The “West”, as it is called, is only ten percent of the planet. But culturally it dominates the world. Understanding why and how is critical to breaking its grip argues Professor Ian Almond.
When I was five years old, the school teacher in my Yorkshire infant school made our class paint two dozen flags from different countries of the world. Everyone painted a different flag onto a huge piece of card, and attached it to the end of a bamboo stick. I remember, even at that early age, being magnetically attracted to the flag of the United States. Its stars and stripes mesmerised my infant mind. As I grew older, throughout my childhood, this didn’t change. I watched American films and TV shows with my friends, listened to American music, mimicked American accents. I dreamed of escaping my dreary British childhood and escaping to California or New York or Chicago – these were places where magical things happened, where events of tremendous significance occurred. Everywhere else was just periphery.
I start with this memory because, to some degree, it offers a mini-version of how the world today still seems to work. In today’s global culture, a dozen or so countries – including European nations as well as the US – have landscapes we can safely call ‘universal’. They are the backdrops Hollywood films play out against, the landscapes we see in commercials or TV shows. Few people can even begin to imagine what a film set in Ecuador, Kazakhstan, Bangladesh or the Philippines would look like. Writers and directors from these places, if they are to produce an internationally successful piece of art, cannot assume any kind of knowledge on the part of their audiences. Their books and films, if they are to reach an outside audience, generally have to adopt one of two strategies. Either weave anthropological explanations into the fabric of their plots, in a way a novel set in London or Los Angeles would never have to do; or choose a template which will be immediately understandable to a foreign reader/viewer (dictatorship/refugee/famine for Africa, drugs for Latin America, caste/poverty for South Asia, fanaticism/women’s rights for the Middle East and so on).
In the academic field I work in – “World Literature” – this situation has been a point of debate for some time now. “World Literature” is a term heavily weighted in the direction of Western literature. The countries we would conventionally consider to be “Western” – Europe and North America – make up around eight hundred million people, barely ten percent of the planet. The “non-West”, often conceived of as some kind of minority or token ethnicity, is Africa, Latin America, South and East Asia… the overwhelming majority of this world. And yet the “West” dominates the literary scene. Two thirds of anthologies of World literature, even today, are taken up by Western writers. Three quarters of all Nobel prize winners for Literature have been either European or American (a non-Western woman of colour has yet to win the prize in its hundred-year history). A few years ago, The Guardian published a list of the “hundred greatest novels of all time” – with five, I repeat five, non-Western novels making the cut. The number of texts, literary and non-literary, translated from other languages into English is dwarfed by the number of texts from English translated into other languages. The influence of the West exercises itself, particularly in television and cinema, not through language as many had previously feared, but primarily through genre. Superhero films, horror, Westerns, crime noir, sit-coms – even before the Netflix-isation of the planet’s television culture, this process of homogenisation was already underway. Although there is an obvious argument to be made for the post-war influence of certain non-Western cultures – Japan and South Korea – and for the growing presence of China and India, the dominance of the West continues to abide.
Colonialism has a central part to play in this. At its peak in 1914, 85 percent of the planet was governed by European or European-settler countries. Educational programmes – such as those of the French in the Maghrib, the British in India, Spanish and then subsequently American influences in central- and Latin American countries – worked hard to alienate local people from their own contexts, verse them in the culture of their colonisers and mythologise Western frameworks. The ‘universality’ of Western culture therefore has less to do with its intrinsic quality, and more to do with the successful installation and cultivation of Western values in the colonial territories they dominated for two hundred years. The ‘aura’ surrounding Shakespeare or Paris or the Statue of Liberty is a consequence of centuries of effective and systematic self-mythologising. The West, in other words, has been smart: even once it was physically ejected from the territories it tried to control, it made sure its cultural memory would live on in the minds of its educated population.
However, nothing is ever this simple. Of course there are complexities to add to this picture – counter-currents which move in tension with, or even against, prevailing Western trends. Turkey, for example, has a powerful and growing television industry which, although it has yet to make inroads into the West, is securing its status as a soft power in South Asian and Middle Eastern markets. Chinese sci-fi bestsellers such as Cixin Liu’s Three Body Problem are beginning to reach Western audiences; over the past ten years, South Korean TV and cinema has begun to appear regularly on Western screens – be they laptop- or cinema-screens. In the post-war period, Latin American ‘magical realism’ (writers such as Borges and Gabriel Garcia Marquez) has been one of the few formative, abiding non-Western cultural influences on the fiction of the West. And yet all of this offers little consolation for the vast majority of the planet’s 192 nations. African cinema is barely recognised outside its own domestic markets; the obstacles a south-east Asian or Indonesian novel has to overcome to acquire the same degree of visibility as an American or European novel are often insuperable.
Is this situation ever going to change? Will Eurocentrisms, for example, be replaced one day with Sinocentrisms? It seems unlikely anytime soon. British soft power, for example, has been able to piggy-back American economic and military power, inserting its niche influence into a significant segment of American film and television production. Even the first crop of Mexican Netflix successes – shows like Club de Cuervos and Ingobernable – have the same American producer advising them. And although it is exciting to witness the explosion in quality, independent regional cinema in India these past five years, as one extraordinary film after another gets made in Marathi, Telugu, Malayalam and Tamil, it remains doubtful whether these films can ever hope to get the same platform and access to global audiences as Hollywood, even with the innovation of game-changing streaming services like Mubi.
In many ways, the economic aspect in all of this is the crux of the problem. As long as the planet’s resources and capital remain so unequally distributed, it is difficult to see how a more culturally decentered world can emerge. Once again, a colonially-rigged economic system – where ‘peripheral’ and ‘semi-peripheral’ countries remain constantly indebted to ‘core’ economies – appears to form the basis for which cultures we feel important, and which cultures we know nothing about at all. Postcolonial scholars call this the ‘rollback’ – the concerted effort by the US and Europe, in the wake of the Second World War, to confront the wave of newly-independent Third World countries in the 1940s, 50s and 60s by constructing (through institutions like the IMF and the World Trade Organisation) a set of economic relationships which would keep developing countries forever trapped in a situation of dependency upon their former colonisers. The global currency system, in particular, exacerbates these inequities, ensuring that a day’s work in London will keep you comfortable for a month in Nepal or Bangladesh – and that you will have to work for a month in these countries to afford even one night in London or New York. It is the imperial legacy par excellence (the only African currency worth anything on the global market, surprise surprise, is the South African Rand) and offers perhaps the most striking example of how neo-colonial our world still is. Little wonder that cultural exports from non-Western countries have such a struggle on the world market, when this is already the case economically.
At the very least, a long-overdue revision of the planet’s history is needed, and the place of each region within that history. Even a consciousness of how we got, historically, to where we are would be a start. Until these material inequities are addressed, however, it looks like Hollywood, Harry Potter and HBO are going to be with us for some time yet.
Professor Ian Almond teaches literature at Georgetown University Qatar. His most recent book is World Literature Decentered: Beyond the ‘West’ Through Turkey, Mexico and Bengal (Routledge, 2022