Newsgroups: soc.culture.china
Subject: Re: is the list really for “CULTURE”
From: Haines Brown <>
Date: 05 Jul 2005 09:26:23 -0400
Message-ID: <>

Reaching across cultural divides

By Haines Brown, contribution to a dialog, 5 July 2005

“ltlee1” <> writes:

> For example, how can one discuss the Korean historical Drama DA
> CHANG JING with those with English background?

Are you saying that Da Chang is so embedded in the Korean/Asian cultural context that it can make no sense to someone not part of that culture?

> Furthermore, a living culture is not a museum piece. It is dynamic
> rather than static. One way to learn about a culture is to observe
> the difference between how people from different cultures react to
> events, and concepts, and culture including American cultures, and
> etc.

Here you seem to imply the opposite, that it is possible to understand a culture through cultural comparison.

On the surface, your first point seems pessimistic about the possibility of communication across cultural divides, and the second recommends what seems to be a technique to escape the constraints of one's own culture in order to understand another. If these are the implications of your point, I’m sure both are to an extent true, but they are troubling because they appear to be opposite.

Through exposure to a diversity of cultures, we come to see that our own culture is only relative. This should help us to escape its bonds so that we might better understand other cultures.

I suppose this is a kind of truism, but I’m still not left very comfortable with it. Let me illustrate why.

A little parable:

I greet a visitor from Mars as he descends from his spaceship with a handshake. He is taken aback by it, and pulls out his encyclopedia of exotic practices and reads that it is a conventional greeting among earthlings that expresses non-hostile and non-competitive intentions between individuals upon meeting.

The Martian might think, well, that's clear enough, but he might not. For embedded in the definition is the assumption that a society consists of self-conscious and individualized social instances. If the Martian's experience is of such a society back on Mars, the underlying assumption would remain implicit and understood. But otherwise, it would be nearly impossible to grasp or convey. It is an axiom that can't be understood unless you happen to originate in such a society. I never shake hands with myself because both are subject to a single consciousness.

Moral of the story: There are levels of culture that readily transcend cultural divides, and there are levels that do not.

If true, then the cultural relativism that is won from being cosmopolitan will only work at one level, but at deeper levels one can't so easily escape cultural constraints. Of course, one can become more cosmopolitan or struggle harder to understand, and often there are methods that will help. But I believe the underlying distinction remains valid.

How, then, does one break away from these deepest levels of one's culture? You can't separate yourself from them by taking them as relative because they are the conditions for your being able to look at things objectively in the first place.

The implication might be that we can't really appreciate alien cultures entirely, but must always do so partially and through a kind of translation into our own terms. This inevitably transforms the object of study into something that is not quite the same and may even be profoundly different.

So far, I've probably made commonplace points, but I'm left troubled by the pessimistic implication. In this world, at the deepest level, are we all alien to one another? So I am forced to look for an escape from this, and here I must adopt an approach that is not so conventional.

It is to look at things in terms of social classes. We are naturally located in a certain class, but we know that through struggle we can act as a member of that class (become a class member “pour soi” rather than “en soi”) and even relocate ourselves to a different class.

In modern society there is one universal class, which is the working class (an assumption I'll not elaborate here), and so if we position ourselves in it, we are located in a social universal. From this vantage point we can communicate across class boundaries and relate with people everywhere, despite our cultural differences.

This does not make all culture transparent for us, of course, but at least it gives us access to working-class cultures everywhere, so that we can then understand the cultural translations employed by those parts of the working in order to grasp their own particular regional cultures.

Haines Brown