Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The End of Western Civilization

In a nutshell: My classroom full of black, brown, East Asian, South Asian, orthodox Jewish, Muslim, female, and gay male students, very few of whom are well spoken for by the White Male Christian Subject of Culture, have a very hard time accepting the idea that they themselves have supplanted him.

This semester I have been teaching a class at Brooklyn College called The Idea of Character in the Western Literary Tradition. The course description, not of my own design, is very broad, and allows the instructor to cobble together any kind of survey of Western literary texts that suits his or her fancy.

I decided to go broad and teach the class as a survey of the entire Western literary tradition from Homer to Toni Morrison. I wanted to explore the emergence of the idea of Western Civilization itself and its eventual run in with the crises of multiculturalism and globalization. In the course of the semester I came up with the idea of a White Male Christian Subject of Culture who imagined himself to have roots in twin Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian traditions. We looked at the Greek male heroic subject of culture in the Homeric epics and how he was joined on the literary landscape by a range of alternative "heroes" (in the later sense of protagonist or central figure), including the idealized shepherd of bucolic poetry, the parodic antihero of Hellenistic mime, and the indignant scowl of Roman satire. We also looked at representations of women's voices (albeit in poems by men), with examples including the Briseis and Penelope of Ovid's Heroides and the gossipy housewives of Herodas's sixth mime. I took particular pleasure in regaling my students with ancient literary examples of pimps, prostitutes, hustlers, and sex-toy mongers. They enjoyed reading these texts and, more importantly from a pedagogical perspective, they were surprised by them, and learned some new things about the Western literary tradition.

By the end of the semester (this week), I was trying to convince them that Western Civilization was over, a historical construct that now exists only as a relic of the past, not the dominant form of culture (to use Raymond Williams' term) or the discourse (to go Foucaultian) in which we currently live. One last, great, impotent tirade of the White Male Christian Subject of Western Culture, I have argued to them, can be heard in Dostoyevksy's Underground Man (Notes from Underground), and his last pitiful gasps can be heard in T.S. Eliot's "The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock." Toni Morrison's Sula represents a radically different form of cultural existence, with its defiant assertion of black female subjectivity that is not only aware of its historical marginalization but determined to assert both its own dignity and its right to speak.

I was shocked, but not surprised, and in fact perversely pleased, to find in class yesterday that The End of Western Civilization was a very hard sell in my classroom full of black, brown, East Asian, South Asian, orthodox Jewish, Muslim, female, and gay male students, very few of whom are well spoken for by the White Male Christian Subject of Culture, but all of whom had a very hard time accepting the idea that they themselves had supplanted him.

That is the exciting discovery I wanted to share with you in this post. As old friends of Pedagogishness might be aware, this post marks an emergence from a four-month silence on my part. The academic year 2011-2012 was exhausting, somewhat traumatizing, and left me voiceless. It's been a rough fall semester, but also exciting, and my voice is starting to come back. This semester has given me a lot to think about and write about, and as it runs its course in final exams and the posting of grades, I believe readers of Pedagogishness will have more to demand their attention.


  1. I think you'll find all those White Male Christian Subjects of Culture cloistered in Seattle in January. --Heather

  2. For those not in the know, Dr. Vincent is referring to the annual meeting of the American Philological Association, this year taking place in Seattle. And my reply to Heather's comment: Indeed!!!

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