While going through some old files on my computer this morning I came across a file I had saved with a collection of graphic illustrations of differences between “Eastern” and “Western” culture. Drawn a few years back by a Chinese artist named Yang Liu in Germany, some of them are very humorous and thoughtfully executed. For folks who have experience crossing the differences between, say, China and Europe or the US, some of the images certainly seem to capture something useful. They seem to express some kind of truth.
Yet, I saved the collection of Liu’s images because they trouble me in an interesting way—like all crude essentializations they assert as much as they seem to reflect. From what I can tell in write-ups on the web, it seems that Liu was interested in something anthropological—attempting to capture some kind of basic essence of culture.
This kind of simplistic dualism is exactly what anthropologists work to resist. We deal in nuance, detail and context. Whether we articulate it or not, most operate from the fundamental observation that there is at least as much diversity within so-called cultural groups as there is between them. Of course, I am not speaking in numerical terms, this isn’t about statistics. What the majority of a group does is not as interesting as how differences within and between groups are negotiated, maintained and transformed. Those are the real fascinating questions.
What is anthropological about these, ironically, are not the contents of the graphics themselves but the form and practice of their material creation and dissemination. The genre of the infographic has emerged in the digital design age with the promise of delivering short, punchy truths that can be easily disseminated and shared. Liu’s choice of this form is significant, the easily disseminated images efficiently spread the message of essential difference. They make for great slideshows and Powerpoint™ presentations. Amid the disorientation of “globalization” they offer black and white (or rather blue and red) clarity. They are part of the practice of creating the idea of the essential differences they determine.
A full list of Liu’s images are in this PDF.