Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Universals! Universals?

My friend Rainer Rumold, a.k.a "Feuer" responds to my entry on "Were You There?" and the universality in the arts...

Universals! Universals? Why are we in contemporary academia so
sensitive to the claims that come with this term? Is it because it
sounds so hollow and disingenuous when we look at global developments
dominated by the ups and downs of the international stock markets which
in spite of cracks showing along the lines of dollar vs. euro alliances
and emerging rifts in Asia between China and India seem to assure the
one obvious and shared result: the rich get richer and the poor get
poorer. The present meeting of the G-8 in Japan has just decided to hold
off on the aid promises previously made to a continent in distress until
"next year." No wonder then that African artists today find themselves
in a catch 22 situation when they attempt to incorporate in their work
the language of Western modernism, which we consider as
"universal," even if they use that language in order to critique and
criticize economic and cultural globalization made in the West. While
highly praised in the West, these modernist artists are found at
home to be either still enslaved by Western culture, or, when they try
to go 'native African,' they are speaking to no one in particular-
except to us. As there is no common African language, nor is there a
common artistic expression that is 'Africa.' The making of "African"
masks is considered a commercially motivated retro appeal to tourism
from the Eur-American sphere which in the wake of the historical
avant-garde at the beginning of the 20th century has adopted and
maintained the view of a "universal" significance of "African" art.

Or is it , on the other hand, that we Amer-Europeans are still
touched to the core by the claim of the universality of the arts upon
which our humanist education was/is grounded? Such claim are
representative of a certain desire felt at the core of our
self-understanding, of which Wilhelm von Humboldt wrote so articulately
-in the 1820s and 30s- in one of his great essays on language and its
influence on the spiritual development of mankind ( I translate quite freely):

"The inkling of a totality and the endeavor toward it is given
immediately with the feeling of our individuality, and it becomes
stronger in the same degree as the latter becomes more pronounced, since
every single human being bears in him/herself the total essence of man,
albeit only in terms of a single path of development. We do not even
have the most remote idea of any other but an individual system of
consciousness. But this endeavor and the concept of mankind which is the
seed of that ineradicable yearning and desire do not allow the
conviction to vanish that the separate individuality be but an
appearance of a conditional existence of spiritual being."

After all, for Humboldt, the basis for that self-understanding of a
"total essence of man" lies in language itself, and "it is not an empty
play with words, if one understands language as derived only from itself
in independence and as divinely free." Humboldt is music to my ear, but
is it the music which we hear around the globe? For that matter, do we
hear the spiritual "Were you there?," Joyce is writing so brilliantly as
well as touchingly about, around the globe? Why then can we not be
content - or are we after all - with hearing that "universal" music in
our insular elitist libraries or in our Christian churches, Anglican or
other ( in the United States increasingly a base for "conservative"
politics), and let the "rest" be "the rest"! Am I still as immature as
I was in the late 1960s, when I , a new graduate student at Stanford
University, approached my future "Doktorvater," an international known
specialist in the thought of Humboldt, with the happy tiding that
"Sprache ist ein objektiver Sozialbesitz" ( language is an objective
social possession)! Or was this admittedly vulgar Marxist dictum, a
robotic slogan of the day that has had its day, however mindlessly
repeated, perhaps after all a masked form of that " ineradicable yearning
and desire [which] do not allow the conviction to vanish that the
separate individuality be but an appearance of a conditional existence of
spiritual being"? Finally, to furher complicate the issues or to end in
a question as I began with a question: Is such a desire for the
"universal" only a Eurocentric creative malady- do 'the Chinese" or the
Indians of the Andes, for example, share such "ineradicabl yearning"? -
Universals! Universals?


Joyce Cheng said...


Have you forgotten our friend, the Congolese doctor who accompanied us on the tram as we pulled up into the quaint garden of Tervuren (the colonial "Congo Museum" outside of Brussels), who went into a long discourse about the conception of man in Europe and Africa?

I paraphrase/translate him freely as you translate Humbolt: "In Europe, man is defined by money, car, house, what he owns. In Africa, we speak of 'man," the essence of man." I know he did not use the word "universal," but I remember distinctly him evoking "essence," a word that is as taboo in the Euro-American academy as the word "death" is at the Chinese dinner table. (My "immature" behavior was so that I talked about death all the time when I was a child, just to irritate my parents...)

To mention a text whose cultural weight I do not wholly endorse, the classical Chinese 三字經, it too begins with "man at his origin, a benevolent being..." Not Chinese, Japanese, European, but just "man" (人). So, be assured that every culture has its own notions of what a human being is universally, it just so happens that "man" as defined by the European Enlightenment was problematic as it took the faculty for reason and the individual conscience as the model. This can be overcome in the western tradition, too, by referring to the Hebraic-Christian notion of man, defined by a sacramental concept of creation. There, man and woman have in common with other "creatures" of God the fact of being created, and the Christian tradition rejects the notion of a God who has the right to destroy what he created, by re-engineering the theological machine so that creation itself is an act of love, and the supreme form of love is in God's willingness to destroy not corrupt human beings but himself (Jesus Christ) for the sake of those corrupt human beings. In the ancient Greek tradition, don't we have homo faber, homo politicus, homo sapiens, to encapsulate the different aspects of man? And the Romans did not have the notion of the person as an individual - rather the "persona"! Now we're back to why I work on the mask...

Joyce Cheng said...

"Is such a desire for the
"universal" only a Eurocentric creative malady- do 'the Chinese" or the Indians of the Andes, for example, share such "ineradicabl yearning"? - Universals! Universals?"

My second response to this question: you are right, I believe, insofar as a culture that has yet to turn its focus exclusively to individualism in its bourgeois capitalist form would not need to really "yearn" for a universal man, for precisely the reason that the concept would not be so alien to them. Only the Westerner living in developed parts of the world, living with bureaucratic and administrative police, infinite ruses of commodity capitalism, etc and etc, would be so alienated from any universal concept of man as to yearn for it. At the same time, every culture has a universal concept of man - just as we have yet to find a culture that doesn't know the mask (Roger Caillois said that even cultures that didn't have the wheel had the mask!)

To yearn for a universal concept of man in a Romantik way (a la Humbolt) is, however, much, much honest than to decorate one's bourgeois apartment "ironically" with kitsch images of utopian communities as represented by Stalinist or Maoist propaganda. (Reinhold Heller just shared his thought that this is why westerners are fascinated with Stalinism.) This is what happens when Romanticism is not understood as the first international attempt to combat Enlightenment and alienation, and simply banned from the totalitarian liberal academia.

I am reading Guy Debord and therefore becoming more and more sententious. I might go read Ludwig Feuerbach's *Essence of Christianity* upon Debord's recommendation - looks like he's a Feuer too!