Reflections on Readings and Resources:
Yusef Progler, April 2002, Dubai
I support Claude's prospectus of digitizing important works to make them available on CD, and possibly the Net. However, I think we also need to have multiple efforts at creating these readings and resources. Sophisticated intellectuals who are up to date with the latest thinking in a particular discourse are only a small segment of what I see as a potential audience for Multiversity. While it is important for scholars to speak to one another and further the discursive practices of particular disciplines, it is often a rather closed discussion. What about books and resources for new readers, youths or various "uneducated" people? For Multiversity to have broad appeal, we need to offer broad selections of resources in diverse media (including things like radio programs, photo essays, and newspapers). Besides cutting edge, epistemologically savvy works by academics, I think we need to seriously consider an array of easier to grasp kinds of works. One way to centralize this is to be clearer about the audiences for our reading lists and other endeavors, and have members work in areas that exhibit their strengths, instead of trying to normalize our discussions around some (arguably unattainable) consensus of what are the most definitive books, articles, topics, perspectives and works. As I attempted to suggest at the Multiversity meetings in Penang, it may be helpful to be clearer about who we are and what we stand for, not to argue for ascendancy of a single vision or arrive at some sort of imperial middle, but to trust ourselves and our diverse interests, whether they be academic, journalistic, pedagogical, artistic, or whatever, to construct meaningful and broad-based learning experiences. Otherwise, no matter how hard we try, we may end up with another academic exercise, no matter how cutting edge or definitive or radical it may be, with limited applicability, at least from where I am sitting. This is not to belittle sophisticated academic work -- academic work is exceedingly important -- but we need to broaden our scope to include works that might not be cutting edge or definitive or even academic, but which have other sorts of values and impacts, including emotional and aesthetic. As I understand it, one goal of Multiversity, which I believe is of great importance, is creating disaffection from the West, and this disaffection should not be limited to polite (or even impolite!) discussions among academics, many of whom are already disaffected (perhaps even alienated) in some sense or another but who have also tended to normalize their critical disaffections and alienations as an end in themselves, rather than as a means to an end. I think we should take seriously ideas like Shilpa's, that we write the stories of our own disaffections and activations to provide models for others, and especially as examples for youths. My own youthful disaffection did not begin with sophisticated academic works, even though I now find some of them useful. Disaffection often starts with something simpler, even mundane. The same can be said for activation; academic works are not the only way to activate people. So what kinds of works, broadly defined, should we include for younger, less academically-sophisticated audiences, like high school students and first year college undergraduates, or, perhaps more importantly, those people who have "failed" at modern schooling altogether?
Soon after the Penang meetings, I think it was Pawan who put forth some categories of the potential audiences for Multiversity, and he concluded that we ought to focus our energies on the youth as a hope for the future. I agree with this as a strategy, because I think that career academics, even radicals, tend to have vested interests, even if only in their own careers but often in their own epistemologies, no matter how radical or savvy they may be. At the same time, we cannot avoid the problem of the impact these academics have, for bettor or worse. In fact, well-trained and epistemologically savvy academics have multiple important roles to play. Take a look at the PRATEC group in the Andes, where the people with the Ph.D.s became a sort of buffer between local "uneducated" communities and the international and governmental development agencies that tried to hoodwink them with various schemes. So yes, let's create some epistemologically savvy works as a counter force, but at its best this requires conjunction with activism, the weak link for many academics. Another, perhaps more activist, roll for academics is to publicly take to task colleagues who are promoting destructive or unsustainable epistemologies. Of course, in a closed world where tenure and collegiality reign supreme, this is sometimes risky business. I recall the case of a brilliant ethnomusicologist who made the mistake of applying the methods of social and cultural research not to some distant primitive tribe but to a music conservatory in the northeastern United States. His discussion about the social construction of talent in conservatory culture is an amazing work, but he had a difficult time finding a job, since, as an ethnomusicologist, most of his potential employers were music departments with vested interests in the system he revealed. This is not to say that there are no open spaces for institutionalized academics, but we do have to weigh the opportunities. I recall several instances, for example, in the early 