Collisions and Interactions:
A Philosophical Perspective on CATAC 98

by David Kolb (Bates College)

Since I've been labelled the philosophical commentator in this last panel, I'll take advantage of that role to offer some abstract concepts and a general visual metaphor. My remarks are organized under three topics: identities, collisions, and freedoms.


IIn this conference we have spoken much about the identities of communities, cultures, or languages. In part these identities are sets of norms and definitions and practices. I remind you of what you already know, that these identities are fluid, and that they are carried on a process of constant reinterpretation. We live in a time of accelerated rate of change in the identities of community and culture. But there have always been such changes.

On the other hand, community and cultural identities are not totally plastic; they cannot be changed willfully or by whim, for they have their own projects and inertias and resistances.

It is difficult to conceptualize what kind of wholes cultural and community identities are, for they are neither ready-made simple wholes nor neatly organic systems. Also, identities are contentious. As the examples cited in the talk about Thailand show, different subgroups may dispute what constitutes "the true identity" of Thailand (or Japan or Christianity or America)--and they may also dispute what criteria should settle such disputes.

Collisions and Interactions

Such identities collide and interact today. I offer you a visual image, a drawing of the room structure of the architect Peter Eisenman's experimental House 3.

Drawing of Eisenman's House 3

Take the walls of the intersecting plans as sets of norms and practices. For the purposes of our image it would be more appropriate to have the two sets askew in the third dimension rather than be on the same plane. It is also important to pay attention to the white space surrounding the house drawing, for that seems to be a general space in which we hover while observing the contorted space within the house.

We live in an age of interaction and collision among identities. But I want to caution us about thinking about our situation using easy dualities.

What is it that is colliding today? Thick and thin cultures? Local and cosmopolitan cultures? Local cultures and a global culture? One local culture with another? Tradition and modernity? The particular and the universal?

Those are easy dualities using big abstract concepts: local versus global, local versus universal, tradition versus modernity, particular versus universal. However, they are not just different ways of labelling one single basic split. Don't presuppose that the global equals the universal and both equal the modern, pitted against particular traditional local culture.

We should make distinctions. It is one thing to have a self-consciousness of being in a collision or interaction of cultures. It is another thing to be in a global culture.

It is one thing for some local culture to achieve global reach through contingent historical events. It is another thing for some culture to have universal validity and a normative claim against local cultures.

What's universally valid may not be a culture at all, but rather a process of interaction, a set of conditions for any culture, and a situation local cultures must respond to. Being self-conscious about that universal process or situation is not the same as being in a universal culture. All cultures are local and particular, no matter how thin or cosmopolitan they may be. Don't confuse global spread with universal status. Don't confuse the spread of American or Western values--which are themselves contentious identities--with the universal conditions of interaction and reinterpretation that make any culture possible.

A question that has come up repeatedly in this conference is on what level we should locate democratic values and practices. Are they local or universal? My own tentative conclusion is that there are universal values of tolerance and self-conscious multiplicity implicit in what it means to be self-aware of the collision of cultures, but that particular democratic practices belong to local cultures and have no normative universality.

Referring again to the image of House 3, we might put these issues in a graphic but abstract way: does the space that surrounds the house pre-exist? Does that general space have its own geometry, axes, and laws, so that the local spaces of the house are a narrowing down of its spread and a particularization of its universal openness? In that case, should we flee the house's constriction for the universal openness? Or, on the other hand, is the opening of the space for habitation done by the local house frameworks and in their collision, so that the space around the house is an extension of and abstraction from their finite openness? Or, perhaps, is the space around the house not a space at all, but a process or set of conditions, perhaps with some form of its movement, but not a place we could inhabit?

Dogmatic modernism is the presupposition that being self-consciously in the condition of interaction provides on its own a culture and space to live. To go further with this debate would enter the minefields that surround the camps of Weber, Habermas, Hegel, Heidegger, and the postmodern thinkers. It would be to define more carefully the relation of the duality traditional-modern to the duality particular-universal.


The self-awareness of plurality and collision and interaction seems to be where CMC and the Internet put us. It does not by itself provide a a culture or an identity, but only a condition on identities. But how does it affect us? This self-awareness that we have been talking about, is it freedom?

Think for a moment about the quixotic idea that came up several times in our discussion, about preserving traditional identities by establishing Culture Reservations where they would be protected from contamination by other cultures. We didn't take the idea seriously, but I want to use it to make a point. (We Americans have some unhappy experience with establishing reservations.) The idea of such a Reservation asks what it means to be a member of a culture. I want to ask: who would live on such reservations? Would they do so freely?

The future children? Then they would have no choice, since they would be cut off from the knowledge of other cultures. Does that respect their freedom? (Are there different kinds of freedom involved here?)

The adults? The elders who would agree to the establishment of the reservation? But then they do so knowing the plurality of cultures, turning their back on others. But can that be done without what Sartre would call "bad faith"?

There is no avoiding interaction, and if you turn away, you still turn, actively acknowledging what you reject. A negative relation is still a relation.

Of course this situation is not just modern. Interactions and collisions of cultures are not new at all. But something has changed. The pace of interaction has increased enormously, as has the intrusiveness of the other into the details of life. Instead of being special rare events, the interaction of identities has become part of the mechanisms for satisfying daily needs. Such interaction has become, to use a word from a previous talk, uncontrollable.

This does not mean that we have a totally new, purified, ironic identity, but that the multiplicities and dislocations and process that have always been part of identity are now more explicit and more self-aware.

I sometimes wonder if we ought to study not the great empires of China and Rome, but the central Asian trading towns that connected them, such as Bukhara and Samarkand, where Buddhist and Christian and Jew and Moslem and Hindu and Confucian routinely lived together, where nomad and imperial got along with one another. The optical fiber puts us all on the Silk Road.

Date created: August 20, 1998
Last modified: August 20, 1998
Copyright © 1998, David Kolb