Thursday, January 8, 2009

The State of the 'Field'

Bum bum bummm! Right now the wifewoman is somewhat angry at me so I am writing this post in the hopes that by the time I finish she will cool down somewhat and realize that I am only a moron 80% of the time rather than 100%, which is the percentage she is currently convinced of. I am not even sure the grammar of the last sentence is correct, but meh, I will let it slide.

Although you, dear reader, might not be aware of my area of study, it is not actually what I listed in the 'About Me' portion of the blog. I am a West African Historian... well, budding Historian (I still have my training wheels on, so to speak). One might raise eyebrows at the nomenclature of my field of study: why not "African historian", or why not a more general "I do African studies"? For me, the gravest danger in most any area of history is the quest for an essentialist/substantialist narrative. Whatever ethnic, national, or continental characteristics you THINK a group of people have (History being, almost exclusively, the study of human beings in complex and city-based societies), I find such conceptualizations quite troubling and I can disprove them, if given enough time and a library. Thus I categorically reject any such formulations out of hand, even if they are "strategic" (with apologies to Spivak as well as Critical Theorists). I do not think there is such a thing as "authenticity" and because Africa is so large and diverse, I do not think it is a good idea to think of it as a discrete unit of analysis. This, of course, gets me into trouble with Pan-Africanists of a particular stripe, but whatever. East Asia, South Asia, Central Asia, the Middle East, and Russia all have their own respective branches of scholarly inquiry, so why not Africa? I acknowledge the historical process of 'constructing' Africa (Indeed I often know more about it than the person giving me crap for 'once again, diving Africans amongst themselves'), but then why the hell should I not be allowed to dismantle such a construction? Sorry for the rambling introduction, I just wanted to give some background on where I am coming from.

Back to the topic at hand: West African history is in passable shape. Having attended the African Studies Association conference in Chicago last November (though not very well, I spent a lot of time touring around Chicago and I did not present a paper), there is a lot of very interesting research being carried out that will eventually fall under the aegis of West African history, a lot of it being done by Anthropologists (as usual, those dudes and chicks are badass) and Gender Studies… practitioners (what do I call someone that ‘does’ Gender Studies?). When one invokes African history people automatically assume that you are interested in the pre-colonial past (usually seen as purer and unsullied by outsiders), and a lot of people do not realize just how little we (21st century humans) know about what happened in West Africa from 1800-1000. This is not a question of slavery (one of the most popular loci of causation when dealing with Africa, though often not quite true the true cause) or Islam, but rather the nature of evidence that historians and other Africanists have on their hands: oral history. Oral history is great, but one of the things many people do not realize is that it usually lasts only six generations (180 years give or take, and if you do not believe me read up on it, especially Jan Vansina), and anything before that is massive conjecture. Thus Archaeologists (which are housed in Anthropology Departments) are the ones that must lead scholars to the light of wisdom (or other such poetics), but West Africa is tremendously under-researched in that capacity for a variety of reasons. There is a lot more to it than that, but at this point ANY serious research in West Africa is valuable, even if it is not particularly novel (Slavery and Colonialism being the usual retreads). There are two ways we might be able to redress the pre-1800 lack of knowledge: a massive investment into Archeology (extremely unlikely short of another great Indiana Jones movie seeing the light of day, and I wish I were kidding) or a redirection of Arabic linguists. The latter point is something that is quite interesting in terms of how the academy operates; certain topics pressure students into certain fields, having much to do with the race, class, and gender of the student. A white, male, middle-class student is free to pursue any field of inquiry, but a black student is expected to have some sort of relationship with African-American studies, or an American Born Chinese (ABC for short) must have some background in Asian-American studies. If a black woman is interested in history, but she is not involved in a topic that does not cover race and gender, such as Swedish economic history, that woman is suspect. Likewise, any student with a background in Arabic (which is an insanely difficult language to learn because every country has a nearly indecipherable dialect, so the classical Arabic you learn in the classroom is not what people in Egypt speak, or Morocco, or Lebanon, or the Lebanese Arabic you learn is not used by anyone outside of Lebanon) is pressured to have some sort of relationship with Middle-Eastern studies. This is all well and good, except that so many departments poach students who could make contributions elsewhere, and students with a decent knowledge of Arabic and English would do wonders for Africanists if they headed towards the Sahel instead of north of the Sahara, because there are lots of texts that need translation, transcription, and analysis, and these texts are crucial. I am, of course, something of a hypocrite because I do not know or intend to learn Arabic, nor am I concerned with pre-colonial African history, but I guarantee that any breakthrough in West African history will come from scholars who learn Arabic and effectively give the Middle East the Middle Finger (or perhaps their academic advisers).

That’s about it, I have to go as I think my wifewoman may have forgiven me in the meantime.

1 comment:

  1. Hahahahahahahahahahaha. Wo ai wo de laogong~!