Friday, October 13, 2017

The 'exoticisation' of our culture

Someone once noted not too long ago that modernity was the West’s way of measuring itself against the Other, the rest of the world. It was a way of assessing progress, for the most material, which is why the transition in the 17th and 18th centuries from the Inquisition to the Reformation and then to the Enlightenment is so significant. The truth is that the West, particularly continental Europe, saw a fading away of its (for the most) theological systems of thought in favour of a rational, economistic conception of the relationship between the individual and the world. Whatever the critics might say, this was founded on a Judeo-Christian tradition (as Nalin de Silva has noted, its system of logic was no less different to science and Marxism), and it would not have blossomed into the Industrial Revolution without the Inquisition or the Reformation, the latter of which, particularly through Calvin and Luther, substituted collective salvation for individual repentance.

Gandhi once offered an amusing riposte to someone who asked him as to what he thought of Western civilization: “I think it would be a good idea.” Hidden beneath the amusement and the wit was a blunt, if not brash, comment on the dichotomy between the real and the ideal at the heart of that civilisation. Those who have read Fernand Braudel will no doubt believe that all civilisations were essentially one, that the world was not always divided between China and India on the one hand and continental France and Britain on the other. True. But then differences were bound to arise, partly because of the economic strength of the latter and also because that economic strength brought about a pressing need to make comparisons, to feel superior, to exert force on the Other. Contemporary imperialism at its strongest, most insidious.

Cultural imperialism is nothing without the cultural aspect to it, and that aspect comes out most strongly with respect to how different civilisations casually demarcated as the “Other” are depicted, represented, patronised, and condescended to. Even today. The first few decades of British rule in India, before the Mutiny of 1857, involved an exchange of cultural artefacts, in fact two ways of life. The colonialist found it to his liking to be Indian, to go around town inspecting the ways of life he had intruded on, to make himself a part of the people he had invaded. It was roughly the same phenomenon that unfolded itself in Sri Lanka, with the main bone of contention here being the promise made by the invaders to protect Buddhism and act in place of the deposed King. Stewart-Mackenzie overtly made it his mission to convert our “heathens” to Christianity, thus severing the ties between State and faith. The latter part of the 19th century saw a reversal of this trend, with Sir William Gregory and Sir Arthur Gordon explicitly recognising the place of Buddhism and emphasising neutral relations between their government and our faith.

Naturally this concurrent system of condescending to and denigrating a culture, as defined by the Other, could only result in an insidious history of looting and expatriation of artefacts on the one hand and conversion and destruction of the people on the other. What was material about our way of life – the Koh-i-Noor, the Nassak Diamond, Shah Jahan’s Royal Jade Wine Cup – was what was also exotic about it, while what was superficially not material, and therefore based on ideas and ideology – faith, feudalism, casteism – was what irked the colonialist into either doing away with it altogether, by force, or (as with the caste system) transforming and then contorting it for their own benefit. How else could such a “barbaric” and “primitive” system of governance as feudalism not give way to capitalism in colonised Ceylon, and how else could the system of casteism which British intellectuals had pondered over and deplored be retained to produce a horde of brown sahibs and Nobodies and Somebodies whose lineage continues today, and who are responsible for many of the economic shortfalls we are suffering at present? How else indeed!

In Forster’s A Passage to India the British officials and their wives laugh when Mrs Moore and Miss Quested demand that they get to know Indians. Forster’s novel indicts a conception of India drawn and then shattered by the West. Quested and Moore, the latter more than the former, are bored by the Westerner’s attempts to be polite and to retain their identity amidst the natives. It’s this otherness and aloofness that explains the mixture of amusement, condescension, imitativeness, and patronage which marks much of the relationship between the Orient and the Occident. They want us, they want to overwhelm us, but they can’t because they don’t know us. Because they don’t know us, and because their economic and political strength has made it their prerogative to conquer the rest of the world, they maintain a split personality with respect to how they treat us, and in the end “exoticise” us.

A friend of mine pointed out to me recently that all politics is culture, and all culture is politics. Correct. Nothing that is cultural can be cut off from the political, the social. The Mutiny was as much a political statement as the theft of the Koh-i-Noor, and the Uva Wellassa Rebellion was as much a political statement as the destruction of the temple. They are all connected, and interconnected in diverse, intriguing ways. If one is to divide the one from the other one inadvertently conceals the many other interrelationships that make up modernity, especially those between cultural exploitation on the one hand and political exploitation on the other. It’s confusing, in a vague and indiscriminate sense, which is why making sense of the mess we’re in, and sorting out that mess, involves understanding what those interrelationships are.

Because spatial constrains prevent me from delving into them, I’ll talk about them in next week’s column. Suffice it to say that these interrelationships and even dichotomies, at their most basic, differentiate between the old and the new, not as we know them today, but as the cultural imperialists and the wagers of cultural wars identify it: a tool demarcating what is knowledge and what is not. In turn this has, as I will point out, subsisted on the notion that all knowledge is what the West has made of it, which the East can only emulate. It’s a line of thinking, sinister and prone to all sorts of mischievous extrapolations, which was there during Arthur Balfour’s time in the 19th century. It’s a line of thinking that’s found its way to modernity courtesy of realpolitik diplomacy. Arthur Balfour is dead, but his intellectual heirs live today. They continue their assessment of the Other, the Orient, based on their assumptions of what we know, and do not know, and even willingly profess ignorance about.

A perusal of Henry Kissinger’s essay “Domestic Structure and Foreign Policy”, referenced in Edward Said’s monumental book Orientalism, indicates quite clearly that, for the West, the problems of the Third World weren’t problems of exploitation, cultural or political (in any case, such a gap between those two does not exist); rather, it was a problem with the East’s inability to be accurate. All those years, decades, and centuries of oppression and looting and condescension can, for Balfour and for Kissinger, be put down to one simplistic reason: we can’t think, we can’t reason.

Why and how is this wrong? What other dichotomies does it open us to? What of the gap between modernity as defined by them and modernity as defined by us? What place has globalisation got in the midst of all these distortions? More importantly, how do we differentiate between a modernity we have no choice but to embrace and an uprooted sensibility referred to as modernity which we have to recognise and do away with? All these are pertinent, as questions and as food for thought, and they deserve more than a cursory paragraph. They deserve an entire sketch. Next week.

Written for: Daily Mirror, October 13 2017