Monday, March 4, 2019

The Trouble Isn't that Curmudgeons Are Ignorant ...

I'm reading Edmund White's latest book, The Unpunished Vice: A Life of Reading (Bloomsbury, 2018).  It's as well-written and engaging as I expected, and also as studded with White's customary misplaced animadversions on Society Today.

This one's my favorite so far.  Recalling his youthful absorption in East Asian culture and art, White declares:
Like most educated Americans of the period, I had an almost holy respect for other cultures. That was the main difference between the solemn, diffident Americans and the mocking, ethnocentric English—our cultural relativism is deeply rooted [53].
This isn't "cultural relativism" at all, however: it's cultural absolutism.  White doesn't think that one culture is as good as another, he believes that American has been weighed against Chinese culture and been found wanting.

I dug out the anthropologist Clifford Geertz' great 1982 essay on relativism, in which he quoted (among others) his colleague Robert Edgerton's complaint about "our inability to test any proposition about the relative adequacy of a society. Our relativistic tradition in anthropology has been slow to yield to the idea that there could be such a thing as a deviant society, one that is contrary to human nature."*

However, it seems that many anti-relativists are as confused about relativism as White is.  Geertz also quotes the very distinguished Melford Spiro (page 55):
[The] concept of cultural relativism . . . was enlisted to do battle against racist notions in general, and the notion of primitive mentality, in particular. . . . [But] cultural relativism was also used, at least by some anthropologists, to perpetuate a kind of inverted racism. That is, it was used as a powerful tool of cultural criticism, with the consequent derogation of Western culture and of the mentality which it produced.**
It's odd to conflate a concept with its misuse by "at least ... some anthropologists."  I'd expect a relative absolutist to deny them title to the concept, rather than cede it to them.  But this is a common theme in anti-relativist discourse, and it appears to be rooted in indignation that anyone should rank Euro-American culture below any other.  America is the norm against which deviant cultures are supposed to be measured, for heaven's sake!  Ironically, it's Spiro and Edgerton who are the real relativists here, criticizing cultural absolutists.

There's nothing wrong with White, or anyone else, finding features of other cultures that he prefers to features of his own.  I, for example, enjoy the varieties of bows that are customary in some East Asian cultures, from slight nods of the head to bowing deeply from the waist. (I've never been in a position where prostration would be appropriate, except in Buddhist temples.)  I enjoy doing it because it pleases the people I bow to.  But I know it makes a difference that I don't have to do it.  I don't have to worry, for example, about being beaten if I fail to bow, or bow incorrectly. I don't love every aspect of these cultures, and indeed am critical of many of their ways and customs -- just as I am of my own culture.  Nor do I consider these cultures superior to the West because of this custom.  It's a matter of temperament, an aesthetic judgment rather than a moral one.

I noticed that when White and his friends acted out certain details of Japanese culture, they played the roles of upper-status people, not servants or slaves.  Much of what he liked about the East was limited to scholars, priests, and rulers, not those who made their comfort and leisure possible.  When I read Tale of Genji, for example, I noticed that when the noble title character goes out into the rain to find a branch with flowers to send as a gift to some lady he hopes to rape, he is protected by oilcloth while his servant, who does the actual work, is not.  (White read a different translation than I did, but I think his failure to notice that Genji often coerced his lady loves into having sex with him has more to do with the rose-colored glasses through which he viewed Japanese culture than any significant difference in the translation.)  This isn't an unusual blind spot for those who romanticize other cultures, or even their own; how many Jane Austen fans identify with the servants in her novels, rather than the lovely, delicate young husband-hunters the servants care for?  (Jo Baker's 2013 novel Longbourn, which retells Pride and Prejudice from the perspective of a servant girl in the Bennet household, is a fine corrective.)

White also has some rather standard, but no less annoying for that, remarks about the American educational system; maybe I'll pick on those in another post.  I'm now about halfway through The Unpunished Vice, and while it's an interesting read, I think I'll take a break from it for a day or two.  Other books await.

* C. Geertz, "Anti-anti-relativism," in Geertz, Available Light: Anthropological Reflections on Philosophical Topics (Princeton, 2000), page 56, quoting R. Edgerton, “The Study of Deviance, Marginal Man or Everyman?” in Spindler, ed., The Making of Psychological Anthropology, pp. 444–471.  The quotation from Edgerton is from page 470.

** M. Spiro, “Culture and Human Nature,” in G. Spindler, ed., The Making of Psychological Anthropology, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978, pp. 330–360.  The quotation here is from page 336.