“Enlarge the Temple”: An Interview with Charles Altieri (An Excerpt)
“拓展庙宇” —— 查尔斯 · 阿尔提艾瑞教授访谈 （ 节选）
Interviewee: A—Charles Altieri, Professor of English at University of California, US.
Interviewer: Z—Zhang Yuejun, Professor of English at Central South University, China.
Z: Some Chinese scholars say we had modern views on language long ago. There are two Chinese expressions on this point, one of which has it that the word cannot fully display the meaning and the other says the words fails to express itself. This seems to be fairly supportive to Derrida, for instance. However, it is considered highly ironical that one has to express oneself with words despite the inability of the words to express anything.
A: No, it is not that words fail to express anything. The claim is that words fail to express the specific intentions behind them.
Z: You mean ...
A: I mean in general if I want to say something, my words can obviously have other meanings for other people. Derrida says that is not just an accident but it is the nature of language itself.
Z: The figurative quality of language makes an imposing burden for the reader, in the sense that the reader has to cooperate with the writer in the generation of meanings.
A: Well, reader response is really not about the nature of language in relation to multiple meanings. Reader response is a particular way of claiming that meaning is primarily in individual response—which I think is dead wrong. It discounts any sense that pursuing an authorial intention is a way to break from the fixities of self and to see new possibilities for interpreting experience.
Z: Cultural studies seem to be a mosaic or a melting pot, a combination of the past studies focusing on gender, ethical, political and ethical orientations. Do you have the same feeling?
A: I think mosaic is a better term than “melting pot.” Melting pot is probably accurate, but people don’t experience it that way. I mean they experience it as a set of choices that are possible for doing critical work. So individual people don’t feel in a melting pot, they feel they select something from the pot.
Z: What’s your understanding of cultural identity? In the increasing trend of globalization, features of some particular groups are dissolved when they try to merge into the mainstream by escaping from the marginal status.
A: There is a sense of loss, but I think some version of this merging is what most people want. We enjoy in the day working in the metropolis economy and at night feeling ourselves merging with a local sense of identity, but being cool enough to have various other kinds of friends. But then we have to admit that we can’t go completely home again even though you sort of partially want to. So globalization is more powerful than people think it is.
Z: Yeah, but people may feel differently about issues like this. This is an issue intellectuals in the third world like from China are very much concerned with. They are quite worried about the possibility of losing their voices. I guess this is happening in America as well: people like Said, Baba and Spivak come from other backgrounds and they strive to merge into the mainstream.
A: They were never really in the third world and they’ve done powerful defenses of their differences from the mainstream. You know Said’s father was a diplomat or something. He later in his life realized he could speak for the Palestinians as a political group, but couldn’t really be their substantial speaker because he never had that kind of life. He wouldn’t want to. America doesn’t have those substantial traditional values the way China does, but they have traditional political values and people do worry a great deal about being faithful to those. If you’ve been formed in traditional values you probably will not lose them entirely if you enter into the global world? But it’s true that if you are a child and have not learned at all, more often you’ll passively accept things but we’re talking about intellectuals who are mature in choosing their positions.
Z: You mean one doesn’t have to worry so much.
A: I think that is right. There are a lot of ugly things about the contemporary world, but that ugliness is connected with much that is desirable and beneficial. Yet I do recognize how many young people in China seem to grow insensitive in their pursuit of material goods.
Z: Actually they’re echoing or they’re just imagining living the American lifestyle. People say that globalization or westernization is merely Americanization and America is behaving like the world cop.
A: Oh, I think it’s true. America is not a sensitive country aware of what is going on in and to other cultures. And it is painful to me how many people are learning to like to play American.
Z: They say one way but act the other.
A: For example?
Z: For example, some people study in America and say they don’t like it but they’re actually enjoying and benefiting from it.
A: Oh, I see. That makes perfect sense.
Z: One more question. Nowadays in China because of the increasing trend of market orientation, university students are losing interests in the humanities and they are unlikely to attend relevant courses. What is the situation like in the US? Are the literary canons still cores of university curricula?
A: For the most part in the US literary canons are not the cores of university criteria. There is just a market place for competing values. And the tide may be turning in the US. For twenty years at least the humanities have suffered but some students at least seem to be realizing that making money does not produce happiness or a mind that can satisfy itself with its own capacities for engaging different aspects of the world.