David Weinberger of Joho the Blog wrote a post several days ago that I’ve been sitting on while I mull it over. In the meantime, a couple of posts here have raised related isses, namely the comments on Perceptions of Asian Perception and Kerim’s Face-to-Face, so I figured I’d add Weinberger’s post to the mix for your consideration.
Weinberger is something of an Internet utopianist, so his post leans heavily on new technologies that have provided conduits for the wide transmission of ideas — as he says, you may not be IM’ing Chinese Communists or Jihadists, but the conversations others are having in out-of-the-way corners of the network are refracting through the whole. But I think his comments can be abstracted from the technology issue to encompass a way of looking at social communication in general. As noted here and elsewhere, the model of cultures as bounded entities is highly unsatisfactory as a way of looking at the modern world (and possibly of looking at human history at any point). For example, the colonial encounter cannot be productively conceptualized as the domination of a monolithic native culture by a monolithic colonial culture; instead, we have to recognize internal differentiation within both parties, including natives for whom the colonial regime offers new and unprecedented opportunities for fulfillment and colonialists for whom the colonial project is considered an atrocity and others who find greater fulfillment in the cultural world of the oppressed than in the colonial structure. Vicente Rafael’s Contracting Colonialism presents a good example of the multiple interconnections and communications that make up the colonial encounter, in this case among the Tagalogs of the Phillipines.
Against the relativistic conception of “cultures” with a small ‘c’ and a plural ‘s’, Weinberger posits the conversation, a world in which differences are not isolated into bounded cultures but are instead constantly confronting and accomodating one another. There’s nothing particularly new about this idea — Volosinov’s 1929 work on ideologies and individual languages says much the same thing in much denser language — but I particularly like the way Weinberger phrases it:
There is a big difference between a relativistic world in which contrary beliefs assert themselves and a conversational world in which contrary beliefs talk with one another. In the relativistic world, we resign ourselves to the differences. In the conversational world, the differences talk. Even though neither side is going to “win” — conversation is the eternal fate of humankind — knowledge becomes the negotiation of beliefs in a shared world. What do we need to talk through? What can’t we give up? What do we believe in common that seems so different? What should we just not talk about? These are the questions that now shape knowledge.
As I said, there’s a touch of utopianism to this — the “negotiation of beliefs” never takes place in a power vacuum, and is often accompanied by the threat of violence — but I think it does point at some of the shortcomings of the traditional relativist conception of culture (not to be confused with the anthropologist’s commitment to “cultural relativism” as a research methodology and a moral position) and offer a somewhat different way to think about the interaction of people with different knowledge claims — whether they are as vastly different as a conservative Midewesterner and a committed Jihadist or whether they are members of the same community or even the same family.