Question: You have a fascination with the concept of “the exotic,” which has become a controversial topic after intellectuals like Edward Said have attacked exoticism in art. What is it about “the exotic” that you are trying to explore?
Eliot Weinberger: I’ve never understood what’s wrong with the exotic. After all, most cultures have stories and poems that are about long journeys– about people going on long journeys and the strange things they encounter. Fascination with the other is universal.
What’s happened, however, is that, in the kind of politics that predominate in universities, they’ve taken Edward Said’s book– which is, of course, tremendously important, but it’s about a very specific place and time, and very specific genres of art and scholarship, which were named Orientalist long before Said– they’ve taken Said and applied him to any sort of encounter between anyone or anything from a Third World culture and anyone from the so-called West. In fact, Said’s Orientalism– as he himself was the first to say– doesn’t translate into the Western experience of China or India– let alone Latin America or anywhere else.
There is this academic conflation of economic realities and the arts. If Ezra Pound puts Chinese characters in the Cantos, it’s not the same as running a sneaker factory in Indonesia. Intellectual curiosity is not economic exploitation.
Q: So you think it’s more the academy that has a problem with this so-called exoticism than actual artists and writers?
EW: Well it’s hard to draw the line these days between the academy and actual artists. In the academy, identity politics has replaced any kind of politics known to the rest of the world. So they’ve invented this idea of authenticity: that one can only talk about where one is personally coming from, and only the people coming from a culture are able to talk with any authority about that culture at all. This strikes me as totally deadening in terms of imaginative literature, and also utterly unrealistic: Would you rely on any random American for a trenchant analysis of the USA?
Meaninglessness as a capitalist construct. The daily flood of trivia, applauded by such “radical” poets as Kenny G, has become a staple of our media, but it’s not just fluff that gets dished up daily, and here lies the real insidiousness. Presenting in a rapid, endless succession, scandal, fried chicken, bullshit, bombs, boobs, earthquake, four wheel drive, waterboarding, singing contest, actually a pretty good documentary on the Irish in 19th century America, awesome breakfast burrito deal and more scandal, the media flatten everything and nothing sticks.
What to make of a poetry that constantly pivots away from itself? That invites nonsense, and when it creates meaning, refuses to let it linger? What of a poetry that does not allow significance its proper duration? That shuns context, in sum, a poetry that imitates television, especially cable TV with a remote control for accelerated derangement? Is this poetry radical, complicit or merely inevitable due to the neurological damages inflicted by said apparatus?
Dissidence as entertainment. We’ve been there for a while, haven’t we? At the biggest corporate bash of the year, the Who earnestly belted out “We don’t get fooled again,” yet no one guffawed and spat out their nachos. At a White House soirée, grizzled peaceniks Joan Baez and Bob Dylan performed for our bankster-funded (and yet another) war president. Before strumming, Queen Jane even gazed at Obama and cooed, “Mr. President, you are much loved.”Meet the new boss, same as the old boss is right.
-- Linh Dinh