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INTERCULTURALITY IN THE GARDEN: AMERICANIZATION AND OTHERNESS

Albena Bakratcheva

web

"To do things "railroad fashion" is now the by-word;" - Henry David Thoreau wrote in WALDEN, - "and it is worth the while to be warned so often and so sincerely by any power to get off its track. There is no stopping to read the riot act, no firing over the heads of the mob, in this case. WE HAVE CONSTRUCTED A FATE, AN ATROPOS, THAT NEVER TURNS ASIDE. (Let that be the name of your ENGINE.)".

The year was 1845. Thoreau put a diagnosis and pointed out the irreversible direction of what he called the constructed fate of humankind. Moreover, he named it in terms of brutal intrusion: that of the engine into the pastoral landscape, or of the machine into the garden of Nature. In the vision of this American transcendentalist, who "should be glad if all the meadows on the earth were left in a wild state", his contemporary way of the world could not be but a distraction from true living. And what he pleaded for was concentration. If "the air was full of invisible bolts" he could not but take that as a harsh, extreme opposition to what he cherished most - simplicity. Thus the problem was clearly set; artificial and natural were seen as conflicting powers in a process never to be turned aside. Moreover, man's participation in this process was considered to be false, untrue, i.e. constructed. "Keep on your own track, then", Thoreau concluded.

There is also another thing in the above quoted passage that is interesting to me. Thoreau is mentioning a linguistic novelty - the expression "to do things "railroad fashion"" is obviously a language twist to him, i.e. a manifestation of violence towards language in order for it to express adequately the already existing violence towards Nature. Hence the quotation marks he uses. So language - this other sacred territory for all the romantics - is felt by Thoreau to have been involved in and subdued to the irreversible, alien to Nature process of mechanization.

I would suggest here that talking about Thoreau is not simply talking about American individualistic hostility towards the beginning of the first era of globalization. I would suggest here that talking about Thoreau - regardless of his negative interpretations - makes it clear that a new culture was emerging at the time: the business culture. And it was already acquiring its own language. This culture was still in the singular; the plural was yet to come. But it was immediately felt different, i.e. it immediately outlined the issue of OTHERNESS.

Starting from the mid-1800s and lasting till the late 1920s, the first era of globalization, as Thomas Friedman states in his remarkable book, "was built around falling transportation costs. Thanks to the invention of the railroad, the steamship and the automobile, people could get to a lot more places faster and cheaper".(p. XVII) So this was it - DOING it the "railroad fashion" and also SAYING it the "railroad fashion".

Of course, this was not Thoreau's fashion. But once he was able to declare what he was not, he was actually confirming the emergence of a novelty as well as his own awareness of how persistent this novelty was. Speed was not an attraction to him, for - in his own words - he had "learned that the swiftest traveller is he that goes afoot". Thoreau was a walker, who - like Kant some few decades earlier - almost never left his hometown and its vicinity. Kant did not have to face the reality of the world getting smaller and smaller. Thoreau did, though. And what he took to be the disturbed harmony between man and nature became a major concern of his. "Our inventions are... but improved means to an unimproved end - he goes on in WALDEN. - We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate." These often quoted lines suggest in their turn the idea of distraction v.s. concentration, of artificial intrusion v.s. natural harmony, of losing the focus because of the periphery. It is not hard to imagine a Thoreauvian reaction against todays microchips, satellites, fiber optics and the Internet. It is hard to imagine a Thoreau, though, in our present post-Berlin Wall era of globalization that is built around falling telecommunications costs. Because nowadays Walden has become an even stronger metaphor than it used to be in the time of the transcendentalists. It is not only the Atropos, or the constructed fate that never turns aside now; it is mainly us that can no longer, never ever turn aside from it.   Which is not necessarily bad or good. It is simply so.

