A Kaleidoscopic Breeze through History
Amir Ali
CULTURE: A NEW WORLD HISTORY by Martin Puchner Ithaka Press, London, 2023, 349 pp., 699.00
June 2023, volume 47, No 6

This is one of those books that breeze across centuries and continents, leaving the reader’s mind ventilated by long cultural cross currents. Puchner argues that culture cannot be considered hived off, discrete, and possessed exclusively by a set of people. This is the kind of nigglingly neat billiard ball understanding of culture that political theorists operated with as they made the case for cultural pluralism or multiculturalism. Puchner suggests that culture is constantly overflowing and transgressing boundaries. It is eclectically borrowed, sometimes stolen. Above all, it is collectively held, by no one in particular. Culture does not have the exclusivity and excludability of private property. This makes culture a public good or better still, a common good. The more recourse is taken to a common good like culture, the more prolifically is it produced in its intangibility.

Puchner begins with the accidents of history and ecology that leave a particular form of cultural expression intact and hidden for centuries, to be serendipitously or accidentally rediscovered centuries later. The book opens with the example of the Chauvet Cave in France that became a kind of artistic canvas for humans who frequented the cave some 37,000 years ago. And then 34,000 years ago, part of the mountainside collapsed, sealing off the entrance of the cave. The story of the Chauvet Cave is one of rediscovery as re-entry to the cave gave more recent generations access to the works of art and culture accumulated and preserved over the course of earlier generations and centuries.

Continue reading this review