Theory Teacher's Blog

Eduoard Glissant and the Work of Mourning

Two days ago, the world-renowned theorist and poet Édouard Glissant died. He was 83 years old, and his death was honored publicly by the Prime Minister of France [here]. Coincidentally, last semester, I taught Glissant’s book Poetics of Relation in my Caribbean literature and theory course, though I can’t claim to have much expertise since I taught the class in order to learn what I didn’t know and almost everything I assigned was by authors I hadn’t read before. Glissant’s death has provoked me to think about the recent deaths of other theorists, poets, historians, and cultural critics who have been inspirations to me — Howard Zinn in 2010, Claude Lévi-Strauss in 2009, Aimé Césaire in 2008, Edward Said in 2006,  Jacques Derrida in 2004. Reading the obituaries of such outstanding theorists and public intellectuals is perhaps in itself a subject for theoretical inquiry. For most of these writers, their deaths became occasions for heated and sometimes even vicious public debate in mainstream newspapers about the significance of their intellectual legacy, and consequently their deaths also became occasions for further reflection and theoretical work.

It may seem odd to think of a person’s death in terms of the intellectual labor it spurs us to undertake. As Derrida himself reflected on the deaths of his colleagues in one of his last books, The Work of Mourning, the death of a friend, parent, or writer one has read asks us to come to terms with our debt to them, the debt of our own existence that we owe to those who preceded us. These are the people through whom we think about our ethical relationship to the world, and in a sense our mourning is how we keep ourselves alive as we attempt to continue speaking to the dead and to our loss and to the possibility that their work will eventually be realized — a work that is always incomplete and unfinished just like any life, a work for which they have struggled, a work that they hoped, and we continue to hope, might possibly and actually come to be. Like Derrida, for Glissant too death is an occassion for reflecting on our complex relations with the world, the totality of Relation, as our own lives are constituted by these relations, not all of them positive yet nevertheless still part of who we are and who we are becoming.

For those of you who don’t know Édouard Glissant, he was born in Martinique and travelled to Paris after the second World War to study and get his doctorate. He was influenced by the Négritude cultural movement begun by his elder Martinican Aimé Césaire, but Glissant is most famous for his criticism of Césaire’s Négritude as too fantastically essentialist. Along with other Caribbean writers, Glissant instead conceptualized creolization, which emphasizes both the rootedness of Caribbean culture and its complex relations to world cultures — in other words (always in other words, we might say), Caribbean identity as a becoming, not a static thing to be compartmentalized. Before formulating his theories in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, Glissant participated in a separatist political movement in the 1950s for the independence of the French colonies. This led Prime Minister Charles de Gaulle to bar Glissant from returning home between 1961 and 1965. From the 1980s until his death, he was professor at universities in Martinique, France, and the United States, and tended to divide his time between these locations. He was shortlisted for the Nobel prize in 2002, which was instead awarded to another Caribbean poet, Derek Walcott.

In 2006, Glissant was asked by France’s president M. Jacques Chirac to oversee the establishment of a new cultural center devoted to the history of the slave trade. You can read Chirac’s speech at this event [here]. The establishment of such a center perhaps speaks to the work of mourning. We create these centers not simply to record the centuries of past horrors or to feel glad that we no longer live in those times, but in order to work towards a more just civilization. Part of that work involves recognizing our debt to the past, our relation to it — how our being is constituted in part by something so horrible that we would prefer to see it as determinately other or outside ourselves. The legacy of the slave trade is still with us, not only as a past event but as a still present reality, as Chirac had the courage to admit. And this is why remembering the work of Glissant is also important for our own work.

Returning to the list of recently deceased theorists in my first paragraph, all the giant figures whom I was assigned to read in college, I can’t help but wonder what the next generation of talent will be. Who will follow these poets, philosophers, and historians who came into being during the postcolonial moment and civil rights era, 1947 to 1965, when colonies and people of color across the world were asserting themselves and demanding their rights? Our moment now might be called the moment of globalization or globalism, and has been called that by various theorists (including myself), but I’m not sure that name explains much. Glissant has provoked me to think harder about my own work. And I suppose that’s why I felt I should read him last semester. At the beginning of this blog post I mentioned that I am no expert and read Glissant for the first time just last year. And so, we might think of the unfinished work of mourning not only as a literary engagement (the double meaning of engagement is intentional) with those friends and writers with whom we already know and have established relations, but also as an engagement with those people whom we never got to know when they were alive. It is our debt to that larger Relation — the relation we have to people we’ve never met or never read before — that I think is the ongoing and never finished work of mourning.


February 5, 2011 Posted by | death, Theory--capital T | 4 Comments

Oromo Identity and “Culture” from Ethiopia to America

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.

January 3, 2011 Posted by | Oromia, Theory--capital T | 5 Comments

The Economy of Wikipedia — Prosumer, Contripreneur, or Amateur

A coincidence of two events is inspiring this blog post today. One of the events is a recent discussion I had with several of my colleagues about the value of Wikipedia. Every year, Wikipedia has a fundraising drive so that it can continue to exist on the internet. Their goal this year is $16 million, and as I am writing this blog, Wikipedia claims [here] to have raised $8.5 million so far. (It is almost like the fund drive for National Public Radio.) I casually suggested to my colleagues that perhaps our university’s library ought to financially support Wikipedia just as it supports so many other useful internet programs such as the Oxford English Dictionary and Early English Books Online. However, my colleagues pointed out to me that these other internet tools are produced by professionals, not by amateurs as Wikipedia articles seem to them to be. I have a different understanding of Wikipedia that I will explain shortly.

The other event is my fellow blogger Topspun’s wonderfully audacious creation [here] of a new concept — contripreneur — over at the Seven Red blog earlier this month, and indeed when I googled this word, the only search result that came up was his blog. (And after I finish writing this post, of course, then my blog will also come up, heh, heh, heh. I’m getting in on this venture early.) Topspun’s argument stems from a dissatisfaction with an older neologism coined in 1980 by Alvin Toffler — prosumer — a dissatisfaction that I share. Topspun and I both blogged extensively about our dissatisfaction way back in April 2009, [here] and [here] from Topspun and [here] from myself. Basically, the word prosumer (which you can read all about in Wikipedia [here], but not, significantly, in the Encyclopedia is a combination of the words producer/professional and consumer, and it is meant to suggest a new economic relationship in which consumers don’t just consume value but actually produce it. The most obvious examples of the prosumer relationship would be open-source software, blogs, YouTube, the recent and highly controversial WikiLeaks, and of course Wikipedia. On these websites, valuable information and entertainment are produced and distributed not by salaried professionals but by consumers/users.  These consumers/users are not paid for their labor, but presumably get satisfaction from the enjoyment or from the social connection or from the usefulness for the common good of society that it possibly facilitates. Consequently, one might call them “amateurs” in contrast to “professional” except that many of them will have expert knowledge and skills (e.g., the specialized information that appeared on Wikileaks.) A less obvious example of a prosumer would be, which makes use of consumption patterns and input from consumers to help other consumers find the books they want. As many of my colleagues have noticed, sometimes (though certainly not always) is a better tool for finding books than the library databases.

