'Why do you read Western theory and literature?" he asked disapprovingly, looking at the books on my bookshelf. I was shocked: this was the first time I had come across such reverse Orientalism; albeit a politically-correct one.
We were having a rather irritating debate on 'continuity' and 'rupture' two days after that.
This young French anthropologist was trying to say the more things change, the more things remain the same. Yes, I said, but it depends on the position in time, space, and culture that you belong to, or assume. To an epithelial and alien anthropologist watching earth over an alien telescope for ten thousand years, it's the continuation of a species over numerous insignificant events. To Foucault, the Islamic 'Revolution' of 1978 in Iran was a rupture.
We differed sharply on the question of 'choice'.
He said: The middle classes largely control what is called 'culture'. They are to blame for consciously choosing on every point on shopping malls, consumerism, cars, and everything that goes with the logic of the market: they consciously choose that everyday, every moment, when they share small bits of power against the relatively powerless.
I said: The middle classes, at least here, are now primarily shaped by social conditions that make them devoid of 'history' in the older sense. Apart from those rooted to older ways of tradition (those disappearing ones who still preserve the classical educationist's vision of, say, listening to Mozart and speaking the Queen's English measure meticulously on a Nesfield grammar book), most ape and synthesize according to local customs and cultural moorings (for aping is also an act of synthesis) the products spawned by what Adorno and Horkheimer had simplistically tried to pin as the "culture industry".
The question of blame be better left to those higher-up in the fields of concentrated power —those running, funding and controlling the globalised networked shows of power and domination. An individual belonging to the middle classes can only be criticised when he is aware of the range of possibilities that constitute his 'choice'. I don't blame a person for buying a branded jeans from a supermarket; I criticize him for not knowing that jeans is the fruit of sweatshop slave trade. And I, specifically blame him when, for example, he pretends to ignore that the person sitting next to him has fallen sick and needs taken to a hospital. That is, he can be explicitly blamed only when he's aware of the choice he is to make as an individual, and then choose the ethically wrong one... I was going on to speak of Max Stirner's view on the topic, but then I stopped talking all of a sudden.
I found out that I was rather rude when debating with him, and I wondered why was it so. I'm usually not that rude, and I've been a patient debater in other situations, more disconcerting and hostile. What was it that had unsettled me? And then I remembered his question.
'Why do you read Western theory and literature?" he had asked.
The question was sickening. And I couldn't answer him without being angry; angry at him for being a white man with a not-so-innocuous question. A long time back in the university, a professor had told us: 'There's a Caliban somewhere deep inside you. You'll always find him when time comes."
You can't answer the question without being Caliban. Prospero's spirits hear you and yet you need must curse!