Saturday, January 28, 2012

Two Cradle Theory

I'm making my students respond to their readings by keeping a blog, so I figured I'd practice what I preach and respond to some of the readings for one of my graduate seminars, called "Africans in the Americas". This one applies to the "Two Cradle Theory," as proposed by Cheikh Anta Diop. In a nutshell, he proposes that environmental climates and the scarcity of resources in various regions gave rise to certain cultural valuations and tendencies, resulting in two "cradles" for civilization--the Northern/European Cradle (originated by the Greeks) and the Southern Cradle (originated by the Egyptians, whom he believes were racially African rather than a hybridized, vaguely Mediterranean race).   

While I’m largely ignorant of the field of anthropology and the academic discourses that predominated at the time Cheikh Anta Diop wrote his influential “Two Cradle Theory,” I can presume that it had a watershed impact on certain assumptions about the rise of a certain vision of civilization (and, indeed, what the term meant). Such a theory had to be appropriately revolutionary if it were to overcome centuries of methodological assumptions muddied by prejudice.
            His theory has some merits, but it also suffers from another kind of essentialism regarding what it means for a culture to be “civilized.” Diop posits a geographical account of the rise and trajectory of certain cultural values and discourses that makes sense due to the relative scarcity or abundance of resources, but the theory also strikes me as simplistic. It divides human creative and social energies into two social bodies, which doesn’t strike me as entirely honest. I suppose I could use a Western narrative and talk about Freud and his "Civilization and Its Discontents," but I'm not sure if that would be appropriate evidence. Suffice it to say that I agree with his thesis that human societies, driven by the insatiable imperatives of biology, have always had complex motives for communal organization. That said, his theory does strike a cord with me: I’ve long thought that patriarchy and the nature-dominating values of Eurocentric modes of life, evident in everything to Enlightenment rationality to the drive for warfare, was perhaps due in some part to chiller, harsher climes. Aggression, harsh rule, notions of collectivity coupled with rampant xenophobia, all seem like plausible emotional responses to a perpetually threatened existence. Relative abundance, giving rise to Egypt’s “metaphysical materialism” (231) based on theological beneficence, would likewise seem to correspond with a relatively more peaceful existence, allowing for the cultivation of egalitarianism. 
            This brings me back to what Diop seems to mean by “civilization,” however. I think he’s using the same kind of Eurocentric logic he tacitly disavows when he aligns it with the development of “mathematics, astronomy, the calendar, sciences in general, arts, religion, agriculture, social organization, medicine, writing, technique, [and] architecture” (234). He therefore uses European epistemological concepts to define what “culture/civilization” means, and also associates “truly” civilized cultures (African cultures) with collectivism, optimism and freedom from arbitrary or gender-based impositions. The Greek cultures, by contrast, are “barely fit for civilization” because they are “steeped in barbarism” because of their penchant for aggressive domination and strict hierarchical rule (234). My point is that the definition of what it means to be civilized is an argument in itself, which needs, at the very least, to be made clear in his own theorizing. Presumably, this latter-day view of “civilization” applies more to his political leanings and what kind of values he privileges, which should be made a tad more transparent.
            I suppose, if we were to accept this theory, a natural penchant for the southern-cradle mode of culture can be located in those peoples of African descent. I’m not sure if this kind of narrative is genetic essentialism or not, however, or if he’s arguing that inherited cultural traditions give Africans an innate ability “to restore the continuity of his national historic past” should they attempt to rescue it from Eurocentric domination (235). In this sense, the Maroon rebellions center on rescuing an ancient vision of themselves as progenitors of epistemology, something that may be reflected in the relatively communal organization that many of the Maroon societies operated upon.

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