But the concept of the prosumer is a problematic concept. If I can boil down Topspun’s highly sophisticated argument down to one sentence, I’d boil it down this way — all the punditry and hype about the prosumer concept usually fails to take into account the financial relationship. And of course, in my view, the ambiguity of the financial relationship implies a political situation that the word prosumer conceals and mystifies. Therefore, Topspun suggests the word contripreneur, which combines the words contributor and entrepreneur, is both more precise and broader in its application. I’m looking forward to Topspun’s future blog posts in which he promised to explain his concept further.

So, the task for my blog today is to assess the value of Wikipedia by thinking about it in terms of the concepts prosumer and contripreneur and to assess the value of those concepts by thinking about them in terms of the exemplary example Wikipedia. Do you catch the double movement of that sentence? And of course, as you can tell from my blog post’s title, I’m also wondering whether the neologisms “prosumer” and “contripreneur” are really any different from a rather ordinary old word, amateur.

My starting point for this inquiry will be a very simple question, the sort of simple question with which Adam Smith began his famous Wealth of Nationswhat is the value of Wikipedia really? Apparently, its directors need $16 million, but that figure is not a measure of exchange value on the open market. It is a measure primarily of cost (i.e., capitalization, energy, time, labor, machinery, land, etc.). What if we turn to one of John Locke’s concepts from his Second Treatise of Civil Government, use value? It is widely recognized that Wikipedia is something that both faculty and students use a lot. Therefore, it is useful, and in fact, in this case, the more it gets used, the more it grows, and consequently the more it grows, the more it costs to maintain. Such is the nature of the internet. So, is the $16 million an accurate and pure reflection of its use value? I don’t know. What I do know is that faculty use it when they need quick information, and students use it when they are beginning a research project. In some ways, it is superior to the older kind of encyclopedia or technical glossary because it requires its writers to cite their sources and it covers a far wider range of topics. (The older encyclopedias and glossaries usually don’t have citations because they bank on their reputation, and we’re supposed to trust their editors.) Most of my colleagues seem to allow that Wikipedia might be an acceptable starting point for their students’ research papers so long as the students focus on the works cited at the end of the Wikipedia article and don’t cite Wikipedia itself. In other words, so far as this reasoning goes, Wikipedia only has use value insofar as it leads one to “real” sources.

This reasoning is misguided, in my view. It misunderstands that the “real” sources (e.g., newspapers, press releases by politicians, websites, etc.) might be more likely to contain factual errors and biases than the Wikipedia article. It also fails to recognize the real intellectual labor in which Wikipedia articles often do a better job than newspaper and television journalists at checking for bias and factual accuracy. (If only Americans had looked up “Iraq” on Wikipedia — or any encyclopedia really — instead of trusting CNN and the NY Times, for instance, perhaps we wouldn’t have started that war. See, for instance, this article in which the NY Times recognizes its own failure.) My speculation is that few teachers trust Wikipedia as a source because they don’t fully understand how Wikipedia works. The “wiki” is a very specific kind of computer technology designed to maximise the efficiency of collaborative work. It was originally invented for large businesses, but was quickly picked up by some educators as a teaching tool. In any wiki, the entire history of each draft is accessible, so anyone who wants to add content or revise content can see the myriad of drafts written before. There is also often a discussion board so all the people contributing to the writing of an article can debate content. Therefore, it is wrong to think of Wikipedia as just another website. In a sense, Wikipedia is truly an open and accessible “public sphere” — almost in the idealistic Habermasian sense of the public sphere — where reasoned debate can take place. In this way, Wikipedia can be thought of in contrast to newspapers, magazines, television, and the internet in general which are supposed to be public spheres but are so often beholden to the profit motive of their stockholders (i.e., hype and entertainment) and the political biases of their owners (as Habermas himself complained, though not as bitterly as did the philosophers Adorno and Horkheimer). Hence, many young people today rightly recognize Wikipedia to have a real social value, and not just a quick and easy source of information. In addition, the prejudicial notion that Wikipedia’s contributors might be mere amateurs (and not professionals) is clearly false, since even a cursory glance at most Wikipedia articles will reveal that the writers have considerable expertise. In other words, one might call these writers prosumers because they are both users and producers, or one might more accurately call them contributors… or one might even call them concerned citizens, some of whom are amateurs and some of whom are experts. However, in response to Topspun, I’m not sure how “entrepreneurial” any of the activity on Wikipedia is. It might depend on how we are understanding the word entrepreneur — beyond a simple business sense of the word, and towards a more socially contextualized sense of it as an agent of meaningful innovation.

Significantly different from what I see as the incorrect understanding of Wikipedia apparently held by most teachers is the perspective of libraries (or “information commons” as so many college libraries are being re-branded nowadays.) Many librarians now recognize the democratic potential of Wikipedia as an encyclopedia of the people, by the people, and for the people (a truly common “information commons”), but Wikipedia is not a priority for library budgets. Instead, since the university is itself an academic institution (often publicly owned), libraries prefer to support the more institutionalized academic and public projects. This affiliation seems very natural and sensible to me, and I think the library’s position is both wise and on target. Clearly, however, this is a political affiliation, not an affiliation based in the quality or value of the product. In other words, academics know how their bread gets buttered, and the public recognizes that there is more to knowledge and teaching than mere “information”, so we make the obviously intelligent political decision to devote our somewhat meager educational budgets to the support of the various professional institutions and associations we are members of.

In conclusion…. I don’t know if I have a conclusion. I’m tired of writing this blog today, and I have other work I need to do (i.e., the professional work I get paid for, get it? Not my contripreneurial work for which I get nothing.) And also, I’m not entirely sure yet where Topspun is going to take his contripreneur concept…. Stay tuned!

December 12, 2010 Posted by | finance, media, Theory--capital T | 2 Comments

Why There’s No Such Thing as New Historicism

It’s a provocative title, I know. So, let’s cut to the chase.

According to the rather simplistic Cliffs Notes book on New Historicism (an approach to literary study started in the 1980s), its basic argument is that “literary theory should be studied within the context of both the history of the author and the history of the critic.” Now, most readers of this blog know full well that New Historicism is a much more complicated thing than that, but it’s a good starting point if only because that’s the starting point for most students who encounter it for the first time in introductory textbooks. But it begs four questions. What do practitioners of New Historicism really think they are doing? Is it any different from old historicisms? What criticisms have been made against New Historicism? And finally, how is it similar to or different from something called “Cultural Studies”?

