In my previous post I described some of the benefits of participating in Adopted Cultural Practices (yoga, samba, salsa etc.), such as acting together with a group of people and feeling connected to them as a result. This is something that is widely accepted as important for health and wellbeing, and recreates for us a sense of some of the most primordial types of human community, such as the extended family, the tribe, the clan or the village. It is no surprise then that many people in post-industrial, individualistic societies, gravitate towards activities that offer this kind of embodied community. The obvious problem with this argument, however, is that there are plenty of group activities, well established in Europe and North America, which also bring people together outside work. Examples would be sports, music groups, all manner of clubs and societies, and most compellingly: churches. Why do people not simply join these rather than adopting a strange practice which is not historically part of the culture in which they are living?Continue reading
At the end of March 2020 there is only one topic of conversation in the UK: coronavirus. It is affecting every aspect of life, public and private, work and play, mental and physical. It has meant social isolation for most of us. For some, such as old people living alone, this can be extreme, for others it means being cooped up with family or a partner for weeks on end. Thank God then for the virtual world of social media, Skype and Zoom, where so many interactions now take place: virtual work meetings, chess games, music lessons and even dates. But to what extent can such contact replace getting together with other people physically? Is this something we can get used to? Can it help us stay put, even after the epidemic is over, helping to address the challenge of climate change by massively reducing unnecessary travel and thus carbon emissions?
The fascinating question arises why Adopted Cultural Practices like yoga, samba and salsa are so widespread and popular in contemporary Western societies. From Los Angeles to Athens we can find people who adore these activities and devote much of their leisure time to behaving like imagined people from a far away culture. I am going to argue that this is because the ACPs allow us to reclaim something which our societies are losing or destroying. What I am talking about is complex but I can boil it down to two terms: community, and active art. Contemporary Western societies tend to emphasise the individual and individual lifestyles and choices. They also tend to commodify artistic expression, so that it is something to passively consume alone, rather than something to actively do together. Before I go any further in explaining how Adopted Cultural Practices enable a sense of community and active art, we need to consider some relevant social models.
I think it would be useful, before I go any further, to name and describe some of the activities which I would count unequivocally as Adopted Cultural Practices. Of course, there are myriad examples of people ‘borrowing’ music, clothes or food from cultures in which they have not grown up. What I want to address is something rather more specific and a working definition which I have been using is this:
- Group activities involving music and/or movement
- Popular in the ‘West’
- Originating in ‘non-Western’ cultures
Each word is important here. For instance ‘group’. These are practices people generally do together, so this would include samba, but exclude playing the shakuhachi.Continue reading
There is a collection of activities which are very widespread in European and North American societies, which tell us a great deal about people’s interests, hopes, fears and attitudes. They provide huge benefits, and some risks, but are little studied and discussed by academics and the media. I have been calling them Adopted Cultural Practices, meaning activities which have their roots outside mainstream ‘Western’ cultures, but are widely practiced by Westerners. Examples would be yoga, salsa and capoeira. They can be viewed as hobbies or recreational activities, even sport. However, they differ from other such pastimes in a number of particular ways. For instance, they all combine several modes of expression or intention. Yoga is used for physical health benefits; to keep the body supple and strong, but it is also considered to be a form of meditation, a type of mental unwinding and cleansing. Salsa is a way of moving to rhythm, but also provides opportunities to interact with others, particularly people of the opposite sex. These facets are inherent aspects of the practices, rather than random byproducts. Compare this to going to a gym, or jogging, which are much more focused on a single goal. The skills involved in learning an Adopted Cultural Practice usually require expressive, physical and ludic (game-playing) engagement, they challenge the whole person, rather than just one aspect of our being.
Yesterday I was asked to do an interview with Radio Cymru about the 75th anniversary of the destruction of the German city of Dresden by British and American bombing. The event is iconic because of the intensity of the fire storm that sucked people into the inferno and deprived them of oxygen in their shelters, because of the internationally acknowledged beauty of the baroque city centre, and because of the questionable military value of the raids in the final months of the war. It was immediately weaponised by the Nazi propaganda machine which characterised it as “terror” and has been used with renewed vigour in recent years by the hard right to detract attention from German crimes by emphasising this massacre of Germans (25,000 died). Every year there are solemn ceremonies and peace vigils, but also a right wing protest, which is in turn countered by anti-fascists.
