Friday, July 07, 2006

Encountering The Pacific

I'm working on a proposal right now and so I'm gonna use this blog to try to work out the kinks, about the incredible failures of imagination over the Pacifc.

At UCSD, we have a program or department called IRPS, International Relations and Pacific Studies. From what I hear its supposed to be one of the best programs of its kind in the United States. From what I know about the program though and after speaking to some of its students over the past few years, its status as "one of the best" clearly indicates that proficiency in the Pacific in the US is not a prerequisite for claiming to be an authority on it.

An example from my time at UOG is the work of Robert Statham, a severely right wing scholar, who, armed with small tidbits of knowledge about the US offshore territories and its formed Trust Territory, called himself "the foremost political scholar of Micronesia" and of "the off-shore territories." His reason for coming into the Pacific and Micronesia differed than the usual narratives, that we find in the huge numbers of Peace Corps stowaways and beachcombers, who were searching for exotic adventures with loose brown Gaugain style women. Statham's impetus for coming out into the colonies, most likely stems from the mutually constitutive tangle of not being able to find work in the United States (since his scholarship, at least what from what I've read, isn't very good) and wanting to live the film/story The Man Who Would Be King, or for those unfamiliar with the Kipling story, its most visible component is the white fantasy of their advanced knowledge and modern ways, making them Gods amongst savage or backwards people (don't worry, the story has a happy ending, the two men who would be king are revealed to be, not Gods, nor Devils, but only men! And both die fortunate deaths.)

It boggles my mind how anyone can conceive of Statham as an "authority" on Micronesia or the off-shore territories, when his intellectual project is crassly situated within the most reactionary American political tradition, which sees these ambigous political sites as "aberrations" and problems simply needing to be fixed. In Colonial Constitutionalism for example, Statham outlines his solutions to the constitutional contradictions that the territories embody. From a "neutral" rationalist/pragmatic perspective, his ideas might seem to make sense, yet as I often point out, such a "neutral" position (the commonsense position) is always already partisan, biased. Given the colonial landscape of Guam or the dominant narrative of American exceptionalism, we are supposed to think about the United States first and foremost, on Guam we are not supposed to have any interest apart from theirs.

Therefore Statham's claims to fix American territorial relations so that the divine mandate that America was given in the name of freedom and democracy can be salvaged, might seem to make sense. Isn't this just a little bit reminiscent of the trick down economic theory? If we fix and make better those at the top, those ignored and exploited will by default benefit? As America is the apex of human history and the world, if we set it back on the proper track, everyone else will prosper too!

This exceptionalist position is reproduced in Statham's text where the histories, political existences and futures of these islands are incidental, unimportant compared to the main task of saving America. The offshore territories make only cameo appearances in his text, and his situating of them historically is pretty weak, compared to the hoops he constantly jumps through to quote from revolutionary documents to make

For more fun with Robert Statham, please check out a laughable review he co-wrote on Remaking Micronesia by David Hanlon, which reveals once again how being an authority on "the Pacific" actually requires little to no knowledge of the region. His own conceptions of Micronesia and even US history are largely caricature, or worst yet built upon a very intentionally amnesiac, and selective engagement. He cannot really deal with Hanlon's text on its merits, what it actually says about Micronesia, so therefore he must attack him for not being impartial and not neutral enough, or having an agenda and a pre-conceived ideology before writing his text. A pathetically vapid point, because Statham is one of the clearest ideologues and American apologists I've ever encountered on Guam (yes, he might even be worse than Joe Murphy).

You can actually read his review on-line. Its pretty terrible, and therefore achieves an almost sublime quality in its ignorance.
(note the section where he tries to counter Hanlon's assumptions about racism in the selection of the Marshall Islands as a nuclear testing site, by stating that white people in New Mexico were also damaged by the nuclear testing in their region. If Statham was a better scholar, more lucid and more interested in justice, then he would recognize that he is making Hanlon's Marxist point for him through his attempted critique.)

I went through this Statham tangent for a reason, to show how authority is made over zones of indistinction, and what role "rationalist" positioning and whiteness play in that.

In the case of Statham, his authority is created by incorporating places such as Guam into academic knowledge, he carves out a conservative and somewhat racist place for Guam in American history and ideology. Note, the incorporation is not real and it is not material, it only takes place at the level of ideology. This move fulfills an importantly rhetorical function for a nation, it is a recognition not of the injustice that Guam represents, the transgression that it is against the positive core of the "nation," but rather the recognition of the aberration that Guam is. The United States, like most nations have difficulty with the word "injustice" because of the rupture and the truth it represents in re-revealing the core of the nation as being violent and not as "good" or benevolent as Renan advertised. Injustice is therefore deflected to return as aberration, a deviation, a mistake, but something which is not the natural order of things, and therefore speaks only to a momentary mis-ordering of things.

As an aberration and not an injustice, Statham can continue to reproduce the mostly false origin myth of the American nation. We hear this rhetoric throughout the year, where the less racist, and less anti-democratic statements from founding fathers are valorized as the basis for the United States and statements such as "those who own the country, ought to run it!" are sent down the memory hole, and therefore supposed to mean nothing.

