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"Culture" and Culture

Traditional Knowledge and Intellectual Rights

Manuela Carneiro da Cunha

Increasingly today, intellectual rights over traditional knowledge are fiercely contested. But how should we make sense of the politics and meaning of tradition? As the Brazilian anthropologist Manuela Carneiro da Cunha highlights in this pamphlet, it is no easy task. The indigenous rights movement seems beset by contradictions and impossible demands of cultural purity. Consider, for example, how indigenous people might claim collective rights to their knowledge while, at the same time, posit the foreign imposition of their cultural traits. Does that entail inconsistency or bad faith? By distinguishing “culture” from culture, the former being a reflexive notion that purportedly speaks about the latter, da Cunha shows how such contradictions are inherent to any reflexive system. She asks: What are the cognitive as well as pragmatic consequences of the coexistence of “culture” and culture? In answer, da Cunha explains how the loan word “culture,” as imported from anthropological jargon, is mobilized by indigenous people to effectively separate interpretive regimes and avoid contradictions.

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