Notes on a Culturally-Collective Humanity

Most of my work blends subjects from some pretty diverse places and times. The ease at which 21st century technology allows me to do this can at times be overwhelming, but always seems to excite me just the same.

“In most examinations of cultural identity, people are seen as mere repositories of experience. Excluded is the factor of imagination. And this is where boundaries are crossed and hybrids fertilized. This is where everything is possible.”
--Pauline Melville

One morning way back in 2002 I found myself sitting in a Los Angeles coffee shop. On this occasion I had a chance to converse with an interesting senior woman of Guatemalan ancestry. While obviously still devoted to her native familial customs this particular woman expressed an enthusiastic interest in the Druid traditions of Iona, even though she had never been to Europe. As we conversed further she also began to share a well-informed awareness of 1930’s music from the Mississippi delta, a region which she also stated she had never encountered physically.

Blues and roots music from the American south are subjects I have long been drawn to and happened to be studying at the time this conversation took place. Consequently, a cultural connection between us had now been established. When I inquired as to how she came in contact with these various traditions she explained that she had always spent a lot of her free time researching at the local public-library.  But, due to technological advancements, she now enjoyed spending more time at home with cable television and the ever more searchable internet.

It was at this exact time and place that several ideas I had been entertaining crystallized for me:

1) Classical, cultural boundaries still exist but are no longer clearly stated.

2) One does not need to travel far to supersede such boundaries.

3) The notion of entirely abandoning our innate customs in order to reap the benefits of parallel cultures is superfluous.

I couldn’t help but think how privileged I was to be part of this stimulating time of connection and possibility. I began to rant about a band of brothers and sisters, pirates of the electric church is what I think I called them, buccaneers of free cultural exchange, happily rummaging the treasure troves of human expression. However, looking up from my coffee inspired maritime daydream, I was suddenly brought back to shore by the annoyed gaze of a man who had been forced to abide my diatribe. Lowering my voice, I remembered just how unappealing, even frightening, ideas of personal acculturation can sometimes be.

When not sought after willingly the rapid influx of exotic cultures is a challenging experience. Individually we are exposed to things that feel as though they might be familiar and beneficial, but we’re not totally sure if they are ours to justly use. While, on the other hand, we tend to hide from and even attack that which is morally or existentially confusing for our particular tribe.

Americans often suffer from a sort of social double-bind; no matter who we are or how we got here, all of us end up with tendencies towards regional and cliquish preferences while we simultaneously reside in a nation that fundamentally champions social freedom and inclusivity (i.e. America is defined by its open contract with culture, not by any one culture itself). Hence, all of our cultural cultivations are pliable since we technically have no determined culture to begin with. And, with the continuing global advancement of information technologies, I think it is safe to assume now that much of the free world also functions in this paradoxical way (i.e. we currently live in a time where opportunities for free cultural exchange are pretty much unavoidable whilst strong sentiments of regionalism still naturally abound).

Having a knee jerk reaction to anything that is culturally unfamiliar is certainly no way to take advantage of the amazing time we now live in. But, does that automatically mean that everything we have become locally accustom to is some sort of evil “xenophobic” hindrance? And moreover, what if through these cultural exchanges we happen to irreparably break that which we have come to inherently cherish or (even worse) offensively morph that which traditionally belongs to someone else… what then?

These are questions that have most likely haunted mankind since like forever and no one person is going to be able to fully answer them. But I do know this: if we insist on approaching these issues from a place of fear we will only stifle the gift of imagination all of us must eventually call upon if we are to productively confront the challenges ahead. Positive cultural fusion does happen. And, If we can learn to ally our elective freedom with the traction of our inherited and localized ways, our relationships with culture could shine from both sides of the looking-glass; for when tempered with wisdom and compassion, homogeny and eclecticism are both generous guides to be engaged and harmonized rather than sequestered or avoided (i.e. one provides autonomy and scope while the other continually connects us with the benefits of our roots).

Synchronize these concepts and we just might gain something worthwhile from this time of digitally-enhanced inclusiveness most of us are now living in. From open repositories of exotic and innate motifs innovative and meaningful mutants of regionalia will be spawned. Brimming with the contrasting residues of random idiosyncrasy and stabilizing concurrence, we can either face these composites with courage and inquiry or we can turn away in disgust, the choice is up to us.

Still, transcultural compounds aside, there will always be things out there that don’t quite suit our tastes; just like there will always be people who don’t feel comfortable around the things that do. The peaceful and constructive navigation of this complex situation is a lot of what being human is all about, at least for me anyway. Will we find the wisdom and comradery to respectfully face the beautiful balancing act of cultural interaction that is now beckoning at our door? I’d like to think the answer is yes and I’d like to think that this experiment we call America will play a favorable part in it… but I never raise my hopes too high when it comes to these sorts of things.

* * *