Academic journal article Cross / Cultures

Construction of Identities, Polar Opposites, and Cultural Models: The Binary Approach to Cultural Interaction

Academic journal article Cross / Cultures

Construction of Identities, Polar Opposites, and Cultural Models: The Binary Approach to Cultural Interaction

Article excerpt

ALTHOUGH INTRODUCTIONS TO CULTURAL STUDIES1 still maintain the idea that the construction of identity depends on defining the 'non-identical' and that therefore binary oppositions, as most influentially outlined in Edward Said's theory of Orientalism,2 are of essential significance to the business of constructing cultural identities, the binary approach to cultures and their interaction has become a favourite whipping boy of recent publications in this field, especially when they deal with the description of the relationship between the Western and the postcolonial world.

There are concrete political and general methodological reasons for this situation. Politically, the ubiquitous reservations against a binary approach to cultural interaction have of course been furthered by the simplistic worldview of the Bush government's US policy and kindred-spirited books such as Samuel Huntington's notorious The Clash of Civilizations? for which differences and contrasts between cultures are identical with irrevocable enmities and inevitable military conflicts.4

But the frequent warnings against the binary approach must also be understood against a larger theoretical background: namely, the framework of the general methodological change from the classical structuralist to the poststructuralist paradigm. Thus, for many critics today there is "a great theoretical weakness in reducing the cultures to binary opposites. [Doing this is] a structuralist preconception."5 Correspondingly, Said's theory of the Western Self and its oriental Other is suspected of being "a totalizing framework,"6 not suitable for an adequate description of the nature of cultures and cultural interaction. Instead, Homi ?. Bhabha's notion of 'hybridity' is generally privileged for this purpose,7 and developed further into such concepts as 'interculturality', 'multiculturality', or even a vague 'transculturality', which in the wake of an ever-increasing globalization is expected to overcome and dissolve all cultural boundaries.8

It is a matter of debate, however, whether postcolonial criticism and cultural theory can really afford to continue along these paths. The strategies of denying the relevancy of opposites and cherishing hope for some universal 'transculturality' can strike one as all-too-facile responses to the actual difficulties involved in peaceful cultural coexistence all over the world. Moreover, the time is certainly also ripe - more than thirty years after the advent of poststructuralism - for a less fashion-bound and more balanced assessment of the role of binary oppositions in cultural interaction, especially if- as the present essay will show - such a revised position can also be justified with the help of cognitive evidence.

Recent studies in linguistic pragmatics, cognitive cultural anthropology, artificial intelligence research, and literary reader-response theory suggest that meaning-construction in communication strongly relies on 'cultural models'. Their importance is due to their function in the process of contextualization. Contextualization is a decisive step in meaning-attribution. After a hearer/ reader has processed a linguistic utterance for its semantic meaning s/he tries to relate the semantic content of that utterance to her cognitive environment, which consists of her actual milieu and the knowledge stored in memory. The content of memory is structured by what has been called cognitive schemata10 or scripts. As Sperber and Wilson have shown in their seminal study,11 for a sender who wants to communicate successfully, it is essential to predict to what elements of his or her memory a recipient will relate the respective utterance. In order to be able to do so, s/he has to predict what schemata are stored in the recipient's memory. The utterance, for example, 'let's hurry up, it is almost half past three and I do not want to miss the kick-off presupposes that a recipient has stored a schema of professional football in Germany, which includes the traditional kick-off-time. …

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