close_menu
close-popup
image-popup

Available languages:
close-popup
Paypal
Carta di credito
subscribe
Religion and Society

We and Others in Modernity without Boundaries

The fact that cultures are in movement has always represented a constant in the human way of inhabiting the world: no civilisation can be thought about without taking into account a detailed process of contact and interpenetration between different peoples that has taken place during the course of millennia of migrations. To give just one example, the Greeks, even though they were very proud about their identity, saw the Middle East and Egypt as their cultural ancestors and this to the point that it seems plausible to speak - as Martin Bernal does - about a 'black' Athens. For its part, India did not remain insensitive to interaction with Hellenism - the Buddha, a totally Indian figure, is sometimes portrayed according to Mediterranean canons.

 

Compared with the past, the difference is that today the phenomenon of 'mixing' has reached planetary proportions. The acceleration and the expansion of migratory flows has as its effect the globalisation of cultural encounters and cultural clashes. This first fact requires an attempt at analysis given that it constitutes the epochal conjuncture that determines he specificity of the processes of hybridisation that we have to address today. Beyond the contrast between the 'continuist' thesis (globalisation is a process that has always accompanied human history and not only Western history) and the 'discontinuist' thesis (globalisation is the advent of a global age that has 'broken' with the modern age), it is certain that we are by now going through a change in epochs, a radical change that as early as 1928 Paul Valery was well aware of when he wrote in Regards sur le monde actuel: 'The political phenomena of our times are accompanied and made more complicated by an unprecedented level of change, or rather by a change in the order of things; the world in which we, people and nations, are beginning to belong is nothing but an image resembling the world that was familiar to us. The system of causes which governs the destiny of each of us, now stretched to cover the totality of the globe, causes all of it to shake at every shock: there are no longer any delimited questions, even they may appear so at some individual point'.

 

Now, this complex intertwining of the global and the local, that is to say this unprecedented phenomenon of 'glocalisation' - as it has been suitably defined - represents the challenge of our time: on the one hand, the internal boundaries of groups and societies no longer coincide with geographical frontiers (this, amongst others, is one of the reasons which hybridisation cannot be an ethnic base, if by ethnic group we mean a natural, unchanging code of identity that overlays every other kind of belonging); on the other, an unbridgeable gap has been created between the global dimension - hegemonised by the market and by the new communications technologies - and the routinised practices of politics that are still rooted in the old territorial paradigm. This difference of level means, in concrete terms, that the normative power of the nation-state is no longer able to regulate the flows of transnational capital; in its turn, the global market functions according to a logic that is not in the least a guarantee of freedom. Indeed, when money travels around the earth, people and cultures run the risk of becoming commodities.

 

In short, it seems specifically that the economy, culture and politics have become autonomous spheres that function with their own rules that are mutually incompatible and often in conflict with each other. Arjun Appadurai is one of the scholars who is most interested in this phenomenon. In the view of this American anthropologist, the changing and fluid world in which we live is characterised only by 'scapes' of people in movement (ethnoscapes), the capacity to produce and disseminate information involves rapid and ungraspable movement (mediascapes), technology (technoscapes), global capital (financescapes) and lastly political ideas themselves such as freedom, wellbeing, rights and democracy (ideoscapes). Now these five 'scapes' intertwine and separate from each other in various ways. Let us examine, for example, the nexus between ethnoscapes and mediascapes: it is enough to think here of how Internet allows so many immigrants to go on talking in their own language or to learn another language. This means that the mass media, and above all the electronic media, are able, at least in part, to determine the image that a certain human group creates of its own culture and of the culture of others. And yet such potentialities do not always allow different cultures to encounter each other in a peaceful way: the invasion of information makes the boundaries between 'us' and 'them' uncertain, and all too often an attempt is made to remedy this uncertainty with violence and terrorism.

 

 

Living Organism

 

