Wednesday, March 31, 2004

Star Struck (Nile Rodgers); Cultural Hybridity and Outsourcing

I was recently star struck when I was on a panel with the great Nile Rodgers. The session was organized by the Lafayette College chapter of Americans for Informed Democracy. There were four speakers, each given ten minutes to address the question of the effects of the “Americanization” of global culture. The first three were professors, with Nile Rodgers at the end.

Nile Rodgers was like the Timbaland of the 1980s – everything he touched turned platinum. He was first one of the members of the 1970s disco supergroup Chic (“Aw, freak out!” “Good Times” “Dance Dance Dance”), and one of the great pop record producers of all time. He produced (and sometimes wrote the lyrics, and played the guitar as well) the following: Sister Sledge, “We are Family” and “I'm Coming Out”; Madonna, “Like a Virgin”; David Bowie, “Let's Dance”; Duran Duran, “The Reflex,” and Diana Ross, “Upside Down.” In short, the man has lunch with Dr. Dre and stops for coffee with Sting. And I was on the same billing!

At the panel Nile (can I call him Nile?) talked about his experiences traveling abroad, and his ambivalence about his role in the American media machine. He was obviously quite proud of his work as a musician and producer, and even seemed proud of his involvement with movies like Coming to America (he did the soundtrack), despite the film's stereotypical image of Africa and Africans. And yet he was also painfully aware that Americanization might have some negative affects on local cultures throughout the world.

In the discussion of the spread of American fast food franchises in the Q&A later, Nile did make the really insightful point that in many ways those kinds of things can be fairly superficial. The real life of the culture can remain relatively unaffected; globalization is just a surface or a screen, beneath which local cultures remain intact. Ok, that is my own language -- but it was his point, and it was a good one.

My own presentation was very simple, basically an optimistic pro-hybridity account of liberalization in India and the cultural effects of globalization. Here is an excerpt from it:

A Mini-Lecture on Liberalization in India and Cultural Hybridity

For the most part, before the 1990s the Indian view of the west was rather negative. If you ended up going there, life would be lonely. You would be bereft of family (family is very important in Indian culture), and western morals were thought to be very corrupting. If you look at Hindi films from the 1960s, whenever an Indian goes abroad he (it was usually he) would find himself seduced by loose western women and ruined by booze... It was an either/or proposition: you were either Indian and traditional, or you were westernized and modern. All that has changed now. After 1990, the Indian central government started a policy of economic liberalization that allowed more foreign-made products to enter the Indian marketplace. With the advent of satellite television in the mid 1990s, the average person's exposure to things outside India changed overnight.

A whole bunch of changes have happened at once. The liberalization of the media, along with the (more recent) advent of the internet as well as cheap cellular phones with cheap international calling means that it's possible for many Indians to stay directly in touch with what is happening outside of India. So instead of a huge gulf dividing east and west, the west is seen as someplace that is more or less immediately accessible. Also, the old idea of “either/or” is finished – what is much more prevalent now is the image of hybridity – you can have India and America at the same time. You see this in the popular music, which is often quite westernized (without giving up a distinctly Indian flavor), as well as in literature, and the movies.

Unlike in the conventional model, the pattern of borrowing in hybridity can go both ways. Indeed, one could speak of a kind of "economy of cultural influences," which has liberalized alongside the "real" economies of nation-states. The U.S. would be a net exporter in such an economy, but this is not necessarily permanent... At any rate, Indian cultural artifacts borrow from the U.S., while America borrows back. With Hindi songs that are sampled by rap producers, for instance, you often find that after a couple of months, the sampled song is remixed and re-Indianized by Indian producers! An example of this is Jyoti's “Thora Resham Lagta Hai,” which was an Indian remix of the U.S. Hit by Truth Hurts, “Addictive,” which in turn sampled an old Lata Mangeshkar track.

In the recent outsourcing boom, which has created many high tech jobs in India, many Indians see the full fruition of an east-west merger fueled by technology (it is only possible because of high speed internet connections – that connect people 15,000 miles apart in real time), and of course economic globalization.
This trend has been good for India in many ways. Besides generating high-paying jobs, it has had the advantage of keeping a lot of India's high tech talent at home. Until recently, the best fate for a graduate of India's prestigious IIT colleges was a job in San Jose, California. Now it is quite possible to go to Bangalore and have access to exactly the same kinds of opportunities. This reduces the “brain drain,” which hampered India's development so much in the 1970s and 80s.

Many of these issues are circulating in the recent Hindi film Kal Ho Naa Ho (Tomorrow Might Happen), which came out in 2003. The film was entirely shot on location in New York, and features dozens of shots of the post 9/11 New York skyline, as well as several marqee street locations – like Times Square, Union Square, and Astor Place. It's part of a new trend of high-budget, high-production value films (very modern style), but in some ways it also sticks to some of the conventional tendencies of Hindi cinema (including serious melodrama).

The tone of the movie is extremely upbeat about life for Indians living abroad, and manages to do this while also being highly nationalistic (pro-Indian culture). In a way the dominant image of the film is not that Indians adapt to New York, though that is certainly part of what the film is trying to show. But more than that, the film seems to be suggesting that Indians have colonized New York...

[After this I showed the opening of Kal Ho Naa Ho, and then the crazy song/dance sequence “Pretty Woman”]

So you might be wondering, “whither the critique of capitalism?” My answer is, I increasingly find myself in agreement with Arjun Appadurai when he says that the different kinds of transnational flows (cultural, economic, technological) are disjunct from one another. So when we're talking about cultural influence in the mass-media, I'm prone to be somewhat optimistic – I see the acceleration of hybridity as a stimulus to creativity.

On the other hand, when it comes to international policy – the use of American military power in places like Iraq, or the U.S. role in Israel – my answer is quite different.

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