This essay is part of a discussion of culture and reviewing in this week's Strange Horizons. It was written as part of a broader round-table, "Inclusive Reviewing", responding to and developing points made by Nisi Shawl in her essay, "Reviewing the Other: Like Dancing About Architecture."
Thanks to Nisi for the thoughtful essay. And thanks to this group for the thoughtful responses and the recommendations of other critics. I look forward to reading them, and in an ideal world probably I would keep my mouth shut until I had. I have another critic to recommend, though—and I hope my reasons for recommending him strike some of you as interesting. Rene Girard first came to my attention because he was a year-long visiting faculty member at the university where I taught my first university classes—SUNY Buffalo—in 1975, where I was also a visiting faculty member; in my case only for a term. An early book of Girard's, Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, had appeared in English. I read it and thought it had some brilliant things to say about writing and narratives—though, in no way, did it engage directly any of the usual questions we are, I suspect, all somewhat uncomfortable, at this point, calling "questions of the Other," for just the reasons Sofia cites.
Also I learned that, though he was visiting in the SUNY English Department, he was an anthropologist particularly interested in religions. His next book to appear in this country was Violence and the Sacred, which, as they used to say when I read it, knocked my socks off! Using an argument similar to—but not identical with—what theory heads would come to recognize as Jacques Derrida's "logic of the supplement" as described in Of Grammatology (1967), in his book Girard talked about the very—at the time—seemingly anti-theory question of the origins of religions.
What makes it "anti-theory" is the theoretical assumption that all origins have their political assumptions. I'm pretty sure Girard would agree with this. But, rather maddingly, I suspect he might feel that, though true, it wasn't particularly important to what he wanted to explore. But what lies under that is the fact that what he wants to explore is the origin of our politics, since politics, as it always hinges on morality, always hinges on some aspect of religion; as it has always done in European cultures and most others as well—and, despite a concerted attempt to separate them by the Founding Fathers, in our culture, too: and the somewhat complacent notion that the Founding Fathers were successful in this separation seems precisely what's allowed religion to work its way into everything, from the tax system to voting patterns.
After Violence and the Sacred, Girard followed with a deluge of books. And only now do we reach the point where I can explain why I find Girard such a helpful writer. His books and interviews covered a wider and wider range of topics, bringing in a more and more diverse set of data. And I began to realize this brilliant thinker was opposed to practically everything that I felt was important in the contemporary world. He had no interest in any of the liberatory movements, be they women's rights, gay rights, or black and minority rights. Now I found myself in the midst of what was to stretch into a six or eight year period where every time I would start another Girard book, after a dozen pages I would slam closed the cover in a rage. No, he was interested in them—and he thought they were pernicious! At least that's what it seemed he was saying from those first few pages, book after book. When I'd get my breath back—because I would be really, really toweringly angry—I would say, "How can I waste my time with someone who says, seriously, things like that? I don't care how well he writes and I don't care how insightful the things he has to say about the origins of certain cultural institutions are!" I would ask rhetorically, "How can somebody clearly so informed about the world and its history dismiss pretty much everything I have always thought—and continue to think [by the bye]—is important? I don't have time for stuff like this in my life!"
But if you have a certain leaning toward a certain kind of curiosity, what starts off as a rhetorical question will, when you repeat it enough, shift genres to become a literal one: "How could, Girard—such an amazingly good writer and such an astonishingly good thinker—say such things?" And the only way to find the answer was not to close the book, in anger or any other high emotion, after a dozen pages (I picked up my knocked-off socks, too, and put them back on), but to make time in my life to read at least one of them all the way through—carefully—if only to see where he his thinking had gone astray.
If, indeed, it had.
So that is what I did.
What I believe you will find Girard saying is, if you can get over the initial anger at what I now suspect is calculatedly provocative in the way he chooses to say it—that is, what I take from Girard that, to me, is useful:
Look, we are all ethnocentric. There's no way we can escape it because we are all born into an ethnos from which we learn how to live.
