Friday, June 22, 2007

From Marco Polo to Leibniz: Stories of Intercultural Misunderstanding

A lecture presented by Umberto Eco
December 10, 1996

In the course of my last lecture I dealt with the long-lasting dream of a perfect and universal
language. This evening I shall on the contrary deal with some misunderstandings that took place
when people were unable to understand that different cultures have different languages and
world-visions. The fact that - by serendipity - also those mistakes provided some new discoveries
only means (as I stressed in my last lecture) that even errors can produce interesting side-effects.
When two different cultures meet each other, there is a shock due to their reciprocal diversity. At
this point there are, in general, three possibilities:
Conquest: The members of culture A cannot recognize the members of culture B as normal
human beings (and vice versa) and define them as "barbarians" - that is, etymologically, non-
speaking beings, and therefore non-human or sub-human beings - and there are only two further
possibilities, either to civilize them (that is, to transform people B into acceptable copies of people
A) or to destroy them - or both.

Cultural pillage: The members of culture A recognize the members of culture B as the bearers of
an unknown wisdom; it can happen that culture A tries to submit politically and militarily the
members of culture B, but at the same time they respect their exotic culture, try to understand it,
to translate its elements into their own. The Greek civilization resulted in transforming Egypt into a
Hellenistic kingdom, but the Greek culture highly admired Egyptian wisdom since the times of
Pythagoras, and tried - so to speak - to steal the secret of Egyptian mathematics, alchemy, magic
or religion - and such a curiosity, admiration and respect for the Egyptian wisdom reappeared in
the modern European culture, from the Renaissance until our days.

Exchange, that is, a sort of 'two ways' process of mutual influence and respect. This is certainly
what happened with the early contacts between Europe and China. From the times of Marco
Polo, but certainly at the times of father Matteo Ricci, these two cultures were exchanging their
secrets, the Chinese accepted form the Jesuit missionaries many aspects of the European
science and the Jesuits brought to Europe many aspects of the Chinese civilization (at such an
extent that nowadays Italians and Chinese are still debating who invented spaghetti - before the
New Yorkers damaged the whole thing by inventing spaghetti with meatballs).

Conquest, cultural pillage and exchange are naturally abstract models. In reality we can find a
variety of cases in which these three attitudes can be merged. But what I want to stress today is
that there are two other ways of interaction between cultures. I am not interested in the first,
which is exoticism, by which a given culture invents by misinterpretation and aesthetic bricolage
an ideal image of a far and idealized culture, such as the past chinoisieries, Gauguin's Polynesia,
the Siddharta syndrome for hippies, the Paris of Vincente Minnelli, or New York as viewed from
xenophile Italians who cross the Ocean to buy here Italian but Hong-Kong-made jackets at some
famous English store. The phenomenon I am interested in is more difficult to label, and let me to
use for the moment being a tentative definition. We (in the sense of human beings), travel and
explore the world bringing with us some "background books." It is not indispensable that we bring
them with us physically; I mean that we travel having a previous notion of the world, received by
our cultural tradition. In a very curious sense we travel by already knowing what we are on the
verge of discovering, because some previous books told us what we were supposed to discover.

The influence of these "background books" is such that, irrespectively of what the traveler
discovers and sees, everything will be interpreted and explained in terms of them...

But what does it mean a good cultural anthropology? I do not rank among those who believe that
there are no rules for interpretation, since even a programmatic misinterpretation requires some
rules: I believe that there are at least intersubjective criteria in order to tell if an interpretation is a
bad one - in the very sense in which we are sure that Kircher misinterpreted something of the
Egyptian or Chinese culture, and that Marco Polo did not really see unicorns. However the real
problem is not so much concerning the rules: it rather concerns our eternal drive to think that our
ones are the golden ones.
The real problem of a critique of our own cultural models is to ask, when we see a unicorn, if by
chance it is not a rhinoceros.


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