Monday, July 5, 2010

"I" Is An Other

While I was in Korea I read one of Noam Chomsky's two new books, New World of Indigenous Resistance (City Lights Books). Actually it's not really by Chomsky in the way that, for example, his other new one, Hopes and Prospects (Haymarket Press) is, even though he gets top billing. He gave three interviews to co-editor Lois Meyer. The first two were translated into Spanish and given to a passel of indigenous activists, writers, and academics from Latin America, who read them and wrote articles that in principle responded to them. The articles were translated into English, Chomsky read them and commented on them in the third interview. Then co-editor Benjamin Maldonado Alvarado wrote a response to Chomsky, and Meyer wrote "An Open-ended Closing" with two other "bilingual white women" as they describe themselves, all academics.

The result is a hefty volume of 400 pages that nonetheless seemed disappointingly insubstantial to me. Many of the responses addressed Chomsky only tangentially, quoting him out of context and not understanding him very well. The writers had their own axes to grind, but even so the content they offer is rather thin. Writing in response to someone else can help a writer to focus, but most of these writers chose to go off in a different direction; I had the feeling that they were just repeating their own favorite stories and tropes. Even from this point of view, the writers seemed to me to have little to say. I was eager to learn more about what was going on in Latin America's indigenous movement, but there wasn't much. Sometimes I think that different countries, even within the European and European-influenced academic paradigm, have different conventions for scholarly writing that I haven't yet learned to adjust for. Some of the authors, I believe, would argue that, being indigenous, they are working outside that paradigm. I don't think so.

At the core of the book are two Spanish words: comunalidad and interculturidad. Comunalidad, explains co-editor Meyer in her introduction, "comes from the Oaxacan indigenous context" (31) and means "the principle and practices of communal life and the source of indigenous identity and resistance" (30-31). Interestingly, given the term's importance, "Several commentators from Central and South America appear to misinterpret comunalidad as referring to the more limited meaning of 'community' (comunidad)" (31). The editors leave interculturidad untranslated in hopes of keeping it as an alternative to "multiculturalism," which implies "a status-quo, non-critical 'appreciation of other cultures' approach to diversity; in contrast, the term interculturidad has evolved precisely to recognize and challenge the disparities of power and status between cultural groups in society" (ibid.). "Multiculturalism," of course, has acquired the same apolitical connotations in the US. But most of the contributors to New World of Indigenous Resistance freely use "Western" academic jargon and concepts fluently more than they use comunalidad or interculturidad; whatever roots they keep in indigenous communities are barely visible at best. (This, as I've pointed out before, is common among "Third World" academics, especially those who work in the metropole: despite their attacks on The West, they are very much of it.)

There are plenty of problems here. Meyer writes (10):
Our commentators denounce the marginalization, exclusion, and repression of indigenous peoples as it is evidenced in references to the "Other." When any alternative ideology and lifeway can be dismissed by those in power as the "Other," Western ideological hegemony flaunts its linguistic and conceptual impunity.
Whew! "The Other" is a sort of technical term in certain areas of the humanities. It isn't used, from what I have seen, by "those in power" (whom Meyer here treats as "The Other"), but by their (mostly academic) critics, who don't put the word in quotes. Those in power have other words for the Others they wish to dismiss and marginalize. But more important, most of the commentators in this book constantly divide the world into the two camps of Us (the indigenous) and Them (the Others: white, Spanish-speaking, urban, schooled, middle-class, Western, European, Northern, etc.). That's not necessarily a bad thing under the circumstances, but it does mean that Meyer is misusing the term, and doesn't seem to understand it. By presenting it as a tool of Them, Meyer blinds herself to its use by Us -- or rather, from her (white, American) perspective, the good Other, the indigenous.

This internal split is very common in academic writing by kindly Westerners who'd like to share the non-Westerner's aura of authenticity, but know very well they can never enter the charmed circle. So the writings in New World of Indigenous Resistance include a lot of linguistic determinism (the idea that language utterly controls the way people think, ignoring among other things the creative function of language), linguistic essentialism (the idea that meaning somehow magically inheres in words, often tied to racial essentialism -- language as an expression of "blood"), and romanticizing the Other, which is just the flip side of demonizing the Other. Meyer writes, for example:
From our perspective in the United States it is easy to dismiss as remote and exotic the schools described by Soveranes, Chen, Mamani, Zibechi and others. Language nests in Oaxaca, educational codices in the re-created schools of Guatemala, and Brazilian schools in movement without roofs, seem a far cry from our test-driven schools that seek uniform, so-called world-class scripted curricula [394].
What do you mean "our," paleface? From Meyer’s perspective, it’s easy to romanticize and idealize these schools as remote and exotic. Notice her reference to "codices", which means "books." "Codex" is the technical term used by scholars for a book made by binding pages together, as opposed to a scroll. In the Old World it was developed by the Romans and early became the preferred format for the first Christian writings. The codex was also invented independently in the Western Hemisphere by the Maya, so it's no more uniquely "indigenous" than it's uniquely "Western." Meyer's use of the term mainly serves, deliberately or unconsciously, to exoticize these books made by Guatemalan schoolchildren. The same goes for the "Brazilian schools in movement without roofs," which are a product of poverty rather than anything wonderfully indigenous.

