Wicked, Serenity, & Silencing Colonial Pasts
Right now I’m working on my comprehensive exams, which, in anthropology, involves a few big giant papers exploring some theoretical concerns that will be relevant to the eventual field research. My question has to do with looking at how anthropologists and their interlocutors have explored the silencing of colonial/imperial pasts. (to be finalized next week, fingers crossed)
On a related note, last month I rewatched Firefly & Serenity, and I came to realize that maybe the reason I like it so much (besides amazing space-cowboy-pirates, c’mon) is that it resonates completely with the big questions that seem to be at the root of my academic and organizing inquisitiveness. So I wrote a thing, teasing out those connections. I’m hoping it can be part of the introduction to my comp, maybe. Either way, it felt good to write it.
“Half of writing history is hiding the truth.” –Captain Malcolm Reynalds, Serenity/Firefly
“[Where] I Come From, We Believe All Sorts Of Things That Aren’t True. We Call It History.”
– The Wizard of Oz, Wicked (the musical)
Anthropologist Camilla Gibb describes writing fiction as a means for exploring truths that she was never able to express through ethnography—truths about her feelings and experiences during fieldwork in Ethiopia that when left unsaid caused her to become undone. Diane Nelson takes up the use of fiction within her anthropological work, exploring her theoretical concerns through a number of popular culture examples in her examination of Guatemalan postwar politics. She elaborates on the plots and implications of a number of popular films and television shows as “good to think with”, as helpful in allowing her to elaborate on arguments, concerns and theory. It is with this rationale in mind that I beg the patience of the reader as I briefly discuss two fictions that I believe will help to illustrate my theoretical concerns before diving into anthropological theory with respect to the production of historical truths and silences.
Fiction can be a useful tool for disrupting what we think we know, for illustrating truths inexpressible through other means, as well as providing us additional tools with which to think. It is with this in mind that I turn the Wizard of Oz, or, more specifically, to Gregory MaGuire’s retelling of this familiar story through the perspective of the Wicked Witch of the West.
Assuming you know the plot of the more familiar version of this story, I begin with questions. What happens we come to understand the happenings in Oz from the perspective of Elphaba? When we come to understand the Wicked Witch as not only the visibly marked (green), subversive (and wicked) Other, but when we come to know her name, feelings, actions, and motivations? What happens when we come to understand how and why it is that Elphaba and her comrades chose to rebel against the dominant order in Oz, or that they rebelled at all? As we read how Elphaba is slandered by those in power in Oz, how her perspective comes to be distorted, depoliticized, and erased, and her very personhood comes to be delegitimized—how does this affect how we understand the process by which a given history becomes the dominant history, and whereby another comes to be muted, or silenced?
Moving away from revised retellings of familiar childhood stories, and into the realm of dystopian science fiction, another example that helps to illustrate my theoretical concerns is that of Joss Whedon’s Serenity/Firefly. The crew of Serenity seeks to discover why it is that the Alliance has, through painful and nonconsensual means, experimented with and altered the brain of a brilliant young girl, River Tam, thereby turning her into a psychic, a potentially dangerous weapon, and leaving her psychologically scarred and fixated on something called ‘Miranda’. [SPOILER ALERT]. Official Alliance histories would have us believe that Miranda, a previously terraformed planet in the outer rim of the universe, had been abandoned due to war or some sort of natural disaster. The crew of Serenity, after a suspenseful and dangerous journey through Reaver territory to reach Miranda, discover otherwise. On Miranda they find a planet in which it appears as though everyone has simply laid down in the midst of their daily tasks, and have ceased moving, breathing, living. There was no war, no natural disaster.
Upon further exploration, the crew finds a recording left by an alliance official before her inevitable demise. In this recording, she explains how an official plan for calming and subduing the population has gone terribly awry. The Alliance had introduced a drug into the air supply with the intent of creating a more calm and compliant population. This drug ultimately caused 90% of the population to stop everything altogether—not just conflict and animosity, but breathing, living. In the remaining 10% of the population, the drug intensified aggression, turning the survivors into the sort of monsters of which myths are made. They became Reavers.
“Half of writing history is hiding the truth,” Captain Malcolm Reynalds observed as they set their course for Miranda, to discover the secrets the Alliance had been so intent on keeping through destroying River Tam and the rest of the crew of Serenity.
These examples are fiction, but in these stories, I see truths. These stories resonate with my own research concerns, and they remind me of processes on this planet that serve to mute, hide, or erase uncomfortable pasts while other histories are emphasized, and become dominant. I think of patronizing ideologies of colonial governing bodies that treat indigenous populations as dependent wards. These stories remind of me official interference with the bodies of colonial subjects. I think of experimental, biological, and pharmacological means of subduing troublesome populations in rarely spoken about histories on Earth. These fictions point me toward truths, truths that have little play in dominant histories in the places that I live, breathe and work. They illustrate the processes by which certain stories become dominant while others come to be silenced.
It is with this in mind that I turn to exploring how anthropologists and their interlocutors have examined processes by which imperial and colonial pasts come to be silenced. (in real life)
[to be written...]
 Dominant interplanetary governing body
 Small pox, tuberculosis, residential schools, enforced sterilization of Native women in Canada and the United States. All those experiments that make up what has broadly been termed ‘scientific racism’ on the bodies of black women. These are the examples that immediately come to mind, though there are many, many more.