Archive for the ‘Historiography’ Category

Greg Dening’s Performances (University of Chicago Press 1996) is largely a collection of previously published essays. They are a mix, with some being essentially history/anthropology articles on specific topics, such as Captain Cook, the 1814 Battle of Valparaiso, and the first Native-European contact on Tahiti, and others being more theoretical essays on approaches to the practice of history. While the former are great, it is really for the latter that I am adding this book to my short list of things to strongly considering assigning to my own students in future, and something I will very much hold onto, and look back at, to help inform my own approach, in my research.

Perhaps one of the greatest things about Performances is that it serves as a guide to the postmodernist approach – in a nutshell, the idea that there is no singular, knowable Truth, that everything is relative – but in a way which feels genuine, like truly engaging with the lived experience of the people of the past, and not like abstract hand-wavey capital-T Theorizing. Dening writes:

All my academic life I taught history by first requiring my students to transcribe some event or ritual or drama in their lives into narrative. I called this ethnography. They soon discovered how difficult that was to do. They soon learned that there was nothing that they observed but was the subject of some reflective discourse by somebody else. Knowing what that discourse was, what questions shaped it and in what way their own ethnography added to it was to be the cultural persons they needed to be to write history. (30)

And, in discussing whether the Hawaiians saw Captain Cook as a god:

Of course the Hawaiians did not call the Euro-American strangers “gods.” They called them akua. Tahitians and Marquesans called them atua. I should have written “Hawaiians,” “Tahitians,” “Marquesans,” of course. In the years of the first encounters, these islanders knew themselves as something else – kānaka, maohi, enata. That is the problem of cross-cultural history. Both sides experience one another in translation. I, for one, believe that cross-cultural history should be written in such a way that the reader is always reminded of strangeness by leaving key words untranslated, and by attempting to describe more discursively what is the cultural experience behind the word. (76)

In emphasizing the use of terms from that culture, and a description and analysis based on the cultural understandings of that culture, rather than the terminology and interpretive structures of Western Theory, Dening advocates an approach which is far more respectful of other cultures, and respectful of the validity of their perspectives and worldviews. This is also an approach which produces, frankly, better history, insofar as it comes closer to the “truth,” such as it is, of what actually happened, or at least of how it was actually understood by the people who were there at the time. Western Theory purports to be universal, but it is a product of the modern or post-modern West, of a particular cultural perspective, and while we can never wholly escape our cultural and chronological biases, we can at least try, by avoiding the skewing impacts of Marxist, Foucaultian, or Weberian approaches. Luke Roberts’ Performing the Great Peace seems to follow in Dening’s advocated approach in this respect, carefully examining how different terms were used in early modern Japanese interactions, in differing contexts, and how this informs our understanding, of their understanding, of their own time.

It is extremely rare, I think, that I feel this way about a book I read, but with Greg Dening’s Performances, I really feel that I wish I could speak with him, take a course with him, rather than get his wisdom only through this limited and mediated form, the monograph. Dening seems like he would have been a marvelous professor for a seminar in Historiography (or Theory and Methodology), and every time he speaks in the book of metaphors, or of his own personal ways of understanding things, I wish I could ask him to explain further just what he means – and it’s not because he’s being obscurantist, like all too many Theorists do; rather, it is only because these are his own personal metaphors, which he has so internalized, and which I am sure one could come to understand better if one were to take a course with him, or to have him as an advisor. The notion of history as performance, for one, and of history as “cargo,” for another.1 I can gather my own imagined understanding of what I think he means when he says these things, but like a primary source history text itself, all I have is the book, and cannot ask the person.

The past is everything that has happened – every heartbeat, every sound, every molecular movement. This totality is both objectively specific (it happened in a particular way) and infinitely discrete (the happenings are not connected). … Yet we have a common-sense confidence that the ‘real’ past, like the ‘real’ present, is much more connected and ordered. We have a confidence that the past is ordered in itself in such a way that we can make a narrative of it. It is text-able. We are confident that our selection is an exegesis of an order already there. It is the same common-sense confidence we have in the cultural systems of our present. … This mythic confidence in a text-able past is the ambience in which histories are made. The past itself is evanescent: it has existence only in histories. Histories are the texted past. (41)

I may be reading into it my own desires, but I think it is valid to say that Dening’s history (or ethnohistory – incorporating at its core an ethnography of past peoples/cultures) exults in the vibrancy of historical cultural life in a way that really emphasizes those aspects of History that attracted me to the discipline to begin with, and then to Art History when I found History surprisingly lacking. For a great many scholars, it is all about types, structures, and forms, and about determining how societies, in general, function. For them, all societies have political leaders – they differ only in type. And all societies have goods that they produce, goods that they buy, and goods that they sell – the only difference is in what precisely those goods are. For these scholars, it is structures and systems that are important, and the moving parts that are the most important are political, economic, or social in nature. All cultures have sacred objects, ritual practices, and art, and we can categorize that into playing some political, economic, or social role, in a system. The differences are unimportant. But, to me, it is precisely those differences which are the most important. It is those differences which make history vibrant and exciting, and which allow history to be a vehicle for celebrating the glorious diversity of our world. And I sense that Dening feels similarly. As he writes on p23, quoting Herbert Marcuse,

“All reification (all essentializing, I would add) is a process of forgetting. Art fights reification by making the petrified world speak, sing, perhaps dance.”

It is this singing, dancing, world that so intrigues me. A living world, made up of people living complex, colorful lives, filled with historical architecture and fashion, sounds and smells and sights.

Dening writes of the difference between “reality” and “actuality.” In our analytical interpretations, we seek to discover what “really” happened – what was X event “really” about? We place all sorts of analytical structures on it, comparing it to social science constructions of abstract models and types, in order to categorize it. But in doing so, we miss what “actually” happened. As he writes:

Imagine we go to the theatre to see Death of a Salesman, a part of life and life’s relationships and structure, set out, like life itself, in a series of conversations. We hear the sentences of the conversation on the stage – about baseball, about dingy hotel rooms, about careless children and too careful wives … We know the sentences in their unity to be concerned with coping or not coping with the emptiness of public presentations of self. … Let us say we go to the theatre. The curtains are pulled back. There is Arthur Miller sitting on the stage. ‘Death of a Salesman,’ he says, ‘is about Everyman, Willie Loman, in an entrepreneurial society, and Everyman’s inability to cope with the emptiness of the public presentation of self. That will be $10 please.’ We would not know it at all. … The medium of most of our living is conversation, of texted narrative. The clothing of our structures is the trivialities of everyday existence. (47)

Captain Samuel Wallis of HMS Dolphin being received by the Queen of Otaheite, July 1767. Image from a 1773 book illustration plate, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Dening’s “Possessing Tahiti,” which I discussed in a previous blog post, is lively with ethnographic and/or historical narrative. We can picture the people, the events – the costumes, the flag waving in the breeze. We can picture the perfect blue sky, white clouds, gorgeous blue waters, and green swaying trees of Tahiti. And quite central to Dening’s narrative are the culturally diverse ways in which British, French, Spanish, and Tahitian peoples claim “possession” of one another – in the case of the Europeans, claiming Tahitian land, and in the case of the Tahitians, taking down the flag and incorporating it into their chief’s malo ura skirt, thus “possessing” the mana, the spirit-force, of the British captain. We can see the flag, the malo ura, the cross erected by the Spanish and then defaced by the British, and the glass bottle buried by the French. And, as Dening discusses how the Tahitians might have viewed the British – as “gods” or not – it is of course a conceptual argument, in the sense that it deals with perceptions, conceptions, and imagined or metaphorical realities. But it is not conceptual in the sense of being capital-T Theoretical in an analytical sense. These people are not pawns in a Structuralist or Post-Structuralist system, nor merely a case study in some [insert Theorist here]-ian articulation of the functioning of societies. They are real people, with lively, vibrant cultures, engaged in historic interactions. And that is what I wish to be able to reproduce in my discussion of the Ryukyuan missions to Edo. I want my reader to be able to envision the road, the lodgings, the costumes and banners, the music, the local officials formally welcoming the envoys, and the local people come to witness the spectacle – I want my reader to envision these things, and to find it interesting, exciting, captivating even if I can manage it, and most of all, I want my reader to be caught up in the narrative, the ethnohistory, just enough to not say “so what?”, and to not wonder what my argument is. The Ryukyuan envoys are not pawns in my analytical game; they are not merely case studies in the service of my argument. They were real, living people of the past, who like the Tahitians and the British possessed lively, vibrant cultures; and personal interests, attitudes, and desires; and who engaged in historic cultural interactions that should be interesting, and valuable, for their novelty if nothing else.

Ryukyuan officials welcoming a Chinese investiture embassy at Naha harbor, as depicted in an 1788 painting by Japanese artist Yamaguchi Suiô. University of Hawaii Library, Sakamaki-Hawley Collection.

