A few weeks ago, a bunch of my older students from classes past started their secondary-education student teaching, and so I decided to try and write something that might be useful for them. This blog post will attempt a fun and practical distillation of my advice for teachers, based on personal experience, with a bit of theory about ethics thrown in. In a nutshell, my advice is rather simple — a question of priorities. In order, my priorities are these:
(1) care for yourself
(2) care for your students
(3) care for your subject
This might seem pretty simple and obvious in the abstract, but in practice it’s not. Once upon a time, the subject matter was perceived to be priority number one, and even now, as everyone knows, a mastery of the subject is the primary goal of all the testing that the controversial No Child Left Behind Act mandated in 2001. And back in the olden days — before such things as computers, information highways, and even regular concrete interstate highways — classroom pedagogy tended to be centered around the lecture. Against this lecture model, starting in the 1960s and 70s a variety of social and intellectual movements (including Paolo Friere’s famous Pedagogy of the Oppressed) prompted educators to imagine a more “learner-centered” approach to teaching. The learner-centered approach encourages students to take an active role in their own education and also stresses that people learn better by actively doing and creating than they do by passively consuming and regurgitating information. These days the learner-centered approach is pretty common, but it wasn’t always. So, we can see a movement from the priority being the subject to the priority being the student. But why I am suggesting that the priority should actually be the teacher?
Let me put it in practical, common-sense terms before I start bringing in the theory and reflecting on ethics. I’ll start with the bottom priority and work my way up. You ought to care about your subject. If you don’t, then you’ll be bored and so will the students. (This, by the way, is one of the problems of the No Child Left Behind Act, because its definition of what should be tested and how skills should be measured is so narrow and dreary.) So choose subjects that you personally think are interesting and worthwhile, not subjects that others think are interesting and worthwhile. And if you don’t have full control over your subject matter and find yourself having to teach things that the government, parent-teacher association, or school principal thinks are important, then find ways to relate what you have to teach to the stuff you really care about and love (or at least find amusing.)
But what’s more important is to care about the students. After all, it’s their education, right? Why should they be learning this stuff? If students suspect that you don’t like them, then they are less likely to learn from you no matter how much you care about the subject. (And this is doubly true if the subject you are teaching is politically controversial, e.g., the subject of teaching itself.) And sometimes something as simple as a smile or a laugh can go a long way. Students need to know that you are on their side even if they are wrong about something or if they are making some bad decisions or if they are pissing you off. And they especially need to know this if you happen to disagree with them about something reasonable people can disagree about (e.g., whether a senator or a short story is any good.) And really, you should be on their side, because it’s your job to help them learn and grow. Just because their personal qualities don’t coincide with your own expectations for the class doesn’t mean you can’t find pleasure in the qualities they do have. The students are more important than the class, after all.
However, if you are too much on their side, they will think they are the boss, when actually you are the boss. You are the one with a ton of knowledge at your disposal, not them. You are the one who has to answer to the principal of the school, not them. So, that’s why you should care about yourself most. And there’s an even more practical dimension as to why caring for yourself should be priority number one. If you are too tired and stressed out, then you won’t do as good of a job teaching. And if you get so stressed out that you start to get sick, then how is that good for the students? And if you are too worried about what the students think of you, how can you keep sight of what you know is right? (And the fact is, you never know what the students are really thinking.) So, get a good night’s sleep, exercise regularly, play sports, spend time with your family, hang out with your friends at a bar, watch a movie, make love to your significant other, write in your journal/blog… etc., etc…. In other words, do whatever you enjoy doing. If you don’t, you’ll start to hate your job and the students will sense that… and then…. Feh.
Easier said than done. It’s obviously easier to state these priorities than it is to actually juggle them. After all, preparing lessons and grading papers takes a lot of time, so it’s natural to prioritize finishing the work rather than (let’s say) working out at the gym or going to a movie with your friends. But if you don’t make time for yourself and insist on taking that time, then you’ll never have it, because the responsibilities of a teacher are endless. You can always devote more time to students, always make more of an effort to prepare for class, always learn more about your subject, always spend more time on students’ papers, always devote more time to your colleagues and the community around your school. It can feel overwhelming sometimes, and the giving of yourself to others can be exhausting. In fact, a common mistake many first-time teachers make (including myself) is over-preparing, and over-preparing often leads to frustrating disappointment if the meticulously planned lesson doesn’t go as planned. (And I am right now imagining my former students reading this paragraph and laughing, because they know that I don’t over-plan my lessons now!!!)
