History Can Be Rewritten . . . Unfortunately, Research Time, 07/11/2013

I see this image and like to picture him saying, "Don't you
people get it? Don't you understand!?"
I took a short break from Origins of Totalitarianism today to crack into Edward Said’s Culture and Imperialism. It’s a testament to the victory of Said’s ideas that when I read him, I find his conclusions obvious. They weren’t so when he was first writing. I knew long before I first read Said’s work from the hazy background knowledge of working in political philosophy that his ideas were incredibly controversial when they first emerged. Apparently, some folks still consider his ideas controversial. But they make about as much sense to me as the declaration that imperialism is bad. It actually saddens me that Said’s ideas might be dismissed in some circles. Everyone should understand the legacy of colonialism and imperialism.

My research for the utopias project is taking me in this direction because underlying imperialism is the chauvinism at the heart of the violent revolutionary: I will remake the world in my image.* Imperialism expresses this idea insofar as the colonized people are seen as immature, savage, or undeveloped. The mission of the imperialist, with this attitude, becomes remaking the world in the image of the empire’s culture. The violent utopian revolutionary of imperialism directs violence from the King’s throne or the Prime Minister’s office. 

* This is, of course, very different from the kind of violent revolutionary that has been required over the last century or so to resist and end imperialist regimes. The utopias project condemns fascism, totalitarianism, and dictatorship in any form, particularly the form of using force to conform a diverse society to a unified vision.

Art has many functions in relation to wider culture and politics. One particular phenomenon that captures my eye for the utopias project is how cultural historians and theorists invent national histories. The imperialist way of thinking about history is a kind of purification, downplaying the elements of hybridity or cross-cultural influence in the development of a people. 

Said discusses how the ancient Greeks acknowledged that their own culture had many influences from interactions with the people around them. And when the Renaissance historians went back to these Greek sources, they pretended those acknowledgements didn’t exist, and that the culture chosen as the progenitor of the modern West developed in purity. History was similarly rewritten when the envoy of the “Empress of India,” British Queen Victoria, was received in Delhi with traditional Indian ceremonies for royalty. The British Empire was being woven into the Indian historical tradition. That historical role is certainly inescapable, but was never retroactive before the UK military sent a massive expedition to prop up the East India Company.

We often encounter history most vividly through art depicting historical times and narratives. Retroactively rewriting the encounters of peoples is one part of normalizing conquest and cultural violence. Even today, common accounts of colonial history (esp. regarding First Nations of the Americas, but this is only the example closest to my personal heart and the enraging elements of my Canadian identity) downplay the cultural development of colonized peoples, as if there was no true civilization before the arrival of the empire. 

I remember encountering this idea about indigenous peoples quite frequently in some of my ecophilosophy research. The indigenous were regarded as pre-civilizational in the sense that they hadn’t yet been corrupted, that they lived in harmonious, authentic relationships with their ecosystems that colonial contact with the technological West destroyed (I find David Abram a particularly repulsive environmental theorist in this regard). This is just the same as the imperial racist narrative of the animalistic nature of indigenous peoples before the civilizing influence of the West; the only difference is that they make the West villainous and corrupt, and valorize the indigenous natives as pure. But the environmentalist narrative of the Edenic indigenous still treats them as animals; these environmentally-minded theorists of indigenous purity simply like animals better than man.

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