Sunday, September 26, 2010

Studying Non-Western Literature: "Boo!" or "Woo-hoo!"?

This Wednesday, September 28, 2010, Dr. Grasso and I will be guest speakers in Dr. Hada’s Non-Western Literature class. Dr. Hada has asked us to stage a discussion/debate about the value of studying Non-Western literature. I have been assigned the task of arguing that studying Non-Western literature is not something we should highly value.

In anticipation of our discussion, I suggested to Dr. Grasso that he and I do a little “prep” work in advance. At first, I thought we could do this via e-mail, but later it occurred to me that it would be better to do it in this public space so that other people could listen in or weigh in, either before or after Wednesday’s event. Drs. Grasso and Hada have agreed and so I am going to post some of the ideas I have already thrown out there to my distinguished colleagues via e-mail with the expectation that Dr. Grasso will cut and paste some of his responses into the comment sections of this post. And we'll go from there.  (There's more on the other side of the photo below.)

Click here to learn more about this strange advertisement.
At first glance, it seems to me that there are two major directions I could take my argument:

1) Reading Non-Western literature should not be a big priority for Westerners—especially, novice undergraduates—because as Westerners, we should first (and mainly) focus on a subject that is closer to our experience before we try to learn about something that is completely alien to us; and

2) Literature should be judged on its own merits, not because it is “Western” or “non-Western.” To require a class in “Non-Western” literature is to try enact some kind of Affirmative Action policy for literature that would not otherwise find its way into the syllabus. Such a policy is patronizing. Literature should be valued for its sophistication or its impact, not its country of origin (or the racial identity of its author).


  1. Isn’t this debate basically about multiculturalism?

    In The Trouble with Diversity (NY: Metropolitan, 2006), Walter Benn Michaels argues that multiculturalism is dangerous because it accustoms us to the idea that we should celebrate difference just because it is different. That idea is dangerous, he argues, because it becomes a tool that the rich use against the poor, so that it we no longer ask questions about who has the best stuff/most power/most freedom (and whether or not that is fair and just), but instead simply seek to value our “differences.” You have a $250,000 house; I have a $80,000 house, but each has its unique value that cannot be measured in economic terms. We should “celebrate” my $80,000 house just as we should celebrate your $250,000 house.

    So "let's celebrate difference" means "let's ignore value."

  2. A few preliminary responses:

    Non-Western isn't the same as multiculturalism; we have to beware when the group with hegemony defines our terms for us! Multiculturalism is a politically loaded term, with a specific agenda (depending on the speaker), whereas Non-Western denotes a tradition, a living body of work that though "non-Western," may have profound connections to so-called "Western" literature and traditions. It is nothing new, nothing trendy, and nothing in vogue; unless, that is, human beings come in and out of fashion, or love or sex or ideas do.

    Non-Western literature is not only different than our literature, but it has ALWAYS shaped our litearture and wasn't invented by PC pundits. For example, after the Crusades, the West "borrowed" many crucial elements of Arabic culture such as mathematics, musical notation/instruments, and stories (the "frame" narrative of the Arabian Nights was emulated by Boccaccio, Chaucer, and many others). So to say it has no connection with a Western perspective is tosh, since so much of our culture IS "Eastern". If we're serious students of history or literature, it would seem foolish to rule out these traditions as irrelevant.

    Studying Non-Western literature, as in any subject, ultimately empowers/uplifts what you know and appreciate about your own culture. Because, let's face it, it's all about love, death, sex, power, war, etc. On one level, it does celebrate the universal and the human, however unpopular such terms are in the modern critical lingo. Non-Western literature has no AGENDA: the pundits do, and they often use other people for their own motives...but to ignore an entire literature/tradition because of how some political group/hegemonic group uses it is folly. Because, in essence, you are letting a group determine how you think and approach the world, rather than exploring/experiencing it for yourself.

    ALSO, by studying how we used these cultures in the past (i.e. colonialism), we can better see how they are being used in the present, and better understand how power relationships between disparate cultures work in the modern day.