For Statham this project is crucial because it allows the whiteness of America to be reproduced, and reproduced in such as way that any "reproach" itself is an aberration from the great birth of this nation, and can quickly be dealt with. The American "anti-colonial" spirit can therefore survive its clear possession of colonies, so long as this possession cannot be traced by to the origin, back to this nation's genesis. It is within this framework as well as black people, Asians, Native Americans and Mexicans are viewed as well, culturaly verbose and exciting deviations, but nonetheless unimportant given the white course that this nation must always be set straight ahead on.

(before I continue, I should say this: the only American spirit that I might be interested in fight for or beliving in, is one such as the spirit of the International Workers of the World, or IWW. Or to put it another way, the only American spirit that I would fight for, is the one which points far beyond America.)

The previous section might have been a bit abstract for people, but this next one is something everyone in the United States should be familiar with, since it deals with the colonizing and exoticized fantasies that we all get to imbibe with our "offshore" territories.

When I was speaking to someone in the IRPS program, someone who claimed to study the "Pacific" this was made clear to me. After I mentioned that I would be going to Hawai'i to visit my father who lives there, the student responded, "oh lucky you, going to Hawai'i, that is so awesome!"

Hawai'i is supposed to be the getaway spot for the United States, right? Everywhere else supposedly wants to be in Southern California, and Southern California desperately wants to be Hawai'i.

What we see in the case of Hawai'i, a nation overthrown by haoles in the 19th century, annexed in the 20th century and militarized to incredible levels into the 21st century, is a place where the lack of knowledge protects white fantasies. The history of Hawai'i must be dealt with very delicately, because of the potential for disenchantment for disillusion if the reality there is revealed or known.

Hawai'i is one of the most visible sites for American imperialist nostalgia, or a place where you can find the things which America has destroyed, yet can somehow enjoy. You can find the life of the beachcomber or the man who would be king, where brown natives serve you hand and foot, where the beauty and majesty of nature lies before you, waiting your touch, your surfboard, your money.

"The Pacific" remains an ambiguous, but nonetheless potent exoticized realm because this lack is what stimulates and allows these fantasies. So long as an encounter with the histories of Hawai'i takes place, or the material/political existences does not take place, then they can continue to be enjoyed without dissonance, without problem. I use encounter here in a very specific way, an encounter is not a dialogue, is not a simple meeting, and not even a meeting between elements, objects or people that had never met before.

In Serendipities, Umberto Eco writes about the "unicorn" that Marco Polo discovers in his travels throughout Asia. "Discovery" is a radically different concept than "encounter," yet one which happens more frequently than we might think. The European travels to lands (they had never imagined or visited) are called "discoveries" because of the way they are integrated into existing ideological framework and therefore nothing is actually really discovered. Although we may make a big ruckus over the newness of these lands, these "savages" the fact that I call them savage without incident, indicates that they were expected, there is nothing new here, just a slight addition to what I already knew, namely that those who are not me, are inferior and savage.

With Marco Polo, the unicorn that he discovered was in reality a Rhino, but moment's demand that he re-evaluate his position did not hold sway, as he instead reinforced what he already knew, and brought the Rhino into his existing imaginary, by noting that although scholars and fairy tales might have romanticized the creature quite a bit, it was nonetheless clearly a unicorn.
Some might say that the nature of the symbolic and the subject's relation to it, make this the necessary way things work, there is not consistency, no regular readability, without this continual rediscovery. Without it there would be nothing but limitless psychosis, attached to an ever skipping referrent.

Of course, this response is insufficient in and of itself, because it assumes that nothing has ever changed or that anything can ever really change, or that there has never been a significant rupture or revolution in society, and all that has ever happened, was at a snails, slowly, dripping pace.

The point here should be not whether or not encounters happen, but where they must happen. For those committed to justice, forcing an encounter is your task, forcing a reckoning of some sort, which breaks the (re)discovery deadlock should be your goal.

So in the case of Hawai'i, this means breaking the comfort of the tourist fantasy-based gaze, which refuses to accept Hawai'i as anything other than the paradise that it is expected to be.

Obviously, such is not an easy task. Nations have all sorts of moves and defense mechanisms set in place to counter such a revelation. These mechanisms lead to what I call "false encounters." After September 11th, 2001 for example, the United States nation went through one such false encounter. To briefly sketch this out, I'll quote Zizek from his Welcome to the Desert of the Real:

“On September 11th, the USA was given the opportunity to realize what kind of a world it was part of. It might have taken this opportunity – but it did not; instead it opted to reassert its traditional ideological commitments: out with feelings of responsibility and guilt towards the impoverished Third World, we are [all] the victims now!”

As the United States became the clear victim of the violence so similar to what itt often exports elsewhere, it thereby encountered the rest of the world, and the moment happened whereby it might have joined the rest of the world, and finally lose its annoying exceptionalism. But as the current posturing of Bush and the US shows, this moment was squandered, and this encounter became false. As people constantly remarked that "things will never be the same" after 9/11, they were processing the falseness of this encounter. They were invoking this difference precisely because not only would things stay the same (American exceptionalism) but in fact they would get worse (US as the avatar of Justice and Democracy, Leader of the free world).

