I had an anthropology professor in college. He was the best kind of teacher, one whose passion for his discipline overextended any malaise felt by the humdrum of undergraduate education. He encouraged conversation and let sophomoric debate flow freely for the first fifteen minutes of class and, like all great teachers, believed his discipline to be the most important thing we’d ever study. I loved his class as much as I disagreed with it, so I was quite fond of it. I wasn’t even one of those kids–you know the ones, addicted class, loves hearing themselves talk…okay maybe I love hearing myself talk, but I was pretty attentive in Culture Theory.
I think it was the name of the class that intrigued me most: Culture Theory. I hoped we’d be studying the substructure of it all, the strange human penchant for symbol-mongering and its inevitability, like little fish studying the sea.
Instead, we started down a distinctly Marxian path and never quite diverted. We pretended to see through all those niggling ‘differences’ that cause so much trouble and began our training as folks who’d been given the magic glasses to ‘see’ what everyone else couldn’t. Of course enormous respect was genuinely exuded toward different cultures and traditions and practices (except for our own), but it ends up being hard to respect culture when it is defined as the machinery which highly evolved organisms use to maintain societal stability and power. Science, religion, art, politics, all puppetry with the invisible strings of culture tugging at their limbs from the hands of the “masters of discourse.” As an undergraduate I knew I didn’t have nearly enough credibility to intelligently disagree with what we were reading, but I knew enough to wish we’d started at a different trailhead.
This fine article from Front Porch Republic sums up my feelings nicely (http://www.frontporchrepublic.com/2010/11/in-defense-of-culture/). Of course the charges of ‘ignorance’ cannot be applied to my college’s anthropology department, but its argument against the anti-culture of our modern world needs to be considered by anyone considering taking the plunge into the ‘most humane of the sciences and the most scientific of the humanities.’ Deconstruction of culture devalues its particularities and the academic ‘respect of all culture’ speciously sets the anthropologist on an imagined precipice high above it all.
What brought these issues to my attention, albeit in an unformed way, was a pre-class discussion in which a friend of mine had laughingly recalled our speaker that morning at Chapel, a thoroughly Caucasian male, who had been spoken on some sort of work he’d been doing in South America. In his speech he had pronounced, to the finest phonetical point, every Hispanic proper noun in its original Latin accent. The Romantic soft/hard syllabic structure of these occasional words stuck out like rocky hills jutting up from an otherwise flat plain of Standard American English. We all joined in giggling at his pomp and joked that he must be using his ‘culture powers’ to dazzle us with his highly developed multiculturalism. The good-natured ribbing of our Chapel speakers was not uncommon among the Illuminati of Culture Theory. It was often slyly encouraged by our professor, which is why we were all taken aback when he took the opposite stance.
“I think we criticize people who use the original pronunciation of other languages because of a secret desire to marginalize those cultures and entrench English as a dominant language.” He went on to back up his claim with the tidbit that English-speakers tend to expect people speaking other languages to pronounce English words correctly, thereby revealing their secret bias of English as a dominant mode of discourse. Shuffling uncomfortably in our seats, we all hoped the lecture would start soon. My friend, mildly shamed, said quietly that he “didn’t think that was how it was” and opened his book.
I have always disagreed with my esteemed professor on this particular issue, but it’s only until recently that I’ve been able able to articulate why. The episode sticks in my mind because it brings up what I’ve come to realize as the most fundamental academic misunderstanding of culture.
The basic anthropological understanding of culture (or at least the line of thought which we studied in Culture Theory) is that it is a mode of control. An evolutionary view of the human animal is taken as primary, and it means that it, like all other critters, is an organism in an environment but it has become a highly complex organism with the ability to control its environment. It does so via culture, creating norms that decide who is in and who is out, and language is the tool most often used to set the discourse. Examples of colonizers are often brought up to show how English and French were foisted upon natives as a kind of subliminal invasion of colonized populations, teaching the natives how to behave like the colonizers and not their own ancestors.
