‘from the perspective of difference, your liver and your gall bladder are like Chu (a country to the north) and Yue (a country to the south), but from the perspective of sameness, the ten thousand things are like one.’ Zhuangzi, Daoist Sage
I’ve been thinking about how to resist multiculturalism as a system of doxology or clichés. For this, I want to propose a new conception of ‘culture’ that can parasite off this doxology. A return of culture could perhaps relieve the tired concerns of political-economy, whether liberal or radical.
Let’s begin from how culture is truncated under regimes of identity. Nationalism assigns populations simplistic identities, so that a nationality can imply a race, ancestry, language, religion, history, tastes, family-structures, arts, world-views, politics and beliefs. I propose another conception of culture that could engages vigorously with this kind of hegemonic national identity. These hegemonic identities often serve as loci for information processing, for instance in how events are reported by news services, and so this proposed break could drastically alter representation.
Of course this break with nationality would not be advisable for everyone. People are habituated to their positions in multiculturalism, especially as they are coded into markets, and the danger of losing those positions might be frightening. Breaking the spell of cultural identity opens margins of uncertainty and complexity which are likely to provoke anxiety. So the movement I am suggesting here is something definitely minoritarian, and would have to include recodifications or renormalizations. And again, the key is to remain closely engaged with the majoritarian clichés.
Multiculturalism can be considered a form of consciousness and perception. More specifically, it is a way of distinguishing the habitual from the non-habitual or the native from the foreign. It expresses identities in order to segregate the same from the other. And it usually seeks the most convenient ways to posit these identities, which often means basing them on the perception of skin complexion, dress, or manner of speech. This way identities are decided on the basis of appearance.
The idea of culture gets abused when deployed for this purpose of distinguishing nationalities. This denigrates culture by trapping it in the field of perception. And this tendency can be insidious, as identification impulses often get denied and buried, as there is awareness that they are in poor taste, especially in liberal circles. National identities persist as an economic imperative. Exchanges are programmed to take place on the basis of these identities, and so they get reasserted against better judgement. As I shall suggest, this problematic ultimately comes down to the symbolic matrix of exchange – that is what must be altered necessarily.
The break I propose would reorient culture away from perception and into the realm of memory. Where multiculturalism identifies objects of perception according to their familiarity and foreignness, I suggest that culture should be reconceived more abstractly as impersonal memory processes. These would be the processes where presence arrives from and disappears into the past and the distance. Thus there is no need to challenge multicultural identities, because it would is effective to subvert the entire identity-based conception of culture.
National identities are transmitted through ancestry, and this model of transmission must be broken. We need to reconceive culture as something transmitted through education alone. So education works as the dialectical opposite of ancestry, which it must obliterate. Education in this sense would be an alternate way of orienting populations in space-time, or in dynamic relation to the past and the distant. Where multicultural ancestry captures populations within a spectacle of presence, barring them from realms of absence, education would experiment with transitions between absence and presence, or between language and intimacy. This is the logistical programs that alternate between symbolic idealizations and concrete intimacies.
An educator would have to position themselves at a juncture within the matrix of multicultural exchange. Education in this sense has to be a localized process, and this whole proposed re-conception of culture can only be discussed if we are ready to translate between local conditions. So it is relevant to mention that I am teaching in a foreign languages department at a small university in Jiangxi Province, People’s Republic of China.
There is a commercial maxim in Chinese, 出口转内销, which means something like ‘exports turn into imports’. Things that were sent out to be sold in other countries return repackaged in altered forms and get sold on the domestic market. I want to suggest a kind of cultural education that would be a matter of orienting populations within this kind of circulation. Cultural would be conceived as a hypothetical noumenal substance that circulates at varying speeds, and education would be a technique for modelling those circulations. Through this sort of education, populations are alienated from their identities in a way that sets symbolic generation into motion. Culture would be a moving relational form which energizes populations in an alienating way, and this alienation sets symbolic relations off-kilter for the sake of expression.
