On David Spurr’s “The Rhetoric of Empire”

“The nomination of the visible is no idle metaphysic, no disinterested revealing of the world’s wonders. It is, on the contrary, a mode of thinking and writing wherein the world is radically transformed into an object of possession.” (Spurr 27)

Picking up where I left off in my last post, I think the working definition of race that I suggested is still making sense. (Race: a construction of particular rhetorics, used for a particular end in a particular social realm.) While I do think the idea of race was originally put forth with nefarious intentions, I don’t think the common usage of the term today necessarily indicates ill will. This may be a topic for more exploration later.

Having read portions of David Spurr’s The Rhetoric of Empire before with a particular orientation in mind, I tried very hard to think of colonization and surveillance as applied to ethnicities, cultures, and/or “races.” My tendency, however, is still to think of colonization as applied to individual bodies, which is really a microcosm of those larger issues. I’ll try to address aspects of both in this post.

The first passage that caught my interest was Spurr’s reference to Derrida’s anthropological war. The question of whether two cultures can communicate with each other without doing violence is a very subjective one. Spurr tells us that violence begins in the act of naming or of leaving unnamed. For example, we can examine the case of the Cherokee Indians, whose name for themselves was something closer to chilo-kee. (Obviously even my representation of their name for themselves is situated within a hegemonic culture, as I’m sure their represenation of themselves in writing did not look like those English letters above.) The white settlers heard “Cherokee,” and so that is how this particular tribe came to be known (Haas, lecture).

A big problem with theories of colonization, as shown above, is that a theoretical model for the colonial situation is necessary in order for us to examine it. However, this in itself is naming and does violence to the culture being studied. Is there a way to conduct an ethnography or to enter a communicative relationship without doing some measure of symbolic violence upon the culture studied? I don’t think there is. However, the amount of violence done may be smaller if two cultures desire to communicate peacefully as equals than if they lean toward any of the other (much more common) possible relationships. And when a relationship is inevitable, the choice of the least amount of violence is still commendable.

Having established, though, that symbolic violence is inevitable, I think I should point out that not all meetings of cultures need to end in colonization. For example, Spurr’s definition of colonization as “a form of self-inscription onto the lives of a people who are coneived of as an extension of the landscape” would not necessarily apply to all meetings of cultures (7). In the ideal such meeting, symbolic violence would still occur, but two cultures could look at (gaze upon) each other with mutual respect.

The framing of the colonized people as being natural is an interesting concept to me because it is not one I have focused on before, and yet it certainly is important and undeniable. Besides the many examples Spurr gives us, I couldn’t help reverting to thinking of my own academic explorations and the many ways in which women are colonized. Certainly, women have traditionally been thought of as the sex more in tune with nature, while men are thought of as more given to expertise in science, technology, etc. We are definitley subject to delusions about our own importance, including the idea that human history is distinct from natural history (159). Spurr demonstrates a “universal binarism that derives ethical value from an entire series of polarities: the Orient vs. the West, southern vs. northern Europe, primitive vs. modern, nature vs. civilization” (160). Thus, we can see how colonizers normalize an obligation to civilize, to “free” a (subservient) race from the grip of nature.

It is interesting, as well, that colonizing forces endow “the savage” with power that cannot be overcome by force alone; it must also be overcome by myth and symbol (and metaphor). This is the reasoning for all the visible representations of colonization, including Spurr’s noted depictions of crowds of aimless people, characterized as “children” juxtaposed with men in suits from the “First World.” As such, it is the writers/authors/scholars who possess the most powerful tools of colonization.

(This nature/human binary also fits with the problems Spurr emphasizes in the relations of a colonial situation, including the notion of technological and economic advancement as a status indicator in the dominant viewpoint that cultures exist in binary relationships (6). To address the economic advancement argument in terms of my earlier male/female example, one need only search the concept to discover that most studies show women making about 77 or 78 cents for the same work that men earn a dollar for.)

Spurr also cautions us, though, not to concieve of power as a monolithic structure. The “writer” of a colonial discourse can be any voice of institutional authority or cultural ideology (12). Very often, because of the Panopticon-like gaze that the colonized know may be resting upon them, these voices of authority come from the colonized peoples themselves in hopes of assimilating, gaining power, or being a “model minority.” Thus, everyone is always a subject of a colonizing gaze, regardless of who is aligning themselves with the dominant power structure in order to do the gazing. “For the observer, sight confers power; for the observed, visibility is a trap” (16).

We even have systems for placing inanimate landscapes under the power of the speaker because they can be gazed upon (18). The idea of a golf course as colonized wilderness makes me wonder what is safe if the earth itself is subject to this dominant discourse? Certainly people are not, as evidenced by Spurr’s telling of the colonization of the bodies of both the male and female pygmy. I think the answer is nonexistent; anything can be colonized. “The gaze is never innocent or pure, never free of mediation by motives which may be judged noble or otherwise” (27). There is always a purpose or motive to surveillance/the gaze.


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