Why the question marks in the title of this article? Because at least two of those terms have come under scrutiny of late, in the field of critical thought. The term ‘male’, an apparent expression of gender, is no longer automatically assumed to be an expression of some inner essence or monolithic construct but rather of a ‘stylized repetition of acts’ (Emma Clery, paraphrasing Judith Butler, 161) or repetitive acts of performance (Brenda Silver, similarly paraphrasing, 323). I selected these two citations to show that this way of thinking is now influential across an increasingly wide field of literary criticism, though it probably has much further to go.
The term ‘white’ has been argued to be ‘pseudoscientific’ and, along with other assignments of colour such as ‘black’, ‘red’, or ‘brown’, an arbitrary construct not a report of reality (Gates, 6). The term ‘live’ might as well have its own question mark, just to be neighbourly with the other two.
If you are wondering why I’m even addressing these issues, I can tell you that it was because the item pictured here arrived in one of my social media feeds today. There was a time when such a collection of statements was looked on as radical. Now, I’m afraid, it is hackneyed and old hat. The days when one could sneer at ‘dead white guys’ are over – a hell of a lot of people are (arbitrarily) white, half the world is male, and everybody dies.
As always, however, anyone who is of a conservative persuasion need not imagine that they can come here for comfort. Wrong shop. The most you will get from me is that you are free to argue from your perspective – as indeed one modern school of thought does – that there are universal truths. But be prepared, when you enter the arena of debate, to be challenged. We all should be, whoever we are.
By and large, however, these days the sentiments expressed in that social media meme seem like a bit of an aunt sally – a target set up by someone to shoot down on their own – to be circulated amongst their friends. Not debating, just an exercise in confirmation bias. There is more than a hint of the pejorative in the way ‘white’ is used, but let’s have a look at the initial thesis that ‘white academia’ is out to fool you; I’ll do this, if you don’t mind, by reference to my personal experience.
Posit: ‘white academia’ intends to fool you into thinking that the greatest authors were and ever will be white men.
Since 2010 I have been in ‘academia’ in the United Kingdom, studying literature. During that time, the works presented to me included those by: Aphra Behn, Emily Brontë, Jane Austen, Elizabeth Bishop, Jamila Gavin, Beatrix Potter, Philippa Pearce, Mildred Taylor, Nadine Gordimer, Katherine Mansfield, Virginia Woolf, J.K. Rowling, Louisa M. Alcott, Rebecca West, Daphne DuMaurier, Elizabeth Bowen, Angela Carter, Toni Morrison, Radclyffe Hall, Anne Bannon, Audre Lorde, Jeanette Winterson, Sarah Waters, Salman Rushdie, James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw, Sam Selvon, Christopher Okigbo, Abdulrazak Gurnah, Gurinda Chadha, Beverley Naidoo, V.S. Naipaul, Arundhati Roy, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, and Hanif Kureishi.
Of course on its own this list is meaningless. Yes, I studied ‘male’, ‘white’ authors from Shakespeare to Cormac McCarthy. But it was in academia in my mainly ‘white’ native country that I first learned to challenge the concept of the literary canon, that I first considered ‘post-colonial’ literature, that I first encountered the politics of gender being applied to literature. Not from a social media meme. The writer(s) of that meme need to catch up.
Not that this implies that the book is closed. Challenging established views should have the aim of opening things up to enquiry, not the setting up of a new establishment, not the installation of a new non-white, non-male pantheon. Critical thought is not in the business of creating new norms.
Posit: ‘white academia’ intends to fool you into thinking that the most beautiful city in the world is Paris.
The concept that beauty is subjective, however, was certainly around more than two thousand years ago, at which time Paris did not even exist, let alone the boulevards and monuments of Haussmann’s Paris. Aesthetic though those works be, they were constructed on the orders of a despot. None of these facts have any bearing on whether you consider Paris beautiful – chacun à son goût – and frankly the only public expression of preference I have ever heard was in a Cole Porter song from 1953, and not in academia.
Posit: ‘white academia’ intends to fool you that every great philosopher came out of Europe, and that Europe is the pinnacle of civilisation.
‘Europe’ is as arbitrary a concept as ‘white’ and ‘male’. I could almost argue that ‘philosophy’ is also. The word is Greek, true, but I doubt if its modern application would be understood by its originators. I know of few people who would not recognise the name Confucius, and the status of European civilisation has been under challenge since at least the time of Karl Marx. Catch up!
There is of course a much more fundamental problem, certainly in the study of literature. Literature is – it is almost unnecessary to state – the product of a literate culture. Both words have the same root. Gates reminds us (7-9), by reiterating the story of Phylllis Wheatley, an African slave, who was examined by a panel of educated and propertied men of the city of Boston MA one day in 1772, to ascertain whether a collection of poems published under her name were actually her own work, and whether she had sufficient understanding and intellect to have created them, that literacy was supposed to be a mark of intellect. Gates asks an important question about this, and supplies a speculative answer:
Why was the creative writing of the African of such importance to the eighteenth century’s debate over slavery? I can briefly outline one thesis: after Rene Descartes, reason was privileged, or valorized, above all other human characteristics. Writing, especially after the printing press became so widespread, was taken to be the visible sign of reason. Blacks were “reasonable,” and hence “men,” if – and only if – they demonstrated mastery of “the arts and sciences,” the eighteenth century’s formula for writing.
