Sunday, January 13, 2013

Colonial Consciousness

Here is my attempt to explain colonial consciousness stripped of much of the academic jargon (and nuance) that surrounds it. None of this is original and the mistakes are all mine.

Around the first war with Iraq, Americans were reminded of the fact that most of the political boundaries of the Middle East and Africa were drawn arbitrarily by the European colonial powers.  That is, the Europeans created a map that was not well aligned with the reality on the ground.   Their doing so had significant consequences.  Reality itself began changing because of the map.  So maybe there was no Syrian identity and no Iraqi identity before the map, but only after.  People divided by boundaries or peoples united who preferred to be apart resulted in political turmoil, wars and even genocide.  Such is the power of the map.

Extend the map metaphor to the humanities.  Based on their experience and to suit their purposes, the Europeans applied their concepts and categories to the cultures they encountered.  Often these do not align with reality, but were driven by Europeans' theological and ideological predilections.  For instance, they looked for and found holy books, priests, God, religion and so on in other cultures because that is what their cultural experience led them to look for.  One should remember that the encountered cultures did not participate as equals in the European/rest-of-world encounter, they were only informants, not contributors.  Nor did the encountered cultures have any knowledge of European culture, and they generally blindly accepted the isomorphisms that the Europeans came up with.  We have exactly the same problem as with the map.   The subject cultures start changing because of the map.  The mismatch of the map and reality results in various problems in the subject cultures.

Most seriously, since the metaphorical map is (supposed to be) a description of a culture, the more the people of a culture, say Indian culture, get enmeshed in the European map, the less intelligible the experience of their own culture becomes to them.   This is the phenomenon of colonial consciousness.

The description of cultures becomes distorted.  For instance, whatever it is that evangelist Christians want to replace in an Asian culture is what becomes the religion of that culture. The very category of "religion" in the humanities is based on Christian theological ideas.  This next is a difficult point and I don't yet have a simple way to deliver it - I believe that the existence of "Hinduism" as a "religion" requires one to implicitly accept some of the truth claims of Christian theology.  The natural description of classical Indian culture would not be in terms of "religion".   Certainly classical India never described itself as having "religion".  But like the political map, the colonial map is now imposed on us.  Just as we would now be at a loss as to how to describe Iraqis even accepting the fact that Iraq has arbitrary borders,  we are now at a loss of how to describe Indian culture; and Asian culture in general.

So we are stuck, and perhaps the way to get unstuck is to first undo the isomorphism.  Classical Indian culture had "dharma" and classical Europe had "religion" and they are rather different things - the reason we even make them comparable is because both have an ethical dimension.

As I've noted, students of cuisine have no problem in retaining the names of food preparations from different cultures   Students of culture should be so wise.

PS: What can the Indian infected with a colonial consciousness do?  He can try to be European, but never can really be one,  no more than in the American context a black man can be white; and he is doomed to frustration and worse, stagnation and a loss of creativity - all his creations will have a second-hand quality to it.  The other is to be well-rooted.  This does not mean rejection of European ideas.  For instance, the tomato, potato, green pepper, eggplant are not of Indian origin - they came from the New World,  but they are incorporated in Indian cuisine consonant with the values of Indian cuisine; and of course, the Indian can enjoy Italian or Mexican or whatever other cuisine incorporates these foodstuffs.  The current situation (in the description of culture) is as though marinara sauce is the canonical tomato preparation, and everything is measured against it.