Thursday, March 30, 2006
One finds a curious parralel between the displays of the powerful in early modern Europe and the Colonial Exhibitions in the period of Empire. These festivals of white supremacism showed off the wares, the ill-gotten gains of Empire (much like the British Museum does today), and often featured Human Zoos or "negro villages". The first such displays, fittingly enough, were actually associated with PT Barnum, the great exponent of the capitalist confidence trick. But they become very popular from the 1870s onward, particularly with the rise of 'racial' science. These zoos would feature wild beasts alongside Nubians and "Sami people" - offered as the subjects of Hobbes' "state of nature", wild, violent, cruel; and selected to accentuate difference, to suggest monstrosity and bestiality. Paris' World Fair of 1889 featured a village nègre, while the later Exposition coloniale of 1931 featured the "indegenes" in cages. Following the defeat of the Philippines by the United States, the World Fair in St Louis featured captured "primitives". Denmark, in its 1905 Colonial Exhibition sponsored by the bourgeoisie and supported by the Royal Family, featured "two negro kids" from Danish West Indies in cages - it was the most popular exhibit and saved the enterprise from financial ruin. London, Milan, New York, Barcelona, Hamburg - all the top fashion spots had one of these displays at one point or another. Brussels had one as late as 1958. The most recent of these exhibitions was held in Germany in 2005.
Thematically, the displays were arranged as dioramas illustrating the polyegenic hierarchy of 'races', in which the "vigorous sexuality" of the captives was of interest to the theorists of biological degeneration in the Occident; in which depictions of the 'monstrous' - dwarves, hunchbacks and albinos alongside "negroes" - served to reinforce the superiority of white, Occidental civilisation. Its liberalism, magnanimity, self-restraint, Christianity, altruism, piety, heroism, intrepidity, inquisitiveness and so on were instantly espoused by virtue of contrast with collections of 'genetic failure'. And since the Other is monstrous, bizarre, anomalous, the European (or more properly the Northwestern European and his offspring in the United States) is the norm - rather, because the European is the norm, the non-European is monstrous, grotesque, bizarre, subnormal, deserving of discipline, exploitation or extinction. Even a different species (so excluding them from the declaration that 'All Men are created Equal').
The de-legitimisation of direct racist discourse following World War II and the destruction of the colonial system has obliged the purveyors of pernicious, racist, Othering fantasy to become more sophisticated. A human zoo today is unnecessary to the culture of imperialism: why have cages when you have video frames, IP telephony, and airbrushed photography, infinitely reproducible (and reproduced) with only the slightest expenditure of energy? Whatever the racist immortaliser of Empire wishes to depict, he can do so with a bank of Google images, or with the services of a photographer or by paying Associated Press, or by contracting a squadron of cartoonists. But if there was to be a human zoo floated from London to Milan to New York, it might consist of a few hundred Muslims, Arabs, Africans, South American Indians. One could imagine the diorama - Muslims in various exaggerated states of beardiness, brownness, sexual repression, seethingness, wild-eyed fanaticism; Africans as comical or demonic dictators, pock-faced starving subjects gratefully receiving Western alms, tribalist (or Islamic) fanatics; South American Indians as an excitable but amusing brown rabble, occasionally given to selecting leaders whose expression and demeanour, because insufficiently domesticated and Westernised, is construed as bestial (One recent featured shot [on www.antichavez.com] showed Chávez as an ape on an F.B.I. "Ten Most Wanted" poster). The booty displayed alongside such zoos would of course be impressive (all the riches in the world, or almost all of them), and the supporting narratives would be supplied in the newspapers, the magazines, on the blogosphere, on television and in Hollywood, in postcolonial criticism and Anglo-American philosophy, in the Harvard histories and Chicago economics (Homo economicus is white, and bourgeois), in genomics and political science.