25 May, 2024


The Expatriation Of Culture

By Uditha Devapriya

Uditha Devapriya

The rift between exoticising a culture – thereby turning it into an object of study and assessment – and expatriating it – thereby looting and destroying its artefacts, its cultural relevance – is actually a fiction. There’s no rift, in other words, and if there is, it’s largely fictional, and like all fictions is maintained to promote the kind of superficial gloss that Orientalism has thrived on: a separation of the material from the ideological in the West’s dealings with the East. What is there in the robbery of the Koh-i-Noor that bears any resemblance to the destruction of the temple and the kovil? The assumption, sustained mischievously by Western scholars and intellectuals, that the East was there only to be objectified, studied, and validated as inferior, ignorant, and immaterial. Back in the day the colonial project armed itself with religious tracts on the one hand and the sword on the other; now we have substituted that magic, otherworldly phenomenon called “globalisation” for those tracts.

If there’s to be any meaningful attempt at globalisation there must be an exchange, as such, in the realms of culture and politics, which are, as I pointed out last week, interconnected. But we have been content with a globalisation that promotes affluence and materialism on the one hand and poverty and exploitation on the other. We advertise poverty to invite materialism, which as Professor Nalin de Silva rightly has noted depends on a largely Judeo-Christian frame of (two-valued) logic. Either it is, or it is not. Such a frame of logic can be squared with a dualistic conception of the world as it is and is not. The West has taken upon itself the role of defining what that world is, and should be, and what it is not, and should not be. Not hard to figure out who’s behind what in this sorry state of affairs we refer to as modernity. Today.

That essay of Henry Kissinger which I referred to last week (“Domestic Structure and Foreign Policy”) manifestly reflects all these points. Kissinger, who among other things is a Nobel Peace Prize recipient and a diplomat who introduced the realpolitik of 19th century Europe to 20th century America, speaks for his clique when he writes that the East never went beyond the Newtonian phase of history. What he means there is that the West is materialist, that it believes in an external reality independent of the senses, and that the East believes in “internalising” its surroundings. Edward Said alludes in his book to another essay, one by a renowned psychiatrist (Harold Glidden) and written in 1972, which extrapolates and contends that the Arab culture as such was based on a “client-patron” relationship that in turn promotes subservience and dominance. The dichotomy is clear: the West is domineering, destined to conquer; the East is doomed to serve, to be conquered. The one will win; the other shall lose.

Perhaps some points need to be made here. Perhaps we need to be reminded that when European doctors and students were actively banned from dissecting bodies, the so-called ignorant Arabs had discovered cures for several diseases. Perhaps we need to note that the Renaissance, which preceded the Reformation, the Counter-Reformation, and the Enlightenment, involved actively the confusion and congruence of both the West and the East, and that a key painting from this period, Raphael’s The School of Athens, depicts Averroes and Zoroaster alongside Aristotle and Euclid. Perhaps we need to remember that the humanistic values which survived the Inquisition, and which were reinvigorated during the Renaissance, could not survive the Reformation and the Enlightenment, which respectively promoted religious and secular values against the East, by now again demarcated as ignorant and ignoble.

Perhaps we also need to remember the role that popular culture has played in propagating these dualisms, mischievous and unnecessary as they are and always were. Kipling’s India was not Forster’s India, Emerson Tennent’s Ceylon was not Woolf’s Ceylon. The shift from the one to other was the shift from a conservative to a liberal. Kipling has been denoted as a rightwing neo-fascist (regardless of his detractors and followers those epithets have followed him beyond the grave), but his depictions of Indian life were so accurate, if not romanticised, as to have come from an actual Indian. The same could have been said of Tennent, whose two-volume account of Ceylon is a testament to the coloniser’s interest in knowing the East more than the typical Westerner and even Easterner. Orient and Occident met, for a brief, intermittent period, with the bureaucrat and the artist; when the artist turned liberal, as Forster and Woolf did, there was a critique not just of the colonial system, but how that system spawned its own horde of brown sahibs, Mudliyars, and Muhandirams.

