In Germany they speak German and in China they speak Chinese. You can have romantic fantasies about how languages and countries are superior or inferior to your own. Or you can just see them as different – with their own advantages and disadvantages. I feel the same about technology. I have become a digital professor, using Powerpoint and the Internet instead of slides, despite the fact that I still have 15 linear feet of slide notebooks at home. In 1994 you used slides and in 2007 you use Powerpoint. You can have romantic fantasies about how these media are superior or inferior to each other. Or you can just see them as different.
There is a gulf, a chasm that we have all crossed, and we can call it modernity. We crossed it the moment we left tribal, village-based society, handicrafts and oral folklore and joined global, interconnected society, industry and mass media. Modernity has a lot of cohorts, conditions that accompany that transition. One is the impulse to preserve the pre-industrial, pre-Modern past. Another is Romanticism, that wistful apprehension of times and places removed and thus desirable. So we see the past and foreign countries through a romantic lens, believing they have something we have lost. Hence David Lowenthal said the Past is a Foreign Country.
Another cohort of Modernity is the idea of progressive history – that funny idea that things get better over time. This is a nearly indisputable article of faith among all of us, and in certain aspects – notably medicine since 1850 – it is pretty hard to dispute. But the idea of Progress is Romantic by association, and thus somewhat wistful and wishful.
My Powerpoint wasn’t working today so I used some slides. There is a virus in the lab computers. I like Powerpoint, not because it is better than slides – it is certainly not faster – but because it is different. And portable. Some things are easier, some are harder. It is less Progress than fashion – you get tired of the same clothes or haircut after a few years so you change – not because it is better, but because it is different.
Traditional societies have a circular view of time, even highly organized ones like the Khmer with their Vedic epochs and the Maya with their circular calendars had an apprehension of the passage of time that had nothing to do with improvement, or if it did, it was circular, with golden ages followed by dark ages ad infinitum.
The disillusion with Progress that characterized the last third of the 20th century gave birth to this idea of difference – no judgment, no hierarchy, no superiority. Like the idea of Progress, this has had very felicitous aspects, notably calls for diversity, racial and ethnic tolerance, although arguably these redressed grievances caused by an earlier phase of Modernity, when the idea of the nation and the people was crafted in the 18th century Enlightenment. Lowenthal has written extensively on this trend, a succession of presidents and popes apologizing for slavery, racism, colonialism and the like. He observes our current identification with the oppressed, the marginalized and the historically wronged and concludes “heritage increasingly belongs to the losers. Even victors now aspire to a legacy of defeat.”
There is no preservation without progress and there is no diversity without difference; the legacy of colonizations both macro and micro. 300 years ago we created that difference in order to exploit it and today we exploit that difference in order to perpetuate it. Our identities are all bound up in ideas of heritage that seem timeless but are in fact completely timebound and timecrafted and rarely more than a generation old in their everyday.
But the more you travel to foreign countries and the past the less exotic they seem, the less different. Their romantic allure dissipates like fog and the bus in Kyiv becomes just a bus, although in my memory it is a magical bus of sparkling interactions as I make change in this exotic new language amid a whorling disorienting darkness. I treasure that romantic memory, even though in the cold light of day I know it is no more than the precondition for the tumors of nostalgia.