Monday, January 23, 2006

western, non-western

I just had a big debate with a friend about the distinctions of "western" and "non-western" in academia (there is a required “non-western” history course at GSAPP). The question is weather these terms are still useful distinctions? Every geographic location has its own unique primitive culture, but nowhere on the planet is truly isolated anymore. And intrepid Australian and Japanese backpackers are voraciously exploring, and for the most part, congenially initiating those last few groups of somewhat isolated people through adventure travel, like the manifest destiny of globalization, in which the least explored places are the most desirable. In this context I think that we need new words and taxonomies for style and culture. At the moment "western" is standing in for non-native or some sense of meta-networked culture or maybe the culture of global wealth. And "non-western" stands in for "primitive" or other less networked practices. You might not agree with these distinctions and I am still trying to define them myself, but what is clear to me is that the word "western" in this context is no longer a geographic distinction, and its usefulness is increasingly dubious.

I was just looking at Hel Looks a catalog of street fashion in Helsinki, and was amazed at how much a lot of these kids look like the kids in Fruits, street fashion from Japan. It was one of those moments when you want new conceptual lense to understand the world. Finland is one of the most homogeneous societies in the "west"(replace with better term) with a strong design culture and so their adoption of street style form tokyo must be part of the "western" experience? I don't think so. The manner of adoption is very different for the anesthetization of the rococo designers of the 17th century who included "oriental" elements in there compositions. I think that there is a great deal of implicit empathy for their not-so-other in the style decisions of the kids from Hel Looks. Thanks Jean for the link.


Blogger jean said...

nice post chad! i already know this is going to be one of my favorite blogs. -starry eyes-

i like the term "not-so-other." as usual, topics of this nature bring me back to some frameworks ananya roy uses -- mainly, the fluidity of identity.

the study of transnationalism and 'flows' (of culture, of capital, of ideas) is interesting to me as this is a condition that is more NOW than it has ever been. and i've always liked topics that skirt definition, and are about skirting definition. (i, like many people, feel i have dual/triple+ 'national' or 'linguistic' identities and have grown up living this).

perhaps we can use the less heirarchical 'inside' / 'outside' distinction? the problem with the 'west' / 'non-west' distinction as you note, it presupposed west is 'in,' and non-west is 'out.' (of course, the more we move between worlds of wealth and poverty, familiar cultures and strange cultures, we see that we can shift constantly between outsider and insider status, and we can be outsiders and insiders simultaneously in the most subtle of ways). and it becomes even more ambiguous than this -- there is no dichotomy, really, we only use it to set up an argument -- it's just a state of liminality.

but the tricky thing about subverting the distinction is that you have to utilize it!

1:25 PM  
Blogger chad said...

thanks jean!

6:29 PM  

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