6.26.2009

Academic/Postmodern Theory

And another thing: it seems to me that academics involved in what has been known as "Theory," although they will almost unanimously sing the praises of diversity of thought, actually tend to look through a very narrow lens at the world. Do you know how many people live in France? Sixty-five million. That's less than one percent of the world's population. And yet: Foucault, Derrida, Lyotard, Baudrillard, Lacan and their American interpreters have always been at the center of the discussion. There are, of course, a few notable exceptions.

But there seem to be unnatural/artificial boundaries in this discussion: does it matter what a famous zen master, say Suzuki Roshi, or an unknown shaman from Siberia think? Obviously, you may excuse overlooking the Siberian shaman by suggesting that most of contemporary Theory focuses on the modern; but wouldn't an un-modern view of modernity be a welcome contributor?

Certainly there is something to be gained by great and deep focus. If Emmanuel Levinas' words become the objects of study for a good number of academics, I have no doubt that some fruit will come as a result. But for a culture (liberal arts academia certainly qualifies as a culture) perpetually and convincingly espousing the importance of listening to the "other," I think we American academics cut a pretty shabby figure, collectively.

And I sometimes wonder whether the emphasis on diversity has not caused further social and cultural fragmentation (is this a bad thing?--well, hard to say). If white males entering academia are permitted/encouraged to study mostly French and American "Theory," aren't they going to see the world in their own image? The situation may in fact be similar in the case of African American intellectuals focusing deeply on African American literature, and gay and lesbian thinkers focusing on gay and lesbian literature, and so on. Do we benefit more from studying what we already are--what we already probably know? Or do we believe what we have been saying: that studying the ideas of people different from ourselves may be the best path toward the future?

I have changed a great deal, psychologically (and/or "spiritually") as a result of studying the world's holy texts and religious traditions. Obviously, I cannot say with certainty: perhaps if I had studied only Protestant Christianity as deeply as possible (I was raised Presbyterian/Methodist) I would have become a better person or a better teacher or a better citizen or something. But I feel that learning what the gurus and shamans and rabbis believe has been a giant source of growth for me, and I find myself wishing that my colleagues would join me in tracing or re-tracing these wider circles.

5 comments:

Insignificant Wrangler said...

Yeah, I could extend my peripheral to include those outside of the West. In fact, looking at your next post, that's why I ended up writing an entire chapter around Levinas's radical theological writings. Ultimately, however, I am interested in reshaping our contemporary academic institutions, and so my research tends to focus on the thinkers/movments/traditions that have shaped those institutions. And that narrative tends to run Greece, Rome, Catholicism, Italy, England, Germany, France, Wikipedia. At least that's how I tell it. Chances are many facets of zen could contribute to this project, but I don't think you'll find too much zen underlying/influencing the construction of the Greek logos, Roman decorum, Augustan hermeneutics, etc. And anyways, there's only so much I can read at once before I hit critical mass.

Casey said...

Right, of course -- as you suggest there's only so much anyone can read. But if you're interested in reshaping contemporary academic institutions (which I think is a GREAT thing to be interested in), I feel like non-Western education history would be a must. Otherwise, won't you just re-create the world in the only image you know?

Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny, right? Or whatever.

What about re-shaping our entire idea of education? You're for that, right? So wouldn't understanding shamanistic "instruction" be useful?

I know I sound like an authoritarian imperialist telling people what to read -- sorry.

And actually, I'd like to read more of Levinas--that "radical theological writing" sounds like it's just my speed. Give me a title or two?

Insignificant Wrangler said...

Richard A Cohen is a great secondary source--and I'd almost recommend starting there since Cohen (and other commentators) always go to great lengths to discuss the idiosyncrasy of Levinas's Judaism. (Cohen's got an essay called "Ethics and Cybernetics" that is pretty good, although my diss argues that his discussion of technology is dated--essentially I argue that technological advances of the past few years answer his Levinasian reservations).

As far as primary texts, Of God Who Comes to Mind has some great essays in it, but is often really dense, expects a profound knowledge of Husserl and Heidegger, and can be downright impenetrable in places. His Nine Talmudic Readings are intended for a wider audience--the introduction is fantastic. I'm not interested in particular religious readings as much as how he establishes a community of reading/responding.

Monica said...

Eh, Wrangler, you should be here in Toronto. Cohen is here at the conference, and always has such interesting (if provocative) things to say. He's a good translator of Levinas's work.

It's interesting that you point to Nine Talmudic Readings as being intended for a wider audience. I actually like that you say that, though I probably would've said the opposite. It is my favorite Levinas text, though.

There was a pedagogy session today on Levinas and Education. A woman who teaches service-learning courses gave a talk about how she integrates him into the classroom (and out of it)--about how Levinas can re-shap the classroom, as a matter of fact. It was...interesting.

Monica said...

I meant "re-shape."