Saturday, February 20, 2010

Viewing the World through Interpretative Lenses

How we understand the world is shaped by interpretative lenses which we may or may not be aware that we're wearing. Tumperkin recently observed that
What fascinates about vintage romance is that you read the 'timeless' romance trope through a different lens. [...] Some might say that the lens shouldn't be there because 'good' writing is timeless. I don't buy that. Author world-view/ outlook inevitably creeps in. Whatever the POV situation with the characters, that author lens is there in some form, an almost invisible thing that is nevertheless present, like a ghost.
Xandra Gregory, on the other hand, has stressed the "universal" aspect of "human truths" to be found in romances:
When I write, and when I read, I look for human truths behind the stories. And those human truths can wear skin of all colors, engage in emotional and sexual attachments of widely varied persuasions, and if the author has done his or her job correctly, the human truths will come out and be understood as universal.
So, are there "universal" truths? Or are some lenses so strong they make us see things very, very differently from the way other people see them? Well, as you might expect given the existence of interpretative lenses, there isn't any agreement on that. Lonner, however, outlines three different sets of lenses through which one might look while trying to answer the question:
perniciously ethnocentric, is the absolutistic map of the world--the belief that laws of human behavior, wherever they may be established, transcend cultures. In its extreme form absolutism would contend that human "cultures" constitute nothing more than a thin veneer that just barely mask a broad spectrum of universal laws governing thought and behavior. The obverse of this view is the doctrine of radical relativism. Relativists believe that behavior and thought can only be understood in the intricate context of specific ecocultural systems. Radical relativists hold the view that everything about the human condition is based on the social constructionist argument that mind and culture make each other up, and that the pattern is never repeated. Consequently, they would argue, it is impossible to make comparisons across cultures. [...] Not surprisingly, most cross-cultural psychologists tend to find comfort in the middle or compromise position of universalism--the a priori belief that there is considerable continuity in all human thought and behavior, and also the conviction that culture plays an enormously important moderating or mediating role in most domains of psychology. Indeed, it could be argued that culture is antecedent to all thought and behavior.
What we believe (or don't believe) about "universal laws" and "continuity in all human thought and behavior" is likely to shape our views of human relationships, and the depiction of them, around the world (and throughout the ages). Given the fact that romance scholarship is an international phenomenon which takes as its subject texts and other materials created by individuals from many different cultures, I think it might be worth looking at what conclusions these three different perspectives might reach about love and intimacy. Adamopoulos and Lonner offer a "plausible theoretical analysis of intimacy from each perspective" (132):
An Absolutist Perspective on Intimacy

The basic ingredient of this approach is, of course, reductionism, that is, an emphasis on reducing a natural phenomenon to its most basic, and, ideally, essential components. By observing many people in North America, with different personalities, interests, and value systems, researchers in this area have concluded that a key process in the experience of intimacy is mutually rewarding self-disclosure. That means that intimacy often involves, among other things, the closeness that people feel when they reveal very private thoughts to others, and learn what others feel and think about highly personal issues. [...]

A Relativist Perspective on Intimacy

[...] relativists object to the reductionism that is employed by researchers who believe that it is possible to isolate a psychological process from the particular circumstances that surround its occurrence.
A relativist account of this process might, for example, point to various cultures where intimate relationships (e.g., marriages) are arranged by the families of the people involved, and where the interaction of the two persons is constantly guided by convention and cultural norms that prohibit a great deal of disclosure of deep feelings between mates. In the Western world, such interaction may appear to lack sponteneity, and even intimacy, considering the description provided earlier. Yet, are we prepared to say that people in cultures that restrict self-disclosure are not capable of experiencing intimacy? [...] In fact, there is considerable historical evidence suggesting that feelings toward a member of one's family, in Homer's time, were not as personalized as they are today in the Western world. Instead, people often experienced a more "collective" love, that incorporated feelings toward a particular person, and feelings toward one's whole household (or oikos, in Ancient Greek). [...]

A Universalist Perspective on Intimacy

Many psychologists who are interested in the search for universal processes, yet are sensitive to the importance of cultural context, would begin by noting that the notion of intimacy appears in many cultures in one form or another. For example, most cultures have some concept of friendship, interpersonal closeness, and love. While acknowledging that the context in which these notions appear is crucial, a universalist approach would attempt to identify common elements associated with the experience of intimacy. (132-33)
After the first conference of the International Association for the Study of Popular Romance, Sarah Frantz commented on some of the implications of the word "International" in the association's name:
The conference, with presenters from India, New Zealand, Australia, South Korea, Indonesia, Italy, China, the US, and of course, Australia, taught us that Popular Romance Studies is and should be a truly international pursuit. In learning the universality of popular romance, though, it teaches us to be very specific about the historical, social, and national culture of the text under consideration. [...]

The conference also taught us to be aware of cultural definitions of romance. The American middle-class definition requires a happy ending, but other cultural versions of romance might not. It is important to be conscious of our own historical, social, and national cultures, as well as aware of those in the texts we study.
Amy Lee, for example, suggests that Kong Kong's "cultural identity" can be "traced through the development of its most popular genre of reading - the romance novel" (174) and she writes that
the way Sung characterized Yi Da's writing provides good insight into the psychology of the readers in the 1960s. He summarized Yi Da's works into the following features: stereotypical characters, standard occasions of how boy meets girl, how boy betrays girl, and how the girl's mother is always there to receive the fallen girl with open arms. (183)
Even in a single society there may be more than one "cultural context" and there is evidence which suggests that people's "cultural context" and interpretative lenses shape how they respond to scientific findings: "a growing body of work has suggested that ordinary citizens react to scientific evidence on societal risks" by endorsing "whichever position reinforces their connection to others with whom they share important commitments" (Kahan 296). Dan Kahan and his colleagues named the "process that [...] account[s] for this distinctive form of polarization [...] ‘cultural cognition’. Cultural cognition refers to the influence of group values — ones relating to equality and authority, individualism and community — on risk perceptions and related beliefs" (296). They suggest that this
is a major cause of political conflict over the credibility of scientific data on climate change and other environmental risks. People with individualistic values, who prize personal initiative, and those with hierarchical values, who respect authority, tend to dismiss evidence of environmental risks, because the widespread acceptance of such evidence would lead to restrictions on commerce and industry, activities they admire. By contrast, people who subscribe to more egalitarian and communitarian values are suspicious of commerce and industry, which they see as sources of unjust disparity. They are thus more inclined to believe that such activities pose unacceptable risks and should be restricted. (296)
The relevance of this to romance is that romance readers, too, differ in terms of the lenses we use when reading. Furthermore, romance readers have been studied by researchers, and both the ways in which those results were obtained, and the ways in which those results have been received and understood by others, are likely to have been shaped by the lenses worn by both the researchers and those reading their findings. Over the next few weeks I hope to post about some of those different perspectives on the genre and its readers in analysis/ reviews of

[Edited to add: Before posting about those, I took the opportunity to post a few recent links to items which shed some light on the way that different cultural or social positions may shape responses to romance.]

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