Veranstaltungen: Dokumentation

29.9.2003 | Von:
Lynne Chisholm

Clowe-gelofre, lycorice, gyngevre and greyn de parys*: towards a more relaxed cultural hybridity in and for Europe


In the early 1990s, cultural anthropologist Ulf Hannerz used the term 'global ecumene'(1) to describe a world suffused with continuous flows, which typically form pluralistic but unbalanced conglomerates of cultural clusters. Manuel Castells´(2) depiction of network societies as societies of uneven but dynamic economic and cultural flows adopts a similar metaphor, whilst even my humble self,(3) in trying to visualise youth in Europe today, was recently moved to picture European societies as a flowing mosaic of rivers, islands and currents. In short, everyone interested in contemporary change is talking and writing about movement, exchange and their outcome: hybridity.

Australia´s 1996 Census identified 40% of the population as first or second generation migrants – and the proportion is higher in the big cities. Chinese Canadian writers(4) describe 'world kids' as navigating a sea of texts and for whom growing up is a process of hybridised pastiche, in which identities are stitched and re-stitched together by the wearer. A young Filipino-Columbian performance artist living in San Francisco writes a critically reflective Internet essay on her own recent and rapid transitions from temporary hippie through temporary hip-hop-head to currently (a)eromestizaje follower.(5) I have consciously chosen examples from other parts of le monde apparemment anglo-saxonne, but I could just as easily have taken examples of thinking and doing dynamic hybridity from any European country or indeed from any part of the world. Today´s youth cultures offer us vibrant examples of hybridity – but Chaucer was doing it too, and if you read any of his work, you will see just how much English is a linguistic hybrid between Germanic and Romance languages, not least amongst which is French, which at the latest after 1066 is hardly surprising.

The production of hybridity is a logical, commonplace cultural process and lots of people have multi-faceted cultural, ethnic and linguistic identities. So what are we talking about and why is it a problem, at least for some people and in some ways?

1. Romantic essentialism reifies and idealises linguistic-cultural traditions, typically as discrete nations.

2. Modernist concepts of subjectivity see identity as a morally inviolate entity with a linear coherence.

3. Imbalanced cultural conglomerates express the outcomes of the dynamics of domination and subordination, which threatens human and social diversity.

Nr. 1 is empirically inaccurate and can be politically disturbing. Nr. 2 is intellectually interesting if somewhat arcane. Nr. 3 is what the 'web of tension' is talking about, and this is the problem. How much of a problem, and for whom?

Within societies it is a matter of learning to live together in highly individualised and multicultural life-worlds. Between societies it is more a question of the cultural import-export equation. Contemporary democratic values prescribe

(a) an equitable exchange of cultural elements – but economy and technology seem to tip the scales in favour of North America (if you are European) and Euro-America (if you come from most other parts of the world);

(b) a mixed salad rather than a melting pot – but this can end up as a bit boring, the kind of salade composée you can find just about anywhere in Europe these days. Ultimately, it´s all about access to and distribution of cultural resources, together with the capacity and the confidence to use these creatively. Youth cultures are not much different from films in that respect.

There is an inherent tension between additive and integrative models of hybridity, and this is exactly the contemporary European dilemma. The conjunction of European integration and the elusiveness of 'Europeanness' as a cultural identity marker is hardly inexplicable. Europeans are re-fashioning existing multiple worlds into a more complex shared world – they are not creating a new world altogether, as modern North America explicitly chose to do (if equally overlooking what was already there).

Economy and technology led cultural convergence processes are self-evident for all of us, whether in popular culture, in the Web or on our cities´ high streets. But no-one who travels around Europe with their eyes open could seriously argue that local diversity is not nevertheless alive and kicking, nor that dynamic hybridity is an ethnographic mirage. I can send you to nightspots in Lleida that fill the house to hear a very particular local combination of Catalan/Gypsy jazz-rock, which is at least as popular as rap.

No, the problem is not European hybridity in the re-making. It is rather about the inequalities of access to and distribution of the personal and social resources to take up a more self-directed, positive and proactive role in the whole process – and that means from the local level up. We know very well from innumerable studies that

(a) positive engagement with diversity as a cultural resource to be sustained and creatively re-worked is based on a sense of self-worth and on acquiring interpersonal, communicative and social skills that are continuously developed and used;

(b) attachment to European integration is built on demonstrating its practical social and economic benefits for people´s lives, and is backed up by real-life experience of the rewards of European cultural diversity.

This summer, 14-year-old Nahanna sat in my Pyrenean garden reading Iain Pears´ novel The Dream of Scipio – itself a tale of tensions between old and new cultural patterns set in a declining Roman Gaul. Difficult stuff to get into, she remarked, but she kept at it. Nahanna´s mother is Tanzanian, her father is Swiss, until now she´s lived in the USA and has spent every second summer since she can remember travelling around Europe and Africa with her family, visiting relatives, friends and interesting places. She´s already trilingual and she´s now learning French, as she´ll be going to boarding school in Geneva. She can talk intelligently about world politics and can distinguish confidently between global and local cultures. Nahanna is certainly a gifted girl, but more importantly she is a highly privileged young woman who is making the very best of her own diversity of culture, identity and experience. She has no qualms about her own hybridity or anyone else´s, regardless of how it is put together.

If we want to make the cultural web of tension work productively and creatively, we need a lot more people like Nahanna in this world, and not only in Europe. And that, in a nutshell, is the real problem: our societies have to put a lot more effort and many more cultural and economic resources into developing people´s personal, cognitive and social potential. This is about more than thinking Europe, it is about doing Europe, a learning process in which not only education, but also the arts, together can and should play decisive roles. The capacity to live flexibly as both cosmopolitans and locals demands a much more relaxed approach to mixing and remixing cultural patterns and products, so that everyone who lives in Europe now and in our increasingly diverse future feels part of and can contribute to the cultural web. This is not about cultural homogenisation, it is about cultural democratisation.

* Cloves, liquorice, ginger and grains of paradise; these and many other linguistic hybrids appear in Geoffrey Chaucer´s Romaunt of the Rose, which he partly re-wrote and partly translated in the mid-14th century from a late 13th century romance written by Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun. Chaucer spent much of his youth and early adulthood in France, early middle life in Italy and later life in England.
(1) Scenarios for peripheral cultures, pp. 107-128 in King, A.D. (ed.) Culture, Globalization and the World-System, London: Macmillan: 1991
(2) The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture, 3 vols., Oxford: Blackwell: 1996, 1997, 1998
(3) Exploring the European youth mosaic, Lynne Chisholm and Siyka Kovacheva, Strasbourg: Council of Europe Publishing: 2002 (available also in FR); Das Mosaik entdecken: Jugend im zukünftigen Europa, Festvortrag am CeSiJe, Luxembourg, 12 December 2002 (mimeo)
(4) A. Luke and C. Luke, A situated perspective on cultural globalisation, pp. 275-298 in N. Burbules and C. Torres (eds.) Globalisation and Educational Policy, New York: Routledge: 2000
(5) Gigi Otálvaro-Hormillosa, Resisting Black/White Supremacist Ideals, Appropriation and Assimilation from (a)eromestiza Consciousness,; (a)eromestizaje expresses the perspectives and voices of women of colour from mixed race/ethnic backgrounds by indicating "possibilities for transformation in understanding the fluid, aerodynamic and ethereal manifestations and celebrations of subversive hybridity".

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