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Bewildering Stories

The Critics’ Corner

Speaking Globally

with John Stocks and Don Webb

[Don W.] If you look up “globalspeak” or “global speak” on the Net, you’ll find a lot of information that may be interesting. At Bewildering Stories, the term has a meaning all its own. It implies adopting a style — mainly in terms of vocabulary — that makes writing accessible to readers all over the world.

As Managing Editor, I often have to remind contributors that most acronyms need to be expanded to be understood. Likewise, I advise against making cultural references — such as to beverages or to fast-food franchises — that obviously mean something to the author but may mean nothing to someone in another town, let alone to someone on the other side of the world.

Does that preclude local color? Quite the contrary. I recall fondly Deep Bora’s account of an Indian festival, “Uruka in Assam.” It’s a personal account of a tradition familiar to the author and to the people in his locality — but to who else? Deep Bora brings Assam to the world, even though and especially because it is a place many may never have heard of before. That is “globalspeak” at its best.

In this issue, Afzal Woolla contributes a moralistic poem, “Brother, Can You Spare Some Change?” It contrasts the patience counseled in the name of high-flown abstractions such as “Freedom and Democracy” and “Capitalism with a Conscience” with the immediacy of the grinding poverty experienced by the “parched and thirsty.”

Obviously, the poem raises questions, for example:

[John S.] Interesting piece on cultural hegemony here.

For me the more local colour the better. From my perspective, Afzal’s piece says more about American cultural hegemony than it does about the state of play in South Africa, from the play, presumably, on the song "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime” through to “capitalism with a conscience.”

I have nothing against American cultural hegemony; it’s like Mount Everest: it is big and it is there, so it should not be ignored. But I always savor exposure to subtle cultural nuances.

Likewise, I advise against making cultural references — such as to beverages or to fast-food franchises — that obviously mean something to the author but may mean nothing to someone in another town, let alone to someone on the other side of the world.

Off to Manchester tomorrow where a bread roll or cake is a “Barm cake.” In Sheffield it’s a “Butty.” Check out the cultural synergy here: The_Greasy_Chip_Butty_Song in Georgian Bath/ Barth. Where my wife is from, it is a roll.

[Don] Thanks, John, for the link to Deirdré Straughan’s article “Cultural Hegemony: Who’s Dominating Whom?” It’s a very lively report from a reporter “on the ground” and “in country.” I notice it gives rise to a debate that generates more heat than light. But that’s no surprise: several different topics are being debated all at once, and it is difficult to sort them out.

For example: Straughan says:

India is a great example of a society which needs no special measures to preserve its traditional culture — unlike, say, France (said she mischievously).

The “mischievous” snide aside about France is actually a “buried lead” pointing to an “elephant in the room” concerning cultural identity.

There is nothing natural about modern nation states; they are — all of them — completely artificial constructs and historical accidents. That they exist at all is a tribute to politicians’ beavering about, the world over, to form local defense and trade associations. The world political map actually represents entities jury-rigged with sociological duct tape combined with smoke, mirrors and hype.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau was right: humanity’s natural political unit is not the nation but the city-state. The idea has been inadvertently echoed in recent times by Jane Jacobs’ observation that national economies are an illusion; it makes more sense to talk about the economies of what she calls “vital city areas.”

But since Deirdré Straughan wants to pick on France, let it be an example of the world. It’s the only country I know of whose citizens refer to it as a geometrical figure: the hexagon. The idea is that France has a natural, logical configuration. Who better than the French to summon mathematics to the flag of nationalism? But logical it ain’t.

The idea of France emerged in the 12th century. And who knows now what it meant at the time? Since then, the nation has been slowly patched together — mostly by nobles’ marriages — out of a collection of feudal provinces. In the 17th century, perhaps one-fourth of the population spoke “French.” The rest spoke mutually unintelligible dialects or even entirely different languages. What’s an absolute monarch to do when faced with such a lack of absolutes? Simple: invoke cultural hegemony!

The Académie Française — famous as the “guardian of the French language” — was conceived to put culture in the service of politics and keep the country from falling apart. It functioned in parallel with centralization in Paris. Finally, with Napoleon, one could say, “If it doesn’t happen in Paris, it doesn’t happen.” Give the French credit for working hard to figure out whether “French” actually means anything.

The same sort of thing has happened all over the world: in China, Germany, India, Italy, Russia — you name it. Belgium and Switzerland? I rest my case. And in the United Kingdom, we find that if you ask for a “butty” — rather than a “barm cake” — in Manchester, people will look at you funny. And a Londoner or Cornishman? Forget it; they’ll want the conversation translated in streaming subtitles.

What are we to make of Afzal Moolla’s poem, then? Is South Africa being culturally hegemonized by America? I doubt it. Rather, Afzal is mounting a critique of language, of slogans that only appear to mean something. What is the reality “on the ground,” “in country”? The empty pockets of the hungry. One does not need language to understand it, but one does need language to do something about it.

Copyright © 2012 by Bewildering Stories

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