U.S. Intellectual History Blog

From Rome with Love, II

By Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn

When encountering something outside one’s usual experience, one’s first instinct is to draw comparisons and contrasts with what one knows. Trite and true, right?

It sounds so simple.

But of course there are deep philosophical and psychological questions about what makes us us and what makes them them–and ethical questions about whether it should. Layer onto this questions from theology, cognitive science, anthropology, and history, let alone art and literature, and we must ask, in more ways than one, who do we think we are?

When we take note of so-called cultural differences, is a generalization about our own or another culture ever accurate? Many recent reviews of Woody Allen’s To Rome with Love (still haven’t seen it) judge it replete with superficial stereotypes. Are works of cultural history or social criticism often that different, however careful they might try to be? Isn’t the risk of over-simplifying–or, obversely, of over-complicating, more au courant in academia these days–a pitfall of generalizing at all, and thus of characterizing, portraying, or observing?

I am excited about the “For the Love of Film” preservation blogathon that begins today. (Look out for the upcoming posts by some of my fellow USIH bloggers later this week.) Musing on the Italian/American film connection, I came across a blog that compared Italian and American posters for the same classic American films by setting the posters side by side (here for Hitchcock film posters). They really do seem different. As with album cover art or wine labels, movie posters become increasingly intriguing the more I see.

This blogger and those who commented on her posts see the Italian posters as largely more compelling because “more artistic/intriguing/seductive.” Other people, though, argue that translation isn’t always an improvement, as when Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind in English becomes the equivalent of If You Leave Me, I Delete You in Italian. (For this and other amusing examples from countries in addition to Italy, see here)

If we see differences, do we automatically conclude they are the result of cultural differences? If we see similarities, do we assume cultural similarity? Or perhaps these are gross generalizations, categorical simplifications.

Study after study these days, no matter what the subject matter, concludes: it was complex. Isn’t that how it always is, once one gets to know anything better? That is is more complicated than it first appeared?

Not necessarily. Some of us actually might be predisposed to think of things as more complicated than they really are, only to find out, upon closer acquaintance that they are more understandable. People whose differences scared us through their foreign-ness might have seemed complicated until we see the patterns of their lives up close. Unfortunately, a workable simplicity only comes to some people by discovering that others are “just like us.” This can do injustice to others, and to ourselves, as much as the famous faux pas (or worse) of “othering.” To make matters worse, an excessive fear of “othering” can actually lead to the “othering” of oneself, I think, through the self-accusation: otherer. Like Hester Prynne, only with an “O.”

The aim of the Fulbright Commission, by whose good graces I am living and teaching in Rome this semester, is “to increase understanding between the people of the United States and the people of other countries.” With so much to be wary of today in terms of self-advertisement and what institutions really deliver, it is refreshing to see the ways Fulbright actually does make this possible. By supporting scholars at all levels for different lengths of time in numerous locations, but always in service of this kind of mutual learning, Fulbright offers opportunities for intellectual exchanges of the humble, day-to-day sort. It could be an inspiration to USIH, but then it seems that this is precisely what USIH is doing.

As we often see others as though through veils of our own past, present, and hopes or fears of the future, it is amazing we can ever see anyone at all. (As the Dylan line goes, “It’s a wonder we can even feed ourselves.” And of course, it remains to be seen if we can. In an upcoming post, I hope to describe my experience in Pollenzo, where the Slow Food movement took root.) As in an earlier Woody Allen film, in a bedroom scene in which he cannot abandon himself to love making because of the superimposition of the image of his mother on his lover’s face, our imaginations–whether from guilt or another state–often make it impossible to glimpse one another at all. Other people become figments of our fantasies, whether pleasant or horrifying, and another place at best a mere utopia, from the Greek, meaning “no place.”

To get beyond this might be a worthy goal, but it might also be an impossible one. And it may be undesirable, in any event. Worse than superficiality and stereotyping, it casts the multitudinous veils, which are just as much a part of anyone as anything else, as irrelevant. Drawing them back is a particular technique of observing. But it is when we strive for abstracted knowledge (abstracted from them, yes; abstracted from ourselves as well) of other people and places, we are prone to over-simplify or over-complicate. Understanding is another thing entirely.

[Updated: 5/14/2012, 7:40 am CST]

One Thought on this Post

  1. Wonderful piece! I thought about this a lot this semester as my students encountered race happily through the “just like us” vein until they learned about Ethnic Studies, which seemed like self-othering to them. It is white privilege to think of oneself as the comparison point for all other people, but then again your post has made me think that it is also a part of encountering difference for the first time.

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