Chomsky himself sits athwart that line, thanks to his ancestry and upbringing (45-46):
... My family happened to be first-generation immigrant working class, most of them. Many of them never went to school, perhaps no further than fourth grade. But they lived in a world of high culture -- the Budapest String Quartet, debates about the latest performance of a Shakespeare play, Freud, Stekel, every possible form of political radicalism -- in my life, it was the most lively intellectual culture I have ever been in, including the Harvard Faculty Club. But mostly these were barely-educated, unemployed working-class people, seamstresses, shop boys, that sort of thing. And this was a large part of the culture of the people -- I do not want to say "popular culture" because that makes us think of television sitcoms -- but the culture really of the people, which was complex and rooted in their own traditions. The culture of the people absorbed a lot of world culture but also had its own independent roots and character. Well, all this gets leveled in educational homogenization. Now it is a very different popular culture.
Sigh. One piece of baggage Chomsky brings with him from his Old-Left background is a distrust of commercial entertainment; given the twin vocations that have driven him for the past sixty years, political dissent and linguistics, there's no pressing reason for him to have rethought it. The arts don't seem to interest him much, time is limited, so why turn his attention to jazz, rock'n'roll, movies, or sitcoms? (Raymond Williams, however, also from an Old-Left working-class background, wrote thoughtfully about just this issue.) Although I also value European "high culture," it is not "culture of the people" except insofar as they appropriated it for their own use. The "people" have also appropriated, reworked, and turned corporate cultural production to their own ends, from garage bands to hiphop. But that's a topic for another day, I think.

Several commentators in the book quote or refer to this paragraph from the interviews with Chomsky, but they don't seem to understand the situation he's talking about. Chomsky's European Jewish immigrant relatives on his mother's side rejected the traditional religion and cultures of European Jewry and embraced modernity at the same time they criticized it. Most of them probably knew Yiddish as their mother tongue, and there was a brief flowering of Yiddish writing and theater in those days, which ended with World War II and the rise of Israel. On his father's side, "they reverted to even more immersion in Orthodox Jewish practice once they got here, as compared with the shtetl in the Ukraine, where they were from. But it was very much a transplanted East European shtetl. So, my grandfather -- who lived here for 50 years -- never learned a word of English and lived in a four-block area between the synagogue and the butcher store, and his daughter's house where he lived, and his friends and so on."

Chomsky attended an "experimental" progressive school in Philadelphia until he went to high school, and he speaks highly of that experience. But that too was a "Western" institution, influenced by the thought of the philosopher John Dewey. (Which doesn't mean that Dewey and his followers were uniformly progressive: Chomsky talks elsewhere about "people of the John Dewey circle, who actually took pride in the fact that for the first time in history, according to their picture, a wartime fanaticism was created, and not by military leaders and politicians but by the more responsible, serious members of the community, namely, thoughtful intellectuals.") Chomsky has often talked and written about the structure and function of schooling in the US. For example, in Understanding Power (Pantheon, 2002, p. 236):
My oldest, closest friend is a guy who came to the United States when he was fifteen, fleeing from Hitler. He escaped to New York with his parents and went to George Washington High School, which in those days at least was the school for bright Jewish kids in New York City. And he once told me that the first thing that struck him about American schools was the fact that if he got a “C” in a course, nobody cared, but if he came to school three minutes late he was sent to the principal’s office – and that generalized. He realized that what it meant is, what’s valued here is the ability to work on an assembly line, even if it’s an intellectual assembly line. The important thing is to be able to obey orders, and to do what you’re told and to be where you’re supposed to be. The values are, you’re going to be a factory worker somewhere – maybe they’ll call it a university – but you’re going to be following somebody else’s orders, and just doing your work in some prescribed way. And what matters is discipline, not figuring things out for yourself, or understanding things that interest you – those are kind of marginal: just make sure you meet the requirements of a factory.
But so have many other Western intellectuals and teachers, including Paul Goodman, John Holt, Herbert Kohl, Gerald Bracey, and Alfie Kohn, and they have done so within an indigenous American framework. (I should write sometime about the essentializing of terms like "indigenous" and "native.") By the time I encountered Chomsky's analysis of American schooling, there was little in it that was new to me. I've since learned that there's always been a tension in Western education between rote learning, traditionally enforced by the rod, and dissenters:
The most eminent European and English humanists (including Erasmus, Sir Thomas More, and Thomas Elyot) were unanimously averse to the routine use of the rod and, like Roger Ascham, insisted that “young children were sooner allured by love than driven by beating, to attain good learning.” [David Savran, Taking it like a man: white masculinity, masochism, and contemporary American culture. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998, p. 18]
So I'm also wary of attempts to cast the resistance of indigenous people in Latin America and elsewhere, as honorable and courageous as it is, as the Good Other in opposition to the Bad Other of Western "dominator culture." Certain remarks and asides by some of the contributors to New World of Indigenous Resistance suggest to me that there are problems of power and domination in indigenous culture, and that it is more diverse and conflicted than they or their North American patrons want to admit. But I've been sitting on this post for too long, so I'll conclude it here and take up these matters again, before too long I hope.