On the intercultural encounter and the death of Micheal Brown

Not too long ago, having had the opportunity to travel to Cambodia to see Angkor Vat, I booked tickets one night for Smile of Angkor, a theatrical production being performed throughout the week at the Siem Reap Exhibition Center. Smile of Angkor is a fast-paced 70-minute music and dance extravaganza, epic in technique and scale, covering the basics of Cambodian traditional performance, acrobatics, martial arts, mythology, and political and religious history. The highly-trained performers are dancers from the Royal Cambodian Ballet. The audience follows a young boy character on a time-travelling adventure as we learn about the Angkor civilization. His guide is Buddha, kind and serene, who takes the shape of a 10-foot-tall, articulated reproduction of the smiling face of one of the famous Bayon temple statues. As we follow our hero through time, each Angkor temple site comes to life; large puppets representing the enigmatic faces of Angkor Thom and Preah Khan, with articulated mouths and eyes, sweep across the stage. Sitting among an audience consisting largely of Chinese tourists, I enjoyed myself and the spectacle, and followed the story as best I could, assisted by the subtitles projected on either side of the capacious stage simultaneously in English, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean. The end of the show is a tribute to the international crowd assembled in the theatre, as well as our common humanity, and a plea for peace: all the puppets and brightly costumed dancers parade once more across the stage, carrying flags from around the globe, as ‘Ode to Joy’ triumphantly blasts through the speakers. When the assembled cast waves to the audience, the audience, happily, waves back.
When I heard the strains of ‘Ode to Joy’, I found myself laughing. Why did I laugh? It was fun, for sure, and I enjoyed the upbeat atmosphere. But I laughed at something more than that. I laughed because suddenly hearing ‘Ode to Joy’ in this vast theatre created to promote the commodity of Cambodian history and culture to an international consumer-tourist audience seemed an odd juxtaposition to the specificity of Cambodian dance and music, which is, literally, worlds away from 19th century Germany. To me, it seemed bizarre. I understood, also, that Beethoven’s well-known tune was being offered as something of a musical handshake, attempting—and perhaps succeeding—to create a space for the universal, the human, and the common. I laughed, however, because the gesture also seemed inappropriate, and my laughter—escaping from my throat without my permission—marked the authority with which I, as a Western consumer, could interpret the ‘attempt’ of an Asian other to insert itself into the economy of global cultural capital as the funny failure of an inappropriate appropriation of a Western cultural artifact. In the moment, the use of ‘Ode to Joy’ seemed awkward and naïve, like a teenager’s first attempt at serious fiction. My unspoken and largely (at the time) unconscious prejudice manifested as this honest but derisive laughter. The fact that I laughed as a visceral response to difference is what makes me feel ashamed. Despite a profession backed by an education committed to ferreting out invisible forms of prejudice, I was not and I am not magically immune to the structures of power which have shaped my very person. In the words of Edward Said, ‘No one has the epistemological privilege of somehow judging, evaluating, and interpreting the world free from the encumbering interests and engagements of the ongoing relationships themselves. We are, so to speak, of the connections, not outside and beyond them.’ I laughed without thinking. And in doing so, I re-inscribed in my very viscera the attitudes of authority and privilege that I have spent so many years, in one way or another, trying to deconstruct.
Let me be clear: Smile of Angkor is a dazzling, technologically stunning show, and the musicians, dancers, and technicians deserve each and every standing ovation they rightly earn. It is nowhere near naïve. It accomplishes what it sets out to do efficiently and professionally, which is to educate an international audience about Cambodian history and culture, creating a platform for its appreciation and global visibility, all while remaining highly entertaining. Following this, the use of ‘Ode to Joy’ is an effective tactic for bringing everyone together, no matter their nationality, under the banner of a common humanity. Whether or not one believes that such common humanity is truly possible is beside the point; the production successfully engaged those terms when it used one of the most readily recognizable melodies in the world. Smile of Angkor did not inappropriately appropriate a German anthem, but chose to speak in the closest thing to a universal language at hand. If the laughter I describe above is a problem, it is a problem with me, not with Smile of Angkor.
What this laughter has taught me, as I have contemplated my reaction over the months, is that the intercultural in performance is not a thing, but an experience. Much in the way that Kristeva describes the abject not as specific objects or places that challenge our bodily integrity, but the very experience of that challenge, so too is the intercultural the experience of treading, precariously, the border zone between myself and all I consider in relationship to me, but not of me. And so too does the experience eviscerate this body of skins, containers, and binding ligaments that purports to make me and mark me off as individual, unique, and incorruptible. If the abject reveals us as ‘at the border of my condition as a living being’, the intercultural reveals us likewise on the border of our condition as a sovereign subject, the finite limits of our thinking and being. ‘[W]hat disturbs identity, system, order. What does not respect borders, positions, rules. The in-between, the ambiguous, the composite.’ The intercultural in performance happens as much on the level or the person as it does the national or the cultural. It engages each of us, singularly, within the plurality of the globe.

