Monday, November 26, 2007

The Pacific

I am writing right now two lectures on the Pacific and Pacific Islanders which I'll be giving this week in the Ethnic Studies 1A class at UCSD. I've got the basic idea of what I want to say and what I'll use to say and prove it, but still the actually writing and plotting of it is a bit difficult.

I at first wanted to show what Pacific Islanders and their islands mean in relation to the United States, so for other Americans, what do they enable, perform or make possible culturally, politically and militarily. The different segments of a nation and an empire are bound together in various ways, but one important and obvious one being practical or utilitarian. From the vantage of being a "real" citizen, or a "real" American, what it is for example, that different racial or ethnic groups provide to the health and prosperity of the nation. What it is that they bring here that is important?

The reason for this is of course to both explain why someone should be here, but also to always attach that person to somewhere else. The people who can just simply be here, the people who can and shouldn't be told to go back to where they came from, these are the "real" citizens and "real" Americans. Everyone else comes from somewhere else and can always be stripped of their power, rights and sense of belonging, by be reminded not only that they are truly not from here, but that their presence here requires something extra, they cannot simply call this place "home" and never worry about it again.

We can see this in so many ways throughout our daily lives, in the way Asian Americans, African Americans, Latino Americans and so on are discussed. For instance, recently it was announced that the citizenship tests given by Immigration would in the future be made much harder and focus more on American history and government questions. In some ways, this doesn't appear to be a big deal. But in going over the lists of potentialy questions and topics, you can see clearly that most Americans, who are adults or in college or in high school wouldn't potentially know the answers to these questions. But that is the privilege of being a "real" American, is that you don't even have to know your own history and government, but can simply use it to prove that other people don't belong here.

In a more critical way, we can see this through what Yen Le Espiritu calls differential inclusion. The emphasis on what a particular group gives or contributes to the nation, can lead us to the ways in which those groups are only to be differentially included, or included in some ways, excluded in others. For instance, different ethnic groups are absolutely allowed to come to the United States to work and to contribute to the economy of the United States, most often for very low wages, working in very poor conditions. But this "contribution" does not translate into cultural or political demands. Although they are allowed to help the American economy, whatever cultural and especially political baggage is not given the same free pass as their labor. For instance, last year the country was rocked by huge protests and demonstrations on behalf of and in support of Mexican and Latino labor in this country. Millions of people emerged from "the shadows" to protest their treatment by this country, and also to make clear the depth and significance of their economic contribution to it. Little happened however, as the demands that these millions of people made almost fell completely on deaf ears by the majority of the country and its government. These workers demanded recognition of particular national, regional and global structures of economic exploitation and (with a some people benefiting), and demanded that the the economic and political structures and boundaries of the United States be shifted, be changed and be altered to stop this exploitation. Their protests were shouts to the United States, that you get our labor and you get to act out your national insecurities on our bodies and with our lives, and what do we get in return that you don't claim we are stealing?

For the lectures I am writing, being about Pacific Islanders, things are a little different. As a relatively tiny population in the United States and very heterogenous, there aren't really any discussions of contribution to the United States, except maybe in three ways, hula, gangs and football players. For larger groups, one cannot help but bump up against speech and ideas designed to include and exclude them in the United States, but this isn't the case yet with Pacific Islanders.

One of the reasons for this is no doubt, the emptiness of the Pacific, or the idea of it simply not having anything in it. The force and presence of Pacific Islanders and the Pacific in the United States, therefore seems to duplicate their arrangement on a map, scattered, tiny, distant and disconnected islands and nothing more.

But one simply shouldn't stop at this point, this dead end and sigh, well, I guess the Pacific doesn't mean very much. For anyone who is looking carefully at the relationship between the United States, the Pacific as a region and particular islands in the Pacific, then they know that this is absolutely not the case. The Pacific has played a large role in making the United States, giving it certain identities and fantasies of itself, whether through the whalers and beachcombers of the 19th century, or the tourists and military soliders of the 20th century.

So in my lectures this week I definitely want to highlight this relationship, how the Pacific and its images of being empty, of being paradise, of being ripe for the taking, all of these things become foundational for the identity of America today and for Americans.

So as I'm working on this, I just wanted to share some of my thoughts on "the Pacific." And why I feel what I have to say is important.


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If the world is a neighborhood and its regions divided into different buildings and places within that community, then the Pacific as I see it has a large, but surprisingly banal and empty part of this neighborhood. If Africa is as Achille Mbembe and others have noted, a geographic and temporal warehouse for the nasty, uncivilized desires and fantasies for Europe, then the Pacific would most likely be a vast empty lot in the neighborhood, which occasionally someone has grand plans for, but nothing ever materializes, and the lot doesn’t seem to have much impact on the rest of the neighborhood.

Since 1892, there have been regular calls for an emerging epoch that is destined to be called “The Pacific Century” or “The Pacific Age.” In 2002 the Bush Administration has joined in this sort of christening, during a discussion on Japanese and American political unity. The enshrining of this large unit of time as belonging to a region of the world however is misleading, as the actual text of Bush’s press release makes clear that the approaching century actually belongs to East Asia or the Pacific Rim, or even just China and Japan.

