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


Entering the Tribal and Acoustic World. Globally1

Michael S. Cross*

This colloquium speaks of the “handing down of culture” and the place of smaller societies in an era of globalization. These are issues of crucial importance for English-speaking Canadians, even if much of Canadian public policy on culture has been either unsuccessful or misdirected. Fortunately, in forgotten corners, there are places where people exchange ideas and images, where newly reborn “tribes” chant and listen. It is now a truism that globalization has homogenized cultures and undermined the ability of nation states to maintain distinctive cultural identities. Just as surely, though, emerging media have helped to decentralize aspects of culture. National culture is absorbed into a commercialized global culture as international business concerns become hegemonic; yet the future may lie with those truly popular cultures which flourish, like weeds, at the edge of our highly cultivated global culture. As the Mexican scholar, Gustavo de Castillo Vera, commented, “... within a “solar system of cultures,” those cultures that survive are those relegated to the periphery” (Gustavo de Castillo Vera, 1992: 267).

Certainly, the paradoxes are many. A recent address by the British historian Eric Hobsbawm alludes to some of them. “Market sovereignty is not a complement to liberal democracy”; he contends, “it is an alternative to it. Indeed, it is an alternative to any kind of politics, as it denies the need for political decisions, which are precisely the decisions about common or group interests as distinct from the sum of choices, rational or otherwise, of individuals pursuing private preferences.” Yet, he points out, the media — the true sceptres of market sovereignty — mitigate the force of the market. In pursuit of their own financial choices, the media amplify public opinion, allow public discontent to wash over politicians (Hobsbawm, 2001).

South Africans struggled for decades to throw off a suffocating foreign rule. They now can enjoy a steady diet of foreign television programmes even on the public SABC, a broadcaster which one critic has described as “hypercommercialized” (Schechter, 2000). The new culture minister of Québec raised a storm by suggesting that Ontario did not have a distinctive culture in the same sense as Québec did. Angry Ontarians responded by pointing to the cultural riches of Toronto, such as the long-run musicals imported from Britain and the United States and the art treasures purchased from Europe.

Marshall McLuhan, the Canadian communications philosopher, proclaimed in 1956 that electronic media were creating an environment in which everyone could access information, and each other, simultaneously. The world was now replicating the experience of a village where everyone knew of every development. “With the return of simultaneity we enter the tribal and acoustic world once more. Globally” (McLuhan, 1964). It is an insight of central importance, but we can no longer afford to contemplate the changes wrought by technology with the same lofty detachment as McLuhan. The results of the processes are more ambiguous than he imagined. “Global” is a term which has been appropriated to justify and glorify the market sovereignty that so troubles Eric Hobsbawm. The acoustic world intersects with a new genre of visual/literary/acoustic environment on the Internet. There is a global village, most evident in the interconnected millions using chat programmes on their computers. Yet the tribes in our simultaneous environment are often at war with each other. We seem to have carried the worst aspects of the mechanical age with us into the electronic, acoustic age.

English-Canadians find themselves at all of the crossroads at once. An earlier form of market sovereignty, or perhaps economic colonialism, tied Canada closely into the economy of the United States. Canadian industry has had levels of foreign ownership which are greater than those in any other developed country. The cultural sovereignty of the United States has been even more pronounced; more than 85 percent of sound recordings in the English-Canadian domestic market, 95 to 97 percent of film earnings and 75 to 80 percent of retail book sales are foreign, mostly American (Industry Canada, 1997; Thompson, 1992). Yet Canadians are also at the forefront of the new technologies of communication. They were the first people to embrace cable television distribution, they use the Internet more than anyone else except the Danes, they have adopted on-line merchandising and file swapping, legal and illegal. English-Canadians pioneered the exploration of new media, first Harold Adams Innis, then Marshall McLuhan and more recently Arthur Kroker and Derrick de Kerckhove (Innis, 1951; McLuhan, 1964; Kroker, 1984; de Kerckhove, 1995).

Chapter 4, continued >


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