Harvesting misunderstanding

Every misunderstanding implies there is also an understanding. But what if understanding is only an illusion?

by Tino Mantarro

Culture 02 November 2020

For centuries, philosophers, logicians, and linguists have tried to answer the legitimate question, “Why can’t we understand each other?” According to the anthropologist Franco La Cecla, professor of visual anthropology at Nuova Accademia di Belle Arti (NABA) in Milan, “While philosophers took their time seeking an answer that they have not yet found, in the real world, the one with cultural and social practices, people have managed just fine even if they didn’t understand each other, because, although we are indeed all the victims of misunderstandings, it doesn’t stop us from talking to each other.” La Cecla is the author of Il Malinteso (The Misunderstanding), in which he reveals how positive and creative misunderstanding has been throughout human history.

Even Charles Baudelaire, in Mon cœur mis à nu (My heart laid bare,) wrote: “It is by universal misunderstanding that all agree. For if, by ill luck, people understood each other, they would never agree.”

For La Cecla, as for Baudelaire, misunderstanding, being a constant in human relationships, is not a passing stumbling block along the bright path of comprehension but rather represents the engine that drives the evolution of connections among different cultures. “Far from being an instrument that creates conflict, that in the long run no person and no society can sustain, misunderstanding is an instrument that aids coexistence and tolerance among people and cultures that are too different to understand each other. An instrument that, when manifesting itself on a battlefield of confrontation, becomes an engine of evolution that generates not a synthesis, but a totally new reality,” La Cecla explains.

Of course, that misunderstanding can be the engine of cultural evolution might seem counterintuitive: If we haven’t even understood each other, you could say, how can we hope to progress together to give life to something new? “This objection stems from a mere illusion, the illusion that two people can really understand each other, let alone two cultures. According to the French philosopher Vladimir Jankelevitch, in every human relationship there is an ‘almost-nothing,’ a nuance which has something to do with the intimate nodules of identity, which are never entirely comprehensible to the other.” This nuance generates misunderstanding. There is no point in saying, “if we had talked more, we would have understood the problem,” because it is not a matter of a lack of communication that can be improved by dedication and willingness, but rather a true “design flaw.”

“The same goes for cultures. There are untranslatable differences between one culture and another, just as there is always something that is untranslatable from one language to another. This is because cultures are unfathomable and immense: You can lay them side by side, but they never match up, they don’t fit perfectly. Despite all our efforts, despite the falsely egalitarian myth that integration is possible at all costs, misunderstandings between cultures cannot be eliminated.” There are obviously different types of misunderstandings; there are misunderstandings that lead to breakups, but they are not the majority. In life, most of the time, misunderstandings are dealt with. “We could call it an accepted superficiality: it is not important to reach deeply into the other, but to manage relationships so that we can get along,” continues the anthropologist.

So if the misunderstandings can’t be eliminated, it seems safe to say it is worth accepting the fact that we will never fully understand one another, and avoid all encounters. “Or else,” says La Cecla, “accept it as a fact of life and go ahead anyway. We anthropologists may have many defects but also a virtue: we are pragmatic. We look at reality and start from there, not least because the object of anthropology, i.e., cultures, are, in turn, absolutely pragmatic: They do not follow rules and attempt to escape those that are. They are living entities seeking their own evolutionary path. Contrary to what Claude Lévi-Strauss believed, cultures are not ‘cold’ entities, with immobile traits, they are very ‘hot’ instead. People, and the cultures they belong to, are fluid entities, their identities mutate continuously, they adapt to situations, to encounters, to forced change. This is the most interesting aspect and must always be kept in mind. Sure, we mourn because seven languages die in a day, but at the same time, another seven are born somewhere else. It’s just that we find it difficult to realize it.”

In what context are these new languages born? “They come from a terrain made fertile by misunderstanding. It must be clear that despite continual misunderstandings, both people and cultures continue to have relationships and connections. We are forced to confront each other and carry on, we can’t fool ourselves into believing that we can shut ourselves up in our own paddock and live without our neighbors. Such a choice would be sterile; it would lead to nothing.” We only have to glance back at history: cultures meet, even when they clash. “In doing so, they are not following rules from above, nor are they following a moral code. Nor do they need to follow the logic of politics, with its rigidity and premeditated actions. Rather, anthropology teaches us that cultures go ahead on their own, they elastically find informal agreements with each other based on what could be called day-to-day etiquette, common courtesy,” La Cecla says.

In practice, the different societies create their own forms of regulation of mutual relations, they set themselves unwritten but substantial rules in order to be able to live together: non-rigid rules that work well. “They are situations based on a superficial history of cases, with the experience of day-to-day relationships, that enable people to not fight continuously. The place where this agreement is reached is the same field of action where misunderstandings arise. What is more, the agreement is closely linked to the misunderstanding, because it creates a sort of necessary buffer zone that protects us from reaching the point of conflict, so we can stand side by side without getting hurt.”

In La Forma Bruta, Martin Bollati questions the validity of human history and the foundations of our knowledge. His images create a study of the past that may generate possibilities of other futures, activating dormant stories, and understanding that history has the power to change the present.

It is a blurry area that has, according to La Cecla, over the centuries, had many different manifestations, including spatial, involving specific areas, or, in certain eras, entire cities. At first sight, the main locations for misunderstandings would appear to be borders. A“border,” however, is a vast concept: There are more than national borders. There are, and always have been, borders between cultures and even within cities and neighborhoods. “A border is a place of misunderstanding, a place that can be both attractive and repulsive. People meet, and curiosity prevails, but clearly, the opposite can also occur. We have seen this frequently: Border areas are characterized by isolation and hostility, all contributing to magnifying misunderstandings, especially when politics come into play. However, when cultures are left to interact freely, well, then, a border becomes permeable, it becomes a place of exchange.” This is also true of situations that the popular mind struggles to think of as places of exchange.

