Conversations III

ZYGMUNT BAUMAN

back to issue

 

Ramin Jahanbegloo: Internationalization and economic as well as cultural globalization, increased mobility and ease of access to information constitute challenges to the classical idea of culture as a mono-narrative. The inevitability of encounter with otherness and the multiplicity of interactions this provokes, advance interculturality – one of the key concepts in a wider debate around globalization. Would it be correct to say that interculturality is the form by which humanity locates today the idea of contemporaneity in the cross-boundaries where the two concepts of authenticity and hybridity are redefined and negotiated to create a multitude of meanings in the global and local context?

Zygmunt Bauman: ‘Interculturality’ and ‘hybridization’ are not concepts from my vocabulary… They are, in my view, what Ulrich Beck calls ‘zombie concepts’, and what Jacques Derrida demanded to be used only sous rature. They hark back to the phenomenon (and vision) of ‘cultures’ as enclosed/compact/consistent/, system-like bodies, now all but bygone in our liquid-modern times… To tackle and comprehend cultural realities of the present-day globalized world of diasporas, we need a somewhat different vocabulary and a thorough reinterpretation of the concepts inherited from the old.

‘Culture’ entered modern vocabulary as a declaration of intent – as a name of an intended mission yet-to-be-undertaken. Similar to the idea from which the intended action drew its metaphorical name – that of agri-culture, which juxtaposed the farmers and the field full of plants they farmed – it served a writ on prospective missionaries, designating in one go the relatively few called to cultivate, and those earmarked as prospective objects of cultivation: wardens and their wards, teachers and the taught, producers and their products; in a nutshell – ‘intellectuals’ and ‘the people’.

‘Culture’ stood for a planned/hoped-for compact between those in the know (and above all confident to be in the know) and the ignorant (or defined as ignorant by those confident as being knowledgeable); a compact signed unilaterally and put into operation by the emergent ‘knowledge class’ seeking its setting-the-tune role to be duly respected in the emergent new order about to be built on the ruins of the ancien regime. The declared intent was to educate, enlighten, improve and ennoble le peuple, freshly recast as les citoyens of the newly established état-nation: the marriage of the emergent nation self-elevating into a sovereign state, with the emergent state claiming the role of the nation’s protector and plenipotentiary.

‘The project of Enlightenment’ allocated to culture (understood as the labour of cultivation) the status of a principal tool of nation, state, and nation state building; simultaneously, it appointed the knowledge-class that tool’s principal operator. In its travels from political ambition to philosophical ruminations and back, the two-pronged objective of the enlightenment venture (whether explicitly proclaimed or tacitly presumed) had promptly crystallized as the discipline of state-subjects and the solidarity of nationals. From a weapon of modern revolution, ‘culture’ turned into a preservative/stabilizer, a homeostat or a gyroscope, of the modern status quo.

Because properly functioning homeostatic appliances (that is, such as effectively fight back, or better yet preempt, all and any deviation from the chosen systemic model, and promptly restore the temporarily lost balance) are crucial for the survival of self-equilibrating systems, the impulse to define/evaluate all and any part or aspect of social totality in terms of their homeostatic effects was a natural tendency of societies that believed themselves to be, or intended to become, such a system. It was also natural for them to view all deviations from the chosen model with suspicion – as factors adding avoidable stress to the labours of systemic self-equilibration, and potentially throwing the totality out of balance.

As long as the modern nation states entertained their initial ambitions, that tendency seemed well-founded; taking the stabilizing effects for the criterion of ‘functionality’ seemed therefore self-evident and immune to questioning. Since the nation states have been forced/encouraged/determined to abandon those ambitions, these foundations no longer look unshakable; the measuring of ‘functionality’ of institutions by the strength of their system-stabilizing effects no longer seems to be the obvious way to proceed.

To cut a long story short: as long (but only as long) as the ambitions to construe a self-equilibrating system stayed alive, the homeostatic vision of culture did not need to fear serious contestation. But the ambitions started to fade and eventually had to be, reluctantly at first but later willingly, abandoned under the pressure of globalization. Fading and dissipation of ambitions gradually exposed the vulnerable and increasingly fictional nature of system boundaries, and in the end called the bluff of territorial sovereignty, and so also of the self-sustained and self-equilibrating systems confined to the nation state territory.

