Wednesday, August 10, 2011

TTYU Retro: Insiders and Outsiders (in Worldbuilding Cultures)

This is a post that I originally wrote in the context of the furor surrounding Norman Spinrad's article entitled "Third World Worlds" (the original text of which can be found here if you're curious what it was about, and a compiled list of responses can be found here). My article doesn't deal with those arguments directly, but with an aspect of anthropology, linguistics and writing that I felt was relevant to that discussion, namely the question of cultural insiders and outsiders.

I'm talking about the difference in perspective between someone on the inside of a cultural group, and someone on the outside. This is an issue I've given a great deal of thought to when working with my fictional societies, but it seems clear to me that it's relevant beyond just fiction, applying also to any time you're working with a real life social group, or speculated future group.

I think there would be little debate over the idea that in order to portray a social situation vividly, a writer needs to do research. If that situation happens to be fictional, the writer would do well to think through all the things they might discover if they did research. If we're talking about Japan, you'll want to know about the genkan where people take their shoes off before entering a house, and you'll want to know about manga and about the large number of convenience stores and vending machines, about enka singing and about Japanese-English pop rock, etc... all kinds of things that might go into creating a sense of the environment.

Research on its own, though, isn't enough. There's also point of view, which differs critically if you're a person who has grown up in this environment as opposed to being someone who visits it. Insiders versus outsiders.

In some cases the distinction may not even be as simple as just insiders and outsiders. In Japan, there is a very interesting cultural phenomenon I've noticed, of foreigners who live in Japan but who interact primarily with Japanese people who love to hang out with foreigners. Between the two groups a new group culture has been created: one that's uniquely Japanese and yet doesn't actually capture what someone would encounter if they lived with a host family. It's a "foreigner-Japanese" culture, or perhaps it's similar to the sort of mixing environment that has given rise to pidgins across the world. It was in this sort of context that I encountered Japanese people who told me that I spoke Japanese "too well." For whatever reason, my ability to understand Japanese was threatening to someone who wanted the different social contract that existed between the Japanese and non-Japanese participants in this social group. So being an "insider" in that specially defined cultural group is entirely different from being an "insider" or an "outsider" to Japanese society in a more general sense.

For writing purposes, I think it's important to ask the question: what makes the difference between an insider and an outsider perspective? We can feel the difference when we read it, but where does it actually arise?

It arises in language - specifically, the words and usages we choose when we write our stories.

If we're trying to achieve the sense of an insider perspective, either for a world culture or for a fictional culture, it's important to extend our research into the sensitive area of listening to language. It's easy to think of language as a tool for delivering messages, but it's easy to underestimate the sheer number of messages that it can deliver at once. The way that I ask someone to lend me a pen does more than just ask someone to lend me a pen. It conveys other messages about my perceived social relationship to the person I'm speaking to; it conveys the perceived importance of pens; it conveys the fact that in my society, pens exist; it conveys how I feel about being caught without one, etc. Sentences carry messages about judgment and emotion, and about how reality is divided into objects, concepts and categories.

I think the history of Anthropology is somewhat relevant to this question. The early anthropologists weren't exactly like Indiana Jones, but they typically considered the societies they visited, described and judged them from the perspective of their own cultural viewpoint (s). This was a context in which casting aspersions of savagery was far easier than it is today. More modern anthropology draws a distinction between "etic perspectives" and "emic perspectives," that is, outsider perspectives and insider perspectives. Modern anthropologists strive to understand how a group of people defines itself, rather than contenting themselves with observing details of its behavior and judging them from the outside.

Listening to language - i.e. listening to the group members talk about themselves and about outsiders - is critical to the process of understanding the group and how it defines itself. The listener (writer or anthropologist) can listen for overarching cultural metaphors and values, categories that are widely applied, how words are used to label people and objects and how that influences people's perception of them. Words that seem familiar can be applied to things in an unfamiliar way.

This is the kind of thing that we as writers can take advantage of as we write stories. We can tap into our understanding (from literature or personal experience) of the cultural metaphors of a group and bring those to bear when writing a character from that group. I remember discovering Kij Johnson's The Fox Woman and being impressed not just with the settings and objects that filled her fantasy Japan, but also the kinds of things that her characters worried about. The concerns they had, their definitions of success and failure, their justifications for action, and what motivated them to keep going forward in their lives, fit extremely well with my experiences of Japan, Japanese people and literature. It felt real, and spoke to me.

When we try to create an insider perspective, sometimes it's harder than other times. I suppose, though, that the object is not so much to pass for an insider as to create a story that speaks to readers in a meaningful way (interesting thoughts on this at OF Blog of the Fallen, here). And if the perspective is not quite what we'd expect from a full insider, that may indeed give us different kinds of insights - as I remarked in my discussion of what non-native speakers can bring to language and to stories.

I'd like to finish by talking more concretely about insider and outsider language. In my own stories, I usually try to create both insider and outsider points of view that I then contrast with one another. I think this is because of how I've been struck, throughout my experience in anthropology and life in general, by misunderstandings and the divergent ways different cultures invest meaning in what they say. The result is that I'm often looking for ways to describe the same objects and experiences while investing them with divergent value (as in my "different value" posts).