Now for the theory and ethics stuff. In the early 1980s, Michel Foucault explored different possibilities for what it might mean to be an ethical and free person in relation to the real world — in particular, check out his book The Care of the Self, his essay “Technologies of the Self,” and an interview “The Ethics of the Concern for the Self as a Practice of Freedom.” There, Foucault observed that the dominant tradition of Judeo-Christian ethics in particular and modern European ethics in general have tended to characterize virtue as caring for others. In this somewhat ascetic tradition, civic virtue and personal pleasure are understood as opposites unless one feels good about being selfless. Also in this tradition, philosophers have tended to emphasize ethical dilemmas or choices between conflicting obligations or between which good work is the most good. This sort of ethics is almost self-punishing in demanding that we reflect on our own worth and our decision-making ability, measured against some imaginary, idealized standard of transcendent excellence. And of course first-time teachers often agonize over whether the students like them or whether they are even learning anything. This agony is natural and common, and everyone feels it, but it is ultimately a dead end.
Foucault argues against the Judeo-Christian mandates to know thy self and attend to others as the starting point of ethics; instead, he suggests that care for oneself is a better starting point, and then knowledge of self and others will follow from a genuine and reflective practice of self care. Foucault rediscovers this lost tradition of self care in ancient Greek texts about ethics and government, such as the philosopher Xenophon who stated, “If you do not care for yourself you will make a poor ruler.” And for Foucault, this includes enjoying simple bodily pleasure, finding your source of empowerment, and using the technologies of self-government as a daily practice of freedom and ethics. Foucault goes further to argue that this self-empowerment is not just something that happens inside our souls. Rather, it is our relationship to technologies, tools, organizations, administrative bodies, social bodies, commercial businesses, etc., that will always channel our energies and regiment our lives. These technologies and social organizations can oppress us but they can also be resources of power and freedom. And for Foucault, the technologies and practices of self care include the technologies and practices of the body (e.g., the gym and sex). And hence, Foucault’s ethics differ greatly from the sort of ethics that emphasize a denial of the body’s desires and an examination of one’s soul or intellect. So, while ethics traditionally conceived emphasizes big choices and our interior, bodiless selves, Foucault’s ethics emphasizes the small habits of everyday life, the ways we care for and enjoy our bodies, and our access to the technologies and social networks that empower us both psychologically and materially. In other words, you don’t have to go it alone; there are other people and technologies that will help you. True ethics is not an individual act, but a social, cultural activity.
So, coming back to teaching, there’s always more to being a good teacher than the teaching itself. Take care of yourself. It’s not just your labor and good works that are valuable. You are valuable. To give an example, I know I became more confident in the classroom after I started exercising regularly. Is there a rational connection between jogging and teaching? No, of course not, but there it is. And incidentally Benjamin Franklin in his Autobiography strongly agrees with me and Foucault on this point. And I remember when I started teaching I would worry about whether students liked and respected me, but as Xenophon suggests, how could anyone respect a ruler who doesn’t take care of his or herself? How could anyone respect a teacher who has no life outside the classroom and no self respect? And how could students like a teacher who doesn’t like them back? And how could students like a teacher who doesn’t enjoy the subject?
Again, easier said than done.
What’s even better is when you can find lines of connection between what you enjoy (e.g., for me, writing this blog) and your job. This blog is a technology and a sort of playful fun space that helps me create myself and practice my writing, and I feel that it has made me a better teacher, a better writer, and a better person. One of the facts of life that Foucault (and also theorists Judith Butler and Simone de Beauvoir) helps us grapple with conceptually is that one is not born a teacher; rather, one gradually over time becomes a teacher. It usually takes a while; the first or second or even third year are not a true measure of the kind of teacher (or person) you might eventually become.