Today culture consists of offers, not norms. As already noted by Bourdieu more than two decades ago, culture lives nowadays by seduction, not normative regulation; by PR, not policing; by creating new needs/desires/wants, not coercion. First and foremost, our society is a society of consumers, and just as the rest of the world as-seen-and-lived by consumers, culture turns into a warehouse of meant-for-consumption products, each vying for the scarce, shifting/drifting attention of prospective consumers, in the hope to attract and hold it for a bit longer than a fleeting moment. Abandoning stiff standards, indulging in discrimination, serving all tastes while privileging none, encouraging fitfulness and ‘flexibility’ (the politically correct name of spinelessness) and romanticizing unsteadiness and inconsistency, combine therefore into the proper (the only reasonable?) strategy to follow; fastidiousness, raising brows, stiffening upper lips are not recommended.

The TV reviewer/critic of a pattern-and-style setting organ praised the New Year’s Eve 2007/8 broadcast for promising ‘to provide an array of musical entertainment guaranteed to sate everyone’s appetite’. ‘The good thing’ about it, he explained, ‘is that its universal appeal means you can dip in and out of the show depending on your preferences.’1 A commendable and indeed a seemly quality it indeed might be in a society in which networks replace structures, whereas the attachment/detachment game and an unending procession of connections and disconnections replace ‘determining’ and ‘fixing’.

The current phase of the graduated transformation of the idea of ‘culture’ from its original Enlightenment-inspired form to its liquid-modern reincarnation is prompted and operated by the same forces that promote emancipation of the markets from the remaining constraints of non-economic nature – the social, political, and ethical constraints among them. In pursuing its own emancipation, our liquid-modern consumer-focused economy relies on an excess of offers, on their accelerated ageing, and on a quick dissipation of their seductive power – which, by the way, makes it an economy of profligacy and waste.

Since there is no knowing in advance which of the offers may prove tempting enough to stimulate consuming desire, the only way to find out leads through trials and costly errors. A continuous supply of new offers, and a constantly growing volume of goods on offer, are also necessary for a rapid circulation of goods and the desire to replace them with ‘new and improved’ goods constantly refreshed – as well as to prevent consumer dissatisfaction with individual products from condensing into general disaffection with a consumerist mode of life as such.

Culture is now turning into one of the departments in the planetary ‘all you need and dream of’ department store in which from the perspective of consumers, its inhabitants, the world has turned. Like in other departments of that store, the shelves are tightly packed with daily restocked commodities, while the counters are adorned with the commercials of latest offers destined to disappear soon, together with the attractions they advertise. Commodities and commercials alike are calculated to arouse desires and trigger wishes (as George Steiner famously put it – constructed for ‘maximum impact and instant obsolescence’). Their merchants and copywriters count on the wedding of the offers’ seductive power to the ‘oneupmanship’ and ‘getting an edge’ urges of their prospective customers.

The liquid-modern culture has no ‘people’ to ‘cultivate’. It has instead the clients to seduce. And unlike its ‘solid modern’ predecessor, it no longer wishes to work itself, the sooner the better, out of job. Its job is now to render its own survival permanent – through temporalizing all aspects of life of its former wards, now reborn as clients.

 

Robert Robertson has specified the new phenomenon of ‘glocalization’ as the adoption of the global culture spiced up by the local colour or as the accumulation of the local to catch up with the global. Could we say that in contrast to ‘glocalization’, interculturality would create completely different new forms that would coexist, compete, but also live together?

The mixing of people from all cultures, faiths and countries has always existed, yet today’s world sees it occurring more frequently and in greater numbers. People are interacting on the international stage for both work and business purposes and it is often the case that intercultural misunderstandings lead to negative consequences. In short, intercultural awareness is a skill needed by anyone mixing with people from different cultural backgrounds. In a world that is constantly shrinking, coming to know and appreciate the cultural differences between us is paramount to ensuring that the future is one of co-operation and mutual success. We are constantly in danger of yielding to the temptation of understanding interculturality as the primacy of a central culture. However, one of the key presuppositions of interculturality is that there is no central culture, just as there are no marginal cultures; cultures are determined only in their relation to the tradition of the intercultural midst, eventuating among them in the manner of their opening and reserving.