So, first, what does it purport to be? And herein lies the problem. Two of the most celebrated founders of the “New Historicist” approach are Stephen Greenblatt and Catherine Gallagher, so let’s turn to their own introductory book, Practicing New Historicism (published in 2000). On the first page they assert that “above all… it resist[s] systematization.” In other words, they can’t say exactly what New Historicism is, because they define it in terms of its resistance to being defined.

This is a curious beginning. But nevertheless, we can return to the two principles (à la Cliffs Notes) with which we began. Not only does New Historicism unequivocally assert the principle that an artistic work must be read in its historical context; it also says we must reflect on the interpretive lens of the critic-scholar as well. That’s two entirely different sets of historical contexts to be thinking about, and the relationship between the two is certainly not obvious. So, the reason why New Historicism resists its own definition is because of this doubling of its object of critical study…. Hmmm…. Perhaps looking at the old historicism might help us sort this out.

Although New Historicists sometimes take credit for rescuing literary study from the naïve appreciation of authorial genius (a genius that is believed to be universal and therefore to transcend history) and an irrational valuation of literary form over content, in fact historical criticism has been for more than a century the primary activity of literary research as it has been practiced inside the halls of academia. Examples include a few classic works of literary criticism: Perry Miller’s New England Mind (published 1939), F.O. Matthiessen’s American Renaissance (1941), Mikhail Bakhtin’s Rabelais and His World (1941), and E. M. W. Tillyard’s The Elizabethan World Picture (1949). But what does “historical context” mean for the old historicism? It could mean a number of things because there are actually a variety of old historicisms. It could mean biography to figure out an author’s intention and circumstances. Titles of such books are often “Life and Times of… [insert famous author’s name here].” It could mean intertextuality (how a literary text alludes to other literary texts or repeats specific narrative structures), and often the academic discipline of literary history as it is traditionally defined is basically a study of intertextuality. But the more famous examples mentioned above attempt to figure out the entire culture for which classic literary texts are simply the best and most interesting cultural artifacts. And a lot of old historicism from the 1930s was unabashedly Marxist in its attention to the material conditions of production and the ideological biases of texts.

The old historicism has not gone away, and in fact, many of the top scholars today are actually old-school historicists — for instance, David Norbrook, probably the most respected Renaissance scholar alive today, would never call himself a New Historicist. Likewise, for colonial American literature, the much respected and recently deceased Leo Lemay was in many ways a biographer of colonial American writers. Theirs has always been straight historical work — their primary question being what happened.

So, what is “new” about the New Historicism? What a mediocre textbook might tell you is that New Historicism doesn’t believe that “what happened” can be so easily understood because (1) historians are subjectively selective about the facts they consider, and (2) the archive of information itself is limited by all sorts of factors.  But this actually begs the question of why anyone would engage in historical research at all if you know before you begin that your work is inconclusive and pointless. But like I said, this textbook simplification does not describe what happens in actual practice, since few New Historicists subscribe to such simplistic relativism. In other words, the point here is not that New Historicists doubt their own objectivity. Rather, the point is precisely that New Historicism is not a single method. It includes a range of approaches, borrowing from Marxism, psychoanalysis, poststructuralism and deconstruction, feminism, queer theory, ethnic studies, critical race theory, postcolonial theory, trans-Atlantic and transnational theory, etc., etc., etc.  Depending on which theoretical problem one addresses, the research will be different — different questions raised, different archival data selected, and different conclusions drawn. At its best (as almost any theory textbook will tell you), New Historicism’s most valuable contribution to the field of literary study has been to put previously marginalized and suppressed cultural perspectives in dialogue with the traditionally canonized literary texts. And surprisingly, rather than undermining the traditional canon, canonized texts often appear in New Historicist work all the richer and more complex when analyzed in terms of the historically contingent power disparities of class, race, gender, sexuality, colonialism, globalization, etc. In doing so, New Historicists are borrowing from Marxist analysis of power relations as well as from the methods of deconstructon, feminism, critical race theory, ethnic studies, and transnational critique to “decenter” dominant historical narratives.

In other words, the formula for New Historicism might be “historicism plus theory.”

There are a number of ironies here. First, if New Historicism is basically old historicism plus theory, then it’s really not a theoretical approach at all. This is why it cannot define itself and seems so methodologically impoverished, as I will get to in a minute. This is also the reason why a textbook might question New Historicism’s objectivity, since it seems to have no definite approach or ethical point to it. Second, although one of the distinctive principles of New Historicism is that it doubles its object of study — attending both to the historical context of the work and the historical context of the critic — this is rarely what happens in practice. In practice, most scholars simply skip the hand-wringing self-reflection and go straight for the textual analysis. Third, because New Historicism is basically a method-less method, there is a somewhat insidious and dishonest repression of theory, politics, and ethics by many practitioners of New Historicism. In other words, although New Historicists such as Greenblatt readily admit that it was the above-mentioned theoretical innovations that enabled New Historicism to come into being in the first place, they would rather take as their starting point the historical moment or even the canonical text itself instead of the theoretical issue.

In fact, when New Historicism seemed for a brief moment to dominate literary study in the late 1990s, a few articles and books were published complaining about it — their complaint being that essentially what scholarship in English departments was becoming was a “depoliticized” and “undertheorized” version of Michel Foucault that was both unethical and lazy. (See, for example, [here].) In their book Practicing New Historicism, Greenblatt and Gallagher even admit that this is true. Foucault was rolling over in his grave.

But there are other criticisms as well. One criticism comes from the stodgy old historicists who claim that New Historicism is not rigorous enough — not enough archival data. Historians work hard to amass enough archival data to convincingly argue what actually happened and why. The worst case scenario for New Historicism is a sloppy juxtaposition of just two texts (one famous and one not), and an assertion of either sameness or difference between the two. (Most New Historicism is, of course, much smarter than this. I’m just presenting the rather cartoonish version of New Historicism as it is parodied by old-school historicists.) And New Historicism gets criticized from both sides of the academic aisle (or hall, rather), since from the opposite point of view, the hipster postmodern formalists, poststructuralists, and psychoanalysts all criticize New Historicism for not having a rigorous understanding of poetic form, language, and meaning. So, in other words, continuing the parody, the worst-case New-Historicist scenario is the juxtaposition of two texts (one famous, one not), an assertion of sameness or difference, and a rather literal understanding of both texts that doesn’t recognize either semantic indeterminacy or playful ironies.