    That said, it's dangerous to think, in many ways, of Non-Western literature as "non-western." Rushdie hates the terms post-colonial, ethnic, and Commonwealth Literature. These are all literary cliques. Studying them is another way fo asking, "why are they separate/different? Should they be?" Because you ultimately study someone who belongs rightly in both camps, such as Achebe, Rushdie, Naipaul, Kincaid, etc. etc. etc.

    These might constitute my opening volley...

  3. Prelude (or possibly Postlude?):
    If these comments were posted on Monday, Sept. 27, and the conversation was to be held on Wednesday, Sept. 26, and I am writing this on Tuesday, Sept. 28, what time is it in Antarctica? Is it the same time in Western Antarctica and non-Western Antarctica? Ego overrules the obviating march of time; I post therefore I am.

    I wonder if calling it "non-Western" literature is similar to but even more dismissive than calling hundreds of different tribes and nations "Native American." Is Rushdie non-Western? No way, Dude!

    What makes a text "non-Western"? Author's self-identified culture, ideology, language, subject matter, genre? Is everything written in a non-Western language,NW? Is everything a NW author writes NW? Is a haiku a NW genre? If Achebe and Basho are both NW, are they more like each other than a given Western writer?

    And I wonder about studying "non-Western" literature in English. I once taught a course in which we focused on Latin American literature, but only one student had enough Spanish to read any of the texts in their original language. How that limits and distorts our scope!

    When you limit the conversation to should we or shouldn't we, it seems to me that there is an enormous continent of discourse that is declared terra incognita and that there be more value there than dragons.

    I loathe the idea of learning our own culture first! At what point have we learned enough to branch out? And where is the boundary?

    And I am a proponent of affirmative action in literature and elsewhere. Isn't the study of literature itself (however we define it) a matter of affirmative action, i.e. giving access and exposure to works that are ignored or underappreciated or discriminated against by the dominant culture?

    Colonialism? Isn't that a Western culture thing? It led to and leads to that we-they thing that it led Mike (M. Romegas) to above. And, as repeatedly noted above, that can be a dangerous view if it is not taken with the greatest care. (By the way, Mike, I have actually read "Micromegas"! Are there many of us in your world?)

    Not Dr. Benton, Not Dr. Grasso, Not Dr. Hada

  4. Although Non-Western literature has been with us since there has been a “West,” the requirement that students take courses in Non-Western literature has a more recent history.

    I just checked out a couple of old ECU catalogues to see what I could learn about that history here at ECU.

    Here's what I found:

    If you enrolled as a student here at ECU as late as 1995, you had to take three courses to fulfill your “Humanities” requirements. The options included: Early Western Civilization, General Humanities I, Modern Western Civilization, General Humanities II, Art in Life, Theatre in Life, Literature in Life, Music in Life, Philosophy in Life, Languages in Life, Film in Life. There was nothing in there about “Non-Western” literature.

    If you enrolled as a student here in 1996, however, in addition to taking a course representing the Humanities—Western Civilization section of the curriculum (which includes all of the courses listed above) you also had to take one course representing a new section of the curriculum, called “Humanities—Cultural and Human Diversity,” which included Survey of Multicultural Art, Ethnic Literature, Non-Western Literature, Survey of African American History, Native Peoples in American History, Explorations in World History and Culture, World Religion and Thought, Language and Culture, and World Music.

    I think that the requirement that students take “Non-Western” literature is properly associated here at ECU and elsewhere with the promotion of multiculturalism and the celebration of cultural diversity.

  5. According to Walter Benn Michaels, author of The Trouble with Diversity (mentioned above), "the word diversity itself began to have the importance it does for us today in 1978 when, in Bakke v. Board of Regents, the Supreme Court ruled that taking into consideration the race of an applicant to the University of California . . .was an acceptable practice if it served 'the interest of diversity.'" Michaels goes on to say that "The point the Court was making here was significant. It was not asserting that preference in admissions could be given, say, to black people because they had previously been discriminated against. It was saying instead that universities had a legitimate interest in taking race into account in exactly the same way they had a legitimate interest in taking into account what part of the country an applicant came from or what his or her nonacademic interests were." (3-4)

    In short, the Supreme Court affirmed the value of Multiculturalism. And in a little less than 20 years, ECU started requiring that all students take courses in Non-Western literature (or something similar).

