Chinese saying (and why I avoid meetings and tire of conferences)

两 岸   啼 不 住

Liang an yuan sheng ti bu zhu:

The monkeys on both banks are still gibbering.


In search of Margaret Cool Root

Now that is a name to die for, especially if you live in Australia or New Zealand: Margaret Cool Root.  The catch is that she may either be a respected archaeologist or a director of that Hollywood blockbuster, Vampire Bikini Babes. I must admit, I admire the creativity of her parents.

Exchanging ideas: between east and west

‘I couldn’t understand what you were saying’, she said.

‘Was it my English?’ I said.

‘No, no’, she said. ‘We had the English text and a Chinese translation. I read through them both carefully. I could understand each sentence, but they didn’t seem to connect to make a main point’.

‘We’d call that missing the forest for the trees’, I said.

She laughed. ‘Exactly! That captures it’.

We were talking after a lecture I had given for students and faculty at a major university in China. The topic was one on which I had spoken often – Marxism and religion. But after this discussion I was a little alarmed. Had all those overflowing lecture halls, conference venues, small groups and intimate gatherings simply missed the point of what I had been saying until now? Was I that obtuse, unclear, muddled?

‘You know’, she said, ‘whenever a Chinese lecturer speaks, she or he goes straight to the main point, to the core issue. But when you, or any other outsider I have heard, speak, it seems like a mass of detail and I can’t find the main point’.

I had come across all manner of characterisations of Chinese, or indeed Asian education. They are taught to listen and absorb the words of the master, it is said, never to think critically or question. On my first visit to China, I found that was absolute crap. Students fearlessly and vigorously challenge all and sundry on the big issues. Chinese academia is slowly catching up to other places, it is said, and it has a long way to go – quality control, intellectual depth, awareness of the richness of Western thought. They may occasionally stumble across the odd book from the West and become all excited about it, but they really don’t know what they are talking about. And on it goes – one chauvinistic piece of grandstanding after another.

But this conversation after my lecture set me thinking, inquiring, returning to ask more. For here lay a profound difference in intellectual life, a stumbling block for many a Chinese student heading overseas to pursue their studies elsewhere. Slowly what characterises a Western approach dawned on me – and the West really begins somewhere around Iran (ancient Persia) with a Near West and a Far West.

An argument works through a mass of detail to a carefully qualified conclusion, the main point held off until the end in a curious form of delayed satisfaction. On the way there it must wade through a mass of detailed commentary, struggle through the thick undergrowth of references and footnotes, deal with objections (real or imagined), until the conclusion. Like a hunter pursuing a particularly evasive quarry, it finally emerges triumphant, the tattered and sorry-looking central point held aloft triumphantly. Never mind that the reader or audience has been snoring for some time now.

By contrast, a Chinese speaker sprints at breakneck speed to the central issue. He or she states it boldly, clearly, and then explores its implications. Now the details appear, the careful attention to a text or idea, the confrontation with objections. Yet all of this is constantly drawn back to the main point, elaborating and reiterating it.

For students brought up in either tradition, the generic expectations become quite different, the modes of thought and listening move differently and take quite some time to learn. To a Western student, a Chinese lecture or paper seems blunt and unsophisticated, missing the nuance of an argument. To a Chinese student, a Western speaker simply trots out endless detail, massing together loosely related ideas. During the process, the conclusion is lost amidst the clutter, as though one had no real point to make at all, as though one were afraid of dealing with anything important.

Should someone hostile to theology be appointed to a theology position?

This one comes up from time to time, but I have pondering it today while grouting my tiles – as you do. It is not uncommon these days for someone to be or have become somewhat hostile to theology. It is a pseudo-science, he or she asserts, studying objects that are figments of the imagination. It usually doesn’t get to the point of assuming that theology, or indeed religion, is the cause of all the world’s ills (like the ‘new old atheists’). But it may appear as consistent attacks on theology, dismissals, efforts to prove its inconsistencies, or simply disdain.

Now it becomes interesting. It is also not uncommon these days for such a person to apply for a theological position, whether in a divinity school in the USA, a theological faculty at a European university, or even a theological college.

