Two Modes of Creativity

Thomas Hylland Eriksen
Centre for Technology, Innovation and Culture
University of Oslo

Abstract. As electronic media become more widespread and less of a novelty, it is becoming an acute task to explore the contrasts between printed and electronic media. This article argues that the electronic revolution and the multiethnic one are two sides of the same coin: that both create ‘disorderly’ conditions that stimulate certain forms of thought and creativity, which differ markedly from those associated with the linear prose narrative. Using Salman Rushdie's and V. S. Naipaul's books as examples, the author also compares Marshall McLuhan's and Claude Lévi-Strauss's proposals of similar contrasts. At the end, the dichotomy is deemed to have accomplished its task, and it is accordingly replaced with a more fine-grained classification.


In the famous opening passage of The Satanic Verses, where Saladin Chamcha and Gibreel Farishta fall out of Air India's London-bound flight 420, later to be fished miraculously out of the Channel, Gibreel improvises an English translation of an old Hindi film song: ‘O, my shoes are Japanese [...] These trousers English, if you please. On my head, red Russian hat; my heart's Indian for all that’ [38, p.5].* In a later essay explaining the mission of his instantly controversial novel – burned in Bradford, leading to a fatwa in Tehran, creating a decade-long global stir – Rushdie offers his view of creativity, contrasting it with the cultural purism and fear of contamination he associates with the enemies of The Satanic Verses:

[The book] rejoices in mongrelization and fears the absolutism of the Pure. Mélange, hotchpotch, a bit of this and a bit of that is how newness enters the world. It is the great possibility that mass migration gives the world, and I have tried to embrace it. [39, p.394]

This view of ‘newness’ and creativity in general is congruent with a model of creativity associated with the new media. What follows amounts to a tentative exploration of the correspondence between postcolonial hybridity and the structures of meaning typically developed through the new media, indicating that both tendencies represent a similar break with a traditional view of creativity – in a word, that the multi-ethnic revolution and the electronic one are two sides of the same coin.


There is little doubt that the networked world is characterised by tensions that differ from those typical of the old, hierarchical world. They have been explored by many social theorists in recent years, from Baudrillard to Urry, and instead of embarking on a lengthy discussion here, I will summarise, without any further ado, some of the contrasts that may be developed in an investigation of the cultural dimensions of the electronic revolution. (For more, see Eriksen's Tyranny of the Moment [7].) The table is inspired by those respectable thinkers who bravely defended ‘great divide’ theories of cultural change and simplistic dichotomies in the face of severe (and often reasonable) accusations of reductionism, perhaps most notably Jack Goody [9] and Marshall McLuhan [21].

A word on simplistic dichotomies may be called for here: They do not purport to describe the world, but merely to serve as cognitive devices making it possible to discern tendencies. The world as such is a much messier and more complex place than such clear-cut divisions may imply if they are taken at face value.

Industrial societyInformational society
Linear, cumulative growthInstantenous time, the here and now**
CD/vinyl recordMP3
Single-channel TVMulti-channel TV
Stationary telephoneMobile telephone
Lifelong monogamySerial monogamy
The era of the gold watchThe era of flexible work
Scarcity of informationScarcity of freedom from information

Now, assuming that cultural globalisation actually does take place – and it can easily be shown that it does, at least in the sense of intensified and accelerated contact across geographical boundaries, mediated by information technology – one may begin by asking naïvely, as many do, whether these processes lead to increased creativity or to a general ‘flattening.’ Both views have their defenders. According to a classic ‘left wing’ attitude, inspired by the left-Hegelian Frankfurt school and/or by Marxism, globalisation chiefly leads to increased standardisation and commercialisation in the culture industry, since profit-seeking capital is the driving force in the globalising processes. Many anthropologists, influenced by Romantic ideals (whether Marxist or not), subscribe to this view – from Malinowski [20] lamenting the impact of cultural contact on the Trobriands, via Lévi-Strauss's elegy for the small and isolated peoples in Tristes Tropiques [17], to Geertz's slightly self-ironic essay on globalisation [8] where, with an audible sigh, he concedes that ‘the good old days’ of radical cultural difference are gone.

