colonial asymmetries

Back in the year 2002 – year of accursed memory – I remember reading a Guardian thoughtpiece by Ian McEwan about the impending invasion of Iraq. I don’t expect Middle Eastern expertise from Ian McEwan, but I do expect that heightened novelistic sense of epistemological consequences: the idea that other characters have ideas, which starts the the billiardwork of plots and counterplots and sensibility writ large. So I was rather astonished that McEwan began by dismissing the history of the West’s relationship to Saddam Hussein – the on again off again support – by insisting that a virtuous act in the present shouldn’t be weighed down by vicious acts in the past. What astonished me was the concentration on history solely as it was present in the consciousness of the British, American and European protestors. It was as if that history, which was lived experience by the Iraqis, didn’t count as something that might be present in their consciousness. They might actually have an opinion about the forces that were coming to occupy their land because of the vicious acts of a ruler who was able to afford those acts due to the past rulers of their present liberators. This is the kind of thinking that is rigorously excluded from the high tables of policy makers in the think tanks, which is why it should be the kind of thinking that novelists could contribute – in a sort of countertradition within the belly of the whale, the protest distilled from the collected works of Henry James, or Proust. The limits of the novelistic imagination, though, as is the case with the journalistic imagination, seem to have been etched by colonialism itself.  

As it happens, treating the colonized Other as a blank slate, or as an entity asymmetrical to the real “I”, is the very twin of colonialism, the imaginary that conditions its enactment. That asymmetry contributes not only to what happens on the frontier, but what happens in the Old country. To understand that the European peasant or bourgeois and the Huron shaman or arendiwane  were living on the same plane at the time of their encounter injures the vanity of the colonist’s descendants. This is why a certain anachronism creeps into reading sources. When John Wilkins, in 1641, repeats a “pretty story” of an Indian slave who treats writing on paper as a kind of magic, and views his master as a kind of God, the tone is belittling – and the modern reader tends to unconsciously correct the condescension without looking at the context. In Wilkins time, Britain was rife with stories of magic – of witchcraft, of shapeshifting, of familiars. The French court of Louis XIV was shaken in the 1690s by stories of “black magic”, satanic masses, and the sacrifice of living victims – all apparently supported by the belief system of those with the highest degree of education in France. The French missionaries in New France did combat the “magic” beliefs of the Huron (who called themselves the Wendet – our names and other names chase themselves thoughout history, and today deludes the bien pensant liberal into thinking that finding the correct euphemism settles the problem) in the name of an odd amalgam of natural philosophy and belief in demons. In fact, there was no scientific worldview at the time – and I seriously doubt that this has changed inordinately. Outside of the laboratory, the scientific worldview becomes merely instruction sheets for using tools, and fails to nourish a sensibility, because, how could it?

The great advantage of dualism is in allowing sweeping generalities – generalities in search of a “universal”, in the puffed up language of the scholars. The great advantage of dialectical thinking, that continual oscillation between monism and dualism, is that it allows fragments, subgroups, alternative forces, margins. Its great downfall is to want to wrap this all up, in the end, in a universal history. To embed an account of colonialism in the forces of, say, monetarization in Europe, the abolition of old laws pertaining to property and common rights, the agony of literacy, the overthrow of belief systems around the world, is a task that has not yet developed a method, or a sensibility. We keep getting there, and then getting forced back. And meanwhile, the politics of destruction moves forward faster.