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Cultural citizenship…

June 6, 2012

Wenche Ommundsen describes a case study within the Chinese diaspora in Australia, which he and his co-workers see as “an ideal site in which to examine the variables of cultural belonging.” (182) The need for such consideration, Ommundsen argues, is hastened by recent populist arguments against immigrants/refugees that “the privileges of citizenship in a Western-style democracy should not be extended to individuals or groups whose cultures negate the very principles on which such democracies are based.” (182) Although such culturalist reasoning is, he explains, “almost invariably based on misconceptions (in some cases, misinformation) and cultural stereotypes, as well as theoretical naivety, […] the question underlying the culturalist position refuses to go away and needs to be taken seriously by cultural analysts: how much difference can be accommodated within multicultural nations before the political, legal and social fabric of the state becomes intolerably strained?” (182)

Defining Cultural Citizenship:

In order to provide the context for this work, Ommundsen presents a particularly interesting discussion about the concept of ‘cultural citizenship’ (182-185) and, by way of defining cultural citizenship, he writes that it “is a mode of cultural belonging primarily negotiated within the nation-state, but frequently informed by cultural formations other than that of the nation. Jan Pakulski, in his definition of the concept, puts the emphasis on rights in relation to cultural difference: “a new domain of cultural rights that involve the right to symbolic presence, dignifying representation, propagation of identity and maintenance of lifestyles” (Pakulski 1997, 73). Nick Stevenson adds the important dimension of cultural  agency:

‘Cultural citizenship can be said to have been fulfilled to the extent to which society makes commonly available the semiotic and material cultures necessary in order to make social life meaningful, critique practices of domination, and allow for the recognition of difference under conditions of tolerance and mutual respect (Stevenson 1997, 42).'” (183)

Stevenson “also introduces the notion of the cultural citizen as someone accustomed to moving between different registers of cultural belonging.” (184)

Ommundsen goes on to note that “in times of rapid social change the most outstanding feature of cultural citizenship is its dynamism.” (184)

“Cultural citizenship can never be simply a function of self-perception, but is in the first instance a measure of a community’s willingness to include particular individuals or groups within its citizenry.” (187)

Compulsory and optional cultural attributes:

Ommundsen explains that: “Cultural attributes and competencies come in many forms, and for the purpose of this inquiry into cultural citizenship it was necessary to distinguish between those that are “compulsory” for social integration and others that may be characterised as “optional”. A compulsory attribute is one over which the individual has little power, at least in the short term. This may refer to particular skills or educational attainments, or to deeply embedded cultural conditioning of which one may not even be fully aware. Compulsory attributes define the limits of one’s cultural mobility and may exclude individuals or groups from full cultural citizenship.” (190) He continues: “By contrast, the optional components of one’s cultural capital are those that can be adopted or discarded easily, more or less at will. While often important to one’s sense of cultural identity, they rarely exclude one from a particular community. Individuals affected by a mismatch between their own compulsory cultural attributes and those deemed necessary by their society are those who experience their cultural identity as a liability, an impediment to social integration, whereas others can concentrate on optional attributes that they experience as a source of personal enrichment.” (190-191)

He elaborates: “A simple illustration of the difference between compulsory and optional cultural attributes can be offered by comparing the two most commonly named signifiers of cultural belonging: language and food. Insufficient language skills constitute the largest handicap for PRC migrants in their bid for social, cultural and professional integration. This is clearly recognised by the migrants themselves, and while many accept the fact that their own English will never be sufficient for the most advanced levels of communication, they make every effort to ensure that the next generation overcomes this impediment: most were prepared to accept the loss of Chinese language skills as long as their children became proficient in English. While occasionally scornful of Australia’s monolingual culture, arguing that a society can never be truly multicultural without a robust multilingual tradition, they do not for a moment entertain the idea that personal and professional success will come other than through familiarity with the national and international lingua franca. Food came a close second as the most commonly recognised signifier of culture, but obviously belongs to a very different register in terms of its importance for cultural functionality. Chinese culinary traditions are a source of great pride to most people of Chinese descent, whether recent or fifth-generation migrants. Most reported eating more Chinese than “Western” food, although many, especially non-PRC migrants, had a wide culinary repertoire that included other Asian and Mediterranean foods as well as what they called “Australian” cuisine. The cultural significance of food differs, however: while recent migrants said they eat a particular food because it “tastes good”, the more established and “polyglot” diasporic subjects attached greater importance to food as a signifier of a group’s cultural tradition.” (191)

