Thursday, September 23, 2010

Colour and the Canon

My regular perusing on 3 Quarks Daily led me to this article by Lindsay Johns in which he offers a strong opinion on the "sensitivity" of education to the colonial history of thought. Much to highlight and much to explore.
As black people, we cannot change history, and should not try to reject knowledge because of its provenance.
I would find this statement more palatable if it were amended to read "wisdom" instead of "knowlege" for the simple reason that the "provenance" of wisdom is much less determinate than knowledge. As per yesterday's post, new knowledge is gained through a conquest of some kind, whereas wisdom is as likely to dismantle as it is to fortify.

Most welcome insight:
Terence, regarded as one of the founding fathers of western drama, and a seminal influence on Renaissance humanism, was in fact a freed black African slave from Carthage. Saint Augustine, philosopher, theologian and intellectual bedrock of Christianity, was North African, from modern day Algeria. In our consciousness, we have come to see these figures as white. So the way the canon has been refracted through racist lenses does need to be incisively and intelligently critiqued.
The uncomfortable truth that you will never hear me say in an education seminar:
But it is undeniable that man’s inhumanity to man is only one part of the human condition. The dead white men never had to face the evils of slavery or the physical and emotional oppression of racism. Thus their minds were freer to range over the great philosophical questions, metaphysical quandaries and cosmological dilemmas. In short, they have been allowed to address man in relation to the macrocosm, as opposed to just the microcosm.
He concludes that insofar as we want to teach humanity, we should consider the canon of "dead white men" profoundly relevant to every student. Interesting.


  1. 1. "new knowledge is gained through a conquest of some kind": And that's a bad thing? Seriously though, what do you mean? This is the kind of aphoristic statement that drives me up the wall; it's impossibly reductive. Are you saying that all knowledge is the product of an imperial project, which depends on classifications, or something along these lines? Surely this isn't always the case. Even when it is, to go back to my flippant initial response, is it necessary to endlessly lament the "breaking of eggs," as they say?

    (Sorry if this comes across too strong; you know I say it in a spirit of friendship and respect!)

    2. "The uncomfortable truth that you will never hear me say in an education seminar": Why? Because of the uncritical conformity of your classmates to well-intended but oversimplified anti-racism of your professor? I'd probably hold back too. BUT, I'll also add that I've participated in seminars with someone who occasionally voiced the sort of uncomfortable truths you present, and I'd hazard to guess he was only respected more for it. We were a very congenial bunch, though; it's definitely a risk.

  2. Julia! I'm glad to see the sun hasn't set on the ass festival. It would appear that I have some catching up to do.

  3. Jeremy:

    1. Yes. Impossibly reductive. Undoubtedly aphoristic. Of course, considering my subject matter over the last several years, something about these characteristics appeals to me!

    That said, I may just be accepting a narrowly modern understanding of knowledge as collection, even currency. It may be more the case that I simply don't know how to think about the distinction between knowledge and wisdom.

    2. This professor would spin my comments expertly. I'm nervous to give him too much ammunition. Moreover, this statement is but a partial truth. I am as critical of careless recourse to "the great philosophical questions" as I am of the careless employment of post-colonial theory. The right audience would know this, but I don't think I will reach that level of trust within my seminars this year. I have to temper my own assertions instead of expecting a degree of assumed balance.

  4. Not sure how a scholar would go about proving how humans perceive St. Augustine, but I think most semi-rational readers realize he was Carthaginian (ie moorish), and not caucasian (at least northern european cracker sort). As were many early church paddies.

    The dead white men never had to face the evils of slavery or the physical and emotional oppression of racism

    Another grand generalization which might hold more often than not but ...hardly a universal. Was say a Dostoyevsky who lived in poverty for many years another dead white male? Or Marx for that matter.

    Some colonial-leftist type of thinking works. Most doesn't. Even the grand racial categories might be questioned (themselves the product of 19th century thinking). Irishmen aren't anglos. Turks aren't really arabs. Frenchmen aren't germans,etc. except to multiculturalists.

    (Wow you're probably near.....Karla Homolka. Nietzschean sorta hottie if there ever wuz one.)

    [delete if irksome, bitte]

  5. J, I like to think that rational readers will see that the canon is by no means the creation of one "type" or one culture. It is not only a product of privilege nor of "the European West" (for example, I'd really like to see sensitive discussion of the Islamic influence on Medieval thought and, hence, on the entire birth of Renaissance and Modernity). Unfortunately, buzzwords like "racism" can shut down so much before it can really be thought. I'm definitely sympathetic to the so-called left, but not when it stockpiles accusations that only serve to silence complexity.


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