Modernity is an era of mass migration, prompted, sustained and invigourated by another feature of the modern way of life: regular production of ‘redundant’ population (that is, of categories that can’t, or wouldn’t, be assigned a ‘useful’ (however the ‘usefulness’ is in the case defined) role in the societies of their origin. ‘Redundancy’ is regularly produced by two major, and never idle, branches of modern industry: order building and ‘economic progress’.

There were three different phases in the history of modern-era migration. The first wave of migration followed the logic of the tripartite syndrome: territoriality of sovereignty, ‘rooted’ identity, and gardening posture (subsequently referred to as TRG). That was the emigration from the ‘modernized’ centre (read: the home of the order-building and of economic progress – the two main industries turning out and off the growing numbers of ‘wasted humans’), of 60 million people altogether to ‘empty lands’ (read: lands whose native population could be struck off from most calculations and accounts: be literally ‘uncounted’ and ‘unaccounted for’, presumed either non-existent or irrelevant), founding there new and hopefully perfected replicas of England, Scotland or Wales and London, Berlin, Amsterdam or Warsaw. Whatever had remained of the indigenous population after a spate of wholesale massacres and similarly massive epidemics has been cast as another edition of ‘the people’ awaiting ‘acculturation’ – and dealt with as suggested by the ‘white man’s mission’ and its colonialist, military and trade-outposts missionaries.

The second wave of migration can be best modelled as an ‘Empire emigrates back’ case. With dismantling of colonial empires, a number of indigenous ‘people’ in various stages of their enlightenment and ‘cultural advancement’ followed their colonial superiors to the metropolis. Upon arrival, they were cast in the only worldview-strategic mould available: one construed earlier in the nation building era to deal with the categories earmarked for ‘assimilation’: a process aimed at annihilation of cultural difference and casting the ‘minorities’ at the receiving end of crusades, kulturkämpfe and proselytizing missions (currently renamed, following the rules of political correctness, as ‘citizenship education’ aimed at ‘integration’). This story is not yet finished: time and again, its echoes reverberate in the declarations of intent of the politicians following the habits of Minerva’s Owl known to spread its wings at dusk: just as the first phase of migration, the drama of the ‘empire migrating back’ is tried in vain to be squeezed into the frame of the now outdated TRG syndrome.

The third wave of modern migration, now by far the dominant, in full force and still gathering momentum, leads into the age of diasporas: a world-wide archipelago of ethnic/religious/linguistic settlements, oblivious to the trails blazed and paved by the imperialist-colonial episode and following instead the globalization-induced logic of the planetary redistribution of life resources. Diasporas are scattered and diffused, they extend over many nominally sovereign territories, ignore territorial claims to supremacy (and preferably exclusivity) of the local demands and obligation, are locked in the double bind of ‘dual (or multiple) nationality’ and dual (or multiple) loyalty.

The present-day migration differs from the two previous phases by moving both ways (virtually no countries are nowadays exclusively ‘immigrant’ or ‘emigrant’), and privileging no routes (routes are no longer determined by the imperial/colonial links of the past). It differs also in exploding the old TRG syndrome and replacing it with a EAH one (extraterritoriality, ‘anchors’ displacing the ‘roots’ as primary tools of identification, hunting strategy).

The new migration casts a question mark upon the bond between identity and citizenship, individual and place, neighbourhood and belonging. Jonathan Rutherford, acute and insightful observer of the fast changing frames of human togetherness, notes that the residents of the London street on which he lives form a neighbourhood of different communities, some with networks extending only to the next street, others which stretch across the world.2 It is a neighbourhood of porous boundaries in which it is difficult to identify who belongs and who is an outsider. What is it we belong to in this locality? What is it that each of us calls home and, when we think back and remember how we arrived here, what stories do we share?

Living like the rest of us (or most of that rest) in a diaspora (how far stretching, and in what direction[s]?) among diasporas (how far stretching, and in what direction[s]?) has for the first time forced on the agenda the issue of ‘art of living with a difference’ – which may appear on the agenda only once the difference is recognized as no longer merely temporary, and so (unlike in the past) urgently requiring arts, skills, teaching and learning. The idea of ‘human rights’, promoted in the EAH setting to replace or complement the TRG institution of territorially determined citizenship, translates today as the right to remain different.

