calligraphy in nyc

This is a post about the relative ghettoization of China studies within the U.S. academy and its concomitant marginalization in U.S. discussions about wither the post Cold War global world. I approach the topic not in search of lofty insights, but with practical intent; how do we learn to talk cross-culturally when most of the time we don’t have enough experience to make comparison meaningful?

Short answer: we need to cultivate wisdom, rather than pursue knowledge. Long answer meanders through musings on practice theory, calligraphy, and globalization.

A talk that I heard about the Chinese calligrapher Yi Liao (一了) prompted these thoughts. Specifically, many in the audience, who were making an effort to understand, had difficulty following the discussion because they didn’t understand the calligraphy and also because after a while, if you can’t read Chinese characters and meditate on the relationships between form and content in the creation of poetic meaning, calligraphy becomes boring. Indeed, whenever I bring presents back to the states, my friends – most wisely – remind me to buy paintings, rather than calligraphy.

I begin from the idea that what we do makes life meaningful. This is a practice theory insight in contrast to a hermeneutic theory of meaning. For example, I don’t think that Chinese characters are inherently meaningful, instead they accrue meaning because human beings take the time to look at them, to compare them, to think about how they might be written more beautifully or more truthfully or more accessibly.

That is, the time we spend working with Chinese characters, comparing this one to that, learning to copy and read and write characters,learning to compose essays and poetry through Chinese characters, learning how characters combine and recombine to make words and phrases and friendships, families, and nations – all this work is what makes characters meaningful. However, in and of themselves, independent of the work and time it takes to learn, characters are mere splatters on the page.

From this insight it follows that the time we give to working with Chinese characters will be proportional to how meaningful they are for us. Likewise, the care and attention we give while working with characters will also shape how important we think characters are. Not unexpectedly, Chinese people appreciate and enjoy and are frustrated by all sorts of calligraphy because they give over years of their lives to characters. They also use calligraphy to assert all sorts of social relationships, ranging from political inequality to individual taste and spiritual enlightenment. Westerners presently don’t (although once upon a time, uncial calligraphy shaped Christianity).

The catch, of course, is that we only have so much time in a day and attention wanes and ebbs. We make decisions about how we will live our lives and our lives grow out of these decisions. And the decision to use time one way is the decision not to give meaning to whole other chunks of life (will I work with Chinese characters for the next hour or will I blog about Chinese characters? Will I read classical Buddhists texts or will I read the NY Times? How much time should I give over to learning about Arabic calligraphy? Or Hebrew? Or Russian? Or Japanese?)

I see this question of the relationship between time and meaning beating at the heart of how we live our various flavors of globalization. Each of us makes decisions about how we will use our limited time. Some of us travel, others read novels, some surf blogs, others sculpt, still others build multi-national companies and stock markets. Each of these decisions creates meaning and as we sink deeply into one approach to living, we forgo other possibilities.

So how then do we learn to talk with one another? How do we learn to translate between the calligraphic life and the import-export life? In other words, how do we learn to understand the meanings of others’ lives, when we haven’t taken the time to live as they do? But more importantly, how can we understand the meanings of others’ lives, when there isn’t time enough to live as everyone does? Where is that moment of human convergence?

In the academy, the moment of convergence is theory. In the art world, it seems to be one of color and form. In the business world, it’s profit. In other words, the moment of human convergence is the moment when we transform our meaning into something portable. We call the ability to make this transformation of meaning into something else, the production of value. And yes, many activities produce meanings that can be translated into diverse forms of value. (Blogging about calligraphy reaffirms its importance to me, for example.)

Moreover, any world that translates all meaning into one form of value will be experienced as oppressive. For example, writing calligraphy for the market is a painful experience for many calligraphers because they don’t write to earn money, but to satisfy other yearnings for meaning. The meaning of years learning and feeling brushwork cannot be reduced to an hourly wage. Some of those meanings are less than noble – asserting superiority for example, but some are interesting and others inspiring – calligraphic practice as a Buddhist path, for example.

All this to say that our talk about globalization is often just the claim that one social system – the market – is sufficient to translate the meanings of our lives into common values. Unfortunately, these exchanges rarely nourish all involved as some profit at others’ expense. Value judgments which manifest as the differences between high and low quality lives (and yes, I’m deliberately leaving that phrase open to material and spiritual interpretation).

I’m wondering if the lukewarm reception of a talk about calligraphy resulted from the fact that those present couldn’t translate those meanings into theoretical value for their respective research. But this may point to a more serious problem. If the point of academic research is to reduce human lives to knowledge, then we will consistently not be able to speak with one another. If, however, the point is to create meaning about what it means to be human, such talks can be of great value.

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