Monday, 26 July 2010

So Simple

All ideas are simplifications. They aim to capture some aspect of the world, by isolating it. The question then becomes: is it too broad an idea, covering so many variables that it doesn’t explain anything; like the word democracy used to represent Ancient Greece, the USA and present day Afghanistan. Or is the idea too narrow, so that it distorts the subject – for example, all art is governed by class relations.

This thought came to mind last weekend when an idea of mine was described as too simple. Why?

Because it left out many facts… But like Clive Bell’s Significant Form, the artwork’s essence under the decorative flimflam, an idea, in order to explain a phenomenon, has to leave out some, if not most, of the surrounding reality. The question then becomes: does it leave out too many facts, or does it misrepresent what it seeks to explain. 

The whole discussion, and its aftermath, reminded me of that part of Edward Said’s Orientalism where he criticizes Max Weber, by association. His creation of “types” is seen to buttress the Orientalist view of the Near East, creating the idea of distinct “mentalities”, which prejudice these cultures; seen as hopelessly backward and economically irrational. But for Weber his “types” were a form of thought experiment, simplifying a complex reality to look at particular factors; that might explain large scale societal changes – eg the Protestant faith’s contribution to early Capitalism. The mistake is to interpret Weber as saying this wasthe factor, which explains everything – see MacCulloch Diarmaid for this mistake. But Said seems mistaken too. If we replace “mentalities” by culture, it seems clear that the cultures of Western Europe and the Ottoman Empire were very different in the 19th century, and this may well have been a factor in the emergence and spread of industrialisation in the one, but not the other. Of course, it is not the only factor…

To talk of “mentalities” is to come close to mixing up human nature with culture (at one point Said describes this approach as believing in “ontological differences”). This is a key mistake – for human nature is everywhere the same (the variation is quite small), but it is culture that is various and multi-form; over both time and geography. Thus nations and cultures are turned into races, and seen as biologically distinct… influential ideas in the imperial age at the turn of the 20th century. Here the ideas are very simple, but also wrong; and deadly.

Said attacks the biological determinism of the 19th century, and rejects the idea of cultural difference as a factor in uneven development. This latter view, I believe, was the basis of the disagreement between him and Ernest Gellner in the TLS many years ago. For Gellner, Said’s big mistake was to attach a moral value to cultures (and Modernity), and thus underplay the distinctiveness of the scientific and industrial society, and misunderstand its role in the colonial conquest. Essentially – you can’t blame it all on imperialism.

Simple ideas! Easily misinterpreted. Though of course, this may be a complement – the praise for capturing some event with the utmost clarity; like a great poem. In ordinary discussion, though, I believe it means, you’re wrong! Perhaps I was.

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