Jameson’s boredom, Orientalism, and the struggle for Cordilleran indigenous cultures

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by Roxanne Baeyens

Fredric Jameson, prominent cultural critic and philosopher, published an interesting article titled “Beyond the Cave.” Aside from exhibiting his Freudo-Lacanese writing skills (the article was published a few years before his The Political Unconscious, a work in which the influence of Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis is profound), the article also introduced to us the Jameson’s concept of “boredom.”

Jameson’s reconceptualization of the word “boredom” is not really different from its more familiar dictionary definition. However, he rehashed the term to accommodate Freud’s own concept of ‘repression’. According to Jameson:

The notion of repression is by no means as dramatic as it might at first appear, for in psychoanalytical theory, whatever its origins and whatever the final effect of repression on the personality, its symptoms and its mechanisms are quite the opposite of violence, and are nothing quite so much as looking away, forgetting, ignoring, losing interest. Repression is reflexive, that is, it aims not only at removing a particular object from consciousness, but also and above all, at doing away with the traces of the removal as well, at repressing the very memory of the intent to repress. This is the sense in which the boredom I evoked a moment ago may serve as a powerful hermeneutic instrument: it marks the spot where something painful is buried, it invites us to reawaken all the anguished hesitation, the struggle of the subject to avert his or her eyes from the thought with which brutal arms insists on confronting him. (Jameson 1988).

Quite succinctly, Jameson establishes “boredom” as a symptom of repression in the unconscious, a pathological reaction that may be an ‘x’ that marks the spot of a brutal act of repressive violence. For instance, a Manilenyo’s literal ‘boredom’ with a performance of traditional Kalingan courtship dance signals a symptomatic cultural phenomenon: the audience from Manila was ‘bored’ by the performance because his faculties of aesthetic appreciation for an alien art form was demonized and repressed by the larger cultural power which is strategically racist and ego-centric.  However, he suggests that:

that our first task is not to persuade ourselves of the validity for us of these alien or primitive art forms, but rather to attempt to measure the whole extent of our boredom with them and our almost visceral refusal of what can only be (to our own jaded tastes) the uninventive simplicity and repetition, the liturgical slowness and predictability.

This approach may seem to very inventive, and undeniably more practical than the popular cultural stratagem of “trying to understand/ respect other cultures” with a multi-culturalist/pluralist perspective. Rather than tolerating or even ignoring of our seemingly natural boredom with ‘alien culture’, Jameson tells us to confront it, interrogate it and dig up its roots.

Tourism as an industry: are we really bored?

A question that may be easily thrown to Jameson is the question of tourism. Specifically, ‘if dominant ideologico-political forces shape even our very own ‘tastes’ or preferences, then why is tourism an important industry in many Third World countries in Asia? If foreigners are bored and uninterested in alien or primitive art forms, then why is there a flourishing business in tourism in the Cordillera?” In fact, tourism is the one of the backbone ‘industries’ of Baguio.The practical reality of tourism seems to discredit the validity of Jameson’s thesis. Edward Said’s Orientalism, however, provides us an insight into cultural craze that seems to be gaining popularity (think about the New Seven Wonders of Nature, where the relatively unexploited Palawan Underground River was showcased for the global ‘tourism Red Light District’). Orientalism as a discursive power polarizes cultural realities into the Oriental and the Occident, two categories which are not thoroughly geographical but more ideologically constructed. In our case, tourism is a perverse fascination by the Occident (Europeans, Americans, even Filipinos who subscribe to the Orientalist mindset) to ‘discover’ the Oriental e.g. Kalingan courtship dance, to integrate the Oriental into the Orientalist system for it to gain civilization, recognition and identity.

On this stage will appear figures whose role it is to represent the larger whole from which they emanate. The Orient then seems to be, not an unlimited extension beyond the familiar European world, but rather a closed field, a theatrical stage affixed to Europe. (Said 1978, p. 63)

Clearly, there is no ‘boredom’ here, but there is Orientalist (and therefore colonialist) fascination with the exotic. What is repressed here are not the very qualities that Philippine indigenous cultures possess which qualifies their ‘beauty’, but the boredom itself. For example, a tourist’s fascination and desire to witness a Kalingan courtship dance personally is not an impulse to witness something beautiful, but a forced self-imposed attitude to ‘appreciate the exotic’ (“because getting a picture of me together with the natives is cool, or telling my friends I saw a native dance personally will make me look ‘well-travelled’ and cultured,” etc.

Hence, rather than a mere symptomatic “boredom”, it is more a dialectical ambivalence towards exotic-ized culture. In fact, the “tourist mentality” is something does not escape the indigenous peoples themselves, as Orientalism is not bound by race or class; it is a complex cultural phenomenon that victimizes every element within a said cultural discourse.

