Eurasia Newsletter

bringing the minds of Asia, Canada and Europe together

Month: August, 2017

Insiders and outsiders (2)

I come back to what I was saying last week about insiders and outsiders and what they contribute to the interpretation of a national tradition, Spanish guitar music. These considerations might be generalized to other fields, such as writing.

Among writers, Camus is a good example of an insider addressing an audience of outsiders. He was a colonial, a French Algerian at a time when Algeria belonged to France. He felt his group were misunderstood and ignored by French society and he was saying, essentially, “look, we’re here too.” He could do this because he was writing in French and his audience was the same as the audience for mainstream French literature.

Recently in English Canada there has been a focus of attention on what is called “Indigenous CanLit”, literature written by Native people about themselves in the English language and in the form of fiction. This is essentially a matter of insiders addressing an audience of outsiders. They address that audience in its own terms: in English (not in their own native languages) and in the form of the novel or short story or play (not in traditional forms of their own oral literature).

There is a controversy about the Canadian writer Joseph Boyden, who has become very well known for his novels about Native life. As a result, many Native writers have been complaining that he is not a real Indian but a white guy, and is hogging the limelight. They are saying essentially that he is an outsider, not an insider, despite his vague claims to Native ancestry. They are saying furthermore that outsiders have no right to address the audience of outsiders on behalf of the insiders. These Native writers have also invoked traditional Native ideas about ownership of cultural material being vested in particular tribal lineages.

The trouble is, CanLit (Canadian literature in English) is a majority-culture game. It’s in English, it uses the literary forms of English literature, and it is mainly addressed to a mainstream audience of white guys in the big cities, they being the ones who buy books. If “Indigenous CanLit” meets a market need and becomes fashionable, then it can only be expected that outsiders, or insiders with dubious credentials, will want to get in on the act. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

What I said about outsiders in Spanish music could apply to these outsiders hovering around on the edges of “Indigenous CanLit”. The sympathetic outsider, explicitly “spelling out” what he consciously knows or has learned, may be able to contribute something to the understanding of the culture by the mass of outsiders – or even the insiders themselves. Apart from this, the outsider may have an important role to play in making the culture known to a wider audience of outsiders and thus creating a bigger market for the insiders in the long run.

Insiders and outsiders

An anonymous commentator online, writing about the late English guitarist Julian Bream’s recording of “Granada” by Albeniz, said something very perceptive:

‘Other commenters have compared this version of Granada with versions by Segovia. I think Segovia plays like an “insider” in Spanish culture and as a result, his version seems more perfunctory to me, as if he feels he need not state what is already known and understood and needs not to be stated to a Spaniard. On the other hand, Bream plays like an enraptured “outsider”, who feels the need to unfold and expose every detail of the piece’s expressive beauty, to outsiders… There are exquisite things in both recordings… To my ear Segovia plays it with more familiarity. It is the music of his culture. To someone like myself, Segovia’s familiarity with the piece and perhaps with the place, shuts me, the outsider, out a little. Bream on the other hand plays the piece like an outsider discovering something wonderful and taking the pains to show how wonderful each phrase is, how evocative and suggestive of observed life… I prefer the Bream because he really initiates me into the wonder of this piece. In future I may understand Segovia better and Albeniz and Spain too.”

Well said, and there is much more at stake than guitar-playing here. It has to do with the difference between ellipsis and full expression, or the explicit and the implicit. Cultures may be more implicit or more explicit, in the sense that they leave a great deal unsaid, or else spell it out. This is what Edward Hall was getting at with his famous distinction between “high context” and “low context” cultures. As has since been pointed out, “high context” or explicit cultures are historically heterogeneous, so when meeting a stranger from your own culture you can’t assume too much; and “low context” or implicit cultures are historically close-knit and centralized. But again, within a culture, sub-groups are likely to be quite elliptical and implicit in their internal communication: think of families and the elliptical verbal shorthand they use with each other, which is usually baffling to strangers.

Both insiders and outsiders (in the sense used in the quoted comment) may be interested in particular cultures. And if they are describing or performing some aspect of the particular culture, they may be doing it for an audience of insiders, or else an audience of outsiders. In fact there are four possibilities:

  1. Insider addressing an audience of insiders (the usual case)
  2. Insider addressing an audience of outsiders (where the insider wants some outsiders to understand his culture)
  3. Outsider addressing an audience of outsiders (where the outsider has learned about the culture, and wants to share what he has learned with other outsiders, probably people from his own culture.)
  4. Outsider addressing an audience of insiders (where the outsider thinks he has some insight to impart to them about their own culture; rare, but it happens).

The point is that the outsider, explicitly “spelling out” what he consciously knows, may be able to contribute something to the insiders’ understanding of their culture that they didn’t have before.

Apart from this, the outsider may have an important role to play in making the culture known to a wider audience of outsiders and thus creating a bigger market for the insiders. He may even help the insiders rediscover a forgotten or neglected part of their culture – if that is the case with them.

So the outsider always has plenty to contribute. It is a fortunate thing that Julian Bream, at the outset of his career, did not say to himself: “Why am I doing this? I’ll never be able to pass for a Spaniard!”