At the end of the day, my analysis and my argument are tools in the service of allowing me to tell this narrative, to share this story. It is not the other way around. I feel quite strongly about that – Dening warns against dehumanizing our subjects, and I feel quite sensitively about that. Early modern Japan, and early modern Ryukyu, were entire worlds unto themselves, filled with real people living real lives. And while I may be guilty of romanticizing them, of over-emphasizing the vibrancy of their cultural environment, I refuse to be guilty of stripping them of their cultural and historical specificity, to make them merely examples of people (any people) in a society (any society) that functions according to X, Y, and Z features, in service of an argument. Just because something is not important to my argument does not mean that it is unimportant for producing a lively and compelling picture of the topic as a whole. This does not mean that I have any desire to run it into the ground by going overboard with detail. I have no desire to put my reader to sleep. No one needs to see extensive lists of precisely which goods they carried and precisely how many of each, or of precisely where in the audience hall each figure sat, down to the precise number of tatami mats north and west of the entrance. But, if describing the appearance of the audience hall, and the impressive impact it may have had on foreign guests, can help bring the event, the experience, to life for my readers, to help present it as a living event and not as a systematic structural procedure, then I want to include that regardless of whether it contributes to an analytical argument.

The “Performances” of the title references both the idea that all of life, both today and in the historical periods & events we study, is performance, and that the writing of history is, likewise, a performance. Dening advocates recognizing, acknowledging, and reviving the vibrant, lively reality of the past, as I have already discussed.

Participles … soften the essentializing quality of nouns with the being and acting quality of the verb: not life, but living, not gender, but gendering; not culture, but culturing; not science but sciencing; not change, but changing. The way we represent the world is hindsighted, past participled, stilled like frames on a film. The way we experience the world is processual, unfinished. We see the real; we experience the actual. (119)

But he also speaks of the writing of history as intimately intertwined with acts of memory, and storytelling, and as a very human thing to do, something that all peoples, of all cultures, in all times do. We all tell stories. We all remember our own histories, in one form or another. I personally have found much post-modern theory to be quite frightening, and stultifying, as it asks us to believe there is no Truth, and then just leaving us out in the deep. For someone who got into history precisely because there were facts to be learned, facts which come together, bricolage-style, to form an ever-more-complete, if never truly completable, picture of a particular time & place, post-modern Theory is deeply troubling. How are we to be able to say anything at all about history, when post-modern theory tells us the Truth is unattainable, and that everything we think we know is inevitably wrong? What are we even doing, as historians, if the only things we can ever say are half-truths, and mistaken guesses? It’s like the rug has been pulled out from under us; no, worse, it’s like the entire floor has dropped out. When I asked one of my more Theory-minded professors what to do, how we can possibly move forward in such a situation, she said that exploring History is like being in a wilderness, and you just have to pitch a tent, and stake your claim. This was quite encouraging in the moment, but I think I may need a re-explanation.

Dening comes to the rescue, however. Whereas most Theory seems to lend itself towards total abstraction, breaking down any Truth you might have ever believed existed, Dening’s “historical ethnography” focuses on the telling of history as storytelling, as contributing to an ongoing discourse of meaning-making. I suppose, in a sense, it’s really not so different from the post-modern critique. Not really so different at all. And, perhaps, depending on how one feels on a given day, or how one thinks about it, maybe this isn’t any more freeing or encouraging; or, maybe the post-modern theorists are, for some of you, plenty freeing and encouraging. For me, the idea of trying to produce academically rigorous analysis amidst a chaotic wilderness of unattainable Truth is terrifying, and paralyzing. But, the idea of being a storyteller, telling and re-telling stories in order to bring them alive again, in order to re-enter them into the collective memory – that is, the idea of the writing of history as a performance, as a performance of that story, is quite freeing in a way. We are, after all, only continuing the same activity all cultures do – telling stories, constructing memory. And so, accepting that it is not about finding real Truth, that it can never be about that, but that it is really about trying to understand others, to see different perspectives, interpretations, and worldviews, and to bring those alive again for others, by re-telling the stories, that, I can do. Or at least I can try. I can do my best. And that’s a start.

Telescoping seeing, whether into the past or into the heavens, is likely to foster a certain delusion of apartness in the observer, a sense of separateness from nature, and in that a sense of ‘objectivity.’ It is microscoping seeing that destroys the notion of passive observation. … Quantium physics … obliges us to take seriously what has been a more purely philosophical consideration: that we do not see things in themselves, but only aspects of things. What we see is an electron path in a bubble chamber, not an electron, and what we see in the skies are not stars, any more than a recording of Caruso’s voice is Caruso. By revealing that the observer plays a role in the observed, quantum physics did for physics what Darwin had done for the life sciences: it tore down walls, reuniting the world with the universe. (220)

Everyone who would represent the past must ‘go native’ in some way or be condemned always only to represent the present. Even the ‘native’ must ‘go native’ in finding a past. We might think we are privileged in some way towards a past by being black or white, male or female, poor or powerful, but that privilege is only towards all the others of our living present. The past to which we each ‘go native’ is a lot farther off and no one gets there but by giving a little. … Few of us can find a voice which is neither white nor black, male nor female, young nor old. Few of us can deny the hegemonic mode in our translations of other linguistic forms into our own. ‘Going native’ … is actually a very difficult thing to do. That is why I used to take comfort from a headstone in the cemetery outside the Hawaiian Mission Archives … ‘Sister Kate,’ the epitaph reads, ‘She Did What She Could.’ (124)

(1) Reading his discussion of this on page 46, I think he might be imagining standing on a beach, and having things wash up on shore which came from another island. Unable to go to that other island, we are unable to know what it is really like. But we can make some educated guesses, do our best, based on what has washed up. Documents and artifacts are all that remain of the past; we cannot visit the past, we can only know it from what few things have survived.

Read Full Post »

Jonathan Kay Kamakawiwoʻole Osorio, Dismembering Lāhui, University of Hawaiʻi Press, 2002.

Osorio’s account of the history of the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi, focusing particularly on the evolution of the constitutions and legal structures of the island, raises a number of rather thought-provoking issues. Essentially, he suggests that the key issue relevant to the history of the kingdom, or the lens through which we should understand that history, is one of gradual separation, or “dismemberment,” of the Hawaiian people from the traditional relationships of reciprocity they enjoyed with their leaders, through the gradual insertion of haole modes of running a government, or a state.

Whereas certain versions of the narrative of the fall of the kingdom, including that given in To Steal a Kingdom, present the Hawaiians as utterly powerless, and the haoles as single-mindedly, deviously, and selfishly engineering the kingdom’s downfall from the very beginning, Osorio presents a somewhat more nuanced view, looking at why the haoles did what they did, and why the Hawaiians went along with it. Osorio’s account also differs widely from Dougherty’s in that Osorio pays considerable attention to the Native Hawaiian perspective, informing the reader of Hawaiian attitudes, perceptions, intentions, and desires, while Dougherty’s account relates Hawaiʻi’s history exclusively through the lens of the haole perspective. In the 1820s to 1840s, we see the example of Christianity, which – among other reasons for its acceptance by the Hawaiians – seemed to provide a new set of prohibitions to replace the kapu (traditional systems of taboos) which had been abolished, and to thus, perhaps, provide a way to set right, or to make pono, the spiritual balance; many at that time are said to have seen the abolition of the kapu and of the traditional heiau rituals as having toppled the spiritual balance, thus leading to the smallpox epidemics and other difficulties faced by the people at the time. We also see the Hawaiian people, especially at that time but in later decades too, genuinely believing that some haoles were “good” haole, and that these people were genuinely bringing benefit to the kingdom through education, and through advising the chiefs as to constitutional government and capitalist economy (26).

The Nuʻuanu Valley, as seen from the Pali Lookout. Photo my own.

Osorio also explains how traditional understandings of the functioning of governance, and of the relationship between makaʻāinana (commoners), aliʻi (nobles), and mōʻī (monarch), informed Natives’ understandings and behavior in the new Western-style government of the 1840s.1 Osorio suggests that haoles, in becoming the chief royal advisor came to be seen as an equivalent to the kālaimoku, whose advice, given in secret directly to the king, traditionally superseded all other advice. Whether this was intentional, or whether the haoles even recognized or understood the association, is unclear. The aliʻi could present their suggestions, but if told this contradicted the advice of the kālaimoku, the aliʻi would then defer, without questions or challenges, as was traditional. Similarly, makaʻāinana petitions to the aliʻi were traditionally mere descriptions of conditions and expressions of desires, often in the form of requests for personal redress.

Makaʻāinana petitions to the legislature reveal considerable awareness and intelligence on the part of the common people as to what was going on in the government, how it affected them, and what policies they believed should be implemented. Once the petitions were submitted to the aliʻi for consideration, the job of the makaʻāinana representative was done; it was not his place, according to the traditional political thinking, to question or challenge the decision of the aliʻi, nor to argue for a side, nor to make a decision, but simply to present the petition and leave the decision up to the aliʻi; it was unthinkable, initially at least, for commoners to presume to go any further, to make decisions themselves, to challenge or oppose the decisions of the aliʻi. And, once these fundamental beliefs or conceptions underlying the traditional political structure of the relationship between the segments of society began to break down, and commoners were able to challenge and oppose the aliʻi, we are led to understand, the kingdom itself, as anything resembling its former political culture was essentially doomed.