I would like to draw your attention here to a fact that attracts a sheer interest on my part. Two of the major books, dealing with the first and the second era of globalization - those of, respectively, Leo Marx and Thomas Friedman - have parallel titles. Leo Marx's THE MACHINE IN THE GARDEN and Friedman's THE LEXUS AND THE OLIVE TREE correspond entirely to one another: both are highly metaphoric and both are grounded on a complete opposition. THE MACHINE is paralleled by THE LEXUS (which appears to be the name of a huge Japanese factory) and THE GARDEN is paralleled by THE OLIVE TREE (that the more recent title is more specific does not at all lessen its metaphoric value). In both cases the thing made by man is set into opposition to the thing made by God; the thing produced is contradicted to the thing originally given. Both these highly metaphoric titles have their completely nonmetaphoric subtitles: "Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America" (Leo Marx) and "Understanding Globalization" (Thomas Friedman). The authors - neither of whom, by the way, comes from literature or literary criticism - have both found it suitable to make their subjects clear, but, obviously enough, have preferred to stick to the metaphor.

WHY IS THAT AND WHY ARE THESE METAPHORS SO SIMILAR? While Leo Marx's gesture can be partially explained by him getting intoxicated by the romantic authors he writes about (Thoreau, Hawthorne, Melville), Friedman's cannot. I would like to remind here that, in semiotic terms, a metaphor is a signifier which is used to refer to a signified in a way which is INITIALLY UNCONVENTIONAL, or, in other words, that metaphor expresses the unfamiliar in terms of the familiar. This need for a metaphorical image to exist perfectly answers the intention of the books we are now talking about: both of the titles unconventionally unify two conventionally ununified elements each and by the obvious contrast between them suggest the intrusion of the unfamiliar into the familiar. I.e., THE INTRUSION OF OTHERNESS. Hence their high metaphoric degree. I would even go further and say, that the second title echoes, rephrases the first one just like the second, nowadays era of globalization echoes, rephrases the previous one.

Rephrasing, though, means not only similarities, but differences even more. So if we take THE LEXUS AND THE OLIVE TREE to be the present-day transformation of THE MACHINE IN THE GARDEN and thus the metaphoric naming of all the complexities of our contemporary globalization status, it will definitely imply novelty or, in other words, OTHERNESS. It will imply another Machine - the machine in transition (including media in transition), the whole obviously and incredibly fast ongoing process that has already turned mere technology into globalization. But it will also imply another understanding of the Garden - the garden no more considered mainly in terms of the virginal landscape or the pastoral ideal. Because if Thoreau or Hawthorne at the time were rather upset by the railroad, or the telegraph, or the postal services as destroying what they called true communication, or the original harmony between man and nature, this concern has already ceased to be that troublesome. In the fluid, incoherent, diverse realities of postmodernity it is the disturbed - and restored - harmony between man and man, between different cultures, that has clearly come into light. Hence the new, i.e. the other connotations of the Olive tree in Thomas Friedman's book: "Olive trees are important. They represent everything that roots us, anchors us and locates us in this world - whether it will be belonging to a family, a community, a tribe, a nation, a religion or, most of all, a place called home. Olive trees are what give us warmth of family, the joy of individuality, the intimacy of personal rituals, the depth of private relationships, as well as the confidence to reach out and encounter others... You cannot be a complete person alone. You can be a rich person alone. You can be a smart person alone. But you cannot be a complete person alone. For that you must be part of, and rooted in, an olive grove."(p. 31)

And here we come to a crucial, invisible at first sight difference between the two metaphorical titles. The Machine in the period Leo Marx is dealing with, i.e. during the first era of globalization, when considered in terms of its relation to the garden, is taken to be primarily a destroyer, a hostile intruder. While the Lexus in our present-day period Thomas Friedman is dealing with is taken to be "the drive for sustenance, improvement, prosperity and modernization"(p. 32-33) and the most positive about this positive in itself drive is its capability for balancing with an olive tree. In the balancing between the Lexus and the Olive tree, i.e. between globalization and what is intrinsically, deeply human in ourselves, Friedman sees the positive perspective of the world. There is no rejection, no denial here - just coexistence and newly found harmony. Therefore the rudely intrusive preposition "in" is replaced in the recent title by the peaceful, harmonious junction "and". With THE MACHINE IN THE GARDEN the two poles are rivals; with THE LEXUS AND THE OLIVE TREE they harmoniously coexist, thus guaranteeing the survival of humankind. Such a distinction - clearly outlined even linguistically - is very important, since it lays bare the transformation of the notion of an impossible discourse into the notion of a discourse possible. I would argue here that a sheer difference between the two eras of globalization is thus visibly and clearly marked. And this sheer difference is once again set in terms of the transforming through the years sense of OTHERNESS.

