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?