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.' "

While the consumer market may then be inclined to branding and homogenization, its interaction with the domains it brands and dominates can also produce new forms of diversity. Seemingly diminished local cultures may actually reappear inside the dominant culture in ways that pluralize it. The rebranded culture re-rebrands the original brand in turn. In investing itself in every sector, commerce finds itself at least partially decommercialized by the sectors it invades. Religion as televangelism is commodified, but commodification is compelled to serve quasi-spiritual ends and its radical commitment to materialist secularism is compromised. Hollywood had dumbed down the customers it entertains, but the customers have caused Hollywood to smarten up by supporting efforts at independent filmmaking that transgress the very conventions Hollywood helped contrive (see "Reel Change" in chapter 8).

What starts out as one-way homogenization often becomes the two-way street of hybridization in ways that can advantage diversity. If as noted above the ubiquitous Nike logo is being stitched into the yarmulkes of hip kids in New York City, yarmulke-wearing rockers in Jerusalem are using their own rebranded hip music to win religious converts. Take, for example, the popular ultraorthodox Jewish singer Gad Elbaz, a twenty-something self-styled Sephardic "Hasid Rocker," who is a "world-class hunk" and "Israel's first Haredi heartthrob" from a Hasidic background. Studying Torah four hours a day, and happily married, Elbaz employs his "balladeer's voice, hip two-day beard, and pious lyrics [as] a way to preserve Old World traditions in the age of Britney Spears." "He gave me the power to make you dance," Elbaz sings in "Tonight Is the Night," "Open your hearts, disengage from all. Believe in yourself, believe you are mighty." Elbaz's style is a true example of creolization, drawing on "Arab rhythms, hip-hop beats, the harmonies of the Backstreet Boys and the ballads of Whitney Houston and Celine Dion," yet marketed with all of the pop hype of a teenie-bopping gang banger.

Better known and more widespread than Hasidic rock is Christian rock, which has developed a broad and profitable Christian counterculture through a rock hardcore (self-advertised "Christcore") Christian gospel hybrid that has been enormously successful. Christian rock bands with names like Stryper, Bride, Petra, and Guardian offer every variety of music, "anything from Metal to Punk to Hardcore (Christcore) to Alternative Rock" according to www.Christianrocklyrics.com. Wedding heartthrob pop stars with pop-cultural styles that include (as the Christian rock band Visual Cliff boasts) "a sonic mix of rock, metal & heavy fusion," and Christian lyrics, often taken directly from scripture, these bands lure cool kids from the cool marketplace to what the secular media often portrays as a square religious counterculture but is in fact a hip Christian subculture. From magazines like Contemporary Christian Music (CCM), 7 Ball Magazine, and Heaven's Metal to websites like www.Christianmusic.com and www .Christianrock.net, young people in search of a kind of hot religious solace that does not ask them to surrender completely their marketplace cool can find songs like "The Wait Is Over" (number one Christian song of 2005) by the group Disciple, sharing the good news (it takes from 2 Pet. 3:2-12) that "It's our time, the wait is over."

Like oppositional religion, oppositional politics borrowing from the dominant culture has also invoked the power of rock music. In the 2002 Kenyan election, the opposition featured a rap song that mixed English and Luo (one of many local languages) in which the Luo term bwogo ("scare") was sung by a couple of twenty-somethings bent on proving they were unshakable ("unbwogable") in their political commitment to democracy-to a new regime to replace Daniel arap Moi's corrupt government.16 Pop opera composer superstar Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber has been known to turn his skills to song writing for the Conservative Party in England. And, also in England, a more virulent but equally effective oppositional borrowing of rock for political recruiting purposes among the young has been a tactic of skinheads and neo-Nazis. The relationship between British skinheads and German neo-Naziis was forged in music in the 1970s and 1980s by Stuart Donaldson (Ian Stuart) and other market-savvy British ultrarightists. Bands such as Skrewdriver and Skullhead in England, and Böhse Onkelz (Evil Uncles) and Endstufe (Final Steps) in Germany, along with marginal groups that explicitly borrowed their names from the German Wehrmacht such as Stuka (the World War II divebomber) and Sturmwehr (storm troop), drew young people into ultraright movements in England and Germany without pushing them out of pop culture, smart tactics directed toward malicious political ends.