I will definitely have to mention here the in-between era, i.e. the Berlin Wall one, or the Iron Curtain one. The era of the Cold War I cannot talk neutrally about, because to me, coming from a country that belonged then to the Soviet bloc, it means not only an impossible dialogue; it means pain, shame, disrespect towards the individual. (An intellectual, personal drama and not a widespread one, by the way.) When I was in Berlin in 1990, just a couple of months after the Wall had fallen, I was told the following joke. The Wall falls and a huge crowd of East-Berliners rushes into West Berlin. They start hugging and kissing the West-Berliners and finally they shout: "Wir sind ein Volk!" (We are one nation!). The answer of the West-Berliners comes immediately: "Wir auch!" (We also!). This, in a way untypical in terms of style German joke, makes it clear that the relapses were still there at the time, that it was going to take years, if not generations, for the wall in the mind to fall. The East-Berliners were feeling OTHER, i.e. inferior; the West-Berliners were also feeling OTHER, i.e. superior. I bet both of them still do. The problem was economical, of course, but first of all ideological; and there was a huge amount of fear behind it. This joke illustrates perfectly how the countries from the two ex-blocks - in their different degrees, of course - used to refer to each other:   in terms of differently understood interplay between inferiority and superiority, in terms of EXTREME OTHERNESS.

During those twelve years since the huge, intrusive Soviet Machine was taken away from the Garden of the world, the very sense of otherness has gradually begun to acquire new parameters, its direction steadily changing from "against" to "and". So it seems to me that a way to define our contemporary phase of globalization is in terms of RECOGNIZED OTHERNESS. We have entered the period of civilization when "other voices" are definitely being heard, when the doors of "other rooms" are being held open. The issue of THE OTHER has nowadays become crucial to globalization. And I would argue here that speaking about RECOGNIZED OTHERNESS is speaking about a TWO-SIDED PROCEDURE. Because, if in the United States an equation between globalization and Americanization is an entirely irrelevant point, for most of the world it is not and the two words are usually considered as almost complete synonyms. Therefore a cultural filter is needed, an awareness of each one of the counterparts as to the differences of the other (of course, this concerns mainly the less strong of the two). And to be always on the alert about otherness means being always on the alert about CULTURAL SELF-IDENTITY - which actually turns out to be the way to prevent cultures from being erased. This is exactly what Thomas Friedman calls the ability to "GLOCALIZE". "I define healthy glocalization - he writes, - as the ability of a culture, when it encounters OTHER strong cultures, to absorb influences that naturally fit into and can enrich that culture, to resist those things that are truly alien and to compartmentalize those things that, while different, can nevertheless be enjoyed and celebrated as different. The whole purpose of glocalizing is to be able to assimilate aspects of globalization into your own country and culture in a way that adds to your growth and diversity, without overwhelming it."(p. 295) Assuming a similar viewpoint, I would argue here that cultural differences nowadays can no more and should no more be defined in antithetical terms - i.e. as either catalysts or deterrents to globalization. It is their RECOGNITION that becomes essential to globalization.

More than two centuries ago Goethe introduced the concept of "world literature", seeing literature as the best means for fruitful intercultural influences. With the changed situation at present speculations about ways of crossing cultural borders have been reshaped into discussions on the possibilities of cultural communications in a borderless, i.e globalized community. What has obviously happened is that the notion of the border to be crossed has gradually been transformed into the notion of the otherness to be recognized. As the outstanding US poet Adrienne Rich points out in an interview: "We don't shed racism or sexism... unless we struggle hard to try to create bridges, to find out what our own common base is, to become educated in each other's realities, to search for and document the mistakes of the past so we can stop making them." (Don't these words remind us of Friedman's Olive tree?) Clearly Rich it is not so much concerned about "crossing" rather than about "creating", about getting educated in otherness. And this is more or less a self-education. "Where connections are being made - Adrienne Rich goes on in the same interview - always feels to me like the point of intensest life... and the point of intensest life is where I write poetry." Obviously poetry - actually any creativity - is seen here anew: as both a precondition and a cultural horizon for recognizing differences and establishing connections. But this is no more the global concept of the author of "Faust" pleading for a spiritual community of the talented and inspired. This is the globalizing concept of a contemporary poet, responding to and trying to overcome the realities of the disperse, mutant, full of absences postmodern world. Thus the older idea of INTERCULTURALITY has undergone a transformation towards the creative impulse of nowadays MULTICULTURALITY. Or, in other words, the gardens of interculturality have been turned into a garden of multiculturality. And in this garden of multiculturality it has become crucial for otherness to be recognized.

