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Religion and Society

The planet of multiple membership

What is at stake for culture in globalisation? Americanisation or re-feudalisaton? The exasperation of certain cultures that believe they are threatened by the effect of the digital revolution or by the 'globalisation' of the economy?

 

 

Immediately after the fall of the Berlin Wall an American of Japanese origins, Francis Fukuyama, brought to the honours of the headlines the Hegelian dream of 'the end of history', under the headings, this time, of the triumph of the market economy and of liberal democracy. Two years later Al Gore, the future Vice President of the United States of America, based his campaign around the information society, which would one day in the future, in his opinion, be able to make the memory and the knowledge of the world available to everyone without regard for geographical location thanks to optic fibre motorways. Lastly, after 1996, thanks to the first successes of the young seeds that were sprouted by Internet the so-called 'start-ups' some gurus believed that they had found in the new economy the miraculous formula for sustained and constant growth without unemployment or inflation.

 

The end of history, the information society, the new economy these pompous predictions were often the product of calculation or self-interest. With a great deal of trust, indeed of ingenuousness, they played upon the first transformation of the digital revolution and economic globalisation. They gave credit, without confessing the fact, to the visions of the future (in revised or corrected form) of the author of Global Village, the Canadian thinker Marshall McLuhan.

 

 

The dream of the global village was smashed by the tragedy of New York and Washington on 11 September 2001. This dissipated the last illusions in which the first decade after the Cold War had been nourished. The twenty-first century was born it was believed a few years ahead of time thanks to the progress of the Net and the end of the Soviet Empire, but with only a few months of delay in terms of the calendar, with the collapse in 2001 of the twin towers of the most cosmopolitan city in the world, a symbol or precursor of a post-industrial or post-national future which still did not have a name. The whole world rediscovered what the developed West had often forgotten in a fin de siècle technology and economy worshipping euphoria the reality of terrorism and the reality of a large number of recent, new or reborn dictatorships or forms of fanaticism.

 

 

Commonplaces obfuscate our perception. And the acceleration of history reawakens in us ancestral fears (the nightmare of the Tower of Babel, American monoculture) at the same time as the maddest dreams are cultivated the global village of McLuhan or the perpetual peace of Immanuel Kant. It is precisely this acceleration that conceals from our eyes the fact that beyond the persistence of great areas of civilisation North America, Europe, Russia, Japan, India, China, Islam the world has become a patchwork. Indeed, as a result of increasingly intense exchanges between people, peoples, cultures and religions, every society has become a patchwork. Everyone experiences a multiple number of memberships: we are all in varying degrees near to a number of cultures at one and the same time. This is even more the case given that through the mass media each one of us and every society is given over to the endless game of comparison: everyone or nearly everyone can see the whole world, or almost the whole world.

 

 

The dilemma for the world of the future does not lie between the tragic uniformity or Babel and the harmonious diversity of the new utopians: for culture there is no one single globalisation. There is more than one globalisation. What for the last few years has received the appellation 'globalisation' is none other than the advance of a dynamic that is five centuries old: the dynamic of industrial civilisation. Its inception goes back to 1492 when Christopher Columbus, after setting sail to find the Indias, discovered America by accident. This happened less than five years before another European navigator, Vasco de Gama, discovered the Cape of Good Hope. Thanks to the transport revolution (trading ships, railways and then the motor car), Europe during the nineteenth century was the first engine and at the same time the principal beneficiary of the world economy.

 

 

However under the joint effects of the digital revolution and the end of the Cold War, the twentieth century witnessed a dual fracture. On the one hand, worldwide networks of information or production greatly facilitated the development of international exchange, which, in turn, fostered the extension of those networks. On the other hand, Western countries were led to think that the world was unifying thanks to the global market against a background of universal values. The term 'globalisation' appeared in the United States of America in the last years of the last century and referred at one and the same time to the multiplication of networks and the strengthening of mutual dependence a profound mutation that affected the economy, culture and politics.

 

 

Industrial civilisation, which was born in a technical-scientific culture, is the only real crucible of the modern world. But it closely affects only a fraction of our contemporaries a rather cosmopolitan elite of intermediaries and mediators, intellectuals, researchers, but also managers, people who run transnational companies, and the major universities Davos, MIT, Jussieu or the Sorbonne.

 

 

The globalisation of culture is not only produced from 'above'. It is equally, in a certain sense, created 'from below' through the spectacular growth of a 'mass' culture that is aligned with the civilisation of tourism, free time and entertainment. Its vocation is without doubt planetary because it seeks to reach the greatest number of people in the largest number of countries. During the first half of the twentieth century variety shows and Hollywood cinema created 'show business'. With the advent of the television, show business developed very markedly by annexing new territories, and this to the point of becoming what the Americans now call 'entertainment': various industries that include successful films, television series, musical shows, videos, variety shows, and prize-giving ceremonies.

