quinta-feira, 21 de fevereiro de 2013

1492 Revisited by Nichloas Mirzoeff

Indeed, recent representations of encounter suggest that old attitudes die hard, as one would perhaps expect. In 1992, the quincentennial of Columbus’s encounter with the Americas seemed to mark a grand cultural anniversary. However, the insistent opposition of indigenous groups to the idea of celebrating their genocide (whether intentional or not), combined with the weakness of the projects created, turned the moment around. For example, Ridley Scott’s historical drama 1492: The Conquest of Paradise (1992) wanted to build on the success of his science-fiction classic Alien ( 1979). Throughout Alien heavy hints were dropped that the film was referring to colonialism, such as naming the spaceship Nostromo after a novel by Joseph Conrad. Scott even used Alien’s star Sigourney Weaver to play Queen Isabella of Castile.

Columbus was played by Gérard Depardieu, the French art cinema star first introduced to American audiences as a penniless green card seeker in the 1990 film of the same name. But, like so much of the Quincentennial “Celebration,” the film flopped (Shohat and Stam, 1994: 60—6). Columbus’s greatness no longer appeared secure in the face of hostile criticism from Indian and Latino/a groups. The parallel with Alien shows that the colonial metaphor is better dealt with cinematically in “space,” than in “time.” That is to say, colonial anxieties can be worked out if imaginatively displaced off the planet, whereas the historical film is always likely to raise controversy. Like many science-fiction films, Alien was able to play a clever double game with its audience’s emotions.

The film carefully established and normalized its mise-en-scene before introducing its alien so that it came to seem appropriate in context, a process that might seem unnecessarily slow to twenty-first-century viewers. In the 1960s, filmmakers allowed audiences some 20 seconds to recognize an image, whereas their 2007 counterparts set aside just two (Hayles, 2007: 191). This recognition persuades audiences to accept the illusion, not because the monsters are real but because they are both like other fictional monsters and other filmed images. Alien clearly wanted its audience to dislike and fear the monster with its machine-like relentless appetite for killing combined with the very animal-like dripping jaws it used for its slaughter. At the same time, the audience is encouraged to feel a more rational dislike for The Company, which used an android crew member in its effort to ensure that the alien would survive, rather than its own crew. Colonial enterprise is depicted as being as ruthless and unpleasant as the alien, allowing for a viewing pleasure that combined horror-style violence, the uncanny aspect of the ghost story represented by the “invisibility” of the alien, and a political message that seemed to combine anti-imperialism with a “strong woman” lead character.

If we think through the colonial parallel, however, the alien must represent the indigenous people, depicted here in familiar stereotypes of animal violence. At the same time, the dripping jaws of the creature are an almost parodic evocation of the male fear of castration, known to Freud as vagina dentata, the vagina with teeth (Creed, 1990). The suggestion that the alien evokes certain stereotypes of women and indigenous peoples is not meant to score points off the film makers as much as to indicate how when even sophisticated people turn to imagining what would be terrifying, it is hard to avoid the relics of the long colonial past.

Hollywood keeps returning to the subject of encounter in the hopes of getting it right and allaying settler guilt. Terence Malick’s 2005 film The New World makes it clear from its opening sequence that the viewpoint is always going to be that of the arriving Europeans. After a brief and mysterious scene featuring an indigenous woman, who will turn out to be Pocahontas, the titles show a European ship crossing a graphic composed of period maps and prints but no native work. When we move back into cinema, three ships are seen sailing up river to the sound of uplifting music. The sight of a classic British actor, Christopher Plummer, training a telescope on the land reassures the audience that this is Quality Cinema. A rustling, silent, mystified view from the woods of the arriving technological marvel that is the European ship at once sets the tone. The natives are so close to the earth that they are Nature, while the Europeans arc the corruption of Culture, coming to disrupt the Garden of Eden. Yet the viewpoint literally and metaphorically still belongs to the Europeans, as the natives peer from behind trees at the ships, while the captain surveys the land with his telescope and his maps.

