The OF Blog: Interesting article on "colonization"

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Interesting article on "colonization"

A few days ago, I read an article on The World in the Satin Bag called "'Colonizing Space' is a Dirty Phrase:  Stop Using It."  I almost responded then, but I wanted to think some more about the issues raised before commenting.  After seeing it mentioned tonight on Twitter, I think I have a better grasp at what troubles me about Shaun Duke's article.

First, I want to say that I want to agree with the motivations behind writing this.  The type of colonization he outlines is indeed a nasty, dirty business and what I am about to write is not by any means an endorsement of those brutish excesses.  However, the rhetoric is too strident and even dismissive for me to agree with the points being made.  Sometimes, one's heart can be in the right place and the problematic areas can be pointed out to some extent, but the complexities involved can be squashed down when the rhetoric becomes too heated and I believe this is what happened in this particular piece.

Yes, "colony" has some pejorative associations to it, but it is nowhere near the universally negative term that Duke states.  The word originates from the Latin colere and means simply "to inhabit, cultivate, frequent, practice, tend, guard, respect."  The earliest coloni were people from the earlier city-states who moved to "vacant" land (the issue is debatable, concerning some regions inhabited by pastoralists or hunter-gatherers) in order to continue the urban lives they knew before leaving for wider space and more opportunities.  While not totally benign (human movements are rarely so), it is not the wholly negative entity referenced in Duke's opening comments:

The term "colonize" is not neutral.  It's an impossibly negative term.  It immediately references an extensive socio-political, socio-economic, racialized, and vile process that still churns its wheels today.  Colonialism always was and always will be an exploitative model which privileges dominant socio-economic groups (I hesitate to say "Western" here, though it would be fair to suggest that colonialism benefits the West more than other colonialist groups).  

What he apparently wants to do is appropriate this term solely for the 15th-18th century massive population shifts (old colonization) and the 19th-21st century domination of large native populations by a small group of politico-economic power-elites from elsewhere (new colonialism), yet in trying to take one segment (albeit a quite visible and influential one) of a word's etymology and apply that to the whole, he already sweeping under the rug the older, less hegemonic meanings of the words "colony" and "colonization." (I'm aware of the biological aspects of "colonization" as well, but I'll let this parenthetical aside serve as admission of this element as well).

Duke continues, providing his own definition of colonization:  " To "colonize" is to subjugate, destroy, rape, murder, exploit, and so on."

Whoa, there.  It seems he has decided that he is going to take the most negative and horrific elements of a socio-economic system of a particular time period and apply it to the totality of human population migrations.  I have to question here if his passion got in the way of his intellect, as with that single sentence, there is the appearance of a curt dismissal of the transformative aspects of colonialism.  One might be pardoned if s/he is thinking at this point that Duke is coming close to a paternalist attitude of having to defend the besmirched colonized peoples' honors whenever that nasty "colonize" word is employed.  I do not believe for a moment that is what he means to do, but it can be rather insulting to some to see their own hybrid cultures, which are not clones of the mother country but which instead reflect the complex, myriad ways in which different ethnic groups acted upon one another to transform the colony into something that wasn't wholly a product of the purported motherland.  Perhaps I'm insufficiently Cherokee in my heritage to feel all the outrage conducted upon my people by my other people, the Irish colonists/settlers who moved into the Tennessee River Valley over two centuries ago.  All I know is that there was quite a bit of intermarriage and exchanging of foods, products, and ideas between the groups; exploitation certainly took place, but it was far from the only means of cultural interaction.

Duke's third paragraph continues his near-rant:

And so, when we use the term "colonize" to refer to things like human settlement in space, we are, in fact, playing into a socio-political game given to us by the Pulp and Golden Ages of science fiction (both of which were in the thick of imperialist and colonialist enterprises).  This game is one which attempts, intentionally or otherwise, to redefine colonialism so as to dampen its political implications, which is another way of saying that colonialism really isn't all that bad.  In effect, when we say we're going to "colonize space" we are trying to say something other than what the word means, which makes it possible to silence the collective history the term actually signals.  To put it another way:  our willy-nilly use of the term "colonize" is an extension of the colonial process itself, since you, in fact, are appropriating the legacy of colonialism for your own purposes.  There is a duality at work here:  the suppression of reality alongside the perpetuation of the old history that normalized such suppressive forces.

