Smith (2012). Imperialism, History, Writing and Theory. (Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples.)

Smith, L. T. (2012). Imperialism, History, Writing and Theory. In Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples (Second edition, pp. 20-43). Dunedin: Otago University Press.

“In this chapter the intention is to discuss and contextualize four concepts which are often present (though not necessarily clearly visible) in the ways in which the ideas of indigenous peoples are articulated: [page break] imperialism, history, writing, and theory. … I have selected these words because from an indigenous perspective they are problematic. They are words which tend to provoke a whole array of feelings, attitudes and values. They are words of emotion which draw attention to the thousands of ways in which indigenous languages, knowledges and cultures have been silenced or misrepresented, ridiculed or condemned in academic and popular discourses. They are also words which are used in particular sorts of ways or avoided altogether.” (p 35-36)

[“Imperialism” (p 36) …]

“Columbus ‘names’ that legacy more than any other individual.2 He sets its modern time frame (500 years) and defines the outer limits of that legacy, that is, total destruction.3 … In the South Pacific, for example, it is the British explorer James Cook, whose expeditions had a very clear scientific purpose and whose first encounters with indigenous peoples were fastidiously recorded. Hawai‘ian academic Haunani Kay Trask’s list of what Cook brought to the Pacific includes: ‘capitalism, Western political ideas (such as predatory individualism) and Christianity. Most destructive of all he brought diseases that ravaged my people until we were but a remnant of what we [page break] had been on contact with his pestilent crew.’4” (p 36-37)

“The two terms are interconnected and what is generally agreed upon is that colonialism is but one expression of imperialism. Imperialism tends to be used in at least four different ways when describing the form of European imperialism which ‘started’ in the fifteenth century: (1) imperialism as economic expansion; (2) imperialism as the subjugation of ‘others’; (3) imperialism as an idea or spirit with many forms of realization; and (4) imperialism as a discursive field of knowledge.” (p 37)

“Hobson saw imperialism as being an integral part of Europe’s economic expansion. He attributed the later stages of nineteenth-century imperialism to the inability of Europeans to purchase what was being produced and the need for Europe’s industrialists to shift their capital to new markets which were secure. Imperialism was the system of control which secured the markets and capital investments. Colonialism facilitated this expansion by ensuring that there was European control, which necessarily meant securing and subjugating the indigenous populations.” (p 37)

“The way arguments are framed, the way dissent is controlled, the way settlements are made, while certainly drawing from international precedents, are also situated within a more localized discursive field.” (p 38)

“A third major use of the term is much broader. It links imperialism to the spirit which characterized Europe’s global activities. … In this wider Enlightenment context, imperialism becomes an integral part of the development of the modern state, of science, of ideas and of the ‘modern’ human person. … [page break] … The imperial imagination enabled European nations to imagine the possibility that new worlds, new wealth and new possessions existed that could be discovered and controlled. This imagination was realized through the promotion of science, economic expansion and political practice.” (p 38-39)

“… a fourth use of the term has been generated by writers whose understandings of imperialism and colonialism have been based either on their membership of and experience within colonized societies, or on their interest in understanding imperialism from the perspective of local contexts. … The reach of imperialism into ‘our heads’ challenges those who belong to colonized communities to understand how this occurred, partly because we perceive a need to decolonize our minds, to recover ourselves, to claim a space in which to develop a sense of authentic humanity. This analysis of imperialism has been referred to more recently in terms such as ‘postcolonial discourse’, the ’empire writes back’ and/or ‘writing from the margins’.” (p 39)

“Europeans also needed to be kept under control, in service to the greater imperial enterprise. Colonial outposts were also cultural sites which preserved an image or represented an image of what the West or ‘civilization’ stood for.” (p 39)

“Globalization and conceptions of a new world order represent different sorts of challenges for indigenous peoples. While being on the margins of the world has had dire consequences, being incorporated within the world’s marketplace has different implications and in turn requires the mounting of new forms of resistance. … [page break] … There is also, amongst indigenous academics, the sneaking suspicion that the fashion of post-colonialism has become a strategy for reinscribing or reauthorizing the privileges of non-indigenous academics because the field of ‘post-colonial’ discourse has been defined in ways which can still leave out indigenous peoples, our ways of knowing and our current concerns.” (p 40-41)

[“On Being Human” (p 41) …]

“Imperialism provided the means through which concepts of what counts as human could be applied systematically as forms of classification, for example through hierarchies of race and typologies of different societies.” (p 42)

“Fanon argued earlier that the colonized were brought into existence by the settler and the two, settler and colonized, are mutual constructions of colonialism. … Some indigenous peoples (‘not human’), were hunted and killed like vermin, others (‘partially human’), were rounded up and put in reserves like creatures to be broken in, branded and put to work.” (p 42)

“The difficulties of such a process, however, have been bound inextricably to constructions of colonial relations around the binary of colonizer and colonized. These two categories are not just a simple opposition but consist of several relations, some more clearly oppositional than others. Unlocking one set of relations most often requires unlocking and unsettling the different constituent parts of other relations.” (p 43)

“As Fanon and later writers such as Nandy have claimed, imperialism and colonialism brought complete disorder to colonized peoples, disconnecting them from their histories, their landscapes, their languages, their social relations and their own ways of thinking, feeling and interacting with the world. It was a process of systematic fragmentation which can still be seen in the disciplinary carve-up of the [page break] indigenous world: bones, mummies and skulls to the museums, art work to private collectors, languages to linguistics, ‘customs’ to anthropologists, beliefs and behaviours to psychologists.” (p 44-45)

[“Writing, History and Theory” (p 45) …]

[“Is History Important for Indigenous Peoples?” (p 46) …]

