THE CONCEPT OF CULTURE IN GLOBALISED TIMES AND IN MY CLASSROOM
Centre for the Study of Social Systems
School of Social Sciences
Jawaharlal Nehru University
New Delhi 110067
[ This paper was written for a seminar on the responses of Indian sociology to new areas of research. The proceedings of the seminar are likely to be published shortly.]
Culture in the classroom
A central intent of this volume has been to interrogate the practice of sociology in India, that is both the way we teach and what we teach. A key assumption has been that the two tasks- pedagogic and conceptual- are intertwined and necessarily impinge upon each other. For teaching invariably draws upon the conceptual legacy that the discipline provides us with. In this paper I confine myself to the concept 'culture' with a focus on some recent formulations particularly in the context of 'globalisation'. A pedagogic interest however prompts the excursion into the realm of concepts.
It is an oft noted point that a close relationship exists between sociology and common sense. One of the 'obstacles' perceived in the teaching of sociology has been precisely the fact that sociology deals with caste, family, religion- institutions we all live in, have ideas about and therefore purport to know first hand. (Beteille:1996) This is further compounded today because academic discourse feeds back into popular discourse, whether in an intended fashion or not is quite another matter. This recursive process is heightened in modern times where both the print and electronic media have a slot for sociological comments on one issue or another. We have various surveys and opinion polls being conducted which offers us views on matters that lie very much within the disciplinary purview of sociology. Many students today therefore arrive not only with commonsensical ideas about society accompanied by textbook definitions but also with sociological views and debates that are part of public discourse. The most common views pertain to caste, communalism, feminism, family, corruption.
I found exploring the relationship between the manner sociology deploys a concept and its popular usage a very good pedagogic exercise. As has been argued through the pages of this book, sociologists persuaded by a notion of 'received knowledge' are unlikely to explore either the social basis of a theory or the social background of the students. As has been pointed out by contributors (Talib and Savyasachi in this volume) little effort is expended to conjoin the commonsensical knowledge that the student brings with her to the sociology class and the sociological knowledge sought to be taught. The problem gets necessarily heightened in a sharply stratified society where students enter the class with differential 'cultural capital'. Acknowledgement of both inequality and difference imply that practising sociologists have to rethink both what they teach and how they teach. Rege (in this volume) has shown how in the teaching of sociology of India, often a partial view of Indian society as lived and discerned by the upper caste, middle class section is taught as the sociology of Indian society. This leads to an immediate identification by the upper caste, middle class student and a simultaneous alienation by a dalit or tribal student. While for one, a connection is made between the sociology which is taught and the society he inhabits; for the other, the already wide distance is further stretched between the world and the word.
My own experience of teaching in the Jawaharlal Nehru University has often meant that examples drawn up to illustrate a point has often led to clarification for one set of students, bewilderment for another and sheer obfuscation for another. It was an instant 'connecting' with some. And if this was so, it was also the simultaneous moment of 'disconnecting' with another. As an antidote, I had to seriously pursue the task of hustling up an alternative example to go on with my project of trying to 'connect'. What I am arguing is that my own cultural predilections naturally geared me to some examples. Such examples were necessarily culture specific just as their accessibility to some students and their meaninglessness to another were dependent upon social and cultural locations.
Culture then for me afforded a possibility of addressing the vexed question of 'relevance' and 'meaningfulness' of sociological knowledge. For the present, both my students and I seemed to share a meaning of culture. It seemed to make sense to all when one said that students have different ideas about gender relations, career options, notions of the public and the private, or attitudes towards the aged because we were 'culturally different'. Culture here refers to widely held beliefs, ideas, values- a characteristic equally true of a F.R Leavis and a Matthew Arnold where the usage of culture represents a tendency to confine the term culture to the domain of ideas. (Niranjana in this volume) As a first step, it was not a bad idea (pedagogic or conceptual) to recognise difference for it always implies acknowledging different ways of living as being as legitimate as one's own. The second step made things more muddied because an essentialist line of argument often cropped up from that initial nod of acquiescence to cultural differences. That is, it seemed perfectly in order of things to argue that we are culturally different because we are naturally different.
Such an essentialising of cultures as discrete, mutually incompatible entities has had a long history and have found powerful academic voice in recent times. The most obvious example of such a position is contained in several articles and a major book, The Clash of Civilizations, by Samuel Huntington. As Herzfeld puts it, "in this work, which lays out the reasons for which major civilizations can never find peaceful mutual accommodation, Huntington, like many others, has chosen to reconfigure the concept in precisely the terms that anthropologists have spent the last several decades disaggregrating into complex and often unstable processes." (Herzfeld 1997:109) Since we who are located in the non-western, erstwhile colonial world have been and continue to be prime victims of such essentialising of cultures on the part of the west , it is important for us in my classroom to be wary of modern day 'Victorian anthropology in a neo-Liberal guise'. (Herzfeld ibid:113)
Huntington's model has no space for contemporary debates on diaspora, hybridity, borders- for it is seeks to bring about a world of systematic separation of cultures. Against this, anthropologists's and cultural studies attempts to understand culture as contingent and fragmentary have transformed the terms of debate. For Indian sociology this shift offers space to move out of a norm, order bound systemic model of culture. Yet at the same time I would like to contend that the contexts of debate for the west and for us are different. For multicultural west this destabilising of culture is critical to voice space for the marginals, the immigrants and black. For us it is important to open up the fixity of essentialising cultures at a time when the country confronts ethnic, religious hate and violence. But an image of porous boundaries should not lull us to believe that international relations, politics and economics of Western powers are a thing of the past. That globalisation involves an equal, egalitarian world with a replacement of hegemony by hybridity. And that powerful western powers no longer have a role to play god with cultural confrontations in the non-west.
