China and the Pacific Conversation

THE FOCUS OF WORLD AFFAIRS IS SHIFTING. Where once it was dominated by the nations of the North Atlantic, primarily the United States and Western Europe, attention now is turning to the Pacific, not least drawn by the exponential economic rise of China and the Asian Tigers.

Culturally, the regions of the Atlantic and the Pacific are very different. The Atlantic is essentially bordered by cousins of the colonial diaspora. While there may be variations in how each country is governed, their values have much in common. Even when the dominant paradigm is rejected, there is a shared understanding of what it is that is being pushed against. Towards the end of the last century that convergence seemed so strong, so inevitable, that writers such as Francis Fukuyama declared that we were approaching ‘the end of history’. He did not mean the end of events – that things would cease to happen – but that liberal democracy and free-market capitalism could be understood as the endgame of humanity’s sociocultural evolution. Just as the late 19th-century certainty that science had pretty much got all the answers was blown out of the water by the theories of relativity and quantum mechanics – both of which first came to light through what appeared to be small anomalies to classical thinking – so ‘history’ took a series of unexpected turns as we entered to twenty-first century: the ‘war on terror’, the global financial crisis, climate change and exponential technological growth foreshadowing an era of the post-human. The chronicle of humankind once more became uncertain.

The Pacific is bordered by cultures and political systems that are among the most diverse anywhere in the world. Consequently, what constitutes a Pacific focus will be founded on a very different set of principles from the assumed convergence of the post-war Atlantic. A convergence reinforced by the dominance of the US entertainment machine and the primacy given to Western European art in the cultural histories of the world. I doubt that China, as its economic power increases, will seek to swamp the world with its television and film productions – not least because the days of the one-way screen, large and small, are numbered. There can and will be no over-arching consensus on cultural meaning in the Pacific region, just as there is unlikely to be political unanimity.

My interest lies in how human interconnection can be facilitated in the Asia-Pacific between people whose cultures and societies have very different perspectives on life. I work predominantly with the medium of photography, though my interest extends out into the wider sphere of visual culture. The more I move between cultures, the more I must question and revise my thinking. These are three things I have learned.


‘Truth’ is Local

The first is to understand that ‘reality’ is a socially constructed concept. Or, rather that the meaning attributed to the external appearance of things is culturally subjective. The meaning of a documentary photograph depends on how it is looked at. Its ‘truth’ is relative to who is looking.

There are two values in the West which drive much documentary work. One is that we hold the individual as sovereign; the other is that when we represent things that are flawed or unfair it is implicit that the images are intended to encourage a change for the better. I think in China, and a number of other Asian cultures, it is not the individual but the community that is most important. And I find in China a stronger sense of Stoicism (to use a Western philosophical term); of a sense that the world is a mix of good and bad, but that this is simply the way the world is. In the West, we are all too easily mesmerised by the blandishments of advertising, which in turn generates a sense of injustice when life is less than perfect. I find in China more of a sense that life is a balance of good and bad. So, by simply taking a body of documentary work from Australia to China, I may in fact be compromising the intention of the photographer and misdirecting the understanding of the audience, because the meaning derived from the image will diverge from the meaning intended by the maker. On the other hand, pictures of the imaginary seem to travel better. Such images are self-evidently invention and much more open to interpretation. We come to the pictures in a more contingent way; making fewer assumptions, remaining open to possibility.

Stories of the imagination are common to all cultures and societies. In that, they have a shared starting point that documentary images do not. We know that the imagination is unconstrained, while we can slip into the belief that the meaning of perceived reality has some kind of universality which it does not possess. But this does not mean it is impossible to share ideas. A work of imagination is not true in the literal sense, but it can resonant in the viewer, generating a sense of insight. Like a poem or a song, it can touch the listener through a profound sense of authenticity.


Conversation not monologue

The second point is that we have to stop thinking about culture as an ‘export’ commodity – either in terms of luxury artefacts or ideologies. Rather, I would suggest, culture should be seen as a form of conversation.

In the area of spoken and written language, I would argue that the most important form is not poetry or literature or law or philosophy, but conversation. And conversation is not, primarily, about the exchange of facts, but rather the connection of people, one with another. A conversation evolves beyond the singular control of either speaker because what one person says depends on what the other said before. It is an adaptive process in which the participants work together to explore ideas and, even more importantly, cement relationships. We are a deeply social species and the fundamental role of conversation is to generate connection. Only then can that connection be harnessed to share ideas, pool knowledge, find solutions. Poetry, literature, law and philosophy require us first to have some shared sense of meaning, some insight into the perspectives of others and openness to modifying our own point of view in the light of this.

We should get away from the idea of art as a marketplace for artefacts of status (wealth, intellect, ideology) and understand rather that art is an experience. Art exists when it is experienced; otherwise it is simply an object. Those experiences are part of a ‘conversation’ and, as such, should always be understood as tentative and incomplete in themselves.


Empathy not unanimity

Building on this idea of culture as a form a conversation, I would argue that the purpose is not agreement but empathy. The northern European post-Enlightenment traditions have been strongly Protestant and rationalist, mistrusting the emotions, laying great store by the individual and the driving force of self-maximisation: profit. Understand first and, only when you are sure and agree, open up to feelings. This leads to tolerance but makes true empathy much rarer.

China too has a strong business culture. But I think here the Pacific region is enriched by cultures of the south, and especially those of Latin-America, which bring a different sensibility into play. The post-Enlightenment traditions of southern Europe (and its colonial and diasporic descendants) place greater emphasis upon emotion as its own form of intelligence. For them, the first stage in building a relationship is not ‘getting to know you’ but establishing empathy.

Having worked in many parts of the world and having been involved in the presentation of inter-cultural projects across a number of permutations, I have come to believe that the most important outcome from a cultural experience lies in building empathy. We each of us live inside ourselves. We travel through the world, connecting with it though our senses and perceptions, using written and spoken language to describe things in a way that overlays order onto chaos. But there are aspects of our nature that are not reducible to words; inconsistencies that make us human that sit uncomfortably with the linear logic of words, sentences and paragraphs. Visual culture can offer us a way of hinting at that hidden silent interior world: of saying ‘I am in here; I sense you are in there’. A feeling of empathy that neither needs nor requires the provenance of rational understanding and consensus, but simply seeks emotional resonance: person to person, group to group, community to community.

It is empathy that drives intuition and intuition that can, if we allow it, guide us in developing our relationships one with another, beyond the tribal logic of conformity and within the mutuality of shared experience.

There is no ‘end of history’, but there is an ongoing human conversation, and that is about to enter a new phase as the Pacific century unfolds. What comes to be written in the next chapter of that history is up to us … all of us.


This essay was first published in 2013 by IDA Projects (London and Australia) in Sans Faute edited by Stephen Danzig and Lubi Thomas for Queensland University of Technology and QUT Confucius Institute. A PDF of the full publication may be downloaded here.

Photo: Daniel Schwen (CC BY 3.0) detail. NB: This illustration did not form part of the original Sans Faute publication.


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  • The majority of the texts on this site are by Alasdair Foster and represent his opinions. However, in order to facilitate a useful diversity of views, some texts have been invited from artists and colleagues around the world, while others appear as independent comments. These opinions and comments are not necessarily those of Alasdair Foster or Cultural Development Consulting (CDC). All data and information on this site is provided on an as-is basis. While every effort is made to be as thorough as possible, neither Alasdair Foster nor CDC make representations as to accuracy, completeness, currency, suitability or validity of any information on this site and will not be liable for any errors, omissions or delays in this information or any losses, injuries or damages arising from its display or use.
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