I want to reflect on the nature of political symbols and art, but before I do, I’m going to summarize a series of events that I’m sure all readers of this blog already know. On January 8th, in Tucson, Arizona, a man tried to assassinate representative Gabrielle Giffords, resulting in serious injury to her and the deaths of six others. Because she is a Democrat and the gunman appeared to ally himself with the Tea Party movement, the event was turned into a symbol after the media immediately asked whether Americans had lost the capacity for civil discourse and respectful, honest debate and whether this tragedy was not just the lunatic action of a self-appointed assassin but an effect or symptom of a broader cultural problem in America. Consequently, a tragedy that was very real for some became symbolically meaningful for the whole nation, as its symbolic meaning was contested and debated. Mainstream media and bloggers added fuel to the fire as the political Left and political Right accused each other of inflammatory, factually inaccurate, and irresponsible discourse that encouraged this sort of violence. In particular, the day after the incident, The Huffington Post observed [here] that Sarah Palin’s website had a map with gun sights targeting several politicians, including Giffords. Palin and other right-wing bloggers defended themselves (e.g., here and here.) Many Democrat and Republican politicians tried to reunite the country, rediscover common ground, and transcend the blame game — a moving example of that being President Obama’s speech [here] at the memorial service for the victims.
The obvious question for us students and teachers of cultural theory is a rather old question: are symbols such as the gun sights on Palin’s website causal of violence? Most have responded that no, blaming her website for that is like blaming heavy metal and rap music when a teenager has emotional problems. Others have suggested that we should read both the website and the tragedy as two separate cultural symptoms of the same underlying cultural problem. In any case, because this question of causality often leads to rather flimsy theoretical speculation, I’d rather think of other questions such as the more political question of how to move forward.
So, my specific question today is this: what can art do to transform a negative symbol into something more positive and productive?
And I ask this question in part because there are a number of separate events surrounding the tragedy that the media has paid less attention to. One of these is the Arizona government’s decision to ban any public school curriculum that includes focused study of any particular ethnic history [here]. Another is Fox News’s pundit Glenn Beck who has targeted not just politicians but also university professors [here]. Beck’s fans have made frequent death threats against one professor in particular, Dr. Frances Fox Piven. One organization is currently petitioning the Fox television network to be more responsible [here].
I was thinking of productive artful responses to all of this horrible stuff, and contrary to what most politicians are saying (including Obama), I don’t think we can simply all agree to be nice and civil all of a sudden, because the issues that divide us and the complex circumstances (especially the high unemployment rate) that feed this anger are real. What came to my mind during Martin Luther King day was the hip hop video “By the Time I Get to Arizona” by Public Enemy, released back in 1991 when I was a sophomore in college, about the Arizona governor’s refusal to honor the Martin Luther King day. One of the reasons this song came to my mind is that the university where I work did not honor Martin Luther King day this year, and I think it should have. Also, last year, Chuck D and other hip hop artists revisited that song in response to Arizona’s new immigration policies — see this interview with Chuck D and my post about the new songs.
The music video artfully juxtaposes actual scenes from King’s nonviolent civil rights movement with the violent fantasy of a militant revolt. The video goes back and forth between these two ideas as if to present us with an ethical dilemma — two options or two political strategies — the option of nonviolent civil discourse and the option of guerrilla warfare. The clever editing of the video several times places Chuck D in the scenes, as if to suggest that no matter where (or when) we are, he will be there as an angry witness to what is going on. The enraged lyrics [here] protest Arizona’s decision and denounces both political parties for not following through on the legacy of Martin Luther King. Back in the early 1990s, Public Enemy’s response disturbed many for seeming to imply that King’s principles of nonviolence were ineffective strategies (in part because the leaders of the civil rights movement were assassinated, as the video shows) and that a more militant approach is necessary if black people are to overcome the racist policies of the American government in the 1980s. In light of the tragedy in Tucson, this video might seem especially troubling since its expressions of rage and hostility seems vaguely similar to the rhetoric of some Tea Party members.
