Repurposing culture

A marble Roman Corinthian capital from the first century AD used as a medieval baptismal font in the church of St Nicolas of Bari in Avilés, Spain (photo my own)

There’s really only two ways to deal with waste, one is to destroy it, the other is to recycle it. Which means finding a way of putting it back in use. Which is another way of saying to repurpose it.

It comes a time in the life of many cultures that they are taken over, usually violently, by others. And that what used to constitute cultural capital suddently finds itself on the ‘waste’ side of the divide. For what doesn’t serve a purpose anymore usually gets thrown out. Sicut in caelo et in terra, as it is in a household so in the culture at large.

In the West, destruction and repurposing co-existed. The Etruscans were wiped out by the Romans and their artefacts destroyed. The Greeks were conquered by the Romans and their culture repurposed, serving as a model for the emergent Roman style. Christianity destroyed many ancient cultural items but preserved many others.

St Augustine famously noted Christianity’s repurposing mission in the ancient pagan world:

For, as the Egyptians had not only the idols and heavy burdens which the people of Israel hated and fled from, but also vessels and ornaments of gold and silver, and garments, which the same people when going out of Egypt appropriated to themselves, designing them for a better use

The Moors in Muslim Spain and the Ottomans in conquered Byzantium proceeded to a similar repurposing operation, converting churches into mosques and Christian artefacts into Muslim ones.

Repurposing goes beyond physical artefacts and continues to this day. While many old ideas are abandoned, many more are being adapted (the modern concept of choice) for other uses. Words are also being repurposed, as are many other items which make up the intangible realm of our modern world.

In the end, very little gets completely destroyed – it merely comes back in a new form and a renewed function – for better or worse.

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