Sunday, January 15, 2012

You Say Tomato, I Say Eclectic

It seems that even retirement doesn't give me enough extra time: I haven't done much writing the past couple of days because I've been reading hard, trying to get through some books that I've had sitting around for too long. And I succeeded, but didn't do much else.

One of the books I finished this weekend was The Libertine's Friend: Homosexuality and Masculinity in Late Imperial China (Chicago, 2011) by Giovanni Vitiello. It's a survey of literary portrayals of male homosexuality in China, starting with the usual ancient tales (the Cut Sleeve, the Shared Peach) but concentrating on novels from the 1600s on. In particular Vitiello draws on pornographic novels that were suppressed or forgotten in the mid-20th century but have been reprinted in the last fifteen years. There are changes over time in the way sexual relationships between men are depicted, especially in the gradual emergence of a relative egalitarianism: in the earlier works, there's a sharp divide in status between the older, richer man (usually a scholar) and the younger, poorer, boy (an actor, servant, or other person of "vile" status), but the gap gradually narrows though it never entirely disappears. The book is fascinating, and I'm going to have to make time to read some of the works it describes -- those that have been translated into English, anyway.

Vitiello also deals adroitly with conceptual problems (such as the appropriateness of using the word "homosexual" in a classical Chinese context), and I especially liked this discussion (59-60):

“Syncretism” is a problematic word. Not by chance, Judith Berling needed to justify her use of it before dealing with Lin Zhao’en. In Western intellectual discourse, “syncretism” has often carried a derogative connotation; it is associated with decadence and corruption and accused of being irrational, random rather than systematic. Berling, in its defense, stressed the aspect of selectivity involved in the process of syncretic reconciliation, thus distinguishing syncretism from a more random eclecticism. More recently, Timothy Brook has readdressed the issue of the relation between syncretism and eclecticism, offering an alternative evaluation. He warns us against using “syncretism” to describe the notion of sanjiao guiyi, and prefers to speak of a late Ming (preeminently Confucian) eclecticism: an ecumenical and inclusivistic orientation, though not one requiring blending or reconciliation. The potential for blending, Brook suggests, was greater at the level of popular worship and within sectarian movements.

... In a more positive light, we can view syncretism as a constructive counterpart of that erosion (if not erasure) of boundaries that many scholars have recognized as a mark of Ming culture. The special density of processes of negotiation and translation featured by late Ming culture corresponds to a blurring of boundaries at a variety of levels – of philosophical and religious boundaries, no doubt, but also of social (most notably, between literati and merchants) and literary boundaries, both in terms of language and of genre (classical and vernacular/elite and popular literature). We may apply this perspective even to gender and thus help explain the currency in the late Ming of an “androgynous ideal” as well as of hybrid models of masculinity.
This touches on a common problem in the academic writing I read, which is one reason I think everybody who goes to graduate school in the humanities should read, or at least refer to Raymond Williams's Keywords: very often scholars are dogmatic but also uninformed about the meanings of the abstract words they're using. In this case, some use "eclecticism" to mean what others mean by "syncretism," and the distinction appears to be more of a value judgment than an actual description. Either electicism or syncretism can be "random," depending on the scholar.

Boundaries are always somewhat arbitrary, especially between ideas and concepts but also between social divisions, and there's no reason to believe that there was an original pure maleness and femaleness, for example. The overlap between the traits and abilities that men and women actually exhibit is much greater than the differences, and gender norms are meant to try to ignore that overlap. In homosexuality, the attempt to differentiate between the partners also requires a great deal of mental work: in the penetrated / penetrator dichotomy, for example, "when two persons with the same male sexual organs are naked, the construction of one of the partners as a not-homosexual man and of the other one as a not-male person is difficult to upkeep" (Annick Prieur, Mema's House, Mexico City [Chicago, 1998], page 274). It's also difficult to ensure that changes in the system of difference will be "rational" rather than "random," since the changes always appear irrational and threatening to those who are invested in maintaining the status quo. Most likely the changes are declared rational only after they've become established.

There's more interesting stuff in The Libertine's Friend, especially touching on the rise of "modern" homosexuality in China. I'll try to write more about it soon.