By fits and starts, that new rendition of the human rights idea sediments, at best, tolerance; it has as yet to start in earnest to sediment solidarity. And it is a moot question whether it is fit to conceive group solidarity in any other form than that of the fickle and fray, predominantly virtual ‘networks’, galvanized and continually remodelled by the interplay of individual connecting and disconnecting, calling and messaging initiatives and their termination.

The new rendition of the human rights idea also disassembles hierarchies and tears apart the imagery of upward (‘progressive’) evolution. Forms of life float, meet, clash, crash, catch hold of each other, merge and hive off with (to paraphrase Simmel) equal specific gravity. Steady and stolid hierarchies and evolutionary lines are replaced with interminable and endemically inconclusive battles of recognition; at the utmost, with eminently renegotiable pecking orders. Imitating Archimedes, reputed to insist (probably with a kind of desperation which only the utter nebulousness of a project might cause) that he would turn the world upside down if only given a fulcrum, we may say that we would tell who is to assimilate whom, whose dissimilarity/idiosyncracy is destined for a chop and whose is to emerge on top, were we only given a hierarchy of cultures. Well, we are not given it, and unlikely to be given soon.

 

Yet the problems of interculturality, in knowledge production as well as in living together or any other human activity, are not solved by pretending to assume the other’s identity, but by finding ways of negotiating one’s own identity and the other’s in a jointly constructed new situation for which neither of the two identities has fully prepared either of the participants in that new situation – the solution, in other words, lies in creative innovation negotiating between the various inputs and building them into a new cultural product. What are, according to you, the sociological actors and the mechanisms which can shape interculturality?

In the era of assumedly marginal and rudimentary nature of ‘minorities’ (ethnic, linguistic, religious etc.) and of unshakeable self-confidence of the majority founded on the sovereign, undivided prerogative to set the binding laws, obligatory norms, and the universal (within the realm of sovereignty) patterns of interaction, the presence of strangers (more generally, ‘confronting an alterity’) was perceived as a temporary irritant, that will sooner rather than later dissipate and disappear in the course of the progressive homogenization or enforced Gleichschaltung undertaken, conducted and seen through by the organs of the nation state.

Being temporary, it did not call for the development of a special strategy and the arts needed to render permanent cohabitation with differences feasible; in view of the transitory character of the issue, the time spent on working out and entrenching such strategies and arts would be wasted… It is only now, in an era of diasporic migration and permanent close cohabitation of diasporas and prolific and regular interaction between them, that the above mentioned strategies and arts are being put on the agenda as one of the most serious challenges crying for an urgent and thorough response.

What is required is a pattern of communication and interaction that is not targeted on washing out and sweeping away differences; a mutually satisfactory pattern that does not erode the identities of interacting groups; in other words, a pattern promoting the successful, reciprocally beneficial interaction not so much despite, but thanks to the persistence of the differences; of the resulting variety of lifestyles, preferences and opinions that enrich all groups engaged in the interchange. In short, a pattern meant to be welcomed and rejoiced, not just resignedly accepted as an inclement and inconvenient but inescapable fate. It is mostly in the present burgeoning mega-cities all around the planet that such patterns are designed, put to the test and into practice.

Whatever happens to cities in their history, one feature remains constant: cities are spaces where strangers stay and move in close proximity to each other. The ubiquitous presence of strangers, constantly within sight and reach, inserts a large dose of perpetual uncertainty to all city dwellers’ life pursuits; that presence is a prolific and never resting source of anxiety and of the usually dormant, yet time and again erupting aggressiveness.

Strangers provide also a convenient handy outlet for our inborn fear of the unknown, uncertain and unpredictable. In chasing strangers away from our homes and streets, the frightening ghost of uncertainty is, even if only for a moment, exorcized: the horrifying monster of insecurity is burnt in effigy. Despite those exorcisms, our liquid-modern life remains, however, stubbornly uncertain, erratic and capricious; relief tends to be short-lived, and hopes attached to the toughest of measures are dashed as soon as they are raised.

