Death by Disgust

In Tristles Tropiques Claude Levi-Strauss mentions a questionable but symptomatic cause of death for native population during colonization:

“In was used to be called Hispaniola (today Haiti and Santo Domingo) the native population numbered about one hundred thousand in 1492, but had dropped to two hundred a century later, since people died of horror and disgust at European civilization even more than of smallpox and physical ill-treatment.” (Levi-Strauss, 1974, 75)

We would frame it today as death from depression and stress, probably, but this kind of claim does not sustain a critique for the reason that it could not be supported with hard scientific evidence: there is no way to create a chart comparing numbers of people who died from smallpox and physical ill-treatment, to sum it up, and compare to the numbers of those who died of horror and disgust.

The reason why I remembered it, however, is the passage in Ruth Benedict’s Patterns of Culture which speaks to this Levi-Strauss’s fragment, even if in a roundabout way:

“War may be, as it was among the Aztecs, a way of getting captives for the religious sacrifices. Since the Spaniards fought to kill, according to Aztec standards they broke the rules of the game. The Aztecs fell back in dismay and Cortez walked as victor into the capital.” (Benedict, 1934, 31)

Unlike Levi-Strauss, Benedict does not ascribe here European white sensitivities to native populations, but her statement is questionable in a similar way because it seems to imply that Aztecs fell back in dismay not because they were overwhelmed with surpassing forces but because they encountered a fight which broke their warfare standards.

I have no doubt that the affects of the kind–such as disgust, dismay, repulsion, horror, contempt– took place and played a role in establishing a power balance in different regions, and in regard to those subjugated each of those affects was but another tool of obliteration.

Intimidation and fear are powerful weapons which lay at the core of terrorist strategies of conducting the war (and the word “terror” is fully embedded in “terrorism”).

I wonder what kind of research question might have been possible here. How exactly such affects shape social interactions and participate in the decline of native populations? This might be one way to look at it.

References

Benedict, Ruth. Patterns of Culture. Cambridge–Massachusetts, 1934.

Claude, Levi-Strauss. Tristles Tropiques. Translated from the French by John and Doreen Weightman. New York, 1975.

All Communication Is Simultaneously a Miscommunication: Is That True?



The Spanish conquest of Tagalog society posed the questions, in Rafael’s rendition, of history and translation, memory and circulation, conversion and confession.

He starts with a curious observation on the poeticizing of colonialism which was so deeply ingrained into the mind of colonizers they never relinquished it: "The Real Academia’s Diccionario de la lengua española defines conquista not only as the forcible occupation of a territory but also as the act of winning someone’s voluntary submission and consequently attaining his or her love and affection." (Rafael, ix)

In this context, translation is a means of colonization and of establishing the power narrative. Catholicism, with its "ideas of indebtedness and hierarchy" (Rafael, x), seemed to be a perfect instrument of colonization. For it to be successful, the new language had to be invented, namely "the institution of the new vocabulary for the social comprehension of death" (Rafael, xi).

The parallel to Benedict Anderson’s "fatality of linguistic diversity": "The element of fatality is essential. For whatever superhuman feats capitalism was capable of, it found in death and languages two tenacious adversaries. Particular languages can die or be wiped out, but there was and is no possibility of humankind’s general linguistic unification." (Anderson, 1983, 56)

To juxtapose it with Rafael’s findings, one might paraphrase: "for whatever superhuman feats colonialism was capable of, it found in death and languages two tenacious adversaries."

However, inasmuch as languages made it a struggle for colonizers, to subjugate people and therefore territories and resources, languages also presented a redeemable challenge. 

"Natives" employ linguistic means of resistance: "A distinctive Tagalog strategy of decontexualizing the means by which colonial authority represents itself" (Rafael, 3). But their history, in turn, is written by the superseding power. And not only the history during the colonial rule, but also the history of colonialism, is written by the colonizers and their descendants, and not by the colonized.

The spirit of "natives" is unbroken, however, which is evident in the scene when the man recognizes the dead hero of resistance in a madman enclosed in the nearing cell.* 

What makes a translation successful? How spiritual texts of Catholicism could be translated? The tremendous difficulty of the Herculean task is afforded the glimpse if we recollect Laura Bohannan’s telling piece "Shakespear in the Bush" where she described the perils of explaining the vicissitudes of Hamlet to the Tiv people in West Africa (Bohannan, 1966). By any means, to explain the Bible to Tagalog, or any other people, was no easier, especially meaning that this explanation should ultimately lead to them fighting Spanish wars, paying tribute, building churches (some of the duties named by Rafael), and otherwise serving their overlords.

So how does translation emerges in this situation and how does it function? Not only its functions are to convert, but also to build the understanding. "Siegel claims that translation arises from the need to relate one’s interest to that of others and so to encode it appropriately. Translation in this case involves not simply the ability to speak in a language other than one’s own but the capacity to reshape one’s thoughts and actions in accordance with accepted forms." (Rafael, 210)

On this path, not so much translation as mistranslation is happening: "Christian conversion and colonial rule emerged through what appeared to be a series of mistranslations. But in fact, as I have tried to demonstrate, such mistranslations were ways to render the other understandable. Each group read into the other’s language and behavior possibilities that the original speaker had not intended or foreseen." (Rafael, 211)

I think unintendedness, or unforeseenness is relative in the situation of successful colonial subjugation, and should not be overstated. The miscommunications happened, but as Wilhelm von Humboldt famously claimed, "All understanding is at the same time a misunderstanding… and all agreement of feelings and thoughts is at the same time a means for growing apart." Similarly, all communication is at the same time simultaneously a miscommunication. But the Marxist thought requires to look closely at the practice, and ask, whether the translation/communication/understanding was practically effective, or not.  
 


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*To digress, the trope of the undying hero, escaping either to lead a new, peaceful life, or impersonated by other people, is strangely evoking, given that we have many examples of its reenactment, such as a city legend of Michael Jackson, supposedly alive. Or, if we are seeking historic parallels, the figure of Yemelyan Pugachev in the Russian history and public imagination.



References

Anderson, Benedict. (1983) Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, London: Verso. 

Rafael, Vicente. (1988) Contracting Colonialism: Translation and Christian Conversion in Tagalog Society Under Early Spanish Rule. Durham: Duke University Press.

Bohannan, Laura. (1966) "Shakespeare in the Bush." Natural History. August–Semptember.