A very different perspective is achieved if, rather than seeing globalisation as an aspect of capital accumulation or as an euphemism for cultural imperialism, one regards it as a two-way process entailing a democratisation of symbolic power whereby postcolonial scholars, authors and artists are enabled to define and invent the world, on a par with the intellectuals of the metropolitan centres. While some see cultural collapse, lowest common denominators and blatant commercialisation in the contemporary encounters between different symbolic universes, others see creative confrontation, stimulating exchanges and innovative glocalisation [34]. (See also Ulf Hannerz [12].) While some react to globalisation's flood of signs by building dikes (or, perhaps, by trying to drink the entire floodwave), others learn to swim. This may be an apt description of reactions to multiculturalism as well as to the new electronic media.

Rushdie is an emblematic spokesman for the latter, optimistic position. Perhaps more than any other major novelist, he celebrates the hybridisation and cultural mixing caused by international migration, global flows of ideas and the spreading of a modern worldview entailing a willingness to accept cultural change and a suspicious ambivalence towards tradition and ascribed identities.

Rushdie's position as a promoter of hybridity and the vitality of the cultural crossroads (or ‘switchboards,’ to use one of Ulf Hannerz's terms) should be clear enough, and it has its academic parallel both in a plethora of cultural studies publications, in a lot of political theory, and in a few grounded ethnographies, such as that of Archetti [2]). A more complex, and in some respect opposite position is represented in one of his older contemporaries, an author who is himself placed in a similar ambivalent, hybrid cultural situation, namely V. S. Naipaul. Whereas Rushdie has an Indian Muslim background, but has spent most of his life in Britain, Naipaul is an ‘East Indian from the West Indies’ – an Indian from Trinidad, who emigrated to London in his late teens, a couple of years after the Second World War, and who would later return to Trinidad only very rarely (chiefly to visit his mother). Both Rushdie and Naipaul are themselves located between distinctive cultural traditions, and their respective writings are deeply informed by their ambiguous identities and ambivalent positionings. About Rushdie it may be said that he spends his entire life on board a plane between London and Bombay (such as Air India's Flight 420), never being able to – or wishing to – land. His novels, with the possible exception of his first, Grimus (1975) [35]) and his last, Fury (2001) [42]), are hybrid products in several ways: The language is replete with original neologisms, puns, Indian English and direct adaptations from Hindi/Urdu. The narrator's perspective in the books wavers between an insider's and an outsider's view. The books moreover take place chiefly in the Indian subcontinent; this is clearly the case with Midnight's Children (1981) [36], Shame (1983) [37] and The Moor's Last Sigh (1995) [40], while The Satanic Verses (1988) [38] and The Ground Beneath her Feet (1999) [41] are multilocal with India as a centre of gravity. Rushdie's subcontinental people, places and environments are presented both in a matter-of-fact way as if the readers were initiates, and in a sometimes exaggerated exoticising way, creating a Verfremdung effect to his non-Indian readers (and considerable irritation in India). Rushdie has turned his betwixt-and-between condition of exile into a blessing (notwithstanding the exhausting fatwa), which has given birth to a unique literary voice with respect to both language, form and content, by assimilating and mixing material of diverse origins.

Turning to Naipaul, he is simultaneously a less flashy author and a less optimistic person than Rushdie. In a recent interview, he admitted disliking the term ‘exile,’ seeing the currently widespread use of the word as imposing an idea of freedom of choice upon a condition, that is displacement, which is rarely chosen, and which can be tragic or at the very least deadly serious to millions of people. To Naipaul, his lifelong enforced uprootedness appears to have been more of a personal trauma than a source of positive liberation. He regards the Trinidad of his childhood as an absurd society, where Africans and Indians were moved by force or persuasion to work on the sugar plantations, torn away from their homes, their traditions and their cultural authenticity, fooled into believing they were a kind of Briton through colonial schooling, and then forced to reinvent themselves almost on an everyday basis [25; 30]. His early novels, from The Mystic Masseur (1957) [23] to A House for Mr Biswas (1961) [24], sharply satirise what the author sees as Trinidadian cultural promiscuity; the ‘carnival mentality’ which encourages people to mix, in noisy and boisterous ways, cultural stuff one has done nothing to deserve, and then creating an identity which consists of shiny surfaces without the slightest intimation of depth or inner consistency. Trinidadians, according to Naipaul, play themselves. In The Middle Passage (1963) [25], he described a scene outside of a cinema in Port-of-Spain after a screening of Casablanca. All the men leaving the cinema, according to Naipaul, had immediately adopted exactly the same way of walking as Humphrey Bogart. Comic effects of this kind are abundant in Naipaul's early work. In 1962, the uprooted, Anglicised Hindu from Trinidad – disillusioned with Britain, despising the Caribbean – travelled in India in a final attempt to find a site for cultural belonging, and it was a journey which resulted in a travelogue aptly entitled An Area of Darkness (1964) [26]; he would later describe the year in India as a journey which split his life into two parts. Shocked by India, alienated by England, aloof from the Caribbean, Naipaul became a writer trading in torn identities. Several of his mature, largely tragic novels, from The Mimic Men (1967) [27] and In a Free State (1971) [28] to The Enigma of Arrival (1987) [30] and Half a Life (2001) [33], are about men (and a few women) who try to be something that they are not, usually because they can see no alternative. It is the dark side of Rushdie's brave new world.