In 1983, when speaking at the World Congress on Philosophy in Montreal, Lévinas warned about all attempts to deprive the other of his otherness. In every culture, Lévinas says, there is the temptation to remain identical, that is to say to protect oneself from the different, specifically because encounter with human diversity creates disruption. Now this obsession at the level of identity is another circumstance that the process of hybridisation must address. Indeed, it is clear that if one recognises contact between different cultures as incontestable, one can no longer reason in terms of identical identity, of a culture closed within itself. This battle for a new idea of culture, that is to say a culture open to encounter with the other, is an urgent task. Here, reference should be mad to the debate that took place during the course of an interdisciplinary seminar on identity directed by Lévi-Strauss in 1974, in which took part, amongst others, Michel Serres, who is considered one of the greatest theoreticians of hybridisation. It was Serres himself who advanced the thesis that a culture is not a bloc that is homogenous and unalterable in time but rather a living organism that in historical terms interacts with its environment, coming into contact with other cultures. In this sense, one cannot make culture without attempting to create a nexus between one's own experience and the experience of others. This does not mean that this connection is painless or that it is always possible - at times it can happen that two cultures mix only by entering into conflict or it can happen that they do not mix at all, perhaps because conflict is such as to separate them irremediably. But beyond this normal historical dialectic, which must nonetheless be taken into account and analysed, what matters - at this level - is that the protagonist of these vital exchanges between cultures can certainly not be an individual obsessed by the need to remain identical. Here there emerges a new anthropological figure, defined by Serres with the suggestive image of 'weaver', that is to say the person, specifically, who lives through 'bonds' with those he meets on his journey, building bridges and paths between radically different areas.

 

Now the interesting thing is that this human type seems to capture something that is essential in the experience of hybridisation: the hybrid, in fact, 'weaves' within his own flesh and blood the encounter of two cultures. This also means a new way of understanding interculturality - no longer as an empty and ascetic space, constructed artificially in order to attempt a mediation between two cultural universes that are supposed not to be able to communicate, but as the dramatic event of an encounter that transforms two open identities that are in constant search of each other. For that matter, if it is true, as Gandhi affirms, that no culture can survive if it seeks to exclude other cultures, then each culture has a vital need to encounter other cultures. One can see this from another point of view, that suggested by Merleau-Ponty: if a culture judges itself by its level of 'transparency', that is to say by the awareness that it has of itself and of others, it is also true that a 'blind corner', 'a wild region', Merleau-Ponty says, always exists within each culture that never allows the achieving of a definitive possession of self and of the truth. Said in simpler terms, a culture is never 'complete', it always lacks something if it tells the truth about its own history. It is precisely this shortage, this absence, that ensures that a culture, if it is a living culture, can never rest on itself but should always to a certain extent search for an interlocutor outside itself.

 

 

Bio-Political Connotation

 

Men and women who move are the protagonists of hybridisation - they are those who pay the price. Indeed, as Todorov suitably observes, the migrant subject is always - albeit in varying degrees - a 'lost' subject because he or she has to face up to a different reality and one that is not always hospitable. At the same time those who migrate, Todorov adds, are also always 'losing', in the sense of the Freudian Unheimlich: he or she disturbs the idea of a closed and homogenous culture which is the symptom of that need to be identical that often pushes us to want at all costs to 'domesticate' the other. The migrant, 'together' with his or her host, therefore has the ethical task of finding the political forms of contact and connection of their respective histories.

 

The Italian term meticciato (hybridisation) is full of connotations which should be borne in mind in order to understand the way it is employed today in discussion. The most ancient reference to be found in St. Girolame who uses mixticium to translate the Greek sy´mmiktos. Mixticium, which means of mixed race, comes from mixtum (mixed). In general, however, the term is attributed to the Spanish word mestizo, which goes back to the epoch of the European colonial domination of the Americas and which means to be born from two different ethnic groups. This bio-political connotation seems from certain points of view to be indelible, even when the term forms a part of the scientific vocabulary of cultural anthropology. Indeed, it cannot be forgotten that so-termed applied anthropology developed specifically in concomitance with the expansion of the European interest in other peoples and that, at least at the outset, there was a strong congruency between the colonial interest and the efforts of anthropology, in particular British anthropology, to analyse the impact of Western civilisation on indigenous political systems.

 

The term 'hybrid' is closely related to the same semantic area. It is true that the strongest supporters of meticciato, such as, for example, Laplantine e Nouss, tend even to oppose the two terms: whereas meticciato, in their view, is a process that never ends, an inexhaustible dynamism of contaminations, hybridisation is instead seen as an acquired status, the outcome of a fusion that leads to a tertium quid. Having said this, it should nonetheless be recognised that 'hybrid' is in fact the term that in the Anglo-Saxon world corresponds to meticciato (there also exists the term 'mixity' but it is not very common). 'Hybrid', as well, for that matter clearly brings out the 'biological' and 'political' meaning of the grafting together of the different. As Robert Young well demonstrates, 'hybrid' is at the centre of a long debate that goes back to the choice between polygenesis and monogenesis. From this point of view, 'hybrid' can be used to support theses relating to amalgamation and a melting-pot between different races that belong to the same species or it can become a stigma for cultures that are adjudged to be inferior because they are of a different kind.