Osorio’s narrative, and argument, rests largely on this notion of the gradual breakdown of the traditional political system, and of the traditional system of relationships and mutual responsibility, which left Hawaiians unable to rely upon their own nobles and kings for help, and left them at the mercy of haole desires and ways of governance. Step by step, they were alienated from understanding how their own government ran, and how they were expected to operate, or behave, as “citizens.” To many of the haole advisors, they may very well have believed they were bringing the Hawaiian people a better, more modern form of government, and indeed a freer and more democratic one. That the Hawaiian people proved unable to instantly, overnight, appreciate how to behave within this new system, was taken by many of the haoles as an indication that the Hawaiians were inherently, biologically, racially, less intelligent, or at the very least, simply not yet ready for self-rule. Seeing it spelled out here in the Hawaiian case, it becomes clear that this must have been quite similar to what happened throughout the world, giving birth to notions of the “white man’s burden,” and of the idea of colonialism as a civilizing mission – that imperial powers were there to rule the “natives” until they were ready to rule themselves – a time that never seemed to come. But, as Osorio’s account so brilliantly makes clear, it’s not that the Hawaiians were inherently less intelligent (of course), or that their minds were somehow shackled by feudal upbringings preventing them from shaking themselves free and realizing and embracing democracy. Rather, it is simply the fact – to which the haoles at that time were oblivious – that the Anglo-American system of government is a culturally particular system, that it requires thinking about things in a particular way, and articulating things in a particular way in order to engage in legal arguments. It was, simply, a different set of cultural understandings and practices, as foreign for the Hawaiians as the Hawaiian system was for the haoles. Aliʻi who were used to presenting their thoughts to the mō’ī and then leaving it to him to make his decision were not used to the idea of debates, back and forth, within a legislature, the idea of continuing to argue your position against a political opponent. And they were also not used to the concepts of “rights,” “property,” “citizenship,” and so forth which were now enshrined within their own Constitution. So they were at a serious disadvantage within their own government, a government now run based on haole ideas and ways of doing things.

Aliʻiōlani Hale, home to the legislature and other organs of government from 1873 until the overthrow. I realize now I don’t think Osorio ever makes it clear where the government was housed – his history is very much a legal history, not an architectural or urban one.

Osorio’s is a fascinating and compelling argument, and I have no reason to think it mistaken. However, if I were to level one criticism, or concern, one thing I do feel Osorio leaves unclear is how such a complex system of traditional political relationships and governance could have been so well-established, when the kingdom was only unified a few decades before the arrival of the first haoles. Back when the islands were not united, was there a mōʻī, and a kālaimoku, and a council of aliʻi who represented the interests of the konohiki and makaʻāinana of their respective ahupuaʻa in precisely this same way that Osorio is now presenting as the established, age-old, traditional system? Had Kamehameha lived 100 years earlier, I’d feel more comfortable with the assumption; had Osorio even just taken the time to address this concern, to reassure the reader that these systems were well-established, either from older times, or simply very thoroughly impressed into the popular consciousness very quickly, within these first few decades since unification, I think it would have helped. There are a number of books out there that focus more strongly on pre-unification, and unification, and while I do not know for sure what these books might cover, I wonder if they might help clarify this question.

In any case, returning to his argument, as Osorio explains, as the traditional respect for the authority of the aliʻi broke down, so too did the traditional system of reciprocal responsibility, in which aliʻi, konohiki, and makaʻāinana were responsible to one another for the productivity of the land, and responsible for one another’s well-being. In “freeing” the Hawaiians from what the haoles perceived to be “oppressive” “feudal” arrangements by establishing private property, Osorio explains, the haoles actually left the makaʻāinana (now called hoaʻāina under the kuleana system implemented after the Mahele of 1848) abandoned, and on their own, deprived of the systems which had helped ensure their welfare. The assertion by Richard Armstrong that

“If you now continue poor, needy, living in disorder in miserable huts, your lands lying waste … whose fault will it be? Whose but yours?”

rings far too true of Conservative ideologies widely espoused today, asking people to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. One can easily imagine Armstrong, or his counterparts today, simply standing and scratching their heads, dumbfounded as to why these people, given “freedom,” and their own land, are not spontaneously and suddenly productive and prosperous, as Locke’s notions of the “state of perfect freedom,” and classical economics notions of incentives say they should be. Possessing a mental block against the idea that people should have support structures, and against the idea that they have been deprived of what they need for success (in the case of the hoaʻāina, being deprived of the irrigation access and rights of fishing & other gathering activities on communal land they once possessed, and given, yes, some land, but not enough land to grow enough taro), and fueled by racist ideologies which sadly persist today, these people could find no explanation for failure but to think the farmers “lazy,” or otherwise racially/bodily/mentally incapable.

What’s frightening and disheartening and disgusting is just how similar – indeed identical – much of these 19th century haole attitudes are to fundamental aspects of our own American discourse today. These same logics continue to underlie our society today, and while I suppose they must have played some role in bringing our country to the greatness it is (or was), I cannot help but see them as terribly dangerous for our future. The history of Hawaiʻi, though quite widely generally seen as peripheral, marginal, in fact bears numerous parallels to developments today, which I think makes this history a powerful warning. (In my own words, but pulled out just for emphasis:)

The people petition the government, and the government, “bought” and in the hands of corporate interests, ignores the voices of the people. The government equates prosperity and success for industry and economics with prosperity and success for “the nation,” putting corporations first, and people second.

Certainly, the situation in the United States is powerfully different from that of Hawaiʻi in important ways – one of the chief ones being the matter of self-rule. Those who espouse these dangerous ideals and threaten our way of life today are not some foreign influence, bringing some foreign way of doing things, as was the case in the Hawaiian Kingdom, but rather they are our fellow Americans, of similar ethnic, religious, and/or cultural backgrounds to many of us, espousing ideals and systems of government that, far from being foreign, are indeed some of the ideals upon which our nation was founded – the very same ideals which were foreign to Hawaiʻi, and which brought its downfall.

Sympathetic as I am for the Hawaiian people, and angry as I am, especially after reading To Steal a Kingdom, at the greedy and self-righteous haoles for what they did in Hawaiʻi, Osorio actually presents a more sympathetic picture of the haoles than Dougherty or many others do, in seeking to understand why they did what they did, and why the Hawaiians allowed it to happen as they did. Sympathetic or not, I think that such an approach is crucial towards truly understanding why horrible things happen, and being able to recognize and combat such trends when they re-emerge. If we simply see haoles – and Nazis, and Japanese militarists, and American Confederates – as “evil,” it makes it far too easy to simply relegate them to some distant corner of history, to believe that evil is always easily recognizable, and that the only reason such horrible things happened in the past was because the people of that time were too stupid to recognize it, too weak to fight it, or were simply bad people themselves. We consider ourselves smart, strong, and “good,” and so distance ourselves from, and blind ourselves to, the possibilities that such things could happen again – and the possibilities that our own beliefs and actions might be contributing to such negative trends. By contrast, if we do not simply dismiss these people as “bad people,” and instead engage with attempting to understand why people support the causes and policies that they do, and the appeal and flaws of certain ideologies, we can get a better understanding of how a country falls into the hands of fascist, Communist, militarist, or otherwise destructive forces.

Such an approach raises all kinds of questions as to how we should think about American ideals and discourses, and how we act upon them. In the wake of reading these two books by Osorio and Dougherty, and amidst discussions about Citizens United, among other related subjects, I have less sympathy than I ever had before, to be sure, for corporate interests or pure profit motives. But, if I were living in a foreign country, and most especially if I had sworn an oath of allegiance and been granted citizenship of that country, would I not, too, want to see government address my interests? Would I not, too, at the very least, want to feel that I was safe from the arbitrary will of the leaders of that country? Both on a general logical, practical, and emotional level, and in drawing upon my understanding of the United States’ foundational (Revolutionary) anti-monarchical ideologies, I can understand why an American, or a group of Americans (and Brits and Frenchmen), who grew up with certain notions about equal protection under the law, protection even from the government itself which is also constrained by the law, would fear the arbitrary will of a King and his Nobles, and would want to see a system of law put into place to protect them. Indeed, I have these fears today, in my own life, in my own experiences, in Britain and Japan. If Japanese law enforcement accuse me of something, convict me of something, something I am either innocent of, or something for which the punishment is much harsher in Japan than it would be at home, of course I would wish for extraterritoriality, or want to call my Embassy. And this is precisely what these haoles do, in 19th century Hawaiʻi. Yes, there was also a very significant element of flat-out racism, the Orientalist and “white man’s burden” kind of racism that undergirded imperialism and colonialism throughout the world in that era, and there was in many cases unbridled greed for power and wealth, and I certainly do not mean to condone or excuse those motivations whatsoever. But, I guess in summary, it should serve as an object lesson that our ideals, even those which we think among the best of our ideals, can be extremely problematic and dangerous, and how a people can become constrained, indeed doomed, by their own laws, when law is given priority over justice, or over what is right. (Though, of course, there can be many differing opinions as to what is right on any given point, and it is this which the supremacy of law is meant to protect from. But, hence the dilemma.)

(1) Osorio uses the term “Natives,” and so I do as well, taking after his example. I appreciate the potentially problematic nature of using this term, as it is evocative of old Orientalist tropes of “the natives,” e.g. as in the phrase “the natives are restless.” As Osorio is a Native Hawaiian scholar himself, I feel it safe to follow his lead, to use the terms he uses as appropriate. Further, while it might be more precisely culturally accurate to use a term like kānaka ʻōiwi or kānaka maoli, I feel uncomfortable with the idea of granting myself permission to use those terms. It is, to be sure, something to continue to think about and wrestle with. If any of you readers are Native Hawaiian yourself, please feel free to let me know what you think. Mahalo.