The longing for solidity, roots, continuity and belonging is a recurrent theme throughout Naipaul's œuvre, but he does not like modern attempts to mime cultural authenticity. He is at his most scathing when he writes about politicised Hinduism and non-Arab Asian Muslims – converts, he calls the latter, although they strictly speaking have been Muslims their entire lives and live in countries where Islam was introduced centuries ago. However, it can also be said that the tragic grandeur of Naipaul's best books confirm an assumption, which he himself might reject, that exile and cultural hybridity are creative forces. His tragic worldview may be caused by his reading a new territory with an old map, while simultaneously realising that the alternative to his lifelong ambivalence is not a traditional, secure identity, but a fundamentalist identity of the kind that appears precisely when one tries to enforce an old map onto a new territory.

There are two obvious analytical approaches to the kind of creativity which is expressed in two widely different ways in Rushdie and Naipaul. First, it has often been said that it is only by going abroad that one can hope to know (in the sense of connaître, kennen) one's own country. Only when one has established a certain distance from a phenomenon is one able to see it clearly. It may be that this explains why nationalism often has been developed among migrants or people who are otherwise marginal to their own culture, such as those Benedict Anderson calls ‘creole pioneers’ [1] – Napoleon was a Corsican; African nationalisms under colonialism were carved out by students in London and Paris; Vladimir Zhirinovsky has a Jewish background; and so on. Nostalgia and longing stimulate creative activity.

Secondly, especially Rushdie's writings and views of ‘newness’ recalls eighteenth-century philosophical discourse on novelty and innovation. In A Treatise of Human Nature, David Hume claims, against Descartes and the rationalists, that the human mind is unable to create anything new on its own accord (what Kant would later call synthetic a priori knowledge), but is limited to combining and comparing sense impressions [14]. New concepts arise, according to Hume, through new combinations of existing ideas and sense impressions, and he mentions millenarian visions of the New Jerusalem as a typical example. According to such a conceptualisation of creativity, the present age would be an era of unprecedented creativity, for never before has such a large proportion of humanity been subjected to a comparable bombardement of sense impressions.

A generation after Hume, the beginnings of what might be seen as the first cult of creativity in western cultural history began, namely Romanticism. Romantic philosophers and artists in the German language area, and to a lesser extent elsewhere in Europe, placed great emphasis on the inherent creativity of the unique individual, on inspiration (divine or otherwise) as the foundation for creativity; and also emphasised wholeness and coherence as criteria for beauty and truth. When William Blake towards the end of the eighteenth century expressed his vision to see ‘the world in a grain of sand’ [4, 490], he gave words to a widespread longing in his time: to recreate the lost unity of the universe, for both modern science and technological innovations seemed to make the world a colder and more insensitive place, then as now. A classic Romantic view of creativity might imply a negative judgement of the general cacophony and fragmentation of our era. If creativity presupposes coherence, then the information age is not a particularly creative era.

Related views on artistic creativity (and on cultural authenticity) were widespread throughout the twentieth century. In the interwar years, it was common among intellectuals in the German-speaking area to distinguish between Kultur and Zivilisation. Civilisation was universal, global and shallow; culture was particular, local and deep. The Jews, it was often said, could appropriate the civilisation of the Germans, but not their culture. Since each authentic culture is rooted in a place, a language and a life-world of experience, it can be translated only with difficulty, both literally and metaphorically. When Goethe's relationship to his erstwhile friend Herder (perhaps the first modern Romantic) cooled, it was in part because he felt that Herder's Sturm und Drang movement had insular tendencies – it was after all Goethe who said that ‘he who knows no foreign language knows nothing about his own’ [10].

