ON THE INTERNATIONALISATION OF THE STUDY OF THEORY IN INTER-CULTURAL TERMS
A DESCRIPTION OF THE CHALLENGE
Scholarly Agendas in Relation to Geographies of Power
From my limited understanding of the world of scholarship, I have come to the conclusion that scholarly agendas, at the individual,institutional,national,and global levels are significantly influenced and often driven by the relative power demonstrated by the political,economic,military,and it seems,the cultural force of the world's geographical and racial blocs,with the most powerful bloc dominating the scholarly agenda.
Along those lines,the priorities defined by Western scholarship,as far as I can see,dominate the global scholarly agenda.I ought to take time to demonstrate the rationale for my perspective but forgive me in my stating that I am not motivated to do that in detail right now.I will mention examples that might be relevant.One is that as much as I admire Western scholars as well as non-Western scholars working in the field described as post-colonial studies,I am also interested in scholarship by Western and non-Western scholars that cannot be limited to what very little understanding I have of the contours of that field but whose work could be understood as relevant to non-Western cultures.
It seems to me that much of the theoretical scholarship in literature in which the work of non-Western scholars is prominent is in post-colonial studies.I could be wrong and would be happy to be enlightened,particularly since I am biased by the limitations of my current education and my ideological orientation.In looking at works which are understood to be classics of literary and cultural criticism,I perceive some works which are presented as of universal value.They are not described by publishers and scholars as limited in their value to particular geographical regions but as central to the fundamental understanding of the field,even when the texts the works deal with are often Western texts.The same thing applies in philosophy.
Comparative Experiences at the University of Benin, University of Kent,SOAS and UCL
One of the most blatant experiences I have had along these lines emerges from the similarities in my experience in my BA and MA in English and Literature at the University of Benin in Nigeria in the 1980s and my MA in Comparative Literature Africa/Asia at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London in 2003-2004.In the courses in these two universities, on different continents, in studies separated by decades,at departments staffed by lecturers who had studied in Africa,Europe and the US,the texts used in the study of the fundamental philosophical positions in literary theory were always texts by Western scholars, almost always focusing on Western literature and the Western intellectual tradition. These scholars are often,if not always blissfully unaware of any other literary or intellectual tradition. It was as if the long tradition of aesthetics, of literary and critical theory and philosophy in Asia did not exist. Africanist theoretical thought came in at the University of Benin in relation to questions relating to African literature, oral and written. At SOAS, theory which engaged significantly with non-Western thought was presented, if at all, since I really don’t remember any such example, in the section on post-colonial studies.Those who are better informed than I am with the work of such luminaries of post-colonial scholarship as Edward Said,Homi Bhaba and Gayatri Spivak are better positioned than myself to explore the question of the cultural roots of the discourses that inform their work.
The Western theoretical texts, however, as I have defined them above, were the necessary framework for the study of all literatures. Having had a self taught background background in Classical African thought, Western esoteric thought and Asian thought, as well as the standard Western mainstream education,before I commenced studying at the University of Benin,I realised that there was a problem and that even with the dedication of my lecturers,we,the tachers and students, were victims of Western cultural hegemony.My suggestions about developing theoritical models inspired by Classical African thought were well received ,however,when I successfully applied to do a PhD at the University of Ibadan with Ademola da Silva but I was too restless to pursue that before I got the chance to come to study in England.Some of the best encouragement I got anywhere in this initiative was at the University of Kent, where I did an MA in European and Comparative Literary Studies almost concurrently with MA in comparative literature at SOAS.Lynn Innes in the English department at Kent encouraged my efforts in the development of a theoretical model inspired by the continental African-African Diaspora Ifa system,and by Leon Schlamm in Religious Studies where a very powerful MA in the Study of Mysticism and a program in Cosmology and Divination encourage exploration of ideas that transgress the current epistemic hegemonies.That was where I wrote an essay on Ifa in relation to mystical theory and practice in an effort to demonstrate the value of such a system beyond the materialistic orientations often described as the central,if not the exclusive interests of Classical African religions.I also drew on the hermeneutics of space in Ifa in developing a conception of spatial navigation as a hermeneutic paradigm in dialogue with the work of the German philosopher Martin Heidegger and the Italian writer Italo Calvino, influenced by Tania Tribe’s vigorous teaching at SOAS on metaphysics, epistemology and aesthetics, as well in archaeological theory. The Yoruba Orisa tradition also proved vital to an essay on the symbolism of female biological spaces, understood in a cross-cultural and interdisciplinary context, the latter essays benefiting from the latitude,rigour and generosity of my major at Kent,the program in European and Comparative Literary Studies.