Read Full Post »

While we’re still in the mood from yesterday of celebrating our own freedom and independence, let’s give a thought, maybe, to those whose freedom and independence was taken from them by this good ol’ US of A, and by the capitalistic ideals we hold so dear. In the next in my series of book reviews on Pacific Island history, I look at Michael Dougherty’s To Steal a Kingdom (Island Style Press, 1992). Together with Jon Osorio’s Dismembering Lāhui (Univ of Hawaiʻi Press, 2002), which I will discuss in another soon upcoming post, these two books serve as the chief sources of my personal understanding (thus far) of the historical narrative, and contributing forces & factors, of the decline and downfall of the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi. In this post, I focus almost exclusively on Dougherty’s book. I will address comparisons or syntheses of the two books either in my review of Osorio’s, or in an additional separate post.


As you might guess from the publisher (Island Style Press, based in Waimanalo, Oahu), Michael Dougherty is not a professionally-trained historian, and his To Steal a Kingdom is not a formal academic work. Yet, it was by far the most detailed history of the Hawaiian Kingdom I had yet read, and provides not only an informative, detailed account of that history, but also a biting critique of the attitudes and actions of haole missionaries & businessmen as he represents much of the kingdom’s history as a steady march towards greater and greater haole control.

Dougherty’s account is not so much a history of the kingdom, as a history of the white (haole) presence and influence in the kingdom. His treatment is based almost entirely on haole writings (e.g. diaries of businessmen and missionaries, as opposed to Hawaiian government documents, or materials otherwise from the Hawaiian point of view), and is organized into chapters taking prominent haole individuals as points of focus. Dougherty refers to many of the other Polynesian islands only by their English names, with no reference to native placenames (e.g. Easter Island with no mention whatsoever of Rapa Nui), and his treatment is somewhat Orientalist at times, describing the people of Tonga, for example, as utterly peaceful and “well-proportioned,” making no mention at all of the Tonga Empire. His treatment of the character, attitudes, and policies of the Hawaiian monarchs is also described largely based on the writings of haole businessmen and missionaries, and as a result is unsurprisingly often quite negative. He portrays Kamehameha III as a drunkard and as a weak king who was totally controlled by his haole advisors, and Kalakaua as a “sell out” to Washington (at least in some respects), in contrast to the rather positive impression of Kalakaua presented by Stacy Kamehiro. Yet, despite representing quite a few of the Hawaiian monarchs as being weak, misguided, selfish, and/or poor rulers, and despite his rather mainstream/Eurocentric/Orientalistic approach in various respects, Dougherty’s account of Hawaiian history is still one that is deeply sympathetic to the Hawaiian people, and villainizing of the haoles. I came out of this book perhaps angrier than any other history I’ve ever read, at the raw injustice of it. Jon Osorio, a Native Hawaiian scholar and head of the School of Hawaiian Knowledge at the University of Hawaii, whose book I’ll be discussing next, interestingly presents a more nuanced view of haole intentions.

Hotel Street, Honolulu, 1890.

Dougherty organizes the book’s chapters around individual figures, with one chapter for example taking Hiram Bingham as its focus point, and another Charles Reed Bishop.1 His narrative biographical style brings the history alive in a way more academic writing often doesn’t, making for a vivid and engaging read. However, nearly every chapter overlaps chronologically with previous ones, rather than following along chronologically, and the narrative frequently jumps far backwards, such that we are discussing the terms of the Constitution of 1840 on page 93, and the attitudes and decisions of Kamehameha III in 1832 on page 101. We are introduced to Hiram Bingham and the events of the 1820s-1840s in one chapter, and then to Charles Reed Bishop, and the events of the 1840s-1860s in another chapter, with the overlapping period portrayed in such a different manner that one might be led to think we’re talking about multiple different Hawaiis, or multiple different 1840s. In the hands of a more expert historian, such multiple perspectives can bring a fuller, richer, deeper understanding of the topic through the introduction of nuance and complexity; sadly, Dougherty’s narrative only manages to confuse. Though I myself have some considerable experience reading history scholarship, and negotiating complex and nuanced histories in my head, as someone who is learning much of this narrative for the first time – and even in revisiting my notes on this book now, in the course of writing this blog post – I still find it hard to keep it all straight. This is in large part because we have so much history packed into a relatively short period. It does not suffice to attempt to remember that Kamehameha III was the one who did X, because in 1832 he held one set of attitudes, and in 1840 another. Major changes and shifts pile up one after the other across a rather short time period in Hawaii’s 19th century.

Honolulu as seen from Punchbowl, 1890.

There are most certainly numerous places throughout the book in which Dougherty lambasts prominent haole figures such as Charles Reed Bishop and the Judd family. Some of the most scathing critiques come towards the very end, where he details the way the Judd family controlled large swaths of primary source documents & archives, and thus the historiography of the kingdom, asserting that this has poisoned, so to speak, most histories of Hawaiʻi written up until recently – something the historiography, he claims, is only just now (as of his writing, in 1992) beginning to recover from. Dougherty’s treatment of Charles Reed Bishop was particularly illuminating for me, as I had been under the impression that Bishop established Bishop Museum, Kamehameha Schools, and all the rest in his role as husband of Princess Bernice Pauahi Paki, i.e. that he did so in the name of the royal family, for the benefit of the Hawaiian people. And as such, it long puzzled me why I had been told that so many Native Hawaiians, and locals otherwise, continue to see Bishop Museum as a colonialist institution. Dougherty relates, however, that Bishop had been willed the estate lands for the term of his life – not for the life of his heirs. So he merely anticipated his death by turning the management of these temporary land holdings over to a board of missionary/businessmen trustees who, even to this day, reap enormous profits from their philanthropic ministrations to a few Hawaiian children (Dougherty 176-177), and further, that “without exception, to this very day these institutions all actively perpetuate the missionary/business version of Hawaiian history” (177, emphasis added).

Right: Charles Reed Bishop, largest bank owner in Hawaii, on par with Morgan, Carnegie, and Rockefeller. Institutions he established continue to dominate Hawaiian society and economy.

What becomes abundantly clear throughout Dougherty’s narrative is that, at almost every turn, haole missionaries, and in particular businessmen, manipulated the government for their own personal economic and/or political gain, or for the benefits of the broader haole community. And, dishearteningly, that even those who appeared the most loyal, supportive, and beneficial to the government at times turned against the kingdom and were profoundly selfish, destructive, and injurious at other times, with only a very few exceptions (e.g., seemingly, Walter Murray Gibson). These businessmen-types manipulated the government for their own gain in numerous ways, and very often in the name of doing what was best for the Hawaiian kingdom, and for its economy, often claiming that the native rulers were incompetent, even dangerously so, endangering the well-being of the kingdom, and of the Hawaiian people. To name just one example of this, we see Claus Spreckels buying up tons of land on Maui, which he plans to plant with sugar cane. Through various schemes, he expropriates Crown Lands into becoming his own private property for his sugar plantation corporation – i.e. for his own personal profits. He secures water rights from the king, and puts Hawaiians to work – backbreaking, low-paying, manual labor – harvesting sugar cane. He claims he is doing this for the benefit of the Hawaiian economy; in the terms of 21st century US political discourse, he claims he is “a job creator.” However, it is clear that his real aims are not to selflessly benefit the Hawaiian people or the kingdom, but rather to selfishly line his own pockets. It’s unclear precisely how Spreckels ended up at the end of his life, but Dougherty is sure to point out that Charles Reed Bishop’s wealth, some portion of it from usurious banking practices and a 26-year monopoly on banking in Hawaiʻi (138) at the expense of basically everyone around him, including the kingdom’s own coffers, placed him in similar company with Morgan, Carnegie, and Rockefeller.

Left: Claus Spreckels wearing many leis. Schemed to transform vast swaths of royal lands into his own private sugar plantations. I don’t think there is any mystery as to his motives.

However, two things unfortunately remain rather unclear in Dougherty’s account. The first, despite his numerous direct quotes from statements and letters by haole leaders, is just how genuine these haole leaders were in their feelings about their loyalty or allegiance to the kingdom, what they thought the kingdom meant or comprised, and in whether they genuinely felt they were benefiting the Hawaiian people. The haole leaders claim they are acting to benefit the economy, and the kingdom, and they claim that their loyalty and allegiance is to Hawaiʻi alone (and not to the United States or Great Britain). But, how much of this rhetoric is just rhetoric, deployed with consciously selfish and duplicitous intent, and how much of it is reflective of their genuine beliefs? To what extent, or in what ways, did they truly believe that this was for the benefit of the kingdom, and of the Hawaiian people, and to what extent a matter of bold-faced lying, blowing smoke in order to secure more power and wealth for themselves? Did they think of themselves as “Hawaiians,” and when they spoke of benefiting the Hawaiian people, were they talking about themselves? When they spoke of the need for haole advisers (i.e. themselves) to run the government, and convinced king after king that they brought a greater professional expertise and international knowledge that Native Hawaiian advisers would lack, were they being genuine, or were they consciously and intentionally being duplicitous? We get a powerful hint of some people’s true feelings at the very end of the book, in a quote by Reverend Sereno E. Bishop, who writes in 1896,

Is it not an absurdity for the aborigines … who are mentally and physically incapable of supporting, directing or defending a government, nevertheless to claim sovereign rights? It would seem that the forty millions of property interests held by foreigners must be delivered from native misrule (179).