A less spectacular, but related resistance to creolisation and globalisation is found in contemporary discourse on food. Some time in the early 1990s, a group of European chefs met in Brussels to discuss the future of the European cuisines [6]. In their view, regional and national cuisines were threatened by European integration, where distinctive food traditions were mixed and juxtaposed in ahistorical and disrespectful ways; the result was, in their view, a series of minor culinary catastrophes, which also threatened regional identities. According to this kind of logic (coherence is beauty; rootedness is truth), one might be tempted to read Rushdie's work as the postmodern food of literature, so to speak. In a word: Civilisation is easily translatable, it travels easily and is couched in a language that makes it easy to appropriate; culture, on the other hand, is rooted, heavy and demanding. Civilisation is superficial, while culture is deep. It is for this reason – following this way of thinking – that international bestsellers in the book industry are so often literary lightweights, the McDonald's and Disneylands of the literary world; while works of great quality often have difficulties in being accepted and understood outside of their local or national setting.

It might be added that many thinkers who clearly belong to the Enlightenment rather than the Romantic tradition react negatively against cultural creolisation as it comes to be expressed in the information society. For example, in his book on television, Pierre Bourdieu attacks the peculiar form of fast thinking that seems to thrive in the fast and fragmented world of multi-channel television [3], while Paul Virilio has devoted several of his recent writings to warnings against the societal and cultural effects of uncontrolled acceleration in communications technology [44; 45].

A question that might be raised here, naïvely, could simply be this: Do speed, migration, creolisation and uprootedness stimulate cultural creativity, or do they on the contrary have paralysing, commercialising and flattening effects? (Rushdie himself is not alien to this danger. For example, he uses the neologism Coca-Colonization to that effect in The Satanic Verses [38]. Haahr [11] and Eriksen [7] also address this question through separate discussions of acceleration in the era of information technology.) Do we see an emergent world, then, where nobody has a cultural mother tongue, but everybody picks and chooses at random from the global supermarket of signs, like Naipaul's eclectic Trinidadians; where the imperative to choose precludes true commitment, and where the speed of transmission and turnover rates are so high anyway that there is no room for anything profound or demanding in the markets of ‘creative products?’ Now, whatever Adorno might have said, there is no straightforward answer to this kind of question, and I therefore proceed to raising it in a different way.


The cultural changes marking the transition from industrial society to information society – perhaps also the transition from the age of nation-states to a global/glocal age – may be described, by analogy, through the contrast between the logic of the book and the logic of hypertext. The book is linear, sequential and authoritarian. It offers direction, coherence and progression. In both works of fiction and of non-fiction, an inner relation between chapters is assumed; they should be developed in a cumulative way. A plot in a typical novel should have a beginning, a middle and an end, and the substance of most non-fiction books is wrapped in an introduction and an end (or conclusion) which creates the illusion of the book as a self-sustaining universe, a unity sufficient unto itself. The logic of the book is the logic of the Greek miracle, of Christian eschatology and of industrial engineering. Reading has its ends. One may rarely jump back and forth in a novel or textbook; in order to understand it, one has to follow the linear structure laid out by the author – from page 1 onwards.

Hyperlinked information on the World Wide Web and elsewhere follows a different logic. All web pages are organised horizontally. They are not placed in a particular order deemed necessary, and they presuppose that an active user filters information and finds his or her own paths through the labyrinth. There are scarcely two persons who have exactly the same list of sites under Netscape's ‘Bookmarks’ menu. Although there are authors who have made entire books available on the Web, this is far from the typical way in which the medium is used. Just as the technology and materiality of the book encourages long, continuous, cumulative reasoning, the Web encourages short texts hyperlinked in a decentralised and networked way with an infinite number of other short texts (in this it resembles the logic of modernist poetry). On the Web, everything is page 1. Creating a coherent whole of selected web pages presupposes a creative process of the Rushdie/Hume kind.