Today the UK leaves the EU. A momentous moment, an unprecedented event, a tragedy even. Sure. We like to think of countries and international organisations as stable and immutable, but of course they are not. Since the UK joined the EU another 20 odd countries have done so. Much of this happened because the Soviet Bloc broke up, which resulted in the creation, independence and reshaping of many countries including the land of my birth, Germany. The fact is, that if you take the long view, the world changes, alliances change, borders change, unions are formed. They grow, they shrink, like Boris’ hairdo, and sometimes they disappear altogether. Unfortunately, when this has happened in the past it was mostly as a result of wars involving untold bloodshed and suffering. What the European Union has achieved is that now we can have the map of Europe changing without anyone having to go to war over it. When the Eastern European countries joined; Poland, Hungary, Latvia and so on, it was not because the EU invaded them, but because they wanted to join and were admitted. Now Britain is leaving, and although it has been traumatic and is, in my opinion, like walking into self-imposed exile, there has been no bloodshed over it. No insurgency, no civil war, no repression. This is a sign that despite the disagreements, we have managed to behave in a civilised way, and that there has been real progress. It shows that the UK and the EU are both democratic bodies that can sort out even difficult issues by negotiation. We’re lucky, because there are places today where such disputes are fought out with cluster bombs, torture and drone strikes.
So, why did I, a German coming from England to Wales, feel the need to learn Welsh? I could easily have thought ‘well, I’ve already had to learn English — that will do’. I think there was a part of me that regarded it as just going through the same process of learning and integration as I had when I was dropped into an English primary school, like a goldfish into a tank of piranhas. Perhaps something deeper in me identified with the underdog. In Germany we kids had played ‘cowboys and Indians’, rather than ‘war’ as they did in England at the time. I always identified with the Indians: their interesting dress, their brave resistance against the odds, their incredible horsemanship and their closeness to nature. In Wales, I saw something intriguing and exotic in this strange language that had survived under the nose of the most powerful empire in History. Also, I made a connection between the Welsh and the Jews, as minorities that others had tried to obliterate, if not physically in the case of the Welsh, then at least culturally. As a German intent on being the opposite of a Nazi, it was obvious to me that I should take up their language, and their cause. I would say that the language is so central to Welsh culture, that it is their cause, certainly in Welsh speaking areas.
It is not just Germans who can be ambivalent about their background. Questions of identity are among the most vexing and widely debated of our time. One of the distinctions that could be drawn is between people who look to affirm their inherited identity, and those who are more interested in a fluid existence amongst multiple identities. A number of well-established dichotomies can be set alongside this; remainers and leavers, locals and cosmopolitans, somewheres and anywheres. I am not trying to put a value judgement on either side of these divides, since neither perspective has a monopoly on virtue or evil. When indigenous communities are bulldozed aside by a more numerous and ‘modern’ culture, I find myself on the side of the ‘locals’. When people are suspicious of anyone different and treat them unfairly, I side firmly with those who are mobile, whether by choice or by circumstance. Perhaps the mobile, cosmopolitan, hybrid people can be divided again into those who are happy as a composite of a number of cultures, and those who throw themselves wholeheartedly into a single culture that is not the one in which they grew up. But then the division is probably never that neat, and once you begin to consider it more carefully it begins to disintegrate.
I assume that the ambivalence about their German identity felt by the post-War generation is the reason they tend to be standoffish towards each other abroad. Not for us the delight of meeting a compatriot far from home, the immediate interest and enjoyment of shared language and culture which is typical of many other nationalities in such situations. We tend to avoid each other, to be rather cold and uninterested. We observe each other with a critical eye, are quick to judge and slow to praise. As in so many things to do with my divided identity, I am split on this. On the one hand I find it ridiculous, and on the other I am exactly the same way.