Let me give you two more Pacific examples of false encounters. Take for instance the speech of American "tourists" in Hawai'i who come to the island to relax, go on vacation, enjoy themselves, and then have their experience marred and defiled by the undifferentiated racism of Native Hawaiians who call them "haole" or the more sophisticated racism of sovereignty activists who call them "colonial" "haole" or "settler." To them, this racism is parochial, its backwards, its ridiculous, its uncalled for, its just plain evil. The intensity through which the racism is indicative of the refusal to deal with the encounter that is taking place. A refusal to admit to their illusions of the other, a refusal to let the fantasy crumble, primarily because, as I said earlier, it is them who is so invested in these fantasies. It is them who need them to thrive and survive.

These haoles with their ruffled feathers, will most likely take the position similar to Thurston Twigg-Smith's book, Hawaiian Sovereignty: Do the Facts Matter?, where since I cannot deny that nothing has happened, where since I cannot no longer live off of the fantasy of this other as undifferentiated, placid, passive and clueless, I must engage with it somehow, in such a way that them, not me is implicated in the process. Twigg-Smith's text is the ultimate example of this move, whereby an engagement with the "facts" can lead to my exclusion from the discussion. Returning to the power of "rationalist" rhetoric, Twigg Smith positions himself as the producer of knowledge, similar to George W. Bush, the recognizer of facts, and therefore can include himself out of its meaning, even when the discussion is clearly about him, his privilege and the injustices that benefit him (as being a descendent of one of the those who orchestrated the otherthrow of the Hawaiian nation). To put it more simply, by being the one who can recognize racism, who can identify facts about racism, I hope to become the blindspot in racism, something which is obviously there, but always somehow missing.

An encounter with Native Hawaiians, their destitute positions today and their struggles, whether contemporary and historical implicates all of us in the United States, and the persistence speech about how racist Hawaiians can be, operates as a defense mechanism to always keep this encounter false. Within this framework I can know the facts, but the conclusion that we are supposed to draw from Twigg Smith's book is that "even if the facts do point to injustice or exploitation, they still don't support this type of racism (settler branding or "race-based" policies).

One more fasle encounter.

One of the the most patriotism deterring parts about living in Guam is the fact that although there are American flags everywhere (kalakas), stickers that claim Guam is Where America's Day Begins everywhere (matto di mampos kalakas), and lessons in school about the potent and viral greatness of the American form of government, people on Guam cannot vote for President and have no voting representation in Congress.

Often times when I speak in the US proper about Chamorros, their islands and their wonderful adventures in American colonialism, of all the disgusting and gut-wrenching points that I will bring up, the one which people in the states cling to most fervently and seem distressed by so much is the lack of voting rights. After speaking about cultural genocide, racism, land dispossession, the destruction of a way of life after World War II, the thing which people seem to cling to the strongest as something which is horrible is the fact that Chamorros and others on Guam can't choose between Kerry and Bush (and Nader).

Why, of all the possible points to be concerned with (colonization, militarization, imperialism, racism) does this point always emerge as "the most important?" One reason could be because it is the most easily solved of all the problems. An act by the U.S. congress could resolve this issue without having to call into question the control of Guam.

This simplistic almost unreflective answer actually arrives closer to the two truths that make this "disgusted democratizing" answer a false encounter.

First, a "vote" would seem to solve the problem of Guam's colonial status right? Let them vote, and then everything's right, right? If you are interested in eliding any questions of injustice then yes, absolutely, this simple democratic solution does save you, it does keep you pure and does prevent you from encountering anything else involved with Guam which might put into question your identity and the nation you attach yourself to for wholesome consistency.

There is no encounter here, because the difference here which would constitute an encounter is interpreted as the obstacle to be overcome in fixing the problem of the other, the desire of the other, which is to be like me. The democratic solution here does not dissolve the ego or even fragment it slightly, it instead reinforces it, reconstitutes it like a healed broken bone. It operates like the Iraqi woman who spoke at the 2004 Republican National Convention, as something which reinforces my base instincts and fantasies, rather then putting them into question. "I found an Iraqi person who thanked me for giving her freedom, my ego is therefore safe from all the protestors and insurgent who were threatening to shatter it."

The second truth, goes far deeper into a far more disconcerting place. The overcompensation in the call for Chamorros and others on Guam, to get the vote can be linked to an excess that Guam clearly and openly embodies, yet the US proper very insistently disavows. To clarify things, people on Guam do vote for President. On the ballots every four years there is a space which lets them chose between Democrats and Republicans. These votes are counted in Guam and reported locally, however instead of being transported off island into some national count, they remain on Guam. The significance and meaning of these votes only remain in Guam, they are only important for Guam, thereby rendering their political action invisible. Could there be a clearer and banal way of articulating the inconsistency in American democracy? Namely that it is barely democratic, even in the sense that it seems to so strongly cling to? The trace within each vote is after all the voice which says that my voice doesn’t actually mean anything.

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