Now I would like to tell a story about something that made me angry.

Not too long ago, I attended a literature conference in Seoul. This conference had a good representation of scholars from around the world. In one English-language session, a Korean theatre scholar presented a paper in which she argued that a Korean theatre director appropriated a particular work of William Shakespeare’s not to argue for any kind of post-colonial politics, but as a way to explore universal themes of conflicting drives within the self. Predictably, an American theatre scholar (Caucasian) sitting in the audience took issue with this. She objected that this Korean scholar should blatantly disregard the unequal power dynamics that would bring Shakespeare to the Korean peninsula in the first place, and then permit his global circulation in the second. After the panel had concluded, I happened to be standing by when this American scholar approached the Korean scholar to confront her (albeit in a friendly way) about what she regarded as the flawed conceptual outlook of her paper. When the Korean scholar defended her stance that the director she was analyzing was exploring a ‘common humanity’, the American scholar interjected, ‘But what common humanity?!’ The Korean scholar was forced to pause mid-sentence, aware, so it seemed to me, that she had nothing to say that could make her interlocutor see that not everyone involved in academic scholarship has to be thoroughly convinced that difference results in unequivocal alterity, as so much North American critical theory purports, having become the acolyte to a certain reading of deconstruction enchanted by ‘Otherness’. I walked away, unsure how to feel about what I’d just witnessed. I did not hear the end of the conversation. Over the following days and weeks, the experience stuck with me, and I noticed within myself a growing anger. I sympathized with the Korean scholar. I felt that she had been attacked by a well-meaning fellow scholar who was blind to her own complicity with the very forces of imperialism that she was being so careful decry. Insisting that difference is the only way to engage with the cultural other, she refused to listen to the careful and thoughtful analysis of the Korean scholar, who did not feel it was necessary to bow to any pre-determined critical patterns already in place in North America, just as the theatre director she analyzed did not feel it was necessary to engage in a post-colonial interpretation of Shakespeare, despite the fact of his country’s post-colonial standing. The Korean scholar’s wordlessness, for that one moment, in the face of the confrontation with the other scholar, is what continues to anger me—that she should have been forced into a position that demanded her silence when she was the one who had asked for someone else to listen.

Recognizing my own position as white, Western, and educated, it is shame and anger, but not guilt or despair, that precipitates my attempt to understand the intercultural in performance. To witness the intercultural is to experience the disruption of my own self, but in relationship to the (often uneven) global structures that order international dialog and intercultural exchange. As of this writing, my own country, the United States, is mired in violent racial conflict, as the grand jury ruling not to indict (white) police officer Darren Wilson for the fatal shooting of (black) eighteen-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, continues to fuel protests. Brown’s death, the (even momentary) enforced silence of the Korean scholar, and my own derisive laughter inhabit the same continuum of oppression, correspond to the same dynamics of cultural and ideological power and control. This is something that I don’t want to forget as I continue my research into intercultural performance.