Monday, February 26, 2007

dead white males (part one)

This was originally going to be a St. Valentine's Day post but time ran away from me...

I was in high school when I first heard about Allan Bloom's book "The Closing of the American Mind". This was my first introduction to the "cultural wars"... the epic struggle between the Canons of Dead White Male civilization and Political Multi-Post-Cultural-Relativistic Correctness. By default I tended to cheer for the second camp but as I grew older I tended to soften up on this a little.

I once saw Mortimer Adler (one of the pioneers of the University of Chicago's Great Books Program) on C-Span defending his curriculum against the standard criticism. Why aren't there more works by women? What about people of color? What about the works of the Buddha or Confucius? Aren't those "great books" too? Adler's basic response was that by excluding non-Western voices he wasn't really making a judgement call. The point isn't that Shakespeare and Plato are really greater than Rumi and Confucius. The point is that books of the Western canon don't just exist in isolation, instead they reflect and respond to one another and participate in what he called the Great Conversation.

As Adler puts it:
"What binds the authors together in an intellectual community is the great conversation in which they are engaged. In the works that come later in the sequence of years, we find authors listening to what their predecessors have had to say about this idea or that, this topic or that. They not only harken to the thought of their predecessors, they also respond to it by commenting on it in a variety of ways."


And rightly or wrongly, Adler argued, non-Western and non-dominant voices were historically excluded from participation in that Conversation.

The corollary, of course, is that there could be other "canons of Great Books" which serve as milestones for those other conversations. Latin America, Africa and her Diaspora, the "Orient", Confucian civilization, etc. Instead of being bothered by Adler's Dead White Male canon, I should just figure out which conversations are "mine" and then swim the depths of those particular oceans of ideas.

For example (and this is where the Valentine's Day connection comes in) if I'm going to be an educated member of the Muslim community, I should probably try to be more familiar with the canons of the Muslim conversation. And so on the fourteenth I was thinking to myself that I should get around to reading at least one version of the great "Oriental" love story of Layla and Majnun. I already read Romeo and Juliet in high school, but even that work is somewhat derrivative of the former. In some ways, Layla and Majnun is also reminiscent of the Song of Solomon in the sense that both texts can be read literally as being about physical romantic love, or metaphorically as beaing about spiritual divine love.

More on the canon(s) later...

8 comments:

Bin Gregory said...

Instead of being bothered by Adler's Dead White Male canon, I should just figure out which conversations are "mine" and then swim the depths of those particular oceans of ideas.

So very well said. Looking forward to part 2.

Abdul-Halim V. said...

salaams, thanks for the comment. to be honest, i haven't totally thought through where i want to go with the rest. my initial thoughts would be to try to spell out what some of "my" canons look like, think about how they relate to one another, perhaps how do they relate to the Western one...

In an earlier post I mentioned the idea of getting more familiar with the various candidates for mujaddid. I imagine that they would provide a good start in terms of setting up the outlines of a "Muslim canon".

Do you have any thoughts on the subject?

Bin Gregory said...

1001 Nights, Layla and Majnun... I just finished reading Dalrymple's Last Moghul and he mentioned the storytellers of 19th century Moghul Delhi relating volumes of fantastical fairy tales about the adventures of Sayyidina Hamza, called the Dastan-i-Amir Hamza, complete with dragon slaying and princess rescuing. Complete fantasy of course, but wouldn't you love to read that, or read it to your kids? It think it would beat King Arthur or Robin Hood for personal relevance, you know? Slightly more historical would be the muslim oral histories of the previous prophets. The late Hajjah Amina Adil, the wife of Shaykh Nazim Haqqani, compiled four volumes of Turkish folk tales about all the prophets before Nabi Muhammad (saws), called Lore of Light. It really fills a gap.

Going beyond children's stories, I think canons are already well established for religious study through the madhabs and madrasahs: for SE Asia, they're know as the Kitab Kuning, the yellowed books that have been the backbone of the nusantara madrasah curriculum since forever. Check out this article:
http://www.let.uu.nl/~martin.vanbruinessen/personal/publications/kitab_kuning.htm
I've met products of that curriculum and they just live and breathe an Islamic ethic that is so impressive to me.

Beyond those random thoughts, I wouldn't be of much help to your endeavor: I never studied the humanities. I'd love some book recommendations though!

