In this, the next in my series of book reviews / response essays produced while studying for exams, I discuss the Introduction and a few chapters of Remembrance of Pacific Pasts, edited by Robert Borofsky (University of Hawaiʻi Press, 2000). The volume is a thick compilation of essays by many of the top Pacific Island historians, from Marshall Sahlins and Greg Dening to Vilsoni Hereniko, Nicholas Thomas, James Clifford, and Epeli Hau’ofa. Many of the essays are reprinted from having been published earlier; I haven’t read through the whole thing, but from what I have read, it could prove a good reader for a university course, as the chief book from which to assign readings (if it weren’t out of print, which it seems to be). The volume covers a range of different topics, with four or five essays on each of the themes of “Making Histories,” “Possessing Others,” “Colonial Entanglements,” and “Postcolonial Politics.” I’ll be discussing a number of these essays in this and future posts, and hope to find the time sometime soon to read more of the volume.
But, to begin, Robert Borofsky’s Introduction is an intense and thorough summary of both the historiography of the Pacific, and of the various issues tied into Orientalism, native & non-native conceptions of the history, and who has the right to speak. This essay is surely going to be one of my touchstones, to go back to, for the arguments and counter-arguments of this most central and crucial issue, and I think if I ever teach a Historiography class, even for historians whose specialties fall far outside of the Pacific, I think I may assign this chapter. In it, Borofsky discusses the constructed nature of modern/contemporary Western academic modes of knowledge, that is, the artificiality and problematic nature of our conceptions or constructions of “objectivity,” in the process touching upon many of the fundamental issues we must engage with as post-modernist, post-colonial, anti-Orientalist scholars. These include the invisible silences created by dominant discourses (especially those in the colonialist/imperialist vein), the unspoken assumptions of our nationalist and otherwise “modern” and Western points of view, and the need for multiple perspectives in order to attempt to get closer to a better understanding of any given history or culture. To cite just one of many compelling quotes from Borofsky’s discussion of these issues:
Bringing different perspectives to bear on our understandings of times past is essential for recognizing the shape of our constructions and strategic silences. Without such differences to confront, we tend to live comfortably within our own complacencies. Without differences we have a rather limited sense of perspective, of ‘objectivity.’ We go galloping about on our rhetoric unappreciative of the silences that speed us along (18).
Further, he addresses the very crucial, fundamental even, complex of issues in Pacific Studies (but also in other post-colonial, non-Western, and/or indigenous contexts) of authenticity, authority, and the “right to speak.” There is a long tradition of Pacific people’s histories being written by outsiders, according to outsiders’ biases, intentions, desires, and values, dismissing native understandings as naïve, superstitious, or in the case of oral traditions, just plainly unreliable and untrue.
Lilikalā Kame’eliehiwa: “Natives have often wished that white people would study their own ancestors… instead of us, whom they generally misunderstand and thus misrepresent.”
Haunani-Kay Trask: “For Hawaiians, anthropologists … are part of the colonizing horde because they seek to take away from us the power to define who and what we are, and how we should behave politically and culturally.”
Borofsky: “What is left unsaid in Trask’s statement is that diverse voices exist within the Hawaiian community, and many take strong exception to her views.”1
Western treatments of the Pacific for a very long time were deeply colored by biases of racism, Orientalism, Social Darwinism, etc. – including ideas of the “noble savage,” of the Pacific as a place where the people live in a perfect paradise, but are naive, uncivilized, and a part of the natural environment. Native notions of their own history, of the sacredness of their land, of the validity of their traditions and societal/political structures, continue to be widely dismissed today. And this dismissal of native intelligence, and of any merits of native societal structures, played a very central role in the destruction of the Hawaiʻian Kingdom, and I would imagine of many other Pacific, African, and other non-Western societies the world over. So, it should come as no surprise that many Pacific Islanders, particularly historians and other scholars in the Western sense, and elders and teachers in traditional modes, feel strongly about being able to tell their own stories, to have their own voices heard, to have their own people (re)gain control of their own histories. Voices, opinions, positions, on this matter run the full spectrum, from the most militant anti-haole positions to the most inclusive, and so there is no one single set of rules to abide by in the field, but rather a complex set of considerations to navigate, often on tiptoe. It is this crowd of contesting voices, and complex of overlapping issues and problems which Borofsky addresses in his introductory essay; I have taken seminars on Orientalism, and on Museum Studies in indigenous/post-colonial Pacific contexts, and have read quite a few essays addressing aspects, or individual perspectives, on this issue. I think Borofsky’s is the most comprehensive I have yet come across.
Essays by Peter Hempenstall and Vilsoni Hereniko in the first section of the book (“Frames of Reference: Making Histories”) provide personal indigenous perspectives on some of these issues, and specific examples of how these issues, and different approaches, might play out in our analysis or discussion of historical events. Hempenstall writes of the 1908-1909 mau e pule protest movement in Sāmoa, led by orator chief Lauaki Namulau’ulu Mamoe, and how this event can be read and re-read in different ways, to construct or deconstruct various different perspectives on or impressions of the event, later developments, and Samoan national, cultural, or ethnic identity. Through the example of interpretations of this event, he emphasizes the idea that history is “messy,” that it is always more complex and more nuanced than any one account, or one perspective, can relate, and also that there is a “messy,” complex relationship between agency and victimhood – historical figures are (almost?) never wholly free agents, nor wholly helpless victims, but (almost?) always some combination of the two.
