Thursday, December 02, 2010

Insular Insularity

Dr. Carlyle Corbin, an expert on decolonization from the US Virgin Islands is back on island conducting research and meeting with people. He gave a lecture last night at the University of Guam which I was able to attend, and while many of my students who went complained about his talk being too abstract or difficult to follow, what he brings to Guam is still so crucial.

I explained to one student that the abstractness of Corbin's speech is precisely the problem, but it has nothing to do with his delivery, the tone of his voice or even what he is talking about. The problem is here on Guam, the problem is our insularity.

Insular means having to do with islands, but it also has the implication of something being limited or parochial, cut off from other things, stuck in itself. Such is the natural metaphorical extension of Europeans and islands. Land based people see islands as the ultimate metaphor of something cut off and because of that, they breed various forms of negativity. Insular people cannot see the whole picture of something, are narrow minded, too limited, they can never reach their full potential, or more importantly the potential that others who are less limited can attain. Islands and therefore island people exist to be dominated by those from continent or large land masses. They require the capital, the reason, the technology, the culture of those from larger land masses in order to even make use of the little that they have.

I remember reading in David Hanlon's Remaking Micronesia that the point where you could see this logic the most was during the Trust Territory period of Micronesian History. Those from outside of the Pacific, those not from islands can believe in their superiority and their fullness of view and mind so much to the point of almost defying absolute reality. Such was the case when American officials in Micronesia would produce information for islanders, including those living in atolls and how to make proper use of the coconut tree. The United State comes from a culture which has known the coconut in very superficial ways for a couple centuries at the most, whereas some people in the Pacific have known the coconut for thousands of years. But the actual state of knowledge is not important, but rather where those involved come from. The US officials because they come from the United States, the master, i manggi tano', are the ones who are supposed to know, the ones who, even if they don't even know it themselves, have the possibility of knowing all, teaching all, being all. Those from the islands, i manggi isla, are assumed to lack these basic things, and regardless of what their knowledge is, are assumed to require being finished by those from the land.

In Epeli Hau'ofa's seminal text "Our Sea of Islands" he found a way of weaving together what so many people in Pacific had felt for so long, that these things which people outside said and felt about us, and then created institutions of knowledge, texts of knowledge and governmental frameworks to perform said assumptions, were simply not true. If insular means that a place is an island or surrounded by water that is one thing, but all of those other characteristics are simply not true. Hau'ofa argued that the ocean does not limit or constrict or bar, but instead connects and stimulates. We should not lament being from a sea of islands, but forge said sea, connect said sea and nurture ourselves through the possibilities that such a sea, a vast network might represent.

I love Hau'ofa's argument, I had a section in my dissertation about it and I just finished an article for an Australian journal where I discussed Hau'ofa's theories with those of Frantz Fanon on decolonization. But one thing that people often forget when discussing theories, especially those that they love or like, is that cognizance of something is not the same as belief in it. Knowledge of something is not the same as it becoming some core principle which will henceforth guide you. The motivations for people are much more complex and much more frustrating then this.

For example if we look at Guam and the issue of dependency. Everyone on Guam agrees that Guam is a dependent place. It doesn't matter which side of the issue you are on. If you love America and sleep with an American flag at your breast dreaming that Uncle Sam is Fabio from some romance novel and will whisk you away one day to to all the freedom, democracy and American dreaminess that he has always been promising you, or even if you believe that Guam is a pitiful wretch of a creature, so strung out on Federal funding-hard-drugs that it can barely function, much less even comprehend the ways in which it has been hog tied and is constantly being mutilated and tortured as if it is some test subject for Jigsaw in the Saw movies, regardless of which side you are on, you can both agree in different ways that Guam is dependent. It may even be regrettable in both cases, but the ultimate fact of Guam being dependent is never questioned. But even though this is something which most everyone laments, and can say is not ideal or not good, you do not see a large segment of the population of Guam clamoring for anything to be done about it. Being aware of this, knowing this amounts to almost nothing, since there is something beneath the knowledge which still grips tightly all with greedy tentacles. It makes it so that the dependency becomes this self-obsessing wound. One does not see anything negative about those who give and those who enjoy the dependency, but rather those who take and are trapped by it, even if those being trapped is not some anonymous groups elsewhere in the world, but they themselves. Even if we can all agree that Guam is a horribly dependent place, for some reason instead of seeking to do something to fix this, most assume it is something which can simply not be fixed or that what needs to be talked about in this discussion is how addicted and uncontrollably dependent we are.

I bring this up because insularity carries the same burden, it is not something which is gotten rid of because of some compelling speech alone. Even if you can get someone to admit to the fact that water connects and doesn't limit or trap us, that doesn't meant that they are some released from the crippling dependency people in the Pacific have come to learn and have long accepted as reality. You may have planted a seed, but like most seeds that find their way into the dirt, there is more chance of it becoming nothing than growing into something.

Even if we know it might not be true, the crippling and paralyzing dependency or limitations may not be really real, they have an everyday realness which is hard to counter. So even if we know that Guam is not really all of those negative things which insularity might imply, we are still haunted and still possessed by that nefarious insularity. It still infects us and still determines us.

That is why, I told my students that the problem here is us, we are too insular about things. We know we are not the only island in the world, not the only territory, and we know there are others out there like us, in relation to the US or other countries, but we know almost nothing about them. On Guam we see political status too often as some small issue, belonging to small-minded or narrow-minded people. Something the activists only care about, but not truly something that affects much. Few things could be further from the truth, but even that is part of our insularity. We see the US as the means of moving beyond our shores and this tiny island. We vicariously imagine the world through them, their history, their everything. And so our insularity leads us to not even try to see the world through our own terms or the truth of our terms, but rather through the truth of the United States. This of course leads to us living in a colony but knowing nothing of colonialism and knowing little to nothing of other colonies.

But this is why Dr. Corbin's talks when he comes to Guam are so important. He is very knowledgeable about the world of colonialism and colonies today, and so when he comes he brings that knowledge to us. He offers us a different sea of islands than Hau'ofa did, but one which can be just as critical or important. One of the things which people on Guam should hear is Corbin's stories of the few times in recent decades when the territories of the US or colonies of the world for instance have come together to push an issue and have either almost prevailed or prevailed. We on Guam can be too insular and about the wrong things as well. We are a colony amongst a few other colonies in this world and when we hear about the status in other colonies we should react as if their stories are too abstract too different then what we are used to, they should be common knowledge.

(The art in this post is from Kie Susuico, and is on display right now at the Isla Center for the Arts)

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