I noted in my article on liberalism that the White American Liberal has always sought to define the Negro on his terms, and not the Negro’s. The liberal does this by idealising a perfect variant of the former slave, which is how Stanley Kramer turned Sidney Poitier into John Prentice (from Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner). But these were, while condescending, not really unflattering portraits of the Other. Such unflattering if not racist depictions of the Other came about when writers, poets, and filmmakers looked to the East as a means of vindicating their part of the world. It takes an entire film starring Cary Grant and Douglas Fairbanks Jr for a contorted, black-faced Indian played by a Jewish American to earn the line, “You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din.” The Indian is better than the Englishman because he serves that Englishman. He serves the Englishman by being a stupid, incompetent, and downright simplistic man. In Gunga Din that Indian can’t even march straight: his shoulders are always bent, his eyes always bulging too much. He can’t be a better soldier, and among soldiers he can only be a better man to join their ranks.

Popular culture, as I’ve observed many times in this column, is ambivalent, unclear, at times mischievously inaccurate. “The movie industry is always frightened, and is always proudest of films that celebrate courage,” Pauline Kael once wrote, and what she wrote can be taken as an indication that the popular culture we inhabit is strewn with stereotypes and mythical depictions of the Other which, while made to gain sympathy for those being depicted, actually sustains the interests of the intellectuals and academics that Edward Said attacked in his monumental book on Orientalism. Remember Mickey Rooney as Yunioshi from Breakfast at Tiffany’s, or Rooney as Flip, the minstrel-show Negro-like toad, from Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland? Well, those depictions were ostentatiously innocent, unintended. But nothing is ever unintended. No one is ever innocent. It’s more complex than that.

What do all these lead us to? The final journey from exoticising a culture to expatriating it, naturally. To be sure, not every mode of expatriation can be considered negative, regressive, harmful – think of Maurice Jarre’s beautiful score for David Lean’s A Passage to India, or Ravi Shankar’s attempts at Western melodies and instruments, or closer to home, Premasiri Khemadasa’s act of bringing the opera and the symphony to Sri Lanka – and obviously much of what is exchanged in cultural terms is to be welcomed as positive, progressive, and liberating.

But just as fictitious as the supposed rift between the cultural and the political (and this rift, I myself subscribed to until recently) is the rift between assessing a culture and destroying it. The one uses religious tracts, or secular science; the latter uses weapons. “Sextus, you ask how to fight an idea. Well I’ll tell you how: with another idea,” Messalah declares in Ben-Hur. The clash of ideas being roughly equivalent to the clash of civilisations (as per Huntington), we can hence conclude that cultural exploitation is no different to political exploitation, in terms of their ability to alienate and uproot a way of life, indeed even a way of looking at the world.

In the end nothing is ever innocent. Kissinger may argue about how our part of the world is still stuck in the pre-Newtonian phase of human history, and Glidden may contend that we Easterners can only succumb, yield, and be psychologically dominated. But consider the extrapolation this leads us to: as Kissinger notifies us quite honestly and candidly, the dichotomy between the Orient and the Occident requires that the West construct an international order “before a crisis imposes it as a necessity.” In still other words, before hell breaks loose in this part of the world, it’s best that the West intervenes, meddling in our state of affairs if necessary, resorts to whatever permissible, legal methods to cleanse us of our sins, and then leaves.

It doesn’t get any more innocent than that, folks. Today, tomorrow, or the day after.

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Latest comments

  • 6

    Judging by this guy’s choice of topis, I have been prepared to accept that he could either be a precocious genius or a confused idiot. The more I try to make sense of what he writes, the more I am swaying towards the latter.

    • 0

      Hey Menna Aththa/ Lankaputhra/ Muttal Ganesan/ B. Winter,Migara/ percy,
      So this is your latest multiple personality, is it? Please give my regards to your lesbian partner and the other inmates of the asylum.
      Gotcha again.

    • 0

      You could keep your opinion to yourself. What is the importance of that to others? Even an amateur phycoanalist can tell you that you are suffering from inadequacy complex.

      • 2

        Want no advice from a fruckwit like you, So Ma. Bend down and bite your own kuttama.

  • 3

    Devapriya fiddles while Rome burns.

    Forget about your culture, think about war torn poor people dying without food water shelter and school for their children in North and East, in the upcountry estates, in the interior villages down south. Visit their places, stay with them, share their suffering, write about their plight and bring relief to them. This is more important than engaging with culture and religion at present.