Should they apply? Should such applications be accepted? Should they be offered a position?

It is not a matter of religious belief, which is a red herring in this context. Rather, it concerns the discipline itself. Would any interview panel seriously consider an application for a sociology position, or history, or linguistics, by someone who held these respective discipline in complete disdain?

Some people do get better with age

Unlike many (Charles Taylor, for instance), some people do actually get better with age. Take Immanuel Wallerstein, who turned 80 in 2010. Since the 1970s, he has been writing his multi-volume The Modern World-System. One volume has appeared every dozen years or so, beginning in 1974. The most recent, from 2011, is in some respects the best yet, at least in terms of the sharpness of his formulations. And the old guy is talking about volumes 5 and 6!

Some samples:

Liberalism has always been in the end the ideology of the strong state in the sheep’s clothing of individualism; or to be more precise, the ideology of the strong state as the only sure ultimate guarantor of individualism (p. 10).

The institutionalization of history and the three nomothetic disciplines – economics, sociology, and political science – in the last third of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth took the form of university disciplines wherein the Western world studied itself, explained its own functioning, the better to control what was happening.

Still the rest of the world was a matter of some concern to the powerful of the world, who wished to know best how to control the ‘others’ over whom they held sway. To control, one must understand, at least minimally. So, again, it is no surprise that academic specialties emerged to produce the desired knowledge … a discipline called anthropology emerged in this period, and it dealt largely with areas that were either colonies or special zones within the metropolitan powers’ home territory. A second discipline, called Orientalism, dealt … largely (but not exclusively) with the semicolonies (pp. 264-5).

On Marxism and Intersectionality

One of the supposedly new directions in research in the humanities and social sciences is designated by the latest buzzword, ‘intersectionality’. For a a few deacdes, well-meaning intellectuals have been mouthing cumbersome phrases like, ‘in light of gender, ethnicity, class, colonialism, sexuality …’, or more negatively, ‘in order to oppose sexism, racism, colonialism, classism, speciesism …’. They got tired of it, audiences became desperate, stubbing cigarettes out slowly on their hands (like Rakhmetov in Cherneshevsky’s great novel), readers suicidal.

So, lo and behold, like a genuine idea that is rare to most intellectuals even in a lifetime, ‘intersectionality’ was born in the mind of Kimberlé Crenshaw (Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color’, Stanford Law Review, Vol. 43, No. 6., pp. 1241–1299.).

The catch is like most new ideas, someone had it before, namely Marxists. More specifically, they came up with the idea in the vibrant debates of the Communist Internationals in the late nineteenth and then twentieth centuries. As Robert Young points out in his valuable discussion of the roots of postcolonialism within Marxism, ‘Communism was the first, and only, political program to recognize the interrelation of these different forms of domination and exploitation and the necessity of abolishing them all’ (Postcolonialism: A Historical Introduction, 2001, p. 142).

Osama Bin Laden: the quiet hero of universities and ‘intelligence’ agencies

With the widely reported news that Osama Bin Laden has finally been killed by some US assassination unit, it is worth reflecting on why universities and intelligence agencies should be immensely thankful to Mr Bin Laden.

To begin with, the ‘intelligence’ agencies have never had it better: massive injections of government funds, plenty of positions to fill, lots of new equipment on which to peruse facebook, twitter and what have you.

As for universities, the massive increase in courses, programs, research centres, grants, articles, books and academics focusing on ‘terrorism’, Islam, extremism, and so forth would not have happened without Bin Laden. In Australia, graduation ceremonies are full of  international students receiving degrees in ‘counter-terrorism’. Intellectuals with fIagging careers have suddenly found a new lease of energy and, even better, shitloads of cash to figure out how to ‘secure’ Australia. All but one area remains untapped: the discipline of pro-terrorism studies, with a core program called ‘How to be a terrorist’.

So I propose that both ‘intelligence’ agencies and universities institute an annual ‘Osama Bin Laden’ day, saluting the man who inaugurated a golden era of funding, research and teaching in an area previously barely acknowledged.