By Michael Rosen
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Culture: it’s all in the mix!

This article is over 11 years, 4 months old
With David Cameron's words on multiculturalism still reverberating round the gutters, now's a good time to take a second look at the word "culture".
Issue 357

The two main overlapping ways the word is used in everyday conversation are: (a) to cover artistic products we consume – plays, films, books, paintings and the like – and (b) to talk of “the way we do things in our everyday lives” – our kinship relations, what we eat, what kinds of dwellings, rituals, music, gestures we make and, significantly, what language(s), dialect(s) and accent(s) we speak with.

Underlying many discussions about the second usage is the notion that there is a “host” culture which is distinct, unified, ancient, virtuous and desirable and there are “other” cultures which at best are “interesting” or “lively” but should be made to “integrate” or be “assimilated”.

As Marxists, we might reshape that and talk of a “dominant” or “hegemonic” culture and of “non-dominant” or “sub-cultures”. Either way, this has its problems, because it presents cultures as if they are discrete, self-contained chunks. From the right, there has been an effort to claim some kind of pure English or British “way of life” or “set of values” which is “indigenous”. Meanwhile, on our side, we quite rightly celebrate multicultural “diversity” and “minority cultures”, claiming this as a form of cultural resistance. I think we have to go further and celebrate “interculturalism” – which is ultimately part of internationalism.

Human beings migrate. It is one of the conditions of humanity across time. Many times it has been in order to colonise and dominate other peoples. Often migration has been resistant, to escape persecution, overcrowding and poverty. Other times it has been in a more equitable form of exchange, where peoples have made contact with each other in order to trade goods and/or exchange ideas and art.

In all these cases the consequence is that cultures mix. With colonial migration there has been the spread of the English language, but wherever English has settled it has been reshaped by the peoples of those places. Transportation produced an explosion of diverse cultural forms as a consequence of Africans being enslaved across North and South America and the Caribbean, and mixing with natives and Europeans. Resistant migration has resulted in such mixtures as “the post-colonial novel” or “Gypsy jazz”, while trade migrations have given us Latin phrases like “et cetera” and, say, modernist architecture.

This intercultural mixing reaches into what is supposedly both “host” and somehow immune to this hybridisation. Even as the ruling class uses Britishness or Englishness in order to extend its domination into our minds, it is itself a mish-mash. The early development of “British” parliamentary democracy owes a good deal to the resistant cultures of dissenting Christians but this was never purely British. Puritanism was a fusion of European ideas – German, Swiss, Dutch, French, Scots and English. Much of the “English” landscape was shaped by migrants from continental Europe clearing forests or, much later, draining land.

Great “English” literature like Chaucer is in fact a mix of French, Italian and, in the “frame” tale of the Canterbury Tales, Arab influence. The plays of Shakespeare are written in Latinate blank verse with plot-lines borrowed from Denmark, ancient Greece and Rome, Italy and beyond. Classical music is a trans-European phenomenon and one of the most supposedly “English” composers – Handel – was German. The “English” Beatles began and ended with the strains of the blues, Tamla Motown and rock which themselves are cultural hybrids. “British” education is made up of a mix of Greek, Roman, German, Swiss, French and local ideas. The Church of England is based on layers of Middle Eastern religions interfused with structures derived from the religion’s Italian establishment. Even the idea of the “nation” is international!

What we do is endlessly assimilate to each other. It’s asymmetrical – certain ideas “dominate”, but not as those who dominate describe it. The domination is achieved by inventing the myth of a pure centre while making the impossible demand for us to assimilate to it. What’s more, this ruling centre props itself up precisely by resisting being the “other” – by not being the migrant, the Muslim and so on.

In fact, even as the Tories decry “segregation”, their class politics ensures that it is more difficult to move an inch towards that centre: next year, through cuts in grants and teaching jobs, it will be many times harder for migrants to acquire English. We should, of course, support all resistant cultures while identifying ruling lies about their own desirable purity and celebrating how we defy atomisation, segregation and oppression through all the many ways we mix.

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