So over the weekend I made my regular loop round the neighbourhood in a bid to fend off the pain hours of sitting at a computer inflicts on my back. I usually use these times to mull over whatever conundrum I am trying to figure out that day. That afternoon I’d been reading about the notion of “creative adaptation” and their role in what Charles Taylor (2001) calls “alternative modernities”. Now I’ve used his work in my own research but alternative modernities still seemed a problematic term to me given it tacitly implies there to be an original modernity to which everything else that comes along is a mere alternative. I wasn’t sure if I was nitpicking or if there were grounds to the exception I’d taken to the term. Still, it was worth thinking through…
Creative adaptation, according to Taylor, was how those who don’t want to have modernity imposed on them from the outside “draw on the cultural resources of their tradition” to “enable them to take on the new practices successfully” (Taylor 2001: 183). That seemed to make sense to me but as usual, reading about something is far different from understanding it as lived experience.
The first two kilometres down, turning the corner and stepping onto the oval, I saw a couple of groups holding activities there. It’s not a great photo but if you look carefully or click on the enlarged version, you will see one group to the left made up, going by their exhortations to each other, of South Asian men playing cricket and having a great old time. The other group barely visible further back on the right side of the picture had 2 Chinese dragons being manipulated by dancers accompanied by a troupe of female drummers. The dodgy PA system the Falun Gong group (I spoke to the fellow picking up the dragon’s head later) had was blaring out some supplementary background music. The noise was surprisingly familiar to me and my Singapore-attuned ears though I daresay less so for others at the local oval that day.
This was the first time I’d seen the two groups at the oval but then I don’t always take my walks at the same time. So I was rather struck at how at home both groups felt. Families were lounging about on the lawn, others like myself were drawn in as spectators and about 50 metres away another group, this time of dog lovers, were chatting away at a bench while their pooches ran round and round. None of the groups looked out of place, alien or uncomfortable though each was carrying out activities that one might describe as culturally distinct. This pleased me immensely but was nevertheless a surprise.
Two circuits round the oval, off the oval and further up the avenue I came across the third community event of the day (I kid you not). It looked like a Country-and-Western themed birthday party held at the local Anglican church grounds complete with bales-of hay seating, a two-piece fiddle and spoons band and guests decked out in a checked shirts, jeans and boots dress code. “Ah!”, I thought, “that’s where the faint strains of Waltzing Matilda had come from earlier”. I’d thought it was stray karaoke music. This, then, was the original Australian culture, that baseline reference point tacit in the term alternative modernities. Or was it?
I realised then that although I objected to alternative modernities as a privileging of Western modernity, I myself had assumed that because Australia is a ‘Western’ country with a Western modernity there would be no need for creative adaptation here. But clearly, given the many groups with their different activities, cultures and ways of being at home in Perth, Western Australia, this was not going to be possible, if it ever was. And that’s when another bit I’d read fell into place, reminding me of “creative adaptation as an interminable process of questioning the present” (Gaonkar 2001: 21, my emphasis).
Last kilometre and loop completed, I’d worked out the kinks in my back and the worse ones in my muddled head. All of which goes to show that nothing makes the point of a theory or tests one’s assumptions quite as well as the lived experience.
Gaonkar, D. P. 2001. On Alternative Modernities. In Gaonkar, D. P. (ed.) Alternative Modernities. Durham: Duke University Press.
Taylor, C. 2001. Two Theories of Modernity. In Gaonkar, D. P. (ed.) Alternative Modernities. Durham: Duke University Press.