The stranger is, by definition, an agent moved by intentions which can be at best guessed, but of which we can never be sure. In all equations we compose when deliberating what to do and how to behave, the stranger is an unknown variable. The stranger is, after all, ‘strange’: a bizarre being, whose intentions and reactions may be thoroughly different from those of the ordinary (common, familiar) folks. And so, even when not behaving aggressively or explicitly resented, strangers are discomforting: their sheer presence makes a tall order of the already daunting task of predicting the effects of action and its chances of success. And yet, the sharing of space with strangers, living in the (as a rule uninvited and unwelcome) proximity of strangers, is the condition that the city residents find difficult, perhaps impossible to escape.

As the proximity of strangers is the urban dwellers’ non-negotiable fate, some modus vivendi that is able to make cohabitation palatable and life liveable must be designed, tried and tested. The way in which we go about gratifying this need is, however, a matter of choice. And choices we daily make – whether by commission or omission, by design or default; by conscious decision or just by following, blindly and mechanically, the customary patterns; by wide-ranging discussion and deliberation; or just through following the trusted and currently fashionable means. Opting out from the search for a modus co-vivendi is one of possible choices.

‘Mixophobia’ manifests itself in a drive towards islands of similarity and sameness amidst the sea of variety and difference. The reasons for mixophobia are banal – easy to understand, if not necessarily easy to forgive. As Richard Sennett suggests,3 ‘The "we" feeling, which expresses a desire to be similar, is a way for men to avoid the necessity of looking deeper into each other.’ It promises thereby some spiritual comfort: the prospect of making togetherness easier by making redundant the efforts to understand, negotiate, and compromise. ‘Innate to the process of forming a coherent image of community is the desire to avoid actual participation. Feeling common bonds without common experience occurs in the first place because men are afraid of participation, afraid of the dangers and the challenges of it, afraid of its pain.’ The drive towards a ‘community of similarity’ is a sign of withdrawal not just from the otherness outside, but also from the commitment to the lively yet turbulent, engaged yet cumbersome interaction inside.

Choosing the escape option prompted by mixophobia has an insidious and deleterious consequence of its own: the more self-perpetuating and self-reinforcing the strategy, the more ineffective it is. The longer the time people spend in the company of others ‘like them’, with whom they ‘socialize’ perfunctorily and matter-of-factly without risk of miscomprehension, and without the onerous need to translate between distinct universes of meaning, the more likely they are to ‘de-learn’ the art of negotiating shared meanings and a modus co-vivendi.

As they have failed to learn or have forgotten the skills needed to live with difference, or neglected to acquire them, they view the prospect of confronting strangers face-to-face with rising apprehension. Strangers tend to appear ever more frightening as they become increasingly alien, unfamiliar and incomprehensible, and as mutual communication which could eventually assimilate their ‘otherness’ to one’s own life-world fades, or never takes off in the first place. The drive to a homogeneous, territorially isolated environment may be triggered by mixophobia; but practicing territorial separation is that mixophobia’s life-belt and food purveyor.

 

In this sense, intercultural processes or encounters need to go beyond a mere ‘tolerance of the other’ and involve creative abilities that convert challenges and insights into innovation processes and new forms of expression. The ‘shared space’ in which such processes take place can be located outside of physical spaces, situated in the media or in a virtual environment. But the question remains: what is the best way to equip individuals to fully acknowledge and participate in a civic life that promotes intercultural dialogue?

It all started in the US, but leaked into Europe and has by now spilt over most European countries: the tendency of the better-off urban dwellers to buy themselves out of the crowded city streets on which everything may happen, of which little can be predicted, and into ‘gated communities’: the walled-off developments with strictly selective entry, surrounded by armed guards and stuffed with closed-circuit TV and anti-intruder alarms. Those lucky enough to have bought themselves into a closely guarded ‘gated community’ pay an arm and leg for ‘security services’, that is, for banishment of all mixing. Gated ‘communities’ are heaps of little private cocoons suspended in a spatial void.

Inside ‘gated communities’, the streets are most of the time empty. And so, if someone who ‘does not belong’, a stranger, appears on the sidewalk, he or she will be promptly spotted – before a prank or damage could be done. As a matter of fact, anybody you can see walking past your windows or front door can fall into the category of strangers, those frightening people of whom you can’t be sure what their intentions are and what they will do next. Everybody may be, unknowingly to one, a prowler or a stalker: an intruder with ill intentions.