As I teach, I have to therefore avoid both the pitfalls of 'essentialism' and the dangers of claiming a global condition whose discerning feature is 'hybridity'. The central focus of this paper is precisely this. While steering clear of a position that seeks to essentialise cultures and overtly prioritise the western superior rational cultural stance, (the Huntington approach) I seek to argue that those who herald a global condition of hybridity inadvertently erases the explicit power dimension of a uni polar world. In explicating such a stance I explicitly seek in this paper to incorporate the politics of international relations into the purview of discussing culture. I also attempt to enunciate the developments in the last one decade or more that has been responsible for the ascendence of the concept of culture in both everyday and academic life, in both the national and in international context. This may help elucidate why 'culture' was of interest to my students in the classroom. Such an exposition of the social processes within which theoretical concerns arise and take shape is in keeping with the belief that a very central business of sociology is to be able to understand the emergence and development of concepts in a particular context on the one hand and their reception and reading in another world.
The global visibility of culture
My pedagogic quest alone however was not responsible for my desire to delve into to the academic intricacies of culture. For something else was happening around in the world and therefore in my classroom roughly around the same time I started teaching in JNU, the beginning of 1990. The Soviet Union and the 'socialist' world in East Europe had a dramatic fall. Marxism as a theoretical possibility was under attack. It seemed to make sense that it is culture that needs attending to, not classes and production relations. Ethnic identities, religious and resurgent national cultural identities were emerging world over. The Dalit movement was growing in India. Backward castes were increasingly making their economic and political presence felt. We had the announcement of the Mandal Commission and further assertions of caste identities. We also had an ascendent Bharatiya Janata Party rising on the crest of Hindu cultural nationalism and taking on the mantle of projecting a Hindutva version of unified Indian nationalism - one country, one culture.
That however was not all. India had undertaken a serious reworking of her own economic policy. Socialist rhetoric, mixed economy, self reliance were concepts and goals both passe and deemed failed to deliver the goods. The new catchword was 'globalisation'. Both state and popular discourse talked 'globalisation'. Alongwith these economic changes were cultural changes heralded in by the visual media, electronic and print media- the dramatic ascent of the advertisement industry and the fashion world. (Chaudhuri 1998) I recall an instance prior to joining JNU while I was teaching at an undergraduate college where a student asked my why I had opted for teaching when there were more creative options like advertisements. Those were early days. Since then we have had a heady expansion of what has been variously described as 'consumer culture', 'mediaized culture' 'global culture' 'western onslaught on Indian culture'. The important point is that questions of 'identity' and 'culture' were foregrounded in the public discourse in a manner quite unlike any other.
Within this discussion, gender occupied a special place. If any threat was perceived to Indian culture it was change in women that was perceived as a danger. In my own class room 'feminism' for some was a jeopardy to 'Indian culture'. It was elitist, of western origin and irrelevant to Indian cultural context just as Marxism and secularism were. This raised rich possibilities of dialogue: about essentialism and whether there was a given core to a 'nation's' culture or an essential Indian woman; about whether the political boundaries of a nation state encompassed a natural cultural whole (if there were such a whole); about our everyday understandings and sociology's/social anthropology's own conceptual legacy on culture and now globalisation.
For me interrogation of different views within the classroom often led to possibilities of discussing the way 'cultural' differences (popularly understood) were constituted. It is important to stress that as students engaged themselves in this new academic environment, self conscious academic discourse also made its entry. For some it meant sharpening up sociological skills to defend the view they grew up with. For others, it meant unmasking of one's 'naturally held' convictions.
The academic world itself had not been imbued from the happenings around the world. The western social science academia (and here the North American pre-eminent influence is unquestionable) were broadly characterised by two different approaches. One carried on with the tradition of policy linked research, (state agendas and real politics) with a clear and unambiguous methodological commitment to positivist empiricism. The other underwent the series of transformations under the aegis of the many posts- post modern, post colonial. To reiterate, the socialist world had collapsed. It was the end of cold war and rise of an uni-polar world and Pax Americana. Francis Fukuyama declared the End of History with the celebration of the United States as the EndState. Post moderns declared the end of Enlightenment metanarratives of Reason and Progress. In India it meant a thrashing of secularism, Nehruvianism, socialism and nationalism. The nation became a dirty word. And all nationalism- colonial, imperial, anti-imperial were dismissed as echoes of western meta narratives. The post-colonial, post modern world were all culturally same- one partaking of a carnivalesque collapse and play of identities. And back home, here in my classroom, discussions on Mandal and Dalit, women and tribals, fashion and beauty shows entangled itself with developments in cultural studies in distant North America.
