Is Anyone Qualified?

The Liu Yameng article made me wonder: is it possible “to enter a dialogue with comparative scholars in other disciplines as comparative scholars” (334)? I have always wrestled with the idea: can another culture or society truly view another with complete objectivity and without imposing any of the traditions and biases that have steadily shaped their thinking over time? Should such things be compared at all? Who is to say that one is better than the other, or more efficient than the other?

This article reminds me of that dancing show that ran recently, Superstars of Dance. I didn’t finish watching the whole thing because I found its purpose irritating and pointless. See, this show takes dancers from ten different countries and they all compete against one another in their own forms of dance to find out who is the “best in the world”. They were all amazing in their own way to me, why bother to sit down and decide if a tango is “better” than a native African coal-workers dance? Even more infuriating: How do ten countries accurately represent the “world”?

On top of everything else, as an American, I really did not feel that the people representing the American team were ideal representations of what “American dance” was…but then again, can there be such a thing as true “American dance” when this country has made itself by borrowing from so many others?

If we were to accurately try to compare Western and Eastern rhetoric, or any facet of one culture against another, how big should the sample be in order to be accurate? How do we look at it without our culture’s lens obscuring the view? Should an outsider to a culture even be trusted with such a view?

I like to think that I try my best to be objective when looking at things that are new to me for the first time, and while I may be more apt to appreciate different things it doesn’t mean that I am able to fully understand them. For example, I believe it was Bob Lambert who once told me that the Chinese do not go to the trouble of quoting and citing sources the way we do because imitation and copying another is a high form of flattery and respect, while here in the U.S. it will most certainly be interpreted as plagiarism. I can appreciate that difference, but if some Chinese author were to duplicate something I wrote into a text of their own…I’d want the credit, damn it!

As much as I’d like to think that I can be objective and as responsible and scholarly as possible, I know that it isn’t possible. So I wonder: can appreciation be enough? Do we really have to torture ourselves with the task of comparison or trying to figure out what is the better way? Is anyone even remotely qualified to do such a thing?

1 comment for “Is Anyone Qualified?

  1. March 8, 2009 at 6:57 pm

    Mariana, you make a good point with your comparison to the dance contest. When we look at such a small number of examples, how can we hope to represent any culture?

    Further, your question about whether we have to do this is provocative. I think it is worth considering why we feel one approach or other must be best, or ranked in relation to each other. Why can’t we just describe them?

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