“Core Truths”

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.

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6 Responses to “Core Truths”

  1. Sdorn says:

    Great comment!

  2. Bill McNeill says:

    Everone–Republicans, academics, Native Americans, everyone–is going to have their core truths, their ineffable emotional certainties that they privately think the whole rest of the world is crazy for not sharing. The problem is that at some point we all have to deal with people who don’t share those certainties, and short of giving up and letting everything devolve into a state of permanent tribal war, we’re going to have to find a way of talking to each other. This requires some shared epistomology that is good enough to capture the significant overlap between many disparate worldviews while not being perfectly faithful to any one. I’d nominate what you’re calling Enlightenment epistomological modernity (which to me means a good faith effort to find empirical grounds for truth, adhering to a particular style of rational argument, avoiding a well-known list of logical fallacies–I’m guessing you have roughly the same thing in mind) as that worldview, primarily because it possesses a rich reserve of self-correcting mechanisms (e.g. blogs like this one) for addressing inevitable conflicts. If you feel there’s some core part of yourself that can’t be expressed in modern enlightenment terms, that’s not surprising, because modernity is a lingua franca, not a native language.

    There are all the familiar hidden traps of power in this construct–people whose native epistomology just happens to be more congruent with the shared one are going to have an edge, etc.–but there are going to power traps in any worldview, and we have to pick one, so we might as well opt for something that aspires to universiality.

  3. dsaitta says:

    Hi Tim—your commentary is a breath of fresh air given the beating I’ve been taking on Pirate Ballerina this week for simply trying to engage in a civil conversation about the Churchill case and the side issues (which I agree are much more interesting) it raises. And I thank Sherman for directing me to this site for your very intelligent commentary.

    I actually agree with a whole lot, and perhaps even everything, that you say. In my day job I don’t simply make a case that native epistemologies have to be “ethnocentrically” isolated and respected for what they are. I’m not into “separate but equal”. I’m interested in, and have written about, convergences between native and western epistemologies, specifically American pragmatism. As you point out, many trees have given their lives so that scholars can engage indigenous epistemologies. My issue is whether these engagements are having any useful, practical effect on how we do business in dealing with issues that affect native peoples “on the ground”, as in the context of cultural repatriation efforts. I don’t think they are. And I was struck by how the CU investigative committee’s insensitivity to not only indigenous epistemologies but also alternatives within the western, modern tradition (apparent in the language used, the criteria privileged for evaluating competing knowledge-claims, the kinds of sources that were deemed legitimate for scholarly work, etc.) paralleled the kind of insensitivity that I see in my own discipline (for example, I recall Churchill being hammered for citing novels—fiction—in his work, when you and I seem to agree that fiction can “represent history in ways that scholarly history never can”, and that such citations have a place in academic work).

    I think we need some new thinking about these epistemological issues, especially in my field now that the post-colonial critique has opened things up not only to native peoples but all sorts of other historically-disenfranchised folk. As I try to narrow the gulf between the academic world and that of my living subjects, I’m routinely faced with having to navigate and negotiate between what I call official, vernacular, and critical accounts of how the world is and works. I don’t think there’s anything in the suggestions I made over on Sherman’s blog that necessarily invites epistemological anarchy or implies that we’re better off just living and not knowing. But I’m always open to constructive criticism, and I’m grateful to you and Sherman for prodding my thinking along. Very best to you, Dean.

  4. Timothy Burke says:

    I agree, yes, that some of the criticisms of Churchill in the report seem to verge on demanding that “good history” be a narrowly positivistic kind of history. Or that the criticisms of Churchill are evaluative. I’ve been very clear here about saying that I think he’s a hack, meaning that his work is not at all thoughtful or reflective, that it is about a procrustean fitting of history to fit a bill of polemical particulars, and so on. But you know, there are other tenured hacks out there, and even if you gave me ultimate power to toss out anybody I deemed a hack, I wouldn’t do it for a great many reasons.

    But I do think some of the charges stick no matter what epistemology you’re operating in–for example, the circular creation of your own source material for authoritative citation, or the plain misstatements of fact.