Mention has been made in the other chapters about the need to situate concepts and pursue the path they travel on and acquire both new meanings and of course contexts. It is much like the following up of etymological trajectories of words. Both the words 'culture' and 'globalisation' are terms that acquired great visibility in the last one decade, against events that I outline above.
In India -and in my class they surfaced as issues, with reference to empirical instances of liberalisation and global culture on the one hand and perceptions of threat to 'authentic national' culture on the other. Here globalisation was referred to an actual process of integrating the Indian market to the world market and arose very much from the local (national) context. At the same time it is important to stress that the concept was already in place and much of the assumptions built into it was derived. Some of the assumptions that acquired stridency in public discourse were: that much of the ills that plagued India were a fall out of its outdated commitment to planned economy; that culturally nothing was so distant any longer and middle class homes finished domestic chores before Santa Barbara beamed into their living room; that national boundaries were out of times. We drank Nescafe just as they did in New York and Amsterdam. And we all lived in a 'globalised' world. For students in my class 'globalisation' with its far reaching changes in employment and lifestyle profile of the middle class was for real.
If there was a 'mediaized culture' anywhere it certainly was amidst metropolitan middle class. Culture and globalisation were key terms liberally sprinkled in the media. I quote from a random editorial in India Today (September 28 1998) whose cover page has Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky in a clinch. The editorial reads:
It's a cliche- and a fact- that we live in a global village. In this age of fraternity and satellite television we share in the dramas that unfold in the course of events every day. We in INDIA TODAY have a proud tradition of sparing no expense to bring you first-hand reports of epoch-making events: the demise of communism in Russia, The Tiananmen Square massacre, the ascent of Nelson Mandela, the death of Princess Diana. The travails of US president Bill Clinton are the latest example. There is clearly unprecedented interest in the drama of sex, lies and politics unfolding on Capitol Hill... Back home, we stumbled on a story that is words and eras removed from Zippergate...We uncovered the fascinating story of a determined scientific search for a fabled piece of our mythology, the lost river Saraswati... From ancient history to modern human frailty, we have it all.
Academic writings on cultural globalisation and post modernism seems to fall right into place as we read the editorial. For:
The new mass media use a montage of images (unlike print) and juxtapose or collapse time-space distancing. The result is that culture is now dominated by simulations- objects and discourses that have no firm origin, no referent, no ground or foundation. Signs get their meanings from their relations with each other, rather than by references to some independent reality or standard.
Indeed Baudrillard's post modern world with its world of consumption and play of signs seems right here.
The point I seek to argue in this section is that there are political economic changes within which the 'culture' as a phenomenon has acquired importance. That the academic and popular (read mediaized) culture increasingly have a recursive relationship. And the academic fall out of post modernism and post modern informed post-colonial theory has led to a specific understanding of 'culture' with concrete focus on images in media usually to do with consumption, music, meals with the key motif being 'hybridity'. Back in my classroom, students desire to work on media and images. Or delve into issues of cultural identity. Apart from this substantive impact on the study of culture there are theoretical, methodological and political implications that I attempt to deal with later. (Section IV) There is quite another impact too. This has to do with academic fashions and I have to share what I thought was a rather telling remark of a student of sociology who told me that while the History centre at JNU were assigning MA students to write tutorials on the rhetorics of nationalism, the Sociology Centre was so out of times that they dealt with 'nationalism' as given. The issue at stake is clearly theoretical. It pertains to the issue of social constructionism. For the student however the debate was settled. I narrate this not just to make the point that concepts acquire differential social clout, with which few would disagree, but to claim that this is a matter which should not be outside the purview of sociological investigation. In the following section (III), I try to present some salient trends within conceptualisations of culture, their travels and travails with special emphasis on recent reformulations in the backdrop of 'globalisation'.
The Concept of Culture:its travels and travails
Few concepts in contemporary social science are as abstract and imprecise, and at the same time such a central object of study, as "culture." For some, in the literature of the social sciences, the study of symbolic forms has generally been conducted under the rubric of the concept of culture. For some, culture is a public system of symbols and classifications that gives meaning to an otherwise meaningless and disordered world; for others culture is a form of integration, through which social, economic, religious and political institutions are linked together into a coherent whole; for yet others, culture refers to the ways in which human beings create belief systems and social practices so that they are better able to benefit from the material world in which they subsist.
