Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Travel and Culture: A Field Guide to the Mind

Finally -- a podcast -- it's a raspy one, and it's quite rough... I'll probably re-record this in a few days.. but at least it's something! It has been an extremely weird experience to have lost my voice for so long...

I'm sitting at on a bench in Suva Harbour, in Fiji, and I'm enjoying the gorgeous view of lush, green mountains, sapphire blue waters, and fluffy white clouds. A rusty ship is moored in the harbour, and as I serenely gaze upon it, a warm, moist breeze picks up, a harbinger of afternoon rain.

Suva Harbour, Fiji - photo by Susan Smith Nash



The rusty ship is, most likely, nothing more than a fishing boat. My mind resists such a quotidian explanation. I want raw adventure. I imagine the hold filled with Chinese illegal aliens, each paying $20,000 for passage to America which involves, conveniently enough, a detour of a couple of years of indentured servitude on a farm or in a sweat shop. I imagine modern-day pirates catching some R&R in Fiji after some high-jinks in the Straits of Malacca. I think of containers crammed with counterfeit software and bootlegged DVDs. Actually, there is no end to the scenarios I can spin as I let my thoughts wander the back alleys of my mind.

I recently finished reading a very thought-provoking article, "Anthropological Epistemologies," by Nicholas Thomas, who has written extensively on the relations between history and anthropology, exchange theory, material culture, colonialism, and art, especially in the Pacific.

His basic argument is that anthropologists have been too quick to label, and that "culture" is not a fixed, stable thing. Further, he points out that it is almost impossible for an outsider to be objective -- he describes how risky it is for ethnographers to try to define a culture.

The ethnographer can be tripped up by his or her own biases, not to mention being "played" by the members of the culture, who may be promoting a fantasy of what their culture is, rather than what it really is. Thomas takes a look at the south Pacific -- how Europeans have tended to view the various cultures, and to ascribe meaning to the things they observe. He pointed out that they were easily seduced by a notion of the "exotic" -- and imposed their own beliefs and values on peoples and cultures they immediately kept apart as the "Other."

Actually, what Thomas is saying is nothing new. Travel literature and memoirs are filled with heightened "difference." The narratives gave rise to the notion of the "noble savage" (Bernal Diaz del Castillo's take on the Aztecs he observed in Mexico in 1517) which was hammered into other people's agendas (the Jesuits, the conquistadors, various waves of missionaries).

They also lead to the commodification of culture as something to consume when wanting an escape or an emotional boost. The wild tales of the explorers in the "New World" were bestsellers in Europe (leading to contemplative essays, such as Montaigne's "On Cannibals"), as were the numerous "I was captured by Indians" narratives a few hundred years later.

While there is literary merit in the narratives, as anthropological documents, they are amazingly harmful, in that they encourage dualistic thinking ("us" vs "them") and ignore the notion of a shared vision or set of values that allows the two groups to engage in the dynamic adjustment of human behavior that constitutes culture.

Other such narratives played up the exotic, almost to the point of fetishism. Lady Mary Wortley Montague's 18th-century accounts of being an English aristocratic titled lady in the midst of a Turkish bath, or *gasp* a harem, deliberately problematize gender relations (as she views them) in order to titillate her audience with thinly veiled ideas of bondage (the locked confines of the harem), mutilation and control (eunuchs), libido unchained (multiple wives, always available), subjugation (the role of women, dress codes).

Religion was made exotic as well. The French noblewoman, Alexandra David-Neel, wrote about following Tibetan Buddhist shamans in "Magic and Mystery in Tibet" at the turn of the 19th century. In upstate New York and New Hampshire in the early 1800s, Mary Marshall Dyer wrote numerous accounts of the weird practices of the Shakers in "Shakerism Exposed." Isabelle Eberhardt wrote about her quest to understand Sufism in "Oblivion Seekers." Eberhardt, who drowned in a flash flood in Algeria, after spending time dressed as a man, hanging out with kif smokers, seeking transcendance.

Needless to say, there is nothing wrong with fantasy, or extreme imagination. In fact, the quest for the exotic can bring people together, through mutual fascination, desire, and wish-fulfilment. What becomes problematic is the tendency to see things through myth-colored glasses, and to operate under too many false assumptions. Jane Austen's novel, Northanger Abbey, illustrates what happens when a young woman, totally addicted to the lurid gothic romances (replete with demons, ghosts, vampires, and other creatures of the night), starts to process all of her experiences through that perspective. It makes for great comedy -- especially a comedy of errors -- but in real life, it leads to unfortunate policy decisions.

Nicholas Thomas does not have a "magic bullet" or an "innoculation" for distorted thinking. He argues that anthropologists should simply be more aware of how they think, and when they are becoming victim of their own assumptions, fantasies, or beliefs.

Suva Harbour, Fiji - photo by Susan Smith Nash



The rain clouds are starting to come in over the harbor at Suva. A thin Fijian man approaches me, a smile on his face. He has a bundle of hand-carved wooden swords under his arm. "Where are you from, Lady?"

"New York," I blurt out, unconsciously. The look on his face gives me pause and brings me back to the present. I realize it works both ways. He has just as many fantasies and misconceptions about appearances as I. Of course, I don't make it any easier for him, with my bleached blonde hair, my rumpled and sweaty khaki pants, my sunburned American face.

"The market is that way. I can take you," he said.

"No thanks. My husband is waiting for me in the hotel." I gesture to the hotel across the street. "I'm late."

I walk quickly toward the hotel, enter it and poke around the gift shop. Of course, there is no husband, but it was the first thing that popped into my head. I exit, flag a cab, and return to where I am staying.

Anthopological epistemologies. In action.