So, in conclusion, New Historicism is basically nothing… unless it is supplemented by something else.

How does this compare with another disciplinary approach, Cultural Studies. Many introduction-to-theory textbooks (such as Theory into Practice by Ann B. Dobie) suggest that New Historicism and Cultural Studies are essentially the same — one is the American name for the study of old stuff, the other the British name for the study of new stuff. Indeed, just like New Historicism, Cultural Studies would seem to be a method-less method. As the editors of the groundbreaking collection of essays entitled Cultural Studies argue in their introduction, the field of Cultural Studies seems to be a mish-mash of a variety of theoretical perspectives and interdisciplinary approaches. They even go so far as to argue that Cultural Studies is not even really interdisciplinary (i.e., bringing fields together such as psychology and literature or economics and textual criticism), because it is in fact “anti-disciplinary.” What they mean by this provocative assertion of anti-disciplinarity is that Cultural Studies is in the paradoxical position of critiquing the injustice of power disparities and various forms of oppression from within the very cultural institution that serves the powerful — the so-called ivory tower of academia.

However, although Cultural Studies would appear to be a method-less method just like New Historicism, there is a significant difference. While New Historicists are often embarrassed by the possibility that they might have something political, ethical, or even interesting to say, and while New Historicism as it is practiced today often suppresses the very theoretical innovations upon which it is based, Cultural Studies in contrast usually foregrounds both the conceptual theoretical problems and the political-ethical stakes of its scholarly work.

In conclusion, my opinion and biases are perhaps all to obvious and bluntly stated. I now await the tomatoes that I fear will be thrown at my head.

December 6, 2010 Posted by | Theory--capital T | 1 Comment

Finfinne Diaries 3: Construction and Inflation — How to Demystify Ethiopia’s So-Called Economic Development?

What impressed me most during my brief 16 days in Ethiopia was the amount of construction. I have never in my life seen so many building projects going on all at once. Concrete and scaffolding were everywhere in Ethiopia’s capital city Addis Ababa and in the other cities that I visited — Jimma, Adama, Dire Dawa, and Harar. In Addis’s new suburban sprawl, I drove through almost a whole mile of recently completed but still empty apartment complexes only to discover yet another mile of halfway built complexes further down the road (a road which was also under construction.) And in Harar, I saw a lone Chinese engineer directing a group of Ethiopian laborers in the laying of phone cable, and at my hotel I talked with another engineer from Nepal who worked for a Japanese company that did land surveillance. I took a lot of photographs to document what I saw, but this morning I found a couple of YouTube clips [here] and [here] that have the exact same stuff I was taking pictures of. The development models in these two clips resemble models I saw on billboards and inside the lobby of the Hilton Hotel. 

This morning I did a little more research on this subject and read the websites for important civil society organizations — the Ethiopian Business Development Services Network and the Construction Contractors Association of Ethiopia — which detail the challenges that they believe the construction industry faces, such as government regulations, lack of resources (e.g., oil and steel), and lack of skilled labor. I also discovered a group called ICDCONGlobal that conveniently lists weblinks to brief articles on the amazing array of new construction projects currently going on in Ethiopia so that you can see them all [here]. And I actually recognize some of those projects, which I can remember driving past.

The intensity of this development is a mystery to all the people with whom I spoke — who wonder how so much construction is happening while their economy is still in bad shape. Where is the money coming from, and what is it all for? And in light of the recent global recession triggered by the bursting of America’s housing bubble, I am very worried what might happen if Ethiopia’s economy crashes. (Though, I should note that unlike the United States whose economy is truly based on land speculation, in Ethiopia all land is technically owned by the government — first under a feudal system and then under a communist system — and is simply leased to private individuals through a complicated bureaucracy, which I had a chance to briefly witness when my friend had to renew his lease. So, it would be a big mistake to draw simple analogies between America’s housing market and Ethiopia’s recent development.)

But in addition to all the construction, what those YouTube clips and websites don’t show are other things that I saw — things such as an enormous “Eastern Industrial Zone” with signs in Chinese letters about twenty miles outside Addis; a billboard with plans for a huge Oromo Culture Center complex right in the middle of Addis; a now completely defunct railroad; a bustling dry port for trucks carrying the standardized containers of global trade; an equally bustling and large khat trade; a bunch of young Japanese white-collar workers having lunch in an upscale restaurant and who could speak Amharic but not English (I talked to them in my limited Japanese); miles and miles of villages of small huts made of the traditional mud and thatch; miles and miles of farms still ploughed with traditional oxen right next to modern industrial farms and right next to miles of industrial-scale greenhouses for the global flower market, etc., etc., etc.

Do you see what I’m getting at? Every day I was struck by the proximity of traditional local economies and global capitalism to each other. The relationship between these two phenomenon was in no way clear to me, since as I mentioned in my blog [here] a few months ago, global capitalism and foreign investment have had both positive effects and negative effects. How do we make sense of all these disparate facts? It was clear to me that foreign investment was producing some good things, but it was also clear to me that some manifestations of global capitalism are little more than government-sanctioned theft. And as this recent article argues and as this YouTube clip shows, some of the big development projects cause tremendous environmental damage and displace thousands of people. One has to wonder about the wisdom of many of the projects, some of which are promoted by far-away business interests without much input from local constituencies.

Meanwhile, the two biggest complaints I heard from various people I talked to (whether they were Amhara, Tigray, Oromo, or whatever) were (1) fears that the Chinese were going to move in and take over, and (2) fears about inflation and the devaluation of Ethiopia’s currency, the birr. The first complaint is largely irrational, and such racist expressions of fear that single out China (rather than any of the many other countries that invest in Ethiopia or the presence of the U.S. military) is in my view simply a paranoid reaction to the real problems of inflation. It should be obvious that some foreign investment has improved the quality of life for many in Ethiopia. To put what I’m saying here in theory-teacher-blog terms, the fear of the Chinese is a psychological symptom that displaces the hard-to-conceptualize vicissitudes of globalization onto the easy-to-conceptualize-but-false metaphors of racial identity. And hence I worry about propaganda in the form of political speeches and TV dramas that would encourage such paranoia. 

In contrast to the first complaint, the second complaint is very rational, considering that the exchange rate between the Ethiopian birr and the U.S. dollar has been gradually devalued each year since the mid-1990s from 2 to 14, and consequently the prices of basic food staples such as grains and beans (notably the culturally important tef and shiro) have increased dramatically. When it becomes so difficult for the poor to afford food, it’s clear that something is seriously wrong. Economists have long recognized this problem and sought answers; last month, the IMF’s doctrinaire recommendations were, not surprisingly, to promote the private banking sector, reduce tariffs, and liberalize currency exchange, etc., etc., etc., which is the IMF formula for everything and for all problems, no matter what country they are in or what the circumstances are — a rather simplistic formula that the Nobel-prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz criticizes in his book Globalization and Its Discontents and  journalist Naomi Klein criticizes in her books No Logo and The Shock Doctrine and in her husband’s movie The Take. It is a formula that some might even suggest would make the problem worse, not better, and instead of helping the average Ethiopian would help the interests of the American, European, and Asian businesses.

