Matt Smith

Culture revisited

A continuing analysis of 'culture'

I thought I would continue with the subject of culture this month, and make one more observation on the topic – this is what I would ask people to consider. In the past, few English-speaking people could speak the language of other cultures, and vice versa. Furthermore, science was none too well developed, and the rationalisation of things like history and culture had not extended very much into the Asian region (Charles Higham’s books plainly demonstrate, for example, that it wasn’t until well into the latter half of the twentieth that there was really a lot of decent archaeological work done in this region). The consequence of which, we need to note here, is that perceptions of culture were very much based on a number of very ‘shallow’ factors – in that context, you are judging another culture on the basis of things like that they use disparate sounds and symbols to convey their ideas (without any real knowledge of what those ideas are); that they eat different food to what you do; that they wear different clothes; that they practice different rituals; and that they live in different kinds of houses. Is it any wonder, then, that the common perceptions of Thai and Western people alike were, until recently, almost exclusively that ‘our cultures are very different’ – when you compare two societies on this shallow basis, or on these particular factors, of course they are, that much is very plain to see.

Not only this, there is a lot of convenience to the idea that ‘our cultures are very different’. This was never plainer than in the era of (blatant) Western imperialism – I’ve said previously that cultural studies writers speak of ‘orientalism’, which, loosely defined, means disparaging other people because you want to put them to utilitarian purposes. Given, that is, that the colonial project involved capturing the people of other cultures and enslaving them, and taking over their lands and resources, we can see a considerable impetus, in this respect, to support this notion of ‘different’, it is the most fundamental step in arriving at the conclusion of ‘worse’. From where, of course, you can then head on to say that what you are doing to other people isn’t so bad, because you are a ‘civilising’ influence - furthermore, it serves to allay the anxieties of those ‘unfortunately’ politically significant humanist ‘meddlers’ back home (read, the increasingly educated masses back in England that compelled, in the Australian case for example, when reports did reach them regarding the deprivations of ‘black-birding’, that the colonial government enforce limitations on such activities). It works both ways as well, conservative people in Korea wouldn’t be keen to say today, for example, when it comes to the dissolution of things like the idea that ‘age is better’, that this is an idea that Western people upheld previously, and that has been challenged by social progress – for those that want to retain such traditions, a far more comfortable stance for them to take is that the ‘evil-doers’ who believe that knowledge is better, and that age is not the sole determinant of knowledge, are just simply fundamentally different, to go beyond that would pose too many uncomfortable questions. Probably, anyway, there are ways Thailand fits into this – the one thing that I can certainly say is that in the past they were, in some ways, a victim of Western imperialism.

In the present day, however, certain elements of this picture have undergone a dramatic change. There are many English-speaking people who speak Thai now, and many Thai speaking people who can speak English – in addition, they are not simply people for whom another language is the lingua franca of profit, they are people, in academic departments of universities and in the broader community, who can subject things to more objective introspection (seems like a contradiction in terms, doesn’t it, ‘subjecting’ things to more ‘objective’ introspection?). So too, humanity’s scientific understanding of the puzzle of culture has gone through the roof, as has our understanding of both the West’s and Asia’s past – the consequence of this has been to shed a whole new light on the way that Western and other peoples perceive each other. That is to say, when you look beyond the shallow factors, and realise, hey, both our societies evolved on the same continent (Jared Diamond explains some of the significance of this in ‘Guns, Germs and Steel’); hey, a shift to intensive agriculture as our principal means of subsistence is what has defined our societies and cultures in the historical period; and hey, subsequent to that we both pranced along that merry road to ‘civilisation’ that all the other cultures who embarked upon this course have also taken (Diamond’s ‘Collapse’, while I think of him, seems to be a good rendition of factors that unite these cultures, although I am certainly hoping it never comes to that)…well, it all makes a very compelling argument for the idea that we share a lot more in common than we previously liked to think. In this context, in fact, the idea of shallow factors, or the appropriateness of the term ‘shallow’ to describe them, achieves an added valency – we see that food, clothing, our language symbols and so on are actually the outer adornments of culture, or an easily changing skin that simply clothes a set of far more homogeneous social structures and functions.

The point is anyway, that if we focus on merely food and clothing, or who wais and who shakes hands, when we teach culture in the class, while these things are indubitably comfortable, useful and interesting (or at least can be), we’re hanging around very much in the shallow end of things – it has occurred to me of late that a side effect of this could be that we are promoting a distorted view of difference. There’s a lot more stuff out there these days to include in lessons, along with (or as a basis for) the usual fare – I found Diamond’s account of Easter Island in ‘Collapse’, for example, a lot more thrilling than how you come across it in that usual text-book nonsense about ‘Great Mysteries of the World’, my students were really interested in doing some activities on that. In fact, to elaborate on how I concluded last month, in conclusion here again this month, it seems that the way forward for me at least is this – get students involved, like a good constructivist, in asking the big questions like ‘What is culture?’, ‘What’s different, and what’s the same about them?’, and ‘Why do these differences and similarities exist?’. Then, show them the different answers to these questions that are around, show them what lies behind these answers, and get them to think about things for themselves. In my experience they enjoy it, building a worldview is, after all, the natural order of things.


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