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A Cultural Battle without Foundations?: “Otherness” considered from two epistemological standpoints

20 Mar

there is a kind of attachment to specificity and complexity which is the condition of any adequate intellectual work, and another kind which is really a defence of a particular kind of consciousness, within very specific cultural conditions: a defence, really, against recognition of the necessarily general relations within which all cultural work, including analysis, is done. Such defences are easily and even habitually sustained within certain kinds of privileged institution, where privilege is not so much, or not primarily, a matter of income or life style, but rather a condition of relatively distanced, relatively unchallenged relations with the practical and continuing social process.

Thus we have always to distinguish between two kinds of consciousness: that alert, open and usually troubled recognition of specificity and complexity, which is always, in a thousand instances, putting working generalizations and hypotheses under strain; and that other, often banal, satisfaction with specificity and complexity, as reasons for the endless postponement of all (even local) general judgements and decisions. (Raymond Williams, The Sociology of Culture, Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1995, pp. 282-83. Quoted in Chow, Ethics After Idealism, xix)

Between idealism and positivism, theory and culture, there are often battles. The battle between the two stalwarts of “theory” on the one hand and “culture” on the other for example marked much of the late eighties and nineties “culture wars” and their disciplinary battles. People like Harold Bloom, themselves bearers of radical deconstructive ideas in the sixties and seventies who would find their own status as radicals of theory threatened by “the astonishing garbage called ‘cultural criticism’” (Quoted in Ken Shulman, “Bloom and Doom” (an interview with Harold Bloom), Newsweek, October 10, 1994, p. 75) that gradually gained ground from the late seventies onward in questioning their own theoretically “radical” position from a different cultural perspective: one which threatened their own. To be glib: the deconstructor became in turn deconstructed (which would make sense to Derrida, given his own theory that everything contains within it the potential of its own self-deconstruction, evincing his belief in the “strategic” mechanism of deconstruction as opposed to its exemplifying merely a particular “practice” or ideology that one can then choose to apply.)

I would imagine that it would be helpful to both sides to recognise the shared disciplinary and epistemological beliefs underpinning these arguments, and then – more optimistically – my hope in moving past the limits of each understanding, if only insofar as by “moving past” all we can in fact hope to accomplish is a recognition of the lacunae that have structured the assumptions of each side. In acknowledging these, there is hope that these assumptions can be more productively critiqued and extended beyond their current uses in future.

A good reference on the notion of contemporary battles in academia between theory and culture has been written of by Rey Chow. Chow identifies a dichotomy between “theory” (which Chow identifies primarily as referring to post-war, “post-structuralist” theory, much of it emanating from France and dealing with the problems brought up by German Idealist or “continental”, as opposed to “analytic”, philosophy) and “culture” (particularly non-Western cultures such as one might find in specialised area studies such as Asian, African, Latin-American, Middle East studies et. al). As she writes in one essay of her collection Ethics After Idealism, “students should not be told simply to reject ‘metadiscourses’ in the belief that by turning to the ‘other’ cultures – by turning to ‘culture’ as the ‘other’ of metadiscourses – they would be able to overturn existing boundaries of knowledge production that, in fact, continue to define and dictate their own discourses.” (Rey Chow, Ethics After Idealism: Theory-Culture-Ethnicity-Reading, Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana Univ. Press, 1998, p. 13). Chow is writing here particularly in the context of a certain type of critique employed among practitioners of some of the social sciences and “area” studies that reject the aforemetioned “post-structuralist” theories in favour of fieldwork, empirical research, and the “cultural specificities” associated with their area. Those assuming such a stance often argue, for example, that there is no “postmodernity” since modernity still conditions so much of the current conjuncture, particularly in countries whose encounter with modernity is explicitly coloured by sometimes violent encounters with Euro-America; or that there is no “post-national” or “post-colonial” condition so long as conditions of national belonging, as well as colonial and acolonial struggle, still occur (think for example of North Korea’s ideological battles with both the U.S. and South Korea, or Hong Kong’s with both Britain and mainland China, as illustrations of the latter, or of the relationships between places like Mongolia, Tibet and the Xinjiang region with China, as possible examples of the former).

