…I’m trying, trying, trying to bring this essay together, but that is what I have realised. There are too many layers of wrongness to the wrong arguments. What looks, on its surface, like a potentially simple post-colonial argument from Ngahuia Te Awekotuku or Merata Mita – take, for example, the argument that “removing the hei-tiki from a Māori context obliterates its authentic spiritual and cultural meanings, and therefore non-Māori should not appropriate the tiki.” On its surface it sounds so fair and clear, but the slightest digging churns up some rather strange assumptions, and somehow I end up all the way out here:
At the extremes there are theorists, including Said, who call into question the idea that any epistemological methods can produce objective and universal truths traversing cultural discourses, opening the ground for total cultural relativism. One example of this is when Said quotes Nietzsche to the effect that truths are, due to the nature of language, “a mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms … Truths are illusions about which one has forgotten this is what they are” (quoted in Said, p.203). Despite often occurring alongside pretentions of materialism, these varieties of Nietzshean-derived post-colonialisms are a form of neo-Kantian idealism, recognisable as such by the way they cleave an artificial division between experience (the phenomenal world) and the physical world as it would exist if unexperienced by anyone (Kant’s “Dinge-an-sich”, or “things-in-themselves”). Philosopher David Stove has termed this artificial division a “Gem”. According to Stove “any argument is a Gem if it pretends to deduce, from a tautological premise about knowledge or thought or consciousness, that the only possible objects of knowledge, or that the only possible objects, are internal or mental or spiritual” (Stove, p.148). The Gem, in the case of post-colonial writers like Said, tends to present itself along the lines of “we cannot talk about things except within the terms of our own culture/language, therefore we cannot talk about things-as-they-are-in-themselves.” The variety of conceptual “things” that ostensibly exist under such a schematic quickly proliferates to match the number of cultures and languages that exist (to the degree that these can ever plausibly be demarcated from each other), and with this proliferation of conceptual “things” comes a sense of each language or culture constituting its own discursive reality, many of these incommensurable with each other.
Oh god. How did I get out here? How do I get back? I’ve created an argument that rests, again, on defending the idea that we can make trans-cultural truth claims, and that epistemes like science work. There is no room for such an argument! But it must be made! Yet it’s barely relevant, except that all these theorists deny it! And in denying it, they make their biggest theoretical mistakes! In normal scholarship, you could assume you were comparing and contrasting claims between cultures, weighing the pros and cons (and of course the neutralities). Here that’s tapu ground. There are too many layers of bullshit to try to strip back just in order to make a normal argument, and there is no room, and I’m really not this kind of academic who can tackle this sort of thing, nor do I want to be, nor do I have the temperament to be.