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Author: Kwame Anthony Appiah
Title: Words on the occasion of the retirement of Hans Panofsky
Publication info: Ann Arbor, Michigan: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library

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Source: Words on the occasion of the retirement of Hans Panofsky
Kwame Anthony Appiah

Evanston, IL: Program of African Studies, Northwestern University
no. 2, pp. 4, 1991
Author Biography: Kwame Anthony Appiah, a member of the Department of African-American Studies, Harvard, is co-editor of Transition: An International Review.

Words on the Occasion of the Retirement of Hans Panofsky [1]


Let me start with an epigraph—or perhaps I should say a prologue—from a recent essay of Stephen Greenblatt:

Like ideology, culture is a term that is repeatedly used without meaning much of anything at all. [2]

Despite the overwhelming reality of economic decline; despite unimaginable poverty; despite wars, malnutrition, disease and political instability; African cultural productivity grows apace: written literatures, oral narrative and poetry, dance, drama, music, and visual art all thrive. The contemporary cultural production of many African societies—and the many traditions whose evidences so vigorously remain—provide a rich resource for the scholarly study of the humanities, whose central concern is, after all, the theoretical exploration of the possibilities of human life in culture.

Humanistic scholarship in African Studies should, therefore, be making a considerable contribution to the humanities in the United States. And there have, in fact, been precisely such "crossovers" in a number of fields: for example, in art history, where Africanists have been in the vanguard, introducing to students of European art an understanding of artistic practices that is more richly contextualized (I think of Suzanne Blier's The Anatomy of Architecture: Ontology and Metaphor in Batammaliba Architectural Expression); or in literary theory where conceptions of the symbolic have been influenced by Victor Turner's work on Ndembu culture.

But this sort of opening-up of traditional academic fields of humanistic study has been less frequent and less substantial than we might have hoped. Indeed, not only is the scholarly study of African cultural materials not making its proper contribution to the humanities, there is also a widespread consensus that the study of these cultural practices is in crisis.

Part of the explanation for this is obviously precisely the appalling material conditions that I mentioned at the start. The generally poor state of most African economies (and more particularly, the severe shortages of foreign exchange) have forced governments to make hard financial choices. The relevance of the humanities to development priorities is hard to argue when such problems as those of basic agriculture or food transportation are so urgent; and funding for humanistic projects is often one of the first things to go. Where projects still depend strongly on imported tools and technologies, the difficulties raised by the competition for scarce internal national resources are exacerbated by the problems created by the struggle for even scarcer external resources.

More than this, modern universities—like modern archives and museums—were largely created by the colonial state and often have only shallow roots in the national culture. University students are often widely resented by workers, peasants, and the military who see the students consuming a disproportionate share of the national cake and cannot see what good comes of this consumption.

Primarily for these reasons, almost all African museums, archives, libraries, and universities—all the institutions involved in the collection, preservation, and dissemination of cultural materials for humanistic scholarship—have seen in recent years a reduction in real levels of financial support.

The so-called "book famine" in Africa, which deprives African scholars of access to recent international scholarship in books and journals in their disciplines, and makes it easier, say, for a Nigerian professor of francophone literature to gain access to recent work by other African scholars in London, Paris, or Chicago than in Lagos or Ife, also poses a serious threat to the development of autonomous traditions of scholarly work.

The most important consequence of this situation is the exacerbation of the intellectual dependency of Africans and African institutions on the institutions of the West; and it can hardly be thought to be a tolerable state of cultural affairs that some of the finest—and certainly the best—funded work (much of it by displaced Africans) continues to be done outside the continent.

In circumstances where the study of African cultural products is starved of funding in Africa—which should be the center of such study—it is inevitable that there should be a sense of crisis among all of us in African Studies in these fields, whether we work in African institutions or elsewhere.

But if the crisis has material roots, it also has intellectual ones; and some of them will be familiar to all who work in the academy in the United States, because they are connected with what has come to be called the "fragmentation of knowledge."

It is not hard to see the signs of this fragmentation everywhere. Consider, for example, the interest displayed recently in literary studies in the question of the "canon". This no doubt has its sources in a multitude of diverse anxieties. But among them, surely, is more than a concern about what is not being taught: a sense that current literary theory, in particular, exhibits an opacity that makes it inaccessible to intelligent readers even in other fields of the humanities ... and conviction that opacity is unacceptable.

The same sort of fragmentation occurs not merely between departments and disciplines but within them. Thus, it has occurred in the field of philosophy, of course, where one of its manifestations is an "Analytic-Continental" divide; and it is as difficult to accept Richard Rorty's advice in "Philosophy in America Today" and recognize this split as "both permanent and harmless," as it is to feel happy with the fragmentation between literary theory and other currents in the humanities.

