Eurasia Newsletter

bringing the minds of Asia, Canada and Europe together

Category: intercultural communication

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!”

Beyond Babel

You are someone, one person, tidily package in a body and a brain. I who am speaking to you am uniquely someone. Is that not obvious? you may say.

We like to believe that man is one. To  begin with, most importantly after all, there is… me! I am indisputably one and indivisible, not two or three or several people. Then there is the nation or society I belong to, which stands for something, and is united, and has a name: “Canada”, “China”, “Japan”, or whatever it may be. Then there is the species to which we belong, homo sapiens, and we’re all the same under the skin.

Yet a little examination will convince us that this is not so, at any level : personal, social, cultural. Or it is so much beside the point as to be almost meaningless.

Personally, I am a complex organism with a complex brain, made up of constantly competing elements – thoughts, habits, emotions, needs, stimuli, many of which I am unaware of more often than not.

Socially, we are a society or a nation, but very soon we discover that we are really on the shifting sands of heterogeneity. There are different social classes, different ethnic groups, different religious faiths, there may be different languages. We’re not just all in this together.

When it comes to homo sapiens, obviously we are one, but we are so fantastically differentiated, unlike any other species, that it hardly matters. We have no single way of looking at things. Just as there is no one language of humanity, there is also no one culture. And think of all that culture and language involve: perceptions of the world, norms and values, basic assumptions, ways of doing things. Now that at last we have begun to know the world and not just our own country, as in past ages, we know that the world is too complex and vast for anyone to be in charge, or to take charge.

We yearn for unity. Think of the myth of Babel. Faced with the bewildering multiplicity around us and within ourselves, we dream that once there was unity, everybody speaking the same language, building the same tower to heaven. But it was never so. As long as man has been on the earth, he has been many. There is no lost secret, no “original language” or “original culture” or untouched core of humanity.

At the root of our humanity is not an illusory homogeneity, but an irremediable multiplicity. It will go better for us all in the future if we accept this and make it the very core of our course of action, not an inconvenient problem on the periphery (“communication barriers”).

In the world – not unity, but untidy compromise. In society, in the workplace – not homogeneity, but endless negotiation. Within myself – a babble of voices – and which is mine?

The voyage of tomorrow is a voyage across these shifting sands.

Multiple solitudes

Many years ago, Hugh McLennan wrote a novel with the title “Two Solitudes”. It was about the English minority and the French majority in Montreal: they inhabited the same city, but lived in two different worlds. The phrase caught on, and it came to mean French and English Canada generally. It was a reality too. Indeed, the thing that amazed me as an immigrant in the 1970s was that the two language areas were still like two different countries, even though they had a federal political system in common. Read the newspaper or listen to radio or TV news in the two Canadas, and you seemed to be in two different countries. It is still the case, though there is now a more dutiful attempt by media on both sides of the language divide to report the major doings and preoccupations of the other.

In recent years it has become the fashion among the more progressive sections of English-Canadian society to deny the existence of English Canada at all, in the name of multiculturalism. The assumption here is that English Canada is no longer WASP but a cheerful mixture of the more familiar and the more exotic; the English language just happens to be the obligatory means of communication.

Yet this purported disappearance of English Canada does not solve the problem of the solitudes. What multiculturalism means is in fact “multiple solitudes”. Ethnic groups maintain their languages and cultures as best they can, though it gets very difficult after the first generation. The English-Canadian (or assimilated) majority remains largely unaware of the ethnic groups, and all communication is in English, and bilateral – that is, ethnic groups deal with the majority on the majority’s terms. There is really no encounter between ethnic cultures and languages and the majority, or even between ethnic cultures themselves.

Take a place like Vancouver, which is basically my home town in Canada. There are so many different ethnic groups, from every nation under heaven. But they live a shadowy existence. There are sure to be a few ethnic restaurants around, but the group does not have a tangible public profile, except in their ethnic press, which no-one else reads but them. As a new immigrant I often wondered why Vancouver, with such ethnic diversity, is not cosmopolitan in the European sense. That is because, despite the diversity of the people, the public space remains homogeneously English-Canadian.

Meanwhile Vancouver does not stand still. The successive waves of Chinese immigration, no longer just through Hong Kong, could tip the balance. The Chinese group, long established and ever new, could become such a leading culture that they would eclipse the English-Canadian majority culture. Then Vancouver would perhaps still not be cosmopolitan in the European sense, but a Chinese extra-territorial “concession”, like the European concessions in Imperial China.

