The Newsletter 74 Summer 2016

Wonderland of 1001 prospects

Niels Mulder

<p>Reviewed Publication:&nbsp;Heung Wah Wong &amp; Keiji Maegawa (eds.) 2014. <em>Revisiting Colonial &amp; Post-Colonial; Anthropological Studies of the Cultural Interface, </em>Los Angeles: Bridge 21 Publications, ISBN 9781626430129</p>

It is like a marriage: when you are in touch and even after divorce, you keep influencing each other, albeit that the logic of it is screwed, unpredictable and rather surprising. If the book under review has a message, it is that contact between cultures results in a process of mutual influencing that shouldn’t and can’t be settled through sticking simple labels to it, such as ‘localization’, ‘hybridization’, ‘creolization’, ‘Japanization’, or what have you. Influences are two-sided, influences live on and it is the dialectics of the contact that should be in focus. This insight directs the attention to minute details that cannot be meaningfully reduced to grand ideas and is amply illustrated by the exploits of some ten Japanese fieldworkers and two Hong-Kong Chinese anthropologists, resulting in the description and analysis of the “Dynamics of Culture in Interface”. 

The present collection of original essays is based on the papers presented at an international conference titled Anthropology of Cultural Interface convened at the University of Hong Kong in February 2011. The conference and the essays should bring Marshall Sahlins’ insights to the fore, such as the assumption that culture cannot be studied in isolation, as it develops in relation to its encompassing contexts at the same time that it shows itself in distinctively local patterns. This is to say that the social process is ordered by culture and takes place in the conference’s ‘cultural interface’. The latter is a conceptual space where the local culture mediates with foreign cultural elements to produce social effects that cannot be specified by either the local culture or the foreign cultural element/s but by the mediation between them. Consequently, a cultural encounter is an extremely complex and unpredictable affair that calls for a highly refined description, which also holds for the internal dynamics within a given culture. As such, the unit of analysis cannot be determined a priori but is specified by the ever-changing boundary of the cultural interface (Preface, pp. 15-17).

This Wonderland of the all-possible is then given shape in often wonderful Japanese English prose that shows that the parties involved in the intercultural or intra-cultural encounters - each equipped with their own means and motivated by their own ends - reciprocally engage each other in a dynamic, emergent relationship. Through thorough reporting, it is hoped to shed light on the open question of how the cultural interface can be theorized.

It is a baffling array of observations and experiences that the reader is presented inside ten empirical essays, ranging from reflections on the cross-cultural migration of Japanese popular culture to Hong Kong to the colonial whiteness introduced in the New Guinea Highlands; the bungling of good order after independence; and the remaining yet changing desirability of acquiring whiteness through Christianity. In post-Mao China, the Hui Muslims have been become more and more conscious of themselves and their Islamic identity as pragmatic responses to two shifting worldviews, i.e., that of the state they live in and of the faith they devoutly believe in. Buddhism among the former untouchables in India and the pull of certain Hindu ideas among those who experience their religion as faith and who do not draw a rigid ideological line that excludes the others are at the center of a dynamic yet complex religious scene in Nagpur city. And so it goes on, as festivals change meaning, as Ainu identity blurs, as rice noodles stimulate appetite and friendly relationships, as pigs are de-animalized as pork, as multicultural workplaces become contested spaces, and as the understanding of Western medical technology and its pharmaceuticals offers a perspective on traditional and modernized African thinking. 

Generally speaking, the very aim of developing a theory is to reduce complexity by subsuming a variety of elements or phenomena, by bringing them under a common denominator and placing them in an inner-connected framework. Here, however, through insisting that dynamic cultural interface should be regarded as the unit of analysis, it is complexity galore. It is like tutti frutti; one can discern the various components, but there are no connections. Accordingly, I doubt whether said interface with its flabbergasting potential can be theorized. It can be smashed to smithereens, to fragments that can be individually described, even as this procedure results in tortuous images while leaving the reader perplexed in the wonderland of 1001 possibilities.

Niels Mulder (1935; Dutch) has devoted most of his professional life to research on the mental world of members of the urban middle classes on Java, in Thailand and the Philippines. His latest work is Life in the Philippines: Contextual Essays on Filipino Being (forthcoming with University of the Philippines Press). (

Sahlins, M. 1999. “Two or three things that I know about culture”, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (N.S.) 5:399-421.