Splitting off from the discussion of cultural relativism and human rights and earlier discussions of whether anthropologists recognize differences between peoples, I would like to focus here on a technical problem in interpretation or explanation of "cultural differences." I am working with the idea of envisioning differences as located in a two-dimensional space. One dimension ranges from iconography to abstraction, the other from local to universal.

The specific case I have in mind involves Chinese deities and temple architecture and different sorts of answers to the question: "Why do the gods look like that?" (This is on my mind because I have a paper to give next month). But the logic of the argument applies I suggest to any close reading of tangible cultural detail: in architecture, dress, food, music, ritual, art — any material form in which culture is embodied.

The central proposition is that sorting through possible answers, we find them located in particular positions in the space described above. Some are more iconographic, some more abstract; they are also simultaneously more local or more universal. Iconographic answers associate specific details with specific events taken from stories. In Christian iconography, for example, an upside-down cross is associated with St. Peter, who asked to be crucified upside down since he had sinned by denying Christ. In Chinese iconography, crossed, bare feet and sitting or standing on a mythical beast half-tortoise and half-snake symbolizes the Lord of the Dark Empyrean, a god known for possessing spirit mediums. Abstract answers associate details with cosmological/philosophical systems. The mythical beast mentioned above is, for example, a conventional symbol of the North, the direction in which Yin and the element Water are dominant in the Yin-Yang and Five Elements cosmology pervasive in traditional Chinese thought since the Han Dynasty.

Both iconographic and abstract answers may be extremely local, associated, for example, with specific local miracles or idiosyncratic cosmologies. They may also have regional distributions (throughout East Asia, for instance) or draw on natural symbols that appear to be universal (washing with water or passing through fire as forms of purification might be examples).

As you can see, this discussion requires refinement. My thinking about it has barely begun. But the implications for conventional views of cultural relativism are, I believe, profound. Unpacking the meanings of any concrete embodiment of culture reveals a staggering complexity of possible contexts, which makes the notion of "cultural context" as a tidy frame within which all possible explanation, interpretation, or, I might add, justification has to occur dubious in the extreme.

Plainly, however, I could use some help in getting this sorted out. Care to lend a hand or a whack on the side of the head?

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Is this relevant?

"Plans to alter Chinese characters sparks disapproval"
Beijing

"....'The characters are treasures handed down by our ancestors, which we must respect and protect instead of changing....'"

Ottawa Citizen A13 22 OCT 09
Thanks, Phil.

Would need to know more. The PRC already uses simplified characters that alter the more complex traditional forms still used in Taiwan. This could be a reference to some further change, but if so this is the first I have heard about it.

Philip Carl SALZMAN said:
Is this relevant?

"Plans to alter Chinese characters sparks disapproval"
Beijing

"....'The characters are treasures handed down by our ancestors, which we must respect and protect instead of changing....'"

Ottawa Citizen A13 22 OCT 09
According to the article, which is brief, the Chinese ministry of education, based on a State Language Work Committee report from eight years of consideration, is proposing to alter 44 out of the 3,500 most commonly used characters. This has "met with a chorus of disapproval."
Thanks again. I can easily visualize the pundits on both sides, the East Asian counterparts of those who debate the merits of stylistic innovation in English. Are there, I wonder, corresponding debates over orthography in the case of Arabic, Farsi or other Middle Eastern languages?

Philip Carl SALZMAN said:
According to the article, which is brief, the Chinese ministry of education, based on a State Language Work Committee report from eight years of consideration, is proposing to alter 44 out of the 3,500 most commonly used characters. This has "met with a chorus of disapproval."
Returning, however, to the central issue I am pondering. It increasingly seems to me that both the theoretical and moral excesses attributable to cultural relativism turn on the assumption that a "culture" is an entity conceived in terms of what is now demonstrably a curious and untenable mixture of scholastic (Medieval, Aristotlean) logic and and romantic sensibility. There is a definable moment in the history of Western thought at which cultures joins selves, nations and works of art as imagined unitary wholes, whose essence can only be grasped by factors internal to them, which determine both the only proper explanations of them and the only proper (moral, legal, aesthetic) judgements concerning their constituent elements.

If taken seriously, these assumptions imply that cultures are, like unitary selves, nations, and works of art, incommensurable, utterly alien to each other, with the nasty implication that, when push comes to shove, there is no common ground for negotiation; there is only a Hobbesian/Social Darwinian war of all against all. All forms of comparative research are, if not nonsense, at best fumbling attempts at military intelligence. We may, as our war colleges teach, have no comprehension of our enemies' intentions; we can only plan for the worst, given what understanding we have of their capabilities.

The good news is that the assumption of incommensurability rooted in monadic unity is demonstrably false. Languages are mutually translatable; trade and diplomacy happen; when peoples meet, they mate; world music, ethnic cuisines, the latest fads in fashion,entertainment and "news" now spread at the speed of light. A world of globalized mass and interactive media is a vast, churning, global bricolage in which those who attempt to draw lines and demand conformity cannot evade criticism, or worse indifference, from those within as well as without the boundaries they attempt to maintain.