In a sense, the WWW is to multi-channel television what the standard prose book is to single-channel television. The old national monopolies or semi-monopolies of broadcasting, which dominated television in most of the world until the early 1980s, were able to broadcast slow, cumulative, linear programmes, knowing that the viewers had little choice but to stay tuned. Today's TV channels have to compose their programmes on the basis of the knowledge that viewers sit impatiently with their remote control on the armrest, ready to switch channels at the first indication of boredom and inertia. While the author of a book takes the reader by the hand, patiently leading her from one chapter to the next, the Web author can only hope to catch the reader's attention for a few fleeting moments, and will normally restrict himself to offering a fragment, a single jigsaw piece; and the other pieces are located in different places to different readers/surfers.

It is common to see this development as a history of decay and deterioration. The slick surfaces, the fast thinkers and the cheap and catchy, immediately understandable phenomena take over. It is said the WWW and contemporary television stand still at an enormous speed – there is a lot of action, but no real development. This widespread pessimistic view deserves critical attention: as several of the contributors to the previous issues of Crossings point out in different ways, new and different does not necessarily mean inferior, although this is frequently the way it is seen.

In his visionary books on technology and society written in the 1960s, Marshall McLuhan delved into the effects of television on culture and individual perception. He described writing, expressed through the ‘Gutenberg Galaxy’ – books and print – as a fragmenting medium which reduced the multiplicities of the world to black signs on a white background. Literacy and printing, according to McLuhan, replaced ‘an ear with an eye’ [21]. The faculty of seeing became privileged among the five senses, and all information deemed relevant could be obtained through the eyes. The other senses became dormant. McLuhan, moreover, regarded writing as a cognitive prison; it enforced a linear and logical structure upon thought, and led to a loss of wholeness and coherence. By contrast, he saw television as liberating since it communicated to several senses simultaneously, in a richer and more complete way than writing was able to do. In later writings, McLuhan spoke of the transition from writing to multimedia (TV) as a liberation from the total dominance of the left brain hemisphere (logical, analytical), giving the right brain hemisphere (holistic, synthesising, intuitive) its due. When McLuhan somewhere writes cryptically about the ‘orientalization of the Occident,’ he clearly has such a change in mind.

Some of McLuhan's best-known books, such as the provocative Understanding Media [21], published in 1964, and the 1967 pop-art collage The Medium is the Massage [22], not only promote, but illustrate his thinking. His writing comprises a mixture of academic prose, journalism, punning and advertising-like slogans, with extensive use of literary effects such as hyperbole and metaphor. The books may be read sideways, backwards and forwards. The connections between the chapters are often unclear, and the chapters do not follow each other in strict linear sequences. These texts could easily be adapted to the hypertext format.

Around the same time that McLuhan wrote Understanding Media, Claude Lévi-Strauss wrote La pensée sauvage [18], a book about thinking and classification which strove to make sense of totemic thought in traditional societies. The first chapter of Lévi-Strauss's great book is nevertheless strongly reminiscent of McLuhan's thoughts. This is where he introduces the famous distinction between the bricoleur and the ingenieur. The contrast refers to two styles of thought; the former characterises nonliterate societies, while the latter dominates in our kind of society. What the bricoleur is up to when he creates something new amounts to – well, bricolage – restructuring and reshuffling pre-existing materials, as my brother did back in the 1970s when he built a light organ from a defective dishwasher. The engineer, by contrast, works on the basis of the abstract technology of writing and numbers, and thus creates his ideas and objects with the aid of logic, mathematics and other abstractions.

The engineer works on abstractions with a concrete potential, while the bricoleur abstracts from the concrete (as in the title of the chapter ‘The science of the concrete,’ ‘La science du concret’). The bricoleur works in an associative, poetical, metaphorical-metonymical way; the engineer works in a sequential, unambiguous and analytical way. Towards the end of the chapter, Lévi-Strauss remarks that a manner of thinking akin to bricolage can still be identified in the societies based on writing, but only in the world of art, which is located ‘half-way between scientific knowledge and mythical or magical thought’ – he mentions poetry and music as two typical expressions.

The engineer splits, the bricoleur unites. The engineer represents an analytical logic, while the bricoleur represents a synthetic logic. Coherence is poised against fragments, mythical, reversible time against linear, irreversible time; tropes against literal speech.

