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Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Some Notes on Cultural Imperialism vs. Globalization

Sorry I did not comment on Oludamini’s last post. I had to write a paper…

I thought I would share an anecdote told by historian Eric Hobsbawm in a lecture he gave at Harvard last month. It is a really interesting thought experiment vis a vis the relationship between globalization and cultural imperialism. Basically, he argues, don't conflate the two. He posits two comparisons: Italian opera versus English as the lingua franca, and soccer versus cricket. English as a global language has irrefutably been imposed through military and economic coercion, so we can attribute its spread over the globe to imperialism. But with Italian opera, the argument is more ambiguous. of course that Western colonialism has made it easier for its culture in general to be absorbed, but some things, ie, a taste for opera, just stick because people like them.

I can already hear critics retorting that people like opera because of an "externally imposed, oppressive aesthetic value." Why, then, isn't Spanish opera wildly popular, if the Iberian Peninsula controlled all of Latin America? Why aren't, say, British operettas (I don't know if there is such a thing) wildly regarded as the epitome of Western Culture? Surely there is much more going on than culture being shoved down people's throats. The intellectual history of Latin America clearly illustrates this. In fact, no matter how hard the Spanish crown tried to indoctrinate the local Creole elites in Latin America, these elites turned instead to France for their cultural icon. (more in expanded post)

Now as regards soccer and cricket, two sports that have spread around the globe, the distinction becomes even clearer. Both are British “inventions,” but, according to Hobsbawm, whereas soccer is a good illustration of globalization working parallel to, or even disconnected from, cultural imperialism, cricket is an example of culture being cemented through colonialism. First soccer. Would you consider a World Cup match played in Japan between Latvia and Uruguay a good example of “British cultural hegemony”? My best guess is that you wouldn’t because you know that soccer spread because people thought it was cool, and that’s that. The British navy did not besiege all countries that would rather play local sports, nor did Queen Victoria mandate that every man, woman and child in the colonies buy a football. But cricket did not spread in quite the same way. The one thing that all the places where cricket is played have in common having British soldiers stationed there for decades. (Don’t get me wrong, I am not knocking on cricket, which I am sure some people enjoy… I am not sure why). Both sports are fun, fulfilling, group-building, etc., but the way they became globalized demonstrates the meandering, problematic nature of cultural globalization.

A few more words on soccer: Though it might seem obvious at first, we can learn a lot from disentangling why soccer doesn’t strike us as particularly oppressive. I would posit that there are two fairly simple reasons why we don’t consider soccer a “weapon of subjugation.” First, we all can testify that the people we’ve seen play soccer—unless obligated by obsessive parents—actually enjoy it. This is especially true for those of us who have lived in the Third World: people there don’t just love soccer, they live for soccer. So there is a sense of personal fulfillment derived from adopted the cultural act that makes it not quite as oppressive. Second, people would argue that soccer is no longer a British thing. People have claimed their stake in this cultural act, they have adapted it to make sense in their own lives, imbuing the sport with a thousand different nuances,bringing to the field as much if not more than what they take from the tradition of soccer. We can speak today of soccer clubs as a combination of “the cynical, defensive-minded Italian style livened by an infusion of freewheeling Dutchmen and Brazilians; the English stiff-upper-lip style tempered by a bit of continental flair, brought across the Channel in the form of French strikers.” (The quote is from Franklin Foer’s “How Soccer Explains the World.” Great book, and more on that later). We can sum up this second dimension of “non-oppressiveness” in terms of so to speak indigenous reclaiming of globalized practices. Ten year olds playing soccer with paper mache balls in the steep crooked streets of Bogota have, in this framework, a great amount of agency and power over what they do about globalization.

But this is all up in the air: I am arguing that cultural agency local appropriation far outweigh the homogenizing forces of globalization. Even Macdonald’s and Coca-Cola know this, and they won’t advertise the same way or sell the same product in any two places (Colombian Coca Cola is much superior). But if this variance exists at the most abstract, large scale level of a few global actors all subjected to the same economic system, it is all the more crucial and true of the millions of daily interactions and individual experiences of globalization. We can claim that globalization flattens out culture because it makes everyone subjected to the same cultural influences, but there is not much to learn by looking at what’s constant across geography. The heart of the issue lies in how individuals integrate globalization in their daily lives, the different meanings they give to the same cultural practice in opposite sides of the world. To assume homogenization is to ignore, and even deny, people’s agency.


At 12:49 AM, Blogger O said...

yeah soccer and hip-hop, and (this is more problematic) "Western clothes" are becoming widespread in cultures around the world and peoples have diferent degrees of agency in adopting the elements of globalization in their lives. In my experience though, its more useful to think not in terms of individuals, but in groups-becasue most individuals I know merely navigate the landscapes of cool created by their sociocultural groups.

Globalization, in general, does flatten out some aspects of cultures because it has privileged "developed" cultures, and linked cultural assimilation into these cultures to economic success and even survival. Sure there are still regional, class, and all sorts of other idiosyncrasies and cultural differences-but one can't deny that the American aesthetic of cool has acheived a global hegemony among the world's youth. And as corporations become more international, corporate cultures (which can also differ from place to place) are becoming increaingly important: handshakes, ties, powerlunches, strict time schedules, and appointments are becoming prominent features in cultures everywhere. Often failure to assimilate to these cultural elements translates into material poverty.

cultural exchange is natural and cool, but economic, political, and cultural imperialist forces are very real and do affect aspects of culture-but certainly not everything.

Viva Futbol!
but even football-most of the top coaches are European, and almost all of the best players (from all over the world) go to play in European clubs, becasue that's where the money is. In Europe they are immersed in their surrounding cultures-learning the language, getting called racist slurs by the fans, experiencing the wonders of British cuisine, etc. They also wear suits in press conferences and learn to navigate the (very Eurocentric) business world of European football.

but all the same
long live the beautiful game!


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