Ranjit Hoskote, Beyond the House of Wonders

Beyond the House of Wonders:
Some Remarks on the Possibility of Inter-cultural Communication

I.

This presentation began life as an attempt to reflect on the processes of globalisation, both as a technological and economic process, and in its political and cultural repercussions. This rubric covers a multitude of sins: the old colonialism that globalisation perpetuates, the new colonialism that it enforces, and the implications that such a context holds for the possibility of inter-cultural communication. In other words, I thought that this presentation would take on the character of that traditional lyric form: the threnody, the lament, the recording of loss.
 
Call it, rather, a story-teller's dramatisation of his anxieties; an exorcism of the demons that customarily haunt a post-colonial consciousness. And so, through the recording of loss – through clarification - to hope for the future. Gradually, the presentation has settled down in the form of a series of explorations into the binaries of home and world, Self and Other, Occident and Orient, global capital and local agency, joined together and defined by each other like Siamese twins.
 


II.

Where shall I begin this expedition? 1 will choose to open with one of my favourite points in the history of art: the paintings of that reticent master, Johannes Vermeer. Why, you might well ask. What is the attraction that this 17th-century painter from Delft holds for a 20th-century writer from Bombay?
 
Consider his paintings: the mystery of ordinary life is enshrined here, in everyday gestures and household routines; the figures are held in a still, indoor space that seems charged with the electricity of its own silence. But news comes into this shell from the great world that is expanding along the international maritime trade routes between Antwerp and Surat, that is opening up to include the Americas and southem Africa and the Pacific: the signs of this grand expansion of the European consciousness are the map on the wall and the Persian rug in the foreground, which recur in many of Vermeer's paintings. Let us consider these two recurrent motifs; I will deploy them as symbols in my present narrative:

- The map: the European desire for territorial control, soon to become insatiable, as mercantile
Capitalism developed into industrial capitalism.
- The rug: pleasure in the commodity, the possessed luxury: the surfeit beyond the hard North

Sea life of thrift and shrewdness.
Both map and rug point to the evolving modes of gratification in the heartland of capitalist enterprise: in Vermeer, this is memorialised as the desire to crowd the space of the home with the treasures of the world. This is the logic of material accumulation that would lead, eventually, to the rise of European colonialism and imperialism , and to the emergence of the museum as an institution. The cultural acquisitiveness of the museum is, after all, symptomatic of the wider greed of the colonial project.


III.

The next step in my story involves the rise of the museum, after the French Revolution opens the palaces of the Bourbons to public view - the palaces have extended the logic of cultural acquisitiveness; and the museums of the 19th century extend it, elaborating ever further the grand mechanism of accumulation and display.
 
The museum becomes the repository of trophies brought back from conquest and exploration (consider how civilisations that had been in existence for centuries, and regions that had been in existence for millennia, were 'discovered' intrepid Europeans: the language is instructive). The museum, therefore, symbolises the colonial encounter at its worst - as an unequal relationship that gives the West dominion over the past and the foreign - that is, over the Other in time and space. (Egypt, India, Persia, Mesopotamia, Africa, South East Asia, Meso-America: the ajaib-ghar or House of Wonders marvelled at by Kipling's Kim).

The museum - particularly in its ethnographic and antiquarian galleries - is the domain through which relationships between Western and non-Western cultures have been mediated: and the violent act of expropriating another culture has been subliminally justified through such ideological manipulation as caricature (exoticism) or stereotype (ethnicity). Such responses negate the possibility of agency or self-transformation on the part of the culture being viewed; they turn it into an object, an exhibit frozen in history, not a living entity (Orientalism). The museum institutionalises the power asymmetry between the observing subject and the object under scrutiny.

As Frederick N. Bohrer observes (in 'The Times and Spaces of History: Representation, Assyria, and the British Museum' - in MuseumCulture, 1994, eds. Daniel J. Sherman and Irit Rogoff, p. 198) - "the relation between museum object and viewer suggests not a dialogue of equal volition so much as an interrogation - a forced, often tendentious meeting in which certain priorities clearly dominate. For the mute, passive object lies under the active, controlling gaze of the viewer and under the ideological protocols of the institution arranging the viewing."