    Stop writing about unwanted matters. Be a poorpriya.

  • 3

    Uditha Devapriya seems to have read a lot about Western culture.
    Culture is very much influenced by the way one lives. Not in every detail – for example waiting for mum to make breakfast.
    There is gun culture in US which Kumar David tries to take head on. There is this “bribe culture” here. Uditha, please address this as well.

  • 1

    Culture is never still – it’s always changing. While the West has been emphasizing the individual over the communal for a while now, we in the East have also been slowly channging emphases from a communal to a more individual-frame of mind.

    Neither is better than the other, except when it comes to politics of identity. In a country that has been home to numerous faiths and ethnicities, I think it’s better to focus on the individual than on the community. It makes possible a more peaceful and fair society than one based on communal identity.

    Also Uditha, you seem to be reading quite dated intellectuals. Have you read the works of more contemporary ones that speak of multiculturalism vs. nationalism?

  • 1

    The entrepreneurs,large and small, in the west take what is good in other cultures, reinvent or reproduce them as exotic products and market. Thus the market place today is flooded with exotic tea,curry powder, essential oils, coconut water, Buddha statues,meditation, food, alternative therapies and more. Such marketing is aimed at mainstream consumer. Indian and Chinese shops sell their country products to a limited ethnic market. Cultural globalisation is thus an extractive process on one hand and exploitative one on the other. Education is not spared. Value added to what us Western European and American while Asian, African,Latin Anerican devalued. To sell cultural products a need is constructed by using advertising and media plus opinion makers. Then a mindset is constructed. Appadurai ha as discussed concept of cultural flows. I have discussed cultural imperialism in the name of globalisation. But what worries me in this article, other than the confusing discussion preceding, is the invitation to Western powers and clense our sins as if it is a lighthearted comment! This is highly irresponsible,to say the least.

    • 0

      Dr. Gamage and Uditha,
      “as Kissinger notifies us quite honestly and candidly, the dichotomy between the Orient and the Occident requires that the West construct an international order “before a crisis imposes it as a necessity.”
      Those are Kissinger’s words. Uditha is NOT inviting Western intervention.
      However, I believe there is much in our culture that leads to complacency and slow progress, or even regression.
      We have a culture of unquestioning deference to authority, even self-styled authority. For example, there is this influential monk who preaches about sustainable agriculture ( a good thing) but then he goes too far and gets herbicides banned. He has single-handedly brought about a near-collapse of agriculture in the country.
      Which Western society would tolerate a cleric behaving like this? But even scientists in Sri Lanka keep quiet due to fear of being labelled unpatriotic and also because most of them subscribe to the exaggerated respect demanded by the clergy.
      Students simply are not trained to think. Just read all the authoritative articles on astrology , Feng-shui and other hokum in national newspapers. What would a child think, on reading this rubbish? I believe this is worse than pornography.
      As for examples of “Eastern” morality, we have a former Chief Justice preaching Buddhism on TV, dressed in pure white, a person who was once caught in a car with an unclothed lady, and a person who publicly admitted to giving a wrong judgement for political reasons.
      We must remember that the West was able to intervene in our societies in the first place because of our structurally faulty societal values. Otherwise, could small groups of Europeans have taken over India using , ironically enough, Indian soldiers for the most part? Japan saw it coming and Westernized rapidly. The more we dwell on our 2500 year-old culture, the more we are in danger.
      Keep it up, Uditha.

  • 0

    “Which Western society would tolerate a cleric behaving like this? ” Cliptip asks. We DO NOT CARE about what and how your hymie friends do things in “Western countries”. We have had a flourishing agriculture before the green revolution fraud was sold by the conspirator Rockefeller, with shitloads of weedicides and insecticides and to steal rice germ plasm to try and monopolise world rice supply. How did US become world’s No.1 rice producer hymie? Banning bloody Roundup was the best service Ratana Thera did to our country. Tell your hymie chemical sellers that we don’t want their poison. As to you, eat some more of the Iluk grass around Galagedara to control them!

    • 0

      Hey Mig,
      Who’s this Ratana? Is he/she/it one of your pals at the asylum?
      Hey, it’s not even full moon today!

  • 0

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