Meanwhile, the Canadian solitudes continue. I am beginning to think that solitude is the country’s defining feature, and that “studiously ignoring the other fellow” is the prime Canadian virtue.


République oblige

Last week in Le Monde, philosopher Étienne Balibar was interviewed about his recent book Des Universels, in which he writes about universal values. He sees the universalist attitude as inevitable, but notes that there are competing universalisms in the world.

The claim of universality has been key to the self-understanding of the West in its historic period of expansion. It first came from the possession of the true religion. Then the true philosophy. In all cases, there were missionaries eager to carry the universal message to the world.

The claim of France to be in possession of universal values like “reason” or “the rights of man” has been explicit since the 18th century when the country got its chance in to dominate Europe culturally with its soft power, and sometimes militarily with its hard power. Then it flourished beyond Europe in the colonial era.

Balibar says France does not have to give that claim up. Instead of “noblesse oblige”, he comments, the French should tell themselves “République oblige”.  In other words, if you claim to have an enlightened republic, you have to assume the obligation of spreading your ideas and values. Balibar is quoted as saying: “It obliges us to a kind of universalism, which can no longer be based on the identification of the Republic with the nation. To remain truly republican, France would have to get outside itself, and formulate the idea of an extension of citizenship beyond its frontiers. So, then: Français, encore un effort…

He is echoing the words of the Marquis de Sade at the time of the French Revolution. Sade mockingly  urged the people to “try harder” if they really wanted to be a republic. What Sade actually meant was that they should question their underlying values and assumptions, not just overthrow the monarchy.

It is actually a wonderful idea to reach out as a nation to the rest of the world. Whether a nation like France would really be prepared to do this is doubtful. The French are focused on their own local and national concerns. There is another, more general reason too: the Republic is a product of the nation, in other words, culture. And once you go beyond your own frontiers, you have to realize that your values and assumptions are culturally determined. Competing universalisms would need to acknowledge their limits. The missionaries would have to be cultural relativists – ready to learn as well as to preach.

A difficult project, to be be sure. But it would be a fine project to make up for the imperialism of days gone by.




Movement in stillness

I was at Lassalle House, the conference and training centre of the Swiss Jesuits last Sunday for the vernissage of Sanae Sakamoto’s latest exhibition. Now in her mid-seventies, the Japanese calligrapher and ink-brush painter is still going strong. Indeed, she is experimenting and branching out with new work. One finds traditional calligraphy among the items on show, to be sure, but she often goes beyond the traditional conception of the single surface with writing on it. In these works, the two-dimensionality of writing seems about to break into the three-dimensionality of space itself.

The motto of the Lassalle House is Stille bewegt, meaning “silence moves” or “stillness moves”. This refers to the stillness of their Zen meditation plus the movement of their yoga and other such disciplines. It also means that willed stillness can bring about movement in the world, can get things moving, can move people to do things. And there can be movement in and out of stillness, as we saw when Sanae Sakamoto performed calligraphic compositions spontaneously as part of the vernissage.

The most important thing one gets from such a performance is that it comes out of stillness. Without that stillness, no movement can happen, no movement of any value anyway.

The stillness or emptiness so often spoken of in the Tao and Zen philosophies is in fact not just “nothing”, but something like “empty space”. Or perhaps we might call it “room” – room for something to come into being, room for something to happen. It might be compared to the empty, darkened stage in a theatre which the audience are looking at expectantly before the play begins. Western philosophies do not name this reality, except perhaps the mysterious Platonic chora, the mother of all things, the undifferentiated matrix for generation of all sorts.

Sanae Sakamoto emphasizes that the black of the calligrapher’s ink is symbolic of the undifferentiated darkness of the nothingness whence being came. Life, form, differentiates itself out of that night of black ink.

Those of us who think of ourselves as writers have largely forgotten about the literal or physical “writing” part of the job. Instead, we think of writing as composing text, now mainly on the virtual surface of the computer. The physical action of writing or typing is merely a means to an end and receives no attention. Our writing emerges out of a swirl of ideas and arguments. But writing qua calligraphy can only come out of stillness. It is the focusing of attention on the movement that is happening in the moment. In that stillness, you get the feeling of the characters emerging and differentiating themselves in the empty space provided for them.

That stillness is absolutely essential for writing as the Chinese or Japanese calligrapher does it. Perhaps as any calligrapher or writer should do it. And that’s the insight I came away with from an afternoon in the company of Sanae Sakamoto.