However, I don’t think fearfully reading their music video as a disturbing call for violence is a correct or useful reading. I really like the video for the same reason that I like all of Public Enemy’s art (and also the classic movie Do the Right Thing by Spike Lee, arguably one of the best movies ever made, which was also controversial at the time for the same reasons as Public Enemy’s music was controversial) — precisely because it artfully stages an ethical dilemma and conflicting ideas about who we are and who we want to become. I don’t think art can respond to a political problem by indulging fantasies of American unity and common ground in ways that avoid the immanent potential for political violence. One of the things Public Enemy has always done well is expose how racist ideologies continue to operate in American culture and in the mainstream media. Even Public Enemy’s name and its logo is meant to evoke the contradictions, as they celebrate themselves as dangerous and a threat to the established order at the same time that they demystify the racist ideology that assumes all black men are potentially dangerous and a threat to order. For example, it would be wrong to read their song “Don’t Believe the Hype” simply as a criticism of racial profiling just as it would be wrong to read it simply as a call to black militancy. The song suggests that the members of Public Enemy are both dangerous and not dangerous – they are both what white people fear them to be and not what white people fear them to be, both at the same time. Such is the beauty and complexity of their art as it embodies the very ideological contradictions it critiques.
To put it another way, representations of violence have the potential to incite violence, but artful representations of violence encourage us to reflect on the meaning of symbols and may lead us towards more civil discourse. (They also encourage us to not believe the hype.) We can see how Public Enemy’s logo is actually the exact reverse of the gun sights on Palin’s map. Palin’s gun sights target others, but Public Enemy’s gun sights target themselves. They are meant to remind us of all the black leaders who have been assassinated by whites (and hopefully also remind us that never once in our nation’s history has a black person ever tried to assassinate a white person for political reasons, but thousands of blacks have been assassinated by whites), but they also evoke a complex spirit of solidarity — we are all potential targets of violent rage that may flare up at any moment and we also at times all have feelings of rage against others. Therefore, speaking as a university professor who is very disturbed when other university professors such as Frances Fox Piven are threatened by media personalities such as Glenn Beck, I like the idea of artfully flipping the script on the gun sight symbol. Recently, some people on FaceBook adopted the Public Enemy logo as their profile picture in an expression of solidarity with all those who have been targeted. Doing so reminds me of the classic movie Spartacus. In its most famous scene [here], when the Roman army questions all the slaves in order to find Spartacus, the leader of the slave revolt, all of the slaves respond by saying they are Spartacus; in other words, everyone is Spartacus. As an artful response to a national tragedy and the vitriolic rhetoric in the media, adopting Public Enemy’s logo as our own (no matter what your political affiliation may be) is obviously not an example of the civil discourse we all hope would be the norm in the mainstream media, but it might lead to the production of an intelligent civil discourse that doesn’t compromise the Real by ignoring or marginalizing certain groups of people.
Since today marks the third anniversary of my blog, I’ve decided to do something new and experimental by adding a new category: aphorisms. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word aphorism comes from the Greek meaning definition or distinction. In English usage, it usually means “a short pithy sentence containing a truth of general import.” Some of America’s most famous aphorisms first appeared in Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanack way back in the 18th century. Another way of thinking about it is that an aphorism is theory distilled down to a single sentence or maxim. And still another way of thinking about it is that maybe I’m just too dang lazy or busy or tired to write a real blog post with some actual thought supported by actual evidence, so I’m just going to whip out a pithy remark and hope it sounds somewhat smart…. So, here it goes, my first attempt at an aphorism.
Cynicism is what young people put on to look older and wiser than they are; idealism is what old people put on to look younger and wiser than they are.
So that’s it…. Feel free to discuss, mock, muse upon….
All the preliminary buildup probably spoiled the effect…. Darn.
A few days ago, I gave a lecture entitled “Ethiopia in the American Literary Imagination” for the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) at the University of California at Irvine. OLLI is a nation-wide organization that gives actively intellectual adults access to professors. I don’t think I have ever had a more lively and engaged audience, and I thoroughly enjoyed myself. At the end of the talk, several of my audience said they wished I had provided a handout with a recommended reading list. So this blog post will be a better-late-than-never supplement to my talk.
