Friday, October 31, 2008

Civilisation Exclusivity

“The intention is to allow you to encounter a foreign civilisation... as a foreign civilisation. The (to me unsatisfactory) alternative is to intellectually colonise the other civilisation – to facilely experience that culture as if it were merely an exotic outpost of one’s own”

-Dr. Stephen Ogden, professor at Simon Fraser University

Regarding our course texts, aesthetic concepts, and overall meandering journey through Japanese culture, our group perspective on the Civilisation Exclusivity debate is just that – a debate, or dialectic. Although the thesis proposed for the course by our professor, Dr. Ogden, is in favour of Civilisation Exclusivity, the five of us prefer to remain as neutral as possible and to take this opportunity to discuss the issue more thoroughly. This is not to say that we disagree with any one position, but that we strive to defend a multitude of perspectives as we define and discuss Civilisation Exclusivity about the West and Japan.

Before delving into various arguments, let us examine this concept in more detail...

Civilisation Exclusivity concerns culture at its broadest level. It is the idea that one civilisation is exclusive of all others because each culture’s fundamental assumptions (beliefs, values, etc.) are completely different. For instance, symbolism is a Western ideology that does not exist in Japan. Where a large oak tree might symbolise age or wisdom for the West, to the Japanese, the tree just is. They might even look at the same tree and feel old. The point is that the tree itself does not stand for anything in the abstract sense. Historically, Plato’s parable of the cave (explaining real form versus shadow) is an example of how deeply symbolism is engrained into Western culture. As Dr. Ogden stated in lecture, symbolism assumes an ontology or concept of being which implies a separation between this and that. The Japanese do not know symbolism because their ontology is fundamentally different from the West.

Civilisation Exclusivity is closely connected to the indeterminacy principle (or uncertainty principle). Developed in 1927 by German theoretical physicist Werner Heisenberg (1901-1976), this principle “postulat[ed] that a measurement of one property of an entity, such as its momentum, involved an inevitable uncertainty of our knowledge in the conjugate property, such as its position” (OED). In other words, what an entity is and/or its function depends upon where it is geographically and in time.

Perhaps more applicable to our discussion of literature, however, is Willard Van Orman Quine’s (1908-2000) “indeterminacy of translation” thesis. An American analytic philosopher and logician, Quine wrote Word and Object (1960) in which his thesis problematizes linguists’ ostensive definitions of unknown languages (see this article on the gavagai experiment, or look inside Quine’s text here). Basically, Quine argues that no matter how much one learns about a foreign culture, even after a basic linguistic foundation, one can only build upon indeterminacies. No unique meaning can be assigned to words or sentences because the translator gathers his or her own evidence which forms their particular understanding: there are too many variables.

Thomas Nagel’s (b.1937) article, “What is it Like to be a Bat?” (1974) applies this indeterminacy to human consciousness, and argues that consciousness has a subjective character or “what it is like” aspect. Nagel states that we cannot know what it is like to be a bat because we are not bats.

Our last example is a contemporary work which discusses indeterminacy of translation and Civilization Exclusivity (concerning Japan) – Naoki Sakai’s book Translation and Subjectivity: On “Japan” and Cultural Nationalism (2008). Here is the back-cover description from the publisher:

"An excursion across the boundaries of language and culture, this provocative book suggests that national identity and cultural politics are, in fact, 'all in the translation.' Translation, we tend to think, represents another language in all its integrity and unity. Naoki Sakai turns this thinking on its head, and shows how this unity of language really only exists in our manner of representing translation. In analyses of translational transactions and with a focus on the ethnic, cultural, and national identities of modern Japan, he explores the cultural politics inherent in translation. Through the schematic representation of translation, one language is rendered in contrast to another as if the two languages are clearly different and distinct. And yet, Sakai contends, such differences and distinctions between ethnic or national languages (or cultures) are only defined once translation has already rendered them commensurate. His essays thus address translation as a means of figuring (or configuring) difference."

For more information, please follow any of the above links or see Dr. Ogden’s description of Civilisation Exclusivity on the course blog here.



skram said...

I am especially interested in the implications Quine's idea has on the civilization exclusivity question, and on our reading of Murakami's Norwegian Wood. As you stated Mel,

"Quine argues that no matter how much one learns about a foreign culture, even after a basic linguistic foundation, one can only build upon indeterminacies. No unique meaning can be assigned to words or sentences because the translator gathers his or her own evidence which forms their particular understanding: there are too many variables."

Does this not put a wrench into our reading of Murakami's text as an exemplification of Japanese aesthetic concepts? Are we truly able to read the text as an expression of Murakami's Japanese sensibility, or are we identifying the translator's perception of the text? This is especially interesting in relation to this text, as it was translated twice into English - once by Alfred Birnbaum, and once by Kodansha. Depending on which edition we read, we may be experiencing a Western or Japanese translator's rendition of the novel, which I would think would effect the filtering of the novel immensely.


skram said...

I agree, and I think it would be very interesting to read the other translation of Norwegian Wood and do a comparison.

Regarding our understanding of Norwegian Wood's Japanese aspects, I think we can still do this through translation. Presumably, the translator did have a particular reaction to the text and may have translated it based on their emotional investment or even a desire to write their own text instead of accurately translate Murakami's words. Although, I helps me to consider this (at least, in part) as a text by Jay Rubin as well as Murakami. Also, Quine gives more details about the translation "variables," so I like to think that while difficult, accurate translation is not impossible.


skram said...

Thanks for picking up on that, Angela and Mel. A further complication in reading Murakami's text would be the fact that he used a song by a British band as a representation of the tone and emotional quality of the book. In what way would Murakami's reaction to the song be different from the reaction of someone who shared the Beatles' British or Western background? Even if we use similar words to express, as the back of the book says, "the music, the mood, and the ethos that was the sixties", it is likely that the associated meaning of the words will have fundamental differences between cultures.