It’s undeniable that culture via language has been used as means of gaining and maintaining power, but to assume this line of thought unavoidably makes culture out to be just a tool and thereby robs it of its own particular beauties and pleasures and sets up a callous discourse that pretends toward an affection for cultural difference but instead threatens all cultures, even those not previously colonized. The path to reconciliation, on these most dangerous grounds, is to decode all of these discourses and break them down to their base parts, showing how they satisfy the same basic need of environmental/social stability by their own roundabout methods.
I offer an alternative rulebook for understanding and encountering culture. One which I hope will promote mutual respect better than the above perspective, and it starts with laughter.
“A man is perfectly entitled to laugh at a thing because he happens to find it incomprehensible. What he has no right to do is to laugh at it as incomprehensible, and then criticise it as if he comprehended it. The very fact of its unfamiliarity and mystery ought to set him thinking about the deeper causes that make people so different from himself, and that without merely assuming that they must be inferior to himself.”
In his usual manner of crystal clear logic, my man Gil has cut to the core of what this is all about. By his account it is the “unfamiliarity and mystery” that fires one’s inquiry into culture. In essence, the more strange and bizarre it is, the more fun it is to discover. Rather than seeing these particularities as barriers, they are lamps around which curiosity clusters like light-dazzled flies. This is exactly what the anthropologist misses. Try as he might to respect them, the differences of culture remain mental barriers to be knocked down (the “bars on our cage” as Daniel Quinn would put it) toward the pursuit of a more universal understanding and avoids the impediments of unfamiliarity and misunderstanding. By Chesterton’s read, unfamiliarity and misunderstanding is, in a sense, the spice of cross-cultural interaction, and laughter is the tasting of it.
I’m reminded of my grandmother. A child of the ‘Greatest Generation’ and daughter to a missionary doctor in China. Later settling in Texas she maintains frequent contact with Chinese expatriates. She makes no bones about cultural differences. She laughs and thinks it strange when her Chinese friends act differently than she does, but it never translates into disdain or impatience. Only love and good-humor. Her British-educated upbringing sticks to her like glue, and she doesn’t expect anything less from the traditional Chinese upbringing of her friends. She adapts to them and makes room for their particular way of moving through life. She understands them in their difference, not in spite of it, and as a result of natural human empathy, cannot think that they are in any way inferior to her. It was uncomfortable for me to be around her as an undergraduate because I was being taught to gloss over cultural difference, to be embarrassed of misunderstanding as if it was early rumblings of imperialistic violence. My furtive glances and deprecating under-the-breath comments were what was doing violence. My own supposed academic superiority threatened to interrupt that important cultural friction out of which is born true commonality and understanding, to pull everybody with me into the vacuum of academic nega-space without color, feeling or empathy. My grandmother was too busy laughing with her friends to notice.
And in case you’re wondering which curious people in which curious land Chesterton was ‘laughing’ at was, it wasn’t the unclothed of Guinea. Nay, it was a land which was in habited by, to many Brits, a clownish people engaged in the most perpetual tomfoolery, a place called ‘America’. I recommend reading “What I Saw in America” to any aspiring student of culture. It is a valuable exercise in ‘turning the camera in on ourselves’ that may dispel the illusion that we occupy a first-class seat of culture and escape its inclusionary/exclusionary tactics through its study. The fundamental point that must be understood is that there is no human being without his culture. One might even say that a human being is his culture, or his culture is what comfortingly reminds him that he is human at all. The anthropologist may, on the surface, agree with this truth but proceeds with a methodology that pays it no heed.