It's historically naive to think that having an appreciation of other cultures is to escape ethnocentricism.
For one thing, the appreciation of other cultures is, itself, historically an enthocentric concept, which grew up in the European mercantile class who traveled from nation to nation and had to deal with, first, other European cultures than their own, and, after the thirteenth century, eastern and African cultures as well.
(And before there were traveling merchants, there were Vikings, plunderers, and raiders. Merchants, though they made their share of problems, were an improvement for both sides.)
If you were such a traveling merchant, presenting yourself as someone who valued the culture you were buying goods from to the people you were dealing with meant probably you would make out better at your job than somebody who presented himself as terrified he would be beaten and robbed and cheated and taken advantage of by the people he wanted to do business with—though often, if not always, those fears were silently at work in the same folks openly praising the wonders, beauty, nobility, and integrity of the new culture they were not exactly plundering but trying to trade with. In the U.S.A. that particular idea was given another substantial shot because the nation's population itself comprised so many ethnoi.
The responses to all encounters with the culturally "unusual" lie on a spectrum that runs from great fear and trepidation to curiosity to religious awe and wonder. You won't find an "avoidance of ethnocontricim" in most "primative societies"—you will find one, the other, or all three reactions, separately or together. And that's what you find in ours as well when another culture encounters us. You'll find both reactions in European countries and in the U.S.A. (The more ethnoi there are, the more fear and awe and curiosity have to be resolved, channeled, and tamed.) That is what explains both political xenophobes like Joseph McCarthy and champions of Eastern religions like Allan Watts (and Joseph Campbell). The point is, they only appear to be independent occurrences, or indeed in some sort of opposition to each other. They form a system. (Derrida would say they formed a hierarchy, not an opposition, and that it is social (i.e., historical) forces that decides, here or there, which term represents the dominant position for any length of time and at whatever intensity.
(I believe Girard didn't feel he had to be interested in the liberatory movements because, at least in the nineteen-seventies, so many people in the societies that he knew best were interested in them and because he was an academic who wanted to maintain a position of disinterest—not un-interested but disinterested, not a lack of interest but a lack of bias—and because at the time it was pretty clear that people would only get more interested in them. The best he could do was keep his fingers crossed that we didn't kill ourselves off en route to what we were after. The best he could do was point out, however provocatively, ways that we might. And notice he did not waste his time criticizing the opposition!)
Within the system, furthermore, each—fear and awe—is dependent on the other: somewhere in your own culture, you see something that strikes you as culturally new/different/strange. You follow your curiosity until, suddenly, you experience either fear or awe or both—and you will probably follow your curiosity until you do. To the extent you are uncomfortable with your own reaction (and this is where we get into Girard's own theory of "mimetic desire"), you look around until you see someone who seems to be expressing what you're feeling in a more controlled, self-assured, and comprehensible way than your own reaction feels while it's purely internal and un-expressed. So you start to imitate her or him. And that makes you feel better and socially responsible.
That's what Phil Robertson was doing in his interview after filming one or another Duck Dynasty episode. And that is what I was doing when I worked so hard to set up, encourage, and promote the activities for us and our kids for the Gay Fathers of the Upper West Side ("The Daddies"), as I did between 1976 and 1982. Does that mean I like what Phil Robertson (or Orson Scott Card) says? What do you think . . .?
But I understand that he's no more outside a certain cultural process than I am.
The advice that falls out of this is fairly simple—and I believe it's good advice. Since you're always going to be acting ethnocentrically, try to act enthocentrically in the best way you can, and avoid as best you can acting in such ways as you don't think will do much good. And have a little more patience with people who are acting ethnocentrically in other ways you don't like. They probably can't understand how anyone could object to what they're saying and doing, because after all they feel they are morally right. And the fact is, the moment you blink three times, you probably can't quite fathom why they are saying what they are—because after all, aren't you right? And that's ethnocentric.