  6. I think it is fair of you, Dr. Grasso (and Mr. Rushdie) to question the value of “Non-Western” as a category of literature. It’s like calling women “Non-Men.” Or dividing the world into Whites and “Non-Whites.” Why should labeling someone in terms of what they are not be considered an honor?

  7. For “Non-Western” to make sense, “Western” has to make sense. But does it?

    Let's see . . .
    OK, so the literature of Oklahoma belongs in the West along with the rest of the United States and Europe. And Australia (?).

    But what about the literature of Oklahoma and other parts of the United States (and Australia?) that is produced by, or shaped by, its indigenous people. Is Native American literature Western literature?

    OK, so it’s not. Well, how do you know something is Native American literature and not just plain old American (Western) literature? I guess you'd have to know if the author is Native American. But how do you know someone is Native American? Tribal membership? Does that mean that a writer with tribal membership is unable to write Western literature? Isn’t that like the infamous one-drop rule that marked someone as non-White in the Old South if any of their ancestors were black?

    OK, so that border is blurry. What about other places on the map? Is Russia a part of the West? According to Dr. Sukholutskaya (who told me her position had been affirmed by the ECU administration), it is not. But what sense does it make to say that the works of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky are not Western?

    What about Latin America? Western or Non-Western? The majority of the people in Latin America speak a European language (Spanish, Portugese); I guess that classifies their literature as Western (taking the United States as a model). But does that mean that all literature that is written in a European language is Western? That gets us back to Rushdie, Achebe, and Naipaul, all of whom write in English, yet their works are often taught as “Non-Western.” How does this make sense?

    Here’s an idea: “Non-Western” means “Colored;” as in one water fountain for us and one water fountain for them. Even though we may be required to drink from both fountains, the labels should worry us.

  8. Let’s study Arabian Nights, and the works of Bocaccio, Chaucer and others because of their literary value, not because they are Western or Eastern.

    This gets us back to the introduction of Non-Western literature and the other “Non-Western” courses that have been introduced into the East Central University curriculum. Was that really a good idea?

    In 1995, ECU students took Early Western Civilization (Pre-1600s), Modern Western Civilization (Post-1600s) and a smattering of courses with titles like “Literature in Life.” I suspect that this set-up was deemed to be racist, as if only the culture, history and literature of Europe really mattered.

    But instead of doing away with the “Western,” and renaming the course Early Civilizations (which would include the Chinese and the Incas as well as Greeks and the Romans) and Modern Civilizations, courses like “Non-Western literature” and “Explorations in World History and Thought” were added to the mix, just as you might set up a “children’s table” for those not old enough to sit at the big table.

    I do not doubt, by the way, that this curricular change at ECU was encouraged by the state of Oklahoma. But that does not mean we have to agree with it.

    In the good-faith effort to celebrate “Non-Western” literature “as different than ‘our’ literature,” don’t we end up reinforcing the them vs. us dividing line?

  9. So many good points in the previous posts. Unfortunately, for university administrations and those who require X number of courses for a General Education Curriculum, "Non-Western" may well mean "colored." However, it is erroneous to assume that certain literatures (and cultures) can only "drink" from this fountain, while Western literature is allowed to drink more freely and more often. As you suggest, many works fit properly under Western or Non-Western, since there is much confusion about what "Western" might mean besides the tradition stemming from the Greeks and leading to the Romans and more genreally to Europe and the Americas. However, every nation involved in colonialism is stamped by Western tradition, as in the case of India, which is profoundly "Non-Western" yet now widely uses the English language and British schooling and administration; indeed, Indian literature has been adopted as British and even English literature. Rushdie is taught in anthologies of English/British literature alongside other authors who can "pass," such as Naipaul, Rhys, Kincaid, etc.

