National ghosts and memory politics

Posted by Jennifer Lawn on September 12, 2008 in Dr Jennifer Lawn, Guest Blog tagged with

The issue I want to raise in this entry is whether nations can be described as haunted — or at least, what the political implications might be of applying gothic in this particular context.  Let me start with a bit of information about New Zealand race relations, which might not seem very gothic, but bear with me!

A small milestone passed recently.  The 2nd of September was the last day for Maori tribes to lodge claims for compensation for breaches of the Treaty of Waitangi.  This Treaty was signed in 1840, and it guaranteed Maori the rights of British citizens in exchange for giving up sovereignty (alternatively the signatories gave up the lesser right to govern — the interpretation of the differing versions of the Treaty in Maori and English is disputed). 

For a long time the Treaty was disregarded by colonial authorities, and Maori land was confiscated on all sorts of dubious grounds.  Lots of white settlers benefitted unfairly from this cheap supply of land, my own ancestors included. 

I guess that in setting a deadline, the present government envisaged a time when New Zealand’s messy racial history could be settled and put aside.  But in a way the opposite has occurred: the effort to set a boundary (when the past can finally be “over”) has ended up spawning more than 2,000 new claims that will bring to light yet more examples of racial prejudice.  The colonial past has become more present than ever.

The metaphor of exorcism is very tempting in this political context.  “We always knew that the dismantling of the colonial paradigm would release strange demons from the deep,” wrote Stuart Hall in 1996.  Now those demons can be called to light and sent packing with the appropriate symbolic actions.  In New Zealand this takes the form of official ceremonies including material compensation and an apology.  In 1995 our very own Queen Elizabeth II became the first British monarch to make an apology, at least in writing, when she represented the Crown in the settlement of the Tainui claim.

I feel uneasy about the exorcism metaphor, however.  It seems to envisage a time when all the disturbing aspects of history will be over.  It tends to imply, also, that today’s descendants of white settlers act innocently and in the best interests of racial justice, which is not always true.  It overlaps with another powerful narrative in contemporary Western society: the idea that bringing dark forces to light and talking about them is in itself a good thing.  And it’s not a metaphor, on the whole, that Maori themselves have used in describing their own sense of the past or hopes for the future.  [read an aside on my cautions about using the term “Maori gothic”]

In the Australian context, Ken Gelder and Jane Jacobs have taken a different angle by arguing that postcolonial politics are caught up in the mechanisms of the uncanny.  As I understand it, the uncanny cannot, in principle, be worked-through; Freud does not discuss it in a clinical context but rather as a generalised condition of the civilised psyche, a vestige of primitive forces against death.  So “uncanny politics” means a situation that can’t ever be resolved.  Gelder and Jacobs say that Aboriginal sacred beliefs act in a constant tug-of-war with white Australia’s secularism: the sacred creates effects of ‘enthralment, irritation, downright anxiety’ among white settlers (xiv).  To hope for reconciliation, they suggest, is to misunderstand the fundamental divisions that were entrenched when the nation was founded.

Since Gelder and Jacobs published Uncanny Australia in 1998, Australian race relations have been in foment over the stolen generations — the generations of Aboriginal kids who were forcibly taken from their families under government policies that were in force from the 1930s through into the 1970s.  The telling of Australia’s colonial past in the terms of personal and cultural trauma has become very marked and adopted as a national shame by the many white Australians who pressured the government to apologise, which it finally did in February 2008 under incoming Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.

[above image: detail of "The Taking of the Children" by artist Chris Cook installed on the Great Australian Clock, Sydney.Photograph by Brian Jenkins in 2004 and reproduced from Wikimedia Commons]

Bringing the nasty aspects of the past back to life is a political act, for people who identify with historical perpetrators and victims alike (these terms, too, are political).  But perhaps it is disempowering when that past is felt to swamp the living hope for action.  Being haunted by the past, as in occupied by it — not in a complacent way but not feeling overwhelmed by it either — might be the foundation for a postcolonial consciousness.

I’m curious to hear how the present force of the past plays out in Scottish gothic and Scottish nationalism.  Have metaphors of haunting been used to political effect?  Is there a “Scottish uncanny” lurking in the highland mists?  Is “postcolonial gothic” a term that you might apply to the old world in some situations?  Can you recommend to me any Scottish gothic books or films that raise the spectre of an unsettled national past?

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