Interrogating Orientalism

Of course, Said’s concept of Orientalism is somewhat suspicious. Its mystical, transcendent nature makes it eligible to critiques of Foucault’s own concept of power. On Foucault’s amorphous concept of power, Robert Castell notes that:

‘the breadth of theoretical detours and the subtlety of analyses of situations close up around several simplified formulas, and the argument in the hands of epigones becomes repetitive: everywhere and always there is nothing but repression, violence, the arbitrary, confinement, police control, segregation and exclusion.’ (Castel, cited in Eribon 1991: 126).

Rather than subscribing to a fantastical ‘force’ such as that of Orientalism, would it be better to summon the spirit and transform the ‘Word’ into flesh? Despite Said’s assertion of the ‘worldliness’ of Orientalism, its focus on the discursive seems to blur its political edge apart from its theoretical incisiveness. Like many post-colonial and post-structuralists, it is difficult to glean a sturdy political programme from a theory which maintains the ‘complexity of struggle’, that is, the insistent assertion that all struggles (economic, political, ideological) should be accounted for equally.

DKK performing a street play on Session Road, Baguio City, from the Northern Dispatch

In the Cordillera, cultural groups like the Dap-ayan Ti Kultura iti Kordilyera (DKK) and its member organizations forward a program for nationalist, scientific, mass-oriented culture. However, despite the cultural nature of their work, the DKK engages in many economic and political struggles, mainly for the struggle for self-determination. According to their profile, the DKK strives to:

1.work for the promotion and protection of the cultural heritage of the indigenous peoples of the Cordillera, as an integral part of the Filipino culture and identity;

2. develop various arts and cultural expressions as tools for education and campaign in the Cordillera people’s struggle for self-determination;

3. provide a venue for interaction, exchange, support, and joint artistic and cultural productions among the different cultural and artists’ organizations in the Cordillera.

DKK’s orientation is a two-edged sword: first, it seeks to promote a cultural heritage against the onslaught of colonial culture since the Spanish occupation until today wherein culture is becoming commoditized in the scheme of the global capitalist system; second, it seeks to develop the Cordilleran culture as a mean towards self-determination, an anti-colonial stance catching the whole spectrum of the economic, political and cultural.

Hence, DKK seeks to engage in a wide range of struggles comprehensively by not focusing entirely on imperialism as a cultural phenomenon per se but on diverting its efforts towards the totality of imperialist experience (land-grabbing, militarization in the countryside because of mining interests, environmental issues, dissolution of indigenous culture, etc).

In contrast to Said’s statement that the ‘worldliness’ of Orientalism lies in the ideological construction of its realness via the tools of knowledge/power discourse (Orientalist/ European books, cultural mechanisms which create and affirm stereotypes), Jameson’s concept of ‘boredom’, however, laconic it is, seeks to address the very root of boredom, which can only be found in its material diagnosis, or its interpretative ‘master code’, which is History.

“Marxism’s ‘transcendence’ of these other methods [postcolonial criticism for instance] therefore does not spell the abolition or dissolution of their privileged objects, but rather the demystification of the various frameworks or strategies of containment by means of which each could claim to being a total and self-sufficient interpretative system..As to the final stage– in all poststructuralist critiques of interpretation– in which allegorical writing always presupposes some ultimately privileged form of representation– in the present instance, presumably, the representation of something called ‘History’ itself– we can assert here that it is precisely in this respect that a Marxist hermeneutic can be radically distinguished from all the other types enumerated above, since its ‘master code’ or transcendental signifier is precisely not given as a representation but rather as an absent cause, as that which can never know full representation. (Jameson 1979)

A nationalist, scientific, mass-oriented culture

It seems clear that the relation between the modes of production and the cultural superstructure is always dialogical. A consistent cultural movement, hence, is an organic mass movement which operates within and beyond the borders of the cultural struggle. Ultimately, a potent cultural movement then is one that recognizes the ‘complexity of struggles’, not in the sense that gives decisive importance to either culture or economy, but to a cultural struggle which comprehensively immerses and engages with the society from which the culture has sprung in the first place.

Eribon, D. 1991. Michel Foucault, (trans. Betsy Wing), Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Jameson, Fredric. 1998.  The Ideologies of Theory, Essays 1971–1986 vol. 2. Minneapolis:

University of Minneapolis Press.

Jameson, Fredric. 1979. “Marxism and Historicism.” New Literary History, Vol. 11, No. 1. US: John Hopkins University Press.

Said, Edward. 1978. Orientalism. US: Vintage.

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