As a guilt-ridden version of the 1492 plot, The New World literally did not know what to say for itself, reducing dialog to a minimum that was often close to parody. The film centered on the “romance” between Pocahontas, a teenager whose real name was Mataoka, and Captain John Smith that had already been better told by the Disney animation Pocahontas (1995), which is not to say that it is a praiseworthy effort. Smith’s overblown account of his life was better suited to cartoons. Although both films did take care to include sequences showing maize being cultivated by the Powhatans, Pocahontas did so before becoming involved with the contact narrative, while The New World waited until the violent conflict has been established. In science-fiction, the audience can consistently identify with the “humans” over the “aliens,” but in the colonial context the moral rectitude now appears to belong to “them” — that is to say, the indigenous peoples who experienced the violence of colonial conquest. But the target audience is still the EuroAmerican, required here to disavow themselves in order to enjoy the film.

When the performance artists Coco Fusco and Guillermo Gómez-Peña devised their 1992 performance piece entitled Two Undiscovered Amerindians, it was their intention to explore these forms of disavowal by means of satire. Their goal was to evoke colonial attitudes to indigenous peoples by presenting themselves as the representatives of a hitherto unknown people, the Guatinauis. By performing in a cage in “traditional” costume but with a variety of self-evidently modern props, like a television, books and a computer, Fusco and Peña intended to create a satirical commentary on Western concepts of the exotic, primitive Other; yet, we had to confront two unexpected realities in the course of developing this piece: 1) a substantial portion of the public believed that our fictional identities were real ones; and 2) a substantial number of intellectuals, artists and cultural bureaucrats sought to deflect attention from the substance of our experiment to the “moral implications” of our dissimulation. (Fusco, 1995: 37)

Rather than provide an opportunity for reflection on the colonial past, Two Undiscovered Amerindians became a means for sections of the audience to demonstrate how effectively they had internalized the colonial role.

Audience reactions to Fusco and Pena’s performance ranged from anger at the imprisonment of helpless aborigines to taunting and touching in explicitly sexual ways. Curators and critics responded by attacking the performers for their inauthenticity, as if it would somehow have been more appropriate to use “real” Amerindians in this context. On the other hand, the director of Native American programs for the Smithsonian Museum in Washington DC was troubled to see that audiences responded in exactly the same way to the satirical performance as they did to her carefully constructed events that were designed to be as “authentic” as possible. Fusco concluded “the cage became a blank screen onto which the audience projected their fantasies of who and what we are” (Fusco, 1995: 47). This attitude is what Octave Mannoni called the Prospero complex, alluding to Prospero’s domination of Caliban in The Tempest. Mannoni asserts that Western identity is now predicated on being able to claim such dominance of the Other. At the same time, one might ask whether the performance invited this dark vision of unworked-through colonial supremacy. The only ways to engage with the performers provided to the audience necessarily produced a “colonial” attitude. The “correct” response was perhaps limited to a knowing smile from the back of the room.

The all but impossible viewing of Two Undiscovered Amerindians suggests that the force of the encounters of “1492” is unresolved. It is noticeable that science fiction, a genre that deals with the encounter by displacement, has receded from cinema and television since the end of the 1990s. The once-dominant Star Trek series finally came to an end with the uninspired Enterprise TV series (2001—5) actually being cancelled by the cable network UPN. Perhaps it is now time to deal with encounters neither in the past nor the future but the present. One such moment came in an episode of the HBO series The Sopranos (1999—2007) that dealt with a New Jersey mafia “family” and the actual families it involved.

Led by Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini), a man proud of his Italian heritage and given to listing Columbus as one of his heroes, the mobsters intervene to break up a protest against Columbus Day (episode 42, “Christopher”). For the gang captain Silvio (Steven van Zandt) it’s clear that Columbus Day is “a day of Italian pride,” a sentiment shared by all, despite one objection that Columbus was from the North of Italy and so not really one of them, that is to say, Sicilian and Southern Italians. But when the New Jersey Council of Indian Affairs holds its protest, carrying signs declaring Columbus to be a mass murderer and slave trader, Silvio himself is to be found gambling — in a casino on a reservation. For the largely ignored legal existence of Indian land as sovereign nations has come into play in recent years as a space of exception within the territorial boundaries of the United States, allowing gambling and the purchase of tax-free items like cigarettes. In the present, this episode suggests, cultural heritage is less important than the opportunity to make (and gamble) a few in the United States dollars.

In: An Introduction to Visual Culture. London, 1999. pp. 55-60.

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