In praise of hybridity

Published on openDemocracy, by Ales Debeljak, 18 January 2010.

Ever since Ricardo, the defense of international trade has been about productive efficiency. But much more important is that civilisation is a process of cultural exchange, and hybridity is a source of the truly human in the form of new meanings.

It seems almost obscene to speak about culture during a time of global economic and political crisis. But I will persist in my intention. I offer two justifications for doing so.

The first is my conviction that the exchange of products of cultural creativity sustains the life of a human community and gives temporary meaning to our pursuit of a better, more sophisticated and more complete experience of reality. Each and every individual needs to pursue meaning within overlapping cultural frameworks, ones that sparkle – even if deceptively – with the thrilling beauty of our living present, the better to resist the grip of banality … // 

… Westernistic civilization:

Instead of subscribing to the ideology that views the world through the “hard” lens of conflict between “the West and the Rest”, let us try a theory that looks at the world through the “soft” lens of “westernistic” civilization.

An analogy between Hellenistic and westernistic civilization is helpful. In much the same way as classical Greece cannot be equated with Hellenic civilization, the modern West is not the same as westernistic civilization. Until 4 BC and the twilight of city-states, classical Greek civilization remained within the territorial borders of the southern Balkans. Similarly, the civilization of Latin Christianity or the traditional West was firmly rooted in the western countries of Europe until the advent of modernity.

The Hellenistic civilization of Alexander the Great emanated from classical Greek heritage, but territorially it stretched across the entire world then known to man, reaching to Egypt and India, Tajikistan and Afghanistan. In the same way, the westernistic civilization that has arisen from modern western heritage comprises the entire known world today.

A special fusion of Middle Eastern and Indo-Iranian cultural traditions on the one hand, and ancient Greek tradition on the other, gave rise to forms of collective life in which classical Greek ideas represented only the backbone rather than the entire social body. Alexander the Great systematically expanded both the borders of his multi-national empire and the minds of his multi-cultural subjects. He encouraged “mixed marriages” between Greek colonists and locals with the same fervour that he supported merging of Greek and local ideas and technologies.

Westernistic civilization, too, has a hybrid nature. The backbone of the basic package of ideas arises from the heritage of the modern West, but its many ribs extend to all ends of the planet. Various communities in various parts of the world adopt and adapt these ideas in their singular ways as they take into account local specificities. Elections provide an example: this form of representative democracy is today practiced in virtually all countries of the world, although we will readily agree that this process is not equally free and honest across the board.

In ancient Greece, individual identity was determined by the politics of a city-state. It embodied the centre of the world. For this reason, the ancient Greeks engaging in trading and military expeditions, and especially those in overseas colonies, always invoked their homeland, their home city or metropolis. In Hellenistic civilization, the origins of a person was not an issue worthy of much attention. After all, ancient Greek ideas were carried to the outside world by an army under the command of a Macedonian.

Within this empire that stretched across three continents, in which the journeys between regional capitals could take several years, the need for just one centre gradually diminished. The idea of a metropolis was replaced by the idea about a world city or cosmopolis. It transcended local citizenship and offered an answer to the new need for diverse identities, obligations and loyalties. Instead of exclusive patriotic feelings incorporated in the ancient Greek differentiation between “the home and the world”, the inclusive Hellenistic cosmopolitanism expresses the paradox of global awareness: “The world is the home.”

Diverse identities of peoples and locales in westernistic civilization are perhaps best expressed in cosmopolises such as Marseille and Milano, London and Lisbon, Berlin and Barcelona. All of these cities are historically and geographically rooted in the countries and the cultures of the traditional West, but they have included in their symbolic and actual economy many non-western elements. From fast food to intoxicating music, from fashions to exciting social customs, “local” and “foreign” elements merge on the street corner and in the office, producing new synthetic products and hybrid ideas.

A similar process is unfolding beyond the traditional West: megalopolises such as Sydney and Saigon, Cairo and Kuala Lumpur, Mexico City and Manila are the laboratories of diverse identities. While transport and trade, science and industry, communication and arms are unerringly of modern western provenance, every local environment uses them in keeping with their own prejudices and needs, capacities and resources.

Ancient Greek, the lingua franca of the Hellenized world, has acquired many local accents and underwent (not only subtle) adaptations through the babble of tribes and peoples, soldiers and diplomats, merchants and pilgrims. This process is not unlike the spread of the English language in modern westernistic civilization, as various groups and individuals make use of it in their (not only subtle) exchange of ideas, goods and services.

Westernistic civilization therefore does not imply a western model that is uniformly imposed all over the planet in the same manner. This is the assumption of those who advocate the division of the world into the “West and the Rest”, explaining the processes of cultural exchange as a blind alley at the end of which the victorious robber (the West) empties the purses of all the rest.

The notion of westernistic civilization carries a cognitively different, even if politically unpromising content. It is a two-way street accommodating a lively trade in ideologies and technologies that the modern West invented, but (no longer) holds in sole possession. To use another illustration: the ideas and technologies of the modern West are like sewing patterns that define the basic rules of tailoring but do not dictate the thickness of the garment or the colour of seams.

Perhaps the best illustration of westernistic civilization is Japan. The Land of the Rising Sun began to absorb western ideas more than a century ago. Having assimilated administrative, military and industrial procedures of the modern western type, Japan avoided the fate of a western colony and itself became a regional colonial force. Japan uses the package of modern western ideas in its own unique way, adapting these to local cultural traditions.

Japan turned the fruits of such hybridization into profitable export items. For experts, these are anima and manga, for ordinary people karaoke and karate, for business elites industrial miniaturization, just-in-time delivery and the mass production of low-price high-quality electronic gadgets. The secret of Japan’s global success lies precisely in its ability to creatively combine western and local ideas.

However, it is not possible to overlook the fact that many people in many corners of the planet seriously fear globalization. Unfortunately, the one-sided exposure of the destructive consequences of global trade in services, products and goods is frequently grist to the mill of popular fears and mass paranoia. A terrified mind cannot help but perceive globalization as a flood threatening to sweep away diverse and special cultural traditions, and to seek scapegoats in response.

A closer look will show that many critics of globalization point their moralist finger and turn up their refined noses at one or another internationally popular style, be it teenage hip hop or Madonna’s indulgent raving, Hollywood kitsch or hard-boiled detective movies. To be more precise: the critics of globalization frequently use cultural diversity and defence of collective (national) identities as a kind of smoke screen. It usually conceals some other agenda: in most cases, it is romantic anti-capitalism that is close to leftist zeal, or modern anti-Americanism nourishing rightwing litanies.

The actual processes of globalization are controversial and complex, but the international exchange of ideas and technologies, symbols and methods of operation increases and broadens cultural diversity. If culture is understood as a laboratory of meaning, on which individual communities feed, then we have to accept the flexible process of adaptation and resistance, transformations and hybridity, where the border between the “domestic” and the “foreign” evaporates like cheap petrol. (full long, long text).

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