It is only, it would seem, when cultural citizenship as basic functionality has been attained that one is in the position to celebrate cultural difference.” (190)

Concluding comment

Ommundsen’s concluding comment is: “Being a full cultural citizen, ultimately, involves the privilege of being able to forget about culture.” (203)

Useful how?

As he asserts, Ommundsen’s “paper examines some of the complexities of cultural, ethnic and national belonging that confound the simple equation between culture and citizenship on which most culturalist thinking is based.” (182) It is worth noting, as well, that he sets this argument up on the problem identified by Stuart Hall that “far from being mutually exclusive, multiculturalism and racism seem to be symbiotically linked ” (181) Ommundsen quotes Hall and Maharaj as saying: “it is worth identifying with one of the most difficult things to comprehend nowadays about this society—the absolute coincidence of multiculturalism and racism. Far from being the opposite ends of a pole so that one can trade the rise of one against the decline of the other, it seems to be absolutely dead central to society that both multiculturalism and racism are increasing at one and the same time (Hall and Maharaj 2001, 48-49).” (181)

I’m applying this concept/argument to Alison Wong’s As the Earth Turns Silver just now, but I can see how it might be used in a number of ways (for analysing Marcelo Birmajer’s El alma al diablo, for example? And, which texts is it NOT immediately obvious in?).

Ref: Wenche Ommundsen (2003): Tough ghosts: modes of cultural belonging in diaspora. Asian Studies Review, 27(2): 181-204

The references in this article look interesting too!:

Ang, Ien. 2001. On not speaking Chinese: Living between Asia and the West. London: Routledge.

Balibar, Etienne and Immanuel Wallerstein. 1991. Race, nation, class: Ambiguous identities. London: Verso.

Chun, Allen. 1996. Fuck Chineseness: On the ambiguities of ethnicity as culture as identity. boundary 2 23, no. 2: 111-38.

Cunningham, Stuart and John Sinclair, eds. 2000. Floating lives: The media and Asian diasporas. St Lucia: University of Queensland Press.

Giese, Diana. 1995. Beyond Chinatown: Changing perspectives on the top end Chinese experience.

Canberra: National Library of Australia.

Giese, Diana. 1997. Astronauts, lost souls & dragons. St Lucia: University of Queensland Press.

Hage, Ghassan. 1998. White nation: Fantasies of White supremacy in a multicultural society. Sydney: Pluto Press.

Hall, Stuart and Sarat Maharaj. 2001. Modernity and difference. Annotations 6. London: INIVA Publications: 36-56.

Pakulski, Jan. 1997. Cultural citizenship. Citizenship Studies 1, no. 1: 73-86

Sinclair, John and Stuart Cunningham. 2000. Diasporas and the media. In Floating lives: The media and Asian diasporas, ed. Stuart Cunningham and John Sinclair: 1-34. St Lucia: University of Queensland Press.

Sinclair, John, Audrey Yue, Gay Hawkins, Kee Pookong and Josephine Fox. 2000. Chinese cosmopolitanism and media use. In Floating lives: The media and Asian diasporas, ed. Stuart Cunningham and John Sinclair: 35-90. St Lucia: University of Queensland Press.

Stevenson, Nick. 1997. Globalization, national cultures and cultural citizenship. Sociological Quarterly 38, no. 1: 41-66.

Stevenson, Nick. 2001. Culture and citizenship: An introduction. In Culture and citizenship, ed. N. Stevenson: 1-10. London: Sage.

Stratton, Jon. 1998. Race daze: Australia in identity crisis. Sydney: Pluto Press.

Turner, B. S. 2001. Outline of a general theory of cultural citizenship. In Culture and citizenship, ed. N. Stevenson: 11-32. London: Sage.