23 July 2013

Thoughts from an Autochthonous Center

For approximately five hundred years, European civilizations subjugated or destroyed peoples around the world. By the 1890s, about 85% of the land mass of the earth was either a colony or a former colony of Europe. During the long period of conquest, Europeans developed an intensive and impressive body of ideologies to explain their success as the inevitable result of the inherent superiority of the culture and at points even their biology, although the expansion actually the result of military success. The psychological and social foundation of this period of conquest and colonization is found in the ability to coerce the peoples of the world to accept the rules by which European politics and ideologies claimed the power to determine what is legitimate about the human experience.

Other cultures have expanded and conquered, but none has expanded so far and so powerfully. At each stage of the expansion, European culture adopted new and more effective utopian ideologies which have proven powerful forces in motivating people either to support aggressive expansion and exploitation of others or to stand docilely in the face of such aggressions. The original utopia, the Garden of Eden, served as a model of coercive powers of the state.

During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Europeans justified the plunder of the Caribbean and Central America on the premise that Christianity was the "true" religion and that they were doing subjugated peoples a service by forcing them to it. At one point the Spanish decided that because they were purveyors of God's message to "new" worlds, they should be exempt from physical labor and other people should do all the menial work. This kind of thinking became the foundation of racism in the modern world. People who can convince themselves they have solutions to all humankind's problems tend to do whatever is necessary to effect what they consider the desired ends and are almost always the privileged beneficiaries of those ends.

European utopian visions have been used to rationalize a range of criminal behaviors including the enslavement of millions of Africans and the annihilation of entire American Indian peoples as the (sometimes) regrettable but necessary consequences of the construction of some kind of future state of human perfection. Sometimes these visions suggested that the state of perfection would be realized on earth, sometimes in heaven, but always Europeans imagined themselves as its agents. This led to a sense of America as a "high civilization" that would motivate the world's people's to democracy, and always there were historians who wrote history to conform to such ideologies.

During the nineteenth century and the early decades of this century there was an intellectual movement to identify and make the world safe for an idealized biological human. Scientific racism paved the way for an attempt to eradicate certain types of humans who were deemed biologically inferior from the face of the earth. These movements and a great many others created the context for what has been called the modern era. Since around the middle of the twentieth century, however, European expansion has stalled and its influence has declined.

European flags fly over fewer and fewer colonial capitals. Indeed, where Europeans once invaded the lands of brown and black peoples, today brown and black peoples emigrate in large numbers to European-dominated lands. African, North African, and Middle Eastern populations are established and growing faster than European populations in North America. The unchecked expansion of Europe and European populations that was the defining condition of the modern era, has ended. The world has now moved to an irreversible condition of postmodernity.


None of the movements that characterized the five hundred years of European expansion has disappeared, but recent decades have seen counter-movements which have caused Europe's utopian ideologies to be exposed, deconstructed, and in the intellectual life of the West, discredited. Post modernism, a movement which announces the abandonment of Western utopian ideologies, should be seen as a consequence of the halt of five hundred years of European expansion. It is an interesting phase of development of Western ideology that signifies not so much "the end of history" or even "the end of Eurocentric history" as the intellectual collapse of European ideologies constructed around utopian visions.

Post modernism and cultural studies seek to develop theory concerning the changing conditions, consciousness, and opportunities and the legacies that domination and exploitation have wrought. Kuan-Hsing Chan has stated that both discourses seek to "bring the repressed voices of history back into the historical agenda." Both share
(o)n the level of cultural politics... the attempt to decenter or decentralize politics and recenter "culture." But this does not mean that politics has gone. Quite the contrary, in both positions, culture is pervasively politicized on every front and every ground, hence a cultural politics. Both discourses conceive of cultural practices as collective; cultural politics is empowering and endangering, oppositional and hegemonic; culture is neither the "authentic" practice of the "people" nor simply a means of "manipulation" by capitalism, but the state of active local struggle, everyday and anywhere.
For the purposes of this discussion it may be useful to conceptualize "post modernism" and "cultural studies" as distinct discourses with similar goals. Post modernism, in this context, might be seen as the development of the theory of how the dominant culture dominates and might include literature that seeks to demystify and deconstruct those channels of domination. Cultural studies might be seen as the discourse about what must be conceived or constructed to replace and accelerate the demystification of the dominant ideologies. The "limits to what we are able to utter and conceive" are cultural in nature. The lived experiences of people in a culture are different from those of people occupying a distinctly different culture, and the more distant the cultures, the more different the limits.