The question for anthropologists is, what do we have to contribute to understanding this muddle. My little mental diagram, from iconographic to abstract, from local to universal is a first cut at this problem. Where in this space do the "facts" our interpretations or explanations invoke as evidence in considering any particular case belong? Could be a useful place to begin. Or maybe I'm crazy. What do you think?
John,

This is a very good positioning of the problem in question. It strikes me that given your formulation, processes of learning will turn out to be crucial in providing a locus for iconographic knowledge as it is put into practice and acquires abstract properties. In thinking, iconographic and abstract and practical properties will presumably work through and against each other. An example might be Harold Kroto's discovery and naming of the C60 molecule, the fullerine after architect Buckminster Fuller's geodesic domes: my recollection is that Kroto gave a lot of credit to his ability to imagine the molecule in terms of this architectural iconography in the process of predicting the structure - which then, of course, acquired abstract status. The capacity to learn vis-a-vis and via iconographies in order to acquire further abstract capacities would unify many cultural processes and chime with what you are describing.
Huon Wardle said:
John,
This is a very good positioning of the problem in question. It strikes me that given your formulation, processes of learning will turn out to be crucial in providing a locus for iconographic knowledge as it is put into practice and acquires abstract properties.

Thanks for the encouraging words, Huon. Yesterday, I was playing with some of my brainstorming tools and thinking about the the practicalities of trying to position "facts" within the Icongraphy <> Abstraction/Local <> Universal space I've postulated. So far, I've generated the following outline.

Two Approaches
Ideas in search of evidence
Start with theory
Search for evidence that confirms or contradicts theory
Hypothetico-deductive/scientific method, simplified models
Evidence in search of ideas
Start with "tangible qualities"
Look for relevant ideas.
Ethnography, hermeneutics, "thick description"
Local vs. Universal
Distribution of observations
Iconography of Guan Gong (Chinese)
Hall and altar floor plan (Christian Churches, Shinto Shrines, Chinese Temples )
But not Indian or Aztec temples with sacred mountain plan
Standing or seated erect, squared shoulders, straight-ahead level gaze (Universal sign of authority?)
From tablet to dynamic pose... Rationalization as a move to abstraction
Distribution of exegeses
Overlap but need not coincide with observations
Local or idiosyncratic interpretations of widely distributed symbols
Widely diffused ideas represented in locally specific ways
Iconography vs Abstraction
Story vs. System
Story —Sequence, Plot, Climax
System —Elements and Rules

What I seem to be moving toward is the notion that any thick description begins with cases that are, in effect, what Deleuze and Guattari call "aggregates," Levi-Strauss calls "bricolages," and Buddhist metaphysics calls "heaps": assemblages of elements that appear to cohere to form coherent wholes. On close examination, however, the elements in question originate in stories or systems, in distributions that range from the idiosyncratic (local degree zero) to the universal. Some are the cultural analogues of hydrogen or helium, found everywhere. Others are the cultural analogues of superheavy elements that exist for nanoseconds in high-energy particle physics experiments.

What am I missing here?
It is curious that whereas stories can include 'systems' as elements or tropes in the story, systems seem at first glance to exclude stories. One of the things that activates bundles, or heaps are human habits; which have a physical and thoughtful side to them.

What I seem to be moving toward is the notion that any thick description begins with cases that are, in effect, what Deleuze and Guattari call "aggregates," Levi-Strauss calls "bricolages," and Buddhist metaphysics calls "heaps": assemblages of elements that appear to cohere to form coherent wholes. On close examination, however, the elements in question originate in stories or systems, in distributions that range from the idiosyncratic (local degree zero) to the universal. Some are the cultural analogues of hydrogen or helium, found everywhere. Others are the cultural analogues of superheavy elements that exist for nanoseconds in high-energy particle physics experiments.

What am I missing here?
This isn't to me a question of exclusion in a logical sense. Stories versus systems is, at this point, a heuristic for two styles of interpretation/explanation. One kind, the story, articulates a series of events along a critical path that arrives at the observation being considered. The other, the system, locates the observation in relation to a set of elements and rules (or, better perhaps, descriptions of how the elements interact).

Consider, for example, Guan Yu (post deification Guan Gong or Guan Di), the Chinese god of loyalty. In his temples he frequently appears flanked by Liu Bei and Zhangfei. All are characters in The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, three sworn brothers, of whom one, Liu Bei, has a distant claim to the Han Dynasty throne. It is Guan Yu's loyalty to Liu Bei — Guan Yu is beheaded when he is captured and refuses to change sides — that epitomize the loyalty he represents. The usual way to account for their joint presence in temples dedicated to Guan Yu is to recall this story.

