Sunday, 25 July 2010

How Can You Forget?

Pearl Buck. Do you remember her….

She turned the Chinese into American Protestants:

[They were] pragmatic, materialistic, ‘instinctively democratic’…. ‘persevering, ‘practical’, ‘hardworking’.

Her father was a missionary who failed to found a congregation – the review contains a wonderful image of him handing out English language leaflets to passers-by who only knew Mandarin.

His daughter, on the other hand, converted the Americans! Although for her the tract of choice was the best seller.

The two extremes of cultural exchange, both either misunderstand or misrepresent the host culture.

Her father was impervious to the cultural differences – the Chinese are just material for spiritual conversion. Pearl Buck seems to have understood the culture: she was close to the inhabitants, indeed she appears to have been more Chinese than American; her first language was Mandarin. However, in conveying China to the American public she converts it into their image; the content really does get lost in the translation. One is a failure of understanding; the other is a failure in description. 

This distinction is important, because they can often be conflated – think of the influence of Edward Said’s Orientalism, which helped institutionalise the belief that understanding of different cultures is impossible (nearly 20 years ago I was condemned for quoting Pierre Clastres – at that time anthropology was discredited in certain ‘radical’ circles, because of its belief that it could understand a society different from its own).

Recognise this distinction, between ignorance and ability, and others follow: the difference in cultural sensitiveness, the variations in the depth of understanding, the variance in literary quality, amongst individuals; and then consider the varieties of market place where these ideas are displayed. The market place. Too easy to use mass-market images, or the propaganda of the State Department (the latter a particular problem with Said’s analysis, which is to the point when showing how supposedly detached social scientists are used to gloss American control), to justify wider relativist positions – that cultures are kind of monads, self-contained and impenetrable from outside.

No! Nuance is all!

And Pearl…. How does she fit into the Orientalist approach? On the one hand easily – she recreates China in the American image. But then she helped make China popular, created a sympathy and an openness to the country, even though this was based on a misunderstanding, which can create curiosity and interest, which in turn can lead to understanding. As a teenager you read The Good Earth… later, as a professor, you translate Li Po. When Ernest Gellner reviewed Said’s Culture and Imperialism he attacked him for poor sociology, lack of local knowledge (he, Gellner, knew more about the subject than Said) and for attaching moral values to cultures; effectively linking Imperialism with Modernity, and condemning both as bad. Whether this is the case with Said, it is certainly true of some of his less sophisticated followers – anthropology is an imperialist weapon, full stop. For a significant body of ‘scholarship’ is little more than crude politics (both Left and Right). And in politics, as in war, it is the borderlands that suffer the most; perhaps this is why Pearl has been forgotten…

Though popular authors have a habit of vanishing, almost without trace.

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