Continuing on the topic of Denise Green’s Metonymy

One of the seminal influences on Green’s view of art is A. K. Ramanujan. In his essay, “Is there an Indian way of thinking?” Ramanujan discusses the differences that exist between European and Indian approaches to reality. Several of his comments suggest parallels between Indian and aboriginal points of view:

Contrary to the notion that Indians are ‘spiritual’, they are really ‘material minded.’ They are materialists, believers in substance: there is a continuity, a constant flow of substance from context to object, from non-self to self (if you prefer)–in eating, breathing, sex, sensation, perception, thought, art, or religious experience…in Indian medical texts, the body is a meeting-place, a conjunction of elements; they have a physiology, but no anatomy.

Ramanujan also references another of Green’s key influencers, psychoanlayst Alan Roland (and author of In search of the self in India and Japan: toward a cross-cultural psychology.) Roland suggests that “Indians carry their family-context wherever they go, feel continuous with their family.” He posits that Indians develop a “‘radar’ conscience that orients them to others, makes them say things that are appropriate to person and context.”

Ramanujan et al see the advantage of an approach that is not trapped by an objectivity that makes distinctions between the self and the non-self, from interior and exterior. As a linguist, Ramanujan borrows from grammarian formulations to describe these differences as context-free and context-sensitive. “I think cultures…have overall tendencies (for whatever complex reasons)–tendencies to idealise, and think in terms of, either the context-free or the context-sensitive kinds of rules. Actual behavior may be more complex, though the rules they think with are a crucial factor in guiding the behaviour. In cultures like India’s, the context-sensitive kind of rule is the preferred formulation.”

That distinction plays out in forms of artistic expression. The western opposition of nature and culture is a culture-bound construct, and it does not make sense in an Indian context. “There is another alternative to a culture vs. nature view…culture is enclosed in nature, nature is reworked in culture, so that we cannot tell the difference. We have a nature-culture continuum…” Ramanujan sees examples of these container-contained relations in culture/nature as well as god/world, king/kingdom, devotee/god, mother/child.

This reframing is powerful in relation to viewing aboriginal art as well. The distinctions that Ramanujan brings to the Indian outlook have many parallels in other non-western cultures, and shifting our view to accommodate those distinctions opens up a whole new set of concerns, opportunities, insights.