The similarities between these arguments from McLuhan and Lévi-Strauss are striking, but whereas Lévi-Strauss develops a contrast between nonliterate and literate societies, it may seem as if McLuhan introduces a contrast between literate and post-literate societies. Without drawing the parallel too far, it may perhaps be said that McLuhan predicts the return of the bricoleur in the age of television.*** Today, many of McLuhan's points are seen as surprisingly relevant for the Internet, and the influential Californian magazine WIRED virtually made him their patron saint in the mid-1990s. Although the Web is still mainly a medium based on writing, it is liberated from most of the constraints of the book. The book is closed; the web is open.

Against this background, it may not be entirely irrelevant to point out that surveys among Scandinavian adolescents in the 1990s have repeatedly indicated that many of them would rather work in a recording studio (where they might get the opportunity to produce nonlinear, rhythmic, repetitive dance music) than enrolling at, say, an engineering college. In all western countries, the interest in engineering as a career has been declining since the 1960s. It may seem, then, that young people prefer being postmodern bricoleurs to being modern engineers. Whatever the case may be, McLuhan heralds a time dominated by a form of creativity liberated by the crutches of science and the rails of logic, where the creative powers of humanity are better depicted as mindmaps than as a syllogism; where horizontal, associative connections replace vertical, hierarchical and logical ones.

Lévi-Strauss says that the universe of the bricoleur or mythical thinker is limited, while the world of the engineer or scientific thinker is open and, in principle, unlimited. ‘The peculiar characteristic of mythical thought,’ he writes, ‘consists in expressing oneself through a repertoire which is heterogenous and also, even if it may be large, limited.’ He adds that considerable creative originality may emerge from such a limited repertoire: ‘Like bricolage at the technical level, mythical thinking may, at the intellectual level, achieve unpredicted and brilliant results’ [18].

The reader will have noted the parallel between the creativity of the bricoleur, as Lévi-Strauss describes it, and Hume's view of novelty. Yet it may seem far-fetched to ascribe bricolage qualities to the contemporary era. For is not one of the defining traits of the information age precisely the fact of unlimited access to information; an infinite, open universe which in no way may be compared to the environment of Amazonian tribes? Perhaps, but no matter how many web pages there are on the WWW, the number of pages accessed by each user, and even the total number of pages, is finite. Can one not say that both web designers and web users create newness by making new links between information which is already there? And can one not similarly say that the remote control operator consciously or unconsciously creates his or her own totality, or jigsaw, by producing his or her own collage of images and ‘shows’ by switching between channels? The universe of television is doubtless limited and finite even if one were blessed with a couple of hundred digital channels, and to the extent that the viewer creates something him- or herself, the act of creation is more closely related to the horizontal, intuitive style of the bricoleur than to the goal-rational, linear style of the engineer.

Television, food and the Internet have been mentioned. Another field in contemporary ‘creolised’ culture which seems to satisfy the requirements of bricolage (admittedly in a looser sense than intended by Lévi-Strauss) is rhythmic popular music. As the composer, musician and producer Brian Eno remarks in his autobiography A Year with Swollen Appendices [5], it seemed possible to distinguish between historical trends and developments in popular music up to the early 1990s. Glam, punk, heavy metal and reggae came from somewhere, had their distinct waxing and waning, and were replaced by other trends. In more recent years, Eno claims, nothing significant has happened apart from recombinations of existing elements and recurring retro movements and waves of nostalgia. Explicitly hybrid forms such as world music are the most obvious examples, but the tendency to recycle and remix is obvious in pop, rock and electronic dance music as well. The situation has been described as that of a time warp, where all postwar trends coexist and intermingle in new ways, but where there is no sense of development or direction [7]. At the same time as the bestselling popular artists remain people like Bob Dylan and Phil Collins (who have been active on the circuit for thirty to forty years), the most popular dance music among young people is nonlinear, rhythmic and repetitive, recalling the temporal structures of African drumming or Javanese gamelan music rather than the linear time structures of, say, Beethoven or Led Zeppelin. The Jamaican music form dub, which has mutated and spread all over the world, is an explicit form of recycling, where existing material is manipulated in the recording studio. As an aside, let me add that the term intertextuality has been one of the most common trade words in literary theory since the 1980s; a word which refers to the relationship between ‘new’ texts and older texts. Radical theorists may accordingly suggest that everything has been written before; what remains to do for the creative artist is, as it were, to combine existing texts in new ways. Critics would say that this is exactly what an author such as Salman Rushdie does, and that the ‘seething cauldrons’ of cosmopolitan, culturally hybrid cities produce little of lasting artistic value, but a fast-moving, neverending string of reconfigurations and meta-commentaries, adding little or nothing to existing works of art.

