Rethinking Culture: A little magic trick


“Want to see a magic trick? I’m an Italian on paper”,

is usually my opening line at a party with someone I’ve been chatting with whom I want to impress. This follows by me taking out my Italian identity card and opening myself up into a narcissistic Q&A session. Now in today’s global society anything is possible, but the trick isn’t in who I am or am not, but the perception of me by others. Now, you might be asking yourself, but Anthony! It’s completely normal to be an Italian, in fact there are already MILLIONS of Italians in the world. Although this is true, I was born and raised in the United States of America. Furthermore, I never spent more than 2 consecutive weeks in Italy. Thus, the snap of my fingers changes who I am completely!

Or not.

You see dear reader, I’m a fraud… I think? After my English, German and Spanish comes my skills with the Italian language. Of course I can pretend to sing like Bocelli, or talk about how one might correctly or incorrectly cook pasta, but, I’m not exactly sure how I talked the civil service officer at the Italian Consulate into granting me an ID card. Yes, my data was in the system, and a quick phone call to the old country to see if I was in the books was enough to get me off the hook. But that day I became Italian after 20 years of being an American hasn’t changed much… except my ability to evade taxes.

This is only further complicated by the fact that my mother immigrated to America from Poland. I can attest that Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations is real, and is only empirically measurable between married couples. Controversy aside, the reason I’m obviously not Polish is because no one from where I grew up except my mother knew exactly what it meant to be Polish. Whereas my town had a small Sicilian community, the next vibrant polish ethnic enclave was 30 minutes away in Mannville, where my family seldom visited. Of course during my entire upbringing my mom, who was actually Polish was really just American, which than made me American but only because I wasn’t really sure how Polish I was raised. The same could be said about me being Italian, through the virtue of my father’s strong accent and distrust of Authority paired with an all around hate for civic engagement, which made him Italian to me because it wasn’t what I associated with being American, which is what my Mom was… but actually wasn’t. And although I introduced my father as Italian, he would disagree and note that he is Sicilian, but I hold that I am right because his passport says otherwise.

Think this is confusing? It is for me too.

I’m not only a sub-par American, but parallel a bad Italian and an even worse Polack. By American standards, I can get away with being 50% Polish and 50% Italian while staying 100% American. Unfortunately, in Germany where I now live, fractions are a little less complicated, but in terms of Culture more complicating. As soon as my ethnicity can only add up to 100% I cannot even qualify my own Identity without making it a competition. On one side, my father speaks with an Accent, while my mom’s English is flawless (Italy 1, Poland 0). On the other hand I have always celebrated Christmas with Polish family and have never shied away from a kielbasa, or paczki (Italy and Poland neck and neck). The only factor that tips the scale is the “family business”, my father’s Pizzeria in New Jersey, which can illicit jokes about the Sopranos (We have a winner folks!). Which is why my Italian identity can only go so far as I can use it to gain face. For some reason though, being Polish hasn’t been as funny. Thus that which was once easily quantifiable as 50%/50%/100% is, with a simple alteration of standard, impossible to put in numbers.

Some may suggest that the essence of Culture relies on a Habitus, or on socialized repeated rituals taught through things like school, and family life but it is this Habitus which relies on the basic understanding of the actual essence of Culture that is being ritualized. Whereas the Habitus of my Americanness can be seen in my ability to recite the pledge of allegiance, my Polishness cannot be assessed due to my overall lack of knowledge of how to be Polish. This is why, when I asked my mom, what it means to be Polish, she responded by saying “hard work and perseverance” which can be confused with the values of American, or at least American Immigrant society. This leaves only two conclusions. Either my own Polish mother forgot what it is like to be Polish, or my absolute ignorance of being Polish cannot interpret the “essence” of Polishness materialized through the rituals and thoughts of my mother. My answer to both conclusions however is simple, neither is right.

The truth is, we all have the wrong idea of culture.

In the attempts of trying to get along better with one another, or through trying to become better managers and politicians we base our idea of what Culture is through what we think Culture is. Culture may be socialized practices of a group and how they materialize, but at the same time it could be a discursive construction, an iceberg, a sand-dune, fuzzy, or a fruit! The only actual consistencies that exist in the discipline of Cultural studies are that; A. Culture is a thing, and B. No one can agree on what kind of thing Culture really is. Of course there is such a thing as Culture, but in our very quest to identify what it is, and is not we lose sight of the thing we want to clarify. Culture apparently is everything, unless you need to define it… then under scientific scrutiny Culture becomes everything you need it to be to prove a point and everything else that Culture is, becomes collateral to you career as a public academic. This is the only way that Culture can; belong to an individual, belong to a group, not belong to anyone, be a shared system of beliefs, be a mental programming, be the belonging to a nation-state all while being quantifiable and perfectly understandable after the 20 question survey of a bachelor student’s terribly boring thesis, or worse, a buzzfeed article about the 10 things Americans should eat when they drink alcohol.

This is why we need to abandon our ideas of Culture. Maybe not for the long term, but only until we find a way to deal with each other without relying on our differences. The more we think in terms of Culture, the more we reinforce its incarnations in our mental blueprints of the world. Is it a long evening and my friends want to go to bar while I want to go home? I’m an American who cannot handle their alcohol. I’m at a party and want to impress a girl? Then I slick back my hair and become an Italian Casanova. Something went missing and my friends want to make a joke about me being a thief? Then Of course it was me the Polack! But somehow, I’m neither of the three, or at least it feels that way.

People always praise the benefits of Multiculturality without actually understanding the empty depth that it brings with it. Culture is supposed to be fluid. But a single drop of water in a bottle of oil is also fluid while it retains its shape. Sometimes it feels like being the only Yankees fan at a Redsocks game, or being a KSC fan in Stuttgart. Although you don’t carry the fetishes of your tribe when you’re doing business in enemy territory, you never feel quite like you’ve blended in. You feel just like that drop of water who lives in a bottle of oil, which is a strange feeling to have at home. It was never up to me to be American, Italian, or Polish. I like to think that my cultural identity was created in a fantastic but fatalistic situation like how Spiderman got his powers, or when Bruce Wayne became Batman, the only difference is that instead of having to save a city from a villain I have had to save a retail store manager from the impatient tirade of my father’s old-world attitude. Sometimes it feels as though some contingent pressure of history and fate is forcing itself upon me. In a perverted twist of the famous quote from Simon de Beauvoir, I was not BORN an Italian, I was MADE an Italian. But who is doing the making?

This is exactly how my magic trick becomes magic. Because the only use I can get out of being stuck in the middle of circumstances is by returning back into the awkward position of inbetweeness to elicit laughs. Thereby through the work of extraordinary forces, Anthony Amato, the seemingly obnoxious party guest who won’t leave you alone becomes Anthony Amato, the seemingly obnoxious party guest who won’t leave you alone Visa free in up to 27 EU countries. And just like with Peter Parker’s journey from a normal person, to a normal person who can do not so normal things, I undergo my symbolic transformation and become different people at the same time while still actually being the same person. This is the kind of absurdity that thinking through Culture gets you, a double vision within a single figure. “Transformation” aside I don’t feel any more Italian than anyone else probably does, but for a lot of reasons why it shouldn’t, that makes a lot of difference.

But then again, with great discursive power comes great discursive responsibility. I just hope that Peter Parker isn’t as confused as I am.

Anthony Amato is a second-year student in our Bachelor program in International Relations.

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