No. 2: Diversity, Culture, and the Western Literary Canon
May 8, 2014
Consider “The Great Books of the Western World”. Everyone has probably seen this sort of list of “canonical” works before, if not this particular one, at least one like it, and likewise, we have all undoubtedly heard the same familiar criticism of such projects over. and over. and over again. That the choices are sufficiently “diverse” enough, or that, similarly, they are “Euro” or “Western” centric, which of course, is bad. Or at least that’s standard line we’ve all heard repeated ad nauseam by critics of Great Book lists and Common Reading Cores and Western Canons, that Western Canons are too, well, Western, wouldn’t you say?
“Don’t you think that list is a little…” and here they usually hem and haw a bit, and look over their shoulders before continuing, as if they were about to say “Don’t you think that’s a little queer,” or “a little black,” but to their credit they always work up the courage to bravely press on, “a little too… Euro-Centric?” This criticism stems mainly from the dogmatic acceptance of certain standard Neo-Marxist historical narratives taken from Post-Colonial studies, Feminism and Queer theory, and Critical Race Studies, where the Imperialist West has ruled the world now since the dawn of man and taken everything from everyone else and given it to the Straight White Male, those pig-dog capitalist oppressors, who do they think they are?
“People who, ignorant about history, know only their own age believe the current taste is the only one and so necessary that nothing but it can be imagined. They believe that everything that they find indispensable because of habituation and education has been indispensable for all ages, and they do not know that the more comfortable something is for us then the more novel it must probably be. Generally, pride accompanies this ignorance as well (two sibling who are as inseparable as envy and stupidity); their times are the best because they live in them and other ages lack the honor of their acquaintance.”
— Herder, “On the Change of Taste”
My answer to this criticism is simple, and before I offered my own criticism of the Great Books”, I thought it worth quickly dispensing with my competition. Our “Europe” and our “West” are our creations, not universals, and for consequently, these concepts do not reach limitlessly into the past and cast their domineering influence upon the whole of human history as some would like to imagine. What strikes me as particularly amusing about the sort of person who complains about lack of diversity in the Western canon, is that their desire for that diversity is predicated upon the notion of cultural relativity, that the mode of thought and taste experienced by us, is not necessarily the one experienced by all peoples everywhere, and for that reason, should not be taken to be superior than the mode of thought and manner of being found among the American Indians, or the Bushmen of South Africa.
“Many of the doubting sort of philosophers have therefore tied all these scruples together into a know which they have taken to be beyond untying: “If one were to consider the great diversity that holds sway between opinion and opinion, taste and taste, viewpoint and viewpoint among nations and individual people, then one would almost certainly have to doubt oneself.” Is, then, even what I take to be true ture, since hundreds who have an equally good human understanding take it to be falst? Is, then, even that beautiful which I imagine so? Can I trust myself? — Among the ancients, the Pyrrhonists and the Academic sect are known for these doubts. Among the moderns, La Mothe le Vayer, Montaigne, and Hume have especially occupied themselves with the afromentioned type of scruple.”
— Herder, “On the Change of Taste”
As clever as we believe ourselves to be, as may be seen from this passage from Herder’s 1766 “On the Diversity of Taste and of Manner of Thought Among Human Beings”, it nonetheless is something many times considered, and just as often rejected, meaning here too then we encounter diversity, and yet, even those who set themselves up in favor of diversity, believe their opinions on the matter to be entirely universal and beyond all rational scepticism or doubt.
Furthermore, the cultural relativist contradicts himself when fails to extend his own doctrine of relativity backwards, in time, that is, they do not recognize past nations as distinct from their modern equivalents in the same way they imagine foreign nations as distinct in custom and attitude from their own.
“Even in the most everyday activities of civil life, we cannot avoid becoming indebted to centuries past; the most diverse periods of mankind contribute to our culture in the same way as the most remote regions of the world contribute to our luxury. The clothes we wear, the spices in our food, and the price for which we buy them, many of our strongest medicines, and also many new tools of our destruction—do they not presuppose a Columbus who discovered America, a Vasco da Gama who circumnavigated the tip of Africa?”
