In a recent blog post, my colleague, Mike Altman, makes a crucial point; after quoting a site that describes early European scholarship on Buddhism as being based on earlier “misconceptions, he writes:
This is a crucial point because it makes evident that everything is historical and thus a work in progress, even the efforts to authorize some particular item as being the source, the origin, the norm — i.e., that which is magically exempt from itself being a work in progress and the standard against which we compare all comers.
For the language of misconception — as if some descriptions are better, more accurate, rather than seeing them all as supportive of certain interests over others, some viewpoints and not others, some of which I’m sure we have sympathies for… — plays nicely into what our other colleague, Steven Ramey, named playing the game of “accidental favorites” (though I’m not sure it is always an accident…): the manner in which scholars’ descriptions of the world often re-authorizes one particular norm as if it is legitimately representative of some group, as if all others either derive or deviate from it.
I see a lot of this in post-colonial scholarship, where we critique earlier European writers for their imperfect portrait of this or that world religion or culture; but it’s not as if the early colonialists were wrong in their descriptions of this or that local practice. Instead, their descriptions served ends other than those the modern scholars wish serve or the voices they may wish to empower today — 19th century ends with which many today likely disagree. And they secure that disagreement, authorize their current position, by representing their own interpretations as timeless, interest-free while all others are — you got it — “misconceptions.”
Funny thing is, though, that we easily hear the condescension if someone leans over to us and says, “You’re so confused…” but not when someone talks about other people’s “misconceptions”…