Thursday, June 18, 2009

Blogosphere: Please help me decipher this line

From an article by John Lahr on British comedian Steve Coogan from the Nov. 5, 2007 issue of The New Yorker:

"Coogan's humor often trades on the almost Oriental complexity of the British class system" [emphasis inserted by me]

WTF??? "Oriental" complexity? I have NO IDEA what that means. And what does it have to do with the British class system? Seriously, I'm stumped on this one. It all sounds vaguely racist, but more to the point, it just sounds like a bunch of nonsense, meaning I can make NO SENSE out of this sentence.


T said...

Howdy, I've heard Oriental as a shorthand for complicated, that comparison to Chinese boxes, or sometimes more often today heard as Byzantine. No doubt referring to somebody's idea of what the "inscrutable east" presents to a "straightforward" eurocentric.

Jennifer said...

I think you are right--that it's supposed to refer to some "additional" or "extra" type of complexity. But then (and I know I'm being uber-pedantic) if you go back to the original quote, it's basically this odd repetition of "complexity" to say "Oriental complexity"--why not just say "Oriental?" I am, of course, in no way endorsing the use of the word "Oriental" in this way, because no matter how you break it down you start to get at the racist roots. Still, from a purely grammatical level, this seems to be both an oddly constructed sentence AND unnecessarily drawing ethnic comparisons AND just plain convoluted.

ralph said...

i think it's could be about class structure; saying that British and "Oriental" class systems are both more complex than "other" systems (ie: the "egalitarian" US or French systems, in comparison). In a way, I think you could make an argument that there is an overtly complex class structure in some east asian contexts (i'd argue that western class structures tend to be as defined, but less overt)

vietnamese, for example, has 16 forms of you and I: meeting a new person means assessing age, gender, position in the social hierarchy etc.. before actually saying "hello". you don't want to end up below someone you shouldn't be below on the hierarchy; that imposes obligation; by the same token, you need to make sure that you're not taking liberties with courtesy.

To say the Brits had an "almost Oriental complexity" to their system could be in reference to a system like the one above... that would be my reading of it, off the bat.

But on reread, it could just as easily (perhaps more easily) fit with T's comment above.

mama d said...

Perhaps he is trying to say what many have suspected all along: Buckingham Palace is filled with eunuchs. Racist eunuchs.

Jennifer said...

Thanks for your lengthy comment--you may indeed be on to something regarding complex class structures, although Mama D's comment made me crack up in its simplicity. Racist Eunchs!