There are a few categories of stuff to read. The first category is the new Ethiopian-American literature, all of which is written either by the immigrants or by the children of immigrants who fled Ethiopia after its revolution in 1974. My favorite works are Dinaw Mengestu’s two novels, The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears (published in 2007) and How to Read the Air (published in 2010). Both received very positive reviews — including my own [click here], which includes hyperlinks to other reviews. I also strongly recommend Nega Mezlekia’s somewhat controversial but also positively reviewed memoir Notes from the Hyena’s Belly, published in 2000. Those are the three I like the most, and they have received the most acclaim, but there are others. Nega Mezlekia has published two novels, The God Who Begat a Jackal (2003) and The Unfortunate Marriage of Azeb Yitades (2006). There are also the novels Beneath the Lions Gaze (2010) by Maaza Mengiste and Riding the Whirlwind (1993) by Bereket Habte Selassie and the memoir Held at a Distance (2007) by Rebecca Haile. In addition, there are several movies by Ethiopian-American directer Haile Gerima.
All of these authors have two things in common: all of them are ethnically Amhara, and all of them focus on the 1974 revolution and its aftermath in their first books. If we consider that the Amhara are only 30% of Ethiopia’s population, the Oromo are 35%, and the other seventy or more ethnic groups (Tigray, Somali, Gurage, Afar, Sidamo, among others) add up to 35%, we ought to raise the question why all the Ethiopian-American literature comes from just the one Amharic ethnic group. And if we consider the diversity of stories and experiences that could be written about, we might also wonder why the 1974 Revolution is the only topic that American and European publishers seem interested in. In addition to asking ourselves why this is the case, we ought to ask what’s being left out or lost?
To correct the situation, several young Oromo and I began a website called Ogina: Oromo Arts in Diaspora, which features creative new work by Oromos in the United States, Canada, and elsewhere around the world. I have also blogged about this topic and about my own travels through Ethiopia extensively [click here].
The second category of reading is about the Oromo people in Ethiopia. Probably the most famous historian is Harold Marcus, and his History of Ethiopia gives an overview of the whole country and is a good place to start. My impression is that both Amhara scholars and Oromo scholars generally respect Marcus’s objectivity. Beyond that, two books that argue for a more multiethnic understanding of Ethiopian history are Greater Ethiopia: The Evolution of a Multiethnic Society by Donald Levine and The Invention of Ethiopia by Bonnie Holcomb and Sisai Ibsaa. Books specifically about Oromo history in Ethiopia include The Oromo of Ethiopia: a History 1570–1860 by Mohammed Hassen and Oromia and Ethiopia: State Formation and Ethnonational Conflict, 1868–2004 by Asafa Jalata. Books on Oromo culture include Oromo Democracy by Asmarom Legesse. For a more economic analysis, an interesting new book is Taking the Place of Food: Khat in Ethiopia by Ezekiel Gebissa, and the documentary Black Gold is an excellent movie about coffee. Most of these books have been reprinted so if the original editions are not in the university library, then the reprints can be ordered through bookstores or the internet. But a quicker way to learn about the Oromo of Ethiopia would be the website Gadaa.com.
So, if the reality of Ethiopia is richly multiethnic, why do Americans continue to have such a singular and incorrect view of that country? This is complicated, but one of the reasons is Ethiopia’s unique place in literary history — from the Bible and classical Greek literature through American literature. Whether you’re reading seventeenth-century Puritans such as Cotton Mather, nineteenth-century poets such as Walt Whitman and Paul Dunbar, twentieth-century novelists such as Richard Wright and Alice Walker, or hip hop artists such as Lauryn Hill and Nas, Ethiopia figures prominently as a symbol of an ancient, religiously Christian black civilization and a symbol of liberation from slavery and oppression. This is especially true in nineteenth-century abolitionist literature such as Frederick Douglass’s newspaper and during the Harlem Renaissance (notably the pageant “Star of Ethiopia” by W.E.B. Du Bois.) If you pick up any college-classroom anthology of American literature (I would recommend the Heath Anthology) or an anthology of African-American Literature, you will see examples of what I’m talking about simply by glancing through the table of contents. The scholars that have already analyzed this history of “Ethiopianism” in African-American literature include Tony Martin, Wilson Jeremiah Moses, John Gruesser, Aric Putnam, and Ivy Wilson, among others.
