What exactly is interculturalism?

September 20, 2010 at 10:50 am (Literature Review)

I recently took out of the library two books on intercultural performance in the hopes that they would answer my question, what exactly is ‘interculturalism’ and how is it a useful term in relation to the work I am doing on Chinese Shakespeare performance?  The books are Patrice Pavis, ed. (1996) The Intercultural Performance Reader and Bonnie Marranca and Gautum Dasgupta, eds (1991) Interculturalism and Performance: Writings from PAJ.

What is culture?

I have to admit that Pavis’ first chapter, although interesting, was extremely hard-going!  That is possibly because it is in translation – I found myself having to read every other sentence at least three times and I still didn’t always get it!  Either that or I’m thick…   He first introduces the idea of ‘culture’ through the words of Camille Camilleri (1982) as that which is related to the practices and perspectives of a specific community: ‘Culture is a kind of shaping, of specific ‘inflections’ which mark our representations, feelings, activity – in short, and in a general manner, every aspect of our mental life and even our biological organism under the influence of the group’ (cited p. 3). Cultural order is ‘artificial’, is ‘art’, as opposed to natural order, or nature (p. 3) In the words of Geertz (1973), it is:

a system of symbols thanks to which human beings confer a meaning on their own experience.  Systems of symbols, created by people, shared, conventional, ordered and obviously learned, furnish them with an intelligible setting for orienting themselves in relation to others or in relation to a living work and to themselves. (cited p.4)

Thus, ‘the body of the actor is […] penetrated and moulded by “corporeal techniques” (Marcell Mauss) proper to his/her culture and by the codifications of his/her tradition of performing[…] Actors simultaneously reveal the culture of the community where they have trained and where they live, and the bodily technique they have acquired, be this rigorously formalized by an established tradition (as in the Peking Opera, for example) or camouflaged by an ideology of the “natural” (as with the Western naturalistic actor’ (p. 4). 

What is intercultural?

So, if that is cultural, what is intercultural and how does it affect our ways of seeing and understanding?  Pavis introduces the idea of ‘intercultural’ as what happens, in the case of theatre, when practitioners self-consciously bring together disparate elements from within and without their community, or create an intercultural community, in order to make something new.  For example, perhaps a dramatic text ‘ accumulates innumerable sedimentations resulting from various languages and experiences, and re-forms them into a new text’  (p. 3).  One of the things that intercultural performance also does, argues Pavis, is ‘expose’ as ‘conventions’ the practices of a community’s practices, even the supposed naturalism of realism.  Thus, the familiar is made unfamiliar and vice versa. My understanding of what he is saying is that it is the amalgamation that takes place that makes the process and product intercultural, not simply its international ingredients. Pavis argues that a performance simply being put on in an international setting, such as a festival, for example, does not automatically make it an intercultural experience. 

Eurocentrism

Pavis  issues a warning to his readers to be aware of Eurocentric attitudes and perspectives in their approach to intercultural performance,  and he is careful to bring in references to Japanese theatre in particular.  Nonetheless, he places Peter Brook, Eugenio Barba and Ariane Mnouchkine at the centre of his argument (p.1 ), later acknowledging  that his collection is ‘largely produced and aimed at a European and Anglo-American readership’ (p25).  The one article/performance in his collection that is by mainland Chinese is referred to quite negatively in his introduction: ‘one should avoid turning intercultural theatre into a vague terrain for comparing themes or cultural identities, as in China Dreams’ (p2).  This, and other non-Western voices are collected in Part III, the final section of the book, so although Pavis wishes to avoid East/West oppositional viewpoints (p. 25), or the privileging of the ‘dominant’ (West) over the ‘dominated’ (‘Third World’), as he terms them, the structuring of his book does just that.    Therefore, it appears that ‘interculturalism’ is very much understood to be a Western dominated, post-World War II phenomenon, for although Shingeki, the pioneering modern Japanese theatre from, is mentioned, it is not followed up.  From my reading outside of this book, my understanding is that the appropriation of spoken drama in Japan in turn influenced the evolution of spoken drama, huaju, in China, and also helped create the genre of theatrical drama in Korea.    

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