In the case of someone speaking one’s own language and inserting words from another one, it’s a humble gesture for an Anglo-Texan to say: “Nicurogwuh” instead of pulling apart the breast of his plaid pearlsnap shirt to reveal an emblazoned emblem of super-cultural hyperawareness by carefully sounding out “Nee-cah-dah-gwah”. It would be just as shocking to hear an Arab-speaker say the word “Sawth Cara’lina” in a perfectly southern drawl. When pronouncing foreign words, I respectfully prefer to speak them as if I was saying them, rather than a translator bot. We weren’t laughing at the Chapel speaker because he challenged our latent supposition that English was and should be the dominant form of discourse, we did so because he was talking like somebody who had bought into the modern lie that culture is as interchangeable and arbitrary as one’s pronunciation of it and as a result, sounded like a doofus.
This is why I say ‘krayp’ instead of ‘crep’ for French pancakes and ‘Muh-jrid’ instead of ‘Ma-thdeed’ for the Spanish capitol. It’s to maintain cultural humility. It says that I am somebody, interpreting someone else’s culture (though sometimes incorrectly) according to my own. My pronunciation makes my own Angl0-American lenses obvious, puts it out in the open, and disallows me from pretending to be a part of a super-cultural league of Ubermensch, free from all cultural constraints and possessing the ability to magically ‘see’ the naked human animal.
Some guidelines need apply here. Here is my own basic rulebook for foreign word pronunciation. I accept that I may be shortsighted here but we have to start saving culture somewhere so amendments/alternatives may be proposed at will.
1. One must pronounce single foreign words, particularly proper nouns, according to the phonetic fashion of one’s own language while in one’s own country of residence speaking in one’s own language. This excepts those who grew up speaking the foreign tongue and now reside within another country of residence, or those for whom the foreign tongue is of cultural/family value (and therefore not ‘foreign’ but rather ‘displaced’). Another occasional exception would be someone who has made a study of the language or culture in question and finds it hard to deviate pronunciations, but the shock of juxtaposition between dialects still remains, and it’s worth the effort. When in Rome…
2. One must pronounce entire sentences or phrases of another language in that language’s dialect. The speaking of a complex sentence or phrase marks an accepted change in speech pattern. To anglicize an entire sentence or phrase of Spanish would be odd indeed and would certainly raise a few liberal eyebrows.
3. One may pronounce single words and phrases alike in their original pronunciation while vacationing or living in that country or cultural region. This is a matter of practicality. My mother once attempted to order “wah-ter” from a Zimbabwean waiter, only to be corrected by my missionary aunt: “Woo-tah. She’d like some woo-tah.” In some cases of extended stay in a foreign land an entire accent may need to be adopted by the traveler even when speaking in her native tongue. For instance, I found it difficult to communicate with anybody unless I spoke in a halfway Bantu accent during my 6-month stay in Malawi.
Again, all amendments and suggestions are welcome. It is also true that there will need to be a list on which Anglicized pronunciations of which which words are appropriate. Culture is a slippery thing and it’s generally arrived at by consensus rather than science. So sound off below on properly Anglicized words on the comment board. If we disagree (and we probably will) viva la particularity.
Anglicizing words is a valuable exercise in maintaining regional and cultural particularity in the very eye of the anti-cultural storm that is modern America and thereby preserving culture in all its distinctiveness and difference. It is a conscientious objection to enlisting in the service of a global hegemonic regime that threatens to reduce the spice of life to a bland melange (meh-lahnj) and the human being to an organic consumer. Onward, brothers and sisters. Power to the people.
Unnecessarily Technical Conclusion:
In an unnecessary conclusion, I offer a disclosing tablet for what I shall call The Academic Discourse (that is, the culture of the academic anthropologist), so that you, dear reader, may be able to make out its amorphous form. It’s hard to spot it because it is so vacuous and faint–particularly to solidly encultured folk–so paper-thin and translucent that it can entangle the nobler parts of your mind without your even noticing it. Some conservative folks call it ‘political correctness’ (though they too often lump it in with common diplomatic politeness to make that an acceptable term). I’ve heard it called Liberalism or Neo-Liberalism–not the political kind but the philosophical kind that goes back to Hobbes and Locke. It is spectral food for a ghostly people, and it should be avoided at all costs when it comes to culture.