The inquiring Pharaoh

Recently a large statue of a Pharaoh was unearthed in Egypt. The find caused great excitement. After some study the idea gained ground that it was not one of the more famous pyramid-building Pharaohs, but Psammetichus I.

This Pharaoh is himself far from forgotten or anonymous. We know about him from Herodotus, who reports several stories about him. Psammetichus lived in a troubled period of the late history of the Egyptian kingdom, but he managed to establish himself as ruler of the whole country with the help of Greek mercenaries. After this, he rewarded the mercenaries with grants of land. But he was concerned that the Greeks would not integrate properly with the Egyptians. So he commanded Egyptian children to be recruited and fostered out to the Greek residents. They would become a caste of bilinguals who could mediate between the peoples in future.

Another story is told of him. He wanted to know what was the most ancient language, the first language spoken by humanity. He commanded two babies to be fostered out to an isolated shepherd and his wife, who were to raise them but were not to speak a word to them in any language. After two years, the couple reported that when they arrived, the children would greet them with cries of “bekos!” The Pharaoh inquired of his learned men what this meant. After some consultation they told him this was the Phrygian word for “bread”. So he acknowledged the Phrygians as being the oldest nation – not the Egyptians as he had of course hoped.

These stories speak of a keen inquiring mind at work. Of course, being Pharaoh he could commandeer youngsters at will for his linguistic experiments. He realizes the importance of bilinguals for intercultural communication, as we would call it today. He realizes, too, that this is a biological matter: you need to start them young if they are to have a chance of being truly bilingual. He also wonders about the roots of the speech faculty in man. He clearly thinks it is innate, because he thinks he only has to wait before the children come out with language themselves. And when they do, whatever they produce will be the oldest language. Man, he reasoned, would still speak this language if he was left to his own devices. To put it in modern terms, ontogeny repeats phylogeny.

The story of Psammetichus reminds us that language, although the glue of social life, is something biological; and culture, like language, also has its roots in the biological. His idea about there being an original language buried in the unconscious was fanciful, of course; but on the whole, he wasn’t doing too badly for an ancient Egyptian Pharaoh.

Writing per se

From the 1920s on, the Surrealists in Paris cultivated écriture automatique, automatic writing. This meant that, as a poet, you just wrote whatever came into your head. You tried not to think any thoughts, much less of anything in particular to say. The idea was that thoughts can arise from the depths of your unconscious when your conscious brain is occupied at some task that still does not require your full attention. The action of writing itself, rhythmic and automatized as it is, functions as a distractor, like tapping your fingers while you speak or repeating a mantra while you perform some other action.

André Breton and the Surrealists got the idea of automatic writing from spiritualist mediums, who wrote supposedly under dictation from the Other World. But these poets thought automatic writing would tap the resources of the unconscious for poetry. They never thought that the handwriting itself could amount to Surrealistic art; that it could become not just the means of writing, but the end.

Yet just about any behaviour that can be automatic can be made voluntary, and just about anything that can be voluntary can be automatized. Writing is a case in point. Usually, when you write, you don’t think of forming the letters or words one by one – even less so when you type on a keyboard. You are just thinking of the message you want to communicate.

Is there any time we think of the physical act of writing and how it looks on the page? There is: calligraphy. It strikes me that calligraphy is écriture volontaire, voluntary writing, the polar opposite of automatic writing. This means that you forget about the meaning of what you are writing, the message you are trying to communicate, and instead focus on the action of writing itself. You express all that the handwriting can express – yourself, your mood, your energy. The means (handwriting) becomes the end, and the end (communication of content) becomes merely the means. Chinese and Japanese calligraphers have long had an exquisite awareness of these possibilities.

Christian Dotremont, who started out as a Surrealist and became interested not only in art but in Asian calligraphy, used handwriting in this way. In fact, in his later logogrammes he was standing the Surrealist programme on its head. He wrote something spontaneously, but with a brush, exaggerating the mannerisms of the handwriting so that it became illegible; but it still expressed something. It was not just the content of the writing that came from Somewhere Else, but the physical action of the writing. As a kind of footnote, he rewrote his text in tiny legible handwriting at the bottom of the page.

Dotremont was a writer who took the vocation of writing literally. Few Europeans have done this.

The codes that spell out our lives

A Japanese professor remarked that his people have Chinese writing “in their cultural DNA”, meaning that it is a part of them they are unlikely ever to give up.