But this is a matter of economic debate, and as I always tell my students in my various classes on cultural theory, globalization, and eighteenth-century mercantilist culture, I am not an economist, so they shouldn’t expect answers to basic economic questions. Rather, what they can expect is for Theory with a capital “T” to do three other things: to pose important questions that IMF economists generally do not deal with but perhaps should, to point out the often unseen connections between a cultural phenomenon and an economic one, and to reveal the often irrational or unjust economic decisions and policies that are a result not simply of economic doctrine but of the messy wrangling among various public and private interests whose articulation is always filtered through cultural symbols.

With all that in mind, now is the moment in this blog where I piss off all my friends…. Breathe in… breathe out. 

OK, you’ve breathed and taken a short break, so here it goes. What is obvious to everyone (no matter what their political or economic position) is that sometimes development projects don’t actually lead to real development. The big ideas of Ethiopian bureaucrats, private corporations, the American or Chinese empires, and/or well-meaning charities and other non-government organizations (NGOs) are often misguided or corrupt. However, I don’t think it’s worthwhile to lay all the blame on the corruption of the government… or on the ruthless greed of the corporations… or on the so-called evil empires (whoever they may be)… or on the ignorance of many NGOs… especially since more often than not development projects are enacted through a complex partnership among all of these sectors of society. Considering that such partnerships and collaborations are the norm, let’s forget about the “free trade” mythology, since that’s clearly irrelevant to the reality on the ground. And let’s also move beyond the 1960s version of postcolonial theory which leads us to blame all things on the legacy of Europe’s racist imperialism or on conspiracies led by evil Darth-Vader-like American imperialists such as Dick Cheney. And clearly, with all these various factors in mind, we can’t seriously continue to lay all the blame at the feet of Ethiopia’s infamously corrupt and dictatorial Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi. And let’s please also stop whining about the inability of our world-community leaders (whether they are democratically elected or self appointed, e.g., Barack Obama, the Oromo Liberation Front, the board of the Oromia International Bank… whoever) to simply solve such complex problems for us, since that clearly has nothing to do with anything. (Nothing is more tiresome than listening to the same finger-wagging, moralistic bullshit year after year by old and embittered Oromo expatriates about the failure of their ethnic community’s leaders — speeches full of empty slogans about unity and freedom, blah, blah, blah.)

Instead, we ought to identify real problems and work towards real solutions. One problem — as the civil society activist Kumi Naidoo has smartly argued [here] — is the lack of transparency in how decisions get made and the lack of accountability to local civil society organizations (CSOs). In addition to Naidoo’s argument about transparency and accountability, I also agree with the arguments of many NGOs and activists for the importance of access to various cultural resources (such as schools) and the means of empowerment. In my opinion, these are useful things to think about. In contrast, I think vacuous pronouncements about cultural unity by ethnic nationalists don’t always lead to real forms of empowerment or to real access to cultural resources for the poor. Likewise, vacuous pronouncements about free trade by the IMF do little to promote real transparency or accountability. In other words, it does us no good to pretend that unicorns exist.

Now, all of that said, I must acknowledge that the arguments of ethnic nationalists do carry some important weight, considering that the chauvinist government of Ethiopia has for over a century systematically redistributed much wealth from the hands of one ethnic group into the hands of another ethnic group. For instance, as we were driving down the main street of the town of Metahara (a town in a largely Oromo region), one of my new friends pointed out to me that almost every hotel and restaurant was owned by Tigray and Amhara rather than by Oromo — most likely due to the ethnic prejudice and corruption rampant in Ethiopia’s land tenure system. And it was pointed out to me that inside the city of Jimma the main language is Amharic and the main religion Orthodox Christianity, but outside the city the main language is Oromifa and the main religions Islam and Protestant Christianity. But arguments about ethnic unity will not solve the corruption problem and might instead just replace one corrupt government with another. Nor do slogans about cultural unity and freedom necessarily lead to the building of schools or the engendering of local civil society. And such slogans most definitely do not give us the tools to think through the challenges of governance in a world whose dominant economic form is global capitalism. Such slogans are, after all, the manner in which a culture mystifies the real relations of production and daily life.

And likewise, I must also acknowledge that the IMF has a good point that the Ethiopian government’s rigid control of land and its obstruction of capital flows not only impedes economic growth but also encourages the kind of corruption that leads to badly conceived development projects. However, because the IMF measures the quality of life in terms of the stock market and GDP, it is painfully tolerant of economic exploitation and the growth of slums, and its economists are often willfully ignorant of the economic, environmental, and cultural effects of global trade on local communities who struggle to adjust. This is why the work of ethnic nationalist to recuperate their local cultures is not anachronistic to modern capitalism as the IMF economists wrongly believe, but rather such cultural work is an essential feature of globalization. To put it another way, it is never good for the economy in the long run when the traditional culture that binds a community together rapidly disintegrates or when its drinking water is polluted and other essential features of daily life destroyed; hence, leadership by ethnic nationalists can be important to the local economy in that they maintain a sense of community. Moreover, such local cultures are often able to build local civil society whose unique knowledge and skills might be crucial to the successful implementation of any development project. And beyond the notion of economic development narrowly conceived, local cultures can suggest viable alternatives and real solutions to problems that IMF economists and Ethiopian bureaucrats are too arrogant to recognize.

So, what to do? I have no answers today, but stay tuned for future blog posts.

July 3, 2010 Posted by | finance, global, Oromia, Theory--capital T | 2 Comments

Philosophy, History, Literature… Theory?

Paul Gilroy

Recently, I was reading some scholarly books and articles that, among other things, respond to Paul Gilroy’s thesis in his book The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness, first published in 1993. In that book, Gilroy basically theorizes that we need to understand the enlightenment tradition and the modern world in which we all live as a hybrid pheneomenon that began with the violence of the transatlantic slave trade and emerged out of the commercial and cultural exchanges across the Atlantic ocean, including the cultural contributions of Africans, Caribbeans, Europeans, Native Americans, etc. It’s a complicated book, and I don’t have time to go into its argument in my blog. Instead, while I was reading, I came across two very contradictory statements about Gilroy’s book that I found very curious. One of them calls Gilroy’s book a history, and the other says that it’s nonhistoricist. How could the same book look like a work of history to one person, and look like the opposite to another person?