    Yet I would still argue that we need a "Non-Western" class, if only because of the very drinking fountain metaphor earlier established. The pre-1996 curriculum probably allowed little chance for a student to read anything outside of American/British/European culture (European culture meaning, in this sense, France/Spain/Italy/Germany, and not those more ambiguous lands of Poland, Romania, and Russia, to name a few). So ostensibly, you could graduate with a degree in, say, English, having never read a work outside "our" tradition. And what a rich tradition this is! To never read The Bhagavad Gita? The Dao de Jing? Pushkin? Tolstoy?

    This is the worst kind of academic provincialism, which more or less states, "this is all you really need to know." On the one hand, it perpetuates a kind of class warfare, suggesting that "Oklahoma" students don't really want/need to learn about the world, since they won't be a substantial part of it. Keep it simple, give them a few classes to chew on, and let them go their way. I find that a little problematic, since the liberal arts should prepare one for the cultural/critical arguments that await any student in our increasingly nationless world. Many students on campus have seen more Japanese movies (anime) than American ones! I know several students who not only speak Japanese but who have traveled there, to say nothing of the many students Dr. Sukholutskaya has taken to Russia and encouraged to learn Russian.

    Clearly, our students are ready and willing to learn about a larger (more realistic?) world, and given that so many of them are science and business majors, to ignore these traditions is almost criminal. While taking Non-Western literature might not get them a job per se, wouldn't it be beneficial to meet a colleague or client from China and know something about his or her culture, beliefs, and traditions? It's not enough to say I know my culture, since what "our" culture is remains open to debate; indeed, where is the limit between East and West, American and Non-American, Human and Non-Human (as you suggested)?

  10. Worse still, it belies the fact that literature has always been an act of trade, translation, and imitation. The English Romantic poets were profoundly inspired by the East, as any cursory glance at Shelley or Byron's poems will reveal. Chaucer wrote about the Orient, Marco Polo traveled there, and even Shakespeare wrote about the culture clash of East and West in one of his most famous tragedies, Othello. The more we segregate literature into nationalities and requirements the less we "see" the entire story, and begin reading in a culture vaccuum. Of course, a class like Non-Western literature partially promotes this segreation; however, it is preferrable to not requiring it at all. Otherwise, diversity aside, the Eastern tradition that stretched back to Gilgamesh and has recently flowered in so much postcolonial writing, will be unknown; history that never even took place.

    Perhaps the true test of Non-Western literature is to stage the debate: what makes something East or West? Foreign or Native? British or Jamaican? Is everything Non-Western "ethnic"? Can a "white" writer be Non-Western? Can a Caribbean writer be British and American and Jamaican? Do these terms shift depending on the work, language, and intent? Can we teach works in more than one class...and which works make more sense in a Non-Western context? Also, is Non-Western more defined by history (pre-colonialism) than nationality or geography? Should it more properly be a study of the tradition before it was colonized by and influenced by European culture? So many questions, but none will be asked without an initial foray into the waters of so-called Non-Western litearature.

  11. For the purposes of our debate, Dr. Hada asked me to take a position against the teaching of “Non-Western literature,” and I have been practicing that here. At times, though, he has referred to the position he is expecting me to take as “nationalist;” and I have not done that (in fact, you could say that the argument I have advanced here makes the claim that teaching Non-Western literature is itself a nationalist enterprise, and my stance has been, in effect, “I am more anti-nationalist than thou!”).

    I have mixed feelings about whether or not this is a good thing. On the one hand, I think it is worth pointing out that there may be more than one reason to oppose the inclusion of a Non-Western literature course in the curriculum.

    On the other hand, I want to be a good guest in Dr. Hada’s classroom, so maybe I ought to start barking up another tree. . .

    How about this for a start: Don’t kid yourselves, folks. The people who made Non-Western literature a part of the curriculum want to change your worldview. They are liberals and they want you to be more liberal like them. They want you to stop thinking about life in terms of right and wrong, good and bad, moral and immoral. Instead, they want you to see that all values—moral, aesthetic, religious—are relative; and they want you to distance yourself from any more conservative views that you might hold.