The Academic Discourse is marked by an abhorrence of misunderstanding. It pretends to love ‘cultural difference’ but it is most uncomfortable at the very point of friction where two differing cultures rub together (e.g. a bus of tourists in Southern Africa disembarking to view a Chewa tribal dance). Instead of taking the spectacle in and reveling in the strangeness and difference, the Academic Discourse prescribes a strict regimen of note taking, working furiously to scribble away any barriers to understanding. It appears to be a noble goal, but what if the Chewa tribesmen happened to share those same values? What if he thought it necessary to analyze his visitors with notebook and pen? I like to imagine the grass-skirted African dancer and the bespectacled anthropologist sitting Indian-style (oops!) opposite each other with little notebooks, looking up briefly to observe each others’ garb and motor habit patterns before plunging back into their notes. The result would be much note-taking and no dancing. A child’s pointing and giggling at an unclothed dancer is an unacceptable reaction that will have to be trained out of her by the time she’s old enough for undergraduate education. Never mind the little African kiddies pointing and at their own billowy clothes and darting behind the Baobab trees to hide from the azungu.
The Academic Discourse cannot see itself. Its own pretensions toward meta-awareness is gobbledygook so long as it stays away from solidly accepting itself and others as more than simply ‘evolved organisms’. For all our strides toward cultural awareness, liberal Western education is still perceived as a lighthouse to the world which not only should but must be available to anyone who seeks to become fully human. It is the ultimate exclusionary bastion because it pretends to open its doors to everyone, and cannot imagine why anyone with the ability would refuse to enter its treasure-trove of self-realizing knowledge, or why anyone would have anything better to do than spend four to ten years writing papers and having them read by other people who write papers. The Academic Discourse pities all those whose lives have fallen into such unhappy environs as to have to ‘get along without it’: the Arab male who requires his wife to dress in full burka and the Arab female who passively, even joyfully accepts it (“How can they be expected to know any better?”) or the Anabaptist Christian pastor who completes only as much study as he needs to have the license to tend his flock (“Brainwashed Bible-thumping redneck! He ought to know better.”). It condemns capital punishment on the basis that those who commit crimes simply do not understand enough not to. It robs people of taking moral responsibility or acting on untrained conviction. It instead explains you into the mindless organism that it believes you to be. The only defense is a degree. It is the ultimate patronizing patriarchy. You either study or are the studied. No exceptions
I’ll not bore you with an opposing theory of culture that sees it as the semiotic landscape of a peculiar phenomenon known as ‘language’ which is a communication system made up of a unique and miraculous ability to ‘name’ things using unrelated symbols and how it opens up a ‘world’ in the midst of our biological environments and sets us about naming, identifying and objectifying our world rather than simply consuming, manipulating, digging in and defecating upon it, and how this very ability is the only known ‘irreducible complexity‘ an as-yet-unexplored (by scientists at least) facet of reality which poses a remarkable challenge to the presently accepted evolutionary account of the human being upon which nearly all anthropological study is based as it gives us a comfortably dyadic account of the human animal which fits with the presently accepted scientific method, though it is an unsatisfactorily inhuman one with an entrenched unwillingness to accept a human being acting for all the world like a human being, and thereby legitimate his own comfortable though terribly terribly lonely theory of the cosmos?
For what reason does the anthropologist leave his own homeland and board planes to seek out the unclothed native of other lands? Is it to pursue unspoilt peoples with genuine curiosity and learn from them? Or is it that he cannot abide to see a human being acting like a recognizable human being? He turns away from the mirror and the great mystery of himself to seek out those who perform the most (to him) alien rituals he can find, bathes himself in their unfamiliarity and then sets about picking it apart according to his own evolutionary presuppositions it in order to maintain the concealed dogma of evolutionary science: that the human is an animal, not a human.
“Most humane of all the sciences” my foot.