Deriving from the Latin word culture, the concept acquired a significant presence in many European languages during the early modern period. The early uses in European languages preserved something of the original sense of cultura, which meant primarily the cultivation of tending of something, such as crops or animals. By the early nineteenth century the word 'culture' was being used as a synonym for, or in some cases in contrast with, the word 'civilization'. Derived from the Latin word civilic, meaning of or belonging to citizens, the term 'civilization' was initially used in French and English in the late eighteenth century to describe a progressive process of human development, a movement towards refinement and order and away from barbarism and savagery. Behind this emergent sense lay the spirit of the European Enlightenment and its confident belief in the progressive character of the modern era. In French and in English the uses of the words 'culture' and 'civilization' overlapped: both were used increasingly to describe a general process of human development, of becoming 'cultivated' or 'civilized'. In German, however, these words were often contrasted in search of a way that Zivilisation acquired a negative connotation and Kultur a positive one. The word 'Zivilisation' was associated with politeness and the refinement of manners, while 'Kultur' was used more to refer to the intellectual, artistic and spiritual products in which the individuality and the creativity of a people were expressed.
Notwithstanding the dissimilarities apart the 'classical conception' of culture can be broadly defined as the process of developing and ennobling the human faculties, a process facilitated by the assimilation of works of scholarship and art and linked to the progressive character of the modern era. A shift came in the late nineteenth century, with the incorporation of the concept of culture into the new emerging discipline of anthropology. In this process the concept of culture was stripped of some of its ethnocentric connotations and adapted to the tasks of ethnographic description. The study of culture was now less concerned with the ennoblement of the mind and spirit within the heart of Europe, and more concerned with the unravelling the customs, practices and beliefs of those societies that were Europe's other. (Thompson) This argument has increasingly come under scrutiny for study of other cultures has been constructed and disseminated through mostly negative images and theories by Europeans about these non-European societies. Images of 'other cultures' have been used by Western writers to "establish Opposites and 'others' whose actuality is always subject to the continuous interpretation and reinterpretation of their differences from 'us'' (Said 1995:3).
In my classroom and in so many other classrooms in India (an other culture) this study of 'other cultures' has been taught and learnt without this context foregrounded. In a curious way we learnt our culture through the lenses of the western 'self' just we learnt about other 'other cultures' like Africa also through the perspective of the western self. This dislocation may in turn have been responsible for our curious textbook rote mode of learning. This is most apparent if students are asked what 'culture' means. E.B.Tylor's defination is the first and instant response that the students come up with when asked about culture and the students assume that a proper sociological response is expected.
Tylor employed the terms 'culture' and 'civilization' interchangeably in his classic defination which contains the key elements of what has been described as the descriptive conception of culture. (Thompson 1990:128) According to this conception, culture may be regarded as the interrelated array of beliefs, customs, laws, forms of knowledge and art, etc. which are acquired by individuals as members of a particular society and which can be studied scientifically. Early ethnographic and anthropological writings on India were attempts at such enumeration and classification.
The scientific and evolutionary character of Tylor's work was consistent with the general intellectual climate of the late nineteenth century, when the methods of the positive sciences were being adapted to new fields of inquiry and when the impact of Darwin;s theory was pervasive. When Malinowski wrote in the 1930s and 1940s he espoused a 'scientific theory of culture' and endorsed a qualified evolutionary perspective; but his main concern was to develop a functionalist approach to culture, in which cultural phenomena could be analysed in terms of the satisfaction of human needs. (Malinowski 1944) Malinowski's argument was that human beings vary in two respects. In the first place, they vary in terms of their bodily structure and physiological characteristics; the study of these variations is the task of physical anthropology. They also vary in terms of their 'social heritage' or culture, and these variations are the concern of 'cultural anthropology'. 'Culture comprises inherited artefacts, goods, technical processes, ideas, habits and values... Culture is a reality sui generis and must be studied as such.' (Malinowski 1931:621, 623.)
Returning to my classroom I encounter many students for whom these understandings of culture have been the staple fodder in undergraduate learning. My own experience (limited as it is) has been that the key point that they carried with them was not the methodological implications of the evolutionary (Tylor) or functionalist (Malinowski) focus. The lasting lesson they learnt was an objectification of the concept of culture. That is we could classify and compare the constitutive components of culture- the object of a systematic, scientific and empirical inquiry. Perhaps this orientation made them more readily agreeable to Parson's concept of culture. In most cases also they were unable to connect their own understanding's of culture- of their own or others- to sociological definitions of culture. Or explore how the distant formulations of culture in eighteenth or nineteenth century Europe had entered our world- except through the very limited sense of textbooks from where one 'learnt' Tylor's defination. While I am unable to provide any systematic account of the myriad details through which the academic and everyday interact, one of the tasks I had set out for this paper (even if only by recourse to incidental recountings) is to suggest that the practice of sociology in India has to take cognizance of the manner in which concepts acquire ascendancy in the west, travel eastwards and into our classroom.