Here we see haole rule justified, and native rule discredited, through a logic of boldfaced racism and the privileging of capitalist interests, which is strongly suggestive of the central logics of Orientalist thought (e.g. the white man’s burden, the civilizing effect of Western culture, the fundamental weakness, incompetence or stupidity of the non-Western races, etc.). However, in countless examples throughout the rest of the book, despite these countless quotes, the true attitudes and intentions of these historical actors remain unclear.

The funeral of King Kalākaua at ‘Iolani Palace, 1891.

The second aspect left disappointingly unclear is the attitudes and actions of the monarchs, especially Kalākaua and Liliʻuokalani. In The Arts of Kingship, Stacy Kamehiro provides a wonderfully vivid description of the ways in which Kalākaua (and his chief adviser, Gibson) aimed to revive Hawaiian culture, traditions and customs, and modes of knowledge, and to establish the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi as a respected, sovereign member of the international community of nations. In Dougherty’s book, however, we see the monarchs’ policies chiefly through quotes from haole leaders criticizing them. When these haole leaders accuse Kalākaua or Liliʻuokalani of being incompetent, of endangering the economy, of threatening the rights & freedoms of the haole community, or of pursuing policies which are, essentially, racist, which policies exactly are they referring to? And to what ends were those policies aimed, for what reasons?

Still, To Steal a Kingdom remains a densely informative, and indeed refreshing, look at Hawaiian history. That he starts with Polynesian voyaging, and touches upon the cultures and histories of a number of other island groups rather than beginning with Captain Cook, or with the reign of Kalākaua, is refreshing, situating the history as a decidedly Hawaiian one (even if the vast majority of the rest of the book focuses upon haole actors and draws chiefly upon quotes from haole sources). And Dougherty’s account is certainly not a hagiography of the Hawaiian monarchs. While Dougherty’s narrative is, overall, one deeply sympathetic to the Hawaiian cause, and powerfully critical of whites’ capitalist attitudes & actions – and, indeed, by the end of the book I was reeling with anger that this could have happened, and that this is so widely unknown – Dougherty does not always represent the monarchs in the most positive light. I have no doubt that many histories represent Kalākaua, and Liliʻuokalani in particular, in overwhelmingly positive ways, as fierce, determined, politically savvy, and wise leaders, as truly tragic heroes, tragic victims of the acts of a villainous haole community. In my limited time in Hawaiʻi, I certainly got the impression that there was a powerful sense of celebrating these figures, mythologizing them really, in a manner not entirely dissimilar with how mainstream mainland US K-12 education teaches us to regard the Founding Fathers of the United States: as larger than life supermen, some of the wisest, greatest leaders who ever walked the earth. Dougherty’s account, while disappointingly sparse on the details of the monarchs’ personalities, intentions, methods, and policies, nevertheless opens up the possibility that Kalākaua and Liliʻuokalani were not supermen, but were, perhaps, leaders of more average ability, and perhaps even seriously flawed in terms of their vices, or otherwise. Kamehameha III, in fact, is represented as profoundly weak, as a “Little King” “more often drunk than sober” (96) who was more or less completely complacent to the whims of his haole advisers.

Statue of Queen Liliʻuokalani outside the Hawaii State House, with ʻIolani Palace visible in the background. Photo my own.

Dougherty’s treatment of Kalākaua’s efforts to secure a pan-Pacific alliance or confederation as a ward against Western encroachments is also thought-provokingly unexpected. Where other accounts present this effort in a strongly positive way, as a consensual agreement between non-Western states, working together to help one another defend against the evils of imperialist conquest and colonialist exploitation, Dougherty represents Kalākaua as pursuing imperialistic aims himself, writing that Kalākaua, “not content to merely rule over the Kingdom of Hawaii, decided to expand his territory and become the sovereign ruler of the entire Pacific” (156). On this particular point, I am a little too attached to the more positive view. But, again, it does help us peel the wool from our eyes, helping us question our positions and interpretations, and to not blindly leap to defend, or extol, all Native Hawaiian leaders, decisions, actions, or practices. While most certainly wronged in one of the greatest injustices in American history, and while their haole advisors do seem to have been, almost to a man, utter scumbags of a most horrible sort, perhaps the kings and queens of Hawaiʻi were not the great, wise, upstanding leaders we might otherwise allow ourselves to believe they were.

All images except book cover & Liliʻuokalani statue are public domain images, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

(1) It’s kind of amazing how when you Google “Charles Reed Bishop,” someone who played a rather prominent role in the erosion of Hawaiian freedom, sovereignty, and well-being, while making for himself a personal fortune, you find tons of webpages celebrating him – mostly pages belonging to the institutions he founded – and then, when you finally find one that calls him “a criminal deviant, a PIRATE OF THE PACIFIC, pillager, parasite,” and you’re about to link to it, you find that page goes way overboard, calling him a “faggot,” and talking about New World Order conspiracies.

There’s certainly something to be said for the way wealthy and powerful institutions dominate the narrative through their prominence and their more authoritative-looking, more professional websites, and that just because a website is poorly designed, even poorly worded, the 2015 equivalent of a Geocities page, doesn’t mean this isn’t the voice of the people, the counter-narrative against those dominant narratives – in a sense, the corporate control of our society is a conspiracy, a thorough-going one so deeply embedded that we learn not to recognize it, or to question it. But, even so, the dichotomy is startling. Where are the more official pages, from the university, PBS, Hawaii Independent, or someone, telling the less hagiographic version of Bishop’s story? Perhaps I shall have to take the time at some point to write such biographies myself…

Read Full Post »

I will be going to New York for a couple weeks a little later in the summer, so expect more exhibit reviews at that time. But in the meantime, let us return to our discussions of Pacific Island history. Today, reviews / responses to a few different essays from Remembrance of Pacific Pasts (Robert Borofsky, ed.), which I introduced a couple weeks ago.

James Belich, “The New Zealand Wars and the Myth of Conquest”
Patricia Grimshaw and Helen Morton, “Theorizing Māori Women’s Lives”
Greg Dening, “Possessing Tahiti”

These three essays from Remembrance of Pacific Pasts, by Greg Dening, James Belich, and Patricia Grimshaw & Helen Morton, all deal in one way or another with the mythologizing of history in Westerners’ accounts, and the difficulties or dangers of attempting to understand historical events based on those accounts. Often, Westerners’ accounts are the only written sources we have on a certain topic or event, highly detailed and written in a style which purports to be objective. However, as these three essays discuss, these accounts are heavily colored by racial, national(ist), and other ideologies or attitudes of the day, and by considerable misunderstandings or misinterpretations of islander attitudes, intentions, or actions. Oral histories, among other forms, can help us attempt to reconstruct events or encounters from the native point of view, but these have their limitations as well.

Right: Hone Heke cuts down the flagstaff on Flagstaff Hill at Kororāreka, in 1845. Public domain image from a 1908 book, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

In “The New Zealand Wars and the Myth of Conquest,” James Belich describes how Victorian British attitudes about race and empire contributed to skewed understandings of the British wars with the Māori, both at that time (1845-1872), and down through the 20th century to today, in popular conceptions of the history. In particular, as he explains, the British narrative takes British victory as inevitable, downplaying or ignoring British defeats or setbacks, and emphasizing or exaggerating the extent of British victories. He points out that this was systematic, that is to say, thorough, in its impact throughout British understandings of these wars, but also that it was not deliberate or conspiratorial (261). Rather, this skewing of the narrative comes as a result of attitudes of the time. “Savages” were believed to lack higher mental faculties, and thus it was unthinkable, in the most literal sense of that word, to attribute British defeats or setbacks to tactical skill or strategic intelligence on the part of the Māori. As a result, various explanations or excuses were employed to justify Māori victories. One such technique was to exaggerate or simply over-estimate the numbers of Māori, following a logic that if the British were defeated, it must have been because they were outnumbered. In other words, they judged the number of opponents based on the outcome, rather than by any more objective count; when bodies were counted after a battle, it was often assumed that some additional number had been carried away from the battlefield, lost in a lake, or were otherwise uncountable (262).

Māori were also represented as part of the natural landscape, just one prominent element of a natural environment inhospitable to Europeans and which had to be tamed, alongside the flora, fauna, topology, and climate. Their strength was often attributed to animalistic or otherwise natural advantages; British accounts acknowledge Māori courage, but speak of the islanders as burrowing like rabbits, or possessing the ability to survive multiple gunshots to the head. Where islanders’ use of structural fortifications or thoughtful tactics could not be ignored, it was attributed to their borrowing or learning from European models, since it was believed that natives could not possibly think of such things on their own. Finally, in some cases, the British accounts simply scapegoat their own commanders, attributing British defeats or setbacks to incompetence on the part of the British commanders, rather than admit aptitude on the part of the Māori. It is unclear precisely what sources Belich draws upon in attempting to construct a more balanced or “objective” account of these events, including for example seeking more “accurate” numbers for the size of Māori forces, counteracting the exaggerations in the British accounts. Nevertheless, however, the idea that, in Belich’s words, “whatever their historical success, historiographically the British won the wars hands down,” helps us to understand at least one way in which the phenomenon of the dominance of “colonial(ist) knowledge” manifests itself.

Left: A Maori carving of Taranga giving birth to the god Maui. The carving a gift to the East-West Center from the head of a Maori delegation to Washington DC. Photo my own.