— Schiller, “On Universal History”
Is the past not a province unto itself, are the nations and cultures which preceded us not entirely distinct from ourselves and therefore also worthy of being extended the same which the relativist extends to the less developed societies found during his own era? It bespeaks a certain presumptuousness to not do so, a certain cultural arrogance is implicit here that usually escapes our notice. Our Ancestors, the civilizations and peoples, with their characteristic prejudices and sets of value, are our lessers in terms of moral enlightenment and are to be ridiculed and dismissed for not knowing better. The undeveloped people of the present, who sometimes share our ancestors’ prejudices and sets of values, do not.
The tendency here is to mistakenly believe there is a continuous and inexorable chain of development separating our cultural forerunners from ourselves, we imagine them as if they were younger, less worldly or educated version of ourselves, and we cringe thinking about what a foolish figure we must of cut in the eyes of others carrying on and behaving in the manner that we did. Today though, we are in a position to know better and reflect on our own infancy critically, but only on our own infancy, only upon ourselves, as it would be just plain rude of us to judge others by our own mature standards who are yet still children as we once were. No, we must smile knowingly and shake our heads as the young behaves in the way youth can everywhere and at all periods be observed to.
There is something tacitly judgemental about this attitude I’m sure you would agree.
My issue here is with the teleological principle grounding this relativist position. Humanity progresses, as a consequence of universal necessity, through several stages of objective “development”, determined in idea, in the same manner that the human body develops physically from infancy to adulthood becoming stronger and more intelligent with each successive milestone passed.
Continuity is being taken for granted, between the societies that preceded us, and our “Western” society today. Continuity that exists in idea alone. As a demonstration, consider a number line, a line extending from the 1 to 2, connecting these two separate points together. What is that line? It is not really continuous, is it? We know that it is a creation of our active mind, something projected between 1 and 2 by our imaginations. It consists of infinitely many points between 1 and 2, and, in the same way that a film appears as a continuous, moving image to us, but in reality is actually 24 disconnected still images presented in quick succession, a line also appears continuous to us when it too is only an inference, or imagining of continuity.
Our idea of our own history is our idea of “Europe” or the “West”, which did not always exist as a meaningful concept, traced backwards, materialistically, thereby hypostatizing what are only concepts, ie “Europe” and “The West”, and confusing them with objective institutions and geographically limited areas. For example, consider the difference between “America” and “The United States Federal Government”, the US Federal Government is what might be called an “objective” or “physical” institution. It first came into existence in 1789, it owns property, it can appear in court. It is not, however, to be mistaken with “America”, which is only an idea in accordance with which the US Federal Government may attempt (and fail) to act. It has no true beginning, 1789? 1776? 1607? 1492? 1066? You can argue that the idea of America has many antecedents going back farther than the discovery of the New World even.
Likewise “Europe” or “The West” are ideas the same as “America” is, we cannot confuse them with physical or objective institutions.
To make my point, because I have written much more than I originally intended to and should probably get on with it already, to say that our canon of Western literature is not already diverse in its inclusion of cultures separate from itself is a misnomer, one that assumes our conception of the West to have universal historical validity.
The Western Canon rather is an assimilative entity, which, in the process of constituting itself from works of literature taken from many disparate cultures, in the relationship it gives those works as a collection, defines “The West” as what these myriad and, at times, seemingly unrelated works are suggested to have in common with one another by our consolidation of them all as parts of some whole to which these works commonly belong.
Greek works, from the period of literature between the reigns of Hadrian and Justinian, would have, during the Middle Ages, been considered very much “Eastern” by the citizens of that era, not “Western”. When the works to which I’m referring here are taught today in college literature courses perhaps, and the question is raised, “why read these dead white European cis white old dead straight males?” Could we not maybe select readings that were a little less, let’s say, homogeneous? Where are the proud trans women of color? Don’t they too deserve our hearing? This is, as I said at the outset, all more or less standard by now, we’re used to hearing these concerns raised by Progressives, in fact I imagine most are sick of having the discussion so often as we’re forced by our enlightened friends to again endure it.