To return to our attempt to put down schematically the changing understanding of culture, one must refer to what Thompson has broadly characterised as symbolic conception as different from the descriptive within which he would place Tylor and Malinowski (Thompson 1990:130-5). The symbolic conception of culture has been placed at the centre of anthropological debates by Clifford Geertz. Geertz, 'believing, with Max Weber, that man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun, I take culture to be those webs, and the analysis of it to be therefore not an experimental science in search of law but an interpretive one in search of meaning.' (Geertz Clifford 1973:5)
In sharp contrast to an approach of studying culture as akin to classifying flora and fauna, Geertz has highlighted the centrality of interpretation as a methodological approach. The mastery of Geertz's approach notwithstanding, it left matters of 'power' quite outside the realm of analysis.
But cultural phenomena are also embedded in relations of power and conflict. Everyday utterances and actions, as well as more elaborate phenomena such as rituals, festivals or work of art, are always produced or enacted in particular social-historical circumstances, by specific individuals drawing on certain resources and endowed with varying degrees of power and authority; and these meaningful phenomena, once produced or enacted, are circulated, received, perceived and interpreted by other individuals situated in particular social-historical circumstances, drawing on certain resources in order to make sense of the phenomena concerned.(Thompson 1990:135)
Here in India in an era of 'globalisation', where the unquestioned might of American power is no longer guised, the implications of studying 'culture' as innocent of power or power as an additive factor are serious. Back in my classroom I find that only students of some universities had access to Geertz. And already knowing Geertz meant greater sophistication than say the classificatory or a politico economic approach- both deemed inadequate (and also out of times) to grasp matters of culture.
Recent years have witnessed considerable attention to and reformulation of how we are to understand culture. A moving impetus for renewed interrogation of 'culture' and in particular cultural identity has been new anthropological approaches which argue that 'identity, considered ethnographically, must always be mixed, relational and inventive. (Clifford,James 1988:10) The social context within which this interrogation has taken place has been a world more interconnected than ever before. Clifford would thereby argue that 'intervening in an interconnected world, one is always, to varying degrees, "inauthentic" : caught between cultures, implicated in others. Because discourse in global power systems is elaborated vis-a-vis, a sense of difference or distinctness can never be located solely in the continuity of a culture or tradition. Identity is conjunctural, not essential". (ibid:11))
Niranjana (in this volume) has shown how Cultural Studies in engaging with the contested and situated nature of cultural practices, comes to inhabit a territory quite different from mainstream Sociology and 'universalization' of culture. For mainstream sociology, culture was a matter of order and norms. Nowhere is this so evident as in functionalism's preoccupation with elaborating the features and functioning of the social system, a model of society in the abstract. While hazarding no guess on the status of Parsons in American sociology today (or of American sociology itself) here in India, Parsons continues to be the last and final word on sociology in many universities.
Against this context Cultural Studies indeed marked a break with assumptions of culture as an organic whole, manifesting continuity and an essential purity. (Niranjana) It questioned distinctions between high and low culture and sought a break with determinism of various sorts and by foregrounding questions of consciousness, agency and experience, insisted on conceptualising culture as an important human practice interwoven with other social practices. I am in complete agreement with this project. I am uncomfortable with some presumptions that are articulated by post colonial theory which claims that with the cultural complexity of identity formation, class and nation have become 'decentred' as a source of identity. And that the world is no longer structured along binary axes.
Significantly within Indian sociology serious concern was never addressed to the sociology of international relations, not in the hey days of modernisation, not today, even as globalisation becomes a key motif. There is terrible anomaly here, for if it is a new international global order that has altered the terms of cultural discourse then surely we need to know what the economics and politics of this ubiquitous phenomenon globalisation is.
During the 1980s, the concept of globalisation began to permeate a diverse body of literatures within the social sciences. This intellectual fascination with globalisation and its consequences was stimulated in part by a concern to understand the nature of the socio-economic changes which appeared to be enveloping all advanced capitalist societies. In part the fascination was also associated with a perception that the fates of individual national communities were increasingly bound together, a perception underlied by the global economic recession of the early 1980s, the renewed threat of nuclear armageddon following the intensification of Soviet-American rivalry, and the impending eco-crisis. These, and other events, became significant reference points in a growing literature which sought to analyse the ways in which daily existence within most countries was becoming increasingly enmeshed in global processes and structures. This electronic media, which were capable of bringing to their audience's immediate attention distant events, so creating a sense of a globally shared community.(Hall et al 1992:65)
While the term 'globalisation' has acquired salience in social science literature, the use and meaning of the term remains contested and in sociology like many other concepts a descriptive 'given'. What is common to most understandings is however the feeling that no community/culture is an isolate; that daily existence within most countries are increasingly enmeshed in global processes and structures, that there is and cannot be a homogenous culture. And ready instances of this hybrid culture which proliferate in our urban world are songs, meals and clothes.