I also got significant support from my supervisor at SOAS in my application of Ifa to the study of the work of the Dutch artist Vincent van Gogh,in an effort to demonstrate the validity of that system beyond its traditional epistemic use and beyond Black culture, thereby taking further the wonderful work done by Henry Louis Gates Jr in The Signifying Monkey.This essay built on what I had learnt at Kent on autobiographical theory and practice and I interpreted the conjunction between Ifa and van Gogh's paintings and letters along those lines.
The classes I providentially audited with Dr.Tania Tribe in Art and Archeology as SOAS,along with the seminar series she initiated on cross-cultural hermeneutics were vital in exposing me to her efforts to challenge the interpretive hegemony of Western scholarship in relation to aesthetic experience and thought,even as Tania ranged broadly and inspiringly over the entire field of Western philosophy and into allied disciplines such as archaeology.
SOAS also had a fantastic series series of workshops run by the SOAS/UCL Africa/Asia research program. The democratic structure, breadth and superb organisation of these workshops facilitated an exponential growth in my cognitive cacapacities, being one my life's most important learning experiences. It also enabled me to have sumptuous free meals, supplementing my often precarious feeding arrangements, since very good food was always served to those who attended.Sadly,the last I knew the research centre had been closed down and the seminars discontinued for lack of funding after the funding period came an an end.I pray I am able one day to endow a similar initiative at SOAS,which opened my eyes through those workshops to a great way of doing scholarship.
A negatively revelatory experience I had on the issue of epistemic hegemony came from the similarity between the theoretical studies in the course I did at SOAS,and those I had done at the University of Benin more than a decade ago. The course, Comparative Literature Africa/Asia, had been advertised as drawing upon the range of non-Western literary production and Western culture in order to offer an intercultural experience. At least that’s how I remember it from my years of salivating in the sheer pleasure of reading the course brochure in the years when the possibility of escape to such an enlightened cross-cultural discourse was not in sight till when the opportunity eventually came.
SOAS was staffed with lecturers from different parts of the world, experts on the world's cognitive traditions. Monks from Asia came to study at SOAS. Prof Steven Chan has edited a work on The Zen of International Relations, interpreting international relations in relation to Zen Buddhism. My Chinese lecturer Dr.Zhao,had published a work on Chinese dramatic aesthetics. If I remember well, he expressed the view, in private, that Asian aesthetics was superior to western aesthetics. But gues,what? In all Dr.Zhao's teaching and supervision of the course in literary theory, in which a number of guest lecturers taught, non-Western aesthetics and literary theory was presented only in relation to post-colonial studies. The lecture on Chinese literature by a professor in the field was conducted in relation to the theories of the French philosopher Pierre Bourdieu. The aesthetic theories developed by art influenced by Zen Buddhism, for example, demonstrated in a vigorous tradition in the verbal and visual arts, were not broached, even though SOAS also has experts in the visual art of various Asian countries, including China, where visual art and literature were significantly conjoined in the classical tradition. It was a very competent lecture but I had hoped for more from an institution so rich in cross-cultural expertise. I also took lectures in literary theory at University College, London, but with a thoroughly Eurocentric curriculum I had no expectations of the kind I had at SOAS, although the support I eventually got for my current PhD at UCL, jointly supervised with SOAS.wis based on a commitment by my research committee znd the head of the comparative literature program faculty on the unique contribution that could be provided by what I described as divinatory hermeneutics, emerging from my fascination with Ifa as an inspiration for critical thought.
A number of students asked Dr.Zhao why we were not studying non-Western theory in a more inclusive manner. He replied that the issue had been broached at faculty meetings but the idea had not flown for a number of reasons. One of this was the idea that Western scholarship was understood as a unifying force in global culture and the educational experience of the international student body of the program, from Africa,Europe,and the US,among other continents. It was also argued that if non-Western theory was to be taught, what texts were to be chosen out of the large number available, and if I might add, what criteria were to be employed in choosing among the myriad texts and schools? Western aesthetic, critical and literary study, on the other hand was clearly delineated, with its historical progression evident from centuries of unified scholarship and institutionalisation in relation to an epistemic consensus, leading to and a broad consensus on it canons.
