December 30, 2005
Reading as a weapon in the culture war
I was just thinking the other day about the politicization of scholarship and how people who inject their work with an agenda create enemies in the process. For example, I know of a 'feminist reading' of a poem by Catullus, published in a major classics journal, the stated goal of which (right there in the introduction) is to help modern man to become more sensitive and more fully human. This sort of thing willfully ignores the author's intent and the work's peculiar cultural context while serving the critic's political goals. That article was partly responsible for deepening a rift between a feminist bloc that kept silent but seethed, and a number of independent voices (myself included) who openly attacked the article in a seminar discussion. The feminists took it personally, and we were thus enemies of feminism, and were in turn misogynists.
If we did not accept the feminist reading, we must have had an anti-feminist reading.
You see, in this crazy, mixed-up, po-mo world, texts don't matter -- just readings. We 'read' everything from history to film, and expose the ideology of our enemies through their 'readings' as defined in contrast to our own. It's not what happened, but how you 'read' it. It says something about YOU. And YOUR KIND.
Creepy, isn't it?
If you reject a given reading, then you've made yourself an enemy of that reading's interest group. The group doesn't need to adhere to it, by the way. It's enough to make something a 'women's reading' that a 'feminist' critic has made it. To deny the critique is to attack women, to be a misogynist. To deny a 'queer reading' is to be a homophobe.
If you're gay, you're a self-hating homosexual. If you're a woman, we might as well call you Suzy Homemaker (and that's supposed to sting).
I stopped by a used book store this morning and found amid the stacks of new arrivals Mary Lefkowitz's Not Out of Africa: How Afrocentrism Became an Excuse to Teach Myth as History. The book is a rational response to a politically motivated reconstruction of ancient history called Afrocentrism, whose proponents necessarily charge their detractors with 'Eurocentrism.' (I think Afrocentrist's fail to recognize that what they see as their enemies' vice is the mirror of their own virtue.) This is the same thing that was discussed above: by creating your own subjective reading, you can charge those who challenge you with having their own subjective reading, which is often characterized as the perpetuation of a long-standing cultural hegemony or a reactionary attack.
The familiar themes crop up: Lefkowitz was called a white racist, and the member of a 'Jewish onslaught.' It's funny how Jews are so often linked to white racism on the fringes of the political left. (I suspect sometimes that the ultimate target is really the Judeo-Christian heritage of the West.)
In 1993 Professor Lefkowitz attended a talk by Afrocentrist author Dr. Yosef A.A. ben-Jochannan, who had been invited to deliver the Martin Luther King, Jr., memorial lecture, and who has claimed in print that Aristotle robbed the library of Alexandria:
After Dr. ben-Jochannan made these same assertions once again in his lecture, I asked him during the question and answer period why he said that Aristotle had come to Egypt with Alexander and had stolen his philosophy from the library at Alexandria, when that library had only been built after his death. Dr. ben-Jochannan was unable to answer the question, and said that he resented the tone of the inquiry. Several students came up to me after the lecture and accused me of racism, suggesting that I had been brainwashed by white historians. ...
Professor Lefkowitz describes the silence of her colleagues, one of whom later called the lecture 'hopeless,' thus requiring no discussion. Charges of racism, she suspects, kept them quiet. Her dean tried to pacify her by claiming that 'each of us had a different but equally valid view of history.'
This last claim, common enough, negates the value of history. If any of us actually believed it we'd have no reason to make one or another reading of history. Except of course were it politically advantageous.
This brings me to the point of this post, namely that there really are things knowable with a degree of certainty, that history, like science (though judged on very different evidential grounds), should not lie within the provenance of rhetoric and politics.
Afrocentrism and various other agenda-driven 'readings' of history and culture that manufacture enemies are no different in this respect from Intelligent Design, that bastard child of Creationism which pits evolutionary theory against god and makes those who deny politically advantageous 'readings' of nature the enemies of Christianity.
But this line of thought matters little. It will doubtless be 'read' as a racist, Zionist, anti-Christian, misogynistic, homophobic attack in support of the Western capitalist hegemony.
posted by Dennis on 12.30.05 at 03:42 PM
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Update:I trackbacked to the post at ClassicalValues.com that explores the same issues. Reading as a weapon in the culture war is about the elevation of "readings" over texts... Good stuff. [Read More] Tracked on December 30, 2005 6:10 PM
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