[4 November 2007]
Real culture happens at the margins. Or maybe it would be more accurate to say that innovation or renovation in culture happens at the margins; on the sidelines so to speak. While the whole world seems to have its eyes fixed on the circus’s center ring, the real show is happening outside.
Culture is renewed at the margins. Why? Because the center is too glaring—too determined by contemporary opinion, market forces, or constraining ideologies. Culture might be defined broadly as humanity’s efforts to represent life or classify it according to symbols and organized patterns of behavior and ceremony. Every cultural group, or society, has a material and intangible culture that is renewed by every generation. There is permanence and change; the permanence happens at the center, while the change occurs at the edges.
Take an example: the ancient Aztecs. Called the Mexicas by scholars, they were once a raffish group of wanderers from arid northern deserts who ended up in the lake-dappled Valley of Mexico after a multi-generational pilgrimage. For a long while they lived under the shadow of greater civilizations and city-states that dominated the region. Gradually, some innovations in their culture, such as their cult to warrior god Huitzilopochtli, allowed them to expand. Their well-known rituals of human sacrifice, as well as their ingenious adaptations to the high-altitude lake environment in which they founded their capital, Tenochtitlan, were both evidence of their cultural innovativeness.
It is doubtful the Mexicas would have been as successful if marginalization had not forced them to turn disadvantages into advantages. After their arrival in central Mexico, they were pushed out of more desirable land and forced to settle a marshy, insect-ridden territory in the middle of the valley. The Mexicas turned this curse into a boon. They created an amphibious city that Spanish historians later likened to a New World Venice, full of canals, aqueducts and bridges. They created ultra-fertile floating gardens, known as chinampas, on which to grow their food
The fact that they were looked down upon by the preexisting tribes who worshipped rain and fertility gods, encouraged the Mexicas’ devotion to their war god Huitzilopochtli. Imperialism was the eventual outgrowth of this adaptation, and eventually their city became a stereotypically arrogant and overextended imperial city-state, a pre-Columbian Rome. But originally the Mexicas’ bellicose religion was a genuinely innovative cultural response to stresses. Huitzilopochtli was the perfect God for a resentful clan with a bruised collective ego and no other claim to pride other than their prickliness.
As we know, the Mexicas or Aztecs were toppled by Hernán Cortés and a relatively small band of Spaniards in the early 16th Century. But to call them “Spaniards” is to miss the fact that these too, like the Aztecs themselves, were people mostly from the margins. Cortés was himself a man of the periphery, from Extremadura in Spain, one of the poorer areas of the Iberian peninsula. Extremadura was to become famous for pushing its most restive sons across the Atlantic to the Americas. Francisco Pizarro, the conqueror of Perú, was from the same region.
Mexico’s history continued to be a story of the margins displacing the center. In the 19th Century, the Mexican Republic, displaced by French intervention, would be restored in a movement led by an indigenous political leader, a Zapotec Indian named Benito Juárez. Some years afterward, a revolution advanced by northern desert rebels and Indians hungry for land redistribution would shake dictators out of the Mexico City presidential palace. The story is the same each time, the cycle repeats.
It’s popular to speculate about the end of history, the end of revolutions, the end of the avant-garde in art. These are all different ways to say the same thing: globalization, triumphalist capitalism, and high-tech progress preclude any momentous changes like those that shook the world in the past, and redefined history utterly.
Even a tragic event like the 9/11 terror attacks hasn’t seemed to change the nature of existence on Earth or the rules of US culture. If anything, it seems to have reinforced preexisting trends: US imperialism, the proliferation of fundamentalism and terrorism, a neurotic millennial scrambling for, and squandering of resources.
Nothing is changing, one might say. The rules seem set. But what if global culture is metamorphosing out of sight, somewhere where we wouldn’t know to look for it?
