More on Taussig (cont.)

John Mcreery (jlm@TWICS.COM)
Sun, 9 Oct 1994 09:43:30 JST

John Stevens writes, vis-a-vis my noting that Chinese businessmen
wearing "Western" style suits:

" One critique I have of this is the implication that just because
things look different in each example, it all means the same thing.
Chinese who dress in business suits are *not* [sic] necessarily full
participants in Western culture, just like white folks who put on
feathers aren't instantly transformed into Shoshonis."

Just out of curiosity, I'd like to do a straw poll and see how many
other people saw this "implication"?

I raise this issue because to me this implication seems to me absurd. The
peoples I know best--Chinese, Japanese, WASP, Catholic and Jewish Americans, a
variety of Europeans--are amazingly varied
groups of highly particular individuals. And if there is one thing I
have learned in the business world, it is that people who make
decisions based on cultural stereotypes are almost inevitably wrong.
Not because cultural generalizations are impossible--because they
are only a small part of what's going on in any particular situation.

Thus, for example, when my colleague, Mr. Nozaki, suggests some
music for TV commercial, it is more to the point that he is a
passionate fan of "Dead Can Dance" than it is that he's Japanese. The
fact that he is looking for a certain eerily dramatic effect is also
important. If the product were chocolate candies targeting teenage
girls instead of a high-priced luxury car, his choice would also be
very different. And, mind you, Mr. Nozaki sees himself as very
Japanese, not withstanding his fondness for Paris and French

What anthropology has given to me that I've found most useful in
thinking about the modern world is (1) Edmund Leach's highland
Burma, where Kachins become Shans and Shans Kachins depending on
their political objectives--from whom I learned NEVER to take
cultural identities at face value--and (2) Victor Turner's sober
prescription that understanding particular situations requires (a)
the visible evidence we see (and, yes, I'd agree with Paul Stoller,
hear, smell, taste, feel) for ourselves, (b) what the people involved
tell us about it, and (3) as much social/historical/ecological
background as we can muster.

Which brings me back to my problem with the Cuna figurines: In both
the Cuna and Chinese cases, men have adopted "Western" costume.
Meaningwhile, Cuna women wear "traditional" dress; Chinese women
now dress mostly in "Western" style. But Cuna religious/magical
images are carved to look like people from the "West," while
Chinese images remain extravagantly "Chinese" (except, of course,
for paper funeral goods which may now include automobiles and
other modern things). And what about Japan, where women are more
likely that in Chinese women to be wearing "traditional" costume;
men sometimes wear it, but normally appear (as do most women,
most of the time) in "Western" dress, and religious traditions are
split down the middle--with Buddhist images "traditional" and
Shinto (like Islam) eschewing the use of images at all.

"Mimesis" and "alterity" are lovely words--and yes, they do make a
better title than "Mimicry and Otherness"-- but how, I'm trying to
figure out, do they help me sort out the kinds of things I've just

P.S. One thing they've done is point me back to E.H. Gombrich's _Art
and Illusion_a truly lovely book to read.