1990s, where graduate students and junior faculty in several economics departments in North America took to task their senior colleagues who were irresponsibly espousing neo-liberal economic dogma, and in some cases broke a cardinal rule of institutional politeness by forcing senior colleagues to publicly justify their (what soon were seen as) untenable positions. This happened in places where the political climate allowed, such as in institutions where tenuring strictures were relaxed for junior faculty in anticipation of shortages due to mass retirements. So yes, spaces do occasionally open up for action within academia, and that can be an important role for institutionalized academics, who can find and exploit those spaces for Multiversity. More subversively, for those who may be so inclined, is the possibility of tapping into the economic resources that big institutions have access to, in the form of laboratories and other research centers of various kinds, which can involve a subtle form of hijacking. I am reminded here of a talented but poor independent film maker I met on the Lower East Side in New York, always one step away from the soup kitchen but still able to make films. I asked him how he managed, and he said the secret was to find people with money (like rich film school students) but with little or no talent (his way of putting it), and then volunteer for but gradually take over their projects! Some of us may be repulsed by such tactics, but these are just reflections on possibilities for working within institutional and establishment spaces, which, in many cases are already repulsive. In short, I think we need multiple efforts on multiple fronts.
Perhaps another way to look at creating resources for Multiversity is to consider the affective dimension of academic work, and also to reflect on the non-academic aspects of various disaffections and activations. Popular culture has lots of potentials, music and the graphic arts especially. I will be reflecting elsewhere on the impact of popular culture on my own disaffection and activation, but for now I want to focus briefly on the affective dimension of academic work. Let me discuss, and indirectly recommend, a few academic-type readings for possible inclusion in our collective effort. My intention here is not to be definitive, but to focus on the affective dimension of those works. I'll also mention if these works are available in electronic format.
Lewis Mumford's two volume work on the 'Myth of the Machine' opened my eyes to a lot things. I especially found intriguing his attempt to carry over from Pharaonic times the idea of the "megamachine," which he saw as being reconstructed in a new form within the modern West. Sure, some academics today will write his work off as romantic, modernist or facile, but that didn't really matter to me since the clarity and conviction of his presentation affected me deeply and set me on a path to further inquiry. And it didn't matter to the next generation of scholars after Mumford, either. For instance, David F. Noble has done some amazing things proceeding from Mumford that are challenging how academics understand the relationship between religion and science in the West. Mumford's books had great photo essays, too, although the pictures are all in black and white. Recently, for use with my undergraduates and secondary school students, I scanned his photo essays from 'Myth of the Machine' and assembled them into hyperlinked web pages. We might consider doing this with some of his other essays, and also updating them with color photos. Even in their original form, his photos and descriptions of the World Trade Center and Pentagon take on an eerie resonance today.
Ward Churchill's article "White Studies: The Intellectual Imperialism of U.S. Higher Education" helped frame for me some of the discomfort I was feeling as a university student, by portraying the seemingly objective discourses of most academic disciplines as highly subjective and representing the intellectual norms of white American society. Churchill half seriously recommended that along side things like Africana Studies, Asian Studies and Islamic Studies, one could have what he called White Studies, in order to point out the hegemonic impact of false neutrality. I thought that was a great way to describe academia, and I also like the irreverent tone with which he dismantles the stodgy conventions of higher education, sometimes with great wit. But besides making me feel good and laugh, Churchill also offered several steps toward activation that I have been trying to walk in my own life as an institutionalized academic: 1) develop interdisciplinary studies as a way to dissolve the hegemonic grip of the Western disciplines on our minds, 2) make use of existing ethnic studies programs as resources and institutional bases for academic activism toward decolonization and rejuventation, 3) study and learn from the maverick thinkers of Western civilization as a way to deconstruct a discourse from within, and 4) find ways to validate voices of people in academia other than those licensed to speak with their Ph.Ds. Sure, these are limited to institutionalized academics like myself, but I thought they provided a good, and appealingly subversive, way to work within the system upon which I had become dependent for my livelihood. He has published several versions of this article, and I scanned the most recent version, along with related graphics, for my website.
