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Reading across cultures and from within powerfully established critical discourses

July 2, 2013

Reflecting on the successes and failures (especially the failures) of an inter-disciplinary course designed to engage ‘First World’ students in ‘Third World’ literature, Leigh Binford and Wendy Hardin write:

“In reflecting on the class, we became particularly aware of the discrepancy between public discussion in the classroom and private inscription in the home or the library when students effectively rewrote the texts. We were disturbed that the insights produced in the former situation so often failed to carry over into the latter. In retrospect, we were probably naive to expect otherwise, especially when we established the structure that sanctioned the separation of the two. When students write, they, like most of us, seek to master a text, and the seeking after such mastery necessarily implies a selection for presentation among many possible themes and voices. We failed to establish, first, that interpretation, however deep and sophisticated, is always partial, never final or complete, as is translation generally; and second, that there is an inherent danger when cultural worlds encounter one another, whether face-to-face or through a reader’s encounter with a text, that the historically dominant one will impose its interpretation upon the subordinate. One strategy to counter this danger, which in this case so often became a reality, would have been to focus more explicitly upon the process of translation, by critically examining students’ written work in the public forum of the classroom. In this way both teachers and students would be able to examine concretely the results of containing Third World voices within the dominant ideologies of the West, and perhaps better positioned to develop readings of others that acknowledge difference as difference rather than as difference for Us.” (p.151)

In spite of their intentions with this class, Binford and Hardin found that

“…many class members translated Third World textual materials into discourses on social evolution, signaled by the pairing of words like ‘traditional’ and ‘modern’ applied to beliefs, practices, and in some instances, entire societies. They associated the ‘modern’ with urbanity, scholarship, and technological sophistication, and the ‘traditional’ with arranged marriages [-p.148], witchcraft beliefs, and nonmechanized agriculture. The difference between ‘modern’ and ‘traditional’ values and practices ‘gives way to’ or ‘are overcome by’ ‘modern’ ones. When they romanticized the past in the present, which occurred most frequently in commentaries on Bessie head’s (1977) Botswana tales, tradition’s demise at the hands of progress was, nonetheless, taken as given and inevitable.
Another way of domesticating Third World literature was to universalize the meaning in biological, psychological or situational terms. Class members frequently applied to Third World literature the strategies of reading which they acquired at the same time as their ideologies. Thus their narratives were built up around themes emphasizing mother love, greed, male dominance, or the conflict between the individual and society, all of these assumed to be characteristic of all times and places. Admittedly, given the richness and complexity of most of the novels and short stories, it is not difficult to select among events and relationships and then organize them so as to make a case for these interpretations. However, totalizing explanations do considerable damage to the historical and political specificity of the events and characters treated by the authors. Like people who carry familiar pictures to hang in strange hotel rooms, a number of students prefaced many of their entries with capsule interpretations of the work: “It is the story of the exploitation of a women…”; “Draupadi is a critique of male institutionalized warfare”; “This novel is set in South Africa sometime in the future and is primarily concerned with racial problems,” and so on.” (pp.147-148)

I enjoyed the critical thought Binford and Hardin offer about their classes/assessments/teaching practices. Consider:

“What was frustrating to us was the ease with which the members of the class drew from the texts confirmations of cherished beliefs. Often other voices seemed to be appropriated in the service [-p.149] of self-confirmation rather than leading students to challenge their society’s self-image and/or its dominant representations.
One might argue that a historical vision of the First World exploitation of the Third World is critical to unravelling this tapestry. However, we provided extensive historical commentary, especially regarding the role of colonialism in making the contemporary Third World and the continuing neo-colonial forms of economic, political, and cultural domination. With some notable exceptions, the students proved extremely adept at containing alternative visions. Whatever might be the superficial differences among different historical epochs, journal commentaries indicated that students often assumed that nothing had essentially changed, except for the advance of technology and the retreat of superstition. Hence the specificity of the Third World was usually reduced to an assumed facticity: poverty, corruption, social conflict, shorn from history and global relations and in particular from the roles that First World peoples might have played in the creation and perpetuation of those problems.
Much of the verbal discussion and debate in the classroom simply did not find a place in the written interpretations, which were made later, usually long after the class in question, and in the privacy of the individual’s own home This indicates that as is the case with the literature, the class discussions in general and our interventions in particular underwent processes of translation and were subjected to many of the same screening techniques.” (pp.148-149)

Ref: (emphases in blue bold, mine) Leigh Binford and Wendy Hardin, ‘How First World Students Read Third World Literature’ in eds. William Luis and Julio Rodriguez-Luis, Translating Latin America: Culture as Text. Binghamton, N.Y.: State University of New York, 1991, pp.141[?]-152

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