I could almost buy his argument, if it weren't for the fact that he has selected only one narrow interpretation of the word, with the apparent refusal to acknowledge the long-held other meanings that have been around even longer than the period he rails against in his article.  It's hard to "redefine" a term when it has had some of its associated meanings for thousands of years.  The part at the end is just ridiculous.  It's a specious argument that presumes one accepts the viewpoint of the author in order to dismiss counterarguments as being invalid.  Since there is no discussion of the complex transformative forces (the colonized, after all, were not passive victims but rather exhibited a spectrum of actions in regards to the settlement of a foreign body in their cultural/physical spheres), I cannot help but wonder just where the "suppression of reality" is taking place.

Finally we get to the space exploration part, which gets short shrift here:

The fact that to "colonize" cannot imply a neutral without playing into the legacy I've thus far described means we need to start thinking about human involvement in space within different terms.  "Settlement" would be a much more effective term, since it has always signaled a multitude.  Yes, to "settle" was always a part of the colonial enterprise, but it has also always referred to the process of settlement, which may or may not involve the settlement of spaces owned or occupied by others.  For science fiction, this seems like a perfect term to use, since the genre often imagines human settlement as encompassing the varieties of the old forms of settlement.  Humans in science fiction settle on uninhabited asteroids, moons, or planets, but they also sometimes colonize planets that don't belong to them, which is a kind of settlement to begin with (albeit, a violent form).

 Of course, "colonize" is not a "neutral" term; its functions imply transformations.  Duke's choice of "settlement" for an alternative is interesting, in part because some have argued that this word too has a hint of a blithe disregard for claims of others to land/resources.  Mind you, I think that argument too is rather belaboring the point, but it is worth noting in regards to the conclusion of an article that I think could have been better argued.  I think the issue of colonization is worth discussing, but it has to be done in good faith; dismissing or at least failing to acknowledge the complexities of the issue in a rush to boil it down to a single pithy quote that appropriates the worst excesses of one particular meaning of "colonization" for the whole weakens his entire argument.  Perhaps a better conversation on the topic could deal with how certain attitudes do not take into account the mixed emotions that several human groups have about the notion of setting forth to "conquer Space."  That might make for a true conversation on the topic rather than a screed which makes some of us who are sympathetic to most of the aims of Duke's article question its assumptions and methods of arguing his case.


Ian Sales said...

The word "black" is not neutral. Can we stop using it, and instead refer to things as "very very very dark grey"?

Same argument, and just as daft.

Incidentally, those Israeli houses built on land belonging to the Palestinian Authority, they're called "settlements". They're "settling" land that is not theirs...

mubashar said...

Thanks for this informative post.

Matthew Cheney said...

(I think my first attempt at this comment didn't post for some reason. If I end up commenting twice at once, my apologies! Feel free to delete the first comment, Larry, if it suddenly appears!)

I think there are interesting discussions to be had from your sentences on Cherokee/Irish ancestry and history, and from looking at the complexities of colonialism and not just the evils, plentiful though they may be. But I'm wary of engaging with that part of your post until you've had a chance to develop it.

However, I don't find the etymological argument convincing, especially in a science fictional context. People of the future who head off to other planets are going to associate words with the connotations of their own time, not the ancient past. "Colonialism" in our time, whether you like it or not, has a generally negative connotation for an awful lot of people around the world, and I don't see that connotation moving in the direction of becoming more positive -- just the opposite. So to use words associated with colonialism, imperialism, and empire in positive ways in an SF story seems to me lazy extrapolation, unless, of course, the shift in connotation is taken into account in the story's extrapolating (which could be interesting).

Shaun Duke is right that American genre SF came of age in a time of imperial ardor, but early SF was not just ra-ra jingoist in its sentiments -- Edmond Hamilton's "Conquest of Two Worlds" from 1932 is worth reading for anybody who thinks pulp SF was all about how much innocent fun colonialism is. Also worth reading is John Rieder's Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction.

And while I'm recommending stuff to read, Istvan Csicsery-Ronay's "Science Fiction and Empire" and well worth grappling with. Or, somewhat more tangentially, Octavia Butler's comments on why she came to dislike her novel Survivor.

Larry said...


For some odd reason, it posted your first comment as Spam in my filter. I'll delete it shortly.

I didn't talk much about my ancestry here because I want to say I blogged about it about 2-3 years ago. I'll do a search after work and post a link. I seem to recall it was about a sense of cultural loss associated with it, but my memory could be faulty here.