Patricia Grimshaw and Helen Morton, meanwhile, discuss Westerners’ accounts of Māori women’s lives and position in society in the early period of contact. Like Belich’s discussion of the depiction of native peoples as “savages,” a part of the natural environment (or natural history) of the place, and incapable of higher mental capacities, Grimshaw and Morton similarly present us with a familiar picture of Western impressions of non-Western women: in short, that they are oppressed by their native culture, that this oppression is a key sign of the oppressive and uncivilized character of that native culture, that women in Christian societies are freer and less oppressed, and that it is the Westerners’ aim, or obligation, to “rescue” these native women by bringing them “freedom” and “civilization.” Westerners’ accounts describe Māori women as quite outspoken and active in local affairs, including engagement in war councils and discussions and decisionmaking otherwise of the local community; women also accompanied men to meals and even on war expeditions. It seems it would be difficult, judging from this, at least from a 21st century feminist point of view, to argue that Māori women were particularly oppressed; yet, Westerners’ accounts emphasize their hard labor in the fields and otherwise (as if lower-class British women did not do heavy work), and in particular represent Māori women’s sexual promiscuity prior to marriage, and their supposed rapid loss of beauty and other youthful qualities following marriage as elements of a “degraded state,” and as signs of their oppression (282, passim). Grimshaw and Morton point out that this concern with women’s rapid aging and their “masculine” appearance and behavior does not reflect a genuine concern for women’s wellbeing as social or emotional individuals, however, so much as it does a preoccupation of many of the male writers with women’s sexuality. Women’s appearance is discussed as a measure of their sexual attractiveness to the white male observers, and is not truly a discussion of women’s health for their own sakes.

“The Natives of Otaheite [Tahiti] Attacking Captain Wallis the First Discoverer of That Island”. Date, artist, unknown. Public domain image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Greg Dening’s essay on “Possessing Tahiti” was of particular interest for me, as he describes the colorful and exciting events surrounding the first encounter between British sailors and the people of Tahiti, with particular attention paid to ritual performance & symbolic meaning, and to the question of Tahitians’ understandings or interpretations of these events. As the performance of political ritual is a central theme of my own research on Ryukyuan missions dispatched to Edo, Dening’s discussion of the symbolic meanings for both parties of particular actions and objects is of particular interest. As he describes, in addition to numerous other actions which took place during this encounter, the British planted a flag, as a performance of a ritual of claiming sovereignty, which the Tahitians then took and incorporated into their chief’s maro ura, a feathered girdle representing his own sovereignty or authority, and thus appropriating the British symbol for their own. In a sense, then, on some metaphorical or ritual level, both British and Tahitians had enacted the “possessing” of one another. I quite enjoy these sorts of interpretations of history, emphasizing symbolic discourses, as it adds layers of meanings, and brings events, acts, or cultural ways of being beyond the mundane, countering the view that political and economic concerns are the core of all that is “real,” and that much else is mere superstition. It is for these reasons that the scholarship of Timon Screech is also especially compelling, as he paints a picture of an Edo period Japan loaded with the kinds of added layers of meaning that make that time and place seem so much more romantic, colorful, and aesthetically or culturally infused than descriptions focusing on economic hardship, societal inequalities, and the more mundane details of economic logistics and political structures, would make it seem. Yet, at the same time, such “magical realist” interpretations can be a bit hard to swallow, at times.

I have already discussed the debate between Marshall Sahlins and Gananath Obeyesekere over whether the Hawaiians (mis)understood Captain Cook himself to be the god Lono. Dening’s discussion of a similar phenomenon in the encounter between the Native Tahitians and the crew of the HMS Dolphin is thus also of interest, as I attempt to gain an understanding, or appreciation, of Native Tahitians’ “metaphoric” view of such events. When the HMS Dolphin sailed into Matavai Bay, they were met by thousands of islanders in hundreds of canoes, who threw plantain branches into the water, danced provocatively, offered small gifts of food, and made sacrifices of pigs, before beginning to hurl pebbles at the British ship; imagining this to be an attack – that is, an attempt by the islanders to defend themselves or their island against the newcomers – the British responded with gunfire. Dening contends that this was not, in the Tahitians’ view, such a defensive action, but rather a ritual of welcoming, certainly coordinated and dramatized, and possibly invented for that rather novel occasion. Further, he suggests that the man identified by British accounts as possibly being some kind of “king of the island” was likely not a political or military leader at all, but rather an arioi, a special sort of priest of the god ‘Oro. Dening suggests, therefore, that all of this was seen by the Tahitians not as a defensive battle against a human “other,” but rather as an act performed for/against a god. He writes that “the arrival of the Dolphin was the occasion of another ‘Oro incarnation or materialization and all the Tahitian associations of sovereignty and sacrifice, of colony and coming from ‘beyond the sky,’ of alliance and title, were at work” (120).

Queen Oberea welcoming Captain Samuel Wallis. Engraving, 1827, as reproduced in Le Costume Ancien et Moderne ou Histoire by Giulio Ferrario. Public domain image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Dening does not say it outright, but I believe he is implying that the Native Tahitians perceived these events as both metaphorical and literal, at once. Dening does not explain out fully how this might have functioned, but I wonder if perhaps the Native Tahitians, while not seeing the ship or the crew as being the god, still saw the event as sacred, as being imbued with or accompanied by the god. It seems to me that the standard Western interpretation draws a dichotomy between either the ship or its crew literally being the god on the one hand, or the entire event being purely a profane (mundane) and non-godly event on the other hand; it is this latter scenario, and our literal, secular, view of things that leads into discourses of natives being naïve, foolish, and superstitious. How ridiculous that they should have thought Captain Wallis to have been a god! But, perhaps these two are not the only possibilities. Maybe the islanders recognized these Strangers for what they were – human beings from a foreign culture, hungry, thirsty, and violent, with all the very “real” political and economic implications that come along with human profane/secular encounters, while at the same time recognizing their coming as marking a special event, and in its specialness being accompanied by the god. If so, then the rituals performed before the Dolphin would not have been aimed at the ship itself, or its crew, but at acknowledging the sacredness of the occasion. This could, potentially, tie into the notion of the flag as a memento of the event, and as containing the mana either of the ship & its crew, or of the event, this unprecedented encounter and exchange with such Strangers (even without the Strangers themselves being divine).

Another popular misconception surrounding these types of encounters is the idea that the god’s coming was prophesied, and that the ship’s coming is mistaken for fulfilling that prophecy. Dening points out that no such prophecy is needed, and that indeed the sacred path of approach into the bay taken by the ship need not be considered sacred beforehand; rather, the event can be recognized as special, as sacred, in the moment, and mythologized as it occurs, lending new meanings and new sacredness to certain places (such as this path into the bay). The event and associated objects, actions, and places can also be mythologized afterwards, in the process of retelling it.

To sum up, all three of these articles point to the considerable ways in which our understandings of Pacific history, and the historiography upon we rely for those understandings, are deeply flawed, corrupted by Western biases. And all three suggest some ways forward, to begin to ameliorate the damage, reverse the discourse, and rectify the errors, by incorporating the Native point of view, or by at least attempting to account for and adjust for the fundamentally inherent biases of both the Western primary and secondary sources. Through these essays we learn much about the New Zealand Wars, Maori women, and the first British-Tahitian contacts, as well as the very significant issues in how these topics are understood, and how these types of topics, more broadly speaking – military history, women’s history, and first contacts & mythical understandings – might be approached.

Read Full Post »

I was planning on continuing on with my response posts on Pacific Island history, but writing about “Deep Kyoto Walks” made me want to skip ahead to Eiko Ikegami’s “Bonds of Civility.” Her socio-cultural analysis is really deep and interesting, but in the process Ikegami provides a wonderful image of culturally vibrant early modern Japanese cities, full of active intermixing of culturally engaged social circles. The sort of thing that still goes on, in its own way, in Kyoto (and Tokyo, and elsewhere) today, and I felt so lucky to get a brief glimpse of it, a toe in the water so to speak, during my brief weeks in Kyoto. And this is what Deep Kyoto reminds me of…

For the TL;DR crowd, in summary Ikegami’s book is a fascinating read on:
(1) the role of cultural/artistic social circles in forming a “public sphere” in early modern Japan
(2) discussion of the popularization and commercialization of the arts – no longer just for elites, poetry, ikebana, Noh chanting, etc. were now enjoyed as hobbies by common townsfolk, and were enjoyed in social circles and in paid-for lessons.
(2a) discussion of popular publications on the arts, incl. early modern versions of fashion magazines and teach-yourself guides to music, painting, and poetry.

Throughout much of the thirteen chapters of Bonds of Civility: Aesthetic Networks and the Political Origins of Japanese Culture, Eiko Ikegami examines various aspects or facets of the impact or implications of a single argument: namely, that social circles in Tokugawa Japan organized around artistic or aesthetic activities constituted “publics” or a “public sphere,” contributing to the construction of a shared public consciousness that spanned much of the archipelago and crossed status categories. Ikegami defines civil society as “a domain of private citizens that has a certain degree of autonomy from the state” (19), and argues that while the feudal structure of Tokugawa Japan, including strong shogunate & daimyō controls on political expression, and enforcement of status boundaries, prevented the development of a “civil society” such as might resemble that which first emerged in Europe, aesthetic gatherings such as poetry circles, within which people shed their status identities and engaged with one another through artistic/cultural identities in a relatively egalitarian manner, served this purpose for Tokugawa Japan, providing a space of social/cultural interactions largely autonomous, in certain important ways, from the state’s controls.