There are a number of governmental and non-governmental organizations dedicated to encouraging a more progressive and developed media culture. The Ethiopian government has recently built museums and cultural centers that celebrate its multiethnic history. Primary schools in Ethiopia now include instruction in local languages, and national universities now have professors who research ethnic histories. Organizations such as the one I work with — Sandscribe Communications — look ahead to a future of film and television media that celebrates a dynamic and creative cultural pluralism and that addresses difficult issues such as HIV-AIDS, women’s rights, land scarcity, deforestation, climate change, etc.
I am so happy to be writing about the fifth issue of the on-line webzine Ogina: Oromo Arts in Diaspora, released just in time for the new year. This is perhaps its best issue ever, with the widest array of genres (including poetry, short story, film, essay, art, cultural study, book review, and an interview with a film actor) and is the most geographically diverse (including contributors living in Finland, Australia, Canada, United States, and Somaliland.) I think it’s really cool. And of course, for me, as a teacher of cultural theory, it raises some questions about the concepts “culture” and “ethnic identity.” So, what I’d like to do in my blog post today is think about what “Oromo culture” is by looking at four examples: the recent issue of Ogina, an Oromo culture night in Minneapolis last summer, a New Years Eve concert in St. Paul, and the performance of the Vagina Monologues in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia last spring.
But before I get on with that, I want to raise the question of my own position as a theorist and critic, so before I start talking about the webzine and the question of cultural identity, I want to critically reflect on my own cultural identity. Something I have been self-conscious about for a long time is my relationship to the Oromo community and the possibility of my having any role in its liberation struggle. In general, there are a lot of ways to think about an outsider’s relationship to an ethnic community, and I obviously don’t have time to talk about them all here, so I’ll just focus on one conceptual distinction. Back in the 1920s, political theorist Antonio Gramsci made the distinction between the traditional intellectual and the organic intellectual. The traditional intellectual works within the state institutions that serve the interests of the dominant socio-economic class (e.g., universities, bureaucracies, etc.) So far as world cultures is concerned, such traditional intellectuals tend to operate in “area studies” programs (e.g., Asian studies, African studies, Latin American studies, etc.), and their interest in analyzing other cultures is to focus on the what makes those cultures different or unique — to gain an understanding of the “Chinese mind” or the “African character.”
The worst case scenario is that such studies are simply racist, and the knowledge they generate is meant to serve the interests of the politically powerful who desire to economically dominate those “other cultures.” The best case scenario is that such studies genuinely admire the “other” but neglect the history of political and economic relations between cultures. (In other words, it’s obviously silly to study various African cultures today without recognizing the legacy of European colonialism, and it’s actually just as silly to study European cultures without recognizing how they were in turn impacted by the people they colonized — consider how much tea and sugar is a part of “English” culture, when tea came from India and sugar from the Caribbean. Likewise, the Beatles were largely inspired by African-American and Caribbean music.) Hence, one of the funny things about “area studies” programs is that they may have been created to study the “other” but if the scholars are the least bit honest, they usually end up questioning their own scholarly perspective and their own cultural location…. as I am doing now. For example, all scholars of Ethiopia know (or ought to know) about Ethiopia’s strategic importance during the peak of European imperialism in Africa in the late 19th-century and its strategic importance for the United States during the Cold War. And just as the influences of pan-African anti-colonialist political movements and jazz music travelled back and forth across the globe in the 1950s and 60s, so also today do the influences of global and anti-globalization movements and world music (especially hip hop). Even the traditional “area studies” intellectuals themselves travel back and forth, and I sometimes find that I have more to talk about with a fellow scholar from Addis Ababa or Calcutta than I do with the people from the neighborhood where I grew up or even my own family. Culture and identity are funny things.