So, first I’ll show you the two contradictory quotes that I’m talking about, and then I’ll attempt to explain that contradiction. That contradiction might help us understand what this thing called “theory” is.

In her fascinating book, Hegel, Haiti, and Universal History, published in 2009, Susan Buck-Morss, wrote about the work of “historians like Paul Gilroy, whose attempt to grasp the diaspora of Africans across the black Atlantic led him to argue that no identifying concept of race or nation is adequate” (p.111). Buck-Morss is a professor of political philosophy, and her book convincingly demonstrates that the famous philosopher Hegel conceived of the “master-slave dialectic” as he was reading about slave revolts and the Haitian revolution in newspapers and magazines. Notice that when she refers to Gilroy’s book, she calls him a historian.  

But a few years earlier, in 2001, Ronald Judy, a professor of English, published a review of Gilroy’s work in issue 28:3 of the journal Boundary 2 where he says that Gilroy “strove to present a nonhistoricist account of modernity that recognizes protocols for living in the world today in the supposedly marginal expressive forms (most particularly music) of what has come to be understood as African Diaspora culture…” (p. 210). Notice that when he refers to the same book, he calls it a nonhistoricist account.

So, is Gilroy’s Black Atlantic historicist or nonhistoricist? Is this purely a difference of academic disciplines? Perhaps what looks like history to a philosopher such as Buck-Morss may look like something else to somebody who specializes in history or literary history such as Judy. And what (academically speaking) is “real” history supposed to be anyway? Certainly, real historians are meticulous about thoroughly checking archival data in order to figure out what really happened, and Gilroy’s book (which just focuses on a few famous texts) is not that. But I don’t know if I’d call his book “non-historicist” either, since he does consider the movement of history and the relationship between books and historical forces. After all, later in his article, Judy himself calls Gilroy’s approach a “conceptual history of modernity” (p. 211).

So… apparently… it’s a nonhistoricist conceptual history…. Huh?

What’s also obvious, and perhaps important to point out, is that Gilroy’s many books are getting read and discussed by people in a lot of different academic disciplines: literature, history, philosophy, sociology, political science, etc. But apparently they all have different senses of what Gilroy’s work is and what his work means for them…. Or do they? Maybe the difference between them is less important than the similarity. All of them have changed their approach to their own academic discipline in the same way — taking Gilroy’s point about the “black Atlantic” as the originating locus for modernity and the enlightenment tradition instead of Europe. And likewise, they all now see the black Atlantic as the starting point for thinking about freedom and democracy instead of the United States.

Still, even though scholars from a range of disciplines are all taking up the same basic and groundbreaking point at the end of the day, what do we make of the two contradictory statements about Gilroy’s book? Let’s take a brief detour into the work of another theorist — we might imagine similar contradictory statements being said about a couple of well-known books by Michel Foucault that you may have encountered in your introduction to theory class: Discipline and Punish and The History of Sexuality. Philosophers and literature professors often treat Foucault as a historian, but historians treat him as a philosopher. This ambiguity and the interdisciplinary nature of Foucault and Gilroy’s work gives us some insight into what “theory” is. Theory is not philosophy, though often courses in literary theory will read philosophy. And theory is not history, though it often thinks very hard about history and talks about historical contexts. Theory is always in-between disciplines because its project is to change the way people think within those disciplines. Foucault was very clear about this in his essay “Nietzsche, Genealogy, and History,” where he explains his project as one of genealogical critique. What does this mean? Roughly, following the famous Friedrich Nietzsche’s example, Foucault means that his goal is to open up new possibilities and new ways of thinking about and acting in the world. His method for doing this is to critique how certain ways of thinking and acting have been repeated, enacted, institutionalized, and developed over time. Once one can expose these habits of thought (or habits of philosophy) as contingent rather than necessary, one can liberate oneself from the shackles of mental habits and academic disciplines… and think beyond them.

Then how does literature relate to theory? In some ways, the projects of literature and theory are similar. They both seek to open our minds to alternative ways of thinking about the world, and in that sense, they are allies. But in other ways, literature merely repeats mental habits and often simply repeats the conclusions of academic disciplines such as history and philosophy that the author may have read in school, so theory is a tool that can expose literature’s complicity with hegemonic power. In other words, literature is also part of a genealogy of ideas and institutions, and therefore theory can critically expose its place within that genealogy.

Coming back to Gilroy, he suggests that we read literature from the 17th century to the present as part of a “black Atlantic” context instead of as part of an “English” or “American” or even “African-American” context. How might Gilroy’s conceptual reframing of history, literature, and philosophy change how we read literature by such famous figures as John Milton, Walt Whitman, or Jane Austen as well as how we read literature by arguably more important figures such as Frederick Douglass, James Baldwin, or Toni Morrison? If we look at things from a black Atlantic perspective instead of from — let’s say — a British perspective, who appears to us to be the shining luminary figure that epitomizes the “best that has been said and thought” in our world? Perhaps English departments should all be requiring students to take a course on Frantz Fanon and Bob Marley instead of requiring a course on William Shakespeare?

May 26, 2010 Posted by | race, teaching, Theory--capital T | Leave a comment

Avatar and Postcolonial Theory

Probably no other movie will be watched by as many people this year or win quite so many awards as Avatar. If you haven’t seen it yet, you just might be the only one. And this makes me happy since I’m teaching postcolonial literature this semester, and Avatar provides a rather easy way for me to explain my subject to my students. The movie is basically about an indigenous, local culture being destroyed by greedy business interests that use high-tech military force in order to gain access to a valuable natural resource. Does the plot sound familiar? Although the movie is a science fiction story set in the future (year 2154) and the “native” Na’vi people on the planet Pandora have blue skin, the allegories to the history of colonization should be somewhat obvious to anyone who’s ever read a history book — Europe’s greed-driven conquest and exploitation of Native Americans, Asians, and Africans. In addition, critic Roger Ebert suggests the movie can easily be read as an allegory for contemporary politics because of the strong anti-war, anti-colonialism, and pro-environmentalist messages.

