Some Thoughts about academic elitism, Postcolonial Impulses, and northern British Columbia
Poet/Professor Rob Budde from the University of Northern British Columbia recently wrote a column for northern B.C.’s community magazine, Northword. It was published under the odd header of “Top Culture”, which seems to imply that there is a hierarchy of cultural activity, and, presumably, something that could be called “bottom culture.” The title of citizen Budde’s piece is “Postcolonial impulses and northern B.C.” It was passed on to me by the editor of www.dooneyscafe.com, with a sticky note on it which read, “what do you make of this?”
Once I’d spotted the header, my editor’s question seemed an interesting one, so I put down the power wrenches I was using to replace the rear differential on my ageing Ford 350, sat down, read the column a couple times over and mulled over how to answer the question I’d been asked.
I haven’t heard a whole lot of talk about “postcolonial impulses” at the Tim Horton’s outlet I hang out at a few blocks from my abode here in North Bay, Ontario, which is a town fairly similar in cultural outlook and economic prejudice to Prince George, B.C. So, with an instinct that conducting a local survey to see if anyone at Tim Horton’s was having those sorts of impulses would likely get me beaten up, I went on the Internet and googled “postcolonialism, and “Rob Budde.” Citizen Budde, despite his university job, is, from the evidence available on Facebook, a hyperactive lad filled with moral urges, fond of wearing suspiciously Taliban-issue beards and explaining them away as Amish.
Not quite satisfied with what Google offered on “postcolonialism” I walked down to the public library, whispered the words in the ear of a librarian I’m friendly with. She rolled her eyes, reminded me that it was a public library, and said she thought there was a prof in the English department at Nipissing U. who might know something. I checked the website there, found a department member who was interested in decapitations and dismemberments, and, ahah! another with a specialty in gender and postcolonial studies—along with a dozen other specialties, all quite trendy in ways that let me know a cold call from a male probably wouldn’t do well. I phoned both profs both anyway, but this being June, all I got was an answering machine that basically said “see you in September.” Still, conscientious as I am, I hiked out to the campus, deployed my semi-legit library card, found some appropriately devotional literature, and spent a couple of days trying to crack the codes.
Here’s what I’ve figured out. Postcolonialism, was an intellectual contraption erected by Marxist university professors around the time the Soviet Union was beginning to choke in its peculiarly fun-free strain of political fungus and it was beginning to dawn on other Marxists that their economic and political intellectual contraptions were neither scientific nor of any great appeal to the working classes of Western countries. It is the search for a new proletariat that the heavily Bolshevik remnant of Marxist academia can dictate on behalf of.
Postcolonialism’s principal intellectual founders were Franz Fanon, a French psychiatrist who died nearly 50 years ago and found revolutionary violence “cleansing”, and Edward Said, an American Episcopalian Christian of Palestinian descent who was born in Jerusalem and spent his entire career, from 1963 to his death in 2003 teaching at New York’s Columbia University. Contemporary academics riding Postcolonialism seem willing to read only one of Said’s many books, Orientalism, which was published in 1978 and documented an intellectually nefarious imposition of Western intellectual values on non-Western thought. As Tony Judt put it, “…Said was the idolized hero of a generation of cultural relativists in universities from Berkeley to Bombay, for whom “orientalism” underwrote everything from career-building exercises in ‘postcolonial’ obscurantism (‘writing the other’) to denunciations of ‘Western Culture’ in the academic curriculum. But Said himself had no time for such nonsense. Radical antifoundationalism, the notion that everything is just a linguistic effect, struck him as shallow and ‘facile’: Human rights, as he observed on more than one occasion, ‘are not cultural or grammatical things, and when violated they are as real as anything we can encounter.’”
Then there’s Postcolonial Literature, and the study and processing of it as an academic discipline. Postcolonialism, as a movement in literary criticism, has focused, mostly, on non-European and non-North American-authored novels written in English. The majority of the raw material comes from Africa and the Indian subcontinent, but as the critical movement has gained traction within university literature departments, its mining zone hasn’t been confined to those locations. Acceptable materials can come from any language and location—provided that they’re translated into English for the processing professors—and it now takes in writing done by North American aboriginal writers.
To be acceptable the novels and writers must provide content that confirms the prejudicial epistemology of the professors practicing the critical discipline. Any work of literature is postcolonial if it provides a hostile critique of historical or contemporary capitalist practice, which just happens to by synonymous in the professors’ minds with Western imperialism, and Western intellectual values, both of which they’d like to overthrow as a goal of their neodictatorship of the neoproletariat (Or, in their jargon, the Postdictatorship of the Postproletariat). Granted, this view of non-Western literary values can be more or less nuanced, depending on the intellectual competence of the writer or professor wielding the epistemological cudgel of postcolonialist discipline, just as traditional Marxist analysis varied wildly depending on the sophistication of the person using it as an intellectual tool. Said’s wide-ranging analyses, for instance, were both highly nuanced and often, particularly toward the end of his life, reached well beyond the disciplinary boundaries of academic postcolonial analysis in both subject and method—as befits a man who spawned an academic movement he found overly rigid and intellectually puerile.