“The negation of indigenous views of history was a critical part of asserting colonial ideology, partly because such views were regarded as clearly ‘primitive’ and ‘incorrect’ and mostly because they challenged and resisted the mission of colonization.” (p 46)

“1 The idea that history is a totalizing discourse.” (p 47)

“2 The idea that there is a universal history. … assumes that there are fundamental characteristics and values which all human subjects and societies share.” (p 47)

“3 The idea that history is one large chronology.” (p 47)

“4 The idea that history is about development. … Implicit in the notion of development is the notion of progress.” (p 47)

“5 The idea that history is about a self-actualizing human subject. … In this view humans have the potential to reach a stage in their development where they can be in total control of their faculties.” (p 47)

“6 The idea that the story of history can be told in one coherent narrative.” (p 48)

“7 The idea that history as a discipline is innocent.” (p 48)

“8 The idea that history is constructed around binary categories.” (p 48)

“9 The idea that history is patriarchal.” (p 48)

[“Other key ideas” (p 49) …]

“Intersecting this set of ideas are some other important concepts. Literacy, as one example, was used as a criterion for assessing the development of a society and its progress to a stage where history can be said to begin.” (p 49)

[Darwin? Homo sapiens ~200K years? –oki]

“The modern industrial state became the point of contrast between the pre-modern and the modern. History in this view began with the emergence of the rational individual and the modern industrialized society. … [page break] … The connection to the industrial state is significant because it highlights what was regarded as being worthy of history. The people and groups who ‘made’ history were the people who developed the underpinnings of the state — the economists, scientists, bureaucrats and philosophers. That they were all men of a certain class and race was ‘natural’ because they were regarded (naturally) as fully rational, self-actualizing human beings capable, therefore, of creating social change, that is history. The day-to-day lives of ‘ordinary’ people, and of women, did not become a concern of history until much more recently.” (p 49-50)

[“Contested Histories” (p 50) …]

“We believe that history is also about justice, that understanding history will enlighten our decisions about the future. _Wrong_. History is also about power. In fact history is mostly about power. It is the story of the powerful and how they became powerful, and then how they use their power to keep them in positions in which they can continue to dominate others.” (p 51)

[“Is Writing Important for Indigenous Peoples?” (p 52) …]

[Books or people? –oki …]

“Maori writer Patricia Grace undertook to show that ‘Books Are Dangerous’.21 She argues that there are four things that make many books dangerous to indigenous readers: (1) they do not reinforce our values, actions, customs, culture and identity; (2) when they tell us only about others they are saying that we do not exist; (3) they may be writing about us but are writing things which are untrue; and (4) they are writing about us but saying negative and insensitive things which tell us that we are not good.” (p 52)

“When I read texts, for example, I frequently have to orientate myself to a text world in which the centre of academic knowledge is either in Britain, the United States or Western Europe; in which words such as ‘we’, ‘us’, ‘our’, ‘I’ actually exclude me. It is a text world in which (if what I am interested in rates a mention) I have learned that I belong _partly_ in the Third World, _partly_ in the ‘Women of Colour’ world, _partly_ in the black or African world. I read myself into these labels _partly_ because I have also learned that, although there may be commonalities, they still do not entirely account for the experiences of indigenous peoples.” (p 53)

“Writing can also be dangerous because we reinforce and maintain a style of discourse which is never innocent. Writing can be dangerous because sometimes we reveal ourselves in ways which get misappropriated and used against us. Writing can be dangerous because, by building on previous texts written about indigenous peoples, we continue to legitimate views about ourselves which are hostile to us.” (p 53)

“This is one of the ironies of many indigenous peoples’ conferences where issues of indigenous language have to be debated in the language of the colonizers.” (p 54)

“Yet another position, espoused in African literature by Ngugi wa Thiong’o, was to write in the languages of Africa. For Ngugi wa Thiong’o, to write in the language of the colonizers was to pay homage to them, while to write in the languages of Africa was to engage in an anti-imperialist struggle.” (p 54)

[“Writing Theory” (p 55) …]

“The development of theories by indigenous scholars which attempt to explain our existence in contemporary society (as opposed to the ‘traditional’ society constructed under modernism) has only just begun.” (p 56)

“Theory can also protect us because it contains within it a way of putting reality into perspective. If it is a good theory it also allows for new ideas and ways of looking at things to be incorporated constantly, without the need to search constantly for new theories.” (p 56)

“Decolonization, however, does not mean and has not meant a total rejection of all theory or research or Western knowledge. Rather, it is about centring our concerns and world views and then coming to know and understand theory and research from our own perspectives and for our own purposes.” (p 57)

“In this [page break] chapter I have suggested that it is important to have a critical understanding of some of the tools of research — not just the obvious technical tools but the conceptual tools, the ones which make us feel uncomfortable, which we avoid, for which we have no easy response.” (p 57-58)

Selected References

  • 2 Sale, K. (1990), The Conquest of Paradise: Christopher Columbus and the Columbian Legacy, Alfred Knopf, New York.
  • 3 Churchill, W. (1994), Indians Are Us? Culture and Genocide in North America, Common Courage Press, Maine.
  • 4 Trask, H. K. (1993), From a Native Daughter, Common Courage Press, Maine.
  • 6 Giddens, A. (1989), Sociology, Polity Press, Cambridge. (cites J. A. Hobson, 1902).
  • 11 Fanon, Frantz (1990), The Wretched of the Earth, Penguin, London.
  • 21 Grace, P. (1985), ‘Books are Dangerous’, paper presented at the Fourth Early Childhood Convention, Wellington, New Zealand.
  • 24 Thiong’o, Ngugi Wa (1986), Decolonizing the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature, James Currey, London.
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