As proof of the countercultural (and in this case antidemocratic) power of rock music cool, the German social historian Klaus Farin recalls that a "third-rate amateur rock band" with neo-Nazi proclivities called Storkraft was vaulted into the public eye in the 1980s because "practically every 14-year old in the country had to get an album by this 'ultra-hard' band if he didn't want to be totally uncool." This was a kind of dialectical antimarketing that put successful marketing practices to work by transferring the abstract "cool" that comes with heavily marketed mainstream rock music back to a specific political commodity that was anything but cool. The music said mainstream youth market, but the lyrics said down with the mainstream. If marketing could make cold commodities hot by associating them with faux sentiments, faux sentiments could make perverse politics cool. Böhse Onkelz's first album featured a song called "Stolz" ("Pride") that joined English skinhead culture to German ultranationalism: "One of many with a shaved head, / You don't hang back because you have no fear, / Shermans, Braces, Boots and Jeans, / German flag, because you're proud."18 A later cut called "Türken raus!" ("Turks Out!" copying the Nazi slogan "Juden raus!" [Jews Out!] of the 1930s) by the same band joined neo-Nazism to antiforeign prejudices of the kind that have gained wide traction more recently in Europe-as was evident in the vote against the new European constitution in France and in Holland in 2005, for example. This kind of crude creolization, for all its vicious intent, suggests the possibilities of the countercultural uses of pop culture inside Western secular materialism.

Resisters on the outside utilize creolization strategies as well. Even the most aggressive brands such as Coca-Cola and McDonald's have undergone hybridization in the global marketplace as a result of anti-Western radicals hoping to use Western brands to undo Western hegemony. Mecca-Cola, a French-Islamic knockoff of Coke, has made a significant mark on the beverage market primarily in France and Islamic North Africa, while fast tandoori shops in London rival McDonald's in the Indian and Pakistani communities there.19 "We can compete with the West and do colas and fast food without buying into American branding" seems to be the boast of those who manufacture hybrids such as the new Islamic Barbie doll ("Razanne," meaning "modest" in Arabic).

Yet these examples also suggest the limits of hybridization as a counterbranding tactic. In Asia, advocates of creolization will see in the "K-pop" (Korean pop) superstar "Rain" (Ji-Hoon Jung) an instance of a local talent attaching himself to but simultaneously indigenizing global music culture. Yet by the time this "Korean Justin Timberlake" and "Korean Usher" finished his adaptation to what he himself called the United States's "dominant music market" and brought his act to the Hollywood Bowl and Madison Square Garden in 2005/2006, the real question was whether Rain was really an indigenous Korean figure or one more assimilated global (read Western) rocker wearing local clothes.20 Koreans insist he is part of-the personification of-"hallyu," Korea's campaign to provide an alternative regional brand for world pop-cultural products. However, his collaboration with American rap producer P. Diddy raises the question of whether he can preserve his Asian character or will simply become another of many Asian stars who have failed on the way to trying to conquer the American market. The same question can be asked of Indian Idol, the Asian television version of American Idol, which may posture as a creolization but seems little more than a crude knockoff.

Similar questions can be asked of the many attempts that have been made to glocalize and indigenize fast-food, cola, and coffeehouse companies, and thus to creolize the products that have defined McWorld. The case for creolization has often confounded specific products like burgers and fries, which can be customized and localized, with the essence that defines the products, which cannot. The fast-food brand is not about burgers and fries, it is about speed and consumerist atomization of what were once slow-food cultures. Fast food's toxic cultural impact comes from its speed-the fact that it is eaten on the run, corrupting eat-at-home family gatherings and long sit-down restaurant meals. It makes the social breaking of bread into what is in fact little more than a fuel pit stop for busy capitalist shoppers, whether what is being consumed is a burger, a taco, a tandoori chicken wing, or sushi to go. Fast tandoori avoids the McDonald's label but imbibes and spreads the McDonald's philosophy. Mecca-Cola may creolize Coke, but the Coca-Cola Company's aspirations are imperial and global and their intent is to undermine any indigenous culture that stands in the way of the spread of its product, and Mecca-Cola probably advances this agenda. Thus, in its 1992 corporate report, the Coca-Cola Company noted that Indian tea culture stands in the way of Coke's spread in India and must be treated accordingly.21 Faux colas presumably undermine tea culture as effectively as the "real thing" manages to do.

A striking example of how a creolized brand can actually contribute to the cultural damage done by a dominant original it is trying to resist can be seen in the Starbucks-like Barista Coffee chain in India. By the end of 2004, Starbucks had opened 8,000 cafés worldwide, with more than 100 in China. It sees a potential of 30,000 cafés worldwide, with up to 5,000 in India alone over the next five years. The Barista chain, with over 130 cafés already operating in India (as of November 2004) can, on the one hand, presumably be deemed a competing local, capable of staving off the Starbucks invasion. On the other hand, Barista's cafés clearly mimic the ambiance and operating philosophy of Starbucks. They target young and well-heeled Indians and offer them, in the spirit of Starbucks, a "home away from home."22 Whether or not Barista holds off Starbucks, Indian tea culture and the distinctiveness of its cultural rituals are unlikely to be enhanced by the spread of Starbucks-style coffeehouses, whatever their national provenance. With Starbucks or with Barista, Mumbai will become more rather than less like San Francisco or Berlin (where the Café Einstein coffeehouse chain is Starbucks's local rival).

