Some Rumblings ...

I haven’t been blogging for a while again caught up as I got between some administrative and private struggles as well as writing-up my thesis … well, now that I’m stuck I thought I just share some of the rumblings that seem to block my progress with you, hope you don’t mind.

Basically, what I’m stuck with is the theoretical discussion. I’m trying to use critical discourse analysis and feel that such an approach requires you even more than others to make clear where your own argument is coming from, largely British academic discourses in the areas of writing about African (and other non-‘Western’) societies, arts and cultures in my case. So far so easy. Or rather not. Once you’ve acknowledged the discourses you’ve been (intellectually) brought up with and which (partly due to the claim to truth quasi-naturally inherent in every discourse and despite your awareness that they are just that ,discourses and not some objective truth) you still somehow belief them be ever so slightly more truthful, once you’ve acknowledged that different (academic) discourses are employed by local researchers into your own area of inquiry, after all that, how do you reconcile the two without disrespecting the legitimacy of the latter, which you feel you need to acknowledge?

In case you don’t really know what I mean, let me explain the example I’ve been struggling with. It concerns some terms at the very heart of much writing about African arts: traditional and modern/Western(ised). Originally I had intended to circumvent all these debates by using a, I thought, neutral term – local – and then within this particular local context analyse present-day artistic practices without caring about their origin in locally rooted or foreign traditions. However, local carries derogative connotations in Nigeria, something along the English backwater or American hillbilly I was told. So, why not use traditional instead. Now, the traditional-vs.-modern model is one that has largely been discredited in British academic writing about African arts. I understand that move to be rooted in postcolonial discourses with their origin in studies of migrant cultures and the quest to legitimate their mixed cultural heritages against the backdrop of essentialist discourses of national cultures and calls for assimilation. They have drawn attention to cross-cultural exchanges throughout history and, thus, challenged essentialist notions of cultures across the world. In the context of African studies they have inspired the exploration of pre-colonial routes of exchange of goods and ideas across societies, regions and even continents. Such, notions of economic and cultural globalisation have been projected back into history, thus, challenging conceptualisations of in particular pre-colonial African societies as closed tribal cultures. Traditional cultures, then only exist insofar as foreign cultural influences have been adapted and combined with pre-existing traditions into a cultural mix that at a particular time can be considered distinctive to a particular society. Hence, any opposition between traditional and modern cultures can only ever be temporary. What is modern or foreign today, here, might be tomorrow’s traditional. So far I instinctively and philosophically follow the argument. But from all I understand the traditional-vs.-modern model of African cultures is still employed by Nigerian academics and I suspect they have good reasons for that. And here comes the problem: beyond the issue of the derogative connotations of local in Nigeria, which could simply be circumvented by spelling out what I mean when I use it in the context of my diss, doesn’t my rejection of the Nigerian terminology and discourse not also imply a rejection of the latter’s experience? I mean, does that not somehow put me into Conrad’s shoes (and I’m explicitly not trying to compare myself with a novelist of such standing in any other aspect), which Said describes so beautifully:

‘For it is true that [in Nostromo] Conrad ironically sees the imperialism of the San Tome silver mine’s British and American owners as doomed by its own pretentious and impossible ambitions, it is also true that he writes as a man whose Western view of the non-Western world is so ingrained as to blind him to other histories, other cultures, other aspirations.’

Discourse analysis requires me to acknowledge the embeddednes of my views in particular discourses which’s claim to truth is (tautologically) based in themselves, on the other hand I struggle to reconcile this with my instinctive (and philosophical) preference for a Western discourse in my study of African art. Maybe the solution is to simply acknowledge that and assume that it will nevertheless provide an equally valid outsider view … wasn’t it for the cultural politics involved. I mean, how welcoming am I to outsider views on my own cultural background? Honestly, how serious am I willing to take them? If that makes any sense … And if I feel that these same discursive practices that discredited notions of the traditional implicitly also legitimate current processes of economic and cultural globalisation by projecting them back into history as a quasi-natural part of human development, shouldn't I then consider and respect discourses that hold on to them also, at least at some level, as resistance to the former?

I'm not anymore clear than when I started writing that ... arggghhhhh!!!

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