Back to Not Out of Africa

Maybe because it’s April, I’m in one of my periodic bouts of skepticism about blogging. I spoke earlier this semester to a class about my practice as an online writer, and the occasion made me realize that I’m really starting to feel gun-shy about some discussions of academic policy and scholarship. That’s partly because of a long-time concern about whether I’m repeating myself, but also that I don’t simply want to serve as the perpetual straight man in someone else’s Punch-and-Judy show.

I feel like academic blogging should reflect some of the characteristic, defining virtues of scholarly and intellectual work. No, not densely unreadable prose, not overspecialization, not the proverbial viciousness of small stakes. Thoughtfulness, a commitment to look at issues from many perspectives, a potentially self-critical embrace of skepticism, a belief that knowledge matters. Even if it’s only to keep in practice as a skilled thinker and rhetoritician, an academic blogger ought to be able to get inside the claims and logic of an intellectual with whom they disagree and see how and why those arguments work for that person or school of thought.

If we’re trying to preserve, restore or even invent for the first time a better, more effective and more open academy, those strike me as foundational commitments, whether the goal is a Great Books-based “core curriculum” or an eclectic curriculum with little internal structure or design. No sacred cows, all ideas and claims subject to ongoing skeptical review, all teachers and students committed to both persuading and being open to persuasion. Most importantly, making arguments that are proportional to the evidence or knowledge that we bring to the table, and offered provisionally as a result.

I have some basic theoretical, conceptual, political and institutional predispositions (as we all do) and those tend to incline me in particular ways when I’m thinking about any scholarly or intellectual claim I come across. My confidence level and specificity of argument go way up in certain domains (African history, popular culture, information technology and new media, computer games and virtual worlds, the comparative history of imperialism, the history of hygiene and beauty, and so on). I still feel on solid ground if I’m speaking to claims made in most fields of historical study, or in anthropology, or in cultural studies, but I become more conscious that there may be specific arguments, ideas and facts which I have to be humble about. As I go further away from my own areas of competency, my views may grow more tentative and vague. I still think they’re valuable in that form. I still think I have something worth saying about why civil engineering or neurobiology or quantum mechanics might matter, and what claims they might make which I need to take seriously and which I might view with some skepticism. At that point, however, not only do I need to be humble and know where generalist tools cannot take me, I also need to be genuinely curious, to ask other scholars and intellectuals to explain or translate their knowledge to me and trust in their representations. Up to a point: I don’t have to concede to a particular neurobiologist that human consciousness is nothing more than a machine or an epiphenomena, or trust the civil engineer that public money needs to be spent on one purpose and not another. I do need to understand why they think so, though, and not just blithely override their claims based on more general intuition or inclination.

Excuse the throat-clearing. Some of what got me thinking about these issues was looking back over past entries in preparation for my guest appearance. The immediate goad, though, was a post about classicist Mary Lefkowitz’ work on Afrocentrism, and her new memoir about her experiences after publishing Not Out of Africa.

Whether we’re talking about the original exchanges between Lefkowitz and Martin Bernal or the way that exchange is recalled and repackaged for Culture Wars 2008, I’m frustrated by what is said and unsaid. Let’s start with Lefkowitz’ original book. I found it an interesting and provocative read. I was happy to use it in a number of classes, sometimes paired with a selection from the work of Molefi Kete Asante or Martin Bernal. Lefkowitz was in the eye of the storm, and so I’m not surprised that she understands the book and herself as having been entirely embattled. But away from the author and the Afrocentric intellectuals most strongly antagonized by her work, I think there were a lot of quieter, more thoughtful contexts where her work was read, used, discussed and evaluated within the basically scholarly norms that she has risen to defend. Here I really am repeating myself, but it’s important to underline this point: the most committed antagonists in the culture wars (then and now) habitually take the exceptional for the normal, the extreme practice as representative, highly public incident as quotidian reality. I think Lefkowitz has every right to feel aggrieved about some of what happened to her, and she’s right that there are various third rails waiting to be touched. That’s not the end or even the majority of the story, however.

In that quieter reading, some discussions opened up that weren’t possible in the intense crossfire generated by aggrieved Afrocentrists and aggrieved classicists. Some of these conversations I think Lefkowitz would have welcomed (indeed, some appear in various forms in the companion anthology Black Athena Revisited which she co-edited). For example, there’s a significant difference between Martin Bernal’s claims about the intellectual history of classicist thinking about Greece and Egypt in 19th Century Europe and his empirical claims about classical Greece and Egypt. I think it’s possible to agree that there were some complicatedly racial dimensions of how classical Greece and Egypt were reinvented as subjects of study in 19th Century Western Europe without buying into anything Bernal says about the actual historical relationship between classical Greece and Egypt.

