Saturday, May 29, 2010

On the dialogics of cultures and populations

Over at GNXP, Razib Khan put up a post on the historical demographics of German Jews as compared to the current demographics of American Jews that I thought might interest you.

[I]n regards to the future of the American Jewry I think the story outlined in Amos Elon’s The Pity of It All: A Portrait of the German-Jewish Epoch, 1743-1933 may serve as a possible vision of the future. Elon notes that almost the whole of the German Jewish elite of the late 18th and early 19th century converted to Christianity. Moses Mendelssohn’s last Jewish descendant died before the 20th century; the rest of his descendants had become Christians. Karl Marx and Heinrich Heine were not atypical. But there was a large German Jewish community in the early 20th century, though even that was being eroded by intermarriage and conversion. If Elon is correct that the bulk of the 19th century Jewry became Christian, where did the Jews of the 20th century come from? It seems that as the German Jewish burghers abandoned the Reform temples for Lutheran churches, their spots were filled by assimilating Eastern European Jews who were immigrating into Germany and taking over the institutions which the earlier community had built. They were heirs in spirit, if not blood, to Moses Mendelssohn. In other words, a large bumper crop of Orthodox youth may be the salvation for the Reform and Conservative movements. There may be no third generation Reform, but not all third generations beyond Orthodoxy remain Orthodox either.

Examples like the above constitute any number odata points against the idea of extending demographic trends naively into the distant future, expecting that cultures and populations will remain conservatively and hermetically sealed off from each other, without any blurring or fusion. That has never been the case. Different cultures always engage with each other, individuals interact with other individuals, thesis, antithesis, synthesis on a scale. Don't think dialectics: think dialogics, a far more complex set of relationships.

The dialogic work carries on a continual dialogue with other works of literature and other authors. It does not merely answer, correct, silence, or extend a previous work, but informs and is continually informed by the previous work. Dialogic literature is in communication with multiple works. This is not merely a matter of influence, for the dialogue extends in both directions, and the previous work of literature is as altered by the dialogue as the present one is. In this sense, Bakhtin's "dialogic" is analogous to T. S. Eliot's ideas in "Tradition and the Individual Talent," where he holds that "the past should be altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past."

The term 'dialogic', however, does not just apply to literature. For Bakhtin, all language - indeed, all thought - appeared dialogic. This means that everything anybody ever says always exists in response to things that have been said before and in anticipation of things that will be said in response. We never, in other words, speak in a vacuum. As a result, all language (and the ideas which language contains and communicates) is dynamic, relational and engaged in a process of endless redescriptions of the world.

What holds for works of popular culture like literature holds for culture as a whole--and, for that matter, for areas of culture other than popular culture like demographic trends. Based on any number of highly individual reactions to different economic, political, and social stimuli, different societies respond to population issues in different ways, very often informed by the experiences of other countries. Québec has been influenced by the family-friendly policies of France; Estonia has largely adopted the family-friendly trends of low marriage rates and postponed fertility of neighbouring Nordic countries; countries with dynamic labour markets (like Spain and the United States until recently) are more open to immigrants than countries with relatively closed labour markets; people often move from one country to another based on cultural and historical bonds between sending and receiving countries (from Ukraine and Central Asia to Russia, say).

The same holds true for subpopulations within a given polity, with gender norms from a surrounding culture influencing the behaviour of immigrant women coming from cultures with different gender norms, and with some degree of mutual assimilation, often asymmetrical, between different populations. Argentina's culture may be heavily influenced by Italian immigrants, but ultimately the division of these Italians into different regional populations ensured that the descendants of Argentina's big waves of Italian immigrants, who likely formed a slight majority of incomers, ended up speaking Spanish. And Germany's Jewish population continued to grow, despite the assimilation of the native-born, thanks to immigration from Germany's eastern hinterlands.



benj said...

Very interesting. But from what I knew the assimilation of German Jews was in absolute numbers a very limited phenomenon. It's not like there was a huge Jewish community in Germany in the 19th century whose members disappeared and were replaced by East European Jews.

The Jews who converted to Christianity were mostly Berlin Jews - and they were a few hundreds or thousands.

What's happening in the USA today is something different. Jews do not convert they just intermarry and make few kids. But thee "half-Jewish" kids are not totally "lost" to the Jewish community either and it's difficult to predict the future. In 1990 a study said that only 30% of intermarriage children were raised in Judaism. In the 2000s another study said 60%. We will just have to sit and wait.

Scott said...

I think that demographic forecasts are only usable out to about twenty years. Beyond that there are too many uncertainties for forecasts to be meaningful.