Hereniko speaks of the many various ways that indigenous values and traditional knowledge are conveyed, taught, or instilled, and of the problems of the dominance of Western modes of interrogation, which prioritize the written word as evidence, and as indicative of “truth.” Among his examples are songs, poems, dances, myths or fairy tales, conventional knowledge about natural phenomena, gossip about genealogies and local history, and the very names of people, places, and things, which he describes as serving as footnotes, points of evidence, supporting the veracity of oral traditions. Indeed, one of the arguments emerging from Borofsky’s “Introduction”, this essay by Hereniko, and others I have seen, is that Native histories should not have to conform to Western modes of appropriate scholarly form – the insistence on such conformity, after all, being in meaningful ways a continuation of the “colonizing” of indigenous knowledge to begin with: the insistence that Native modes of knowledge are inferior or invalid, and the Western dominance of “truth.” In a post-modern, post-colonial, global world, why should Westerners and their modes of knowledge have a monopoly on what is appropriate in academia?
Hereniko: “By focusing on external reality [i.e. verifiable “facts”], historians marginalized emotional truth.” According to a Fijian elder: “People [outside researchers] do not understand the unseen, which is the reality of our lives; they do not realize its power. They look only at the seen, which is illusion.” (85)
As Hereniko argues, certain modes of writing are privileged in Western scholarship, which excludes or looks down upon certain styles of emotional, personal, or poetic forms of writing. I have long had difficulty with this sort of notion: obnoxiously jargon-heavy and impenetrably theoretical works aside, the purpose of scholarship is to convey information clearly, to create works which summarize wealths of knowledge for the reader, and provide expert interpretation, to help spare the reader from having to engage with such wealths of primary sources themselves. Such is the value of secondary sources: of course there is an understanding that all writers have their biases, and that all interpretations have the potential to be flawed, but we need to be able to take scholars at their word, at least to some extent, in order for their works to be useful in any way. What practical scholarly use is scholarship written in the form of poetry or the like, which is not direct and clear language, but which instead requires interpretation just as if it were a primary source? How does it benefit the field to add to the hopelessly vast array of obscure, evocative rather than descriptive, primary sources, rather than to the (ideally) clear and explanatory corpus of secondary sources? And, yet, the fact that Remembrance includes a number of such poetic works does do valuable work in lending an air of credibility, of insiderness or at least acceptedness, to the volume.
The other side of this issue, which I continue to mentally chew on, so to speak, is that there are many (white and/or Western) scholars who seek to explore artistic and creative ways of “performing” scholarly practice, in much the same way as modernist/contemporary artists engage in artistic practice. If we can accept this within the realms of Western scholarship, and indeed perhaps even celebrate it as cutting-edge, innovative, and avant-garde, then why not artistic, creative modes of scholarship which draw upon or seek to emulate or express non-dominant cultural modes of expression and ways of thinking? As we begin to open the gate, if only a crack, to scholarship presented in new and different forms, through theatre or performance, through documentary films or digital visualizations, or simply through atypical ways of organizing text and images in one’s writing, it seems it would be arbitrary, and indeed discriminatory, to not also accept atypical forms of scholarship which come out of a cultural tradition rather than an avant-garde movement.
Borofsky’s “Introduction” and these two essays challenge the assumptions of the Western reader on numerous fronts, forcing us to question our attitudes and approaches, throwing us out of our comfortable equilibrium, and requiring us to either seek a new stable interpretive position, or to articulate a defense for previously unquestioned assumptions. In thinking about these issues, I think I have come to some new insights and understandings, but I nevertheless feel I remain in a very unstable place, coming out of these readings without any definitive solution or resolution for these difficulties, neither on a practical level (how to move forward, how to perform my research, writing, and teaching on such subjects), nor on an emotional or intellectual level (how to think and feel about my positions, my identity in relation to Pacific people & culture, how to think and feel about my research, writing, and teaching). I fear that such a resolution might never be found.
I wrote the above a year ago or so. I still feel rather unstable about it all, but I am reassured by the fact that, at least, I am fortunate in that for me the Pacific is primarily a teaching field, not a research field. So I can teach courses in which I assign Native scholars, and draw upon their arguments for my lectures, my role being largely one of simply allowing their voices to speak; this, in contrast to being a scholar actively working in Pacific history, where I would need to contribute my own novel interpretations of Pacific history, coming up against both traditional interpretations and those of Native scholars, and having to defend myself. As is, this is enough of an issue in Japanese and Okinawan Studies, and a valuable set of concerns to keep in mind. But, in the end, having had to come up with some answer to this problem for my exams defense, tentatively, my answer is simply this: Borofsky makes valuable and valid points, that a multitude of voices, including Outsider voices, are important, if not essential, to getting a fuller understanding of any history; but at the same time, I cannot be, will not be, the haole who obnoxiously or obstinately inserts myself against Native scholars – I will do my best to not ever be a “whitesplainer,” just as I strive to not be a mansplainer. I suppose actual situations may be different, and we may have to simply cross that bridge when we come to it, but tentatively, for now at least, I absolutely defer to Native scholars, and would not dare to insist that I have a “right to speak.”
(1) Lilikalā Kameʻeleihiwa, “Review,” Pacific Studies 17 (2), 1994, 112.; Haunani-Kay Trask, “Natives and Anthropologists: The Colonial Struggle,” Contemporary Pacific, Spring 1991, 162.; Borofsky, 17.