However, on the other hand, other critics have attacked the film for repeating colonial fantasy narratives such as the classic tales of of Pocahontas and Last of the Mohicans, not to mention more recent movies Dances with Wolves, The Last Samurai, and even another sci-fi movie, Dune. Just like in all these other colonial fantasy narratives, the protagonist of Avatar is a white male who is sent to subdue a far-away people, then comes to identify with those people after he falls in love with one of them, and eventually somehow assumes a leadership role in their doomed struggle against imperialism. So common is this narrative that one critic asks, “when will white people stop making movies like Avatar?” He claims such movies are basically symptomatic of white guilt about the history of atrocities against black, brown, red, and yellow peoples and attempt to symbolically redeme the audience. And for sure, almost all of these stories contain a redemption allegory in which the white male finds redemption for his past  by coming to a new Eden-like land and identifying with the victims there. Another critic dislikes the white character’s ability to literally become an incarnation (or avatar) of the other cultural identity, and he compares Avatar to earlier “black-face” narratives in which white characters not only “go native” but become even more adept at the native skills than the actual natives (like Tarzan or Natty Bumpo.)

Probably the most balanced and interesting response to the movie is this blog post by the Native American scholar and writer Daniel Heath Justice. Although he admits to how effective the movie was at evoking an emotional response in him, he also argues that the plot line of good guys vs. bad guys is too simplistic. In his view, the movie’s director James Cameron missed an opportunity to enable the American audience to really understand colonialism. Real colonizers are not cartoonishly evil people but often nice people who, because of their social position, do bad things. He worries that such a romantic good vs. evil story allows the audience to feel overly self-satisfied when they emotionally side with the good guys without really questioning how everyone is morally complicit with colonialism — even the “good guys.” In sum, the question that all these critics raise is why the white male hero is there in the first place? Why not just focus on the Na’vi characters and their struggle against the sinister forces of commercial empire? What is the difference between how the movie represents colonialism and how real colonization and oppression happens? And most importantly, why does the white male character become the leader of the “colored” (blue/red) people in their own struggle?

Hence, interestingly, we have two very contradictory readings of this movie. One reads it as an anti-colonialist story, and the other reads it as a colonialist story. And importantly the cultural identity of the reader is not the determining factor in how one reads it. Daniel Heath Justice observed that responses among the Native American community were very mixed, some liking the movie, some hating it, most somewhere in between; and as one can see from this little note in the right-wing National Review, some conservatives have claimed that the movie is anti-American because it inserts phrases from George Bush’s speeches about terror and preemptive strike into the mouths of the villains, but other conservative critics have praised it for its libertarian values. A few of my Oromo friends read the movie’s anti-colonialism and its reverence for a tree as an allegory for their own sturggle against Abyssinian imperialism in Ethiopia and the Oromo reverence for the Odaa tree, which is a symbol for their liberation movement. But other Oromo really can’t stand the fact that the Na’vi have to be saved by a white guy.

The diverse reactions to the movie, I think, indicate why postcolonial theory can be difficult, and hence there is quite a lot more that could be said about this movie than I have time to write about here. But there are a couple of points I’d like to make that I haven’t seen made yet, especially in regards to postcolonial theory. First, although it’s easy to compare the movie to films like Pocahontas or Dances with Wolves, there are important differences, and I think critics ought to pay attention to the differences as well as to the similarities. As the theorist Homi Bhabha observes, postcolonial writing and art often mimic colonial forms — just as a lot of colonial writing  and art were borrowing from indigenous forms and ideas — but mimic them with a difference that moves the narrative and the reader’s response in other directions.  In Avatar, for instance, the most obvious difference is that the Na’vi win. Also, while in the Pocahontas story the Indian betrays her people by falling in love with John Smith, Avatar‘s story is actually the opposite.

We might also consider too the essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?” by Gayatri Spivak. Her answer to that question is no, the most marginalized peoples can’t represent themselves. One of the strongest criticisms of Avatar is why the whole story is narrated from the white male character’s point of view. In this way the movie is similar to Dances with Wolves. The alternative to this scenario would seem to be to have the movie narrated from the point of view of one of the Na’vi — perhaps Neytiri’s character. But for Spivak, this would not be satisfactory either for several reasons. First, does Neytiri speak for all the Na’vi or just some of them? Second, along those lines, wouldn’t the movie then have to begin acknowledging the forms of oppression and disparity that existed within the Na’vi culture? After all, feminist and Marxist critics have reminded the upper-class, male postcolonial writers that things were not all roses before the colonizers came. Third, how would Neytiri or any of the Na’vi be able to speak about the colonial system unless she had spent some time within it or had some position of authority that would give her access to all that knowledge. Fourth, any articulation would really be a translation. Fifth, few of us really understand our identities — we are, in other words, when all things are considered, strangers to ourselves.

Perhaps a more avant-garde film could explore the multiple points of view and theoretical problems of representation, but such a film would miss the romantic inspiration of Avatar‘s plot; such romantic plots require a simple identification between audience and character, and good romantic plots aim to inspire and morally reform the members of the audience by means of that identification.

We might also consider Edward Said’s discussion of discourse in his classic book Orientalism and how the discourses of anthropology, biology, and other sciences all operated to give the colonizer expert knowledge of the exploited other and encouraged the colonizer to exagerrate the differences between himself and the other in ways that were dehumanizing, racist, and simply inaccurate. One of the things I appreciate about Avatar is that it included the ambivalent role of the scientist in the colonial project. Although the scientist is sympathetic to the Na’vi and even takes their side, it is precisely her knowledge and science that is used by the greedy bad guys and gives them the tools for how to win against the Na’vi.

But although the movie explores the problematic position of science, here the movie seems to repeat a lot of the biases of such colonial scientific discourse. Such discourse represented (and still represents) indigenous people as nature people, incapable of progress or development. Such representations were always used by the colonizer as the rationale for why it was OK (in the name of progress) to subdue them. Interestingly, Native Americans and environmentalists have turned that “nature people” image to their own advantage and used it as a tool for critiquing the environmentally destructive practices of capitalist imperialism. Although there are many debates about this among indigenous communities, many Native Americans have gladly identified with that image. In effect some Native American and postcolonial theorists have exploited the incoherence of colonialist ideologies and discourses that value pristine nature and human liberty but destroy them anyway.

What is perhaps most unrealistic about the movie is the strategies of the colonizers. In the movie, the evil military commander just wants to blow up the Na’vi, and so all the Na’vi unite to fight back. But historically, empires usually used a divide-and-conquer strategy. Years before any formal conquest took place, merchant colonizers formed alliances with segments of the indigenous society and sowed the seeds of discord. Some of the indigenous actually benefitted (often temporarily) from these alliances. The political reality was never a simple binary of good and evil. After all, why would the Na’vi be such good warriors if they weren’t already fighting amongst themselves before the humans came? Hence, for postcolonial theorists, one of the most challenging problems was (and still is) how to unite people under the banner of a nation or form pan-national or pan-ethnic movements. For sure, Avatar simplifies this problem in a troubling way by allowing the white, male character to do the uniting after he tames the giant flying Toruk. But I don’t think we should so easily dismiss alliances between native and non-native cultures. The Trinidadian scholar C. L. R. James was very clear about the power of such alliances in his famous history of the Haitian revolution, as were Linebaugh and Rediker in their history of the revolutionary Atlantic. And theorists Negri and Hardt indicate that social movements today in the age of globalization are necessarily transnational and multiethnic. And for sure, most oppressed people know that they can’t defeat an empire by themselves and need allies, so it is a bit ridiculous for anyone to simply criticize Avatar for exploring the possibility of that cross-cultural alliance. At the end of the day, the movie does dramatize the important possibility of a colonizer learning, growing, and changing his mind. And according to this CNN article, it would seem that Avatar is, if anything, having a significant effect on people’s minds.

