural creations of the previous generation of marketplace actors?  Or does it become legitimate simply because all of the actors believe in it (or choose to accept it) so whole-heartedly?  It makes me wonder how many cultural elements and rituals we study (and laud?) today are similar shells of the traditions they pay tribute to.  If culture is so rooted in performance, than any cultural element ever be believed to be anything more than just a constructed demonstration?  And if this is the case, does this weaken or cheapen culture or just simply redefine it as purely symbolic?

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