Chow’s main point is that both sides however are working within the same Enlightenment tradition (worth mentioning here, given the frequency with which some of the social and area studies once dismissed or critiqued post-structural critique as “nihilistic”, see for example Susan J. Hekman’s Hermeneutics and the Sociology of Knowledge, Cambridge: Polity Press, 1986, p. 196). The difference, such as it is, inheres mainly in approaching it from different epistemological standpoints. For Chow, the subversive, “nihilistic” operations of “theory” are “based on the differencing – the differentiation and displacements – internal to the fundamental forms of logocentric signification – be it language, the text, the psyche, the subject, or consciousness.” (Ethics after Idealism, xvii). This internal negatory mode, in which the limits of consciousness or, to paraphrase the famous Foucaldian gloss on one of Borges’ short fictions in The Order of Things, “the impossibility of thinking that”, remain implicitly the limits of a Western logocentrism that is still Eurocentric. That is, they “[partake] of the dismantling of Western thought from within” and therefore “work negatively, as bearers of markers of difference that underpin Western language, metaphysics, work, and sexuality” (ibid.). This negative mode however works to disrupt “critical theory’s claim to alterity” and according to Chow’s critique can be no more “taken as definitive signs of alterity per se” (ibid.) than can the fetishisation of anthropological difference sometimes employed in area studies/social science critique. Chow’s point indeed is similar to that of Elizabeth V. Spelman in Inessential Woman: Problems of Exclusion in Feminist Thought (Boston: Beacon, 1988), which is concerned with delineating the paradoxical situation of white Western feminist methodologies that have perpetuated the universalism and privilege of the patriarchal thinking they set out to overcome. As Chow remarks in a footnote referencing this work, “Playing on Nietzsche and on the logic of Animal Farm, [Spelman] sums up the methodological inequity of prevalent feminist theories in this manner: ‘Just as some humans are more human than others (which Plato and Aristotle held), so…some women are more ‘woman’ than others” (p. 175). See Ethics after Idealism, p. 190, ft. 12).

If we take for example the remark made by Karl Popper regarding the “bedrock” of research as an analogy for the shared tradition of Englightenment ideas inhering in both “theoretical” and “cultural” perspectives,we can see that both sides are approaching a common goal, but in different ways. Popper writes:

“The empirical basis of objective science has…nothing ‘absolute’ about it. Science does not rest upon solid bedrock. The bold structure of its theories rises, as it were, above a swamp. It is like a building erected on piles. The piles are driven down from above into the swamp, but not down to any natural or ‘given’ base; and is we stop driving the piles deeper, it is not because we have reached firm ground. We simply stop when we are satisfied that the piles are firm enough to carry the structure, at least for the time being.” (Karl Popper, The Logic of Scientific Discovery, London: Routledge, 1992, p.94).

There is a temptation however to remark here that what remains unquestioned in Popper’s statement is the need to build bridges at all. If a bridge is a means of travel and coneyance, to where to we travel in the enlightened search for knowledge? If the alterity of “cultural” criticism resides in discovering the non-Western “other”, that of “theory” inheres in marking the limits of Western though, at which point the “other” appears in the form of “the wonderment of this taxonomy, the thing we apprehend in one great leap, the thing that…is demonstrated as the exotic charm of another system of thought, [that] is the limitation of our own, the stark impossibility of thinking that.” (Michel Foucault, The Order of Things (New York: Pantheon, 1970) xv. Insofar as “that” has so often been a particular site located outside the geography of Euro-America – from the “ideographic” nature of the Chinese character that helped Derrida envisage the possibility of a writing system outside of logocentrism to the semiotics involved in reading Japan not in terms of any “real” Japan containing a plenitude of being or presence but a semiotics of “Japan” in Barthes’ L’empire des Signes – then we find that in the case of both epistemological perspectives, all roads – or bridges – inevitably lead East. As Chow puts it, if the problem of the “cultural” side inheres in its own idealism of “offering promises of salvation even as they preach against ‘Western hegemony,’ ‘Eurocentrism,’ and the like” (xix), that of “theory” involves the unspoken and unaccounted for privileges that “cultural studies” has been concerned to try and point out insofar as its praxis has often involved “a process of cultivation, a process which, despite its claim to radical alterity and heterogeneity, operates by demanding of its adherents a certain conformity with its unspoken rules, rules that have gone without saying until they are revealed for what they are: ‘deconstruct  the best you can – but continue to centre on the West!'” (xviii) It is beyond the scope of this piece of writing, but it would be interesting to question exactly how this “process of cultivation” has been able to “demand” of its adherents “a certain conformity”. Is this an institutionalised process? An unconscious one? To what degree do the “adherents” have agency in following this process and re-shaping it? How are they in turned shaped by the process? Is it a positioning, or is it an inherent attribute of the very act of employing “theory” itself – as some who have avoided theory for its “Eurocentrism” in area studies have sometimes asserted?

The focus on non-Western cultures that marks much of the praxis of area and anthropological study, insofar as it privileges locality and embedded “cultural” knowledge as an antidote to the imperialist, universalizing tendencies of “Western” theory, is reminiscent of a critique not dissimilar to Spelman’s that Neil Lazarus has written regarding overuse of the terms “Western” or “the West”. For Lazaus, the use of these terms itself tends to repeat the Eurocentric logic of “the West” as ageographical, dematerialised, and simultaneously bearing modern weaponry, technology, achievements, and all sorts of other disparate forms of capital, both cultural and material, against “the Rest” (see “Fetish of ‘the West’ in Postcolonial Theory” in Bartolovich & Lazarus (eds.) Marxism, Modernity and Postcolonial Studies, Cambridge, NY: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2002).