There is something at once cruel and absurd about the curatorial tyranny of generating the image of a 'civilisation' in a museum space narrative. 1 mean 'museum' here as a privileged frame of representation and interpretation, including displays of objects, anthropological accounts and historical speculation - the means by which a curatorial essentialism is created and sustained, and by which it fossilises a foreign culture into a simulacrum of itself. By attending to the created products of a culture, while ignoring the creators of those products, the museum reduces the mystery and presence of the Other into a manageable, if frozen likeness.

The museum has, therefore, a Midas touch. The cultures that it touches and turns into fetishised dead gold can never again reach the zenith recorded there; they are condemned to the glory of their past; they can never step from antiquity or the mediaeval period into the contemporary. The museum derived its function and design from the Hegelian vision of world history as a teleology of progress led by Europe, the vision by which Westem domination over the globe has been sought to be justified. In turn, it is the seemingly unquestionable authority of the museum that validates the politics of representation by which Afiica became 'the white man's burden' and India was constructed as 'the jewel in the Crown'.
 

IV.

To paraphrase Oscar Wilde: good civilisations, when they die, go to the museum. But they leave behind topographies, peoples, memories, social and political relationships, asymmetries, catastrophes and confusions - and the burden of a past that exists in many competing versions, some official, others subversive. And the museum's version is the authoritative one: the colonial power telling the colonised peoples who they really are.
 
In India, for instance, we have been narrativised - even to ourselves - by 19th-century Indology. The very 'idea of India' is defined in terms of an Ur-Kultur that is ultimately derived from Gerrnan Romanticism. Even the right-wing Hindu nationalist ideologues speak in terms of origin and racial spirit (however euphemised) - notions that emerge from 18th-century European dreams of an Aryan homeland, a spiritual home beyond the disruptions of industrial society, a pilgrim destination away from bourgeois conventionality.

This coercive narrativisation also afflicts our perception of those parts of the world with which we had extensive contact in the pre-colonial past: the Indian Ocean trade with the East African seaboard, the South-east Asian connection, India's relations with Persia, Central Asia and China, are all now seen through European eyes. By an act of surgery - of lobotomy even - our histories of communication with these regions, independently of and anterior to the advent of the European powers, have been completely lost.

So influential has the cultural indoctrination of the colonial period been - and so effective the material oppression - that members of formerly colonised or otherwise subjugated cultures are still disposed to regard themselves as "delegates from... superseded civilisations", in Amitav Ghosh's poignant phrase. (In An Antique Land, p. 236).
If I were to confront a European interlocutor with this problem, I would ask: How do we reclaim for ourselves our home, which is your world; how do we give ourselves autonomy in a space that is so completely determined by the colonial, West-centred vision of history? How do we emancipate ourselves from this hegemony, and from the condition of masquerade that it imposes upon us, the defeatism that it summons forth?

V.

I would like to offer piquant evidence for the 300-year change in inter-cultural power relations that is graphed by the evolution of the museum:
 
- When Vermeer and Rembrandt were painting, the Mughal empire in South Asia was a powerful presence: excellent balance of trade with West Europe - reflected in the equality of artistic learning:
Rembrandt experimenting with the style of the Jehangiri miniatures; the painters of the Mughal atelier experimenting with Renaissance perspective, Christian subjects in the European Manner. A curiosity about the Other; a potential dialogue.
- But by the late 19th-century - that is, by the time of Gauguin and Van Gogh - the Eastern powers (Mughal India, Ch'ing China, Ottoman Turkey) had either collapsed or gone into decline. Dialogue is therefore replaced by a less demanding form of interaction: expropriation, as manifest in the eclecticism of individual proto-Modernists who found inspirational energy in the Japanese woodcut and the Indonesian idol.

