Monday, 24 January 2011

We, cultural hybrids

When last November I decided to attend the conference “Migrations, minorities and cultural diversity”, organized by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, it was because I was very interested to hear about the ‘others’. I had never thought of myself as ‘migrant’ or ‘minority’, not while I lived in England nor here in Portugal. Perhaps because of the reasons that took me to these countries and because, although in different ways, I quickly felt as ‘being part’ of them. Listening at the conference to the testimonies of Portuguese who decided to live and work abroad, or to those who chose to come back after living abroad for many years, I realized that my position was different from the one I had intended it to be. The conference was about me too.

Today we live in a period of intense cultural interaction. We are born in a country, travel to others, sometimes we stay, we go back, we leave again. We meet and mix with people from all over the world. We give and take. Some long for these encounters, they are looking for them. Others are afraid of them and feel the need to defend at any cost something they wish to preserve. Nevertheless, one way or another, we are all ‘touched’. How to we define ourselves, then, in the middle of all this? Who are we? What will happen to our cultures in a globalized world? Are we all going to embrace a global culture or we will manage to preserve our local culture? Or we will rather learn to be ‘bilingual’? The book Cultural Hybridity, by Cultural History and Theory professor Peter Burke, aims to answer these questions through the analysis of the processes of cultural encounter, interaction, exchange and hybridization over the centuries. It aims to place the debate on the globalization of culture in a historical perspective. Contrary to what one might think, this is not the first time certain things are happening.

The book is divided in five chapters. In the first chapter, Varieties of objects, Burke presents the variety of objects that are hybridized. We find examples of cultural hybridism in most domains of culture. There are hybrid objects (architecture, fine arts, literary genres, translations), hybrid practices (religion, music, language, sports, festivals, cuisine, types of governance) and, finally, hybrid individuals and groups (children of parents from different cultures, people who converted – voluntarily or unvoluntarily -, groups who, for religious, political or economic reasons, have moved from one culture to another).

The second chapter, Varieties of terminology, was the most interesting. The author analyzes the big variety of terms and theories used to talk about cultural interaction, that is about processes which are very diverse in their specificities, determined to a bigger or lesser degree by the human agent. The main terms used are metaphors drawn from economics, zoology, metallurgy, food and linguistics. Respectively: borrowing, hybridity, melting pot, stew and, finally, translation and ‘creolization’. Burke finds weaknesses in all of them, but prefers the linguistic term, considering it the most helpful and the least misleading when talking about the emergence of new cultural forms out of the mixture of old ones.

These cultural encounters take place in different situations, contexts and locales, analyzed in the third chapter, Varieties of situation. Besides a geography and a chronology of hybridization, there is also a sociology. When an encounter of cultures takes place, some individuals or groups participate more than others. Burke makes a distinction between encounters of equals and unequals (for example, the encounters of catholic missionaries with the population in China or in Latin America took place under quiet different circumstances); between traditions of appropriation (Japan, Brazil) and resistance (Islam); and between locales of encounter (the metropolis and the frontier are particularly favourable to cultural exchanges).

There are various ways of reacting to the encounter with the unfamiliar, as we can see in chapter four, Varieties of responses. From acceptance, which the author calls “the fashion for the foreign” (italophilia in the Renaissance; francophilia in the 17th century; anglomania in the 18th and 19th centuries), to resistance, that aims to defend a culture by closing it, isolating it (Spain in the 16th century or Japan in the 17th); from cultural segregation, that aims to maintain part of a culture free from foreign contamination, leading people to a kind of double life, to adaptation, a double movement of de-contextualization and re-contextualization that lifts an item from its original setting and modifies it, in order to fit its new environment.

In the last chapter, Varieties of outcomes, Burke considers the consequences of hybridization over the long term and presents four possible scenarios in relation to what might become of world cultures in our age of globalization. There is the scenario of cultural homogenization. The author believes, though, that despite the signs of an increasingly global culture, one should not underestimate the creativity of reception and the renegotiation of meanings. Historians today are less and less convinced that similar movements in the past, like hellenization or romanization, were actually successful. Another scenario is that of counter-globalization, the revolt of the regions. The resisters may not halt the course of history, but Burke believes that they will affect the cultures of the future. Another possibility is that of ‘cultural diglossia’, the possibility of all of us becoming bicultural, leading a double life. The frontier is now everywhere, said the anthropologist Néstor García Canclini, we will all become immigrants. Finally, there is the creolization scenario, the birth of a new order, the formation of new oicotypes, the crystallization of new forms, the reconfiguration of cultures. For Burke, this is the most convincing one.

And where does all this leave me? I left Greece when I was 23 and went to London, where the world opened up to me. I lived the euphoria of encountering people from all over the world, of discovering other ways of being and expressing one´s self, and I relive it every time I go back. I came to Portugal, I adopted a second country and I was adopted by it. I´ve lived almost as many years abroad as I lived in my own country. I am Greek, although I´ve always been a rather ‘atypical’ one, especially after living abroad, which has allowed me to look at my culture not only with pride, but also with a more critical spirit. A ‘creole’ Greek? Perhaps. I know that today I am considered as ‘foreigner’ there as I am here. I don´t mind anymore. I believe I am lucky and I feel richer, for being able to live together with many different ‘languages’ and know how to appreciate them, giving and taking. But I am Greek, in a way that can only be felt and not explained. And I am curious to see what my son will be; who, when I told him we were going to Oporto, asked me: “What language are we going to speak there?”.

Note on January 31
Black? White? Asian? More young Americans choose all of the above, an artice in The New York Times.


Margaret said...

Really interesting article. I'm a good example of the phenomenon, too, I think.

Maria Vlachou said...

Definitely you are! Good to hear from you, Margaret.