Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Split Turkey Bwest

(A post titled in the style of Wishydig)

Tonight on NBC's Last Comic Standing one of the Australian comedians made a joke about flying on an airline from the United Arab Emerites to Australia -- the joke had something to do with being startled awake in the middle of the night by an Arabic voice over the PA system warning of turbulence. He didn't understand it, and was scared... his punchline was something like, "In case anyone has forgotten, those of us in the West can be a little iffy about hearing Arabic hollered over the speaker system on an airplane."

Lame joke -- but what caught my ear was the reference to Australia as part of the West. I think I've finally had it with these terms: "East" and "West." They seem to refer to philosophical or theological traditions at least as much, if not more, than they refer to location. Look:


My objection here isn't just for the sake of geographical trivia. Look at Australia. Australia can only be said to be a part of the West ideologically, not geographically (and of course, it doesn't matter whether your map looks different than this one--Australia is parallel with Japan). But speaking of Japan, why is Japan still an "Eastern" country? It certainly shares Western capitalistic/democratic governing principles.

Look also at Africa -- right below Europe, but not part of the West. And Russia, well... far be it from me to say anything authoritative about Russia (if anything, Russia transcends the East/West paradigm: Russia is an idea more than it is a physical location). Not to mention the less-well-defined "Middle East" (notably not described as "Middle West" -- after all, "we" don't want them on our team).

So here's how this is annoying: there absolutely is a need for the East/West distinction in philosophical traditions. But the East/West pairing, which connotes a sense of totality (where else could there be if not East or West?), leaves out at least one continent and the biggest country by area in the world, and disqualifies places like Turkey for trying to straddle the line.

Anyone else ever annoyed by this? I think the East/West vision has been very useful in philosophical and theological history, but it seems to have reached the end of its line... Suggestions for revision?

13 comments:

Wishydig said...

That was one of the Australians? I wasn't paying close enough attention I guess.

What you say is true. The delineation is getting old. And as any habit begins to wear thin it's biases are easier to see.

And your map makes the most important point--that the East/West split works mostly in the interest of preserving the old views of power and relevance.

Hmmm...connection a to bipartisan political system?

Wishydig said...

And what exactly are you saying about my post titles?

brian said...

Do people in the "West" even know about these distinctions?

Casey said...

They're awesome; bordering on "a little much" sometimes -- but I think they suit the new-media genre.

That point about bipartisanism is frighteningly true, I think. One of my Asperger's students was writing a paper this week and went into a long digression on how binary logic works and how everything we do is a choice, etc. I just tried to understand him because I have no training in whatever Asperger's is, and for all I know it means "robot-like." But seriously: I think he was just expressing what is the latent conviction of society-at-large, which is that everything should somehow be understood in the either/or framework.

Which is why everyone who sympathizes with me will admit that the number 3 is so beautiful and that a fraction like 4/3 or "pi" is so outstanding. Infinite particulars.

Hey! -- are you an infinite particular?

Casey said...

Brian -- academics do. They're the ones making these distinctions.

You know:

East: enlightenment, collective
West: salvation, individualism

Blahblahblah...

Casey said...

Why does Google rank the importance of this comments page at 9/10???

Insignificant Wrangler said...

Go ahead and try to figure this s#@t out.

Daniel said...

I just like the opportunity to throw around Occidental and Oriental.

Davo said...

I'm with you on this, but hadn't known about Australia as part of the West--perhaps the Southwest. When I was in Moscow, they divided East and West with the Ural mountain range, but seemed less than adamant about it, though. Excellent point with Africa being a big N/A--Eastwest bias, perchance?

Jon Sealy said...

I think it's time for the world to follow America's example and create a north/south division.

I guess the east/west division is leftover from mercantile days, when there really was a split between Europe and east Asia, and like you say globalization has erased that distinction.

But it seems like any attempt to compartmentalize the world is futile. Just look at Michael's posts about grammar.

Casey said...

Davo -- has Russia clung to a "Western" self-image even after the collapse of the USSR? One of my favorite guilty pleasures is Victor Pelevin, who gives the impression that there is a growing sentiment in Russia that "going Western" was Russia's first mistake...

Davo said...

Casey--it's rather strange. The nation as a whole seems to put quite a bit more credence in the Asia calendar (which we all know from chinese restaurant placemats) than any other place I've known of outside of Asia, but still looks westward. Moscow and especially Petersburg look to Europe. There is a sentiment that turning West was a bad idea among those who are my age and older, but the younger folks have embraced the West big time, or at least the idea of Capitalism, minus most of the perspective of the big problems of the Gilded Age, thus making Moscow one of the more corrupt places--and THE most expensive--place to live in the world.

brian said...

I meant to say "East."