Cultural Hybridity

Burke, Peter
Polity Press, Cambridge
9780745646978 (pb)

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Cover of book As a lecturer in international relations and history, I have had difficulties with the boundless enthusiasm for globalisation that some in the academy have brought to debates on the changing nature of human society. Despite sharing their interest, I have been concerned that some appeared far too astonished at the manifestation of a phenomenon I had assumed we all knew was obviously there, all along. Peter Burke's short and readable Cultural Hybridity provides reassurance for those who understand we are living in a world of intense cultural changes and encounters, but seem to remember having read that such intermixing and encounters have actually occurred throughout human history and are not just a function of the last 30 years.

The proposition that a high level of cultural intermingling is intrinsically part of the human experience has multiple critics, and racial separatists or ethno-nationalist extremists are unlikely to be convinced by this book. It is heartening to see Burke's positive attitudes to the creativity engendered through cross-cultural encounters and to the idea that globalisation or Americanisation can coexist with more reactive forms of nationalism. Cultural hybridity was recognised by past scholars, even if it was not always presented in today's terms. Burke introduces the reader through past accounts such as Christopher Dawson's 1932 examination of classical, Christian, and 'barbarian' traditions, Americo Castro y Quesada's 1948 study of the fusion of Christian, Jewish and Muslims in Spain, along with Gilberto Freyre's 1933 well known work on Brazilian masters and slaves. Such accounts from an earlier generation of scholarship are brought together to illustrate that the reality of changes we see around us are not new.

Burke breaks up his studies of hybridity into five varieties: (a) of object; (b) terminology; (c) situation; (d) response; and (e) outcome. Through these he examines cultural borrowings and acculturations of the human experience to show that words, thoughts and actions are components of human interaction across a wide range of areas. Rather than one-way acculturation we encounter two-way trans-culturation, and plagiarism or borrowing is reassessed as a valid form of cultural exchange and accommodation to new circumstances. The interactions of Europeans in Asia once seen through a colonialist lens framed in the entirely necessary debates on nationalism and imperialism, are now seen as dialogue and negotiation, and his use of the metallic metaphor of fusion is made to good effect. None of this takes away from the evils and hierarchies of imperialism and colonialism, but it empowers and validates the responses of the colonised, who were not weak and passive, but responded with initiative and adaptability to the agents of change in their midst. Even contemporary interactions such as the ubiquitous McDonald's represent both universal homogenised food and restaurant culture as well as local variants, and the cultural re-interpretation by locals transforms the realm of Ray Kroc into a signifier of affluence, hygiene and democracy. This book empowers humans, and Burke's exploration of creoleization confirms that appropriation or cultural translation of ideas, acts and of artefacts has complicit human agency. Indeed, such conventions of appropriation can be well-established and legitimised in some cultures, with an example being a Japanese culture that has borrowed from China, Portugal and the West, yet still retain its strong sense of cultural coherence.

While we once saw Hellenization, Romanization, Hispanicization, Anglicization, and Americanization as cultures of victorious and dominant homogenizers, we now recognise the heterogeneity implicit in these cultural processes and the vitality and fusibility of those who we once thought to be submerged by them. In the 21st century we live in a world where Shakespeare's Loves Labour's Lost can be produced in Dari to an appreciative and intrigued Afghan audience still threatened by Taliban extremists. The idea of Shakespeare might appear to be intrinsically English, yet the dynamics of the plot are readily appealing to an Afghan culture more familiar with the complexity of the Renaissance world that any metropolitan commuter-belt audience. This book will interest both academic and general audiences and Burke is to be commended for producing a very accessible volume that interrogates the complexities of our hybridised world.

Richard Gehrmann
University of Southern Queensland, Australia