This eclecticism culminates, of course, in the Modemist seizure of elements from the so-called 'primitive' cultures (seen, of course, in museums) - Benin, Polynesia, Meso-America. (We must remember that even Gauguin, for all his supposed obsession with Polynesia, actually derived his Tahiti-period icons from Indonesian statuary seen in Parisian museums). Picasso, Braque, Henry Moore and so forth used these alien resources to fulfil their creative needs; but, for the most part, without a thought for the contexts, cultural and historical, in which they had emerged. In this sense, Modenism in art marks the acme of the exploitative logic of colonialism (certainly this is one strand woven into the complex phenomenon that is Modernism).

VI.

I think that this political process of representation - by which the realm of artefacts is separated from the realm of human relationships - has serious implications for the possibility of inter-cultural understanding.
 
These are the central questions that occur: On whose terms does an understanding between the Western and the non-Western cultures take place, given that a structure of domination is already in place? Do we want to engage with the Other only so that we may address our own areas of inadequacy of mystery? Is all dialogue a rehearsal for the soliloquies that we continue in our heads, even when the Other is no longer present (or has been silenced, humiliated or annihilated)?

Perhaps a clue is offered by the celebrated definition of love that Plato puts into the mouth of one of his characters in the dialogue Symposium: "Love is nothing but the name given to the desire and pursuit of the whole."

lt might be argued that the logic of the museum - and so, of colonialism - is premised upon this desire of the Western Self to complete itself by seizing the Other: the material resources and the spiritual resources, both the corporal and the auratic presence of die Other.

But this is a savage love, a possessive love that destroys what it most desires. lt is the love of Apollo for Daphne; which is why the colonial 'pursuit of the whole' doesn't end with a living nymph, but a laurel bush.
And when the dynamic of colonialism develops further, into globalism, you get millions of virtual images of the laurel bush, even though some of them are tailored to look like the living nymph. And we in the post-colonial world who continue to seek possibilities of autonomy must now deal with this new challenge from the machine of global capital.

Change can provoke reactionary closure quite easily; but we face the more difficult option, that of formulating a creative cultural response to change. How to phrase a creative cultural response to virtual technologies, to transnational claims that defy territorial sovereignty, to image-replication and iconisation devices that make nonsense of the tradition of art - how to do all this without blocking the possibility of self-transforrnation through receptivity to the new? Since the late 1980s, this has been a key question, especially for artists, in a society like India.

VII.

Globalisation has had powerful repercussions on our sense of autonomy and agency. lt has provoked, once again, the anxiety of the contemporary among those cultures that are still - in Francis Fukuyama's amusing neo-Hegelian phraseology - 'mired in history'.
 
Globalism - as we may designate the ideology of globalisation - manifests itself in a post-colonial situation as yet another apocalyptic Western claim on modernity, on the definition of the present. It questions our right to form and assert our own non-Westem contemporaneity. We have been engaging with our dilemmas of identity for 50 years; and now, here comes the good news of the Lord - we've been wasting our time. The true Intemationalism, up-to-date modernity via the authorised New York-London-Paris-Berlin route, is upon us - the mediatic structures of information and entertainment will re-shape and homogenise our interior landscapes for us; they will provide us with a feast of illusions while negating our freedom.

In Walter Benjamin's phrase, we are treated to a 'phantasmagoria' of stimuli and invitations to the appetites. This produces, in tum, a fetishism - a voyeurism and a passivity - that drains us of emotional response. lt lures us into a virtual theatre of wish-fullfilment, where the self is distributed over a web of desires. This situation robs us of the political responsibility that is imperative if we are to actively confront the crises of the present (human rights violations; freedom of expression debates; inequity of entitlement; lack of empowerment for subaltern groups, and so forth). The abdication of agency, a lack of participation, the shrinking of the public sphere where the nation-state is continuously regenerated through conversation.

But what, then, is the alternative to complicity in the processes of globalisation, the modes of globalism? Where are the sites of resistance? How can conversation be kept alive? Almost automatically, to us who are artists and writers, there is the multiculturalist position. And I will try and show how this is not an easy and unproblematic choice. We tend to think that the correct moral decisions are unproblematic and clear; but they seldom are; they more usually involve us in paradox and doubt.