 

 

Entertainment is not bound up with one medium in particular it forms relationships with each medium, even though television, which has greatly fostered its growth, has become its privileged partner. It includes 'flux' and 'stock' programmes transmissions that are seen only once and masterpieces of such a level as to enter the pantheon of a universal culture. Lastly, entertainment has the special characteristic of imposing its own style, its own ways of doing things and its own ways of thinking on activities that were thought to be extraneous to it: information, education, and advertising. From this fact have sprung neologisms that are produced by the contraction of two words: 'infotainment' (information and entertainment), 'edutainment', 'advertorials' (advertising and editorials) or 'infomercials' (information and commercials).

 

 

This planetary and commercial culture is less American than has hitherto been thought, even though its headquarters are more often in Los Angeles or New York than in the other metropolises of the world. Without doubt, music best illustrates the upheavals that the globalised world imposes on what is commonly called culture. Much more than other forms of expression, music crosses national and ethnic frontiers and ignores pleas for original purity. It links America, the Caribbean, Africa and Europe and even comes to mix politics with aesthetics. The fate of the famous song 'I'm so Proud' is an example of the peregrinations that make up the 'journeys of witness' between peoples: created by a vocal trio of Chicago it was taken up by a reggae group in Jamaica before becoming, in Great Britain, a worldwide success entitled 'Proud of Mandela' and sung by the sons and daughters of immigrants from the Antilles.

 

 

This musical melody that came from Chicago perfectly represents this planetary culture, a culture that is growing stronger every day under the joint influences of economic globalisation and the digital revolution. The centres that produce this culture draw most of their strength from the internationalisation and concentration that affect all sectors of activity. Time-Warner, Bertelsmann, Disney, and Globo etc. play upon the confusion of genres by creating lines of products, from clothes to entertainment, under brand names that are known throughout the world Nike, Pokemon, Universal. But the most important fact, beyond the increasingly intense circulation of the works of planetary culture, is the hybridisations, loans and forms of recycling from which they spring. Contrary to what is thought, this is not the expression or the Trojan horse of the 'American way of life'; this process is nourished, rather, by hybridisations between a large number of various sources that come from the world as a whole. Condemned under the pressure of competition to renew themselves unceasingly, always wrestling with ideological fashions or fashions as regards clothes, they are fed by the 'climate of the moment', which in turn is constantly renewed that set of symbols, depiction and commonplaces that characterise, from Tokyo to New York and from Paris to Johannesburg, a shared membership of the same epoch, the current epoch.

 

 

Faced with the advance of these two cultures on a planetary scale (the 'industrial' culture and the 'entertainment' culture) the culture of peoples, which one could also call ethnic culture or social culture, is on the defensive. Such a culture is rooted in a territory and circumscribed to a space for each person it is the sign of membership of a country or a people. This culture is borne by every person or is lived with by every person, and it is transmitted from generation to generation. It includes at the same time or only in part a language, a religion and a heritage. Transmitted by a tradition endowed with authority, it gives roots to everyone and offers the primary reference points of life in society. It draws near in the least imperfect way possible to what is called religion in the etymological sense of the term: it binds and at the same time is the subject of veneration. These cultures in the Anglo-Saxon rather than German or French anthropological sense of the term are today submerged, gripped between the talons of the at times arrogant representatives of industrial civilisation and those of uncaring conformists who very often are satisfied with living according to the climate of the moment.

 

 

Here we encounter the threat with which globalisation menaces culture the danger of a reduction to mere folklore of cultures rooted in their territories, cultures that are the primordial crucibles of 'living together'. This threat deserves to be taken into consideration even more when we take into account that these individual cultures, which are rooted in their respective territories, are the terrain in which culture in the strict sense of the term is nourished 'real' culture, 'cultivated' culture, literary or artistic culture, and philosophical or historical culture, which one could also call humanitas. For a long time this was the only legitimate culture and the only one endowed with authority, a bridge between the particular and the universal. Is this culture not today submerged, subverted and subordinated by the culture of entertainment which sees it as a moving daydream if not a pleasant joke?

 

Condensed into a slogan, 'cultural diversity' implicitly refers to the commonly accepted idea, which simplifies but is often correct, according to which diversity in relation to human activities is a synonym for wealth, plurality, freedom and tolerance. This justifies the right of states to protect and defend certain cultural industries, cinema or books, with subventions, quotas or import taxes. But the principle is as easy to affirm as it is difficult to apply. Not only does it run the risks of protectionism and corporatism but it always ends up by expressing, without this being said, challenge, suspicion, hostility and contempt in relation to another 'culture'.

 

 

At the least, however, the application of the principle of cultural diversity is an invitation to everyone and every people to ask themselves about what is specific to them, about what they hold dear above everything else and about what they see as almost sacred, and as a result not the subject of commerce which would run the risk of subjecting themselves to subject to the guilt of simony: works, activities, a language, a religion, a history, a folklore...

 

 

At the least the evocation of this principle allows us to identify more effectively the risks that global society is producing for cultures, for what in the absence of anything else is called culture, something that is the specific characteristic of man. On the one hand, the risk that an excessively large number of people will live solely according to the climate of the moment, will identify themselves with their own epoch under the rule of a creolised culture spread by the global mass media. On the other hand, the risk for the elites, for creators as for intellectuals or sages, that they will lose all influence, given that they are no longer able to retain in the eyes of the majority that mixture of disinterestedness and admiration that creates true authority.

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