Right across the road from Ethnic Studies here at UCSD we have the prestigious department of International Relations and Pacific Studies. A quick glance at the list of graduate student projects or the research interests of their faculty reveals that this department isn’t really very good at studying the Pacific. My most revealing interaction with IRPS was a discussion with a group of graduate students there, who didn’t even know that Guam was a territory/colony of the United States On another occasion, a Pacific Islander student, during a class taught through IRPS asked that since an upcoming lecture was to be about militarization and geopolitics in the Pacific and Asia, and would discuss China, Japan, South Korea and the Philippines, that given the fact that several thousand Marines were planned to be moved out of Okinawa into Guam, the professor should include Guam in the lecture and discussion. The professor responding by asking the class, by a show of hands to indicate “who here thinks that Guam isn’t important?” The majority of the class raised their hands, at which point the professor responded “Well, so no, there’s your answer, Guam isn’t important.” Interestingly enough, this talk of a Pacific age, doesn’t by any means a “Pacific Islands Century.” A year after claiming that the 21st century would be the Pacific Century, Condelezza Rice stood before a delegation of Pacific Island leaders, and announced boldly that 2007 would be the “YEAR of the Pacific.”


In the Pacific we find a handful examples of still existing regular old fashioned colonialism (interestingly enough, most of the rest of the examples can be found in another large body of water, the Caribbean). We also find a group of newly formed, newly christened sort of nations in Micronesia, in Palau, the RMI and the FSM, which appear to be experiments or blueprints for a world under Empire. As an almost bonus to the United States military empire, the strategic importance of the Pacific to the United States seems to have little presence in the imaginations of the global Left or anti-war or anti-base groups in the United States. The statement of William Mckinley in 1901 that “Hawai’i is more important than California” remains true, but seems to have nonetheless been forgotten as the United States can generally claim the Pacific as its region, its lake, and its to militarze.

If we do look into the Pacific, instead of passing over it, we see small islands, coconuts, very few people, nothing but natives, shattered cultures, which have to depend upon the rest of the world for everything. There is a paradoxical largeness and smallness to the Pacific, and a curious way that the fringes become the centers. So that analysis of the Pacific is not consumed with its center, or the sea of islands in the Pacific, but rather its edges.

For those doing critical work about the Pacific, it is important that they simply do not accept the paradoxical exotification of the Pacific, with its simultaneous blandness and inability to impact history. It is important that they either recognize the role that the Pacific has in producing modern material and discursive structures or power and knowledge, or they interrogate the absence of the Pacific today, and the banality that makes it natural to exclude it from analysis.
Speaking to the role of the Pacific and the ocean in general in the development of modern ideas Chris Connery in his articles “The Oceanic Feeling and the Regional Imaginary” and “Ideologies of Land and Sea” reminds his readers about their centrality in shaping, contrasting or stimulating the way we conceive of space, geography and being. The cartographies and prescriptions of Empire in both the 19th and the 20th centuries were spurned by texts such as Alfred Mahan’s The Influence of Sea Power on History which called for a domination and control of the sea.
In ideological terms, we can extend this past political economy, into the subjectivities and perceptions of modern subjects that are produced through the metaphors of the sea. According to Conner, “Ocean going, for Hegel activated Western history, and the geographical opportunity for ocean exploration was the condition of possibility for Western Europe’s entry into world history.” Then quoting Hegel from The Philosophy of History:

The sea gives us the idea of indefinite, the unlimited and the infinite; and in feeling his own infinite in that Infinite, man is stimulated and emboldened to stretch beyond the limited: to sea invites man to conquest and to piratical plunder, but also to honest gain and to commerce. The land, the mere valley-plain attaches him to the soil; it involves him in an indefinite multitude of dependencies, but the sea carries him out beyond these limited circles of thought and action.

Carl Schmitt, begins his text The Nomos of the Earth, with a line from a Goethe poem, which might be a good way to connect to my next point. In beginning his attempt to theorize the world, in geographic and spatial terms, and describe the spatial consciousness that has emerged over the past few centuries of European development, Schmitti quotes, “The small and the petty have all trickled away. Only the land and the sea matter here."

While this might be considered a very pragmatic, ruthless claim in the style of Mahan, that the only thing that matters is control of territory! It could also be a reflection on the way and the assumed reason that the Pacific and Pacific Islands and Islanders as topics of analysis are consistently ignored, forgotten or rejected.

The remarks of one of the most prominent American cultural studies scholar might give us a clue into this absence. Several years ago at a race conference at Cornell University, this scholar had been invited as one of the key note speakers. During her presentation she outlined the scope of her new book, which will discuss the intimate connections through race and capitalism of four of the world’s continents in making possible the development of humanistic and modern knowledge. One of my friends, a Pacific Islander scholar, during the question and answer period asked the presenter how could she and why did she completely ignore in her intended treatise on the development of the modern world and modern knowledge, the Pacific. The scholar’s very insulting and very revealing response was, “I didn’t go into the Pacific, because I’m not writing about genocide.”
Apart from the implicit assertion that the Pacific doesn’t have an impact on the way the modern world has been developed or shaped, the Pacific becomes a curious instance where “genocide” isn’t apparently a meaningful part of a discussion about the development of race thinking, capitalism and modernity. These points completely disconnected from the fact that the scholar’s indifferent insinuation that there is no one in the Pacific is primarily performative and not descriptive, or in another way, “I did not write about the Pacific, because I have just killed them off.”
In terms of the global non-dimension of the Pacific for those outside of the Pacific, its important to recognize that following World War II, the United States sought to control the majority of the Pacific in the hopes of creating a “buffer zone” which would prevent any “surprise” attacks from Asia.

In the way that the Pacific is skipped over in analysis of the global, or even Pacific Studies, and how Pacific Islanders are written off or never considered due to their status as the “small and petty” that “have all trickled away,” we see the Pacific becoming another “buffer zone.” In this instance a quiet, banal bodyguard for American power and interests, as the Pacific sits silently beneath so many critiques, demands and social movements.

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