PERSONAL APPROACHES TO ADDRESSING THE CHALLENGE
Curricula Development and Application
Interesting argument, of some limited value, but in my view, dodging the question and the necessary scholarly task which I see as the prerogative of an institution uniquely positioned like SOAS to act as a true intercultural matrix of scholarship. I, who am not an expert in the discourses of any culture,, do not need more than one month to draw up an intercultural program on literary theory and aesthetics, particularly since one would have access in person to so many scholars who have specialised in the disciplines that make such inter-cultural scholarship possible, being trained in Western or Westernised institutions and studying non-Western cultures, often through living for significant periods of time in those societies and developing fluency in the native languages. Is it not possible to draw up a tentative list, debate the relative merits of particular selections, and rotate different selections at different academic sessions?
Cosmopolitan Scholarship and the Example of Abiola Irele:from Ifa Cosmolgy to the Non-Linear Systems of Chaos Theory and Japanese Gardening.
Anyway, for my part, I think one of the crucial ways to escape from such self perpetuating hegemonies is to educate onself in and apply structures of thought from as cosmopolitan a selection as possible.
Along those lines, one of my abiding interests is in exploring the work of the Nigerian literary and cultural critic Francis Abiola Irele. A current project is the correlation of the conceptions of cosmology he expresses in two of his essays. He mentions the conception of the forest as cosmos in an earlier essay "Tradition and the Yoruba Writer" describing this as central to Ijala poetry, poetry of hunters of the Yoruba of southern Nigeria. What I understand to be the most authoritative work on Ijala, Adeboye Bababalola's volume on that poetry, does not seem to me to corroborate this interpretation but Wole Soyinka's comment on Ijala in his Myth,Literature and the African World is in agreement with Irele's characterisation, which is also consonant with scholarship on philosophies of nature in African, on-African cultures and marginal Western sub-cultures, as indicated by such works as African Sacred Groves by Michael Sheridan, Celia Nyamweru ,by the work of Susanne Wenger which integrates Yoruba,Jungian and Asian perspectives in interpreting the Osun forest in Osogbo,Nigeria and work on shamanism,such as Joan Halifax's Shamanic Voices,and the philosophies of nature that have emerged with Western neo-Paganism, along with my own practice of nature spirituality in Nigeria and in relation to Western esotericism.
I am working at correlating that conception of forest as cosmos with another idea Irele presents in a later essay "The African Scholar", on comologies of non-linear order in relation to parallels between mythic systems, particularly as exemplified by the figure of Esu in Yoruba thought and non-linear systems in science. Exploring such conjunctions would take one into Chaos theory, Complexity theory, Catastrophe Theory, Fuzzy Logic, theories of abstract agents, relationships between ontology and cosmological structures, as in the studies of scientific epistemology and cosmology, exemplified by field theories in physics and demonstrated by the work of Tian Yu Cao at Boston University (whose interests span philosophy of science to "philosophical issues related to modernity and globalization" and who has also published The Chinese Model of Development,)to Deconstruction, among the contexts in philosophy of science, metaphysics, and critical theory that such a conjunction opens up. Perhaps the two conceptions-of landscape as cosmos and of non-linear order in nature, cosmology and explanatory models can be correlated in terms of a conception of mind in relation to landscape as developed in the use of the metaphor of mind as landscape by Samuel Guttenplan at Birckbeck, University of London, and depicted poetically in Gerald Manly Hopkin’s “ No Worst, There Is None" and used as the framework for Robert Macfarlane's account of mountaineering, Mountains of the Mind. One could also study accounts of consciousness which emphasise what is often the non-logicality of thought, as the work at UCL and Birckbeck of Mike Oaksford and Nick Chater, exemplified by Bayesian Rationality, which develops an understanding of reasoning in terms of probability, which could be seen as related to the probabilistic epistemology of divinatory theory and practice, which Irele alludes to in delineating some of the possibilities of relationships between overt and non-overt order as demonstrated by the Ifa figure of Esu.
Such considerations further take one into cultures which privilege non-linear forms of order and critical discourse, and relate this to space, a key example being Zen Buddhism and its influence on the unique style and philosophies of Japanese gggardening.gardening.order and critical discourse, and relating this to space, a key example being Zen Buddhism and its influence on the unique style and philosophies of Japanese gardening.