Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The Imperial Gaze

“As for the rest of the category which cultivated
no sciences, they are more like animals than human beings.
Those of them who live deep in the north – between the
end of the seven climates and the confines of the habitable
world – have been so affected by the extreme distance
from the sun from the Zenith above their hands, resulting
in cold climate and thick atmosphere, that their temperaments
have become chilly and their humors rude. Consequently their
bodies are huge, their color is pale and their hair long.
For the same reason they lack keenness in intelligence and
perspicacity, are characterized by ignorance and stupidity.
Folly and blindness prevail among them as among Slavs, Bulgars,
and other neighboring peoples.”

From an 11th century Arab writer, writing at the height of the Muslim Empire, gazing down upon those other peoples in the North. That is, in present-day Northern Europe.
(Said al-Andalusi, Kitab Tabaqat al-Uman, taken from Szyliowicz’s 1973 Education and modernization in the Middle East)

A thousand years earlier, in present-day Britain, the Roman Pro-Council Agricola looks upon a map of the Empire’s newly conquered (and yet to be conquered) northern territories with one of his advisors. Agricola points to the map in the direction of the island of Ireland.

Agricola: Do we occupy it?

His advisor: No, we don’t. It is not worth occupying. The people are primitive. There are marshlands. We sent people to scout it out. Really, it is not worth occupying.

Agricola: I think this is where you are wrong, because an unoccupied land gives ideas to people who live in occupied lands.

(Tacitus’s account from his biography of Agricola, taken from Tariq Ali’s 2003 “War, Empire and Resistance” lecture at UC Berkeley, available in full at google video)

As Tariq Ali reminds us, up until the 18th century most wars were fought by empires or between empires. Empires self-sustain and self-destruct themselves, conquering newer lands to, as Agricola would put it, avoid giving ideas to those already occupied.

From the seat of Empire one gazes upon the others with feelings of superiority, and from the periphery intense rivalries wage between newly demarcated groups of conquered peoples.

Empires make wars, conquer lands and are governed by intense processes of othering. The others, even the most ‘backward’ of the lot, are forced within to play a role in a hierarchical system from center to periphery.

The intense hierarchies of our time are indeed not timeless, even though they may feel so. They are certainly not part of some amorphous “human nature.” Even if, as I heard argued recently, the Pharaoh’s show us a preferential system for lighter-skinned females! More than anything, the racism and marked inequalities of our times reflect the sickness and self-destructiveness of empire building.

1 comment:

  1. I didn't know those texts, thanks Marion for sharing them it's interesting. I specially like the idea behind all of this, again, the impermanence of the empires as well as our own:) It's comforting!