Oh, I agree with the notion that modern connotations of the word are getting more and more negative (just as the n-word has become even more virulent 150 years after the Civil War began), but I still think there are other usages that make it more benign, such as the biological colonization by a species. There just really isn't a suitable alternate, though, as Ian notes in his response. So much depends not on the words themselves, but on their connotations and the contexts in which they're used.

Rieder's book is good; do need to read the others sometimes (have read other works by them, though, so I know the likely quality of the evidence/arguments). Still think, however, stridency can harm arguments, which is why I'm sympathetic but not in full agreement with his post.

IZ said...

To anyone living in a society that experienced 'colonialism' in the previous century the word is hopelessly compromised and summons up exactly those images the author describes (rape, pillage, exploitation, etc.)

In that sense I have to agree with the author and disagree with you in that while I understand and appreciate what you are saying, I'm not certain how much an appeal to classical roots of the word will make any sense to those multitudes for whom this word has a negative connotation.

Societies have formulated their own 'national' and identity narratives around concepts such as resistance to colonization, etc. To expect them to allow the word to be conflated with positive concepts of settlement etc. is, well naive at best and insidious at worst in that it can be seen as another attempt by westerners to sanitize colonialism by sanitising the very words used to describe it.

I hope that makes sense. I'm sort of in a rush here and may not be making my point lucidly.

Larry said...

Living in a society in which a much larger scope of colonization occurred than that of the 19th-20th centuries (the American South), perhaps my take on it is colored by the wide variance of those effects. I did not say there were no negative effects, only that in claiming an absolute that fails to take into account the myriad interactions (there was much more than just resistance to colonization; there was an intermingling that took place where some natives did come out slightly better than exploited/raped) is a weak argument.

But to throw the word connotations back at some: since some want to reject "colonize" as too loaded for consideration, despite the wide usage in contexts that do not invoke two particular eras of European-led efforts, why should I find "settle" any less of a term? After all, one of my ancestral groups "settled" right on top of another ancestral group? Can I protest the loaded term of "settlement" that implies that there is nothing present at the time of that mass migration to a spot? Or is that too just as hypersensitive of a response?

There are no easy answers to this. The least negative term would be "migration," and even that is problematic in some ways.

Matthew Cheney said...

I've been thinking about the problem of finding a neutral word for what we use "colonize" as a shorthand for in SF stories, and I don't have a solution to that except that I think it's an interesting question/situation for an SF story, because the language we use for new endeavors in real life is pretty hard to predict -- sometimes it draws from pop culture (e.g. Reagan and "Star Wars"), sometimes a corporate name becomes generalized as the noun-for-all (tissue, band-aid) or gets verbed (to xerox, to google), etc. etc. etc. Who predicted smartbombs and smartphones (I could google it...), or the borrowing of a Czech word to name mechanical humanoids (robot) -- which were, actually, in Capek's original I think much more what we'd now call cyborgs.

You're right that "settler" is a complex word in relationship to colonialism -- in fact, there's been some great writing in postcolonial studies about settler colonialism vs. other types -- it even has its own blog. Or see the typically (for me, at least) fascinating Zunguzungu post "Post-Settlerism is Not and Would Not Be a Good Thing".

As I was trying to make inchoate thoughts more, uh, choate ... about all this ... I kept thinking there's something in the way Barry Lopez in The Rediscovery of North America and Samuel Delany in Times Sqare Red, Times Square Blue talk about "contact" that might be helpful ... but I'll be geewhallackered if I can bring it into focus for this discussion, so I thought I'd just mention it in case it's useful to somebody else....

Matthew Cheney said...

Oh, and I meant "kleenex" for "tissue" above. Writing too fast and in the midst of other things...

Larry said...

Interesting thoughts, Matt. I'm going to keep those books in mind, as I am beginning to feel an urge to dip back into the cultural studies I used to read when I was in my early 20s. One of the reasons why I keep trying to learn more languages is because I feel certain words we use are inadequate for certain forms of communication. I fully expect the terms of debate to change in the coming decades precisely because of the mutability in connotations.

All this reminds me that I need to read more Delany, especially his non-fiction.

Will said...

I agree with Larry. If you are writing SF for an American audience, the negative connotations of "colony" are not foremost in the mind of the average reader. Perhaps they should, but we are who we are - self absorbed & ignorant of the viewpoints of the rest of the world. For us, "colony" is associated with "Plymouth" - that mythical period of European immigrant/Native American harmony.

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