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Johann Galtung in one of his lectures talks of a painting that hung in the ante-room of the late Ghanaian leader Kwame Nkrumah. It was a giant picture of Nkrumah himself struggling loose from his chains. There is thunder and lightning in the air, and in one corner of the picture are three men, three white men. The first is a capitalist and he carries a briefcase. The second is a missionary and he clutches a Bible. The third, the meekest looking carries a book whose title can be barely read. It is African Political Systems, and the third man is an anthropologist.
The iconography of the picture used to haunt me. In the 1970s, as I taught my political anthropology classes, I saw it as a classic example of nationalism struggling against the depredations of western capitalism, missionary Christianity and colonial science. But today the picture seems outdated, mildewed and almost embarrassing. National movements, once thought liberating, have turned dictatorial. The new battles for freedom have created strange bedfellows as grassroots groups battle development projects and globalization produces its accompaniment in civic internationalism. There is a politics of memory here that does not allow for amnesia or innocence. The cultural presence of huge Indian, Chinese and African diasporas shuffles the politics of cultural encounters, creating hybrids out of competing dualisms.
In fact, the history of cultural encounters can never be read in single registers. They have varied from the banal and the surreal to the unimaginable. They have ranged from the sublimity of Martin Buber's 'I and Thou' dialogue to the eerie silence of genocide epitomized by King Leopold in the Belgian Congo. Given this range and complexity and given the political nature of the subject which has produced the writings of Gandhi, Tagore, Nirad C. Chaudhari, V.S. Naipaul and also Fanon and Said, any writer is forced to engage in two preliminary rituals: he has to outline a map of possibilities; and he has to state his political and academic position.
Cultural encounters when read on the axis of power or economics produce powerful treatises on Imperialism or Colonialism (see the models offered above). They remind us that one cost of the meeting of the East and West was genocide, the physical erasure of large masses of the population including a virtual loss of their beliefs, their music and their ways of life. This necrophilic aspect of East-West encounters is caught in the paradox called the museum.
The museum to the western mind is a great humanitarian institution, which reflects western sensitivity to the cultures of the past. But the museum to the eastern eye was almost a rationalization of piracy. One does not have to refer to the recent scandal of the Elgin marbles but one can go back to Indian nationalist archives for a more systematic statement.
The Sinhalese geologist and art critic Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy citing a journalist asked: 'If God were to return today and ask civilized Western man where the Aztecs, the Incas or the Australian aborigines were, would he take Him to a museum?'(1)
The museum as an institution represented the paradox of East-West encounters caught in the grip of evolutionary metaphors, which created not only a hierarchy of cultures but sanctioned violence as a legitimate tactic against those labelled 'primitive', 'simple', 'traditional' or 'backward'. The museum embodied the logic of progress that valorized one society over another. One is reminded of a story that Raimundo Pannikkar recounted in one of his extraordinary conversations. It was a tale of an encounter between an American, a Texan and an American Indian tribal. The Texan informed the Indian that he had progressed far beyond the latter. The Indian smiled and said that he was happy for both, as both were where they wanted to be.
Coomaraswamy condemned the modern museum as a cultural encounter because he saw it as an extension and embodiment of the objectivity of modern western science, which smelt of death and formaldehyde. The museum was a mere annexe to the laboratory. Coomaraswamy lamented that the museum represented an encounter that preserved the folksong at the very moment it destroyed the folksinger, and he suggested that the Indian national moment should fight a guerrilla war against the idea of the museum because it embodied a clinical curiosity about the death and dyingness of traditional cultures that encountered the western gaze.
The necrophilic and hegemonic aspects of the encounter between the East and West have been narrated brilliantly by anthropologists, Marxists and cultural historians. One text, which as a discourse has almost appropriated this politics of memory, is Edward Said's Orientalism. (2) In fact, it is a tribute to his work that his Orientalism as map almost threatens to embrace territory. Said's description of the Orient as a career, a construct, as a hegemonic discourse is textbook wisdom taught and celebrated in many universities. But the Orient cannot be a frozen text or a unilateral one even in Saidian terms. Said's gift of Orientalism demands a repayment, a return gift that understands the politics of memory he so deftly created. Thanks to Said there is no longer an affable innocence or legitimacy of the Orientalist oeuvre.
Said's book, along with the works of Chomsky and Zia-ud-din Sardar, helps us understand that the Orientalist virus or gene is still present in the foreign policy of many Western nations. It helps us understand the Orientalist grammar of foreign policy present in the violence of Vietnam, Palestine or even in the logic of the Indian partition. The genocidal quotient of Orientalism must be enormous. Years ago the Mexican writer and poet Octavio Paz coined the term, the syllogism dagger. Paz invented the term to refer to abstract, almost antiseptically banal concepts like 'progress', 'development', 'revolution' which, when empirically applied …