17 April, 2024


The “Exoticisation” Of Culture

By Uditha Devapriya

Uditha Devapriya

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 and rationality were 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 the State and the 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 neutrality with respect to the 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 as a country 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.

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Latest comments

  • 1

    I think your articles are at least 50 years back ward. YOu are not writing about the modern society. In the face book, Twitter and information technology age, world is changing very fast. Japan was eating barks one generation ago. Now, they are just hanging on. West was enjoying good life just after the war. Now, they are struggling and they want to go back to that state and they are fed up of regional wars, they are thinking about war that can get powerful country which would be the third world war. It is the religion mixed with money and politics that is important right now. In that perspecctive some religions and some societies are trying to exist. ———– Your analysis looks far behind.

    • 2

      Idiot Jimmy,
      ” Japan was eating barks one generation ago. “
      Japan beat the Russians in 1904, 5 generations ago. They were not eating bark. They were using battleships built with western technology.

  • 1

    You are better off writing in Sinhalese as your thinking is constrained by the limitations of exposure to modern philosophies.

    • 1

      Thank you ‘Percy’ for your advice. Why don’t you get a truly Sri Lankan name, at least something like Berti or Cholomondley?

      • 1

        If Percy is a good enough name for Sinhala Buddhist hero “Percy Mahendra “Mahinda” Rajapaksa” ghen its good enough for commentator on colombo telegrph!

  • 3

    You ask:
    “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?”
    Modernity is just that. There is only one modernity. Japan embraced Western modernity wholesale in the 19th century, and escaped colonization. China did the same about 30 years ago, having dumped “modern” communism. Look where they are now. Both countries are into Western culture too, producing opera singers and classical pianists in droves.
    There is no point in holding onto a “2500 year old culture” if it doesn’t produce bread and jobs (It was never designed to do that in any case).

    • 1

      old codger

      “There is no point in holding onto a “2500 year old culture” if it doesn’t produce bread and jobs (It was never designed to do that in any case).”

      Does this boy really believe we live by 2500 years old culture?
      Did we have all the technology, science, TV, Rockets, Electricity, Vehicles, flying machines, ships, computers, medicines, plant and machinery, shaving razors, telephones, ……………………………………… 2500 years ago?

      Fantastic, how did my ancestors miss all those creature comforts?

      • 0

        Conspirators are desperate! There is a new conspiracy happening in all the comments columns of CT. Comments of a gutless fifth columnists called Native Vedda, and another coward called old codger always approving those anti-Buddhist civilisation vomit. Private investigations have revealed that they are a same sex couple living in coloniser robbed land in a town along the Kandy-Kurunegala road. The noise of the pacemaker is deafening. But for only a few months at the most!

        • 0

          Hello Tikiribanda/ aththa menna/ menna aththa,

          Give my best regards to the Jewish bats in your belfry.
          And of course your lesbian partner too.

        • 1

          Tikiribanda Madawala

          Are you the Elder brother of Jamis Muthu Banda the Tamil speaking Sinhalam?

          His elder brother was taken away by local Viharathipathi and kept as temple slave, Śrāmaṇeras. Is that you?

  • 1

    The organised abuse (thankfully verbal only) of the Rohingya refugees lodged in a safe-house by UNHRC was the news of that week. Among the topics discussed was the rabbity breeding habits of Rohingyas. As to why the exodus is taking place was not discussed at all.
    Uditha Devapriya please tell us. Is this (and similar), aspects of ~ “The “Exoticisation” Of Culture”?

  • 0

    Haven’t you heard of Percy the ageing cheerleader .there is no better SRI Lankan name than that. BTW when you laugh from your backside ensure that no shit escapes in the process. Safeguard your arse.

    • 0

      Uditha Devapriya,
      “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,”
      There is this famous Veda in Anuradhapura who treats heart patients successfully with ayurvedic medicine. He keeps the formula secret , even from other doctors. His order book is overflowing and he is now using an internet booking system!
      Our traditional attitude to knowledge seems to be to keep it to ourselves, compared to the western attitude of competitive research and sharing (except in commercial articles).
      This is a good example of the difference in attitudes. Which would you prefer?

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