Archive for December, 2013

Merry Christmas everyone!

I find it almost impossible to do work without a little bit of background noise these days, and one of my favourite forms is to replay a series I have already watched (no need to engage in the plotline, but something nonetheless pleasant to hear). In anticipation of the coming winter, I’ve been playing Game of Thrones a lot.  During one of the many requisite swordfights each episode, my mother, unable to ignore the clanging coming from my monitor (I’m supposed to be doing work at this point), remarks, “What is THAT?? Sounds like a lot of people dying.”

Hehe, if only she knew.


Then, it didn’t seem like such a farfetched idea that my mother would be into Game of Thrones.  She does love period pieces!  It may be a tad darker than anything else I’ve suggested, but what the hell?

“Mom, it’s Game of Thrones, you would probably like it.  It’s the most expensive tv show ever made.  Every episode is like a movie”

“What’s it about?”

“Oh, you know, warring families each claim their right to rule the throne, their fall from grace, duty, marrying for obligation or love, blah blah blah.  And magic and weird demons and stuff.  It’s like 三国演义**”.


And then it dawned on me. George RR Martin’s most relevant epic literary reference came from 14th century China in the form of a book about three family’s struggle for the throne (and the mythical supernatural stuff).  The Romance of the Three Kingdoms is pretty much the most widely known classics in East Asia and rival Shakespeare in the number of modern film and tv interpretations.  This is Illiad grade shit we are talking about.  Why was he citing inspiration from lameness like Lord of the Dance Flies Rings?

Obviously because George RR Martin has never heard of such books.  Why would he?  He’s American.

The first thing you learn as a biology student is that cells don’t explode because of semipermeable membranes.  Sometimes, the skin around cells allows things to travel freely, like water.  Sometimes (oh God, I hope I get this right), ions like potassium are only allowed to pass freely through in one direction.  The other direction is a barrier, they become part of the cell, or they have to be rounded up and forced out.  There is an unequal movement of stuff in both directions.  

Knowledge between the East and the West has long been the semi-permeable membrane of knowledge transfer.  My mother grew up knowing about the works of Dickens and Shakespeare, much like most children who grew up in the non-West.  Her favourite book as a teenager was Jane Eyre.  However, few people in the West know about the great works and knowledge that were never permitted to transfer in the other direction, including myself; if you asked me to name ten books written by dead, non-Western authors, I’d be in trouble.

I can’t help but wonder if this has contributed to beliefs in the literary/intellectual uniqueness of the West.  After all, if Western schools influence reading lists, then they are inherently legitimizing some forms knowledge  and illegitimizing other forms.  I had a very great social studies teacher in high school, who aware of this, made a conscious effort to avoid American/European authors and historians for the entire year.  Not one mention of Austen or Dickens or Fitzgerald or Steinbeck, can you imagine??  Had I gone through my entire education with lesser teachers, I might have come out believing that no other society had produced anything valuable, interesting, or of great importance.  I might end up believing that those who don’t live in the West are not worthy of all of the qualities that literature lends its characters: license to have unique identities, dreams, feelings, and flaws.

In the absence of knowledge about the East from Eastern voices, we have often gotten our knowledge of the East through a Western interpretation.  One of the great parts of auditing the Space and Race class this year was being asked such astoundingly simple questions as; when knowledge is produced, who was it produced for?  Who produced it?  Who is it true to?


These become one-dimensional interpretations created to serve some fantasy, and sometimes really reflect our own ignorance.  For example, The Snake Charmer, criticized for the fact that it would never happen (naked child + hookah + charming a python – you don’t charm pythons, and that happened in India, not the Middle East, inside a mosque? credits to Dr. Sanyal for pointing out everything).  It isn’t the last time someone has failed to distinguish between India and the Middle East.

I think the big takeaway I’m trying to get at here is that the stuff we know, we only know because someone decided it was important.  In the process, these people also decide what isn’t important for us to know.  When it comes to what we know about the East, a lot of the pride and joy, is lost because those in control of what is and isn’t knowledge decided that it was easier, and maybe lazier, to replace real stories and real knowledge with second-hand recounts or with nothing at all.  We just need to be aware of what we think we know and where it is coming from.  Information and knowledge and truth are often decided by whoever can be heard, and we forget that not everyone gets a fair share of the microphone.

** Rebecca copied that in from Wikipedia.  Bad Rebecca!**


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