Jean-Paul Baillargeon, editor - The Handing Down of Culture, Smaller Societies and Globalization


Changing Contexts of Culture:
Implications for Canada

John Meisel*

The known European culture harbours within it another unknown culture made up of little nations with peculiar languages, such as the culture of the Poles, the Czechs, the Catalans and the Danes. People suppose that the little countries necessarily imitate the big ones, but that is an illusion. In fact they’re quite different. A little guy’s outlook is different from a big man’s. The Europe made up of little countries is another Europe (Kundera, 1985).

The question of Canadian identity, so far as it affects the creative imagination, is not a “Canadian” question at all, but a regional question (Frye, 1971).

When, in a hundred years, scholars identify the principal legacies the previous century bequeathed to the present one, their list will inevitably include globalization, the information revolution, the decline of the state and the rise of transnational organizations, massive human migrations, the shift in the demographic equation of the West towards an aging population, the hegemony of marketeering and neo-liberal ideology, and genetic engineering. Of these seven factors causing the stunning revolutionary character of our times, only the last, genetic engineering, has so far had little impact on culture. Ideally, an exploration of “The Handing Down of Culture, Smaller Societies and Globalization” should, therefore, trace and map the effects on these themes of the first six variables just listed. This, alas, is much too lengthy and complex a task for a single paper.

Part of the complexity is caused by the ambivalence and multi-dimensionality surrounding each of the factors. In some eyes, one or another of them is seen as a welcome element; in others they are deemed to be undesirable. The dispassionate analyst must seek to steer a course somewhere between demonization and idolatry, between exaggerating their effects on culture and underestimating them.

Likewise, it is necessary to confront the obvious but all too frequently overlooked or neglected fact that culture is not homogeneous. The consequences of globalization, for instance — and the meaning of this term also requires refinement — are vastly different for television than for spinning ballads in a café, to the accompaniment of a balalaika. Furthermore, the decline of the national1 state reduces the power of governments to foster a “national” culture but at the same time the accompanying épanouissement of the lower levels of government — provinces and municipalities — provides incentives for grass roots artistic initiatives. And the effects of the arrival of significant numbers of citizens whose language, religion, and traditions differ markedly from those of the already established population are, in general, likely to be more profound with respect to the performing arts — dance, song, opera, drama — than with computer generated art. Similarly, demographic change affects attendance at rock concerts differently than it touches the popularity of opera or chamber music.

Researchers seeking to trace how culture, and its transmission, are affected by socio-political and economic change thus cannot include the variable “culture” without disaggregating it into more restricted, more homogeneous, more clearly defined components. This requirement of precision nevertheless also poses problems. Cultural phenomena do share many common features and it is simply too cumbersome and time consuming to discriminate, every time statements are made about them, between the numerous subspecies. Common sense must reign, but very often the convenience of generalization invites us to overlook critical differences between individual cases. To avoid the blurring of reality which may follow, it is desirable that the researchers in the cultural domain tackle broad questions about the causes and consequences of cultural activity not only sui generis but also with reference to specific and well defined cultural sectors and cultural manifestation.

Chapter 2, continued >


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