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Cultural Exchange via Internet - Opportunities and Strategies
Forum of the House of World Cultures, Berlin, 12 October, 1998 - ... open end

Subject:some thoughts on global culture
Date:Thu, 10 Dec 1998 14:40
Author:Joana Breidenbach  []

I've been following the forum for a week only, so maybe I'm ignoring important comments made earlier. If so, sorry.

I feel like contributing and commenting on various topics raised by a number of the participants, but let me just stay with one for the time being. (It's probably the same for all of us, too long messages don't go well with this format of communication. One of my hopes is, that the internet will actually encourage people to be more precise - the delete button is so quick to reach!):

1. Quite a few people have commented on the developement of a new (or not so new) global culture, of which the internet is just a small part. Obviously there is some form of global culture developing. But I think we have to be very careful as to what we actually mean by this term. Certain goods, services, institutions and ideas are globalized. Some of you have rightly stressed that this doesn't necessarily mean that we are all being homogenised and that cultural differences are being wiped out. People all over the world incorporate global influences in the most diverse ways. The anthropologist Marshall Sahlins wrote, that more often than not, people use foreign objects and ideas to become more like themselves. There is a wealth of anthropological research on highly diverse local appropriations of things from McDonalds to human rights (I'd be happy to list some examples and sources if anybody is interested). And there are also very many examples for the emergence of new lifestyles, worldviews and practices which develop out of the new interactions between societies. So its definetely not all doom and McDonaldization.

I believe that we are witnessing the emergence of a global culture, understood as a new worldwide reference-system. Global culture in my mind is not a homogenous lump, it is a structure which organises differences. We are not all becoming the same, but we are increasingly articulating our differences in a way which is understood by people from other cultures. Let me give an example which has been around for some time and seems "natural": the nation-state. The anthropologist Richard Wilk describes how still in the 1970s the inhabitants of Belize didn't call a "national culture" their own. The majority of the people saw no big difference between themself and the populations of neighbouring Guatemala and Mexico. Cultural specifics existed mainly in the eyes of the vistiting foreigners. In the 1980s, with an increasing transnationalisation of Belize (satellite-TV, tourism etc.) this situation has changed dramatically. Suddenly Belize became aware of its cultural particularities (music, cuisine, lifeworlds, and their so-called "cultural heritage") and they are now proudly exposed and marketed.

The nation state has become a global structure. Today every country has its national anthem, its beaurocracy and its "cultural heritage", so on one level there is an immense homogenization. But the nation-state as a structure promotes the articulation of differences, as every society has to fill these structures with its own data, so to speak. Nowerdays local culture developes and becomes aware of itself on the global stage! There are millions more examples for this process. For example: the globalization of the concept "culture" has sparked a whole new identity-boom and power-instrument for minorities. Similarly the global art-market, of which many of you are a part, has created a new structure for artists and if you want to be heard, seen and bought, you have to play by its rules. On the one hand it allows artists from the so-called periphery to enter and reach a worldwide audience, but only in certain pre-designed slots (folk art, ethnic arts, african art, aboriginal art etc.).

The emerging global culture is a complex and highly paradox system, and it is definitely not powerfree. But the global structures are not a completely western dominated affair. I see more and more evidence that non-western societies (to use the outdated binary opposition) challenge the old hegemonic structures and contribute to the globally valid terms of reference. To stay with the arts: it gets increasingly difficult to define the art of the so-called center as this itself incorporates so much from the "periphery". Obviously the internet has its part to play in this developement and is speeding up the process of creolisation or hybridtity of the arts.

I enjoyed reading about some of the other participants lifeworlds, so here's some info on mine: I live in Berlin, Germany (not far from the Haus der Kulturen der Welt which is initiating this forum) with my husband and two children (aged 3 and 5). I'm an anthropologist and writer and have for the past few years tried to understand the processes involved in the globalization of culture. In contrast to the many highly abstract scenarios being put forward by many postmodern thinkers on this topic, I find the anthropological perspective very rewarding. Instead of abstract generalizations I'm looking for in-depth empirical stories about how people worldwide deal with globally available goods and ideas. So I am very curious what we make of this discussion...

best regards: Joana Breidenbach

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