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Globalization isn't really flattening the world. Local cultures are still thriving.


New York Times


It's a widening realization, I think, that globalism, beyond banking, climate change and warfare, has always been a dubious concept, a misleading catchall for how the world supposedly works, to which culture, in its increasing complexity, gives the lie.

The integration of markets and the Internet have certainly brought billions of people into closer contact. Everybody has access to the same American movies and music now, and not just American, also Indian, Romanian, South African and Chinese. But far from succumbing to some devouring juggernaut, culture has only atomized lately as a consequence of the very same globalizing forces that purportedly threaten to homogenize everything.

Nationalism, regionalism and tribalism are all on the rise. Societies are splitting even as they share more common goods and attributes than ever before. Culture is increasingly an instrument to divide and differentiate communities. And the leveling pressures of globalization have at the same time provided more and more people with the technological resources to decide for themselves, culturally speaking, who they are and how they choose to be known, seen, distinguished from others.

Culture means many things in this context, but at heart it is a suite of traits we inherit and also choose to disavow or to stress. It consists in part of the arts. It is something made and consumed, in socially revealing ways. When Mats Nilsson, a Swedish product-design strategist for IKEA, not long ago said that he loves to browse for handmade baskets in Spain, bird cages in Portugal, brushes in Japan and hardware on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, he was creating his own cultural identity out of the bric-a-brac of consumer choices made available by the globalizing forces of economic integration. Bricolage, it's called. Anyone may now pick through the marketplace of global culture.

This may sound like the essence of globalization, but the fact that everybody from Yerevan to Brasilia, Jakarta to Jerusalem, knows songs by the Black Eyed Peas or wears New York Yankees caps doesn't mean that culture is the same everywhere.

The common denominator of popular culture - which these days encompasses so many things that you could even include all sorts of high culture - seems to have just intensified the need people now feel to distinguish themselves from it.

Today it's made and distributed in countless different ways, giving not just governments and institutions but nearly everyone with access to the Web the means to choose and shape his or her own culture, identity, tribal fidelities - and then spread this culture, via YouTube or whatever else, among allies (and enemies) everywhere, a democratizing process.

Culture (often unconsciously) identifies crucial ruptures, rifts, gaps and shifts in society. It is indispensable for our understanding of the mechanics of the world in this respect, pointing us toward those things around us that are unstable, changing, that shape how we live and how we treat one another. If we're alert to it, it helps reveal who we are to ourselves, often in ways we didn't realize in places we didn't necessarily think to look.

Shortly after I moved to Berlin from New York, for example, I noticed there were bookstores all over town. They were on nearly every other street in my neighborhood. There was one just below my bedroom window, next to the high-end pet-supply store, specializing in New Age and self-help literature, and there was another one, a biography bookstore, around the corner. Shakespeare & Company (Berlin's version) was beside the church square where the neighborhood children played when the weather was warm. And I began to stop into Marga Schoeller's bookshop at Savignyplatz, which has a nice English-language section, en route to the subway, where a large art bookstore sprawls below raised tracks.

Berliners looked nonplussed when I asked them to account for all the bookshops. Along with currywurst and nude saunas, bookstores have long been such a banal fact of life here, as they are across Germany, that only an outsider might bother to think their number was remarkable. The proliferation turned out to derive from a very conscious decision after the war to restore civilization in West Germany by supporting a kind of ecosystem of small publishers and small bookstores to which, in certain small towns, trucks that delivered books to the bookstores overnight also delivered drugs to the drugstores: drugs for the body, books for the mind, a metaphor of recovery.

This was more than just a system of distribution and sales; it was a cultural as well as economic affair. What was to me as a clueless foreigner an urban curiosity, noticeable just because it wasn't my usual experience - it was for me a cultural rift or rupture - ended up suggesting some larger truth about the country's history and ambition. Culture is something we propagate but also something naturally there, existing in and around us, which makes us who we are but which may rise to the level of our consciousness only when one of those ruptures or rifts appear - when some little psychic clash happens between it and our more or less unconscious sense of the everyday world.

Hollywood and Broadway, the major museums and art fairs and biennials and galleries, buildings designed by celebrity architects and the music business are all the traditional focus of big media, and they tell us a lot about ourselves. They constitute our cultural firmament, the constellation of our stars. But scientists say most of the universe is composed not of stars but of dark matter. It is the powerful but invisible force that exists everywhere and requires some leap of imagination on our part, some effort, to identify.

Most culture is dark matter.

Put another way, whether in Berlin or Gaza or New York City, there's a universe of life and death affairs beyond globalism. And culture is our window onto it.