* * *

It may be possible to establish a reasonably convincing set of dichotomies on the basis of the foregoing discussion, beginning by contrasting structure and process, and then establish a list of characteristic traits under each heading. On the one hand we have bricolage and McLuhan's holistic communication, cultural cosmopolitans or creoles, Rushdie's mixed universe, the World Wide Web, the universalism of the concept of civilisation and ambivalence. On the other hand, we have linear, causal thought, the ideas from Romanticism about organic growth and development, the sequential structure of the book, the particularism of the concept of culture and the counterreactions of fundamentalism. In my view, this kind of dichotomy – fundamentalism versus ambivalence, closure versus openness – can be helpful in an attempt to understand culture and politics in our era. Yet it is easy to see that dichotomous thought of this kind is simplistic and ultimately inadequate. For it is easy to identify particularistic, ‘locally delineated’ expressions of WWW bricolage on the Net, and some of the most universalistic literature that has been written, is grounded in local worlds. Dickens and Dostoyevsky! Cosmopolitan uprootedness, moreover, can lead to a strong, excluding (and indeed fundamentalist) sense of identity, and close-knit local Gemeinschaften may turn out to be both open and generous to the outside world. Thus it may seem that any intention I might have had about establishing some useful contrasts, in order to make sense of a networked, fluid, creolised, chaotic landscape, collapses.

The solution may consist in distinguishing between two levels. Regarding thought and communication, the distinction between the linear, hierarchical and the nonlinear, horizontal seems necessary. Regarding aspects of social and cultural identification, the relationship between purity/closure and impurity/openness is similarly important. The two levels may be articulated in different ways. Each of the four alternatives, moreover, creates a space for a peculiar form of creativity. The main form of industrial society, thus, was the combination linearity/openness connected to an either/or: Movement and boundaries. The most important form of information society is the combination nonlinearity/openness connected to a both-and: Movement and openness. As the Catholic McLuhan might have expressed it: We have left monotheism, and have entered the era of intellectual Hinduism.


The author is indebted to Crossings' referees for many useful criticisms on the first draft.


The reference is to Raj Kapoor's 1955 film Shri 420, ‘Mr. 420.’ [16] In India, the number 420 suggests corruption and vice. The lyrics to the first verse of the song ‘Mera joota hai japaani’ are: ‘Mera joota hai Japani/Ye pataloon hai inglistani/Sar pe lal topi roosi/Par bhi dil hai hindustani,’ that is, ‘My shoes are Japanese/ And the trousers are English/ The cap on my head is Russian/ But my heart is Indian.’ Although there is probably no direct connection, the song inevitably recalls Ibsen's Peer Gynt, who, in response to Monsieur Ballon's question, ‘But you are Norwegian?’, exclaims: ‘Of birth – yes! But of character a citizen of the world’ [15] – before moving on to a list references indicating his composite identity, ranging from German books, French waistcoats and esprit and English common sense to Italian dolce far'niente and Swedish steel!

The table is adapted from my book Tyranny of the Moment [7]. I owe the concept of instantaneous time to John Urry [43].

It is unlikely that Lévi-Strauss and McLuhan were aware of each other at the time. However, the general ideas on literacy and illiteracy that they drew on were readily available in books and journals – although Lévi-Strauss would probably deny their influence on his thought. In Jack Goody's The Domestication of the Savage Mind [9], a treatise on the social and cultural consequences of writing, these influences, as well as their echoes in Lévi-Strauss's book, are evident.


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About the Author

Thomas Hylland Eriksen is Professor of Social Anthropology at the TIK Centre (Centre for Technology, Innovation and Culture), University of Oslo. His books include textbooks, critical essays and academic publications on identity politics, globalisation and cultural complexity. His most recent books in English are Tyranny of the Moment (Pluto, 2001) and, with Finn S. Nielsen, A History of Anthropology (Pluto, 2001). Visit Thomas Hylland Eriksen's web site at:

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