More and more peoples are responding to the reality of domination on ways that can be echoed throughout the world. More and more indigenous and formerly colonized people are realizing that even after their colonizer has returned home, hegemony remains
through the body of British texts which all too frequently still acts as a touchstone of taste and value, and through RS-English (Received Standard English), which asserts the English of southeast England as a universal norm, the weight of antiquity continues to dominate cultural production in much of the post colonial world. This canonical hegemony has been maintained through canonical assumptions about literary activity.
Canonical hegemony has been maintained through a wide range of other disciplines as well. Very little of the Euro-centered canon can be considered non-hegemonic, value-free knowledge. Economics cannot make such a claim, and certainly not science and technology, not history, not literature. Within the framework of emerging definitions can be found strategies for escape from the cultural domination of the West, and in the emerging literatures and strategies that deny Eurocentered hegemony can be strategies useful to people in the dominant centers.

Philosopher Terry Eagleton has stated that it is possible to view dominant ideologies as factors that support the interests of the rulers and that such ideologies
help to unify a social formation in ways convenient for its rules; that it is not simply a matter of imposing ideas from above but of securing the complicity of subordinated classes and groups.
The idea that the process by which individuals in societies are socialized to "norms" and that the definition of "normal" is a political question was developed by post modernist philosopher Michel Foucault. Eagleton finds:
[I]n the view of Michel Foucault and his acolytes, power is not something confined to armies and parliaments: it is, rather, a pervasive, intangible network of force which weaves itself into our slightest gestures and most intimate utterances.
Lorraine Code, speaking from the perspective of the development of feminist theory, urged that this kind of thinking is unproductive:
there is no point in embarking on such an assessment unless one can assume that people can never intervene in their lives and take charge of the processes that shape them. Indeed, the idea of autonomous agency is appealing precisely because it promises maximum intervention and control. In its liberal articulations it appears even to eschew biological determinism and to offer individuals the freedom to make themselves what they will. Both Marxists and post modernists insist, however, that these are false promises, that choices are themselves constructed by sociocultural-economic circumstances in which people are intrinsically enmeshed.
According to Eagleton, Raymond Williams, one of the founders of cultural studies, strongly dissented from Foucault's theory:
Every social formation is a complex amalgam of what Williams terms "dominant," "residual" and emergent forms of consciousness, and no hegemony can thus ever be absolute. No sharper contrast could be found than with the later work of Michel Foucault, for whom regimes of power constitute us to our very roots, producing just those forms of subjectivity upon which they can most efficiently go to work.
Williams takes the view that resistance is always present, that the ideological constructs that serve to quiet the masses while the privileged few loot the planet are always under pressure and that the rulers are always "running scared." Eagleton states:
Williams acknowledges the dynamic character of hegemony, as against the potentially more static connotations of "ideology'"; hegemony is never a once-and-for-all achievement, but "has continually to be renewed, recreated, defended, and modified."
Both views, that of Williams and Foucault, are informative. Foucault's views are exposed to the criticism that they are not productive, but Edward Said was able to use Foucault as a model in his Orientalism (1979) in which he deconstructs a British academic discipline. In the social environment described by Foucault it is difficult to take advantage of the dynamics described by Williams toward the ends desired by Code because social change within the confines of Western thought and experience is a problematic. A problematic is "a particular organization of categories which at any given historical moment constitutes the limits of what we are able to utter and conceive."

Ideology and culture, in some contexts, have similar definitions. It is difficult to imagine a culture that has no ideology. A practical alternative to the kind of one-answer utopian ideology of the period of European expansionism is a pluralism that acknowledges many different versions of reality that are legitimate across a wide range of contexts. Pluralism proposes that a society incorporates or at least is open to sets of ideas associated with more than one culture. Pluralism makes sense of the world through interrogation and rejection of the idea that a singular discourse can have a monopoly on answers to what creates the conditions for the perfection of humankind, or that such conditions are even possible. This is accurate even though pluralism promotes discussion of its own definition, its rules, and its exceptions to its rules. It accepts not only that people experience the world in the context of a diversity of versions of existence, but that both social and extra-social realities arise from random convergences.


Postmodernism and cultural studies emerge in the context of centuries of practice of domination/subjugation, of "high culture/low culture," of the war of rich against the poor, white against black and brown, of top-down histories, and so forth. Both are positioned in opposition to domination and therefore both seek to support the reversal of conditions of oppression. In essence this requires the encouragement of channels of communication and invigoration of the powerless and at a minimum requires a politics that proclaims the right of everyone on earth to enough food to eat, enough clean water to drink, freedom from political repression, torture, and dictatorship. To encourage diversity of discourse, postmodern cultural studies must hear the ideas of communities of people distinct from themselves and therefore must promote the acceptance of divergent "voices."

