Ales Debeljak: In praise of hybridity

Via Eurozine, here is the opening section of an essay on “globalization and the modern western paradigm” by Ales Debeljak, the head of the Center for Cultural and Religious Studies, University of Ljubljana, whose publications include: Dictionary of Silence, The City and the Child, Reluctant modernity : the institution of art and its historical forms, Anxious Moments, Twilight of Idols: The Tragedy of Yugoslavia and Individualism and Literary Metaphors of the Nation. You can read the entire essay (translated from Slovenian, unhappily without mentioning the translator)  here.

In praise of hybridity

Globalization and the modern western paradigm

The division of the world into “the West and the rest” is a misrepresentation, writes Ales Debeljak. Cultural globalization is not the transplantation of western ideas and technologies across the planet, but the adaptation of these according to local requirements. Hybridity, the product of a longe durée, is at the heart of the contemporary western paradigm.

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.

The second reason is that culture is not just a more or less convenient tool for increasing the gross national or municipal income: it is much more than that. Culture is an open space of play and criticism, imagination and meditation. It is precisely within this open space that particular experiences and collective visions cross-fertilize and permeate one another, come into contact and engage with one another, thus producing specific ideas about human existence and personal fulfilment, old age and death. Culture is in fact a grand laboratory of meaning.

As I do not intend to split academic hairs, I’ll be straightforward. What I have in mind when I say “culture” are those specificities that characterize a certain group at a certain time in a certain place, while “civilization” refers to ideas and technologies that are not restricted to one group alone but are transferable in time and space. Culture rejuvenates itself by feeding on locally binding principles of thought and action, while civilization propels itself forwards by improving inventions and testing their general applicability.

Each and every culture is based on a selection from a large, although not arbitrary, catalogue of narrative possibilities and stocks of meaning. In a culture thus understood, the products of intellectual creativity as well as material achievements and religious ceremonies, dining habits and lyrical monologues, find their legitimate place. Something else should be kept in mind, too: people’s ability to successfully occupy the most varied niches of a living space is inseparable from their ability to recognize differences and attribute meaning to them.

It is precisely difference that is crucial for individual or collective self-awareness, if not self-confidence. Every shaping of identity depends on a difference – difference between me and the others, my family and another family, my neighbourhood and the one on the other side of the city, peoples and nations. A difference established by setting a limit, finis, turns into a definition of meaning.

The basic principle of affiliation can be given social truth only by inventing, maintaining and shifting differences. The latter repeatedly establish borders between us and them, be they regional, national, linguistic or religious communities, or contemporary “urban tribes”. From this vantage point, it becomes clear that cultures, understood as systems of lived collective experiences, do not automatically become uniform when the economic circumstances of diverse life-worlds become similar. After all, even modern information and communication technologies, which represent a supreme realization of universal and global applicability, are included in particular life-worlds and local communities in different ways and adjusted to local circumstances.

The modern technologies and ideas that, for better or worse, are used today by all communities around the globe, stem from the modern western paradigm. Let me be more specific: the contemporary package of narratives and tools with which we manage human experience that governs the contemporary world was indeed born in western Europe, but it is no longer the exclusive possession of its peoples. Today, literally all peoples of the planet reach into this package, in ways that frequently clash.

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