This was able to take place because of Tokugawa attitudes and practices regarding the realms of the “private” (私, watakushi). While the samurai authorities were quite wary of political associations, following after the ikki of the Sengoku period, and anticipating the destructive power of shishi groups such as emerged in the Bakumatsu, aesthetic groups such as poetry circles and ikebana clubs fell for the most part under the radar, so to speak, of the authorities. And so it was that some form of “civic associations” or “civil society” was able to take place within these aesthetic circles. If we think of these circles not individually but in aggregate, as prominent in individual’s lives, and as tightly and complexly linked through the interpersonal social networks of all their members, we can begin to see how such seemingly innocuous things as shamisen lessons can, in aggregate, constitute an entire “society” of amateur cultural actors unto itself, within or on the flipside of the “public” society – composed of merchants, artisans, farmers, fishermen, samurai – acknowledged, regulated, and taxed by the authorities.

“Karasuma Street,” a woodblock print by Clifton Karhu, depicting a row of machiya along one of Kyoto’s major streets, which, it is easy to imagine that 100, 200, 300 years ago, as well as today, may have been the site of any number of cultural social gatherings, a private space for the discussion of alternate “public” discourses.

This brings us to Ikegami’s interesting and important discussion of Japanese notions of “public.” Connecting in some interesting ways with Roberts’ twin concepts of uchi (the inside, private realms) and omote (official, outward-facing), Ikegami discusses how the Japanese concept of ōyake or (公, “public”) came, as in English, to conflate the meanings of both (1) open and accessible to all the people, and (2) controlled or owned by the government. The public thus became conflated with the authorities, as seen in terms such as kōgi (公儀, “public order”) and kubō (公方, “the person of the public,” i.e. the shogun as the embodiment of the public order), to which the shogunate appealed, in commanding everyone’s service to public order, and public interest. But, as the samurai authorities in the Tokugawa period left considerable autonomy to private matters (watakushi, related to uchi), these artistic networks were able to enjoy considerable autonomy, and to constitute between them an alternate “public” – a collection of “enclave publics” in Ikegami’s terms – within which the popular people’s attitudes, ideas, could be exchanged, and a “popular voice” could emerge.

These aesthetic social circles were further able to be seen as separated out “private” spaces because of the history of certain arts as being associated with spaces on the margins or outside of normal society, or even with connecting into the otherworldly. The spiritual ritual origins of Noh (for example), and its associations with the otherworldly, with liminal space and the transportation of the audience into a spiritual or dream realm or state, and the identification of performers/entertainers as being outside of the normal status hierarchies, is thus tied into this idea of performing arts as being outside of normal “public” society. Ikegami calls these arts “za arts” both because of an association of these circles with the medieval guilds known as za, and because they were practiced in zashiki meeting rooms. Later on, in the Tokugawa period, the commercial marketplace is added to these artistic spaces, as another major space belonging to the popular “public,” and existing somewhat outside of the discursive control of the authorities (the official/governmental “public” – or ōyake).

Detail from the 17th century “Night Festival of Tsushima Shrine” screen, held at LACMA. This takes place in Nagoya, and I suppose we could assume that most of these figures are preparing for the festival, or are on their way to the festival. But, this might stand in, if you’ll allow, for any number of other fûzokuga (genre paintings), in which we see the chaotic, vibrant, life of a city. Even regardless of the festival, how many of these people coming and going are members of poetry circles or ikebana groups, or are amateur hobbyist students of Noh chanting or kabuki dance?

In art history, as well as in early modern cultural history more broadly, we often touch upon the existence of artistic networks as we discuss the lives and activities of individual “great” artists; we know that the literati artist Ike no Taiga, for example, or the scholar Hiraga Gennai, were actively involved in many such circles and networks, through which they interacted with other artists and scholars. However, through Ikegami’s descriptions, we begin to get a sense of these circles and networks being much more widespread, much more pervasive, than we might have ever imagined otherwise. Not just poetry circles and kabuki fan clubs, but amateur Noh chanting, shamisen lessons, and ikebana groups, among many others, featured prominently, it would seem, in the cultural life of Japan’s major cities. One begins to get an impression of a lively, vibrant cultural scene, in which on any given night dozens (upon dozens?) of rooms spanning many of Kyoto’s city blocks were occupied with cultural activity – and through this cultural activity, socialization and interaction across status boundaries, building personal social networks through which political knowledge and consciousness spread.

Ikegami identifies the commercialization and popularization of the arts in the Edo period – that is, the shift of many arts from being chiefly elite pursuits to being more widely and popularly practiced – as playing a key role in the development of a widespread popular political consciousness, popular political discourse, and a collective notion of (proto-)national identity; this in turn set the stage, she argues, for a stronger, better prepared populace for the modernity which Meiji was to bring. This commercialization and popularization took place through in-person gatherings, meetings, and lessons, but also through a myriad of popular publications we normally do not hear about in either art history or intellectual history discussions of the period, including guides to Noh chanting, shamisen playing, and poetry composition, which made these arts more widely available.

Further, Ikegami argues, popular publications in general, in all of their myriad forms and contents, contributed to linking the disparate parts of the archipelago into a singular, unified cultural consciousness. Whereas Mary Elizabeth Berry, in her Japan in Print, focuses more narrowly on the popular imagination of “Japan” as constituted through encyclopedias, guides to famous places, guides to samurai houses, and the like – a Japan formed of the aggregation of the things described in these books – it is less so in Japan in Print and more so in Bonds of Civility that we see a strong, clear argument for books and prints (any and all books and prints) connecting people into a shared cultural discourse, and into a collective shared identity simply through having read the same books, being familiar with the same authors, artists, cultural referents and cultural practices (8-9).

Right: A woodblock print by Suzuki Harunobu, c. 1765-1770, in the Freer-Sackler collection. Three girls examine what appears to be a banzuke, a listing of either sumo wrestlers, kabuki actors, or courtesans. Perhaps this lists the upcoming season of kabuki performances or sumo bouts, or lists the “greatest” wrestlers, actors, or courtesans of the year. In any case, these girls share in cultural knowledge of, and fannish interest in, these things, just as we today share in celebrity gossip, scheduled concerts or events we’re excited about, or whathaveyou. And countless other people, across the city and across the realm, are reading this very same banzuke, and are connected to these girls in being familiar with the same cultural goings-on. Whether as “fans” or not, they are still in one sense or another members of a shared community.

Art is all too often dismissed as superficial or extraneous. But, whether for Japan in particular, or with potential applicability for other societies as well, Ikegami makes a powerful argument here for the importance of aesthetics, art, fashion, and popular culture in constituting spaces of popular consciousness and political discourse, contributing in an important way to the emergence in Tokugawa Japan of commoner discursive / cultural / societal prominence. As she points out, the segregation of the kabuki theater and the Yoshiwara to their own walled-off districts, though meant to separate them away from normal public society, resulted in each of these areas – to a certain extent, enclaves protected from direct shogunal interference – becoming pressure cookers or Petri dishes of popular culture. Fandom, publications, popular referents, and perhaps most significantly fashion, emerged out of these areas, functioning as a significant way in which commoners could construct and declare their identities. Fashion inspired by the worlds of Yoshiwara and kabuki quickly became quite influential among elites, reversing for perhaps the very first time the cultural flow (where previously it was elites who developed new cultural expressions, and commoners who adopted them in efforts to elevate their own cultural status); this may seem superfluous, but it is in fact profoundly significant, representing the cultural power of the commoner class, and of popular commercial culture. Even while commoners were still denied explicit voice in political process, we can now see how artistic circles, popular publishing, fashion, and the social rituals of the commoner districts combined to create a real sea change in commoner voice, influence, power, prominence, in certain other key cultural/social respects.

I wrote the above as a response paper, for my advisor, in December 2014, and have not altered it much in adapting it to the blog. I add the following, new, now, in June 2015:

In sum, this book is fascinating both for its overarching argument about “publics,” and for its content, at times, on certain subjects I have never happened to read up on elsewhere – e.g. kimono pattern books and the development of Edo fashion. In addition to this, though, I truly love this book for (a) the way it brings the cities of early modern Japan alive, inspiring images of cultural/social life of a city, constituted in the aggregate of countless poetry circles, shamisen lessons, and so forth. Who knows what goes on in back rooms across Kyoto, Tokyo, Naha, Honolulu, New York, and San Francisco today? Such liveliness, such vibrancy! And I also love this book for (b) the way it argues for the importance, the significance of the arts in social and political history. This is an art history which focuses not on individual works, or artists, or schools, movements, or styles, but goes beyond that to talk about the cultural life of the city more broadly, incorporating countless common dabblers and hobbyists, and paying little attention to the quality or meaning, or even content, of their artistic production. And yet it is still a cultural history, if not strictly speaking an “art history,” which argues boldly and oh-so compellingly for the vital relevance and significance of artistic and cultural activity to the history of the development and activity of social and political “publics” or “public spheres” – which might otherwise be dismissed by most historians as frivolous or peripheral.

Left: The upstairs room at Fukushima Shamisen, a shamisen workshop in the Higashi Chayagai of Kanazawa. Who meets and practices shamisen together here? What do they discuss? How did rooms like this one, and the “space” of the shamisen lesson, or group practice, serve as the site of political discussions outside of what might be said, and overheard, “in public”? How did rooms like this one, and the meetings and activities that took place there, constitute the social and cultural life of the city?

All photos are my own (with the exception of the book cover).