To return to Chow however, Chow writes of how some, “instead of using theory to challenge the conceptual premises, institutional habits, or established authorities of their fields, use it rather as a way to rejuvenate and embellish the old parameters of Orientalism and its related area studies, which they continue to defend with the rhetoric of cultural exceptionalism. [Employing] the technical innovativeness of corporate managers and the spiritual dedication of Christian missionaries, they boldly seek to export ‘cultural studies’ to remote corners of the earth such as China and Asia, offering promises of salvation even as they preach against ‘Western hegemony,’ ‘Eurocentrism,’ and the like” (xvii-xix). Indeed, Chow’s critique could be extended further. The situation she describe now not only involves those travelling from West to East, but is becoming common among those who return from overseas to Asia and write books about going “beyond” or “challenging” Orientalism (they are often reminiscent, in their concern for delineating the “specificities” or unique aspects of Asia’s difference, of the fad in the nineties toward the idea of a “Confucian capitalism”). “Theory” in these readings is viewed often as a “Western” object, inapplicable to a certain area’s cultural specificity – its “otherness” or difference – until it has first yielded its ability to be re-employed with the requisite “Asian characteristics”.

A good example of this trend is a recent book by Ming Dong Gu, Professor of Comparative Literature at the University of Texas, Dallas, and a visiting professor at Nanjing University, entitled Sinologism: An Alternative to Orientalism and Postcolonialism (NY and London: Routledge, 2013). Although a full critique of the flaws of Gu’s work would be beyond the scope of this piece of writing, one passage in particular evidences some of the unexamined assumptions of his attack on “theory” in favour of “objective”, “disinterested” knowledge:

“…because of its emphasis on race, ethnicity, color, gender, and national identity, and other politically and ideologically oriented issues, postcolonialism tends to overlook the relatively neutral and objective nature of knowledge production and scholarly research, and often lapses into subjectively political criticism and ideological controversy. This drawback is clearly manifested in the debates on postcolonialism, East and West. In Western academia even those scholars who belong to the same camp of post-colonialist theories may express entirely different and opposite opinions on the same issue. By way of example, on the issue of Marx’s relationship to colonialism, Said regards Marx as an Orientalist who differs from other colonialist thinkers only in degree. By contrast, Spivak and other postcolonial theorists view Marx as a staunch revolutionary thinker resolutely opposed to colonialism” (p. 21).

Apart from the inexplicable decision of Gu to provide a reference in the original text for his remark on Said but not on that regarding the views of Spivak and “other postcolonial theorists”, the passage cited here seems oddly to suggest that there is a problem in the situation of theorists having “opposite opinions on the same issue” (!)

To return this issue however to the specific criticism of the relationship between “culture” and “theory”, Chow’s point concerns understanding that both groups employ an epistemology that uses “otherness” to locate itself, whether in the form of theory’s deconstructive limits tending to occur only at the point of acknowledging cultures outside the West, or of the otherness involved in being a scholar of non-Western “cultures”. Gu’s work exactly illustrates Chow’s remark that “If no criticism of ‘culture’ can suffice simply by reiterating the insights deduced from the cultural instance that is Western critical theory, then no criticism of ‘theory’ can suffice simply by assuming the theoretical stance of advocating the aesthetic and literary traditions of another nation and culture” (xix). This is however something Gu’s book seems to suggests in the idealist nativism of some of its arguments advocating the sort of respectable liberalism and cultural plurality that would inhere in a “decolonising, depoliticisng, and de-ideologising Chinese scholarship” (p. 222):

“The ideology of Sinologism has obstructed Chinese and Western scholars in their perception and representation of China. It has in turn blurred Western and non-Western people’s own vision and understanding of their own cultures, because a true understanding of one’s own culture requires the mirror image of another culture. Consequently there is an urgent need for self-conscious reflection on the part of both Westerners and non-Westerners alike. There is also a pressing need for the Chinese to understand their own culture. As Sinologism has penetrated almost all strata of Chinese academia and all aspects of Chinese social life, it has become an obstacle to the healthy development of Chinese society. The inundation of Western ideas and scholarship into China in the 1970s during he initial stage of Reform and Openness made it possible for Chinese academia to emancipate its mind, but it has also intensified the cultural unconscious centring on intellectual colonization, and strengthened he epistemological and methodological inertia of the Chinese mind and caused the atrophy of scholarly creativity and originality. It has become the consensus that the present-day prosperity of Chinese scholarship is based on introduction, imitation, reproduction and duplication. Numerous scholars deplore the low degrees of originality and creativity in Chinese academia. Almost all academic fields are content with low-level duplication of Western academic achievements. This is especially so in the social sciences and humanities” (ibid.)