We live, after all, in the times of mobile telephones (not to mention MySpace, Facebook or Twitter): friends can exchange messages instead of visits, all people we know are constantly ‘on line’ and able to inform us in advance of their intention to pop in, and so a sudden, unannounced knock to the door or ringing of the bell is an extraordinary event and a signal of potential danger… Inside the ‘gated community’, streets are kept empty – to render the entry of a stranger, or someone behaving like a stranger, too risky to be tried.

The term ‘gated community’ is a misnomer. As we read in the 2003 research report published by the University of Glasgow, there is ‘no apparent desire to come into contact with the "community" in the gated and walled area… Sense of community is lower in gated "communities".’ However they (and the estate agents) may justify their choices, they do not pay exorbitant rental or purchase prices in order to find themselves a ‘community’ – that notoriously intrusive and obtrusive ‘collective busybody’, opening its arms to you only to hold you down as in steely forceps. Even if they say (and sometimes believe) otherwise, people pay all that money in order to liberate themselves from company: to be left alone. Inside the walls and the gate, live loners: people who would only tolerate such ‘community’ as they fancy at the moment and only in the moment they fancy it.

A large majority of researchers agree that the main motive prompting people to lock themselves inside the walls and CCTV of a ‘gated community’ – whether consciously or subconsciously, explicitly or tacitly – is their desire to keep the wolf from the door, which they translate as keeping strangers at arm’s length… Strangers are dangerous, and so every stranger is a portent of danger. Or so at least they believe. And what they wish more than anything else is to be secure from danger. More exactly, though, to be secure from the daunting, harrowing, incapacitating fear of insecurity. They hope that the walls will protect them from that fear.

The snag, however, is that there is more than one reason to feel insecure. Whether credible or fanciful, the rumours of rising crime and of throngs of burglars or sexual predators lying in ambush and waiting for an occasion to strike produce just one of those reasons. After all, we feel insecure because our jobs, and so our incomes, social standing and dignity are under threat. We are not insured against the threat of being made redundant, excluded and evicted, losing the position we cherish and believe to have earned to be ours forever. Nor are the partnerships we cherish foolproof and secure: we may feel subterranean tremours and expect earthquakes. The familiar cozy neighbourhood may be threatened by being run down in order to clear the site for new developments. All in all, it would be downright silly to hope that all those well- or ill-founded anxieties could be placated and put to rest once we’ve surrounded ourselves with walls, armed guards and closed circuit cameras.

But what about that (ostensibly) prime reason to opt for a ‘gated community’ – our fear of physical assault, violence, burglary, car theft, obtrusive beggars? Won’t we at least put paid to that kind of fear? Alas, even on that frontline the gains hardly justify the losses. As signalled by the most acute observers of contemporary urban life, the likelihood of being assaulted or robbed may fall once behind the walls (though research conducted recently in California, perhaps the main stronghold of the ‘gated community’ obsession, found no difference between gated and non-gated spaces) – the persistence of fear, however, would not.

Anna Minton, the author of Ground Control: Fear and Happiness in the Twenty-First-Century City (Penguin, 2009), tells the case of Monica, who ‘spent the whole night lying awake and far more scared than she had ever been in the twenty years she had lived on an ordinary street’ when ‘one night the electronically controlled gates went wrong and had to be propped open.’ Behind the walls, anxiety grows instead of dissipating – and so does the dependence of the residents’ state of mind on the ‘new and improved’ high-tech gadgets, marketed on the promise of keeping the dangers, and fear of dangers, out of court. The more gadgets one surrounds oneself with, the greater is the fear that some of them may ‘go wrong’. And the more time one spends worring about the menace lurking in every stranger, and the less time one spends in the company of strangers, the further one’s ‘tolerance and appreciation for the unexpected recedes’ and the less one is able to confront, handle, enjoy and appreciate the liveliness, variety and vigour of urban life. Locking oneself into a gated community in order to chase away fears is like draining water out of the pool to make sure that the children learn to swim in complete safety.

 

Footnotes:

1. See Philip French, ‘A Hootenanny New Year to All’, The Observer Television, 30 December 2007-5 January 2008, p. 6.

2. Jonathan Rutherford, After Identity, Laurence & Wishart, 2007, pp. 59-60.

3. Richard Sennett, The Uses of Disorder: Personal Identity and City Life, Faber & Faber, 1996, p. 39, 42.

top