Edmund Carpenter’s Trees and the Forest of the West

by zunguzungu

(I’m irritated by the way that people “Fisk” a column or an article in order to disprove it; as someone smart somewhere who I’ve forgotten put it, this always feels like a very deliberate attempt to miss the forest by focusing in on the trees. But the problem isn’t that trees aren’t important; the problem is that refuting details is an attempt to refrain from speaking to the underlying argument in which those details were in service. As a polemic, in other words, it is a rhetorical tactic more persuasive than honest, and sort of the opposite of what literary types like call close reading. This is an attempt to “Fisk” an essay I like in a positive way, to inhabit the details in order to bring the totality into sharper focus, thereby better seeing the forest by looking at the trees.)

Despite initial reservations, I’m charmed by this chapter, from Edmund Carpenter’s Oh, What a Blow That Phantom Gave Me, a fascinating little McLuhanesque bit of surrealist anthropology from 1974.

Carpenter writes:

“A remarkable change took place in the human condition with the rise of Euclidian space, three-dimensional perspective, and, above all, the phonetic alphabet. Each of these inventions favored the eye at the expense of all other senses. The value accorded the eye destroyed the harmonic orchestration of the senses and led to an emphasis upon the individual experience of the individual sense, especially the sense of sight. Where other senses were employed, it was with the bias of the eye.”

I’m almost constitutionally hostile to the notion that “literacy” represents an empirical change in something like “the human condition,” since the history of modern Africa is practically defined by abuses of this notion. Yet I’m charmed because the idea that “we” think with our eyes allows ask to what extent the manner in which we “know” is conditioned by the visual metaphors through which this knowledge gets filtered. As Carpenter goes on:

“The eye is like no other sense. When used in isolation, it perceives a flat, continuous world without intervals. Yet it also favors only one thing at a time: it focuses on a particular and abstracts it from a total situation. To connect these fragments, literate man built mental bridges. He spoke of a “row of trees” or a “circle of stones,” when neither row nor circle existed except in his mind and language. He favored the “story-line” and arranged his thoughts “seriously,” that is, serially.”

It reminds me of a lovely Jonathan Edwards sermon I read once upon a time, in which he noted that “wind” or “river” are not really one thing but many things, many pieces, all connected together only in the sense that when we look at them, we perceive them as one thing. We know this because of how our mind sees, in other words. Like any good puritan divine, of course, Edwards’ next thought was theological: reasoning that since we know that a river is one thing only because we see it as one thing, it stood to reason that the things that God looks at as one thing must be extra-double-super singular in their thingness. And just like that, he solved (to his own satisfaction, at least) the thorny problem of predestination. Since God looks at the whole of the human race as one thing (meaning, therefore, that we are one thing), it could then follow that if one part sinned, this encompassing singularity of all humanity would render us all equally guilty. Adam and Eve sinned, therefore we are all born damned. QED.

It’s a nice piece of sophistry, elegant even if it’s totally bogus. Yet Edwards does start with the problem that Carpenter is interested in, and though his “solution” is an abuse of logic, the fact that the continuities we can only “see” in our mind become real by this process is a genuine insight. And Carpenter’s thinking is a step subtler; he recognizes that deriving reality from the lines you “see” in your head is only possible if you assume that the things you see are more real than the things you touch, an unnecessary logical step which he correctly notes as being interesting in its own right. After all, close your eyes and put both hands in a river three feet apart. Can you tell that the water rushing past your hands is the same river? Probably not. It’s the visual part of our brains that is good at synthesis — the part that takes two organs of sight and converts their data into a singular “perspective” — not the touch parts. Seeing is a sense that’s good at synthesis but which is often and easily deceived; “touch” is the sense that is not.

And, just so simply, Carpenter derives a genealogy of “the West” that I’m tempted to take seriously:

“From this came the scanning eye of the reader and much else besides: lineality, causality, temporality, ultimately much of what we call Western civilization. Western man not only emphasized sight, but a special kind of sight, “pure sight,” divorced from all other senses. “At first sight” the world looks flat, as if it were no more than meaningless patches of light and color jumbled into a quiltwork. Infants born without arms or legs can never see in depth. Depth is discovered by touch, and then married to sight. The eye caresses over objects.”

Again, a narrative of “maturation” which is used to put forward a timeline of the development of literate civilization; this is a conceptual move that is easy to abuse, as when Dylan Thomas referred to Amos Tutuila’s “young English” (though, worth noting, Tutuola’s use of these tropes should not be dismissed). In any case, all claims for what makes “us” different than “them” need to be regarded with extreme skepticism. But the thing is this: most people who make this argument talk blithely about the West because they don’t know anything but the West, at the same time as they can’t let themselves realize how profoundly “Western” (by their own standards) places like Haiti, China, or Iran are. This is the double bind of “culture”: too often it gets abused to selectively imagine away the lines of continuity that might connect “us” to “them,” at the same time as “multiculturalism” is too often the worst of all worlds, paying short shrift to the very real and very significant differences in the ways we all live and imagine the world we all live in. We are both like each other and different, yet inhabiting that contradiction is something we do a better job of in practice than in theory.

In that sense, Carpenter’s implication that we feel differences but see continuities strikes me as the rare attempt to make practice speak to theory in a not-totally bad-wrong way. And even if my postcolonialist sense starts to tingle when he makes broad brushed statements about “natives” — it being 1974 and all it turns out that he is much less dumb in how he uses the term than I had initially feared he would be. Instead of a clash of cultures, his story of “us” and “them” is always a matrix of cultural mobility and re-articulation, a kind of narrative crutch for thinking about the ways Westerners go native, or natives become modern, a dynamic we have to both feel the truth of and see the fallacy in. Individuals are capable of being many different things at once, many more than they can actually choose (as put here), and since both of these facts are important and irreducibly true we have to somehow embrace both. So when Carpenter starts talking about how life is different when lived in Euclidean space, I take notice; it’s a version of “culture” that at least makes a valiant effort to address that double bind as such (though it’s also true that he had me at “much of what we call Western Civilization”), to think about why we don’t need to be different from each other, but so often are.

In any case, the pattern of his reasoning is instructive. His move is not to pull a Jonathan Edwards by starting with a presumption and seeing where he can ride it; he does not start with the notion that there is a West and then try to fit people who live in Euclidean space into it. Instead, he tries to think about what is at stake in that difference, thinking about what “Euclidean space” might mean before going on to figure out how people choose or don’t to live in it or not. The payoff is that deriving a West from this account divorces the concept from some of the most pernicious ways The West so often gets mobilized. The Weberianism of Jared Diamond — which hides its Western cheerleadering by blaming it on luck — is out the door, since what your Jared Diamonds tend to mean by the West is often not so distinct from what Theodore Roosevelt means by “Anglo-American Germanic civilization,” a cultural identity derived from (and, in the process, effacing) a racial identity it simply presumes, in a process more politically expedient than intellectually sound, more Edwards than Carpenter. Carpenter very carefully doesn’t do that; he seems to mean something much more like “people of the book,” the difference between the people of the world who organize their lives by textual media, and those who don’t; a difference which people — these days — experience less as an inheritance than a practical possibility, however foreclosed it might be by circumstance. As such, the “Western Civilization” which emerges is one which is interestingly compatible with arguments like Black Athena or Re-Orient, attempts to imagine a syncretic West as constituted by the “East” as by Anglo-Saxon Athenians, or whoever it was that was supposed to have invented table manners, democracy, and hedge funds.

(more to come)