I would aggree with Gu that “a true understanding of one’s own cultural requires the mirror image of another culture” as being a problem of the idealism that informs “cultural” and “theory” critiques alike, insofar as that word refers not only to the tendency to treat the world as a product of ideas, as in the mentalism of idealist philosophy as critiqued by Marx and Engels, among others (recall the famous words of the Theses on Feuerbach, written in 1845: “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it” – a dictum Gu’s book arguably stands in opposition to; see Sinologism, p. 224), but also to the mythification of alterity and “otherness”; the sense of “the other” as standing outside the contradictions and problematics that inhere in the subject’s/our own historical and cultural conjuncture. I would however argue that what this means is certainly not that there is consequently “a pressing need for the Chinese to understand their own culture” (p. 222, my italics), but instead that we must break down the subject/object distinction by seeing subjects as never being self-present, as being other even to themselves (not a new suggestion, mind!). Much of Gu’s monograph seems thoroughgoingly culturalist and essentialist in its need to pose categories of “West” and “non-West” against one another in arguing for epistemic “decolonisation”. As long as we look to native informants who are not ourselves, rather than recognising our own unmarked epistemic centre as being itself coloured and native in relative to other points of view that objectify ourselves as the subject, conclusions such as Gu’s for a further reification of the subject/object distinction will persist. Ironically enough, the paradoxical nature of this situation of a subjectivity that is never entirely self-present is implicitly asserted by Gu himself in the aforementioned passage: “Western ideas and scholarship into China in the 1970s…made it possible for Chinese academia to emancipate its mind, but it has also intensified the cultural unconscious” (ibid.) To give a generous interpretation of these remarks, the point to be made here is that the “Chinese mind” – that is, the subject of our (the Chinese) speech – is at once emancipated and yet unfree, not because of any exterior contamination necessarily, but the contamination that conditions its “health”. It is an infection upon which it would have to rely – and on which much culturalist critique of “the West” often does – in order to reach an ever more (in this instance) “healthy development of Chinese society”.

Gu’s attack on “ideology” in favour of “disinterested scholarship” (p. 224) is reminiscent of those attacks on “theory” that do not account for how anyone can mount criticisms from a non-theoretical position. The tendency to reduce the separation between ontology and the real often position in post-structuralist critique to a form of “nihilism” or “relativism” has been well-rebutted by Thomas Kuhn:

“There is, I think, no theory-independent way to reconstruct phrases like ‘really there’; the notion of a match between the ontology of a theory and its ‘real’ counterpart in nature now seems to me illusive in principle. Besides, as a historian, I am impressed with the implausibility of the view. I do not doubt, for example, that Newton’s mechanics improves on Aristotle’s and that Einstein’s improves on Newton’s as instruments for puzzle-solving. But I can see in their succession no coherent direction of ontological development. On the contrary, in some important respects, though by no means in all, Einstein’s general theory of relativity is closer to Aristotle’s then either of them is to Newton’s. Though the temptation to describe that position as relativistic is understandable, the description seems to me wrong. Conversely, if the position is relativism, I cannot see that the relativist loses anything needed to account for the nature and development of the sciences.” (Thomas A. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Fourth Ed., Chicago and London: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2012, p. 205)

Particularly interesting in Kuhn’s remarks are how they complicate the common belief that in the humanities, unlike in the sciences, the wheel can be, and often is, reinvented. Though figures like Heidegger went back to the Greeks for new paradigms, the suggestion that Einstein himself also hearkens back to ancient predecessors, even if he is not explicit in doing so, is certainly cause for reflection.

The need for reflexivity and a problematisation of the notion of “weak objectivity” originating in the natural sciences (which suggests that observation is separate to its social consequences) will inhere insofar as we continue to be reminded of how, “In social inquiry, observation changes the field observed” (Sandra Harding, Whose Science? Whose Knowledge? Thinking from Women’s Lives, Milton Keynes: OpenUniv. Press, 1991, p. 161). As Mark Bevir succinctly remarks:

“I think that Gadamer, Foucault, and Derrida are right to reject the idea of a given past. They are right for the very general reason that we do not have pure experiences. The nature of a perception depends on the perceiver. A sensation can become the object of a perception or an experience only when our intelligence identifies it as a particular sensation both distinct from, and in a relation to, other sensations. We become aware of a sensation only when we attend to it, and when we attend to a sensation we necessarily identity it, using abstract categories, as a particular sort of sensation. Thus, perceptions always incorporate theoretical understanding.” (Mark Bevir, “Objectivity in History”, in History and Theory, 33 (1994), p. 329).