To take up the metaphor I used in the beginning, perhaps the relevant spectacle isn’t happening in the circus tent, but on the great clearing, or parking lot, outside. What is this “outside” in the present world? One would have to look for it away from the floodlights, spotlights, searchlights and stage-lights of the military, media, and entertainment worlds. Most likely the change is happening somewhere obscure, where there is still some space to breathe, and not all is awash in megabytes, cell phone jingles, and broadband-enabled information overload. Where?
Finding the Margins
In a famous 1932 essay, “The Argentine Writer and Tradition”, Jorge Luis Borges essentially argued that the great advantage of being a writer or thinker living on the geographical or cultural margins of the world is that the whole palate of global culture becomes yours to draw from by default, since no portion of it is given to you.
Borges understood that it was a great advantage to be distant from the center, because in reality it is the center, and not the periphery, that is provincial and narrow-minded. The resident of the center, the capital, never has any incentive to venture out beyond the city walls. Why should he? He has everything he needs within arm’s reach: markets, universities, concert halls, etc. New York, the current “center of the universe”, we all know, “has it all”.
As anyone who has grown up in a small town knows, the center beckons. The rural or small-town dweller, if he is at all a striving or curious type, will travel to the capital, the big city, if he wants to see the museums, read the books, find the jobs, etc.; only the center can offer all those things. The traveler from the margins may never become as urbane as a lifelong city-dweller might be; but he has the advantage of covering more ground, knowing all the vast territory around the center, and the methods for entering and exiting its bubble of knowledge and pretension.
Not only that, but being marginal creates a certain kind of voraciousness, akin to that of someone living on a small island or in a prison, who devours any news from the outside world. I live in Argentina, a country isolated geographically on the tail end of the South American continent, and I see this instinctual hunger at work even today. An average Argentine is conversant with what is happening in the United States in terms of politics and pop culture, but also knows something about what’s happening in the rest of Latin America, and also in England, Spain, France and Italy.
“Our patrimony is the universe,” writes Borges in his essay, speaking as an artist from the margins. But today, his statement needs qualification. One of the effects of globalization is that the person in the center, the average citizen of the United States or Europe or Japan, also has access to all the cultural production that might have once been termed marginal. In reality, that is one of the most overlooked consequences of globalization: the commoditization of peripheral cultural production (for example: different genres of “world music”, exotic dance troupes, obscure Asian comic book titles or meditation practices) and their increasing mainstream status in the center, which is not really monolithic anymore but more like a great bazaar in which all the peripheral productions compete for attention. And within “marginal” countries, significant segments of the population (among the wealthy) live as hyper-connected as any I-pod, cell-phone, YouTube-posting teenager in the center might.
Which leads back to the question, Who are the Aztecs of today, banished to a marshy swamp, sidelined by history, cast out, unfortunate, but destined to reinvent the very civilization that rejected them? Probably the unconnected, the different, the unequal (these terms were developed by Mexican-Argentine anthropologist Néstor García Canclini); the protagonists of tomorrow are people who are off-line, somehow off the grid, unsophisticated or simply unimpressed by the general spectacle of information-overload and conspicuous consumption.
Wherever a broadband or fiber-optic cable doesn’t slither, that is the margin. Wherever a screen isn’t broadcasting some celebrity idol, that is the margin. Wherever information isn’t cascading, that is the margin. Wherever craft triumphs over industry, silence over babble, meaning over access, that is the margin. That is where culture is happening, outside the wi-fi zone.
This isn’t meant to vilify technology. The Internet and computers are propagators of great possibilities and opportunities. And it’s important to remember the advice Borges gave for the person operating on the margins: he possesses the freedom to travel regularly to the center and appropriate what he needs there, without being beguiled into believing that only the center exists. This is the fallacy that undermines residents of big metropolises, great empires, and powerful networks: that the margins don’t matter. They do matter, and history shows they’ll eventually take back the center. The difference is that today the margins are not found in a distant place, they exist everywhere, which is a great advantage to those who would like to slip in and out of them.
Photo from Moomin Light blog