Lusting and Learning in the Periphery
There is a trend in historical research on colonialism to draw a connection between sexual desire, knowledge of colonized peoples, and power. In other words, imagining non-Western women as exotic and erotic is a direct product of the Western desire to dominate through power and impose our forms of knowledge—knowledge that will then further justify our power and desire.
I think they are on to something–but only to a point. Looking at myself, the connection between desire and knowledge is obvious. All of my loves have been foreign women—and all except one have been women from Asia. It is impossible to separate my lust to understand foreign cultures from my sexual and emotional desires. I can not imagine having a partner who grew up in the suburbs like me, can sing the same TV themes from the 70s and 80s, followed the same predictable school trajectory, and gets stressed about the same petty career issues as me. Boring! I want to know about lives different from mine, emotions that I have never felt and experiences I have never imagined. These desires led me me to obsessively read anthropology and history books for years. But those books were never enough. I needed to travel, flirt, fuck and make love. And lying naked in bed, hearing stories of childhood, looking out the window at unfamiliar scenery, learning of the people, ideas and ghosts that live there, feeling the pussy and smelling the hair of my lover and parter. . . . that’s as close to paradise as I’ve ever been.
But there is another dimension to the academic analyses: the power; the objectification and exoticization of foreign women; the implication that such relationships are about domination and submission; that love can not be part of the picture in conditions of hegemony and inequality. These implications do not hang so heavy over a relationship in which the woman has many years of Western-style education (I know less about the relatinships of Western women and non-Western men, so will not presume to talk about them). But they force their way in when she is uneducated, rural, different. Such relationships are never easy. They are even harder when these analyses nip at the corner of your mind, digging relentlessly for any guilt and self-doubt they can find.
But is such a relationship really any more colonial and ‘hegemonic’ than treating far away and less wealthy people only as unfortunates who need our help? Isn’t that the colonial project par excellence—to convince people that their lives are unfortunate, that they need to be educated, that they need our assistance, that they can not form regular relationships of love, lust and family with us but only relationships of assistance and receiving? Like the academics and international NGOs of today, colonial officials also did investigations, collected oral histories, expressed concern for lack of development, insisted that the lack of education was a problem, criticized local governments, tried to get people to work harder in more ‘moral’ occupations, and were critical of sexual relations across cultural borders (more about this last point in the next post). I can’t help but think that they (i.e. colonial officials, academics and NGO workers—and we should throw in a few businessmen and embassy workers while we are at it) wouldn’t do better if they traveled the world to make friends, fornicate and make families. Then the flow of knowledge and resources would really begin, only now as a two-way street.