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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Good questions. I am, for the moment, trying to escape the clutches of the Platonic, Judaeo-Christian, scientific traditions that incline us to see abstraction as higher in value than iconography. Consider as a counterexample E.H. Gombrich's The Story of Art in which art is portrayed as evolving from abstract, decorative scribbles to the Renaissance ideal of as perfect as possible mimesis that captures the features and character of unique individuals. Iconography, in the usual sense of the term, occupies a middle ground between a stick figure and a Rembrandt self-portrait. It is overtly conventional. The faces of St. Peter or the Virgin Mary may differ from painter to painter but conventions like the upside down crucifixion make them instantly identifiable regardless of their features. In this sense iconography seems abstract in contrast to portraiture.

It may be that "iconography" is, like "abstraction" a problematic term. When I use "iconography," however, what I have in mind is mimetic images to which stories are attached. On one (Piercean?) view, icons are similar to what they represent (portraits in relation to people) instead of only signs (smoke in relation to fire, for example). In iconography, however, the meaning of the icon derives from allusions to narrative instead of the visual resemblance alone. The inverted crucifixion identifies St. Peter by alluding to a story about him instead of by resembling him.

The history of modern art inverts Gombrich's history of art up to the Renaissance. From Impressionists to Fauves to the Cubists and then the Abstract Expressionists and Constructionists, the figurative element in art and the stories to which the figures refer are gradually discarded, to focus, instead, on the formal properties of the materials from which the work is constructed.

Tangentially, I note the interesting fact that abstract art becomes a series of pointers to stories about artists instead of stories reproduced or evoked by the works of art themselves. How does this relate, I wonder, to, for example, Nancy Munn's analysis of Walbiri art, where the representations are simple but act, in effect, as mnemonics evoking rich mythologies? Or, considering the works of "primitive" art that so excited the Cubists, one has to ask, Do the peoples in question imagine spirits that actually look like that? If you saw one in the flesh, so to speak?




Huon Wardle said:
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.
P.S. I didn't answer the question about Chinese writing. The Wikipedia entry Chinese Character does a pretty good job of describing why the vast majority of Chinese characters are not "iconic" pictographs.

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