The Politics of culture: Asian Identities in a Splintered World

Clifford Geertz

With the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the great cultural-political blocs that have dominated the international scene since 1945, a much more pluralistic, decentered, and disintegrative pattern of relationships among the world's peoples has emerged - or, more exactly, half emerged. The collapse cf the Soviet Union and the conflicts and uncertainties that have followed upon it has perhaps beeh the single most important event in this regard. But the renaissance of Eastern Europe and the rekindling of nationalist passions there, the stresses that the reunification of Germany has stimulated in Europe, and the declining ability (and the declining willingness) of the great powers to regulate conflicts in distant parts of the world have also been critical. So have the growing domestic tensions in many countries arising from large-scale migrations, the appearance of strong religio-political movements in the Middle-East (India, the United States and elsewhere, and the emergence of new centers of wealth and power along the Pacific Rim). All of these developments and others - ethnic civil wars, linguistic separatisms, the "multiculturalization" of international capital - have produced a sense not of the formation of a new world order but of deepening dispersion, particularity, complexity; and uncenteredness. The fearful symmetries of the postwar era have come unstuck, and we seem, increasingly, left with the pieces.

All large scale changes of this sort (the sort that theorists and statesmen like to call "world-historical" to disguise the fact that they did not see them coming) produce both unexpected gains and surprising losses, new possibilities, novel dangers. The disappearance, at least for the moment, of the threat of massive nuclear change, the freeing of a wide range of peoples from direct and immediate great power domination, and the relaxation of the ideological rigidities and forced choices of a bi-polar world are positive developments from almost anybody's point of view. The recent advances toward peace ahd civility, fragile as they are, in South Africa or between Israel and the Arabs probably could not have occurred, and certainly not so quickly, if the distance between local dispute and global confrontation was still as short as it was before 1989. On the other hand, the upheavals brought oh by nationalist enmities (Bosnia-Herzogovina, Nagorno-Karabakh), previously held in check, if at enormous cost, by powerful autocracies, are hardly to be welcomed as the blessings of liberty. Neither are the falterings of European integration, now that the fear of Communism is relieved; the lessened ability of world powers to pressure client states ta behave themselves, now that the rewards of clientship have lessened; and the multiplication of candidates for regional domination, now that international politics have grown less constrained by global strategies.

But perhaps the most fateful change, at once worrisome and ful1 of promise, as well as the one most significant for our understanding of the role of culture in human life, is the radically increased complexity, irregularity, and general raggedness of the world with which, so suddenly, we now are faced. It is not a matter of all coherence gone, but of the shattering of larger coherences into smaller ones uncertainly connected. Relating local realities and larger ones, the world around here with the world overall, remains hardly less necessary, but it has become rapidly more difficult. If the general is to be grasped at all, it must, so it more and more seems, be grasped not directly, but via instances, differences, variations, particulars - piecemeal, case by case.

The question that then arises is where does that then leave integrative concepts like "Asia," "politics," "identity," or even "culture?" Surely we are not reduced, now that the opposition of I"East" and "West" has been exposed as the ethnocentric formula it always was (the east is Moscow, the west is Washington, and everyplace else - Havana, Tokyo, Belgrade, Cairo - is derivatively located), to talking only about parochial matters. Some summary notions, new or reconditioned, must be constructed if we are to reduce the dazzle of the new heterogeneity to some sort cf even vaguely articulated, uncertainly graspable whole.

A number of proposals have arisen in response to this challenge. There has been the suggestion, in some versions of post-modernism, that the search for overall patterns be abandoned altogether: no more grand narratives: we must content ourselves with local tales. There have been attempts to replace the exhausted large-scale, synoptic, and indeterminate concepts by even more large-scale, synoptic and indeterminate ones - "civilizations," or whatever - and to tel1 stories even grander and more dramatic of the clash of uncommunicating societies, contradictory moralities, and incommensurable world views. And there have been (the course I myself have been trying to follow) efforts to develop particular comparisons, specific inquiries into specific similarities and specific differences, that will suggest guidelines and strategies for navigating in an inconsonant world, multiply riven. And doubtle5s there are others.

I would like, in Fukuoka and in Tokyo, to introduce this general problem for general discussion. The events that have brought on the new situation, and the new and old responses to it, have almost all occurred during the five crowded years in which the Fukuoka Asian Cultural Prizes have been in existence. This anniversary would seem, therefore, an appropriate time to take note of them and of their irnplications for the purposes, more critical than ever, for which the prizes were inaugurated. I shall not attempt the foolhardy, because impossible, task of offering either a finished analysis of these issues or a comprehensive response to them. Rather, extending and filling out the comments above in more detail and with, I trust, more precision, and adding to them some observations derived from my own researches, I shall attempt to launch, in both cities, a vigorous debate on the role and nature of Asian culture and Asian identity in a world where so much that once seemed so fixed seems now in motion.



The politics of culture: Asian identities in a splintered world, in: The 5th Anniversary of the Fukuoka Asian Cultural Prizes 1995, Fukuoka-City/JAP 1995: The Fukuoka Asian Cultural Prizes, leaves 3-7


source: The Fukuoka Asian Cultural Prizes (hardcopy sent by Tomiko Uchino); scanned by Ingo Moerth


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