Blog | October 2010

Emphatic beginnings: from culture contact to creolization

by Robin Cohen


Following the publication of Jeremy Rifkin’s The Empathic Civilization: The Race to Global Consciousness in a World in Crisis (Tarcher/Penguin 2010), Steve Vertovec’s blog [provide link] on this site provides an excellent entry into contemporary debates on how we can foster empathy. I would like to add that we need a little more on showing how we got to where we are now...

Studies of “culture contact” can provide insights into how empathy develops. Sometimes strangers are greeted as friends or even gods, sometimes they are treated as frightening enemies who have to be driven away or exterminated. Characteristically, wild stories about other cultures and peoples pre-circulate actual contact. In the eighteenth century, coastal Chinese were said to believe that Europeans were genetically prone to constipation; this explained their corpulence. Without voluminous supplies of rhubarb to purge their bodies, so the rumours went, Europeans would swell up and explode.

However, the human propensity for curiosity and mimicry allowed many societies to overcome their apprehension of strangers. In Dancing with Strangers the Australian writer, Inga Clendinnen, provides one telling example of culture contact. An English ship, The Beagle, entered the bay in Tierra del Fuego in 1832. On board was the young naturalist, Charles Darwin, who had absorbed the myth of the ferociously savage Fuegians. “I could not have believed”, wrote Darwin, “how wide was the difference between savage and civilized man … the expressions of their countenances [were] distrustful, surprised and startled”. Not for long. Unintelligible outcries were followed by competitive face pulling, singing and dancing. This was initiated by the British party, but the astonished Fuegians soon joined in, imitating the waltz. By the evening, Darwin tells us, “we parted very good friends; which I think was fortunate, for the dancing and ‘sky-larking’ had occasionally bordered on a trial of strength.”

How are we to understand this interaction? Certainly, attitudes, habits and dispositions had not altered fundamentally. There still remained an enormous gulf between the parties concerned. They shouted at each other, gesticulated, shared food, thumped backs, pinched skins, combed hair, sang and danced, dressed up and cavorted about. One sailor stripped and painted his penis with charcoal as a demonstration of his friendly intentions. Despite the undoubted gusto shown, these displays remained rather superficial attempts to communicate and interrelate. Of course, as many tourists in far-off places will testify, you can get by with signs and signals. Gulping sounds should bring you some water, pointing to the mouth while obviously masticating should prompt some food, while yawning, snoring and leaning on folded hands should produce a bed or a hammock. However, the desired result probably arises less from the visitors’ gestures than from the reasonable inferences made by the locals that long-distance travellers are likely to be thirsty, hungry or tired.

While similar interactions sufficed for a few purposes, a deeper relationship was greatly impeded by the lack of a common spoken language. Human ingenuity soon surmounted this difficulty with the creation of pidgins and creole languages. There is a good deal of controversy about the differences between them. In his delightful intellectual autobiography, Bastard Tongues, Derek Bickerton argues that pidgins are spoken slowly. They have no consistent structure and grammatical rules. They have a very limited and changing vocabulary. They are often spoken by adults. The parent languages are retained. By contrast, creoles are as structured as any human language; they are nearly always developed by children, not adults. They have a large and growing vocabulary that can convey a full range of emotional sensibilities, reasoning and abstract thought. They become mother tongues, at the expense of the parent languages, which diminish or disappear. Surprisingly, in their underlying structures, the roughly 86 creole languages all over the world seem to resemble one another. This suggests some hard-wired human propensity to construct language in general.

Using language formation as an example and a master metaphor, the idea of creolization has been extended to examine the sharing, mixing, morphing and invention of many aspects of popular culture – including religion, music, food, art and material culture. When creolization occurs, participants select particular elements from incoming or inherited cultures, endow these with meanings unlike those they possessed in the original cultures and then create new varieties in a new setting that supersede the prior forms.

Creolized peoples are usefully counterpoised to those claiming primordial status for their religions, tribes, clans, ethnicities, languages and national identities. In a global era, many people slip and slide between categories, reassemble old elements in new settings, return to root cultures from time to time and finally, reconcile indigeneity and exoticism by transcending both of them. If this is indeed a deepening and more pervasive trajectory, we need to recast much traditional social and political theory concerning race and ethnic relations, multiculturalism, community, nation-state formation and the like – for we can no longer assume the stability and continuing force of the ethnic segments that supposedly make up nation-states. To notice the increasing incidence and manifestations of creolization is also to accept that humankind is refashioning the basic building blocks of organized cultures and societies in a fundamental and wide-ranging way.


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