Fragmentation, then, is not just a matter of specialization: it is the fact that knowledge created in one disciplinary setting is inaccessible to scholars in others, even when those scholars would find it helpful in answering their questions. The fragmentation of knowledge is a product of the institutional formation of disciplines in the Western academy; but it is unfortunately reproduced in Africa and, of course, in post-colonial universities around the globe. And while it is to be regretted everywhere, its effects in the academic study of African cultures are amplified both by the material crisis and by the continent's linguistic fragmentation—the barriers between arabic, francophone, anglophone and lusophone scholarship. This has had profound consequences for the study of African cultural materials in Africa itself. Nevertheless, "humanists" in Africa and in African Studies in Europe and North America have begun to face up to the theoretical challenge posed by the very different boundaries and extents of intellectual—and more broadly, cultural—division of labor in African societies. Precisely because the domains of cultural activity are differently constituted from the domains of cultural activity in the West, many Western-constituted disciplines are unable to address the complexities of African history and culture, and the rich variety an inter-relatedness of forms of African cultural expression.

Along with the isolation of departments and disciplines, research in African Studies has been undermined by the vast institutional gap between those groups of disciplines that we call the "humanities" and the "social sciences." This problem is familiar outside African Studies, also: for this division has subverted the study of many issues about cultural practice in other areas. Methods normally used in anthropology and in art history, for example, can provide profound and mutually reinforcing illumination of the cultural significance of a masquerade or the architecture of a shrine, but students and scholars who are taught to see these methods as radically incommensurable are bound to fail to achieve these insights. Those scholars who have faced up to these challenges have had to develop theoretical and methodological tools and data resources that promise help in thinking creatively about the ways in which society and culture relate to each other quite generally—I think, here, of the work of Margaret and Hank Drewal on Yoruba performance. In short, the challenges posed by African materials and the new approaches and techniques developed to deal with the varieties of African experience, offer an opportunity to enrich and expand the perspectives of all the disciplines of the humanities and to release us from disciplinary blinders.

This is why we seek to challenge a simple-minded adoption of the categories of the Western humanities and social sciences, when we turn our attention to the interpretation of African cultural practices. And, in these circumstances, we can avoid the risk that Greenblatt rightly alerts us to in the passage that provided my epigraphy: the risk that we shall speak of culture "without meaning much of anything at all." Our object in the work of the new Institute for Advanced Study and Research in the African Humanities is to evoke approaches to the traditional objects of humanistic study that see them as fully situated in their historical and social settings and that draw on the techniques of manifold disciplines, and the tools of different trainings; and to take seriously the idea that we should draw upon the resources of African theory to illuminate the general problems of the humanities, so that the "field" we propose is not merely African in its objects but also, where appropriate, in its theories and methods.

This last suggestion is not, however, meant merely to privilege African theory; I do not believe that we must reject Western disciplinary techniques wholesale. Rather, I mean to record a refusal to (continue to) privilege Western theory. It is obvious—and thus, in a familiar way, unapparent enough to be worth repeating—that humanistic scholarship is not external to the societies in which it is practiced; that it is, per contra, precisely one of its cultural products. Taking African cultures seriously means engaging with them; talking to them and not simply finding a language in which to talk about them. And such an approach has been at the center of some of the most innovative work in recent African Studies.

We have in mind here, for example, the theoretical work of Wole Soyinka, exemplified in his Myth, Literature and the African World. Soyinka tells us in the preface to this work that what he calls the literature of the "secular social vision" reveals that the "universal verities" of "the new ideologue" can be "elicited from the world-view and social structures of his own (African) people;" and he draws on the Yoruba pantheon (as well as on Greek models more familiar to Western scholars) when he is exploring the meaning of tragedy.

Similarly in his recent paper "Theories of Africans: The Question of Literary Anthropology," Christopher Miller has proposed, as his title suggests, a kind of literary theory that is driven by the "anthropological" urge to question "the applicability of all our critical terms" and examine "traditional African cultures for terms they might offer." And our colleague Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. has proposed one such possibility in his Signifying Monkey, where he explores the possibility of using Esu-Elegba and the interpretative schemes of Yoruba divination as a means of exploring literary relationships.

While each of these scholar-critics seeks to draw on African materials for theory, they are also profoundly committed to taking what they need from work in Western scholarly traditions and in applying their insights to European and North American materials: thus, Soyinka's theoretical work is influenced, for example, by Brecht; and Gates acknowledges the influence of post-structuralist theory; and, at the same time, Soyinka's work illuminates The Bacchae, and Gates sees Esu in the Signifying Money through whom he reads, for example, the work of Ishmael Reed.

There are exciting prospects, then, for work in African cultures as it contributes to the life of the humanities; but I know—we all know—that there are serious intellectual and material hurdles to be overcome. Our aim in the Humanities Institute program will be to build on the prospects while overcoming the hurdles; and in doing so we shall be able to rely on the rich endowment of materials assembled over the years under Hans Panofsky's guidance at the Herskovits Collection.

1. These remarks were prepared for a reception at the University Library, Northwestern, to honor Hans Panofsky and his long service in directing the Melville J. Herskovits Library of African Studies. The reception, February 15, 1991, coincided with the weekend meeting of the Governing Board of the Institute for Advanced Study and Research in the African Humanities, established at Evanston by the Social Science Research Council and Northwestern University.

2. Stephen Greenblatt, "Culture" in Key Words in Contemporary Literary Studies.

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