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. 

We Americans often suffer from a sort of empiric schizophrenia; most of us are born and raised regional xenophobes while we simultaneously reside in a nation that innately fosters cultural freedom and eclecticism (i.e. all culture in America is inter-cultural since we technically have no determined culture to begin with). I think it is safe to assume that much of the free world now also functions in this paradoxical way. As a result we currently live in a time where opportunities for free cultural fusions are pretty much unavoidable while the tethers of provincialism are still as strong as ever.

However, there are benefits to both sides of this coin; if we can learn to ally our elective-freedom with the traction of our accordant ways our relationships with culture could shine from both sides of the looking-glass; for when tempered with compassion, provincialism and eclecticism are both generous guides to be engaged and harmonized rather than sequestered and avoided (i.e. one provides autonomy and scope while the other continually connects us with the benefits of our topographical roots).

Synchronize these concepts and we just might gain the most from this time of domestic inclusiveness we are now living in. From boundless repositories of acquired and innate motifs meaningful unique mutants of traditions and individuality could be spawned, brimming with the byproducts of idiosyncrasy and stabilizing concurrence. Will we find the courage, wisdom and comradery to respectfully face the beautiful balancing act of folklore and imagination that is now at our door? I’d like to think the answer is yes… but I never raise my hopes too high when it comes to these sorts of things. 

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