There is an activity I have my students perform, where they must group the seven billion people in this world into identities. They attempt to use concepts of nationality, race, gender, language, profession and region. In the course of this activity they run into messy set paradoxes, where each identity they propose runs into various problems. This on-going muddle reminds me of Plato’s Parmenides where they get all confused in a messy dialectic of the one and the many which Hegel found so disagreeable. What most interests me is how the students feel comfortable with some identities, and not with others. They are usually comfortable identifying themselves as Chinese, Asians, men or women, students, or youth. But interestingly, they are not so comfortable identifying themselves as ‘east Asian’.
This I find is remarkable, because ‘east Asian’ is a relatively coherent and functional cultural identity. It denotes a group of roughly 1.6 billion people who share a definable region, and a set of practices: they are chopstick-using, rice-eating, celebrate their new years on the second new moon after the solstice etc. But this identity of ‘east Asian’ makes my students uncomfortable because it conflicts with their nationality, because it lumps them together with Japanese, Koreans, and Vietnamese, groups who they consider as foreign nationalities. So their ancestral nationalism is incongruent with the cultural archives associated with their everyday behavior. Their Han ancestry is represented these days through cartoonish images (such as the ‘Chinese Dream’ sequence) which are divorced from the historical circulation and development of culture in east Asia.
My next point concerns how this cartoonish stereotype of nationality relates to what we might call culture markets. It is well known that the archives of Chinese civilization include vast bounties of literature, painting, theatre, music and dance. But the problem is that nationalism limits the accessibility of this archive. The noumenal substance of culture passes between dynasties and languages, and much of it becomes illegible due to the insistence on a fixed identity of the Han people. For instance, even the fabled Tang dynasty, the centrepiece of Chinese civilization, are not identifiable as ethnically Han.
So the economic point here is that nationalism takes the resources of civilization off the market. So this re-conception of culture could be considered from an economic advantages, in that it could overcome the scarcity of culture created by nationalist ideology.
This tombstone was discovered in Fujian province on the east coast of China. The inscription is in Syraic, and a date is given according to an Alexandrian calendar which corresponds to the early 12th century AD. This image can help us to pose a broad question concerning the circulation of Hellenistic culture in East Asia. There is reason to suspect that Chinese Buddhism may have been Hellenized in India before it circulated into China, and that this left it with features bearing a family resemblance with Christianity. This systemic connection has broad ramifications for the interpretation of Chinese modernity. Some archaeologists have gone so far as to argue that the iconic terracotta warriors in the tomb of the First Emperor (236 BC) were constructed with ‘Greek’ technology. Such facts are open to debate, but there remains the possibility of a broad Sino-Hellenistic historiography that would allow for compelling reinterpretations of Chinese modernity. The possibility is open that a layer of Alexandrian codes were introduced in ancient China, which has provided a cultural foundation for modern Chinese liberalism. The consequences of this reinterpretation would be far reaching, and could facilitate a revitalization of global civilization.
A series of related inquires arise from this hypothesis. Allow me to make a few broad strokes here, just to illustrate the magnitude of this discovery. There are, for instance, the striking homologies between the literature of Han dynasty statesmanship and the contemporaneous Roman Stoicism. There is the question of how the Qing dynasty relates to the Counter-Reformation, and how the struggle that ended the Ming was coupled with the contemporaneous Thirty Years War. It seems that colonization models have obscured inter-regional correlations. There is the problematic of how revolutionaries like Sun Yat-sen and Mao Tse-tung fit into broader patterns that would include revolutionaries like Ming Hong-Wu, St. Francis of Assisi, Jean Calvin, Oliver Cromwell, and all the way down to Donald Trump. These are obviously huge problematics, but the point here is that they suffice just as problematics. They do not demand solutions, but rather they are the keys which can function to open the circuitry of world cultural exchange.
