The OF Blog: Colonialism, Hegemony, and Fantasy

Monday, May 26, 2008

Colonialism, Hegemony, and Fantasy

I finally started reading the graphic novel presentation "update" of sorts to Howard Zinn's 1980 A People's History of the United States, called A People's History of American Empire. I'm about 1/4 in and while I would dispute some of Zinn's interpretations of the Spanish-American War (I think McKinley's reluctance to enter into war was more multifaceted than what Zinn presents in Ch. 2, for example), this is a provocative and nicely-designed popular history of the 110 year-old "American Century."

I am quite sympathetic to Zinn's arguments and have been ever since my undergrad days studying cultural and social histories of Europe and the Atlantic Triangular Trade. Found myself skirting closer and closer to bringing up concerns about hegemony while I was expressing some concern about a perceived "cult of the new" in a forum discussion, before ultimately deciding that it'd be best to discuss such matters here on this blog.

"Hegemony" is such an ugly word. It doesn't contain the harsh hideousness of brute force, as it involves the somewhat active consent and participation of the subordinate with the policies and even Weltanschauungen of the dominant socio-cultural group. It is insidious, following the guns only as a last resort, as it is preferable for its siren-like qualities to be established before the soldiers' footsteps are first heard.

While not often stated directly, worries about hegemony lie behind much of the protests against "globalization" in the ill-named "Third World" or "developing"/"emerging" lands. These protests take many forms. Some have put forth the case that the rise of Islamic jihadism is but the complex interaction between a rapidly-polarizing political elite (often seen as currying favor with the so-called "West"), an impoverished majority denied any real significant share in the new-found wealth, and the pervasive and often threatening "cultural invasion" of ideas and values that run counter to centuries of tradition. Many will argue that it is even more complex than that, but I suspect that perceptions of hegemonic takeover are driving much of the angst in that region (and in many others).

However, this blog is not my preferred place to go into detail about my political beliefs (I think one has sufficient evidence, based on my use of certain words, to have some vague idea at least). But when I was thinking about this, I couldn't help but remember a collection I read last year, edited by Nalo Hopkinson and Uppinder Mehan, called So Long Been Dreaming: Postcolonial Science Fiction and Fantasy. In this collection, writers of color address issues of land/scape and self/other perceptions via fantastical or futuristic milieu. One thing that I noticed that I rarely had stopped to consider (after all, hegemony is quite pervasive and persuasive!) is that of "discovery." Why is so little ever really said about the "discovered?" Were these people somehow "lost" before this so-called "discovery?" Is "discovery" a "good" thing? If so, then what is hidden behind the oft-fearful actions in SF stories in which humans are the "discovered" beings (well, in the relatively rare stories where this take places)?

I think the reversing or at least consideration of these questions in stories such as those by Hopkinson, Tobias Buckell, and Nisi Shawl (among many others) is part of the reason why I find their stories to be so appealing to me. I hold no truck with "progress" being equated with "goodness" or "advancement." While "development" is a much more neutral term, even there I hesitate to endorse such a viewpoint. Thoughts of hegemonic influence, however, frighten me on occasion. Perhaps it's because of what I've studied in the past or what I'm now witnessing with certain cultural elements from my homeland spreading out, but I just have such an antipathy towards such things. I suspect that this strong disliking might be a strong influence behind the sorts of fictions I most enjoy these days; stories of self-blinded empires teetering on collapse, individuals struggling to forge a new self-identity in opposition to pre-fab cultural norms, societies creating their own "performances" as a counter to the hegemonic influences.

But it's tough finding this in fantasy (or SF for that matter) fiction. One has to dig just a little bit more, since it likely is tougher to market such fiction that runs opposite of "feel good" stories. But I am certain that I have barely begun to scratch the surface. Perhaps others here can suggest some avenues for exploration?


Cheryl said...

If you've got So Long Been Dreaming then you already have a handle on many of the people who are writing this stuff - or rather are doing so and are getting published in the US. However, I can suggest a few white Western folks who have had a go at understanding the process.

Geoff Ryman's Air

Ian McDonald's Evolution's Shore and Chaga

Glenda Larke's The Heart of the Mirage

More will doubtless occur to me with time.

Lsrry said...

Sheree R. Thomas's Dark Matter anthologies are fairly close to this as well (I've read and enjoyed the first one). Ryman's book is excellent, but I do need to look into the others. Thanks for the list! :D

ThRiNiDiR said...

As close to a suggestion I can get would be Bank's Culture series, Hamilton's Night's Dawn trilogy or maybe even Steven Erikson's Malazan saga (in Midnight Tides this theme is this theme the most exposed, but is otherwise clandestinely present throughout the series).

From non genre reading...have you tried anything by Gramsci? I believe he actually coined the term hegemony.


Lsrry said...

Gramsci...that name sounds familiar, but it's been years since I systematically read in my old field, so probably not. I'll look into it in the near future, though.

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