There was an interesting discussion a week back at Sherman Dorn’s blog about the Ward Churchill case. I’m sick of talking about Churchill, but the comments thread ultimately goes off in another direction that interests me more.
Dean Saitta observes in the comments, vis-a-vis Churchill’s scholarly errors, that “I’ve worked with native scholars, and I’ve learned from some of them that, at the end of the day, it’s the “general points” and “core truths” about their history that really matters, and what these points/truths mean for how they should live today. In other words, the issues are ones of both knowing and living.”
Ultimately I’m really concerned about a proposition that what we need is a kind of epistemological reform that legitimates any work that can be said to possess “core truths”, where said “core truths” are discerned by whether they reproduce epistemologies local to particular social groups or communities.
I think there’s every reason in the world to take a major intellectual interest in the problem of the difference between scholarly epistemologies and epistemologies outside the academy. I think that good scholarship can explore that difference in a great many ways, and be humble about that difference. For example, I think fiction can represent history in ways that scholarly history never can, in ways that are in some sense emotionally “true”. I think subalterns do speak, all the time, and that their experience and imagination of history is powerful, evocative, important.
I also think that the academy has in a great many ways done what Saitta calls for over the last two decades, that the humanities have invested enormous energy in thinking about other roads to truth, other ways of seeing and knowing, and particularly in the context of the relation between dominant and colonized populations. I find Saitta’s suggestion in the discussion thread at Sherman’s blog that the academy doesn’t seriously engage or struggle to understand Native American epistemologies baffling: there’s a pile of scholarly books as high as a sequoia that do just that. Postcolonial theory’s central problematic is the issue that Saitta frames as something that we have yet to grapple with or treat seriously.
I think it’s worth trying to figure out how intellectuals can operate in multiple arenas or discourses. Any anthropologist has to know how to sound “true” in conversation with ethnographic subjects and knows that this does not consist of verbatim readings of one’s scholarly work to them. Part of the trick of being a “public intellectual” is figuring out how to speak usefully and evocatively within the public sphere, which is not the same as speaking the narrower and more specialized language of scholarship.
It strikes me as at least a catastrophically bad idea to try and actively efface the difference between scholarly standards of truth and practice and those of other communities. Because if we say, “Well, we should be much more broadly constructed: let’s have many other competing epistemologies and standards of truthful practice inside of the academy” then what’s the difference between the academy and the world? What’s our claim about the specialized services we provide which students ought to pay money for, for which we should examine the work of scholars and decide if it is worthy of tenure or publication? If the academy incorporates all or most ways of thinking and being in the world, then a student is just as well off never going to college and simply living. This is a possible argument, I suppose, but I doubt Dean Saitta or any other academic who makes a similar claim in the context of postcolonial theory or other arguments means to make it.
Worse, I think one could suggest that there’s a kind of situational dishonesty in raising the question of epistemological diversity in relation to Churchill, in that this is a one-time offer extended only to the “native epistemologies” which create a need to extend some other standard in this one case. This too strikes me as a common issue when this sort of epistemological generosity pops up: it’s extended only to particular groups or ways of seeing the world, with a murky and implied political justification for doing so. Were it a general proposition, then we’d have to accept as valid the “core truths” of Holocaust revisionism (which, after all, conforms to the epistemological sensibilities or habitus of existing communities of human beings) or creationism (this seems a particularly powerful example, given how widely distributed and deeply rooted it is in actually existing communities). What possible premise could allow you to extend an epistemological gangplank just to Native Americans and then pull it up before anyone else scrambles on board save for a belief this is “empowering” those that we tautologically are assumed to think should be empowered?
Quite aside from the problem of assuming the political virtue of doing so, I think it’s anything but clear that legitimating a distinctly non-scholarly epistemology inside academic discourse empowers those that hold to that epistemology: more likely all it does is slightly change the configuration of turf wars for academic resources within universities. More, I’ve come to believe that there’s a kind of hidden ethnocentrism or contempt buried within the argument for this kind of inclusiveness, that somehow Native Americans [or insert your preferred group here] need to have special “discursive reservations” carved out for them because they shouldn’t be compelled to operate within epistemological modernity, or under the sign of Enlightenment universalism. This suggestion tends to run smack into an equally pronounced demand in many scholarly circles that we regard modernity or liberalism or Enlightenment universalism as a mutually constructed artifact created out of the simultaneous experiences of all human beings over the last 200 years, that we concede “multiple modernities”. It would be one thing, again, if we granted such “discursive reservations” to everyone, to all possible social groups. Say, if we said, “Well, the people inside the White House operate within the context of their own local knowledge, and have their ‘core truths’, who are we to demand that they suborn themselves to our ‘reality-based’ understandings?”
But it never works that way: it’s only certain groups that we’re told must have their actions or interpretations of the world placed outside the bounds of general standards of truth or knowledge, because somehow their consciousness is so fragile or alien that it cannot survive in anything other than a sheltered safe space of its own. If there is or are “Native American epistemolog(ies)” as Saitta suggests, it’s been produced in dialogue, not in isolation; it is part of the world we made together, not alien from it. Other ways of being and seeing don’t need separate-but-equal standards created solely on their behalf in order to exert a powerful humbling force on positivistic or empirical visions of scholarly truth.