I think the length and nature of this post ought to in some part account for the length of time between my last post and this one. But I feel that more explanation might be necessary. One, college applications (I hope that’s enough of an explanation). Two, my mind is a rather screwy thing (in case you haven’t figured that out yet) and I tend to think about several different topics at length and in depth over the same given period of time. Therefore, any ideas I have for blog posts manage to stay in the nebulous phase of thought for a long time whilst I switch between several unrelated topics rapidly. I sincerely hope the quality of following post makes up for the wait.

PART I: Culture Through a Schizoanalytic Lens

I have read many pieces that attempt to define culture. I find most of them to fall tremendously flat, relying on descriptions of specific phenomena rather than trying to account for “culture” as a whole. As such, I have spent a great deal of time here in Malaysia trying to reason out how culture can be described in a singular all-accounting manner. The framework that I have realized requires a bit of preliminary exposition.

This last summer I read Deleuze and Guattari’s work, Anti-Oedipus. Perhaps the single most difficult book I have attempted to read, it also happened to yield the best psychological and philosophical insights of almost any work I’ve yet read. The linchpin of Deleuze and Guttari’s re-examination of the Freudian conceptualization of desire is what they term “desiring-production”. In this model, man operates as a component and driving force in the flow of desire and production. That is, all psychology (human and otherwise) and its manifestations (behavior) derive from this simple binodal flow.

If desire is fundamentally the same between individuals both feet and thousands of miles away, then where lies the root of cultural variance? The difference is in two parts. First, the fulfillment of desire; and second, the repression of desire. The first manifests itself in many simple ways. For example, in Malaysia the compound desires of hunger and convenience are fulfilled through the Mamak stalls, whereas in the U.S. this same desire is satisfied with McDonalds. Obviously the first cause of culture is responsible for some of the more simple aspects, such as food. However, the second is entirely responsible for the more complex aspects of a given culture. This is because all values, ethics, and morals are at their core repressions of desire (i.e. I’d desire to hit someone, but I choose not to because of my ethics thereby repressing that desire). Since the desires we choose to repress are often arbitrarily chosen by tradition and environment, it then becomes apparent why there is such a wide variance of cultural practices across the globe.

In summation, “culture” can therefore be defined as the methods of fulfilling or repressing desire.

PART II: Orientalism and the second aspect of culture.

I don’t have time nor the will to make a rundown of Edward Said’s critique of “Orientalism” in western thought, but I will attempt to deliver a sketch of “othering”, a highlight reel if you will.

In order for a group of people to be able to commit gross acts of violence and/or exploitation against another, that group of people (often a society or state) must view those who are violated as “others”. That is, outside the norm, less equal, and above all less human. Only as long as this perception of the “others” continues (the process of creating an “other” is called “othering” by Said) can the exploitation continue. If a colonial power were to think of the colonized peoples as equals and fundamentally similar to themselves, colonialism would have stopped in its tracks. This continues today on two fronts. One is economic (and today more domestic, especially in the US), that is the perception that it is completely acceptable for a person to live in squalor because they are the lazy, welfare-cheating “other” or they are the international “other” for whom it is acceptable to be working in a shoe factory at the age of six. The second (and perhaps more common) front is the violent one.

Perhaps the most glaring operation of this mechanic at work in American culture is the perception of Muslims. Since September Eleventh, the global Muslim population has become the “other” to American society. The “othering” of the Ummah has been so great since that day that many see it as the ultimate antithesis to “America”. This is without a doubt the most dangerous and extreme “othering”, when one group becomes perceived as an existential threat, because it compels the perceiver to violently lash out at the “others”.

Admittedly, “othering” has occurred on both sides. While the perception of the U.S as “others” (expressed as “invaders” or “infidels” in the circles initially with this perception) began largely in the groups that represent the actual existential threat to the United States, our overblown generalizations of all Muslims as the threatening “others” has only lead to the spread of the generalization among the Muslim world that the US is the threatening “other”. In short, this has become a dangerous sequence of shifts in perception that seems to have only a destructive end on the current path.

PART III: One step back, a thousand forward.

Therefore, the question arises of how to both reverse the cycle and how to move forward towards understanding.

While I don’t have the expertise to craft a detailed policy recommendation (and in part, I feel that a great deal on the macro level is already in the works), I can speak to what I have experienced and hope deeply will work.

Perhaps the best place to begin is to drag to an intersection the previous two parts in order to provide some context for this one. In a general sense, what must be done to achieve both the aforementioned goals is thus. Both the Muslim world and the people of the United States must realize that we are in fact more alike than different. As explained by the first part, as humans we are fundamentally alike in our desires. Added to the fact that the first aspect of “culture” (fulfillment of desire) tends to yield only minor differences, one can then realize that between any two people, regardless of distance and place of birth, there are vastly more similarities than differences. Only by realizing this can “othering” be stopped. If another person, society, or state is recognized as being at the very least similar, they can not by definition be “others”. On both sides if this basic truth of human similarity was realized, we would make two shifts in perception; one step backwards from the escalation of “othering” and a thousand steps forwards towards understanding.

In its philosophical and operational basis, this is the essence of the Youth Exchange and Study program. By bringing students from countries with significant Muslim populations to the United States and in turn sending us to those same countries, understanding of the dynamic of human similarity is propagated through firsthand experience. By extension, through the combat of “othering” in this manner on both sides of the dynamic, the YES program is promoting a thousand steps forward towards peace and understanding.

Published in: on October 10, 2009 at 2:48 PM  Comments (1)  
Tags: , ,