January 28, 2010 Posted by | movies, Theory--capital T | 17 Comments


In class we deconstructed J-Lo’s pop hit “Jenny from the Block” and also the perhaps misleading “conclusion” to The Scarlet Letter that Hawthorne teases us with.  But in this post, I’d like to review deconstruction because I know that many of you still find it to be a strange and nebulous thing.  Since my own speciality is early American literature, I will try to perform several different readings of two famous paintings that I often teach in my English 346 class so you can see different ways of reading the same “text.” I will use a painting as my “text,” instead of a poem or novel, to save you from having to read pages and pages.

But, before I go on, I also want to remind you of something that Jaques Derrida said in his 1996 interview with Amnesty International at Oxford University that  we watched in class. His interlocutor asked him what deconstruction is, and Derrida added parenthetically “if it exists.”And his reason for saying that, of course, is because deconstruction is by definition not a definable method. In contrast, the scientific method has certain norms and assumptions for analyzing plants and animals just as the ”new critical” or “formalist” method has certain norms and assumptions for analyzing poetry in terms of metaphor, irony, thematic tension, etc. Deconstruction, essentially, is not a method but rather a strategy of reading that unravels contradictions, contexts, and indeterminacies within the text to reveal alternative meanings. For more on that, click [here].

Now let us look at an old painting from 1575 by Theodor Galle of Amerigo Vespucci discovering America.


How might we analyze this painting like a poem? Well, let’s first analyze it in the way that a traditional “new critic” or formalist might analyze a poem — perhaps the way you were taught in high school. The theme obviously is the discovery. Vespucci’s identity as an explorer is emphasized metonymically by the sextant he holds before him and by the ship in the background. America’s identity is represented metaphorically by the figure of a naked woman. Moreover, her leg and arm are V-shaped so that her knee forms a pointer that focuses the viewer’s attention on the background scene which is framed by the V of her arm. In the background (which is hard to see on the internet) are several cannibals roasting a human leg above a fire, a leg which is a mirror image of the woman’s leg. Not only is the background framed by the foreground, it is also an inverted image of the foreground. Thus, by means of the form of the painting, its structure, the painter meaningfully connects the foreground and the background, and in so doing, he creates an ironic tension between a sense of America as an innocent and fertile new world and a sense of America as dangererous and amoral.

OK, now let’s move on to demystification. Demystification would begin by pointing out the ideology of the Spanish conquest. Vespucci is represented as a heroic man and America as a woman willing to submit to him. The native Americans are represented as amoral cannibals who must be conquered and brought to God by the civilized Vespucci. That is the ideology that was invented to justify the European conquest of America, and maybe you were even taught that in your high school history class. To demystify this ideology, we would point out the reality, and the reality of Spanish conquest is that the Native Americans were not cannibals. In fact, many of the European sailors who were shipwrecked or stranded in America became cannibals themselves, and so the representation of the Native Americans as cannibals is what we might call, using psychoanalytic terms, a “displacement.” Also, the reality of Spanish conquest was hardly civilizing. Rather, it was a brutal massacre and enslavement of thousands and thousands of people. And certainly, the metaphor of America as a willing, naked woman is not too hard to demystify as something really, really creepy . . . or to use some fancy vocabulary instead of the word “creepy,” we might say Eurocentric and male chauvenistic.

OK, now for deconstruction. In some ways deconstruction will look a lot like demystification, but in other ways it will look a lot like formalism. The center of the European narrative of conquest is always the binary relationship between the discoverer and his discovery. However, the background image of the cannibals (the mirror image of the foreground) is the other “center” of this painting that reveals the psychological anxiety surrounding the colonial enterprize. The metonymic linkage of the woman and the cannibals creates a strange association between sex and violence — the sex and violence that became very much a part of the colonial project as a fantasy of European power — a fantasy that is expressed over and over again, not just in narratives of exploration such as Sir Walter Ralegh’s Beautiful Empire of Guiana but also in John Donne’s famous poem “To his Mistress Going to Bed.” In addition, Vespucci here is expressing his “manhood” metonymically through his “tool” of exploration (the sextant). He seems to want to reveal his superior knowledge, but ironically, this painting is not really about the knowledge he already has, but about the knowledge he seeks to gain and take from “America.” Metaphorically, “she” is the “knowledge” that he seeks, and her own knowledge of herself is repressed by the Latin inscription below the painting which says “Americen Americus retexit; semel vocavit inde. semper exitam” which can be translated into English as “Amerigo discovered (or, more literally, undressed) America, and once called, thenceforth she will always be awake (or, more literally, excited.)” The Latin draws attention to America as a repetition of Amerigo’s name (Americen Americus), and reminds us that “America” itself is a metaphorical figure (an other) through which Vespucci creates his own identity. In addition, we can intertextually link the sexual puns in Latin on discovery and undressing to the name for maps of the world commonly used in the 15th and 16th centuries — mappae mundi, which literally meant “clothes of the world.”  

Thus, not only is Vespucci’s knowledge expressed in sexual terms, but also in Eurocentric terms as it appears America is only a subject of knowledge (is only “awake”) when “she” is interpellated (or called out) by the European male. The figure of the cannibals in the background that represent Europe’s fear of America exposes both the European’s repression of his own selfhood as well as his repression of the Native American’s knowledge of themselves.

We can go on, but why don’t we stop there. This painting is telling a story, and, as I hope you can see, deconstruction is not so much a method as it is a strategy of reading that story that (1) highlights the the margins of the text (i.e., the cannibals in the background) rather than the center (i.e., Vespucci), (2) traces the odd and often contradictory associations among the different parts of the story, and (3) draws in the historical context and intertextual connections between this painting and other paintings, novels, desires, etc.

Let’s look at another painting, this one made more than two hundred years later by the famous poet and engraver, William Blake. The painting is called “Europe Supported by Africa and America.” How might you analyze this painting formally? How might you demystify it? How might you deconstruct it?


March 18, 2008 Posted by | Theory--capital T, Uncategorized | 4 Comments