VIII.

Let us reflect a little on multiculturalism, a world-view which rests on the pluralistic assumption that every culture has its own trajectory, norms and values; and which tends to hold that no culture can be judged by the rules of another. On the face of it, this is a fair, eminently liberal assumption.
 
But what are some of the implications that follow, if we remain content with this superficially liberal view? A pluralism that verges on rampant relativism leads us straight into the wilderness: where everyone inhabits a separate universe of meaning, and there is no possibility of common ground frorn which epistemological accounts or ethical judgements may be compared (Khomeini versus Rushdie; M.F. Husain and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad; the Chinese government and the Chinese dissidents).

The logical terminus of this view is that, since everyone is entitled to their view, within their parameters, we would have to renounce the gesture of intervention, connection and debate. Since these idioms of conversation cannot obtain, violence would appear to be the only mode of response left; the fatwah against Rushdie has, after all, been described as the most extreme form of criticism possible. A grim conclusion.

Or then, we must concede that multiculturalism falls into the same colonial trap of exoticism that it started out to oppose - of treating cultural artefacts and practices as anthropological curiosities; celebrating difference as a value in itself, without a sensitive understanding of difference. So that, if globalism is a phantasmagoria of illusions, multiculturalism can become a supermarket of mirages. Again, this leads to a form of privatism and the consequent loss of conversation.
Again, it is the museum that vividly illustrates the perils of multiculturalism: this summer, as I walked through the British Museum - where the curators and the workmen are hammering away at the millennium celebrations - I became uncomfortably conscious of the mechanisms of overcompensation. If the ancient Egyptian dead are set in glass cases and exposed to the noisy scrutiny of tourists, the Museum has thoughtfully provided a bowl of water at the exit door of the Maori exhibition: for visitors to wash their hands, in the Maori fashion, after having come into contact with sacred objects that bear the force of 'mana' and are therefore 'tapu'.

While it is meant to show respect for the exploited culture, there could not have been a more cloying gesture. Would the British Museum and the donors to the exhibition, more concretely, consider returning the precious carved oars, the chiefs' ceremonial weapons and other artefacts to the people from whom they were seized in the first place? As a matter of record, the earliest Maori acquisitions in the British Museurn's collections date back to Captain Cook's three voyages (between 1768 and 1780). The museum continues its injustice in another part of the exhibition, perhaps unwittingly, when it frames the palpably contemporary work of contemporary Maori artists with the following words: "In the 1990s, the Museum has commissioned new works from Maori artists which show the continued vitality of ancient artistic traditions in present day New Zealand."

A disquieting question is raised here: Is communication between cultures at all possible? Does communication not always rest on translation: the act of making the Other intelligible to oneself, and oneself to the Other? Translation is an act fraught with opportunities for distortion, misunderstanding, the temptation to make familiar what is irreversibly strange without bearing witness to the strangeness.

Can we, in other words, go beyond the House of Wonders' syndrome in its various forms?

IX.

These debates over globalism/multiculturalism find their best expression in the art-works produced under these conditions. For artists and writers in India - as, presumably, elsewhere - it makes for a position of instability that sustains a lively art-practice.
 
If all acts of speaking for the Other stand under suspicion as evidence of 'behalfism', the artist falls back on his or her own, admittedly fissured and ruptured, schismatic self.

And here, a dialectic - an improvisational dialectic - is staged between: the intimacy of personal meaning and the community of shared meaning; fantasy (contemporary folklore) and participation (critical faculty); subversive principle of play and austere political commitment; the enduring and the disposable.

Mutability is, in any case, the defining condition for all post-colonial art, certainly for contemporary Indian art. Not only has the metaphysical coherence of a world governed by teleological certitudes (Hindu or Hegelian or nationalist) been shattered, but the artist has also lost his or her unitary and consistent sense of self. But this loss of context and criteria can be seen as an enabling gesture, a move towards freedom rather than a submission before necessity; it admits of the possibility of renewal: emancipatory condition.

