Friday, May 2, 2008

A bit of a rant on cultural imperialism

After reading The World Republic of Letters, I was pretty horrified. The basic thesis of the book is that international literature is largely formed by a small group of editors in Paris and to a lesser extent in London and New York. That these editors decide what bits of literature the world over are internationalized.

The horror came over me because I realized how homogenizing this must be - and, indeed, I find international literature to be very much of a particular cast. I mean, take magical realism. It is very much the sort of thing that white middle class people like - it's about extraordinary renditions of fairly ordinary things but with shades of the exotic. Some time later I recall talking to a South American - I don't even know who he is! - about magical realism and though I do not remember the person, I remember what he said very well. He said, "That's not what South Americans really read." He told me that science-fiction is huge in Latin America. I read science-fiction so I said I'd never heard of it, and he said that almost none of it has been translated. Then my mind veered towards this world republic of letters. A group of college educated middle-class Frenchmen (and almost certainly most of them are French men) would have little interest in Spanish language science fiction. What those French editors want is literary fiction - the same stuff that literary fiction writers in the US, and England, and France write, but written exotically. The quality of international literature is being defined as nothing more than what appeals to Western educated French people. It was right then that I really understood what cultural imperialism meant - the attitudes of those white well-to-do Western college educated French men were defining world literature and by doing it, they would create a self-fulfilling system. The more they define "international" literature as what appeals to white well-to-do Western college educated French men the more the continuing standard of quality will be so defined. Like how it's impossible to talk about English literature without someone bringing up Shakespeare, even tho' . . . he's not that good by today's standards, and even by the standards of his day he was . . . sorta . . . shallow. But you can't say that, because Shakespeare has come to define English language literature.

The only place that I have a good idea of what I'm missing is Japanese fiction. Due largely to the efforts of a small group of Japanophiles in the United States, to some extent the "republic" of letters - which is a misnomer, really, it's far more like the oppressive racist aristocracy of letters - has been circumvented. Japanese animation has brought over Japanese comic books which is now translating into bringing over Japanese popular literature. But it's limited, and rare. What goes on, even in fields I'm very interested in, like science-fiction, remain opaque to me.

The same thing happens everywhere. So, the Wikipedia article of the day - yeah, yeah, I know some of you don't like Wikipedia, but I do in large measure because it is way more likely to have information I want than a traditional encyclopedia, like up-to-date comic book summaries - they have it an Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray He does stuff like the Apu trilogy, Ghare Baire and Shakha Proshakha. He would influence people like Mrinal Sen.

Ray's movies are . . . I mean, they're what almost all foreign movies I see are. They're these personal and family dramas! Look at what Ray did, what Sen did! Nothing but personal and family dramas. And with both directors the articles will go on and on about how wonderful and splendid they were and I found myself thinking that we're back in the territory of the international republic of letters. That what we praise is what art house movie people praise.

I know what Indians actually watch - and it isn't these movies! Indians watch a lot more stuff like Dhoom 2 than they do the Apu trilogy. Who watches stuff like the Apu trilogy? Well-to-do Western educated Indians, who contact their well-to-do Western film contacts and international acclaim is given to movies that are not representative of India cinema.

What I feel is going on is that . . . they're not interested in Indian cinema. They're interested in seeing the reflections of the Western artistic aesthetic outside of the West. What Indians are actually interested in isn't nearly as important, to the people who decide what the world sees about all of the parts of the world, as a narcissistic reflection of their own aesthetic. It's a racist pat on the head. We'll acknowledge Indian cinema, or South American literature, if it conforms to the standards of a tiny section of Westerners - almost all of whom are rich, college educated white men. We'll be glad to let them into our circle if they act like us.

I hate that, and I just had to say something.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Nice cacti.