    The lesson in a Non-Western literature class is always this: we do it one way, they do it a completely different way, but there’s no good way or bad way because deep down we’re all just human beings. Your parents may have taught you right from wrong, but someone else’s parents may have taught them something completely different, and neither one of you is right. The only thing that is right are the things we all agree on.

    You may have been raised in a Christian home and taught to love values people think of as American or Western, like individual freedom. But in other parts of the world, children raised in Muslim homes or in homes where a tribal religion is practiced are often taught that individual freedom is overrated. They often express this point of view in their literature.

    And the right answer in any Non-Western literature class is always this: I see now that this literature is wise and beautiful.

    Once you start making this statement, you are well on your way to cultural relativism.

    I don’t know if that’s “nationalist,” but it is something a nationalist might respond favorably to.

  12. Hey, sorry for not responding to your earlier post, Dr. Grasso. I was writing my last post while you were posting yours, and didn't see that you'd visited the site since I'd posted last. More anon (isn't that just the most professorial thing you can say: "more anon"? can you even write those words if you don't have a Ph.D.?).

  13. I agree with you, Dr. Grasso, that “Non-Western” writers may drink as freely from the fountains of Western literature as Western writers do from theirs. My point was that we shouldn’t encourage students to think that it makes sense to sort writing into two categories (fountains): Western and Non-Western.

  14. Adding “Non-Western” civilization and literature as a requirement is not the only way to get The Bhagavad Gita, the Dao de Jing, Pushkin, and Tolstoy into the curriculum. You could also simply remove “Western” from the literature and civilization requirement.
    If “Western” is analogous to “Whites Only;” the solution is not to add a fountain for “Coloreds;” the solution is to remove the “Whites Only” sign.

  15. I like your idea of turning a “Non-Western Literature” course into a base camp for curricular insurrection (at least that’s how I read your last comment and the series of questions listed there), Dr. Grasso.

    Make the subject matter of a “Non-Western Literature” course this: the name of this course makes no sense. Or it only makes sense in ways that undermine the presumed purpose of those who named it.

    Does that mark me as a liberal?

  16. I am loving this debate.

    Does that mark me as a liberal?

  17. I think I should have said "discussion" instead of "debate."

    Does that mark me as a liberal?

    Does all this self-questioning mark me as a liberal?

  18. Not Dr. Benton / Not Dr. Grasso / Not Dr. Hada:

    Don't you think there is danger in an Affirmative Action program that labels its intended beneficiaries in ways that everyone can easily see? What if student beneficiaries of Affirmative Action policies had to wear little badges while on campus?

    Does this analogy apply to a "Non-Western" literature course?

    Does "Affirmative Action" simply mean a deliberate effort to value something that has been neglected by the majority?

  19. I can see the troubles with Affirmative Action on campus, whether it is bias in favor of non-traditional (historically disfavored?) students or non-traditional (non-canonical?) texts. And I can see the troubles with expanding the literature curriculum beyond the Western canon by adding a NW lit course. Or stamping every NW text with a colored seal on each page.

    Suppose every such text were so stamped (or appeared only in the NW lit course(s))? Does that stamp suggest that stamped texts are less valuable, less literary? For many years every text bore a visible, discriminatory stamp and was written in Latin or Greek: classic. Then came a new stamp: literature. Maybe texts are still stamped that way, even when we call them non-canonical or non-Western. Is that evolution of stamps of approval a mark of the decline of civilization or the decline of elitism?

    Sure, one can hope that newly enlightened, "more anon" speaking professors will expand their curricula and syllabi (along with their incubi and succubi), but trusting that they will do so because it's the right thing to do is a bit rose-colored. And even if it were so, the accumulated lack of knowledge and the impacted literary bias of present and previous generations would still demand an Affirmative Action approach.

    Without extensive consideration, I offer this definition:
    Affirmative Action (figuratively speaking) is a deliberate effort, by institutions that have previously acted in ways that have unjustly excluded or undervalued a certain population, in order to reclaim the value of that population. It is a conscious, intentional bias in favor of those who have been (and, therefore, continue to be) disadvantaged by the system as it is/has been.

    Or something like that.

    Not at all

  20. Does anybody else think the boy in that image looks like Alex Rodriguez?