The man in the café

An interesting example of what we might call ‘cultural difference’ is the man coming into the café where I am sitting in Canterbury who orders an espresso at the counter, stirs in the sugar with particular panache and then drinks the coffee there and then without sitting down, and leaves. Yes, he speaks Italian to someone. This resonates with the attention I attracted among friends in Italy because I drink my espresso slowly and say that I can make it last for an hour. I therefore presume he’s Italian. But of course he might not be.

If I say ‘Italians drink their espresso straight down’, I am using an expressive, even poetic form, to indicate something that I’ve seen and which might even appeal to me. But I must never let the statement run away with me and become something more than it is. The practice might change. Next time I go to Italy I might see some Italians drinking their espressos more slowly. That could happen. For all sorts of reasons, practices can change. But the main point is that I have no right to define Italians by such statements because to do so would be to try to reduce them. Moreover, ‘Italians’ can never be more than an approximate term for a people who are as complex and varied as ‘we’ are.

Perhaps the man in the café reminds me of some sort of idealised image I have – Marcello Mastroianni or Franco Nero. Italians who don’t like that image must please excuse me. Even if they like this imagery, this is what it must remain. Homi Bhabha explains the complexity of why very well. Although I really don’t want to get into literature review in these blogs, I think here that I have no choice.

An important feature of colonial discourse is its dependence on the concept of ‘fixity’ in the ideological construction of otherness … it connotes rigidity and an unchanging order as well as disorder, degeneracy and daemonic repetition. Likewise the stereotype, which is its major discursive strategy, is a form of knowledge and identification that vacillates between what is always ‘in place’, already known, and something that must be anxiously repeated … that needs no proof can never really, in discourse, be proved. [1]

Therefore, to think of the image of the man in the café and the other images he conjures as a stereotype, rather than a poetic recollection, celebration or appreciation, would be an act of colonisation.

If we stereotype ourselves we are buying into the colonised image of who we are. If we use the stereotype of ourselves for strategic purpose that’s a different matter; but we mustn’t be seduced into believing it.

Notes

  1. Homi Bhabha, 1994, The location of culture, Routledge, pages 94-95

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