The concept 'globalisation' covers a great variety of social, economic and political change, and it is therefore not surprising that different disciplines have assigned different meanings. While the discipline of economics demands and the lay world expects that the study of economics of globalisation need specialsed skills, the study of sociology of culture of globalisation demand no such expertise. It is obvious, self evident and empirical. There are two issues at work here. One that has been argued often- that sociology teaches about institutions that we live in and have ideas about and therefore 'know'. The other I argue is a fall out of a certain kind of cultural studies that have acquired some profile in recent years. This trend has focussed on the most tangible features of cultural mixes in music, meals and popular cultural forms. From hybridization to transethnicity the concept of cultural mixture has been brandished about. Operationally it has meant that finding any instance of such a mixture is affirmation of the collage model. Here in Delhi there are bowling alleys and fast food restaurants- the very same Macdonald as anywhere else in the world. Some students go there. Others hear of it. At the same time they enter contemporary academic discourse on culture as bricolage and cultural borders as porous. That Macdonald has started 'shud vegetarian hamburgers' and Channel V has Punjabi techno bhangra are empirical evidences to confirm the trend. The Benaras pundits have now approved of Maddona's rendering of Vedic slokas. And we in Delhi's middle class colony can order Mexican and Thai food at home. These are more handy empirical evidences.
Neither MacDonald, nor bowling alleys, nor Channel V were even imaginable in a pre liberalised India. The Indian state's opening up of the economy -the concomitant say of international organisations like the IMF and World Bank in Indias policy- understood as globalisation is therefore linked to the cultural globalisation that the academic world has been enthralled about.
My students are right when they are drawn to the concept of cultural globalisation as a term that grasps the mix that is taking place. I too have little problem with this idea of mix if it is confined to empirical instances that are of interest to understand changing forms of culture. I however have serious difficulties to accept this metaphor of hybridity if the domain assumption that nestles within it is that international relations no longer divide the world into the powerful and increasingly dependent.
My argument here is that in this articulation academic interest shifts attention to study of this 'bricolage' apparent in MacDonald's vegetarian burger and Maddona's rendering of slokas. The rest recede. Critics of Baudrillard's version of California remarked: 'Reagenized and yuppified' there are 'no migrant workers, no Chicano barrios, no Central American refugees, no Vietnamese refugees or Asians, not even blacks...' (Kellner, 1989:171-2) So the editorial of India Today at a time when the worst floods in more than a decade have hit the country, rendering thousands hungry and homeless, can only offer a global mix of Bill Clinton's sexual escapades and a search for the fabled River Saraswati, the stuff of myths and legends.
The globalisation talk and blurring of boundaries
I have so far sought to negotiate the path of the terms culture and globalisation as they emerge and travel, as they are selfconsciously used by policy makers and academics, and as they enter my classroom and acquire both newer contexts and meanings.
As stated earlier I find this traversing an important pedagogic and conceptual exercise. Common to both talks of globalisation (the local national and the international- academic and policy level) is the alleged retreat of the state and blurring of cultural boundaries and assertion of the contingent and fragmentary nature of the concept of 'culture'.
In the introductory section of the paper I had sought to delineate the broad trends that marked contemporary Indian society. In particular I mentioned (i) economic liberalization and growth consumer culture (ii) assertion of caste, religious and cultural identities. Both processes foregrounded culture and created a milieux that demanded discussions on culture. Students would also be receptive to academic literature on 'culture'. My argument is that while this was valid, I would like to draw a distinction between the social context within which knowledge production of culture was taking place- multicultural west- and an increasingly weakened south within which we happen to be.
There in the west, the context domestically is the assertive claims of multiculturalism. And internationally the reshuffled global order.
...where First Worlds have appeared in the Third World, and Third Worlds in the First World, postcolonial studies opens up three windows, or angles of vision. First, such studies dispute that one can infer 'identity' by looking at material relations alone. The politics of cultural identity and recognition have become as important as the politics of redistribution; and, as Nancy Fraser argues, they can support the politics of redistribution. Second, postcolonial studies puts a referent emphasis on the cultural complex of identity formations. Today, cross-border migrations have resulted in fragmentation and heterogeneous mixes of belonging and loyalties and political allegiances in which class and nation have become 'decentred' as a source of identity. Third, postcolonialism is suggestive and reflexive of a world no longer structured along binary axes, be they First World/Third World; north/south, east/west or socialist/capitalist. (Hoogvelt 1997:154)
The trajectory of Cultural Studies had a close relationship with the emergence of post colonial theory in the first world. The point can be best described in Clifford's own words as he narrates his predicament during the fall of 1977 in Boston Federal Court where the descendants of Wampanoag Indians living in Mashpee, "Cape Cod's Indian Town," were required to prove their identity. I need to quote him at length for the distant from my classroom is vast and I seek in this narration a dramatisation of the differential contexts- the non-western world and western in globalised/postcolonial times.
It seemed to me that the trial- beyond its immediate political stakes- was a crucial experiment in cross- cultural translation. Modern Indians who spoke in New England accented English about the Great Spirit, had to convince a white Boston jury of their authenticity. The translation process was fraught with ambiguities, for all the cultural boundaries at issue seemed to be blurred and shifting. The trial raised far-reaching questions about modes of cultural interpretation, implicit models of wholeness, styles of distancing, stories of historical development.
