Thursday, October 1, 2009

A House in Bali

An ongoing discussion, regarding a new opera about the life of Colin McPhee, the Canadian composer who spent several years living in Bali, who built a house there, and who is known to be gay. There are several problems with this opera's assumptions, and its portrayal, of McPhee.

The discussion speaks for itself, as the opera should.

However, this discussion also highlights how cultural asymmetries (to use Michael Tenzer's phrase) can come into play at any moment. The asymmetries in question here can be summarized as: imposing Western morals onto Balinese behavior; imposing current attitudes about homosexuality onto the past, and onto the past in another culture; the question of consensuality in sexuality between someone who is perceived as local to a culture and someone who is perceived as an outsider with wealth and power and status (after all, he did come to visit us)—in other words, perceived inequalities in socioeconomic and social power relationships.

Such perceptions are built upon assumptions, and conflict often arises in such situations precisely because different players have different assumptions about the nature of reality. In some ways, imposing our current ideas about sexuality onto the past, much less onto those in a foreign country, is a form of intellectual imperialism. Intentional or otherwise, the assumptions in play about what's appropriate, sexually, in a given time and culture, cannot be subject to our current moralizing, if we are to be fair and objective in our assessment, or our fieldwork.

Where I have difficulty in this discussion is the way threads of homophobia are woven in, almost unconsciously.

It reminds me very much of discussions—cultural assumptions, cultural asymmetries—about sexuality in the urban gay ghettoes regarding the way gay men connect with each other in the non-urban areas. It reminds me very much of the assumptions that many city gay men make about living in the rural areas.

They need to remember: The cities protect us. They give us a place to be ourselves, in numbers, in mutual support.

Much of that remains unavailable to those who live outside the big cities, and their active, activist, gay ghettoes.

In the same way, being an ethnographic fieldworker—a participant-observer among the people whose culture and lives one is studying, and writing about—can be a protected status. It can provide a cocoon of (judgmental?) distance, a field of observation that attempts to be objective. But we all carry our prejudices, and the assumptions about life we learned at our parents' knees, with us wherever we go. Half of the fieldwork experience, if we're being honest, is about stripping away our own assumptions, and learning to blend in, to be accepted, to "go native" at least part way. To "go native" enough to be able to empathize with and understand the local customs, cultural assumptions, and belief-systems; and yet to not lose oneself into one's adopted culture completely, but to retain a core of individual self. Finding the balance between Self and Other is precisely what happens to the engaged fieldworker.

Also, we seem to judge McPhee now by the standards of contemporary fieldwork. If he slept with some of the native boys, we seem to want to judge him for that. (The definition of "boy" is problematic at best in this context, as it doesn't really imply an age difference so much as that power imbalance inherent to relationships between the visiting outsider and the locals.) We have an ideal, as ethnographers, that it's never okay to "sleep with the natives." (And because our own culture is so interlaced with homophobia on such a deep level, in its rooted assumptions, many of us aren't even self-aware enough to know why we squirm more when it's boys rather than girls.) And yet we, as fieldworkers, are also human beings, engaged with other human beings. Sometimes the enchantment of the Other, whether its exoticism or intoxication at finding oneself on another planet, can be overpowering. Sometimes we fixate on an individual we ought not to interact with, as fieldworker, or as sexual being. And yet we do.

Is this a situation in which we are judging McPhee for what we ourselves have done? Is this a situation of "judge not, lest ye be judged"?

And then there is the question of gender roles, gender construction, and gender fluidity, in which the "rules" of gender performance are not so fixed, especially between cultures. North American culture is particularly puritanical in its rule-set about gender, and gender performance—even relative to Europe. (But then, the religious heretics of Europe, from the 16th Century onwards, were often exiled, sometimes by choice, to North America; and several of these, from the the Puritans to the Shakers, were particularly potent influences on overall North American culture, in its attitudes about sexuality.)

if we persist in judging McPhee as wrong in his actions, we must at least be aware that we are judging him by our standards, rightly or wrongly, and perhaps inappropriately to the time and place in which he lived, and loved. That McPhee himself was equivocal about all this must also be remembered. Sometimes the body acts before the mind can answer all these questions. It's the compulsion of desire, and it is capable of overruling the most sanguine of mortal souls.

And we also must remember: McPhee wasn't primarily an academic researcher, a fieldworker, an ethnographer first and foremost. His purpose for living in Bali was to learn about the music, and the musical influences eventually went in both directions. (So much for objective reporting.) He was there as an artist, not as an intellectual; a composer rather than an ethnomusicologist. (Although McPhee was neither the first, nor the last, to blend those two roles.) His intentions were not the same as ethnographic fieldworkers who go to a foreign culture nowadays. So we judge him, once again, by our own standards, appropriately or otherwise.

If we must judge McPhee, let's at least try to judge him fairly.

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