Dichotomous traps (again!)

Hi folks,
first, I want to thank you again for your replies to my shout for help in the format of a post (april 3rd). Your suggestions kept the ‘thinking machine’ running and, eventually, I came with a solution for all our troubles…no, actually, I came up just with some ideas on how to deal with the  ‘modernity vs tradition’ trap.

It goes like that:

The dichotomy ‘modernity vs tradition’ is deeply related to the understanding of an opposition between oral and written literature, in which “the oral is seen to mark a field of creativity that is ‘traditional’, pre-colonial and vernacular, while writing is regarded as ‘modern’ and European, introduced by the colonial school system and requiring literacy in the colonial languages” (Newell 2006). Examples of this dichotomous approach can be found in  post colonial scholars  who wrote about the ‘Cultural Nationalism’ period (nope, I will not say names here, but there are some really good examples of ‘scholars’ referring to oral sources as ‘tradition’ and to the academic production as ‘modern history’). Writing from a period of political and economic failure, Nigerian academics (and some British followers) were eager to find and prove the existence of history before and during colonization. These authors were often imbued with a cultural nationalism themselves.  They were looking for the ‘local historians’ or ‘amateur historians’ that were telling the history of their people. And these concerns narrowed their findings in the whole pool of the Lagosian intellectual scenario. For instance, they sought publications that had the word ‘history’ in the title among a wider spectrum of genres and topics; And in some of these publications, the modernity vs tradition was quite obvious. This is the case of Historical Notices of Lagos, West Africa authored by J. B. Wood, a CMS reverend in 1878. In the preface, Wood explains that “In the absence of written records recourse must be had to tradition; but even traditionary [sic] history will not carry us back to a period more distant than about the year 1730, cr, at the farthest, to the year 1700, that is, to a period of from one hundred and fifty to one hundred and eighty years ago.”

The concern with the quality of history, its sources and the intellectuals who wrote it focused the attention of scholars on the authorship of the publications and neglected their readership and their feedback. They fell in the trap of the dichotomy cultural production versus cultural consumption. So, I will (try to) argue that the dichotomy (I am getting tired of writing this word) cultural production vs cultural consumption is the mother of the other dichotomies: ‘oral vs written’ and ‘modernity vs tradition’. The focus on the authors and their productions, I think, pulls the Lagosian out of context; a context of constant debate about many topics, including history. Following this line of reasoning, my idea is to focus on the debates, instead of on the author or its productions. The debates  have much more to show about the Lagosian intellectual scenario. First, they include the answers, and the answers to the answers, showing the development of arguments and the ideas behind it. Also, different debates can show the multiplicity of facets of the same intellectual, and the different groups they subscribed. For instance, in one newspaper article, Obadiah is clearly in favor of the polygamy, taking him close to Coker and the African Church. But in another debate, regarding Yoruba history, his arguments tuned with those of some CMS missionaries, positioning him in opposition to the African Church. The debates allow these many circles, facets or ‘scapes’ (in Appadurai’s framework) to be seen without freezing them in one position: ‘polygamous’, or ‘Anglican’, or ‘Coker’s opposition’ or ‘traditionalist’.

There are other advantages for the debates: they also show the construction of the concepts of ‘modernity’ and ‘tradition’ (Thank you, Katie). The series of articles in a Lagosian newspaper about Yoruba Burial Customs, show the discussion between 2 Lagosians (probably Yoruba) about what are the real traditional rituals. And the debate polygamy vs monogamy (again, I know) shows not only that tradition was in discussion, but also modernity. One of the criticisms to the monogamous position of some Europeans is that they don’t know how to adapt to new circumstances. They want to impose their own tradition, and not allow the Africans to be Christians on their own way.

As you can notice, I am very keen on the polygamy vs monogamy debate. I think it is a beautiful example of how the intellectual diversity of Lagos.  The debate was on for decades, jumping from newspapers to books, and to lectures and seminars. Also, when we examine the arguments behind each of these positions, the diversity that I am talking about becomes quite clear. Defending monogamy, for instance, we can read from feminist positions to terrified man saying ‘how can we control more than one woman?’ (oh, dear!)

I am running out of steam here. So, closing it, I will focus on the debate. And not as means to get to ‘cultural nationalist’ ends, but on the debate itself. Because that was the so talked Lagosian intellectual network (Thank you, Kate!!)

And thank you for listening! (er..reading)


PS: I am sorry for the late post. Bad bad Nara!

Categories: Books

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