 

 

Ideological Value

 

An interesting analysis can also be engaged in as regards the term 'Creole'. Here, too, we are dealing with a term that was coined in the sixteenth century during the great expansion of European colonialism. The term 'Creole' was initially applied to people of European origins born in the colonies in order to distinguish them from high class immigrants born in Europe. It was then applied to the languages that arose from complex mixtures of different idioms. It is thus inevitable that in this case studies on meticciato intertwine with studies on comparative linguistics and literature.

 

Today the 'colonial' origins and the biological meaning of these terms appear - at least apparently - questions of the past. Both meticciato and hybridisation, like, indeed, 'Creolisation', are used in a prevalently metaphorical sense in order to refer to contact between different cultures and civilisations. However, it should be observed that increasingly often meticciato takes on a decidedly polemical connotation intended to oppose the hard versions of multiculturalism, both in its homogenising version, which argues for the need for the West to assimilate differences, and in the so-called 'differentialist' version. Indeed, whereas this last adopts a sort of ecologistic approach according to which cultures are species to be preserved in their intact purity, for the supporters of hybridisation pure cultures do not exist. Since one acts in an interconnected world, affirms, for example, Clifford, one is always to varying degrees 'unauthentic': between certain cultures and involved in others.

 

With this digression on the metaphorical uses of the term, the most delicate question of all is raised. One cannot ignore the fact that the category of hybridisation has a precise ideological meaning given that it is used in a systematic way in so-called post-colonial studies. And it is no accident that one is dealing here with post-colonial studies: against the violence of Western colonialism which sought at various levels to incorporate and destroy differences, the strategy of post-colonial approaches is to demonstrate in a certain sense the other side of the coin, that is to say the price of colonial domination was the bastardisation of the 'strongest' as well. It follows from this that there no longer exist pure and well defined identities and cultures (and in essential terms they have never existed). There exists only the infinite do-it-yourself of contaminations and the invitation is specifically to immerge oneself in this carefree fluctuation from one cultural context to another. Except that here one confuses two social levels that are completely different. As Slavoj Zizek observes, it is too easy to sing the praises of the hybrid nature of the post-modern migrant subject when visas are available to cross every boundary without problems posing themselves. But for the migrant worker, expelled from his country because of poverty or violence, the mut lauded hybrid condition is a very concrete traumatic experience, an experience of a person who is never really able to settle down in a place and legalise his position.

 

The difficulty encountered in 'ungluing' the use of the term meticciato from its (colonial and post-colonial) ideological negative tendencies, its biological connotation, which still has an influence, despite the metaphorical approach, have led Jean-Loup Amselle, author of the famous Logiche meticce (1990), to abandon the term and to opt for a metaphor which in his view is less compromised: rather than meticciato one should speak about 'connections' between cultures. Leaving suspended the question of understanding whether the replacement of the term is really problem-solving, it seems to me that the decision of Amselle is a symptom that should be analysed.

 

 

the Cultures Narrate Each Other

 

In particular, one should ask oneself what the real range of this metaphor actually is. It is certainly the case that meticciato describes a real and irreversible situation of contamination. But one cannot say that this fact is a necessary outcome of contact between different cultures, an outcome that can in some way be foreseen and disciplined abstractly. Rather one is dealing with an outcome that is certainly possible because it is to do with the 'living' nature of cultures: being interactive organisms, cultures can in fact enter into contact with each other and undergo modifications that are at times radical. Having said this, it is necessary to avoid 'overburdening' meticciato with a political weight that it cannot bear. In other terms, meticciato is not sufficiently qualified to become the method of interculturality. This last can certainly have hybridisation as a historical consequence but its primary objective is the construction of a common area of recognition, beyond the trenches of identity but also those of chaotic hybridisations. It is specifically in this sense that Michel De Certeau in the early 1980s spoke specifically of 'cultural hybridisation', defining it as 'a free area of words and expression' that cannot be replaced by the state and in which cultures try to tell each other about themselves in an inescapable logic of testimony.

 

If, therefore, one can understand hybridisation as one of the non-programmable outcomes of the historical dialectic of various narratives, then cultural hybridisation and, at the extremes, biological hybridisation as well, does not seem to be incompatible with what Seyla Benhabib calls 'democratic iterations':a series of deliberative processes by which individual and collective identities render fluid and negotiable the distinctions between citizens and foreigners, between 'us' and 'them', discussing anew and 'updating' the principles of inclusion. This, for that matter, strengthens the fundamental idea that democracy is always something to be built because, today more than ever before, it cannot be subject to the illusion that it has finally discovered the secret of a transparent dialogue between people of different cultures. Instead, it must strive to take into account the needs of its guests without this meaning that it foregoes its right to establish rules.

Stay up to date: sign up for our newsletter

For insights and analysis subscribe to our biannual journal