- without a metaphysical totality to operate against, the contemporary Indian artist wages a guerrilla war with reality – with dogma, censorship, the market - irnprovising through the fragmentary, the notational, the experimental. Artists in post-colonial India draw their own borders, create their own combat situations, organise new modes of expression (celebrating the hybridity and maximalism that are attendant on their condition). Defying, among other things, the essentials of cultural anthropology.

- The breakdown of the teleology of progress also means that the dogma of the avant garde is correspondingly diminished (we may observe that the anxiety of contemporaneity has so far taken its most acute form, for the post-colonial artist, in the desire to belong to a local or international avant garde). Fortunately, appropriations or quotations of contemporary Western art practices are now increasingly made under the sign of strategy rather than that of dogm.

Contemporary Indian artists continuously re-imagine their notion of a home and a homeland - not in territorial, but in more visceral terms of belonging. The art-works that they produce often dictate their own 'reading strategies', and suggest the criteria by which they may be apprehended: these are not impositions, but invitations, a holding open of the door to interpretation.

What this means for inter-cultural communication is that we may have to abandon all drearns of an Internationalism or a universal language of the emotions. There can never, I think, be an Esperanto or a Volapuk in art.
This places upon all of us the great responsibility of understanding - not superficially or out of bonhomie or the conviction that understanding is a good idea, but out of compassion. And here, our aesthetic questions begin to acquire a distinctly ethical cast.

With this, we return to our opening inquiry: How to intervene in a world of objects with sensitivity, while not forgetting the world of the creators who made those objects? Perhaps we should do this as we would intervene in a form of life - without violation, without violence, without the desire to seize and own; that is, in a spirit of empathy. But then we must be prepared for the rejection of our gift of understanding by the Other. We must be prepared for misunderstanding and provocation, quarrels and sullen silences; we must learn the nuances of humility, acceptance, surrender. This is not Apollo's conquistador model of love, but it is a more realistic one: it understands the risk of encounter between cultures, as between persons.

It rests on the recognition of the autonomy, the sacred inviolability of the Other; on the acknowledgement that the mystery and presence of the Other can never be fully encompassed by the likeness we create to represent it.
 

X.

What I am suggesting here is an interplay between the ethical project and the aesthetic project, in which each becomes a possible source of values for the other; in which each finds its fulfilment in the other.
 
Since I began this presentation with Vermeer, let me close with him too - I employed the wall map and the Persian rug as tropes of greed, of the desire for control and gratification. Let me now claim them differently, coax them into a different allegory:

- The rag, with its abstract patterns and its opulent sheen, stands for all that is sensuous in experience and which is therefore personal, polysemic and resistant to interpretation. To invoke a category from Sanskrit thought we have here sringara, the erotic mode, the realm of desire.
- And the map - with its north-rose, its latitudes and longitudes and benchmarks - stands for the geometry that we bring to bear upon experience. To invoke another category from Sanskrit thought this is the pole of dharma, the mode by which the emotions are interpreted and regulated through such imperatives as awareness, restraint and a concern for the appropriate arrangement of interpersonal relationships.

We find elaborated here a model of the proper attitude with which the Self must approach the Other. It is between the map on the wall and the rag in the foreground that many of Vermeer's homes take shape; and it is, similarly, between sringara and dharma - desire and restraint - that the relationships between Self and Other, art and the world, and between cultures, must be phrased. The only alternative to this continuous dialogue is the perverse see-saw of pornography and repression, the pendulum swing from the deceit of fetishism to the violence of oppression.
 

Personal Data:

Ranjit Hoskote, a poet, art-critic and translator, has emerged as a significant voice in the field of art and literature. He has written extensively on art, cinema, architecture, aesthetics and on a number of issues related to the politics of culture. A master in English Literature and Aesthetics, he is currently the Assistand Editor of the Times of India, Bombay and the co-editor of the Art India Magazine. His works have been widely published and he has organised numerous workshops, lectures and inter-disciplinary events. He is the recipient of numerous honours and awards for his work.