I began to see such questions as symptoms of a pervasive postcolonial crisis of ethnographic authority. While the crisis has been felt most strongly by formerly hegemonic discourses, the questions it raises are of global significance. Who has the authority to speak for a group's identity or authenticity? What are the essential elements and boundaries of culture? How do self and other clash and converse in the encounters of ethnography, travel, modern interethnic relations? What narratives of development, loss, and innovation can account for the present range of local oppositional movements? During the trial these questions assumed a more theoretical urgency. (Clifford 1988:8)
My moot question is, whether Clifford's and my predicament the same. Do we located here in India have identical problems of conversation across cultures? Or is Clifford's predicament peculiar to a west no longer racially and culturally homogenous? And if it is so, does he have the authority to speak for us and claim that the questions he raises are of global significance.
At the helm of these ideas are our diasporic intellectuals for whom hybridity (cultural'political) means that the traffic between modern cultures is so thick and brisk one can hardly speak of discrete national cultures. I have argued against this in a paper reflecting on my field encounter with Asian Indian Americans in America and asserted how the fixity of locations along the North South divide determine how fluid culture seems. (Chaudhuri 1998) An important point that Niranjana makes is how cultural studies by affirming the contingent nature of culture and competing identities undermine the static essentialist order oriented culture of sociology. Accepting this I fear that it gets pushed to an anti essentialism that denies the role of history in defining social, cultural characteristics. Bhaba's celebration of cultural hybridity reads:
America leads to Africa; the nations of Europe and Asia meet in Australia; the margins of the nation displace the centre... The great Whitmanesque sensorium of America is exchanged for a Warhol blow up, a Kruger installation, or Mapplethorp's naked bodies.(Bhaba 199O:6)
That such global pleasures are for the postcolonial migrant does not have to be explicated here in India where for most such sojourns are indeed remote. Bhaba tell us that 'the truest eye may now belong to the migrant's double vision', (Bhaba 1994:5) and : 'I want to take my stand on the shifting margins of cultural displacement- that confounds any profound or 'authentic' sense of a 'national' culture or 'organic' intellectual...' (ibid:21)
The unipolar world, a weakened third world and global culture
The past decade has seen a dramatic shift in the presentation of the so-called Third World in the West. Today, it is difficult to recall that until the late 1980s, the movements of the South exercised considerable authority. Not so long ago the Non-Aligned Movement occupied the moral high ground. Its demands were debated in international institutions and neither side in the Cold War divide could ignore its aspirations.
The terms of discourse in significant quarters of social science research have altered so much that often one gets the feeling that post modernism posed the first major challenge to western intellectual hegemony and foregrounded the voice of the 'native'. An alternative narrative would be that during much of the post-war period, especially the 1950s and the 1960s, the momentum of anti-colonial protest helped establish the moral authority of Third World movements. This process coincided with the discrediting of Western imperialism. For the first time, there was a recognition, even in the West, that the social, economic and political problems of the Third World were integrally connected to colonial domination.
The consolidation of the moral authority of what used to be called Third Worldism was intensely resented by the Western political elite. During the 1960s and 1970s, books and articles on a variety of subjects lashed out against the Third World. Liberals and student radicals were denounced for their gullibility as regard Third World causes. For example, the leading American sociologist, Daniel Bell, sought to limit the damage by attacking those who sought to play on 'liberal guilt about racism and exploitation'. Bell's attempt to lighten the burden of American foreign policy through pointing to the 'savageries', of 'Rwanda, Burundi, or Uganda' anticipated by more than a decade a central theme in North-South relations. (Bell, 1980.pp. 150, 206).
The establishment of a new moral equation between the North and South has helped a two tiered international system. It is a system where few ask questions about who gave institutions like the 'Gulf War Coalition', NATO or the UN the authority to militarily intervene in different parts of the world. These institutions -which have become Western diplomatic conveniences- can de facto abrogate conventional notions of national sovereignty. It is now routinely argued that issues like the environment, ethnic violence, female genital mutilation, or fundamentalist intolerance are too important to be hidden behind the principle of national sovereignty. The right of the West to intervene has become a moral imperative. (Furedi 1997:86-7)
And yet, within the walls of the academia we witness an ascendancy of critiques of 'western' thought as though this is a moment of arrival of the 'third world' and decline of western hegemony. What sociological sense may one infer from this? To me it seems a massive process of disengagement with society is underway. This again to my mind is a process more true for us located in the Third World than those located in the west.
