Friday, August 11, 2017

Some Thoughts on Colonialism and Science Fiction

Within the context of the recent Hugo Awards, science fiction writer, Cixin Liu made the following comment, “If the aliens would like to attack us, they would never consider whether you’re from China or the U.S.”   The comment is obviously meant to reference a common humanity, one that spans the divide between two countries who have a long history of conflict.  It also implicitly references a common interest of Chinese and U.S. fans in science fictional narratives.  So, we’re all human, and we all like science fiction.  At the same time, it also mirrors a curious remark made by Ronald Reagan to an apparently perplex Mikhail Gorbachev during diplomatic talks.  Reagan evidently noted that the two countries would by necessity unite in response to a common Martian threat.  It should be noted that this narrative structure has been used in a lot of popular science fictional narratives to imagine a United Earth, from blockbuster movies to far more esoteric narratives.  But, does this basic premise hold up?  I don’t think so.

It operates on the premise of an alien attack that lacks any tactics, strategy, or any subtlety.  When we turn to the history of colonization, which these narratives from the time of H.G. Wells[1] have been referencing, we see a far different approach to attack.  Within those context, whether the destruction of the indigenous populations of the Americas or the colonizing projects in Asia and Africa, we see a process in which the colonizers make temporary alliances with local elites, create divisions within populations and exacerbate already existing tensions.  This process is intimately linked with the process of knowledge production and categorization. The enlightenment’s love of the construction of taxonomies and the process of the primitive accumulation of capital are profoundly intertwined.  Perhaps to put it more simply, the desire to understand through category is not easily separable from a desire to control.  Within this process, knowledge production is not simply a reflection of existing conditions, but an active reshaping of those conditions, at times deliberately, at times accidentally.[2]

 So, if we look at India, for instance, we see an entire religious category, the “Hindu”, constructed out of a multiplicity of religious traditions that often overlap, but also often contradict one another.  These categories then are taken up by the populations themselves and often take a life of their own, for instance, in the form of “Hindu Nationalism.”[3]  We can see a similar process in the creation of the concept of blood quantum designed by the United States government to decide who qualifies for tribal membership or the construction of townships in South Africa.  In effect, colonial governance continues along the same lines as imperialist aggression, constructing an elaborate and hierarchical taxonomy of the governed population, creating divisions and rivalries built upon the always inadequate resources distributed by the colonial regime.  In that process, the categories constructed become lived experience for those who are classified under them.  After all, it defines what access they have to resources, education, and employment.  It also often constructs local elites whose power is enhanced by the colonial process, who are invested in the imperial government.[4]

This all adds up to a very elaborate way of saying that there is a very good chance that our future alien overlords may care very deeply about the differences between the United States and China, and further divisions that may in fact be deeply incomprehensible or meaningless to us.  I see no particular reason why an aggressive alien species that has clearly developed the advanced forms of military technology needed for such an invasion wouldn’t also be able to develop the same set of knowledge skills that allowed Europe to transform itself from a backwater into the center of the world system.

[1] War of the Worlds, First Men on the Moon
[2] Too many sources to be mentioned
[3] The basics of this get covered by Karen Armstrong in her book, Fields of Blood, but there’s a lot more scholarship on the topic, particularly on the part of post-colonial scholars.
[4] See Mahmood Mamdani, Citizen and Subject: Contemporary Africa and the Legacy of Late Colonialism, which this analysis borrows heavily from

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