Wednesday, December 02, 2015

Traversing the Night of the World

A close friend of mine who just started his Ph.D. program has been having trouble with balancing his personal life and academic life, and keeping up with the theoretical workload involved. I sent him some advice, just from my perspective about how to survive in an environment where you are reading so much each week and then expected to speak intelligently on the sheer amount of data and ideas you are expected to absorb. This naturally made me remember my own grad school days, in particular my days of reading multiple theoretical texts a week in my UCSD Ethnic Studies program. I had my own tricks in order to survive, but I was helped by the fact that I read pretty fast and also just loved reading. Not having kids at that time and living away from much of my extended family also helped.

The reflection or analytical papers that I wrote in grad school are favorite mementos of mine. They represent a time when my brain was afire with ideas and I was writing and reading constantly. It is much more difficult now with so many obligations to keep that spirit alive, but I do my best. Sometimes I return to the papers I wrote in graduate school and edit them or add on to them. Some of them I posted on this blog years ago. One of my favorites, titled "The Colonial Other" I just posted on the other blog I share "Mumun Linahyan." I added some new sections and thoughts to it. At the point I first wrote this in 2007, decolonization was a big part of my academic work, but it wasn't as fine-tuned as it is now when I write on the topic or discuss it in public. I've pasted the updated version below, which makes stronger connections to local issues and Chamorro decolonization.


According to theorist Peter Fitzpatrick, the law becomes the curious fetish of the colonies.There are many ways to unpack this, but it is something that we can definitely see as being relevant in Guam, where issues surrounding Chamorro rights and decolonization are constantly mired as to whether they are “constitutional” or “inorganic.” So that even when Chamorros are seeking to possible escape the grasp of their colonizer, they ca nonetheless find ways to return to that object and reinforce its power over them. But this fetishization is far more important to those doing the colonizing, as it fuels them with power, authority and potentially absolves them from historical sins.

From the perspective of the colonizer, a sort of sudden sovereignty emerges at the moments of contact with a “new” world which cannot readily be accounted for in his current imagination. As he bumps up against this “new” gap in the symbolic network, which is never truly a gap, but only the appearance of one, sovereignty erupts as the ability to map not just this new land, but also himself. The double gesture which makes the term “sovereignty” appropriate to this moment is that this new land is filled through a brutal emptying of its content, the production of terra nullius, and at the same time is a self-determining process, whereby the subject creates authority and transparency by virtue of its recognition and the knowledge is produces.

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, thereby creating his own authority and his own transparency.

Returning to the law in the colonies, it is what the colonizer constantly clings to, because although the colonized may sometimes look like me, act like me, may seem like me, the rule of formal law, this feature that defines me, both defines me above/against the colonizer, and also insulates me from the chaos that mediates their lives. Part of the process of colonization therefore is the mapping of not two worlds, but one world and the line which divides these worlds, the formal and the obscene. One of these represents the realm of articulation, rational speech, and is demarcated by a line which is constantly shifting, alluding to but never truly mapping the chaotic world of the obscene, populated by ghosts, monsters and the dead.

While the line of reason and the line of ability to submit to law and accept order (one could say from Agamben that the Wolf man walks this line) exists to stave off the un-mappable obscene world, defending it from the formal, it is also obvious that the formal depends heavily on the obscene in a number of different ways.Within this colonial logic comes simple but terribly tempting choices. To choose the obscene and the informal over the formal and what appears to be the universal and the rational feels impossible. Even for the colonized or are created as inferior or savage by this line, they may still feel the need to defend it, in order to protect whatever shred of modernity or universality they feel from it.

I am reminded here of the “blood compact,” a potentially obscene act/ritual between civilized and uncivilized parties that we find used to mark the formal, modern beginning of the Philippines. The moment that the Filipino people first entered “history’s waiting room” and thus gain the possibility for them to be recognizing within formal legal frameworks.

For the family of nations, the blood compact is another charming story which provides a semi-formal, semi-obscene basis for the limited inclusion and recognition of the Philippines on the global level. It inscribes into the modern birth of the Philippines both the obscene pre-origin which will always taint the modern existence of the country. Yet at the same time, it will carry with it a sliver of Enlightenment and modern progressivity, small shred of the story that Europe needs to tell itself.
The line that I’ve already mentioned between the formal and the obscene does not hold though, as the naming of the origin of this order constantly forces questions of exceptionalism, of justice, of violence and of history and civility to the fore. For Rizal, the blood compact is a legal binding compact which places the Philippines as a civilization into the trust and care of the Spanish Empire and therefore the horizon which he speaks of is one of reform where the two nations and two races are somehow united, beyond the current state of exploitation. For Bonafacio, the horizon lies beyond the Spanish because the blood compact although representing a contact between the Spanish and Philippines civilization, more importantly directs the imagination back in time prior to the Spanish, which therefore defines the times since in terms of starvation and deprivation.

While the pragmatic reasoning behind the “choice” in representation would be that the lack of society and civility amongst these tribes necessitated a ritual which they could understand as they are brought into the modern world. Legaspi was therefore slumming in a sense when he makes the blood compact, bringing himself down to the level of the savage in order to bring him into the framework of modern law and history. But why is this gesture always necessary both in history and more importantly when histories of relations between colonies and countries are written? Why not represent as the moment of contact and contract as an image of pure force or colonization? Why instead does the colonizer constantly “lower” themselves to represent this moment?

Although one could answer this from the perspective of the “original sinlessness” of the nation, but theoretically it is definitely linked to the limit that the only violence which truly constitutes order as opposed to merely preserving it is always obscene.

This leads us to another interesting question. If the bodies of natives, savages, colonized peoples were not to be incorporated into the formal world, except through metaphors which would cradle them eternally as inferior, as trapped in time, as like children, etc. What is the need for this façade? If the colony is a process whereby exploitation, lawlessness and violence is collected and warehoused away from the Centre, what is the need for civilizing the savages or for finding a way to bring them into not just the colonial order, but rather the colonizer’s order?

While we can make arguments for humanitarianism, benevolence, biopolitical restructuring based on economic demands, this “humanizing” and therefore stifling of the colonizer’s enjoyment and sovereignty, relates to the obscene dimension of the law which it relies upon, but which is constantly disavowed. The further away the colonized is from the colonizer, the more obscene he appears to be, the more menacing and threatening and interestingly enough the closer he appears to be to the source of order, the constituent power. This may be a interesting way of thinking of the famous axiom from The Godfather, “keep your friends close and your enemies closer.”

Anxiety is of course always articulated as a distance, but rather it always instead refers to a terrifying proximity, a closeness. For the colonizer who clings to the law as the source of his self-ordering and power, the obscene violence which necessarily accompanies it, will nonetheless echo in the world of the obscene as well, haunting the colonizer and situating within the colonial I, a disturbing presence which will always have an obscene mastery over him.

In some ways, decolonization requires a breaking away from those already inscribed and proposed moments of genesis, moments of modern creation. But that can be difficult for the colonized themselves, as even if they have the best intentions or greatest dreams, it would require a walk through that wasteland, without the order one is supposed to feel from the law. It would require journeying into the obscene and accepting the lack of certainty that comes from asserting a different type of freedom or existence. To borrow a phrase from Hegel, this can feel for the colonized like “the night of the world.” A path fraught with uncertainty and feeling of impossibility, but ultimately the route to freedom.

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