Literacy, therefore, was the yardstick with which to measure intelligence. This seemed reasonable to the men of the Enlightenment, since their education would have included the study of Greek and Latin texts, which had transmitted the knowledge and wisdom of the classical age down to them – it’s philosophies, its rhetoric, its poetry – along with the works of the literate men of their own language.
The creative use of literacy produced what we now call literature. That term, in its familiar usage in the English language, is no more than five hundred years old, and certainly since its earliest recorded use it has been refined and redefined. Many civilisations have been literate and have produced text. China devoted time and care to calligraphy, and has records that go back millennia. Ancient Egypt covered walls with square metre after square metre of hieroglyphs. Jewish culture produced the books of Law and of the Prophets. To define any of these products as ‘literature’ we have to apply our own European – more, Anglo-centric – concept to them. In an earlier article I questioned whether the Egyptians had a word for ‘art’; I raise a similar query regarding ‘literature’.
Moreover, the application of this concept and its attendant criteria privileges societies and cultures that went down the route of committing things to writing. Who is to say that a griot who is capable of memorising whole histories and of re-telling them creatively is any less intelligent that someone who can read or write, simply because he does not?
The fundamental problem resolves into this, therefore:
When we speak of ‘post-colonial’ literature, we speak of the adoption, first of all, of a colonial concept by the formerly-colonised. They’re entitled to, of course, if they want to do so, but they should be aware that they have in their hands something that was handed down to them be people who considered themselves their masters. Furthermore, if Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, for example, should speak of himself as a ‘Kenyan author’, he would be defining himself by a set of arbitrary lines drawn on a map by the former colonial power. They have put themselves in an analogous position to Phyllis Wheatley and to George Moses Horton:
If blacks could write and publish imaginative literature, then they could, in effect, take a few “giant steps” up the chain of being in an evil game of “Mother, May I?” For example, scores of reviews of Wheatley’s book argued that the publication of her poems meant that the African was indeed a human being and should not be enslaved. Indeed, Wheatley herself was manumitted soon after her poems were published. That which was only implicit in Wheatley’s case would become explicit fifty years later. George Moses Horton had, by the middle of the 1820s, gained a considerable reputation at Chapel Hill as “the slave-poet.” His master printed full-page advertisements in Northern newspapers soliciting subscriptions for a book of Horton’s poems and promising to exchange the slave’s freedom for a sufficient return on sales of the book. Writing, for these slaves, was not an activity of mind; rather, it was a commodity which they were forced to trade for their humanity.
Is post-colonial literature a commodity that authors from the formerly colonised lands are forced to trade for a position in the world where literacy engenders literature and international prizes, with their attendant prestige, are awarded for it? Should that be the criterion on which we judge the worth of newly-independent nations, confined in arbitrary lines on the map, and people whose forebears found themselves colonised? Are people not worthy of respect without having to continue to have to jump through the hoops which our culture sets up? Is respect in fact not something they are due as human beings, something to which they are already entitled, and not something which is in our gift?
We have strange ideas about intelligence and intellect. We count people as less intelligent because, for example, they have not developed technology or do not live in towns. In doing so we fail to see the self-sufficiency that may be in their way of life and the sophistication that may be in their cultures. More importantly, as I mentioned in a previous article, we fail to see ourselves. We fail to see that although we have used our intellect to build cities and develop intricate technology, we are myopic about the problems inherent in all we do. We are knowledgeable but not wise. We know less than the aboriginal group in Australia who have the proverb “The more you know, the less you need.” Our greatest folly, the greatest hole in our wisdom, is judging other people by our standards, and the greatest disservice they can do to themselves is to fall into step with us.
As a parting thought to my readers, I would like to say this. Amongst our own ancestors were illiterate folk who raised ‘standing stones’. They knew their material, they handled it, they set it up. In Stenness, on the Orkney mainland, is a grouping of such stones arranged so that if one stands in a certain spot one’s voice is amplified, so it can be heard a considerable distance away. Popularly this is supposed to be happenstance. I suggest it is deliberate, the work of people who knew more about the characteristics of stone than the average moderner knows about the working of the apps on their phone. I suggest that it is the product of great intelligence, and that the stones are placed to be useful to the parliament or folk-meet of the people who set them up. I suggest that the gulf between us and them is the difference between a simple technology used to greatest effect that is now forgotten and dismissed, and a complex technology that is out-of-control and yet is celebrated. I know which I would prefer to use as a criterion.
Clery, Emma J. “Gender.” Cambridge Companion to Jane Austen, 2nd edition,
3rd printing, edited by Edward Copeland & Juliet McMaster. Cambridge
UP, 2014, pp.159-175.
Gates, Henry L. Jr. “Editor’s Introduction: Writing “Race” and the
Difference It Makes.” Critical Enquiry, vol.12 No.1, 1985, pp.1-20.
Silver, Brenda R. Virginia Woolf Icon. Chicago UP, 1999.