John Mohawk, a Seneca philosopher, had a tremendous impact on my thinking about the relationship between the destruction of native cultures and the destruction of the environment, and also how the spiritual can be the political. Most of the influence from John came in the form of his lectures and courses, as well as advising and conversations, when I was a graduate student in American Studies in SUNY Buffalo. Beyond that, John is a master orator and can really activate an audience with his oratory, something that is difficult to capture in print (we may want to explore using MP3 to include audio sources on Multiversity sites and CDs). In any case, some of his articles are good, too, such as "Thoughts from an Autochthenous Center" which I think was first published in Cultural Survival Quarterly, and has also appeared in other journals. That article, co-written with Yvonne-Dion Buffalo, lays out categories of academics and activists who are "good subjects," "bad subjects," and "non-subjects" to the dominant western discourse. Good subjects and bad subjects both validate the dominant discourse, either through buying into it wholesale or otherwise legitimizing it through critical commentary, but the real hope for liberation was through developing people who become "non-subjects," who can think and act in ways outside and even incomprehensible to the Western discourse. For now, I have one of his speeches about the colonization of nature and indigenous peoples transcribed into HTML format.
John Taylor Gatto's classic essay "The Seven Lesson Schoolteacher" was an important influence on my life as a teacher, and I still find his work useful and inspiring today, especially for figuring out the mind numbing nature of modern schooling and for proposing his own alternative vision (although I disagree with some of his prescriptions). When I read "Seven Lessons" for the first time, it really helped explain my own alienation from school and the difficulties I was having as a middle and high school teacher at the time. I vowed then, as I continue to believe now, that I would never teach any of the seven lessons he identified. Gatto is also a great public speaker, and I like him for the irreverently bold way he nails down the system of modern schooling for what it is, historically and epistemologically. I have Gatto's "Seven Lessons" piece from his book 'Dumbing Us Down' in HTML format, and I think it has also circulated widely on the web.
Books by C. A. Bowers on education, technology and ecology continue to stimulate my thinking and teaching in multiple ways. He has developed a way of speaking about Western education that is informed by Gregory Bateson, as well as the educational thinking and practices of indigenous peoples. Bowers sunders the dichotomy between "liberal" and "conservative" in debates on the meaning and purpose of education in the West, and shows how they are two sides of the same ecologically destructive worldview. I have reviewed several of his books online, and I also have the HTML text for an extended essay about creativity from an ecological perspective.
From the Islamic world, I can say that the works Ali Shariati and Morteza Mutahhari were central to my intellectual development. During the 1970s, these two very different scholars help to disaffect a whole generation of Iranians from the West and to activate them into a popular revolution. Shariati moved in and out of the Western academic scene, and hung out with people like Franz Fanon in Paris, but he also found ways to re-activate the Islamic tradition. His book on the pilgrimage to Mecca is excellent, not for its academic definitiveness or its ritualistic precision, but for is thoughtful reflections on this life-changing event for Muslims. Mutahhari moved in and out of traditional Shiite clerical circles, and contributed toward reinvigorating the activist element in Shiite theology, which had become ossified in Iran. His book 'Islam and Humanity' helped me appreciate the depth and epistemological intensity of the Islamic heritage and its relevance today. Their works are not definitive in their traditions, and in many ways they were mavericks, but what really sets them apart from others is that they developed highly affective discursive practices that mobilized the Iranian youth while remaining academically stimulating. Some examples of their works are on the net, a few in Farsi and several in English.
Are these definitive academic works? No. Are they cutting edge in a particular
discipline or discourse? Not really. Are these works somehow beyond criticism.
Hardly, that's not the point. But, do we need works like the ones cited
above? Yes, definitely, and we need to hear more about other works for
their affective value and its relationship to our own development as academics,
teachers and activists. I vote not for creating a definitive list, but
for constructing multiple lists that are identified in multiple dimensions,
and a key dimension is the affective.
At a Glance: