Wonsaponatime, as the poet said, my village defined me, then it was my tribe, then my state, then my country. In the impermanent global flux, does it matter any more where I’m from, where I’m going? As Cory Doctorow has it, do we belong to where we are, or do we belong to Eastern Standard Tribe?
Nowadays, who I am is related to where I am. My identity is formed by the history of my place of birth, and where I grew up, but my current location creates an affinity that I must adhere to, often at the cost of my place of naissance.
Being post-colonial (I was born and raised in India), I feel this acutely. Time Magazine had an article a few years ago on Indian English writers (like myself) – The Empire Writes Back. But more on post-colonialism later.
To be on the web further dislocates the identity from the location. Everyman is everyplace. The reader can be in the mind, and in the place of the writer. Transnational perspectives are the only ones that apply any more. Robert Cooper expands on this idea in his compact and powerful book, The Breaking Of Nations.
Cooper argues that two revolutionary forces are transforming international relations: the breakdown of state control over violence, reflected in the growing ability of tiny private groups to wield weapons of mass destruction, and the rise of a stable, peaceful order in Europe that is not based on either the balance of power or the sovereignty of independent states. In this scheme, the Westphalian system of nation-states and power politics is being undermined on both sides — by a postmodern Europe and a premodern world of failed states and post-imperial chaos.
Ref: Thomas Hardy, In Time of “Breaking Of Nations”
Tennyson presaged this in The Idylls of the King,
There at the banquet those great Lords from Rome,
The slowly-fading mistress of the world,
Strode in, and claimed their tribute as of yore.
But Arthur spake, `Behold, for these have sworn
To wage my wars, and worship me their King;
The old order changeth, yielding place to new;
And we that fight for our fair father Christ,
Seeing that ye be grown too weak and old
To drive the heathen from your Roman wall,
No tribute will we pay:’ so those great lords
Drew back in wrath, and Arthur strove with Rome
Asian cultures tend to be more insular, in part because of the historical inward-looking mindset. As Felipe Fernandez-Ernesto showed in Millenium, and Jared Diamond in Guns, Germs and Steel, societies flower and grow from the intermingling with other cultures, and these external influences change the host culture, as much as changing the original society.
Artists and the creative class are most prone to mobility and adoption of external influences. They have often reinvented their persona based on their country of adoption in preference to their country of birth.
Hemingway’s preference for Europe, particularly Spain, in no way diminished his American roots, or American attitudes. Other artists, such as, Mark Knopfler have become more American than British. A similar adoption, though in the reverse colonial direction was Sir Nirad Chaudhuri, who became very British – so much so as to write “The Autobiography Of An Unknown Indian”, and dedicate it to
“To the memory of the British Empire in India, which conferred subjecthood upon us but withheld citizenship; to which yet every one of us threw out the challenge “Civis Britannicus sum” [I am a British citizen] because all that was good and living within us was made, shaped, and quickened by the same British rule.”
Cultural affinity often, especially for the adoptee, translates to cultural exceptionalism. This is when the culture is treated as better, superior or more refined. The French are the most guilty of overweening pride, going so far as to raise protests against the opening of Disneyland in Paris, and calling it a “Cultural Chernobyl”. The overlooking of European themes in Disney classics, such as Snow White, Sleeping Beauty & Fantasia is de rigeur. An excellent article on this theme is at The New Criterion
Contrary to what Jacques Chirac maintained, globalization is not a “cultural steamroller.” It is and always has been an engine of enrichment. Think, for example, how the French artistic sensibility was revitalized by the discovery—or rather fuller knowledge—of Japanese painting afforded at the end of the nineteenth century, or by the arrival in France of African art ten or twenty years later.
No one knows how the Flat World will look ten or twenty years from now, but the global genie is out of it’s lamp, and blending together the cultures, crises and conflicts in a time of change.