Similarly, as Lefkowitz and many of the contributors to Black Athena Revisited point out, “race” wasn’t a concept that made any sense in classical Egypt or classical Greece, at least not as we understand the term. Egypt by our standards was a multiracial society, but Egyptians of the time wouldn’t have understood that label. What that does signify, however, is that the way we have visually represented Egypt in the West in the last century has often omitted that racial variety. Afrocentric criticism often obsesses about that omission in terms of iconic figures like Cleopatra or Nefertiti, but where it really matters is in how we visualize “ordinary” Egyptians, whether in Hollywood films, K-12 textbooks, or museum displays.

Another issue for me would simply be the privileged status of Greece and Rome within the concept of classics as a discipline. There are good reasons for that emphasis, but it depends on what kinds of issues are being studied or taught at any given moment. If the focus of the moment is on the Iliad as a literary work, fine: we really don’t have much from other societies in the eastern Mediterranean that compares. If the focus is a broader canvas of historical development, there is no reason why Asia Minor, Persia, Phoenicia, and Egypt, among other societies, shouldn’t be within the framework of classics, broadly speaking.

This strikes me as particularly important when it comes to a question like, “Who invented mathematics?” or “Where did some of the important ideas attributed to classical Greek philosophers really come from?” In certain ways, Lefkowitz and Bernal shared the same blindspot, namely, a belief that most of the “inventions” that they furiously debated really did come from singular gifted individuals or elite schools of thought. They shared a common conceptual vocabulary for talking about “invention” or “creation”, just a difference about attribution. When I look as a generalist historian at the classical era in the Eastern Mediterranean, it seems possible to suppose that many principles of mathematics, science and philosophy attributed to individuals or to a particular civilization were in more general circulation throughout the region, voiced as much by sailors, merchants and courtiers as by philosophers and citizens. We get the story about Archimedes and his bathtub from a Roman source more than a century after Archimedes’ death. It seems plausible to imagine that Archimedes formalized, intellectualized and extended existing practical knowledge for measuring volume.

This is my general reply to all debates about ownership, appropriation and theft as they have appeared in a lot of Afrocentric discourse and other identity politics. As the saying goes, they’re “not even wrong”, meaning that there’s something so conceptually flawed about the idea of “stealing” something like philosophy or mathematics that responding to these arguments with factual counter-arguments about who really invented philosophy (as Lefkowitz largely did) almost misses the real problem. It’s true that images, metaphors, tropes, ideas, beliefs and so on can develop an association with a particular society or a subculture. But none of those are owned in any straightforward sense, none of that activity is neatly bounded by a single society or culture. At least some major Afrocentric thinkers were highly influenced by Cheikh Anta Diop’s distinctive diffusionism, a belief in an original or root culture from which all later social and cultural life derives. But at least some kinds of invocations of classical Greece and Rome in the modern West have the same diffusionism, a sense that the West is simply a later iteration or lineal descendent of a Greco-Roman (or Judeo-Christian) original. I think this kind of diffusionism is a misfire no matter who is peddling it. It’s not just that ideas, images and so on are always in circulation, but that they do not travel across time and space intact with the stamp of their creator firmly discernable upon them. (Otherwise, if I can be forgiven a side comment on Diop and Bernal, the modern West is an African civilization, having stolen all of Africa’s original inventions.)

The next problem for me at this point is that I recognize that a lot of Afrocentric writing is striving to invent another kind of epistemology. Not Diop or Bernal: both of them are heavily dependent upon the norms of scholarly thought and practice, and therefore rightfully subject to criticism from them. (In methodological terms, I think Diop is in fact heavily and anachronistically Eurocentric, making heavy use of historical, archaeological and biological frameworks from the first half of the 20th Century.) Molefi Kete Asante, on the other hand, (in various and sometimes contradictory ways) has tried to imagine a different kind of epistemology that depends on mysterious or interior ways of knowing, on experience, on will or commitment, on structures of feeling. In that respect, he’s more typical of Afrocentric thought both inside and outside the academy.

I am like Lefkowitz in thinking that this kind of epistemology comprehensively breaks with important scholarly norms. On some level, I feel that the more comprehensive the break, the more that such a dissenting epistemology really needs to seek a new institutional home for itself, to leave the academy as it stands. But do I really think that consistently, and does she? Do we really want to chase all epistemological dissidents out of colleges and universities? What about a scholar who comes to feel that practice, rather than knowledge, ought to be the main source of intellectual authority in their field? How about the scholar of Christianity who accepts that there are ways of spiritual knowing in Christianity which can’t be captured or represented by conventional scholarly forms and claims, and that it is a scholarly obligation to try and think from within those ways of knowing? What about a literary critic interested in the sublime, or some other aspect of creativity or representation that can’t be fully described within scholarly knowledge by its very nature? What about studio artists, novelists, performers whose practice isn’t scholarly in the way that history or physics are? What about a scholar who argues, for principled reasons, that some issue within their own discipline cannot be known by scholarly inquiry?