The boom of academic interest in the new areas of the so called ethnic studies, racial studies, gender studies presents another obvious confirmation of how acute the problem of recognized otherness has become recently. This special scholarly attention is rather symptomatic to a cultural situation of self-conscious diversity. On the one hand such studies are usually done by people who are themselves representatives of otherness, and on the other hand such studies, having kept society on the alert about otherness for a while, have turned to be a legalized expression of cultural globalization itself. Thus, combining the ethnic, racial and gender lines together both in her own self and in her works, Gloria Anzaldua, a brilliant and extravagant US writer and university professor, comes up with a new name for what is to her a new dimension of life and culture. She calls it a BORDERLAND. "Borders are set up to define the places that are safe and unsafe, to distinguish us from them - she writes in her mostly discussed book Borderlands/La Frontera. - A border is a deviding line, a narrow strip along a steep edge. A BORDERLAND is a vague and undetermined place created by the emotional residue of an unnatural boundary. It is in a constant state of transition... In fact the Borderlands are physically present wherever two or more cultures edge each other, where people of different races occupy the same territory, where under, lower, middle and upper classes touch, where the space between two individuals shrinks with intimacy." It becomes clear that the transient (in a way even transcendental) borderland is defined here as natural by means of opposition to all kinds of unnatural boundaries; in fact, the undetermined place that it is considered, Anzaldua's borderland turns out to be a metaphor of a wished for - and finally reached - global picture of coexistences made possible. Of the existential substance of multiculturality. And I would like to suggest here that the metaphor of the borderland might be thought of as a nowadays multiculturalistic translation of Frederick Jackson Turner's metaphor of the FRONTIER - one of the most powerful emblems of America and American culture. The lifting of the frontier is implied in order for the GLOBALIZED BORDERLAND to take place. In order for glocalization to enter.

To enter what? The Garden? The Olive tree grove? The Machine? The Lexus? The Media in constant transition? The Borderland? The doing of things "railroad fashion", or computer fashion, or cell-phone fashion, or e-mail fashion, or chat-room fashion, or whatever else not fashion? The answer to all these questions is positive. We have seen how the hostile "in" - or even "against" - characteristic to the first era of globalization gradually transformed itself - overlapping the frozen period of the Cold War - into the coexistential "and" of our contemporary globalization phase. And we have seen how this transformation can be - and should be - considered in terms of a constantly changing SENSE OF OTHERNESS: no matter if otherness means technology, different cultures or the unknown other in our own selves.

It seems to me that globalization and business cultures is what I talked less about. It seems to me that what I actually talked about was less the culture of business than the business of culture.

 

 

WORKS CITED:

Thomas L. Friedman, The Lexus and the Olive Tree. Understanding Globalization (New York: Anchor Books, Random House, Inc., 2000)

Leo Marx, The Machine in the Garden (London - Oxford - New York: Oxford University Press, 1967)

Adrienne Rich, An Interview with David Montenegro (1991) - In: Adrienne Rich's Poetry and Prose (New York - London: W. W. Norton & Company, 1993), pp. 262-263.

 

 

© Albena Bakratcheva, 2002
© Publisher LiterNet, 25. 12. 2002
=============================
First edition, electronic.

The First ASPS Seminar: "Globalization and Business Cultures", American Studies Project at Skeria, Skelleftea, Sweden, February 15-16, 2002.