Such as the case of the ghettos where Jews were segregated more than five centuries ago. “It may seem like a paradox—or a misunderstanding, in fact. For centuries, the Jewish ghettos, especially in Italy, had a dual purpose, internal and external. The community took advantage of its isolation to find its own identity, to close its ranks, and also visually reaffirm its presence. So, over the years, several historians have reinterpreted the symbol of segregation as a means to defend the community. Not only: by doing so the groups (the Jews, but also the Chinese in San Francisco or the Italians in New York) stopped being invisible, as often happens to the migrant communities of our contemporary cities, where there is the tendency to dilute the other one to hide it. In those situations, they stopped hiding and even established a different relationship with the city: They closed themselves in to be able to be more open. An opening that became culturally fertile.”

This is what tended to happen in many European cities—places that are real links among different cultures. Cities like Sarajevo, Thessaloniki, Trieste, and Alexandria prospered precisely because they were based on a balance of cultures which perhaps didn’t truly understand each other, that based their relations on misunderstandings, but that in the end not only tolerated each other but created fertile places for cultural and social evolution. Open places that 20th-century nationalism swept away. “Nowadays, all this is more complicated: In daily practice, people handle relationships differently. And above all, there is a marked exasperation, a continuous attempt to overpower, to convince others to integrate at any cost. In world cities, which instead were truly cosmopolitan, there was no such pattern. It was a problem they didn’t even consider: The other was left to do its own thing,” La Cecla explains.

It was right here, in this territory of misunderstanding that encounters occurred, the continuous negotiation that led to the spontaneous creation of something new. “These cities, like the colonial cities or those of immigration around the planet (like San Francisco, for example) were wonderful meeting grounds, full of misunderstandings, but also great places for blending together. All this used to happen in areas where it was simple to come into contact with each other, because they were places of immediate comprehension for everyone involved, regardless of their culture of origin. I am thinking of music, or cooking, two of the cultural areas where changes initiated by misunderstanding manifest themselves first because it doesn’t take too much contemplation, just tasting.” In these ‘everyday’ areas, where theoretical elaboration is non-existent, the creative laboratory is always open, and new realities are generated. “Food and cooking, with their everyday and necessary nature, are the most accessible thresholds of a culture. The lowest border wall, and for this reason, the first to be knocked down or crossed. Because eating other people’s cuisines—whether from a distant country or, as we see in Italy, from the next region or town over, represents the first crossing of the threshold, through tasting,” La Cecla says.

“Cuisine thus becomes a translation zone between cultures, a translation that takes place through taste. When I taste something, I can love it or dislike what I am experiencing, I can understand it based on the scale of flavors of my culture, or loathe it. This is an initial relationship, and most of the time it generates misunderstanding as it is normal, because taste is also culturally determined, and is not universal.” Take spicy hot, for example. What for us, might be very hot, isn’t spicy at all for a Mexican person who is used to jalapeños, or for a Chinese person from Sichuan who is used to their black pepper. So, in a hypothetical encounter at a restaurant, if we ask a Mexican waiter, “How hot is this?” He might answer: “Medium, just a bit spicy.” Our mouths, though, might be in flames, creating an unfortunate experience of misunderstanding.

Yet, in the long run, this misunderstanding could be overcome, both because I can adapt to different tastes, and because, above all, the Mexican restaurateur will try to meet customers’ needs, adapting traditional dishes to local palates. Is this a betrayal of authenticity or the creation of a new reality, and therefore a culinary evolution? “The various ethnic restaurants around the world represent the true threshold of our culinary encounters. In general, they are all the offspring of misunderstandings, which soon mutate into understandings.” In a sense, for economic reasons, they adapt the cuisine of their homeland to the tastes and habits of the places where they have transplanted themselves. The initial misunderstanding has within itself the seed of its own overcoming. People appropriate other people’s cultures, adapting them to their needs, transforming them into new cultural icons, in a continuous process of invention and reinvention. In these cases, the origins lose their importance: Who cares if the basic elements of pasta, the identifying dish par excellence of Italy, come from other continents and from other cultures. Italian culture appropriated it, making something new out of those elements. Just as today in an Italo-American restaurant, perhaps managed by Slovakians or Puerto Ricans, someone is cooking Fettuccine Alfredo: An example of a spurious dish that has nothing to do with the original, which was born out of a misunderstanding, but nevertheless exists, is ordered and is eaten.

From La Forma Bruta by Martin Bollati.

“The interesting feature about cultural exchange dynamics, is that he who appeared to be a loser, the party destined to succumb because he was poorer and subjugated to those in power, becomes, perhaps not a winner, but manages to better develop something that is decidedly new with greater promptness and inventive ability,” continues La Cecla. “Something that takes possession of elements from all cultures, because people aren’t victims of their cultures, rather they wear them. And in most cases, they are ready to transform them.” Thanks to misunderstanding, not only does the old change, but above all, the new is born. “Intermediate zones are created which act as a testing ground for the encounter, for a new start. So, from the initial ‘not understanding each other,’ a fruitful confrontation develops, which leads to something different, where everyone remains themselves, but also internalizes something of the other. This process has many possible definitions in anthropology: creolity, syncretism, hybridization.” Concepts that are, in many ways, interchangeable and go hand in hand with contamination, an ancient practice that doesn’t require total comprehension or translation. “Everyone takes what they need, chews it, and makes it their own, stealing or simply borrowing. The result is a product that is a sloppy translation, full of slip-ups and misunderstandings, but still original.” A product that is a new step in evolution, more material to add to the eternal circuit of creative misunderstandings that animate our dynamic societies, our journeying cultures. With the certainty that only complete outsiders can really educate us.