Read Full Post »

Katsuren gusuku. Creative Commons image courtesy Wikimedia Commons. I can’t find any good images of Ryukyuan warriors. But, the island wouldn’t be covered in high-walled fortresses if they didn’t have a long history of warfare.

I feel like I may have posted about this before, but I can’t seem to find it through a Search of my own archives. Well, it bears talking about again. As historians, the questions we ask, and even the answers we arrive at, are often more heavily colored than we might like to admit by the political mood of the present. In the 1930s-40s, English-speaking scholars of Japanese history, in light of the militarist Japan of their day, looked to the Tokugawa period for signs of how and why Japan was so totalitarian, oppressive, and belligerent. In the 1960s-1980s, as the present situation of Japan changed dramatically from its wartime character, scholars began to characterize the Tokugawa period not as backward, dark, and oppressive, but as a period of vibrant cultural development, and looked for elements of how and why Japan was proto-modern and proto-industrial during Tokugawa, setting the stage for positive, beautiful, modern development of the post-war period. But, while our characterization of the past will always, inevitably, be influenced by the political needs of the present, does that mean that we should embrace that bias and just go for it? Do we not have a responsibility to at least try for some kind of objectivity? Where there are elements that would be counter-productive for our political purposes, are we to twist or omit them? Or should we admit the history, whatever it is, as truthfully as we can, regardless of political motive?

This is an issue we face in the histories of most peoples, cultures, and regions, and perhaps especially much so in the fields of the history of Ryukyu, and of the Pacific Islands.

Rotuman scholar Vilsoni Hereniko writes in Remembrance of Pacific Pasts that

It will no longer do to claim ‘objectivity’ or ‘impartiality’ in the name of academic integrity. The researcher in the Pacific who is not committed to empowering the native people as they struggle to transform social injustices and inequalities is, ultimately, an agent of the status quo.1

Does all scholarship need to serve an activist agenda, or else be guilty of being part of the problem, i.e. perpetuating the colonialist status quo? Though I sadly cannot seem to find the exact quote (and if I do find it, I will add it in), I am fairly certain that elsewhere Hereniko writes essentially that scholars should not reveal or discuss anything that harms the indigenous position, anything that harms the activist agenda, for then one is being an obstacle, an opponent, to the indigenous people’s fight for rights and freedoms and equality.

Yet, how should this play out in terms of the activist element of Okinawan Studies, in terms of history working to support the anti-military, anti-colonial, efforts of the Okinawan people and their supporters?

A protest in Okinawa in Dec 2013. The sign on the left says “Don’t sell Okinawa’s soul!” The one on the right reads, roughly, “Dropping out on official [campaign promises] is a BETRAYAL of the constituency.2 The Liberal Democratic Party which sells Okinawa’s soul. RAGE.” Creative Commons photo by Flickr user Ojo de Cineasta.

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Okinawa, just as it also marks the 70th anniversary of the Tokyo firebombings, the Battle of Iwo Jima, the atomic bombings of Hiroshima & Nagasaki, and the end of World War II. As a result, there have been a great many articles looking back at these events, and at Okinawa today, as the protests against the US military presence continue. An article by Stephen Mansfield published a few weeks ago in the Japan Times, entitled Okinawa: In the crosshairs of war, is but one of these many articles. It is a fine article, like so many others, on the horrors visited upon the Okinawan people by the war, and on their continued burden down to the present. As the average American – and I would wager the average European, perhaps even the average Japanese in certain respects – knows little of this history, it is great to see articles like these bringing these matters to light. However, like many other articles recent and not so recent, Mansfield’s article quotes an oft-cited myth, namely that “Okinawans had no history of war, and did not make or carry arms. When told of this renouncement of militarism by an English sea captain laying anchor in Corsica, French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte is said to have been stupefied.”

The Ryukyu Islands, on a map at Pearl Harbor. Photo my own.

That Napoleon wrote or said this may very well be true, but as for the rest, it’s absurd. The Ryukyuan Kingdom absolutely did have a military history – it maintained a military, and fought to defend itself (albeit unsuccessfully) against samurai invaders in 1609, at the end of a century or so of Ryukyuan military expansion, as the Kingdom, centered on the island of Okinawa, sent forces out to incorporate both the Amami Islands to the north, and the Sakishima Islands (the Miyakos and Yaeyamas) to the south. The Okinawans encountered severe resistance on some of the islands, especially Amami Ôshima, and clashed with those same Satsuma samurai (or, to be more accurate, their ancestors) as they continued to move north, just at the same time as Satsuma was extending its influence southward into the Tokaras. So, the Ryukyu Kingdom absolutely had a military, and absolutely used it, in expansionist ways. Gregory Smits expounds on this subject brilliantly, in exciting and interesting detail in “Examining the Myth of Ryukyuan Pacifism,” an article in Japan Focus that I would put at the top of any “suggested readings” list on Okinawan history. In this article, Smits also touches upon the fact that the Ryukyuan people did not give up their weapons in the mid-16th century because they were declaring themselves a pacifist people (what nonsense. has any people in the world ever done such a thing?), but rather because King Shō Shin, known as one of the greatest kings in Ryukyuan history for building the strength and prosperity of the kingdom, confiscated everyone’s weapons in order to consolidate power under the monarchy, in order to guard against rebellion. Whether the origins of karate (unarmed combat, due to the lack of weapons) and other forms of Okinawan martial arts (often using farm implements or other everyday objects as weapons) in fact can be traced to this confiscation, or whether that’s a whole other can of mythical worms, I don’t know – martial arts is by no means among my specialties.

Right: Ryûkyû Segoku retsuden, on Ryûkyû’s own “warring states” history. Written by Uezato Takashi, one of the absolute leading scholars on medieval Ryûkyû – a truly quality book, despite the manga illustrations, which might lead one to think otherwise.

But, the point is, I first was introduced to Mansfield’s Japan Times article via the Facebook feed of an anti-base activist group. In case you didn’t know already, in case you couldn’t tell from some of my previous posts, I am very much a supporter of the anti-base movement, sympathetic to the Okinawan people for all they have suffered from the overthrow, annexation, and colonization of the 1870s onwards, through the war and down to today. And the myth of Ryukyuan pacifism is obviously a powerful tool for supporting the rhetorics of this activism – “not only have the Okinawans been terribly wronged, but they have always been a peaceful people, thus making the wrongs all the more wrong” – so the rhetoric goes. And its advantages for the activist position are obvious. But, whether as activist, or all the more so as a historian/scholar, this presents a problem.

Do we ignore Ryukyu’s military past, rewrite the history so as to pretend it never happened, in order to serve the exigencies of today’s concerns? Should history be so completely malleable, to be whatever we need/want it to be? Given that Japanese revisionism – refusing to acknowledge the degree of the wrongs committed against Okinawa, insisting that the deaths of so many Okinawans during the war was “group self-decision” [suicide] 集団自決 rather than “forced mass suicide” 強制集団死 – is something the Okinawans are fighting against, one would think that there might be opposition to revisionism more broadly. Let us not adhere to myths about our history which serve our agenda – let us figure out the actual truth.

For me, personally, acknowledging Ryukyu’s pre-modern military history does not hinder in any way my feelings that the Okinawans have been horribly wronged, and that they continue to suffer under an unfair burden (in hosting so many US military bases). One does not need to have been peaceful or pacifist oneself for one’s conquest, subjugation, and colonialist/imperialist exploitation by others to be a terrible historical and contemporary wrong.

But, that said, there is a dangerous and delicate tightrope to walk here. I feel strongly about this as a historian, and as an activist, and I should hope that many Okinawans and Okinawan-Americans agree with me. But as I discussed in the previous post, and will likely return to time and again, one must be extremely careful – and very much rightfully so – about ever seeming to be telling indigenous people they’re wrong about their own culture, or otherwise setting oneself (especially the white, cis, male, straight American) up as an “expert” over their own indigenous experts, and I’ll repeat myself, rightfully so, … and thus this presents quite the conundrum. I draw very much upon Okinawan historians in my work, and I intend to spend more time in Okinawa in the not-so-distant future, both working closely with these same Okinawan scholars and more generally immersing myself in the political and cultural environment and community, to get an even stronger sense of their perspectives, attitudes, and approaches. I feel justified, therefore, in moving forward with what I do, and I know I have the support of many Okinawan scholars and activists alike; still, in the fact of those who oppose this perspective, who am I to obnoxiously stand up and defend my position – any position – on Okinawan history, speaking as an outsider, against an insider? This will continue to be difficult, and complicated, and I guess I can only hope that I continue to see the kind of welcoming support I have thus far received from the Okinawan community, as I continue to attempt to navigate these political waters, and to contribute my support to the fight for Okinawan freedom, well-being, and cultural revival.

1. Vilsoni Hereniko, “Indigenous Knowledge and Academic Imperialism,” in Robert Borofsky (ed.), Remembrances of Pacific Pasts, University of Hawaii Press (2000), 88.

2. The word for “constituents” here is 有権者, a word that more literally means “people who possess the authority,” in other words rather directly speaking to the idea that power resides in the people, and that politicians must be subordinate to the public will.

Read Full Post »

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.

Arman Tateos Manookian, Men in an Outrigger Canoe Headed for Shore, Honolulu Museum of Art. Photo my own.

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.

From Claire Bishop, Radical Museology, 2014, p.21.

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.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,550 other followers