In contrast to the traditional intellectual, Gramsci theorized the “organic intellectual” which is a scholar rooted in the community he or she studies and serves. Whereas traditional intellectuals falsely believe that they are objective and neutral, even though their work usually serves the project of imperial domination, organic intellectuals see their work as part of a complex network of political and social relations. So, in my own case, I feel that one of my jobs as a cultural critic is not really to study Oromo culture. There are already a number of brilliant Oromo scholars who write about their own culture (e.g., Asmarom Legesse, Gadaa Melbaa, Mohammed Hassen, Mekuria Bulcha, Asafa Jalata, Ezekiel Gebissa, and many others) and some brilliant American scholars who do this work too (e.g., Harold Marcus, Bonnie Holcomb, Peri Klemm, and many others.) Rather, I think of other ways I can be an organic intellectual and use my skills and resources to serve the Oromo community. For instance, instead of analyzing Oromo culture, I analyze how my own American culture has for centuries wrongly understood Ethiopia’s many peoples. Alongside that project is for me to simply act as a relay — assisting in the dissemination of Oromo scholarship, art, and culture. Culture is always a power game, as anyone who works in the Hollywood movie industry knows full well, and so by acting as a “relay” I am in a sense empowering a cultural identity.
But I don’t see my job to simply be a cheerleader on behalf of Oromo culture or a critic of my own American culture. And so, the point of my blog today is to actually serve the Oromo community by thinking critically about its culture…. Hence, this blog post.
I will begin with a very eloquent speech delivered at the Oromo Youth Association’s cultural night last July in Minneapolis, Minnesota by a teenage girl about the meaning behind the traditional dancing always performed at these events.
She explained that they are an expression of cultural memory, political solidarity, and the power of the Oromo ethnic group to survive and resist oppression. They connect the Oromo living in the United States to their family members who still live in Ethiopia as well as with Oromo around the world (many of whom were forced to flee oppressive and dangerous situations in their home country.) And through technologies such as YouTube, they also connect and empower the Oromo living in the United States with each other. It was an impressive speech.
However, when I travelled through Ethiopia last summer, what I noticed is that people tended to drink coca cola and Italian-style espresso more than traditional Ethiopian coffee, that the movie theaters showed Hollywood movies, that the young people prefered the television broadcast from Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates (which includes American programs) over the television broadcast by Ethiopian stations, that most young men wore the international young-man’s outfit (blue jeans and untucked button-down shirt), that most women either straightened their hair in European styles or covered their hair in Islamic styles, that the Ethiopian fashion magazines looked almost exactly the same as the fashion magazines I am used to seeing in supermarkets in the United States, and that American hip hop was blasting out of bars, cafés, and nightclubs, one of which was named after the Latin American revolutionary Che Guevara, etc., etc., etc.
In particular, the June 2010 issue of the Ethiopian fashion magazine Zoma had an article about “breaking the silence” about “violence against women” and “genital mutilation” — in particular, a celebration of V-Day 2010 in Addis Ababa with a performance of The Vagina Monologues. Originally composed and performed by Eve Ensler in New York City in 1996, The Vagina Monologues have been quite controversial in the United States, even banned by some universities. And of course, it’s controversial in Ethiopia as well, whose dominant cultural institutions include a repressive and patriarchal Orthodox Christian church. What do we make of its performance in Ethiopia and many other countries around the world?
Of course, I am juxtaposing two very contrasting instances of “culture” to make a point. The Oromo Cultural night in Minneapolis that I attended happened just a few months after the performance of the Vagina Monologues in Addis Ababa. Both of these events could be called “counter-hegemonic” because they assert a political identity against the dominant institutions (the cultural night asserts a minority culture inside the United States that has resisted oppressive state institutions in Ethiopia, and the Vagina Monologues opposes a repressive Ethiopian culture dominated by powerful religious and other institutions.) Obviously, it would be silly to argue that one is a more “authentic” expression of culture than the other. Cultures are dynamic, complex, innovative, and developing.
