From Abakwa to Zydeco

The Dictionary of Global Culture
July 17, 1998

What function might be served by a dictionary that offered the following sequence of definitions: William Hogarth, Billie Holiday, Holocaust, Homer ("I the likely authorI"), Hong Kong Film IndustryI? Step forward The Dictionary of Global Culture, edited by Kwame Anthony Appiah and Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

All reference books are political projects to a degree; only the occasional one arises from openly declared political intentions. The Dictionary of Global Culture seems a fascinatingly wrong-headed instance of this last and one of the first dictionaries of political correctness. Its aim is to provide "a global citizen's guide to culture emphasising the achievement of the non-western world". Not surprisingly, it was first published in the United States in 1996 and now arrives here.

It was compiled by an interesting committee - indeed all of the book's processes seem more interesting than its content. Scholars from other cultures (as well as scholars of other cultures) were asked what, in their opinions, were the elements of those civilisations essential to begin understanding them. Their lists formed the basis for the book. We are already multicultural, the introduction argues - Arab scholars kept Greek (so-called) Classical learning alive during the European (so-called) Dark Ages; the idea of democracy in the US was fashioned in part by contributions of African-Americans. But, we are reminded, for much of the world Christ "is someone else's story". And now more than ever before we live in the global village. "We all participate, albeit from different cultural positions, in a global system of culture. That culture is increasingly less dominated by the west, less Eurocentric, if you like."

So The DGC attempts in its 1,200-plus entries to tell some of the other stories of the world apart from Christ's. His entry, though, is particularly revealing: "Jesus c. 4bce - 28ce. Founder of Christianity. One of the major religious figures of the worldI": a splendid example of the chronically stilted even-handedness that The DGC achieves. (Plus the interesting fact that Christ was born before Christ, though this is not explained).

This, then, is a feel-good book, a bizarre big book of calm. It reads like a big apology. Here amends will be made, all that has been left out, overlooked or appropriated will be restored to its rightful place. But such a clean start is neither possible nor, I would argue, desirable. The book suffers in two ways. First, it is so wary of judgement and discrimination as to be rendered lifeless. Second, global culture cannot be contained in this sort of book.

There is no entry in the book for the United Nations, but the Unified Silla Kingdom of Korea gets in, as does the multinational United Fruit Company. The mix of entries over 800 pages is fascinating and exhausting: from the Abakwa Society (an Afro-Cuban secret society, evidence of the cross-fertilisation of cultures) to *ydeco music - an appropriate hybrid to end the book with, "a style of country dance music descended from Cajun, Afro-Caribbean and Afro-American traditions". Sometimes the entries proceed in a delirious poem of "otherness": Xhosa, Wampum, Yiddish, Yoga, Yom Kippur, Ziggurut, Zionism, Zodiac ("Though no longer respected as a natural science, astrology remains a popular interest for many.") That tone of politeness is significant. The book is super-cautious about being seen to be judgmental, and it is wary of bad news about people once it has decided to include them. Thus there is no mention of T. S. Eliot and anti-Semitism (nor indeed any entry at all for anti-Semitism).

It would be more interesting if the entries on the familiar and the ghastly old Dead White European Males were written from the point of view of the ethos of The DGC, but this rarely happens (the entry on Jesus is a triumph rarely equalled). Elsewhere, the book's editors have shown themselves to be superb partisans and true critics. Here deserted by their critical faculties, The DGC struggles for air despite containing so much life. I would rather thrill to a bit more of the passion and anger of Amiri Baraka's "death to whitey's ass" quoted here and have fewer platitudes like this about David Lean: "The continuing box-office appeal of his work attests to his success" - success, yes, but value?

In a recent article in The New Yorker about the basketball player Michael Jordan, one of the dictionary's editors, Henry Louis Gates, talks about McDonald's and Coca-Cola: "They are the planet's two most successful brands, as ubiquitous as the ground underfoot - or the buildings overhead - and sometimes as unnoticeable." Neither features in The DGC, and a book like this cannot really grapple with the global commodification of culture.

Instead, it ends up being a list of things that can be defined (mostly old) and contained in a single entry (people rather than ideas) and that do not splurge around the world by design (like Coca-Cola) or naturally (like football - Iran's defeat of the US in the World Cup must rank as one of global culture's greatest recent moments).

While being admirable in its reach and range, not enough of the book's entries sound alive and interesting. Those we know anything about seem, inevitably, inadequate ("Verdi remains one of the grand composers of opera.") Those with new information seem like texts without contexts. The modern world of cultural plunder, the eclectic pluralism, sampling or nicking of stuff that is everywhere from chicken tikka masala to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan is difficult to capture in an old-fashioned dictionary. Cultural practices cannot easily be divided into a sequence of terms - these are not inclusive enough to express global culture (well described by the editors in their introduction) as we are living it. A dictionary of global culture that has to have as many barriers and frontiers as a dictionary necessarily has, is not going to serve global culture, which by its very nature is frontier-busting.

Perhaps, this is dangerous as well. People are increasingly open and receptive to other cultures and realise that "their" culture has some distinctive features but is also, in part, shared with and the product of other cultures. But I also think that people crave judgement. They want to know what is good. They need dictionaries to sort things out a bit for them, and The DGC refuses to do that: its struggle for global inclusivity is quickly overwhelming, and we end up with a sense that we have encountered an agenda not a book.

By all means let us learn to be sceptical and to cauterise easy assumptions about the dominance of western culture in the world, and we do need to know more about the reality of other cultures rather than, say, Paul Simon's version of South African township music. It is not enough, however, to say that we live in a global community, therefore we must begin to understand the cultures of "elsewhere", we must debate whether the wishful globalisation of what cultural education might teach in practice prevents any student from feeling at home anywhere. If, to be a citizen of the world you feel you have to know about everywhere, you are in danger of knowing about nowhere.

Tim Dee is chief producer, BBC Radio (Bristol), responsible for editing Radio 3's series, Centurions, a 100-part series on the century's great artists.

The Dictionary of Global Culture

Author - Kwame Anthony Appiah and Henry Louis Gates Jr
ISBN - 0 670 85774 2
Publisher - Penguin
Price - £25.00
Pages - 717

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