Western Culture is an Ideological Fiction, and so are the Rest

by Bill Benzon

This essay argues that Western culture is an ideological fiction. There is no such thing as Western culture if by that you mean a coherent and internally unified cultural entity that started back in ancient Greece and the Jewish Levant, took hold in and flourished in Europe, from which it eventually set sail for the Americas and there took root, almost completely destroying the societies of native peoples and their cultures with them. That thing, whatever it is, is not a single entity, internally coherent and different from all other such entities. The idea that it is such an entity is an ideological fiction, as are the entities to which Western culture is often said to be opposed, Eastern culture, Oriental culture, African culture, non-Western culture, and the like. Ideological fictions, all of them.

Some Say African-American Music is Western

The notion of Western culture began to unravel for me I decided to write about the impact of African-American musical cultures on American music. That work forced me to think hard and long about just what we mean when we talk use such phrases as “X culture” where X can be “Western”, “American”, “French”, “European”, “Muslim”, “Japanese”, “Eastern”, and so forth. With this is mind, let’s use music as a test case and see where it leads.

It is clear that African-American music owes a substantial debt to Africa. It is also clear that African-American music has had a strong influence on American music in general. By applying a familiar syllogistic mechanism to those propositions one can see that American music must therefore be indebted to Africa. That it American music is in some measure African. So far so good.

Now let’s look at a passage from Music of the Common Tongue (1987) where Christopher Small (p. 4) asserts that

…the Afro-American tradition is the major music of the west in the twentieth century, of far greater significance than those remnants of the great European classical tradition that are to be heard today in the concert halls and opera houses of the industrial world, east and west.

Small will go on to argue that African-American music carries values which are at odds with the dehumanizing industrial cast of European and American society and that those values are good and important. More recently, and from a more conservative location in the political universe, Marsha Bayles has also claimed Afro-American music for the West (Hole in Our Soul, 1994 p.22):

I realize that a great many musicians and writers will reject the proposition that Afro-American music is an idiom of Western music, on the grounds that it is, root and branch, totally “black,” meaning African. This attitude is usually called “cultural nationalism,” but I prefer to call it “cultural separatism,” because, instead of affirming Afro-American music by sharing it with the world, it takes a jealously proprietary stance.

Bayles will go on to argue that the virtues which African-American music has brought to the world are being threatened by decadence which began at the turn of the 20th century and has become frightfully pervasive in our own time. Both recognize that African-American music is quite different from classical music and European folk musics in its devices and emotional tenor. But neither of them sees this as a reason for thinking the music is not Western.

I Say It’s Not

I find this situation most curious. For it seems to me that if Western music is defined in such a way that it is home to both Ludwig van Beethoven (19th C. European classical) and Charlie Parker (African-American, bebop jazz), to J. S. Bach (18th C. European classical) and Bessie Smith (African-American, blues), then it is not entirely clear to me whether or not Western music should not also encompass the sitar playing of Ravi Shankar (North Indian classical) and the singing of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (Sufi devotional song from Pakistan) as well. And if we admit them into the fold, can any music reasonably be excluded? But what purpose (beyond that old devil, cultural imperialism) could possibly be served by a conceptual scheme which sees much, perhaps most, possibly even all, of the world's music as Western?

We need to think about just what is going on when we make such classifications. To that end, let’s step back a minute and imagine that we are Martian ethnomusicologists. Our electronic devices have detected music from all the Earth’s cultures but somehow have failed to pick up any other information. So, we have recordings of a great deal of music and no information whatsoever about where exactly that music came from or whatever else is going on there. We know the beings producing this music must have some kind of culture, but the music itself is all we know about those cultures. We know nothing about the geographical distribution and history of those cultures. Our job is to listen to all this music and develop a classification system.

How likely is it that we will place the music of Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart into the same class? Not very likely. What about the music of Mozart and Hayden? Yes. And that of Ellington and William “Count” Basie? Again, yes, strong similarities. Ravi Shankar and Ellington? No, different rhythm, different tonal structure. Ravi Shankar and Mozart? And again, no. By making such comparisons it seems to me that a Martian ethnomusicologist would be likely, at some given level in the taxonomy, to put Ravi Shankar in one category, Yacub Addy (traditional music of the Ga people in Ghana) in another, Mozart in a category different from the first two, and Ellington also in a category different from the first two, but also different from Mozart. That is, it seems very unlikely that Ellington and Mozart would end up in the same category, even one different from the other two. They would be in different categories from one another.

Now, in making these judgments I am imagining that Martian ethnologists would classify music on the basis of its techniques and devices. A classification system which says that a Beethoven composition and a Charlie Parker improvisation are the same kind of thing is going to have difficulty excluding much of the music which heretofore had been regarded as non-Western. These two musics have a very different rhythmic feel, and differ in the degree to which they emphasize rhythmic elaboration. They also differ in the scales they employ, their characteristic forms of ornamentation, their harmonic techniques, and large-scale structural devices.

If we then assert that Beethoven's choice of scale pitches represents the same musical principle as Parker's choices, we may well have to include Ravi Shankar's choice of scale pitches in this same class. Either that, or decide that our classification system will not attempt to be a rational one. But a classification system that is arbitrary has no conceptual value; it tells us nothing about the world. If the world is, in fact, a random confluence of forces and events, then an arbitrary classification system will do just fine. But if the world were so arbitrary, we wouldn't be here trying to puzzle out its order.