It is this logic that explains why Korean pop star Rain may creolize American pop music without preventing P. Diddy from Americanizing Korean "hallyu." Witness the case (cited in chapter 5) of McDonald's buying the Gallic comic-book figure Asterix, which has not really Frenchified the Big Mac but has rather concealed it inside a Gallic horse of indigenous comic-book mythology. Then there is the proposed mall projected as a portal to the famed carved stone terraces of the Borobudur Buddhist temple in central Java-the largest such temple in the world and a UNESCO World Heritage site. There, a local governor proposed a mall to be named "Java World"-a kind of Buddhist Disney World that sews a commercial skin onto a religious body. Opponents ignored claims that it would honor religion, understanding it to be a stalking horse for Western-style commercialism rather than a charming exemplar of hybridization.

Such examples point to the greatest deficiency of the creolization argument: it simply ignores the relative power of the clashing cultures. Anthropologists and diversity-inclined apologists for capitalist marketing make the age-old laissez-faire assumption about "free exchange" within the mythic frame of prefect market competition where two equally free and equally potent interacting agents sit down and make a deal. We sell you our global market commodities and universal brands, you assimilate, transform, and creolize them, thereby generating new cultures of diversity that continue to reflect indigenous or fusion identities. Deal. You look more like us, we look more like you, and we both end up looking like someone else. Deal. You commercialize us, we decommercialize you. Deal. Yet once the relative economic and cultural power of the intersecting civilizations or in-country subcultures is factored in, the felicitous reciprocity of cultural hybridization is trumped by the infelicitous preeminence of the dominant culture. Indigenous film industries in Mexico, India, and Hong Kong may still be flourishing, and critically acclaimed "independent" films (even when studio produced) are grabbing attention, but the percentage of world screens devoted to American-made product, and the percentage of tickets sold within the United States to comic-book blockbusters that overshadow quality films, continues to grow in ways that make it hard to believe that Hollywood's global muscle is really good for cultural diversity within America or abroad.

Even those who see in Western consumerist materialism a deep affront to their own values and culture have failed the test of resistance, whether by creolization or other methods. Malaysian commentator Farish Noor writes that "Malaysia's Muslim youth, like youth the world over, are both helplessly mesmerized by the charm of global consumerism as well as woefully inadequate to put up any resistance to it whatsoever." Noor remarks that "While the Islamic elite and intelligentsia ponder the weighty questions of Islamic banking and Islamic education . . . , they seem to have abandoned the site of popular cultural discourse and have provided no alternative cultural paradigms whatsoever," making it difficult for youth to "break away from this state of dependency upon Western consumerist culture . . . by themselves." Noor depicts local attempts at preserving Malay culture against Western inroads as "cosmetic," things like decorating a global skyscraper with a traditional Malay facade with the "obligatory Moorish dome and shades of 'Islamic' green paint." But as Noor sees the reality: "Against the mighty weight of MTV and MacDonald's [sic], the Islamic elite have only been able to produce endless diatribes about the evils of Western culture and lifestyle without offering something else in its place."

Noor's insights suggest that when anthropologists and apologists for the dominant culture start talking about market hybridization, one may want to ponder the sorts of "free exchanges" negotiated by pythons and hares. "Oh, yes," exclaim the preening relatives of the hare, "it may seem that our cousin has been consumed, but regard the distended snake, its shape ever so much more like a hare's than a python's. Truth is, the hare has changed the snake as much as the snake has changed the hare!" But wait a week or two, as the python's relatives will learn, and the hare will have vanished and the serpent, happily hissing about the virtues of hybridization as he goes, will slither on in search of new prey.

Cultural exchange may be a form of Schumpeter's "creative destruction," but over time dialectic is trumped by power, and destruction merely destroys, leaving behind an ever more homogenized, monocultural marketplace. Creolization does not create very much: it may sometimes slow the pace of homogenization, but it cannot arrest it altogether. For every Christian rocker who thinks she can use pop music to displace pop culture's secularism with religion conversions, there is a Christian skeptic who worries (with considerable reason) that being cool will always mean being "flippant, irreverent, quick with biting one-liners that exalt self and embarrass others"; and that far from being designed by hip Christians hoping to strengthen spiritual resolve, "Christian rock was the invention of big, profit-motivated record companies who were looking for a way of selling more rock music. By offering a Christianized form, they sold it to children whose parents would otherwise object."25 It may seem an odd source to cite in looking for support of the arguments about the real character of liberty offered above, but the insight from The Moorings website that the devil "and his spokesmen in the media promise you freedom, but in truth they want to put you in bondage" rings of truth; as does the claim that "the entertainment industry wants to make you a mindless, helpless, addicted consumer of their products." Some Christian resisters skeptical of consumer culture seem to know that creolization may involve what, borrowing their language, is a devil's bargain at best. This is an insight secular resisters should take seriously.

Reprinted from CONSUMED by Benjamin Barber.

Copyright © 2007 by Benjamin Barber.

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