The Constructivist said...

I wonder if Adler's assumptions are based on decades-old scholarship that goes back to that Kipling "east is east and west is west and never the twain shall meet" b.s. (and forward to Huntington's Clash of Civilizations). What would Adler make of books like Amitav Ghosh's In an Antique Land, Prashad's Everybody Was Kung Fu Fighting, Mullen's Afro-Orientalism or fields like postcolonial studies that don't accept the idea of a necessary separation between world cultures' conversations? Even Nathaniel Hawthorne can be connected to both the western hemisphere and the eastern, as I've been blogging on at Citizen of Somewhere Else, building on the work of many scholars and novelists....

Have you read Kim Stanley Robinson's The Years of Rice and Salt? A major science fiction writer extends his interest in Budhhism and Islam and the many strands and tensions within (and between) them.

So to me, it's b/c "dead white males'" conversations have never been separate that I find Adler's ideas most disturbing.....

Abdul-Halim V. said...

bin gregory... yeah 1001 nights would probably be in the Muslim cultural canon, so would Layla and Majnun, Rumi, Hafez, and other mystical poets. Ibn Battuta too. Ibn Kathir etc.

I'm still loking for other canons though..

Abdul-Halim V. said...

constructivist...

thanks for the comments... i will need to look up some of those references you mentioned. I definitely want to read The Years of Rice and Salt now.. it sounds amazing. Does it really get into the ideas behind the various religions or are they just part of the setting of the story?

the Dune series is set in a distant future and includes some made-up future religious groups like the Zensunni wanderers (presumably a mix of Zen Buddhism and Sunni Islam). And I've seen a couple of current scholarly works which look at actual interactions and connections between the two worlds (e.g. I've blogged about The Tao of Islam before and there are some interesting works out there on Islam in China or comparisons between Taoism and Sufism.)

In terms of Huntington, I feel like I'm more sympathetic to him than you are. I mean, he's terrible in the sense that his way of thinking seems to encourage a zero-sum mentality and conflict. And especially in our small globalized world we do see many of the barriers between civilizations getting disolved and broken and blured etc. in *certain* ways.

You definitely see a large amount of bluring in cosmopolitan environments like university campuses but I'm not sure if that should count as the "real world".
I think that if you compare the "heartlands" of the various civilizations, Huntington's vision will have a certain amount of validity. (e.g. Serbian acts of genocide against Muslims, conflicts between Hindus and Muslims on the Sub-continent, African/American disagreements about homosexuality and the roles of women in the Anglican communion, the Paris riots, Darfur, anti- (Muslim) immigrant sentiments in Europe, etc. )

I have hope that Huntington isn't the last word and that it is possible to bridge and transcend some of these civilizational barriers but I wouldn't deny that they exist. There is definitely some work which needs to be done.

The Constructivist said...

To be honest, I've read more of the reviews of Huntington than of his actual work, which is why he was a throwaway line. I don't intend to deny civilizational barriers exist, in the sense that people make them through words and deeds, but I think there's far more crossing going on in people's everyday lives than we tend to be aware of (cf. Ghosh in particular on this--of course his book is also about how fragile and erasable the actual history of cross-continental interactions is). Or, to look at the problem from the other direction, check out Mahmood Mamdani's When Victims Become Killers for an explanation of how much work it took to make the Hutu/Tutsi border (within a shared regional civilization) become such a genocidal barrier. I like your contrast of "heartlands" within the "borderlands" metaphor I was implicitly working with, but I guess my point is that it's harder to separate the two out than your distinction makes it out to be. Borders in the heart/heart in the borders. I don't think this is just academic or just literary or just theoretical.

What I just wrote is too abstract, though. Check out what I've been doing at Citizen of Somewhere Else when you get a chance.

BTW, Robinson definitely gets into the multiple traditions within Islam and Buddhism, and struggles among them as well as between them. They're not just background or exoticism. It's been a while since I've read it, but he is working against the idea that without European Christianity the world would have remained stuck in the dark ages, although perhaps he goes too far the other way in implying that the major patterns of the past 500 years in his novel are mostly similar to our own history. For what it's worth, he seems to be big into Sufi thought.

The Constructivist said...

one more thing--here are some of the political implications of buying into the Adler/Huntington assumptions. I think we agree with DeLong's critique--am I right?