An interesting detail about these representations is that while Guan Yu's face is bright red, Liu Bei's is pale. This difference could be explained via story by alluding to the descriptions of the characters in the novel. It could also be explained, via system, by invoking the difference between Yang and Yin in traditional Chinese cosmology. Guan Yu is by far more Yang (masculine, forceful, compelling) than Liu Bei, who is, relatively speaking, a more Yin (feminine, passive, seductive) figure.

These two explanations are not contradictory. They are complementary takes on the observations as seen from different angles.

Does this make sense?


Huon Wardle said:
It is curious that whereas stories can include 'systems' as elements or tropes in the story, systems seem at first glance to exclude stories. One of the things that activates bundles, or heaps are human habits; which have a physical and thoughtful side to them.
What I seem to be moving toward is the notion that any thick description begins with cases that are, in effect, what Deleuze and Guattari call "aggregates," Levi-Strauss calls "bricolages," and Buddhist metaphysics calls "heaps": assemblages of elements that appear to cohere to form coherent wholes. On close examination, however, the elements in question originate in stories or systems, in distributions that range from the idiosyncratic (local degree zero) to the universal. Some are the cultural analogues of hydrogen or helium, found everywhere. Others are the cultural analogues of superheavy elements that exist for nanoseconds in high-energy particle physics experiments. What am I missing here?
Huon Wardle said:
It is curious that whereas stories can include 'systems' as elements or tropes in the story, systems seem at first glance to exclude stories.

Huon,

On second read I see that I missed your major point, that systems exclude stories but not vice-versa. This dovetails nicely with the "Rationalization as a move to abstraction" that I included in the outline under Distribution of Observations (not the best place....now where?).

In the history of Western philosophy this move is usually attributed to the Greeks, with philosophers attempting to replace myths with concepts. It recurs during the Protestant Reformation in rejection of "Papist" imagery associated with Christ, Mary and the saints. It can also be found, however, in other traditions.

My research has, for example, turned up an historian's article about a Song Neo-Confucian crusade against the use of anthropomorphic sculptures of Confucius as objects of worship — one result of which is that temples dedicated to Confucius now resemble ancestor halls, in that the object(s) of worship are represented by tablets inscribed with their names instead of paintings or statues.

This delights me, since one of the observations I noted in my dissertation was the continuum of representations in Chinese religion that range from the abstract (Confucius, ancestors=pure authority) to the concrete and distorted (demons and formerly demonic gods =amoral and accessible), with deities located in the core pantheon envisioned as a heavenly bureaucracy generally presented seated or standing, still, shoulders squared, looking straight ahead (=authority leavened with humanity=accessible but not crassly manipulable).

The postures in question are, however, by no means limited to Chinese religion. See, for instance, the way the British Queen sits on her throne during ceremonies, or Lord Baden-Powell's injunction that Boy Scouts should be "straight."
A discussion with a friend, sociologist James Ennis, has alerted me to an ambiguity in the term "abstraction." Jim initially took the "abstraction" in my description of the iconography<>abstraction dimension to imply the process by which the abstract is separated from the concrete, as, for example, a Platonic or mathematical form is distinguished from the concrete reality that only approximates its perfection. In constructing the iconography<>abstraction dimension what I had in mind was, rather, the use of abstraction in art history, a radical simplification that eliminates story and mimesis but remains concrete and, in fact, frequently represents an emphasis on the concrete, the material of which the work of art is made.

Thus, in my previous example, to shift an analysis of the representation of Guan Yu from the iconography that evokes certain incidents in The Romance of the Three Kingdoms to the Yin and Yang, Five Elements cosmology that enriches understanding of red (Yang) vs. pale (Yin) skin tones is not to evoke Yin and Yang as quasi-mathematical forms abstracted from the concrete image. It is, rather, to read the Yang and Yin conceived as materially present in the colors observed.

The distinction here is similar to that made by Stephen Owen in his Omen of the World, a book on Tang lyric, where Owen asserts that all literary genres assume a particular form of reading, offering as an example a contrast between the poetry of Wordsworth and the poetry of Du Fu, both of which have been described as lyric. The reader of Wordsworth, he says, is expected to read through the poem to a "deeper" significance "behind" it, i.e., to find the Platonic form behind the appearances described by the words. The reader of Du Fu is expected, instead, to recognize the meaning immanent in his allusions; given a proper education in the Chinese classics, his reader is expected to recognize, for instance, the exact bend in the Yellow River to which a poem refers and the night on which the poem was written as one on which Du Fu was fleeing the sack of Chang-an during the rebellion of An Lushan, which led to the death of the Imperial concubine Yangguifei, all of which add resonances to the poet's feelings as he peers at the image of the moon reflected in the river.

In any case, it is the stripping away of story and mimesis and its replacement by systematically arranged elements to which my iconography<>abstraction refers.
Is abstraction characteristically of higher value than iconography? How does this apply to chinese writing (I am trying to get a sense of what icons are here).


In any case, it is the stripping away of story and mimesis and its replacement by systematically arranged elements to which my iconography<>abstraction refers.

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