It should be easy to observe how constrained their thinking is though and exactly where they go wrong in their criticism when it is recalled that a culture, like “Western Culture” for instance, is, afterall, only a concept, and to belong to one culture, does not disqualify something from at the exact same time, belonging just as much to another entirely independently of whatever claim another culture may be said to have on it. These cultures may be thought of like dimensions of existence, as conceptual dimensions of thought, invisibly overlapping one another and intersecting at certain points, an example of which might be the traditional Native American headdress. Recently, the use, or “appropriation” of such pieces of tradiational wear as the headdress has become an increasingly contentious issue. Appropriating such garb is not to be tolerated and is, of course, very inconsiderate, uncouth, and offensive, which, it should go without saying, are all very bad things to be. Typically the argument against the wearing of Native American headdress is something along the lines of it being an act of cultural desecration or disrespect to do so, as those styles belong to the Native Americans as part of their culture.
Native American culture however is only a conceptual dimension of objective existence, as is American culture, and neither are objective institutions to which a practice or fashion can “belong”. Certainly the objective histories of the two people physically determine one another, the United States and the Indian tribes can not both be sovereigns of the same parcel of land simultaneously, they cannot both be the victor of a single battle, one force must physically prevail and determine the outcome and seize possession. In the case of a headdress however, this physical constraint of limitation does not also apply. A sphere exists in three independent dimensions, and existing in one of these does not thereby exclude existence in the others, and in the case of the headdress, there are simply two distinct conceptual dimensions being occupied here.
To give another example, take the Bible. Here is one thing extending across a multiplicity of conceptual dimensions, something independently significant in the religious cultures of Catholicism, Lutheranism, Anglicanism, etc. Significance in one does not exclude independent significance within another.
Fundamentally, the conscientious observer of Social Justice doctrine is undone in all of this by the materialism inherent in their worldview, something inherited from Marxism and its various derivatives. Rather than thinking multi-dimensionally, the concepts of cultures are hypostatized and constituted deceitfully within physical actuality by a reason that has mistaken its object:
“And thus it happens in practice. On the wings of imagination Man leaves the narrow bounds of the present, in which mere animality is enclosed, in order to strive forward to an unbounded future; but while the infinite rises before his dazed imagination, his heart has not yet ceased to live in the particular and to wait upon the instant. In the midst of his animality the impulse towards the absolute takes him by surprise — and as in this dull condition all his endeavours are directed towards the material and temporal, and are confined solely to his individuality, he is merely induced by that demand, instead of abandoning his individuality, to extend it into the infinite; instead of form, to strive for inexhaustible matter, instead of the immutable for eternal variation and an absolute assertion of his temporal existence. The very impulse which, applied to his thoughts and actions, ought to lead him to truth and morality, now brought to bear on his passivity and perception, produced nothing but a limitless demand, an absolute want.”
— Schiller, “On the Aesthetic Education of Man”, #24
For the sake of demonstration we have again strayed and extended our discussion much longer than we had intended. But, having said all this, let us return to the classroom discussion about reading canonically “Western” Greek works such as “Daphnis and Chloe” and “The Ethiopian Romance”. These are parts of our modern conception of “Western” or “European” culture, and these are concepts of a relatively recent vintage, and as the societies preceding us are as distinct points on an invisible number line, and are connected to us in imagination only, they are not to be so easily subsumed under our cultural idea as if they did not possess their own culture corresponding to them. These cultures may have gone extinct or passed into the ashes of history, but as conceptual dimensions, they exist outside the boundaries of time and space.
Therefore, to say that Greek works of the early first millennium are “Western” is to forget that they are, when considered from another vantage, “Eastern”, and that the Western canon was assembled in just this way, as a collection of works drawn from many distinct languages, time periods, and cultural traditions. It is only in their relationship that they form a canon of culture, and to dismiss them as inherently belonging to a single homogoneous Western culture, is to at the same time intrude upon the other conceptual dimensions of culture in which those works are also significant and determine the meaning and significance of those works within those traditions.
But by now I’m sure you’ve gotten the point.