To assume you can somehow escape ethnocentricity and that there is some objective position that stands outside your culture from which, "freely and rightly," you can criticize other groups who are "trapped" in theirs is the moment of blindness from which grow all the abuses of the dominant, unmarked state when that particular state, whatever it is, obtains dominance—which, if it is culturally useful enough, it will. And curiosity drives everyone, especially the young, my kid and any of Phil Robertson's or the kids his progeny have, too.
(Life really is like poetry. "Tell the truth, but tell it slant." Which, yeah, is another ethnocentric idea that grew up to deal with a certain kind of cultural resistance.)
And if, while you're in the midst of some encounter, somebody tells you—in whatever tone of voice—that you're behaving ethnocentrically yourself, listen to them—it's probably true, because you can't get outside it.
Whether or not you believe you can get out of it or you can't makes a big difference in how humble you are. Yeah, that's one of those religious attitudes that has nothing to do with whether or not you believe in God, though lord knows both having or not having it can be, with some folk, indisceverably linked to the idea of deity. All you can do is try to behave in some other way that's more useful to you both. That requires thought, observation, sensitivity, and care. And, as rough as it is to accept, there's always the possibility that it may not work anyway. Time and another try are never to be dismissed as possible strategies.
I see much of what I'm saying here said with greater economy in Andrea's (and Timmi's) letters. But I also see some differences.
Again, be ethnocentric in the best way you can, and realize at the same time that both you and the famous "other" are going to appear as if you both sit on the same behavioural spectrum running from (secular) fear to (religious) awe, thanks to the culture you were brought up in, even if you're an atheist like me. (You don't escape the effects of growing up in a religious culture, either good or bad, by abandoning your church, loudly, articulately and permanently, complete with a meeting with your local ministers—as I did; Father Scott and Father Bishop were both very patient with me; one even took me out dinner—when I was thirteen. As a teacher, I hope I have equal patience with the cantankerous young. Both were better than my dad, whom I thought, at the time, was going to have a cow.) One of the distressing things this view does—distressing to some people, anyway—is put a stake through the heart of the most vulgar form of culture relativity. All cultures are not the same. And if you are a member of one culture, you may have good reasons to fear something in another. Both wanting to trace out similarities and wanting to note differences are both ethnocentric and go back to those European (and Arabian and Chinese and Indian) merchants. But there is also always an element of fear and awe, propelling both, ready to change one into the other. So don't discount either—and that others might be coming, as we say, from someplace entirely different. To decide that the only useful response to another culture is awe, curiosity, or nothing grows historically out of the notion that we are so technologically advanced over the "primitive" cultures that we can destroy them should they get uppity; so that we don't need to be afraid. But that's never stopped anyone from starting off afraid. And even the view that says you should try to understand others in a way that accommodates both your and their fear and awe, is an ethnocentric one. But it may also be a provisionally useful view, anyway. If it is, time alone will tell. And there are many cultural customs that have been major parts of "primitive" societies that probably are not the best ideas for our own culture—from sati to cliterodectomies—which, while they may have grown up to take care of "real" (i.e., political) problems in the culture where we find them, are certainly not the best things we could do in our own, and very possibly not the best things for the "primitive people" themselves, given that, for better or worse, much of the world has things that—not all, but some—might be advantageous to them to try in order to solve the same problems. But that itself, because of both fear and awe (on both sides) is often hard to bring about.
In short, the multicultural world is a huge hall of mirrors, a confusing labyrinth in which you can only find the others through finding more and more nuanced versions of-yourself-with-a-difference. But the alternative is to spend all your time alone—and, yes, culturally, that's lonely.
I would imagine half of this sounds self-evident and the other sounds . . . weird, if not depressing. If it doesn't, that's because the north-eastern culture of the U.S.A. (at the very least) really has changed since I was a kid growing up in it. But that's the one I live in, right now, and will for another few minutes . . . Whoops! Somewhere, for better or worse, part of it just changed again—but by a very small amount, and I'm damned if I know for sure in what direction.
So I have to do some more observing, some more writing.