Thursday, September 27, 2007

On knowledge, history and disruption

I want to give a little background on what we have been studying so far this semester, and then explore some larger ideas that have been kicking around between this class and my other classes (and specifically my postcolonial theologies class). I hope to look at knowledge and history - applying some of the ideas in Said's "Orientalism". Then I would like to ask the question, "how can the study of Al-Andalus disrupt Imperialist/Orientalist discourse and fictions of purity?"

Quite an undertaking for a simple blog post, and I fully acknowledge that I will be just briefly touching on each of these points, in hopes to further expand them as this blog develops. I think (as of this moment) that these will be key ideas running throughout my work this semester.

The last few weeks our course reading has included some extensive readings on Jewish diversities, and the history of Jews in Spain. Much of this reading was a "straight-forward" style history, listing dates and key figures, battles and geographic boundaries. These histories lacked texture and richness. They did not share the intimate stories of the people, but rather the impersonal progressions of power.

knowledge and history -
In my process of thinking about the ideas of knowledge and history, I have become fascinated by the way that history is a production of knowledge often about someone(s) and/or something(s) other than the one who is writing the history. It is becoming a much more common idea that "history is written by the winners" and in this process other stories and histories are misunderstood, distorted and/or erased all together. But in this problematic writing of history, knowledge about the other is created, and created in the language of those writing the history, which can lead to it being inaccurate and destructive. And as we acknowledge it is the "winner" creating this knowledge, we are also acknowledging that there is then power recognized in that knowledge. There is truth attributed to it.

In the past of the "West," the history writers have come from traditions of imperialism and colonialism. Combining the imperialist/colonizing discourse with the ability to produce knowledge about another is a terrifying prospect. This is because one of the important pieces of this discourse is a notion of purity and normalcy that leads the writing of history to have to leave out, marginalize and ignore the parts of history that could be a challenge to this claim of purity. In the imperialist project, the academic study of the other goes hand in hand with the production of histories and knowledge. In Said's "Orientalism" we see that there is danger in that project because it creates "knowledge" that is not congruent with the lived experience of the subjects of the history. In an interview, Said was asked why he became interested in the subjects that would later appear in "Orientalism." He replied that throughout his life he had a felt a constant disparity between his own experience of being an Arab, and the representations of what it meant to be Arab as portrayed in art and other cultural productions. Part of the control over those that would be/are/have been colonized comes in the form of naming, defining and explaining who "they" are, from the mouth of the colonizer. Because the colonizer has the power to create the knowledge that will be seen as "truth," the colonizers are able to then define the other against themselves, simultaneously creating a purified norm for their own, and a lesser, uncivilized, bizarre, exotic, other, furthering justifying the control over their subject.

disruption -
So what can the study of Andalusia do to confront imperialist discourse that relies on fictions of purity? My assertion is that as we uncover histories of mixity - the intimate stories of lives and music and food and art - there is a challenge to the previously produced knowledge/history that remains impersonal, in control and "pure." Through this process we can re-re-create and re-re-present histories in a way that gives voice to, and produces knew knowledge about those previously silenced.

yes and? -
How can it be ensured that new understandings of histories do not continue in the cycle of knowledge production that is oppressive? Is there a way to re-present the past (as people in academia) that does not distort or mis-translate (orientalize) what it is that is trying to be re-presented? How do we talk/write/think about something we do not have language for other than as a comparison to the language we do have? And if we must make those comparisons are they still privileging our own discourse/knowledge base?

1 comment:

LHL said...

Like most folks with a progressive outlook, I've found the teaching that history is written by the winners to be really useful and liberating. But the really fucked up thing is that the winner’s version of history is taught to all sorts of people- not just the elites. So I wind up internalizing and teaching others this version of history to which I’m totally opposed. It reminds me of Utah Philips’ piece about high school history sending him out into the world armed with someone else’s class background. He describes what a barrier that is to knowing how to join/organize a union and figure out how to control the conditions of his labor.