I was at a conference this summer where someone made a good presentation about the existing scholarship on the “Indianization” of Southeast Asia, that is, the process by which various aspects of the cultural traditions of local societies in the Indian continent came to play a role in the lives of people in the part of the world that we now refer to as Southeast Asia.
In the process, this scholar talked about how some scholars have argued that people in Southeast Asia “localized” (i.e., changed to fit local tastes/ideas/sensibilities) cultural concepts and practices from the Indian subcontinent.
This concept of “localization” is a central pillar of the field of Southeast Asian Studies in “the West” (the UK, Australia and North America), but it is not necessarily the most accurate term to use to refer to this historical process.
I was reminded of this point when a senior scholar at this conference who is well-versed in post-colonial theory but not an expert on Southeast Asia asked, “Why not just refer to this phenomenon as hybridity?”
Indeed, why not?
The reason why the term “localization” is favored over “hybridity” in the field of Southeast Asian Studies in the West has to do with academic politics. This concept was developed to counter the colonial-era argument that Southeast Asia had been transformed by outside influences from India and China.
By arguing that the people in Southeast Asia had “localized” outside cultures, scholars implied that “local/indigenous” cultures were more important to people in the past and that elements from “foreign” cultures therefore had to be changed to fit local cultures.
It is easy, however, to make the opposite argument – that members of the local elite valued foreign cultural traditions over the customs of their rustic neighbors and sought to impose those foreign traditions on local societies. In such a process, it was inevitable that whatever cultural tradition emerged was not an exact replica of some other cultural tradition, as there is no case anywhere in the world of one culture exactly reproducing another.
That the resulting cultural tradition did not exactly replicate the cultural traditions of the places where the foreign cultural traditions emerged from was thus not the result of deliberate “localization,” but of a more accidental process of hybriditization.
That said, there are also problems with the term “hybridity.” To some, the idea implies that there are two clear cultural traditions that mix equally to create a “hybrid.” This, of course, is not necessarily accurate.
In the case of the spread of cultural practices from the places that we now refer to as India and China into the area that we now call Southeast Asia, there was never a “pure” Indian/Chinese culture that they came from and they did not form some kind of equal “hybrid” with aspects of local cultures.
Instead, these foreign cultural influences – be they from Buddhism, Brahmanism, Confucianism, Islam, or Christianity – were always seen as superior to whatever existed locally.
Therefore whatever blending that took place resulted in what we might call a “hierarchical hybridity,” rather than a hybridity of equals.
In any case, the senior scholar’s question – “Why not use the concept of hybridity?” – reminded me of these issues, and it also reminded me of a song from the 1980s that was popular in the Soviet Union. It was a song by the group Joe Pravda and the Sputniks called “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) the Concept of Hierarchical Hybridity?”
This song was later covered by Elvis Costello and the Imposters as “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace Love and Understanding?” However, I like the original more, and above is a link to that classic song and video from Joe Pravda and the Sputniks.