Category Archives: bitching and moaning

The problem with problems: Gikandi ch. 3

As it turns out I have not given myself enough time to get into the spirit of this magnificent book. It may not be the kind of book I want to get in the spirit of, but I’ll keep trying through at least this week and probably beyond. And I’ll do another post later today that engages with it more directly and, I hope, generously.

In the meantime, I propose for discussion, if anyone’s interested, a provocation that arises from the accidents of a disorderly life. My wife Rachel is a conceptual artist whose concept for the last little while has been ‘the problem with problems’. One of the reasons we get along is that we both feel very deeply that there are plenty of facts of the matter to live around without making them into problems; and therefore it makes us sad and frustrated and angry when folks make problems where it seems like facts of the matter would have been plenty tricky to sort out.

And then this morning while I was circling Gikandi’s text, trying to sort out what he’s up to and what I’d like to be up to about it, and therefore doing some staring off into space and feed-checking to give my thoughts room to settle, one of my colleagues posted a link on Facebook to an article by Peggy Orenstein on “Our Feelgood War on Breast Cancer,” an absolutely brilliant little piece of reflective meta-analysis in which it turns out that making breast cancer a problem, to be aware of, creates new problems without contributing significantly to solving the old ones.

Like obesity and breast cancer and lots of other things, there are facts of the matter aplenty in Gikandi’s book. That it is so chock-full of fascinating facts of the matter is, to me as a historian, magnificent. I’m not sure I see a problem, however, and I haven’t entirely settled on whether Gikandi does either. Slavery clearly wasn’t a problem for big chunks of history, and for the most part educated people don’t have any problem seeing why it wasn’t a problem. So there’s a fact of the matter question about when, where, how and why slavery, in this case the racialized Atlantic variant, became a problem, that makes great sense to be the matter with this book. Clearly a moment that both articulates completely novel standards of universal humanity while also selectively denying their applicability to various humans – Africans, women, the working class, the Irish – is busily inventing new ways to make slavery in particular, and forced labor more in general, a problem. Ways that we have inherited and take for granted, which would be another interesting book. Gikandi gets this, and the use of aesthetics and the culture of taste to explore and illustrate this history of problemification is a further magnificence of the book.

Yet, and maybe this is just a prejudice from reading so many bad versions of this sort of project, I can’t help reading, or reading in, a problem in the book that looks a lot more like taking the universalism these folks invented and turning it back on them, retrospectively making slavery a problem when historically it wasn’t one yet. This standpoint of critique would be a problem to me, because it makes a problem where there wasn’t a problem, just a fact of the matter.

Specifically, it feels to me like Gikandi keeps puffing up this great and powerful Oz, Hume and the Enlightenment, just so he can keep whipping aside the curtain and saying Gotcha! Slavery! Which, in a sense that helps make the book essential, is true: the Enlightenment was enabled by an economy shot through with (not driven by, I’m afraid) slavery; and slavery (along with the Reformation, the English Civil War and Glorious Revolution, global empire, etc.) was part of the dense context / intertext of the development of notions of human self, dignity, rights, and liberty that again we now take for granted, so much so that my students all now want to talk about slavery as ‘dehumanizing’ as if the humanity they have in mind existed at the time. But that’s the point – this was not a moment in history when those concepts existed in any effective way – they were emergent there, being cobbled together as practices by the transition to industrial economy and consumer society, as ideas by a few intellectuals distant enough from the enabling contexts that they could begin to cluelessly imagine what it would look like to take privileges hitherto unproblematically associated with only a small fraction of the human race and assign them, eventually as ‘human rights’, to increasingly inclusive everyones.

Which again, Gikandi fully understands. So, why does it keep feeling like slavery ‘is’ a problem rather than becoming one? Am I just jumping at shadows, myself making problems where there are just facts of the matter?

Carl Dyke teaches, mostly introductory world history, at Methodist University in Fayetteville, NC.