Which brings us to citizen Budde, who got his PhD at the University of Alberta by writing a novel, and appears to have taken one or more courses in graduate school on Postcolonial Literature. He seems to think that his “expert” training in Postcolonial analysis confers on him the privilege of not having to talk to—or teach—anyone who does not prima facie share his epistemological sophistication and the prejudices that naturally come along with a hermetically-sealed analytic toolbox and vocabulary. In his column in Northword, he begins by admitting that “[Postcolonialism] is one that is difficult to translate in a non-academic environment”. He argues that this isn’t elitism, but simply the consequence of him having “spent hours and hours reading about this specialized knowledge”. A couple of sentences later, he tells us that “Because concepts like “postcolonialism” and “postmodernism” have such complicated foundations, they don’t distill easily into soccer-field chitchat.”
Excuse me? Isn’t citizen Budde an instructor at a publicly funded university specifically charged with providing education to the other citizens of Northern British Columbia? So why is he saying that what he knows is just too damn complicated to communicate to the layman, and that we should therefore take it on faith, unless we’re heartless imperialists or lackeys of capitalism, that he’s right about everything he thinks and says and that there’s no other way of looking at the world that’s accurate? And what the hell is wrong with “soccer-field chitchat”? I’ve had some pretty sophisticated conversations with other parents while we were standing around a soccer field, and they weren’t always about auto mechanics.
But listen. This is Top Culture, and we should trust Budde. The postcolonialism and postmodernism he understands and we apparently aren’t trained well enough to “…have enormous implications in the lives of all northern B.C. residents.” And with that, he’s off on a jargon-laced rant that manages to stay well inside the closed vocabulary and epistemology of academic postcolonialism. Never mind Northern B.C.’s 50 year shortfall on trees. Never mind that Costco and a hundred other remotely-based corporations are sucking the profits out of everything and investing next to nothing. Never mind the skills of auto mechanics, which, properly applied, might prevent that wheel coming off that garbage truck and killing your kids. There’s colonial consciousness all around us, oppressing the helpless and creating false consciousness to blind the able. In Budde’s closed system, the questions are all rhetorical: “Why is there a tendency to civil war in Africa? Why are India and Pakistan political adversaries? Why are Canadian [aboriginal reserves] so impoverished?”
Outside citizen Budde’s system of thinking—which is where I live—there are roughly three hundred different answers to each of those questions, none of which are rhetorical. It would take anyone, including citizen Budde, the rest of their life to answer them. One of the purposes of a university—the most important purpose in my mind because it keeps all those people sitting around at Tim Horton’s from going off the rails and killing one another—is to introduce to citizens the notion that there are, in reality, three hundred answers to fundamental questions and not just one.
And what’s most shameful here is that we’ve been here before. What citizen Budde is practicing used to be called “party discipline” in the old Comintern, where everything was explained by the application of dialectical materialism, not to mention the party directives from Moscow no one was willing to acknowledge openly. But now it’s Prince George in the 21st century, where there’s no trees left to cut, and the city has the highest crime rate in the country. We’ve got citizen Budde up on the hill above town looking down on the inexpert and loftily insisting that the real problem is false consciousness, and that we have defeat colonialism to achieve, um, the degree of expert understanding he has—which he seems to think we’re not quite capable of, and so have to rely on the neodictatorship of the neoproletariat, of which he is kindly offering to be a dictator.
Let me stop all this fooling around and be blunt. First of all, history is filled with privileged people thinking they know better than the rest of us. In the last century, those privileged people killed about sixty million people—always for their own good—and made the lives of incalculable millions more permanently miserable. Let’s not go down that road again, eh? It’s bad enough that we seem to be filling the hallways of our universities with privileged people who are too expert to explain themselves to the “soccer-field chitchat” crowd.
Second, after a lot of blah, blah, and self-confirming jargon, citizen Budde’s column in Northword makes the slightly obtuse point that the Northern Gateway Pipeline isn’t going to serve the interests of people living in Northern B.C., and that it seems to be shaping up like another instance of the machinery of inaccurately focused governments and remote corporations myopically pursuing near term profits steamrolling the interests of the people who are going to have to live with the consequences. But because he sees everything through the lens of postcolonialism, the only victims he’s able to identify are the aboriginal peoples of the north. He then concludes that building the Pipeline will not so much be a human and environmental catastrophe that affects everyone, but rather an occasion for “studying” the two century history of mistreatment northern aboriginals have been subjected to.
It may well be that, but UNBC does have a Native Studies department, staffed by competent people of aboriginal descent. The department has the mandate of educating the aboriginal peoples of the north on their own cultural terms, not least of which is how to better take care of themselves and their interests in the face of both local prejudice and globalized capitalism. Whether that department wants an American-born novelist from the English department who sees them as part of a new proletariat to be dictated to with a jargon that nonbelievers can barely penetrate, remains to be seen.
The citizens of Prince George, meanwhile, ought to be looking askance at their university up on the hill, and at instructors like citizen Budde, who clearly needs to spend more time downtown, looking people in the eye, and explaining what he knows in language they can understand.
2024 words, June 4, 2012