October 24, 2004    East vs. WestArts

New Media, New Relevance

I recently came across an anthology of writing on “New Media”, and was struck by how the editor explained the conceptual basis of the content through references to Western philosophers, namely Socrates, Kant, Hegel, Marx, and Adorno. To readers schooled in Western philosophy, this sounds quite reasonable. But given the nature of the topic, i.e. “New Media”, why should he assume that his audience is Western?

Naturally, there are situations in which assuming a Western audience is appropriate, but in today’s increasingly multicultural world, it is often unreasonable. New Media is not an exclusively Western phenomenon. The Eastern half of the world has had as much to contribute to it, not just in terms of content, but also of technologies. Furthermore, there are many contributors to New Media who speak English and live in the West whose cultural backgrounds are not Western. Despite these facts, many Western intellectuals continue to assume a Western audience when they write for a New Media audience.

In other countries, the West is often portrayed as self-obsessed; in fact, in my own readings on the subject, the Western philosophical tradition encourages ignoring everything outside of itself. By comparison, while it is common for Eastern intellectuals to refer or draw analogies to Western ideas, the reverse is rarely seen. The validity of arguments in the West is achieved by strictly conforming to its own protocols. Going outside of those protocols would immediately invalidate the argument. For this reason, alternate philosophical systems such as Eastern philosophies often carry the legitimacy of a Tarot card reading.

I once wrote to a scholar who specialized in the philosophies of Jacques Derrida and Ludwig Wittgenstein, asking him why he never mentioned the similarities between those thinkers and Eastern philosophies, especially Zen Buddhism. In his response, although he agreed about the similarities, he said he could not write about them because he respected Eastern philosophies too much to speak of them “ignorantly”. He further explained that, to do an “authoritative” job, he must have much “deeper” knowledge of the entire system of thought, as well as the ability to read the original texts in the original language.

This little vignette captures a uniquely Western tendency of thought; the attempt to dig “deeper” into the essence of an object, as opposed to extending one’s knowledge wider to see the relationship of the object to the whole. To the scholar above, “ignorance” consisted of not knowing deeply enough, but to an Eastern philosopher, “ignorance” would be not knowing widely enough.

This difference manifests clearly in medicine. Traditional Eastern doctors do not have discrete specialties the way they do in the West. They fear that, by specializing, they would miss the bigger picture. Western doctors are often helpless if a disease does not neatly fit into their own specialties. And they are scared to treat it if it lies outside of their specialties, because our society condemns any medical practice that does not carry the “badge of authority” that comes with specialization. If the disease is a manifestation of disharmony caused by multiple inextricable problems, their hands are tied. Conversely, Eastern medicine excels at treating this type of problem, simply because they focus on understanding the body as a complex relationship of interdependent parts.

To carry the analogy into the philosophical arena, the West tends overall to view its specialists as superior to its generalists. By placing greater value in the habit of honing, and this tendency to break objects into discreet parts, Western intellectuals are often prevented from seeing their own ideas in relation to the rest of the world. Rather than placing our philosophical tradition in the context of Eastern, Arab, or Indian philosophies, we tend to see ours as singular, unprecedented, and most importantly, superior to all others. Hegel himself exacerbated the problem by clearly announcing that Eastern philosophies were inferior to his own.

Jacques Derrida saw the pitfalls inherent in the tendency of hierarchically opposing binary pairs. He pointed at that the qualities typically associated with women have been systematically suppressed as inferior, and those associated with men, superior (e.g. active/passive, logical/emotional, big/small, etc.). This force has been so dominant for so long that even women themselves have been convinced of men’s notion of what is superior. As a result, the “great” Western men of the past have created a comfortable world for themselves where their natural qualities are considered superior by default. The qualities associated with the East, or with anything perceived as “other” than they are, have been subjected to systematic degradation. Conversely, in the East, “active” is not superior to “passive”, “logical” is not superior to “emotional”, and “big” is not superior to “small”.

Such cultural differences become relevant when writing for New Media. This does not mean that we need to always assume a global audience. It means, however, that we should examine whether our usual conventions, references, values, and techniques are appropriate. In the field of psychology, for example, where the contributions of women are as significant as those of men, to write as if only men existed in the field would be unreasonable to say the least. By the same token, when writing for a global audience with a variety of perspectives, being “relevant” is more important than being “authoritative”, and will better encourage a global dialogue. And in order to be “relevant”, writing must not implicitly subordinate cultures that are foreign to its own intellectual tradition. This is not a matter of ethics or morals; it is a matter of being relevant to today’s world.