This requirement raises an interesting dilemma. The very complexity of human societies places limits on how much a person from one society can know about the inner realities of people of a different culture. The more two cultures differ, the greater the limitations. If we assume that the practitioners of cultural studies are serious about re-empowering the powerless, that they are not simply seeking informants from diverse culture to expand the self-identity of a Cultural Revolution or a New Age, we must then expect that the new rules around "legitimacy" will respect the limitations of such ambitions. At the same time, some of the views of the culturally distant may help review some of the dominant-centered ideology of the West. Vandana Shiva, a woman scientist from India, finds science to be a Euro-centered ideology:
the parochial roots of science in patriarchy and in a particular class and subculture have been concealed behind a claim to universality, and can be seen only through other traditions - of women and non-Western people. It is these subjugated traditions that are revealing how modern science is gendered, how it is specific to the needs of impulses of the dominant western culture and how ecological destruction and nature's exploitation are inherent to its logic. It is becoming increasingly clear that scientific neutrality has been a reflection of ideology, not history, and science is similar to all other socially constructed categories.
All over the world European powers brought the children of their colonies to the Western education process where the propaganda of Western legitimacy was installed in the minds of a cultures of these budding local elites. When the Europeans finally folded up their flags and went home, they left behind cadres of elites socialized to the European discourses of power and these elites continue to act in the interests of the colonizers at the expense of their own poor.

Colonized peoples have three choices in response to cultural colonization. They can become "good subjects" of the discourse, accepting the rules of law and morals without much question, they can be "bad subjects" arguing that they have been subjected to alien rules but always revolting within the precepts of those rules, or they can be "non-subjects," acting and thinking around discourses far removed from and unintelligible to the West. Both "good subjects" and "bad subjects," although able to point to a process of struggle with their former captors, tend to impose the West's social conditions of domination and hierarchy which they learned from the colonizers upon their own poor and downtrodden. In a world composed of fewer than a dozen distinct civilizations (including the metropolitan West) plus 3,000 to 5,000 distinct indigenous societies, the range of possible experiences (other "voices") is very great indeed. These are the autochthonous peoples whom such luminaries as Arnold Toynbee wrote entirely out of human history. Much of what remains of the range of human potential for creating versions of reality exists in the framework of the arts, stories, oral traditions, music and other cultural manifestations of these peoples. Their lived and dreamed experiences are the world's richest sources of exploration of the human potential.

Gaining access to these experiences will not be easy. Not only are the voices of these distinct "others" remote, the channels of communication are practically non-existent. Few individuals from tribal societies write novels or history texts.

The people who represent these societies to the West are, almost without exception, those we can identify as cultural "marginals," people with considerable experience in two or more cultures. As the movement in support of cultural integrity and diverse cultural legitimacy gains momentum, it is logical that people who lay claim to being "non-subjects" of the West, people who are closer culturally and spiritually to the autochthonous centers, will increasingly support alternative (non-Western) discourses of reality that legitimate entirely unfamiliar stories and versions about how the world works. They can be expected to do this in their own languages using images not derived from the West, and under rules which even the most progressive people in the West will find impenetrable. They will continue a culture of resistance to the West which, in its forms of analysis and criticism, will provide some windows of cross-cultural understanding while maintaining and even strengthening the fact of "otherness." We have already begun to see this happening in the form of rainforest peoples appearing on American television to defend their homeland.

This process, surprisingly, embodies a possibility of resolving some of the dilemma which E. P. Thompson mentioned in The Making of the English Working Class and which Michel Foucault developed in Discipline and Punish. The processes of socialization that invade consciousness of class interest and create docile populations are in some degree absent in many of these cultures. The beneficiaries of hierarchy are always in fear that the subject populations will revolt and construct new non-hierarchical social conditions. These beneficiaries have for centuries constructed elaborated institutions to control and limit the possibilities of both thought and action, but they are vulnerable to movements that can challenge their legitimacy. We are at time and place in the intellectual history of the West when new theories about what can possibly be conceived and uttered within the West's discourses are being constructed and politicized. It's about time.

[This article was written by Yvonne Dion-Buffalo and John C. Mohawk. It was originally published in Akwe:kon Journal (Vol. 9, No. 4, 1992, pp. 16-21) and Cultural Survival Quarterly (Winter 1994, pp. 33-35) under the title 'Thoughts from an Authochthonous Center: Post Modernism and Cultural Studies,' and was recently reprinted in Thinking in Indian: A John Mohawk Reader (2010). John Mohawk, a Seneca Indian, organic farmer and captivating public speaker, was editor-in-chief of Akwesasne Notes from 1978 to 1983, which was then the largest English-language indigenous publication in the United States. He also served as the editor of Daybreak, a national Indian news magazine. Mohawk lectured in American Studies at the State University of New York at Buffalo and was director of the Indigenous Studies Program. Yvonne Dion-Buffalo lectured in American Studies at SUNY, Buffalo.]

1 comment:

  1. Free speech TV has an interview with John Mohawk in which he speaks about how the conquest of nature parallels the conquest of indigenous peoples.

    You can watch it at FSTV here.

    An article of his on the same topic is available here.

    ReplyDelete