Shakespeare Electronic Conference, Vol. 5, No. 0098. Monday, 7 February 1994.
Date: Monday, 7 Feb 1994 12:35:13 +1000 (EST)
Subject: The Human Condition
This is my first foray, so forgive me if I get the tone wrong.
My initial reaction to the 'universality' debate was to cheer on the
critics of Terence Hawkes, but this may have been irritation at the glib
'alterity' claims which are typical of a certain kind of Cultural Studies.
But I've become increasingly uncomfortable at the certainty with which
Richard Jordan et al have been asserting, contra Hawkes, a clear and
absolute distinction between human experiences and the cultural meanings
attributed to them by particular societies. Surely experience - even
biolgical experience - is itself determined, to some extent, by its
cultural meaning. Hunger, to continue with that example, may well be
experienced differently by people for whom hunger has a redemptive meaning
than by people for whom it is simply a state of painful deprivation. And
how can one doubt that orgasm will be experienced differently if you
believe each one shortens your life-span than if you think of it as a
healthy release of tension? One has only to read the work of people like
Marcel Mauss and Norbert Elias or, more recently, Peter Brown (The Body in
History) and Thomas Laqueur (Making Sex) to see that physical experiences,
and not just their cultural meanings, are indeed not universal.
Of course, this doesn't warrant the Hawkesian assumption that they will
always, or necessarily, or even usually, be different in different cultures.
To that extent I agree with Jordan. Experiences *and* their meanings may
well be substantially the same across different cultures. To assert
otherwise is itself a universalising statement.