Here are a couple of basic principles to keep in mind. (You may notice that A and B are arbitrary, and can be switched without changing the basic principle.)
  • An outsider (say, from culture A) will notice things in an unfamiliar culture (B) when things that are typically meaningful in culture A differ in culture B.
  • An outsider (A) may not notice things that differ in culture B when those things are not meaningful in culture A - but if they are meaningful in culture B, the culture B insider will probably notice the difference.

  • An insider (of culture B) will not remark on the existence of things/practices/people that are normal to him/her, except when 1) those things/practices/people are seen by the insider to have a distinct value within an ongoing activity, or 2) when those things/practices/people diverge in some way from the insider's expectation.
  • Sometimes a shared activity between members of culture A and culture B will involve things/practices/people that are unremarkable to both parties, particularly if the shared activity is something the two cultures developed together (but aren't currently refining).

There are many ways an author can use principles like this. You can have have insiders find something meaningful while an outsider doesn't notice them at all. You can have an outsider notice something and have an emotional reaction to it that differs completely from the reaction that an insider would have when exposed to the same thing. As an example of this second possibility, I'll point you to something I always wondered about in Star Trek: facial ridges. The way they were treated was that people used them to tell the difference between the different interstellar races. But that was typically it. I could see a human saying, "gee, these guys have facial ridges" because a human in this case is an outsider to the facially ridged culture. But if the features of a face (heavy brows, unibrow, thick/thin lips, nose shape) are invested with so much meaning in human cultures, why wouldn't some quality of the facial ridges have additional meaning?

I tend to think about levels of detail and experience. If a character brings attention to the existence of something, then I automatically guess that person is an outsider; if instead a character expresses a judgment that presupposes the existence of something, I consider that evidence that the character is an insider.

Here are a couple of examples from fictional worlds I've been working with.

Example 1: (physical features)

The species called "Cochee-coco" has a noticeable facial feature. When a human sees this species, her first gut reaction is that they look like otters. However, she then notices that they have no eyebrows, but a bare patch of "pebbly" skin that goes from their eyes up to their ears. For the human character, this facial feature acts as a confirmation that these creatures are not familiar Earthlike creatures, but aliens that humankind has never encountered before. When a Cochee-coco sees this feature, she doesn't bring attention to the feature itself, but gives it its own special name (brow-character) and mentions what the qualities of this feature say about the people who have it: the two people she's looking at are quite masculine (indicating that masculinity is one of the meanings this feature can convey) and that they aren't related because the patterns they have in this skin are different (indicating that family relation is another meaning of the feature). You can see this is a deliberate departure from the Star Trek situation.

Example 2: (manners)

In my Varin world, there is a caste called the Imbati who are servants - but high-level servants, so they serve the nobility as body servants and bodyguards, but also serve as political assistants and secret-keepers. They also are lawyers (servants of the Courts) and bureaucrats (servants of the State). In their role as guardians of information, they've developed manners surrounding the asking of questions. As an author, I want to make it clear to my readers that this rule affects Imbati life, but I have to be careful about how I make it clear - because it doesn't make sense for either the nobility or the servants to "tell" the reader about the rule (here we are again with "show don't tell"). So in the point of view of a noble boy I have him asking the servant a question in exasperation, then saying, "no, don't answer that" and apologizing for having "poor Imbati manners." I'll also add that he can do this because he's more self-aware and respectful of servant ways than most of the nobility. Then in the servant point of view I have to treat it a different way. I have the servant character giving another character permission to ask a question, and then I have the servant notice the mischievous look his girlfriend gets "when about to ask a question without permission."

Example 3: (setting/practices)

The undercaste of my Varin world are downtrodden - no surprise there. But I've spent quite a long time looking for ways to push beyond the obvious evidence for their downtrodden-ness. I have decided that though they are offered health care at clinics, they prefer not to get it there because they're abused by the staff. But if it's normal for them not to go to doctors, it's unlikely that they'll mention it. Instead, since being sick is a departure from the norm, they would talk about what they actually do when they're sick (getting help from neighbors, drinking from natural mineral springs in the vicinity, etc.). A person who actually dealt with doctors on a daily basis through work or other means would be pitied.

We have to work hard when dealing with the portrayal of fictional worlds, because we can't rely on our subconscious sense of belonging to make the language behave the way it needs to. But as I mentioned in my post about the myth of the native speaker, subconscious instincts can be both help and problem.

When dealing with world cultures, as opposed to fictional cultures, it's often easy to rely on one's instinctive, unconscious abilities in pragmatics to express the meanings that we invest in objects, people, and practices. But keep in mind that we have to push away from our subconscious when dealing with other cultures, because it can diminish the effectiveness of our portrayal of them. This is where you see the real skill of a sensitive researcher come into play. No matter what culture you belong to, you need to spend some time closely observing, and especially listening to, the cultures you hope to portray from the inside. Authors who can keep themselves attentive to the meanings created by insiders of a world culture will be able to create a similar effect of their own, while at the same time bringing their own insights to the story.

It's something to think about.