Liberal capitalism did not arrive abruptly in China as is often assumed, but was planted here in ancient times, where it grew up just as it did elsewhere. The challenge is to recognize Chinese modernity as something indigenous which has communicated with global modernity all along. This sort of orientation would render the archive of Chinese civilization more accessible, putting it on the market as it were. It could also bring a definitive end to the period of European colonization. It seems the theory of colonization should be renovated into something more abstract and singular.
In some ways, this brings us back to postmodernity, although significant innovations have taken place in the discussion. It should be possible to deal with this condition more tactfully than it was last time around. For one thing, we have learned that marketing must be taken as the ultimate objective, since that is the arena where any movement succeeds or fails. Commercial exchange becomes an ideal form of alienation, so that the raw impersonal circulation of culture through the archive must accede to commercialization.
The cultural markets must be hacked in order to overcome the limitations imposed by nationalism. An Ariadne’s thread of ancient civilization must be fed into the market, so that the spice route is remobilized, and the whole global exchange system reboots itself on the basis of its elements in ancient religion. The markets must get hooked on a singular dynamic of cultural circulation, aka world systems, in order to initiate another Great Return. This is the step that so-called postmodernity has been unable to achieve, but which still may be possible.
From the perspective of difference, one chopstick is from Chu and the other from Yue, but from the perspective of sameness, Mao and Trump could be identical twins.
The point here again is not to overturn multiculturalism, but to pervert it so to insert (插) the flows of cultural memory. Nationalism is often stricken with weakness and poverty. The key is to exploit its points of exhaustion, and to insert archival programming there at the sites of its greatest weakness or abjection.
There is a further theoretical problematic this creates, which concerns the subjective orientation of the archive, or we could say the archive’s own pleasure principle. Much energy will have to be devoted to this problem of the subjective (in)finitude of memory, or what might be called archive fever. There must be vigilance regarding the fragile edges of the subject’s composition, which must be maintained through ruses. Let me next begin to outline some borromean strategy for maintaining subjective composition where postmodernity has so far failed.
When John Dewey arrived in China for his 1919-22 lecture tour, he understood that he was bringing with him ancient cultural codes which had passed through China before. He knew that his doctrines of Wilsonian democracy were not completely foreign to the Middle Kingdom. He tried to speak from a position that was oriented within this infinite circulation. Dewey must be considered as a precursor in this project, but one who failed miserably. And his failure corresponds with the failure of secularism and liberal modernity.
Religion provides essential resources for the codification of infinity. The subject of the archive has proper names, such as Confucius, Buddha, Christ, Mohammad, along with their disciples, and the gods and spirits they worshiped. Religion provides these masks or personas which equip us to speak from the position of infinity. As we break with the cliché’s of nationalism, these masks recodify us onto something familiar, which we could call the pleasure principles of the ancient world.
The clichés of multiculturalism themselves must be used tactfully. They are like stepping stones that can prevent us from getting washed away – swooning – into infinity. When we are in danger of getting lost, we play a multicultural cliché, however ironically.
These are three different levels of resources that we cobble together to maintain subjective composure. First, we must register the very particular local contingencies under which we are coding. Secondly, we dabble in mythology and god masks, wherever they become functional to express the voice of the archive. Thirdly, we resort to multi-cultural clichés, which function as points of desublimation. These are of course the negative positions in the market-matrix which we are attempting to overcome, but wherever we can’t succeed in overcoming them, then they can be adopted ironically.
The problem is to put the archive into market-motion. To work on the matrix of exchange surrounding the multicultural clichés, and manipulate that matrix in order to bring threads of archival material into play. One must discover a dynamic or rhythm whereby this substitution can take place: a substitution of cliché for memory. The problem is to smuggle the archival material into the market under the guises of multiculturalism and ancient religion.
Working at a particular juncture in the system of world exchange, one hacks the prevailing pleasure principles so that archival flows can be substituted into exchange systems.