Few days ago I came across an eloquent and passionate article by Senel Wanniarachchi titled ‘On Sex, Tara the Buddhist Deity at the British Museum and Brownness in the Colonies’ —a piece that certainly demands to be read, a piece that contains touching personal reflections and thoughts that undoubtedly demanded to be written. Reading the article, I felt as though I was accompanying Senel, walking with him through the museum, passing my eyes from one object to the other, noting in dismay the innumerable acts of historic violence that underwrite the very possibility of present-day spectatorship. I greatly admire his article, and I am glad it is widely shared—I myself shared it on Facebook, and I hope more people will read it in the days to come. However, while agreeing with him wholeheartedly on certain issues, I have my reservations against certain ways in which the article is being interpreted, certain decisions Senel makes in the act of reading history, and I wonder where all of this ultimately leads us. This piece, therefore, is not a criticism per say, but few thoughts about how we can know, retrieve and interpret the past. My answer will be bleak: I claim that we cannot readily know the past. However, I argue not so much for an abandonment of history as such, but a reconsideration of how we can in fact historicise—a call to resort to a more speculative and less positive approach to knowledge.
I agree with Senel: most Museums are obscene—and none more so, perhaps, than the British Museum that (as he notes) aims to ‘collect the world’. And I believe his quoting of André Malraux—that ‘a museum has always been an artificial concept, a wrenching of objects not into context but out of it’—is most prudent. Museums display objects in a rather peculiar fashion. The objects themselves are wrenched out of whatever worlds they inhabit, emptied, and re-filled by the curating subject himself. Humans—human subjectivity—especially in its anthropocentric Man-vs.-World mode, is violent a priori. The very construction of this human subject depends on a taming of the Thing—a taming of unrestrained matter—so as to fashion for ourselves tools. This is the birth of the object. Museums bring this violence to a logical end. Objects are looted, wrenched out of their tamed worlds, broken again, emptied, prised out of history for History’s sake. Museums are, therefore, the ultimate homage to the human subject. Attempting to return Tara to her ‘home’ context is, as Senel points out, nearly impossible—but for me, this is not because we have changed after colonisation, not quite because we have become less accepting of her bare body, etc., but because our relation to objects is always already marked by a certain violence, a certain taming, and it would require far more than mere cultural sensitivity to do justice to the material world, to abide by the things around us, to abide by ourselves as things among things.
But I do of course acknowledge the importance of seeing degrees of violence, and ways in which certain expressions serve to legitimise or cover-up acts of violence. And I agree with Senel when he says that ‘[o]dd euphemisms are used to refer to how the artefacts were ‘acquired’ —‘governed South Asia’, not ‘colonized’, protectorate not colony, ‘suppressing unrest’, not mass killing’. This reminds me of the points made by Shashi Tharoor, a former UN official, against the British attitude of remaining unapologetic about its colonising mission, the grievous acts of violence—enforced starvation, looting, rape, genocide—committed in Asia and Africa, and the sheer lack engagement of Britain’s colonial legacy in British school curricula as well as public discourse. If Germany, for example, is condemned to eternal shame after the World Wars, forever apologetic of its wanton nationalism, for me at least, it logically follows that Britain should too. However, in any case, I do not believe that being sorry is the right attitude anyway. But yes, acknowledging that Tara belongs to a different context, a culture that had different views about sensuality and spirituality, a culture that cannot be objectively defined as inferior or in need of civilising, is absolutely necessary.
But that is as far as I am willing to go. Many of those who had shared Senel’s article over the past two days had resorted to a kind of romanticism, a kind of re-appropriation of Tara, a re-appropriation of the pre-colonial woman so as to make positive claims about both the present and the past. For example, consider this post, which says: ‘the pre-colonial woman was respected, she held positions of authority within society. She was able to roam relatively free’. Another Facebook status I saw recently made similar claims about the toplessness of Sri Lankan women in the past (the inference being that they enjoyed greater sexual liberty) and the current conservatism of the country which is obviously the fault of the colonising Victorian scapegoats. These claims are not well thought out. They rely on an ahistorical understanding of history—a decision to retain certain categories deliberately unhistoricised so as to serve contemporary aims. If we accede that the context of Tara is different in terms of sexuality and spirituality, we can by no means assert that the concepts of freedom and liberty are universally valid across time and space. Such ahistoricism (here I am referring more to the responses that Senel received, although Senel’s writing also betrays such tendencies) comes at the expense of remaining blind to pre-colonial forms of oppression—the relationships between toplessness and caste-oppression, the strong ties between polyandry and land ownership. Toplessness and polyandry can by no means be painted as ‘freeing the nipple’ and threesomes in order to portray pre-colonial Sri Lanka as a liberal utopia. Reading the past through contemporary categories results in us fashioning mental museums of our own, re-emptying objects, filling them with our contemporary subjectivities, mimicking colonial violence, and worse of all—regressing to an ill-conceived nationalism and romanticism that fails to see how various forms of oppression both colonial and precolonial are constantly reproduced—and certainly reproduced to-date within the larger structure of global capitalism.
This narrative of cultural war, this discourse about the clash of civilisations is based on false and naïve realism—a belief that we can positively know what it was like, a belief that we can positively say we were free before and frame an outsider or a coloniser for messing things up for us (we, who were but peaceful Lotus Eaters). However, what is really at play here is a correlationist trap. We have created Tara for ourselves. Tara and pre-colonial Sri Lanka with all its wonderful things is merely a product of our own subjectivity. In giving way to this fetishism what we have ultimately resorted to is projecting ourselves, categories and all, into the past, that is ultimately irretrievable in itself. The impossibility of retrieving the past, and the naïve belief against it that we can in fact co-opt it with ease is certainly an old issue that is not Senel’s creation—it is a much older antinomy; and it reminds me of a three-liner that I wrote last year after hearing that a certain History professor claimed that pre-colonial Sri Lankan women had no-strings-attached liberal-ish sex:
you thought you’d study history
to write your tinder dates
as seamless, natural liberty
The only possibility that remains to me is to rather humbly accept the finitude of human knowledge at least in the form of direct propositional statements. The real Tara has left us forever, as has the real pre-colonial Sri Lankan woman. What is more important for me is to commend and to further Senel’s critique of the colonial project and the ruptures it created both ontologically and epistemologically, while abandoning a romanticised re-envisioning of a precolonial utopia. As important as it is to talk about rupture, it is also important to talk about continuity—about the continuity of colonial forms of domination even today under global capitalism: a much more universal and totalitarian form cultural particularism. And ultimately, it is worthwhile thinking about our relationship with Things: about our place in the world as curators who constantly set up physical and psychical museums. Our role as tamers—who tame Things into objects, eternally caught up in an anthropocentric dilemma of the World-vs.-Us. And while we are caught up in an endless struggle about which subject gets to co-opt, claim or narrate an object, the sheer materiality of Tara, the Thing within, the mourning bronze, will continue to elude us.
– Praveen Tilakaratne
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