DNA makes a good metaphor. It’s even better than saying “we have it in our blood”. Because our blood is indisputably part of ourselves, it courses in our veins, whereas DNA is somewhat more remote and ancient. It’s not really “us”. It comes from somewhere else, a previous stage of the game of life before it got interpreted by RNA and turned into proteins and actual organisms, and before it came down to what we think of as “us”. Yet it forms us, shapes us, determines us, so that if it wasn’t there, we wouldn’t be here – we wouldn’t be who and what we are.

So it is with China and Japan in our metaphor. The code of Japanese writing, indeed the code of Japanese culture, is largely determined by the code of Chinese culture. You can’t really understand the Japanese code unless you understand the previous code that stands behind it and determines it. Any Japanese with sense can acknowledge this, while quietly congratulating himself: “we got all this without a Chinese invasion.”

When you go to live in another country, you bring your background code along with you, and it gives you a different take on things. This is the case of a European going to live in the New World. He finds the old preoccupations and the old quarrels playing themselves out in different circumstances, like Hamlet being acted by a new troupe of actors. But this is not surprising. It is because the code of the New World culture is determined by the cultural codes of the Old World from which the discoverers and colonists set sail.

Now think of yourself as an individual. You may have figured out that there is a “code” to your life. There are certain things that are important and meaningful to you, recurring motifs, experiences that keep happening again and again. Yet you may find valuable hints about these private meanings in novels or poems you read, say. You may then realize that above and behind the code of your own life there is the code of your culture determining it. The things that happen to you, the things that you feel and value, happen to other people in your culture, and have done so from time immemorial. If you are in love, you may think “no-one has ever loved the way I do”. But of course they have. The Ancients were writing love poetry thousands of years ago, and what they felt goes to shape what you feel now – this experience that feels unique. It is unique – as you yourself are unique – but it is “spelled out” by cultural DNA.




Alphabet need not have the last word (2)

There is a new approach to the evolution of written language, questioning the assumption that it depends on (spoken) language and that the alphabet is its inevitable culmination. Greater awareness of Chinese writing in the Western world has prompted this kind of thinking. The late French scholar Anne-Marie Christin has been an important source of ideas here.

It seemed necessary to Christin to work against the obvious assumption that written language is just a visual version of spoken language. In her view, written language, unlike spoken language, depends on visual experience – the whole world of patterns and pictures and representation – rather than the sound world of spoken language. It has to do as much with the coding of space (the space of the inscribed surface) as with the code of the characters or letters themselves. What makes pictures into writing is, she says, the use of space itself to mean something.

Spatial arrangement means ordering: depending on the convention adopted, the characters are to be read top to bottom, left to right, or right to left. This came to correspond to the earlier and later of time we sense in spoken language. Space corresponds to time. But we now know from the technology of sound recording and analysis that, in speech, features get bundled and overlap each other. Speech is not a neat regular output of separate “segments”. The letters each standing for a sound – even the adapted letters used for phonetic transcription – are an abstraction.

Christin has said that writing began with the interpretation of the starry sky at night. This vast display, which must have enthralled early mankind, does not stand still; it keeps changing with the time of night and the seasons, and the stars seem to rise and set at particular points on the landscape. So one could say that before early man learned to write, he learned to read. He learned to read patterns that were already there in nature. And he believed that those patterns were not due to chance, but were put there by the gods.

Writing as reading had to do with interpreting the will of the gods. When Chinese shamans took omens from animal bones or tortoise-shells held over a ritual fire till they cracked, the will of the gods could be read from the cracks. That gave them the idea that they could make their own meaningful signs. The shamans set down the interpretation in their own characters as a sort of marginal gloss on the meaningful patterns they were reading. The oracle bones and tortoise-shells with early written symbols scratched into the surface represented “value added” to the omen signs themselves.

So writing – or more precisely, reading – was divination. Writing belonged to the gods. For that reason, the early Chinese shaman could put his own writing, a message for the gods, at the bottom of a ritual vessel containing sacrificial offerings – only the gods would see it. In Christin’s view, spoken language was the world of man and a world of sound, whereas written language was the world of the gods and a world of the visual.  In order to appreciate this perspective, you have to stop thinking like a writer and think like a painter instead.

To this day, Chinese writing is associated with painting. Both are done with brush and ink. The written characters are always on the verge of crossing over into representation and the representation into writing. Such an art seems to say: never forget that these two things belong together.