Four weeks in, twelve to go . . .

This is going to be another confessional post, since most of my energies have been directed toward keeping my 1771 course afloat (about which more later), along with hosting a big family event that had people from all over the country joining us in Houston.

First of all, about the 1771 class.  It’s going, all right, but I feel that the university’s problems with identifying and registering advanced students have really screwed me over this term.  For one segment, this course was simply an open class that they could sign up for when others were closed.  The prerequisites for registration somehow disappeared during the enrollment period, and this group, now registered but barely doing the work or showing up, have become a real drag on the class.  And the blog discussions that were supposed to take on the role of quizzes etc. have been a failure, too.  Only a few have had the self-confidence to post stuff, though it’s going to figure into their grade if they don’t.  I’ve been thinking about reinstituting quizzes and in-class midterms to get them more focused, but this takes time away from the other stuff I planned.  I’ve got some good people there, but overall I wish I could have a redo on the group I ended up with this term.

 On a less self-pitying note, I gave a talk on campus about blogs and teaching at a faculty technology showcase with two of our English grad students.  This panel seemed to go fine, and was surprisingly well-attended, even though we had no fancy 3D simulation classrooms or teacher/student avatars.   The most interesting observation was that blogging is not in any way a natural or familiar practice for our undergrads, who are obsessed with Facebook, YouTube, and texting each other inscrutable anagrams.

Finally, the best news this term hasn’t really involved me at all.  It looks like our department completed two good hires in Rhet/Comp and one in Contemporary Poetry this year, and the people coming aboard (cross your fingers) look like they will be terrific colleagues.   In a department like ours, which has a relatively small faculty for large numbers of students, these people will make a difference.  So I’m feeling relieved that this happened while I was complaining about other things.



It’s MLA resolution time! UPDATED

Because I allowed my MLA membership to go dead for awhile, I had entirely forgotten about the resolutions the MLA circulates every year.  This is interesting to me, because I actually served as an MLA delegate for a few years, and spent a few painful afternoons debating such resolutions myself. 

For whatever reason, the MLA doesn’t seem eager to publicize the resolutions or our debates over them, since they’ve stuck them behind some firewall of professional dignity on the MLA website, and nestled them someplace safe where Fox News or the New York Times can’t get to them.

I must admit, though, that years ago, when I was a delegate myself, whenever I returned from one of those long delegate meetings, I was always mocked by my friends for consenting to sit through a 4 1/2 hour debate over whether or not to censure this or that Big Name University for its disgusting, exploitive, union-busting, grad-student grinding, generally greedhead activities.  And no, we never actually censured anyone while I was there.  We just talked about it for a very long time, then decided we’d all be better off if we did nothing.

So I’m interested in the opinions of those on this blog, whether MLA members, ex-members, and not-ever-members, about how they regard such resolutions, if they think about them at all, and how much impact they’ve had on their local workplace.  And if this kind of discussion makes teeny tiny tears of boredom roll down your cheeks, then we’ll move on to a more 18th century sort of topic straightaway.


UPDATE: I feel a lot happier passing this along, from Cary Nelson of the AAUP.  It’s a report about the collapse of faculty governance and tenure in the New Orleans-area universities affected by Katrina.  Take a look, and if stuff like this bothers you, think about joining the AAUP.


No matter how much I miss living in New York . . .

I don’t miss this.


Oh, or conversations like this one. 

Hurricane forming in Gulf . . . Keep gas tanks full . . .

This was the cheerful sign that greeted me while I drove back from the airport today, after another whirlwind trip to Shady Side, MD.  And despite the 90 degree heat, and my pleasant memories of the Rita evacuation, it does indeed feel good to be home on the last day of the summer, getting ready to teach tomorrow.  Except for this, and this (registration may be req.), and this.  UPDATE: or this

But the classes look interesting, and we’ll see how the blogiversity of houston works out for me at the grad and undergrad levels.

 So welcome back, everyone.