On some level, Afrocentrists are quite right that in the history of Africa (and in contemporary African societies) there are other ways of knowing about the world, many of them quite structured, with potential for formalization and institutional use. Arguing that those ways of knowing have no place in universities (while other inventions or dissident forms do have a place) takes some heavy intellectual lifting.

If we cleaned house of all epistemological dissent, we would not only impoverish our scholarship and teaching, we would remove the ongoing ferment of skepticism that we all need for the continued health and renewal of scholarly life. This is my problem about some of the academics and outsiders who call for a return to the canon, about back-to-the-basics, about traditions and core curricula. They take it for granted that the value of these practices is already long since understood, that there is no need to renew an argument on their behalf. In this sense, Afrocentrism did Mary Lefkowitz a favor: she had to think about and then communicate why she valued the intellectual and institutional practices that she rose to defend. I don’t think in that sense that John Leo does Lefkowitz much of a favor by just using her as another pawn on the Culture War chessboard. Defending one form of scholarly practice from the argument that there are other important ways of knowing isn’t an easy job, but a hard one.

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5 Responses to Back to Not Out of Africa

  1. peter55 says:

    “What about a scholar who argues, for principled reasons, that some issue within their own discipline cannot be known by scholarly inquiry?”

    Part of the problem here is with the western academy which (like western society generally these last 350 years) generally favours the mathematical over the non-mathematical, the formal over the informal, the universal over the particular, the permanent over the ephemeral, the written over the spoken, and text over image. Read Stephen Toulmin’s “Cosmopolis: The Hidden Agenda of Modernity”, 1990, for the full account.

    In my own subject, computer science, there is a theoretically-informed practice — a praxis — which cannot easily be captured by the usual modes of representation acceptable to the academy. Not all computer scientists are happy that this is so, and arguments persist between the two schools, for example, in the program decisions for major conferences. Fortunately for those of us who value praxis even when (especially when!) it cannot be encoded in algebraic expressions, the major IT companies which sponsor much computing research have not all yet been captured by the formalists.

  2. jpool says:

    Subsuming Afrocentrism to a narrative of the pernicious rise of post-modernism is at best an argument of convenience. As you note, Afrocentric writers have alternated between a fairly straight ahead empiricism (except one where the relevant facts have been maliciously hidden or ignored) and the invocation of a metaphysical epitemology (that to be honest, I’ve never been able to follow). If they took a classically post-modern line, then they couldn’t really be Afrocentrist in the standard sense; they’d be someone like Valetine Mudimbe instead.

    I saw what Lefkowitz was doing in Black Athena Revisited as analogous to what Stéphane Courtois did later: take a lot of well researched academic arguments and give them a collective political thrust. In Not Out of Africa she seemed solely interested in refutation rather than engagement: either historical engagement of the kind that Wilson Moses produced, or positive engagement with (North) African history towards a more meaningful model of cultural interaction. You had to wonder why whe was shouting so hard at people who occupied a fairly marginal place within the academy and why she was so focused on essentially denying any meaningful relationship between Africa and Greek “civilization.” Afrocentrism made many false assumptions, but it’s hard to see why those assumptions should be viewed as pernicious in the way that, say, Holocaust denial is. As folks have written about David Canadine, without outright chargining her with racism, you do want to ask why this is her big preoccupation.

    On the other side, I was a bit disappointed with Toyin Falola’s recent JAH review of Molefe Kete Asante’s new African history survey. Falola is certainly right that Asante is one of the premier exponents of Diop’s lagacy and is passionately concerned with the welfare of African and African descended people. It was disappointing the Falola didn’t take on the rather unusual structure of Asante’s African history. After praising Asante so fully it seems something of a coded implication for him to suggest at the end of the review, “Perhaps, as [Asante’s critics] talk about Asante and his new book, they will let us know their own politics and philosophical commitments.”

  3. Sam Tobin-Hochstadt says:

    peter55 –

    What branch of CS are you in? As a graduate student, I will in general defend the mathematical, the universal and the textual, but it certainly gets taken too far on occasion. Mathematicalness is not the only criteria for importance.

  4. peter55 says:

    Sam — I work in multi-agent systems: as with other software engineering paradigms, MAS is not easily represented by text, by algebraic mathematics, by universals, or by formalisms in general. But my comments apply across the board in CS, not just in MAS. For example, we still do not have an adequate mathematical theory of interaction (something Turing machines fail to capture, in the opinion of many), perhaps because we do not yet have a sufficiently-sophisticated mathematics.

  5. domurphy says:

    There;s something you get close to at various places in your post that’s worth thinking about, I believe: what opportunities have we lost by wondering whether Ancient Egypt invented Greek philosophy instead of asking whether there was something recognizably philosophical, but distinctive, in ancient Egypt? Why not look for Egyptian cosmology, ethics etc without worrying about whether it looks like it was written by the forerunners of Aristotle?

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