Some critics of this same division, on the other hand would herald postmodernism/postcolonialism as the final arbiter to declare that this division has ended. For postcolonialism seeks to:
...achieve an authentic globalisation of cultural discourses by the extension globally of the intellectual concerns and orientations originating at the central sites of Euro-American cultural criticism and by the introduction into the latter of voices and subjectivities from the margins of earlier political and ideological colonialism that now demand a hearing at those very sites at the centre.(Dirlik, Arif 1994:329)
My argument in the section above was to underwrite the strengthening of the division of the world in the last ten years. And had it not been for an academic sojourn in the United States of America I may not have fully appreciated the appropriation of India (which is probably entirely incidental and an unintended consequence) by postcolonial diasporic (of Indian origin) intellectuals. I perceived a difference between the west and me. But I also perceived a distinction between the diasporic Indian and my location. But such was the consensus in certain circles, that what I had to say literally could be received only as confirmation, extension, at the best nuanced versions of what Spivak, Bhaba et al may have had to say. Postcolonialism for me meant an interrogation of my 'cultural' identity and rethinking of what seemed to be the persisting fixity of 'nation state' in constraining cultural identity.(Chaudhuri 1998) But as Arif Dirlik notes, the release of postcoloniality from the fixity of the Third World location, means that the identity of the postcolonial is no longer structural but discursive. That it is to say, it is the participation in the discourse that defines the postcolonial.
The epistemological twist lies in the fact that while globalisation and the interconnected nature of the world is attributed by the emergence of what has been variously described as 'global capitalism', flexible production', 'late capitalism' and so on, postcolonial critics, with few exceptions, do not interrogate the relationship because they repudiate a foundational role to capitalism in history.
Here in India, with the state's shift to a policy of opening up the market, debates on globalisation, transformation of the media, disputes over state control and notions of cultural invasion, we are today in a context that is amenable to the idea that we are in a world where goods and ideas/people and practices flow freely in and out of national boundaries that are passe.
To return to our hybridity and cultural mixes, I had mentioned the salience of meals, (Mc Donald) clothes and songs as evidence of this free flow in and out of national boundaries. A recent article that deals with an ad campaign for Mc Donald for the Australian market draws attention to the way the ad conjoins the local and the global simultaneously. 'Performing a rhizomatic mapping of thee world, the fries are slowly erupting in Rome, Moscow, Mexico, Vancouver, Perth and outback Australia', Mc Donald becomes the agent that hyphenates different locales into a global vision of one big happy family (Probyn:1998:155-173). As the dictionary succinctly defines them, a rhizome is an 'underground stem bearing both roots and shoots', examples of which are potato plants and orchids. As Gilles Deleuze argues rhizomes 'ceaselessly establish connections between semiotic chains, organisations of power, and circumstances...like tuber agglomerating very diverse acts' (Deleuze 193:30) In this metaphor is the attempt to go beyond a more arboreal model that would posit an authentic base (the 'real me') along with an epiphenomenal flowering of simulated identities. In recent years the concept of 'endangered authenticities' (Clifford 1988:5) have been assailed. They have begun to believe instead that different cultures have been in contact with each other for as long as humanity has existed. This view is particularly significant in a world and in India where concerted attempts are made to represent homogenous or unique cultures. The problem however occurs with the imaginative metaphor of the rhizomes. For in dispensing with the tree model of roots and flowers, (of base and superstructure) we are rid of causality, agents, victims. Mc Donald ceases to be a trans national corporation with financial stakes, worked out strategies and becomes yet another site for hyphenated identities and hybridity. The usage of the rhizome through which to map connections of different facets of the social obscures power- both between states and cultures, within states and cultures. Between states, borders are perceived as porous, concealing the concerted attempts of western states to seal off their borders to immigrants and refugees from the non -white world. Globalisation is seen akin a rhizome and the differential location of the North and South vis a vis international capitalism fall outside the purview of discussion. And within states- in India- it means a secession of one section of the populace from another. The editorial of India Today who in rhizome style sought to show the simultaneity of the Lewinsky tryst and search of mythical Saraswati forgot the devastating floods.
My contention is that an important trend in the analysis of cultural globalisation has concentrated on the spectacular products of globalisation processes themselves. Much of the language concerns 'music, meals and some popular cultural forms' and expresses in my view 'an increasingly clear politics of identification on the part of such intellectuals'. (Friedman 1994:vi) The plea here is not to ignore bricolage but to also make sense about the structure of the conditions in which such things occur.
To return to my classroom, where I had begun on deploying culture as a pedagogic tool, I seek to continue to traverse the narrow path between an essentialist view of culture and a bricolage view that obliterates hierarchical divisions which separate the western and non-western contexts. Within the first a notion of hybridity challenges notions of 'authentic cultures' in a west still haunted by racism. Within the second, in my classroom, it blurs the structures of global power and creates a simulated space of worldly togetherness like the Mc Donald ads. I could end here but not without the caveat that this should not suggest that we perceive culture as discrete, pure entities and see Indian culture as one monolithic whole. And that we think the hybrid challenge to authentic culture in multicultural west is not without its limitations. For as critics have pointed out that 'increasingly it seems that the only place where the idea of multiculturalism really works is in the kitchens and restaurants of the affluent' (Probyn 1998:ibid). I am afraid that both the essentialist and hyphenated perspective eventually see culture as disembodied from experience. It is turned either into objects for enumeration/classification or into objects of consumption.
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