    On the gap between official, vernacular and critical accounts of the world, my favorite book is Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s Silencing the Past, which I think has a lot of great things to say about the meaning of that gap without demanding that we somehow efface ourselves in the face of it. I think that’s my main message: the existence of a gap is not a revelation of our own inadequacies, or something that we need to correct. It’s a design feature, not a bug.

  5. jpool says:

    Setting aside the Churchill case itself, I’d be interested in your thoughts about engaging with non-academic historical sensibilities or narratives in relation to cases from African history. I think of E. J. Alagoa essay in the African Words, African Voices collection about doing community history, or the coda in T. C. McCaskie’s most recent book in which he meets as a historian of Asante with local Asante Christians who are trying to make sense of their own indigenous traditions in relation to biblical narratives. I think of these two, because, while Alagoa offers what worked for him, they are more open engagements with such issues than programmatic solutions or the shunting off of such issues into the different-kind-of-source-material category.

    Of course the more immediate parallel to the problem that you were describing is something like J. B. Peires questioning the usefulness or relevance of his own work compared to the narrative that Xhosa people had constructed for themselves. While questions like this (or the similar ones raised by Ashis Nandy about the ways that academic history can get in the way of conflict resolution) are interesting politically and ethically, it’s hard to know what to do with them, short of to stop being historians.

  6. Timothy Burke says:

    I’ve thought about this a lot over the course of my career, and changed my basic position on the problem.

    I think first that it’s key to have an extremely polymorphous answer to the question, “What is history”, to take a keen interest in all the ways that knowledge of the past is produced and situated. I think you can both study the production of historical knowledge in its diversity and be humble in the face of it. E.g., we can recognize that scholarly history has limited uses, that it isn’t the be-all and end-all of knowing and using the past.

    I think that in the Africanist context, this also has to lead at some point to recognizing the limits of one’s ability to know some African frameworks for understanding history, especially how time and experience were understood in the past. That’s both evidentiary (how are we ever to know about something as nuanced as subjectivity in the past, or ways of understanding and representing social experience, given the lack of access we have to African history in general) and experiential.

    What I object to now is something of the abasement that you note in Peires, which is echoed across much of the field. Summarized crudely, it amounts to two linked propositions: that the account of African history which African subjects can produce is necessarily always preferable to that which foreign (or even local, sometimes) scholars can produce, and therefore, that the goal of the Africanist historian is to become as transparent to local knowledge as possible. A lot of that has to do with the otherwise fertile interrelationship between Africanist anthropology and history, because something of the same proposition appears in a good deal of anthropology as well.

    Sometimes this is accompanied by another propostion: that the project of African history is a restorationist project, a “giving back” of history to African audiences, a restitution for colonial violence. This is especially wrong-headed, I think. An American scholar working on African history, teaching in an American institution, is interpreting African history for his/her students, colleagues, and local audiences first and foremost. It’s not that what we do isn’t ultimately useful to Africans, but it’s not for them that we do it. They don’t need us to give them back their history: that’s just more White Man’s Burden stuff.

    So I’d say this: an end to abasement, to apologia, to the idea that somehow subjects always and inevitably understand their own past better than scholars or outsides, to the notion of history as restitutive gift. Scholarly history is only one kind of historical knowledge, and doesn’t serve all or most purposes well. But what it does serve is a kind of tightly constrained interest in a form of truth that is based on a common craft approach to working with evidence. This is not a “truth regime”, an arbitrary power/knowledge practice that merely reinforces an institutional monopoly of some kind. I really believe that scholars can come to know a kind of truth that stands apart from their institutions, that is real and powerful in its reality. It may be a small-t truth that stands alongside other kinds of knowing that are rooted in experience, in emotions, in imagination, in politics and so on, but it’s a worthy and useful output all the same. To produce it requires a kind of faith and trust in scholarship as an enterprise, a non-cynical regard for the standards that scholars live by, and a notion that the goods which scholarship delivers are potentially universal in their utility.

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