What we want of a classification system is that it places similar things into the same category and dissimilar things into different categories. Consider a classification of animals that has parrots and giraffes in the same class; call them borogoves. Are vultures and dogs borogoves as well? What if it turns out that while vultures and gnats are to be considered borogoves, dogs, wombats, hummingbirds and wrens are considered to be toves? Thus we have:

BOROGOVES: parrots, giraffes, vultures, gnats

TOVES: dogs, wombats, hummingbirds, wrens

What is the difference between a tove and a borogove? What do all toves have in common? What do all borogoves have in common? What is the rational principle behind this classification system? Perhaps it is not too difficult to find one¬–I leave that as an exercise for the reader. That is the kind of problem we invite when we include J. S. Bach and Thelonius Monk within the fold of Western music while trying to exclude Ravi Shankar. I do not think that Ravi Shankar's music, excellent though it is, is Western music. Its devices are too different. By the same reasoning, I don’t think Thelonius Monk’s music is Western. Its devices are also different.

Geography is not Culture

Let us contrast this common cultural usage with a phrase such as “American wildlife.” That phrase simply designates the wildlife living in America. Given that America includes Alaska and Hawaii and some miscellaneous territories, the term’s geographical range is not a geographically continuous, but that is easily enough clarified in any given context. Whatever geographical range one specifies, the term does not imply that the wildlife species in question has some special essence that makes the species American. Some species are found only in America whiles others are found elsewhere, Europe, Africa, Asia, wherever.

What of the cultural practices that happen to take place on American soil–however you wish to understand its geographic scope. For example, consider the culture of 20th century physics. There's a lot of that in America, but the practice of physics is international in scope and it doesn't make much sense to identify it with any one nation. There may be more such physics practiced in the United States than in Argentina, Mozambique, Japan, or Syria–as measured by, say number of Nobel Laureates, number of college and university physics departments, number of professional physicists, etc.–but that doesn't make physics peculiarly American. Local variants are likely to reflect the influence of specific individuals or institutions as much as, or more so, the influence of geo-political nationality.

What about Christmas? It is certainly very important in American national life. Many businesses, for example, organize their business year around Christmas season and the appropriateness of Christmas ritual objects–e.g. a crèche–for display on certain public property is a matter of annual contention. But the holiday itself is not specifically American. It is Christian, but not in Japan, where Christmas Eve is more important than Christmas day, but, yes, there are Christmas trees, decorations, and presents. And the specific customs associated with Christmas in modern America owe as much, if not more, to Victorian England than to America itself. By contrast, Thanksgiving is specifically American, as are a various civic holidays of which Independence Day, July 4th, is the most obvious.

And then there is baseball, known as America's pastime since the late 19th century. The history of the game seems rather obscure, at least to the writers of the Wikipedia, but it seems mostly English and American. The first published rules of the game were written in 1845 by one Alexander Joy Cartwright for a Manhattan club called the Knickerbockers. That’s as convenient an originating point as any but no particular origin seems to justified privileged status. Like many things cultural, the game evolved over a period of time in different places.

The game is certainly important in America’s sports ecology, but it is also important in Cuba, Korea, and Japan and has been played in those countries since the first half of the 19th century. That makes the game Cuban, Korean, and Japanese in a geographical sense, but is it Cuban, Korean, or Japanese in a cultural sense? Perhaps not. But is it culturally American and, if so, what characteristics make it American rather than Japanese? Does it share those characteristics with, for example, American basketball? The answers to these questions are not obvious.

Westernization or Modernization?

With this argument in mind, what do we call the large-scale cultural and social process that Japan underwent during the last decades of the 19th century and the early decades of the 20th century? Is it Westernization or modernization? Consider this paragraph from Christopher Goto-Jones, Modern Japan: A Very Short Introduction (p. 7):

It is a common (mis)conception that ‘modern’ is essentially a temporal or historical term, referring to a period of time that is close to the present. Whilst this meaning may serve in everyday usage, it is much more interesting and useful to consider a more technical and substantive sense of the term. In this framework, the term ‘modern’ refers to a more-or-less specific constellation of intellectual, social, political, and scientific norms and practices. By identifying the modern as a cluster of related principles rather than as merely a period, we are able to trace its occurrence in different periods in different national or cultural settings: was Europe modern before Japan, for instance? Was Japan modern before Russia? If so, why? It also enables us to ask provocative questions about the present: is Japan modern and, if so, who can we explain why it looks so different from, say, the United Kingdom? To paraphrase this important question: which elements of the modern are essential, and which are culturally contingent?

He goes to point out that, whatever took place in Japan, “some sought to reject all trappings of modernity in the name of rejecting Westernization” while others “sought to retain Japanese traditions whilst adopting the ‘value-free’ aspects of modern rationality” and still others “advocated abandoning Japanese traditions entirely on the basis that only by becoming Western could Japan become truly modern” (p. 9).

Westernization, modernization, or something else? The issue, of course, is not merely about Japan, but about a great many societies in the contemporary world.

But what happens to that question if, as I have been suggesting, the notion of “the West” is itself suspect, having more to do with ideological warfare than with cultural analysis and understanding? Remember, whatever it is that happened to European societies and cultures starting in the 14th century or so, it would have been impossible with mathematics from China, India, and the Middle East. Without that mathematics it would have been impossible to calculate the logarithm tables that enabled reliable and accurate long-distance navigation over the open seas. Without those sea voyages there would have been no gold and silver from the Americas to pay for trade goods in Asia, nor would the colonization of the Americas been possible. Without that mathematics there would have been no scientific revolution, without the scientific revolution there would have been no steam engine. Without the steam engine…

The West is an ideological fiction, as are many similar terms. There is no essence to “the West” or to “Africa”, “the East” or even to “United States”. Let’s abandon such notions. They stand in the way of human understanding and progress.

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I blog at New Savanna, where I have a number of posts on cultural-identity. I have assembled last year’s 3QD columns into a single down-loadable PDF: 42 Quarks: Getting from here to there.