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Excerpt from Benjamin Barber's CONSUMED
CONSUMED, by Benjamin Barber
December 21, 2007

Benjamin Barber's most recent book is CONSUMED: HOW MARKETS CORRUPT CHILDREN, INFANTILIZE ADULTS, AND SWALLOW CITIZENS WHOLE. Read a special excerpt below:

Cultural Creolization

Consumerism has an aggressive, even totalizing face. It effectively colonizes the plural sectors that define culture's diversity, replacing them with a homogenized environment of marketing, advertising, and shopping-faux feelings and simulated sentiments-as well as common pop-cultural commodities that constrict cultural pluralism. Nonetheless, anthropologists have argued for some time that colonized cultures often react to being colonized by shaping the forces that affect to shape them in ways that alter the cultural aggressor and modify its supposedly "dominant" cultural face. This countercolonizing logic may apply within a culture that is trying to brand and homogenize taste. The process has been called creolization, or sometimes hybridization, and is evident in America's own cultural interaction with the postwar world beyond its shores.

Following World War II, even as the United States "Westernized" and democratized the vanquished Japanese Empire, Japanese culture infiltrated the occupiers. In the gently mocking Broadway comedy hit of an earlier era (subsequently a successful film) Tea House of the August Moon, a clever, seemingly obsequious Japanese houseboy, attached to a commanding reeducation officer in occupied Japan, uses his post to inflect with subversive Japanese elements and hence ultimately deflect the happy American ideology being inculcated. Even in defeat, Japan conditioned the American culture being imposed on it. By the 1980s, historians like Paul Kennedy were arguing that Japan was actually reacquiring its status as a dominant power, threatening to displace American hegemony, although by that time Japan was itself being creolized by the America for which it was becoming a dominant automobile and technology supplier.

In a more recent film, The Gods Must Be Crazy, a Coke bottle falling from a passing airplane on a !Kung tribesman acquired new indigenous meanings through the ways in which the tribesman received, interpreted, and used it. Anthropologist David Howes suggests that this hybridization process is often invisible when "seen through the windows of the corporate boardroom situated on the twentieth floor of some glass office tower," from which perspective the world "may well look like 'a single place' and alterity [otherness] just another market opportunity." Comprehended from the perspective of the anthropologist who acts as a kind of "marginal native," however, and observed from a "position on the border (looking both ways) rather than in the boardroom (looking up and down)," it becomes apparent that the reception of culture can be as important as the production of culture in how it looks and what finally it means. Commodities that aim at secularizing culture can instead be sacralized by those who receive them-as happens famously with so-called cargo cults and as happened with the Coke bottle that dropped from the sky in The Gods Must Be Crazy. Even marketing slogans can be turned against themselves. When Pepsi translated its "universal" slogan "Come alive! You're in the Pepsi Generation" into Taiwanese, it became "Pepsi will bring your ancestors back from the dead," not exactly what Pepsi was looking for.

As Tyler Cowen has observed in his lively account of cultural consumption, culture itself is a moving target and apparent homogenization can conceal what in fact is mere mutability. To Cowen, all culture is fusion culture and no culture is pristinely indigenous, which certainly applies to consumer culture. Cowen thus shows that the "indigenous" music of Zaire, which is putatively under assault from a totalizing global music marketplace, is in reality itself a product (among other things) of the electric guitar, saxophone, trumpet, clarinet, and flute, "none of which are indigenous to Africa," but instead arrived in earlier decades along with Cuban and other foreign influences. Likewise, Trinidad's steel bands, among its greatest "indigenous" tourist attractions but vulnerable according to native defenders to the global marketing inroads of MTV, actually were themselves a twentieth-century by-product of the colonial petroleum market that led in the late 1930s to the replacement of truly indigenous bamboo instruments by steel drums-newly "traditional"-cut from oil barrels. Similarly, those storied Navajo designs and colors, above all the deep red serape patterns with their serrated zigzag lines that distinguish "indigenous" Navajo blankets from all others, actually reflected designs borrowed from "the ponchos and clothing of Spanish shepherds in Mexico, which in turn drew upon Moorish influences in Spain." In sum, as anthropologists such as David Howes, along with Constance Classen and Jean Comaroff, have observed, culture is "constructed by consumption" as well as by production. Consequently, through the "creativity of consumption," dominant culture homogenization can be countercolonized and turned back into cultural particularity. Constance Classen cites the surreal artist Leonora Carrington's charming and ironic jest about how "in the Mexico of the future one would find tins of Norwegian enchiladas from Japan and bottles of the 'rare old Indian drink called Coca Cola.' "

> Read more from CONSUMED

Reprinted from CONSUMED by Benjamin Barber.

Copyright 2007 by Benjamin Barber.

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