Thursday, April 15, 2010
“Mediating and Defining the Essential Elements of Our Humanity”
Of all the reading I did for my work on Ahdaf Soueif’s In the Eye of the Sun last year, this is the passage that I have thought about the most since, and which I think may be the starting point for my next round of research and writing. It’s from John Marx’s essay “Postcolonial literature and the western literary canon,” in the Cambridge Companion to Postcolonial Literary Studies.
Appiah goes so far as to contend that postcolonial literature helps engender a new sort of humanism based not “as the older humanists imagined, [on] universal principles or values,” but on the reading of postcolonial fictions like Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions (Appiah 2001: 224). “What is necessary to read novels across gaps of space, time, and experience,” he argues, “is the capacity to follow a narrative and conjure a world: and that, it turns out, there are people everywhere more than willing to do” (224–25). Because it maintains an authority to mediate local culture, postcolonial literature reveals that cultural differences can be overcome, as demonstrated by what Appiah describes as a basic human capacity to read and understand literature (at least of the narrative sort). Without sacrificing its point of entry into literary curricula as the representative of cultures repressed by imperialism, therefore, postcolonial literature seems poised to acquire the responsibility once claimed by the Western canon of mediating and defining the essential elements of our humanity. As postcolonialist critiques of the West have taught us, this cannot be regarded as an apolitical stance. Nor does it seem inherently conservative, in the strict sense of the term.
To me, there’s an initial plausibility to this suggestion: the humanistic assumptions that have been discredited (though also defended) in academic theoretical circles still have a lot of traction in the wider world, and they underlie a lot of recent popular examples of what we might, loosely, call ‘literature about others’ (The Kite Runner, for instance, or Rooftops of Tehran or The Wasted Vigil): the idea, for instance, that readers not only want to but can step, imaginatively, outside their own norms and enhance their sympathetic understanding of the lives and values and perspectives of people quite different from themselves. I realize that the examples I’ve given are not strictly ‘postcolonial,’ but they are certainly positioned at various cultural crossroads and seek, as Marx suggests postcolonial literature does, to play a moral and pedagogical role in the interests of “mediating and defining the essential elements of our humanity.” I think they are also read in that spirit, of finding common human ground through stories. I find this angle on a renewed or revised (new and improved?) humanism tempting--at least, tempting to explore further. How does it strike other people?
As you may know, Rohan, the evolutionary critics have been arguing that our “evolved human nature” allows us to read past and through cultural differences. Check out Michelle Scalise Sugiyama, Cultural variation is part of human nature: Literary universals, context-sensitivity, and “shakespeare in the bush." Here’s the abstract:
In 1966, Laura Bohannan wrote her classic essay challenging the supposition that great literary works speak to universal human concerns and conditions and, by extension, that human nature is the same everywhere. Her evidence: the Tiv of West Africa interpret Hamlet differently from Westerners. While Bohannan’s essay implies that cognitive universality and cultural variation are mutually exclusive phenomena, adaptationist theory suggests otherwise. Adaptive problems ("the human condition") and cognitive adaptations ("human nature") are constant across cultures. What differs between cultures is habitat: owing to environmental variation, the means and information relevant to solving adaptive problems differ from place to place. Thus, we find differences between cultures not because human minds differ in design but largely because human habitats differ in resources and history. On this view, we would expect world literature to express both human universals and cultural particularities. Specifically, we should expect to find literary universality at the macro level (e.g., adaptive problems, cognitive adaptations) and literary variation at the micro level (e.g., local solutions to adaptive problems).
the idea, for instance, that readers not only want to but can step, imaginatively, outside their own norms and enhance their sympathetic understanding of the lives and values and perspectives of people quite different from themselves. ... I find this angle on a renewed or revised (new and improved?) humanism tempting--at least, tempting to explore further. How does it strike other people?
I can put my own reaction in very unsophisticated terms: suppose we are trending toward a one-world culture, like in Isaac Asimov novels. We are becoming the Earth People.
If this is the case, then the people portrayed in “The Kite Runner” and the readers of that book who live in the industrialized West are both, at this moment in history, negotiating their mutual membership in a single (complex of course) culture.
Analysis of the interaction between two or more cultures is what led to academic discredit of the humanistic assumptions of the 19th century. However, analysis of the construction of a new culture is a different problem altogether and need not lead to the same conclusions.
Having taught Bohannan’s essay many times, I’ve been repeatedly struck by how it exemplifies what it argues. She’s telling a story that turns out to be universally intelligible (one part of her argument about Hamlet) and open to various coherent interpretations (another part of her argument about Hamlet). Sugiyama, I would argue, is missing Bohannan’s point on both these levels of articulation. I don’t see any significant difference between what Bohannan is really arguing and what Sugiyama says she is.
Why does it have to be postcolonial literature that could serve this role? If there’s a universal human drive to tell and talk about stories, wouldn’t any story do?
wouldn’t any story do?
I think part of what’s at stake here is moral authority, though that’s probably a reductive way to put it. Marx talks about having a “responsibility”: I don’t think he means that post-colonial literature or writers must now take up the “burden: of civilizing so much as that this work will now become the locus for that kind of conversation.