So, considering these two cultural events, I’d like to make two theoretical points about the nature of culture itself. First, culture is often considered to be an expression of identity (political identity, ethnic identity, etc.), but in my opinion, such an understanding of culture is incomplete because often culture is an expression of fantasy and desire. Also, sometimes a cultural identity is expressed negatively — not who you are, but who you are not. Hence, as novelist Toni Morrison argues in her brilliant book Playing in the Dark, white American culture understands itself against a racist caricature of black people. Likewise, three of the most classic and often read English novels are Thomas More’s Utopia, Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, and Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, all of which are about non-existent spaces outside of England. And in the case of the Oromo cultural night and the Vagina Monologues, the Oromo in Minnesota look far away to their cultural roots in Ethiopia to express their counter-hegemonic cultural identity while at the same time inside Ethiopia young people look far away in the other direction to articulate their counter-hegemonic cultural identity.
In a sense, this illustrates a point made by Jacque Lacan in his lecture “The Instance of the Letter in the Unconscious” that analyzes the relationship between individual selves and language. In one section of that lecture, he thinks about the famous philosophical statement by Rene Descartes: “I think therefore I am.” One of the implications of this universalizing, humanist ideal is that no matter what culture we come from, we are all rational individuals with brains. Lacan’s critique is that we are not actually all that rational most of the time and our brains require language to think with… and language is cultural. So, Lacan then considers another phrase, “I think where I am.” The implication behind this statement is culturally deterministic and suggests that Americans inevitably think American thoughts, Oromos think Oromo thoughts, etc. Lacan dismisses this formulation as well, and instead proposes the very complex phrase, “I think where I am not, therefore I am where I do not think.” The main idea here is that when we think, we use language, symbols, and ideas that are outside of us. We imagine ourselves in other spaces (fantasy novels or the future, e.g., the novels Utopia, Robinson Crusoe, and Gulliver’s Travels), and we understand our identity by exaggerating contrasts with other cultures and by inventing mythological pasts.
The critical point I’m trying to make here about Oromo culture is that it is not simply an expression of cultural identity. It is an expression of desire, anxiety, loss, and language. It is just as much an expression of what is lacked or lost as it is an expression of what is there.
Now for theoretical point number two. Critical of Lacanian psychoanalysis, theorists Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari suggest that culture is not simply about desire, fantasy, and lack. It is also about assemblages, connections, linkages, and productivity. Hence, a cultural night or a magazine like Zoma are sites where connections are made between American, Ethiopian, and Oromo cultural elements. Deleuze and Guattari — and also the Afro-British theorist Paul Gilroy and the Caribbean theorist Edouard Glissant — argue that culture works like a “rhizome” or network. If you remember your high school biology class, you might recall that a rhizome is an underground root structure for some kinds of plants and fungi. When I teach this idea in class I usually talk about mushrooms which typically grow in rings. The mushroom is what we see, and it may look like each mushroom is distinct, each with its own root, but underground they are all connected by a more complex root structure. In other words, there is one amorphous root structure that produces all the individual mushrooms. If we think of this as a metaphor for culture, then each ethnic or national culture is a mushroom, and the complex network of social, economic, and fantasy relations are the rhizome. In other words, we’re all connected in some way underneath. Instead of thinking about culture in terms of roots (each ethnic culture having its own distinct root like a tree), we might think of it in terms of rhizomatic routes — the movement of culture in time and space and its many connections that cross national borders and institutions (the way a mushroom has a myriad of roots connected to other mushrooms.)
So, in conclusion, what I personally believe is admirable about Ogina is that it enacts this rhizomorphic sense of culture. It is a site that brings traditional Oromo cultures (e.g., poetry in the Oromo language about nineteenth-century chiefs and anthropological articles about traditional clothing) together with “modern” activities (e.g., films about “night driving” and interviews with film actors). It includes an article about both traditional and new uses of the plant khat and how the culture around khat use has been affected by globalization. In sum, it projects a desire for Oromo cultural development and its many international connections.
Likewise, also check out this awesome transnational musical New Years Eve celebration sponsored by the International Oromo Youth Association that links up American jazz (Rick DellaRatta) with Oromo pop. And notice the variety of sponsors. It too enacts a beautiful, rhizomatic, and counter-hegemonic sense of culture that theorists such as Paul Gilroy would applaud.