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02/03/93

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MAPS WITH NATIONAL BOUNDARIES MAY BE OBSOLETE

STANFORD - Is "French culture" a dying concept? Is "American culture" disappearing?

As a result of international flows of people, images and ideas, culture is becoming less rooted in locations, says Stanford University anthropologist Akhil Gupta.

"The irony of these times, however, is that as actual places and localities become ever more blurred and indeterminate, ideas of culturally and ethnically distinct places become perhaps even more salient to people who feel their identity is slipping away," he said.

This is one explanation for the rise of white racism in Europe as well as attempts in the United States to hang on to a national identity through the use of such concepts as "multiculturalism," Gupta said.

Multiculturalism acknowledges that "cultures have lost their moorings in definite places" but it attempts to "subsume the plurality of cultures in a national fiction that is not sustainable," he said.

"This is a contradiction that all children of immigrants have to deal with. They feel the pressure to choose a national identity."

Gupta's own life illustrates the footloose nature of the postmodern world. He has lived half his life in India and half in three different regions of the United States. He is member of an international profession, traveling back and forth between places where people have applied the same modern technology in different ways.

"I think part of the problem people have in dealing with their different experiences is precisely that our notions of culture are rooted in locations," he said.

Since the rise of the nation-state, schoolchildren have been taught that "France is the place where the French live, America is where the Americans live and so on," he said. A globe with different colored spots on it was appropriate when "a national border was an area that blocked people and regulated the exchange of goods and ideas. Those borders have become much more porous," making the lessons increasingly out of sync with what people actually see and hear in their neighborhoods and on their television sets.

India and Pakistan, for instance, partly exist now in "postcolonial simulation in London," and prerevolutionary Tehran has reappeared in Los Angeles, Gupta and anthropologist James Ferguson of the University of California-Irvine, wrote in a recent issue of Cultural Anthropology. "What is the 'culture' of farm workers who spend half a year in Mexico and half a year in the United States?" they ask.

Massive flows of stateless, migrating and displaced people can make even those who stay at home feel uprooted. To illustrate, they quoted a young "half-Irish, half-Scottish" reggae music fan in an "ethnically chaotic" section of Birmingham, England:

"There's no such thing as 'England' anymore," the young man told an interviewer. "I was brought up with blacks, Pakistanis, Africans, Asians, everything, you name it. . . . Who do I belong to? . . . I'm just a broad person. The earth is mine."

Those who live in relatively isolated places also glimpse global interconnections through the "hyperspace" of communications technology, Gupta said.

In the farming towns of northern India where he does his fieldwork, people watch television programs produced by "those notoriously placeless organizations, multinational corporations," he said. Watching Cable News Network, it's possible to see that "the distance between the rich in Bombay and the rich in London may be much shorter than that between different classes in the same city."

"Perhaps more important, people watch MTV," he said. "So if one doesn't think of culture as something inherent in the soil but as encoded practices by which people live their lives, then one begins to see that watching MTV may have a huge influence on the way in which you dress or do this and that.

"Given these changes, how can we continue to use social science concepts that take for granted that culture and community are geographically bound?"

Trained first as an engineer and economist, Gupta said he became interested in cultural research because he was trying to understand why technology does not get adapted in the same way as it moves from one location to another.

"In the wheat-growing region of India where I work, people have been farming for 3,000 years," he said. "They obviously know a thing or two about farming. I found that when they adopted modern inputs - that is, hybrid seeds and fertilizers - they made sense of them with a vocabulary and system of thinking that is very different from farmers in America's wheat belt."

As an example, he said, Indian farmers described the chemical fertilizer urea as "hot," and use water to cool down plants treated with it in order to maintain a healthy balance.

"This isn't the same system of understanding as Western science and agronomy. In other words, they become modern farmers, but they are modern in a different way than American farmers are modern."

While postmodern people are not likely to become stateless, free-floating atoms, he and Ferguson say in their journal article, they may be "citizens" of several "diversely spatialized, partially overlapping or non-overlapping collectives" at once.

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