Ken Burns’ “Imperialist Nostalgia”

Last night I didn’t sleep well, for whatever reason I’m not sure. But after working on my web site for ninety minutes after the late news and watching The Daily Show with John Stewart, I retired to bed with Baldo taking up half the bed.  (He’s a large, handsome Siamese seal point that I took in as a stray six years ago this November, the story of which I will tell at some point.)

Three hours after going to sleep I awoke.  I lay in bed for another hour, my brain working overtime thinking about things I needed and want to do.  I eventually resolved to just get up and DO something.

So I’ve been tired all day and have napped off and on between going to the dentist to have one of the temporary crowns reseated after it came off for the second time (only to have it break a couple of hours later while eating), going to the grocery store twice, and doing assorted computer stuff.

I heated some frozen pizza for me and my father for supper.  (I decided against exercising because my stomach was screaming, “FOOD.”) After we ate we watched television together for a couple of hours.

After watching “Man vs. Food” on the Travel Channel I did some remote TV surfing and (gasp) settled on watching another episode of Ken Burns’ documentary series on the national parks.  As I watched this episode, “Going Home,” it became clearer to me that Renato Rosaldo’s Chapter Three, “Imperialist Nostalgia” can be usefully applied to this series and clarifies something I was struggling to articulate in yesterday’s post.

This notion, and I will quote at some length here, is that there is a paradoxical relationship of the colonizer to what he (usually it’s a “he”) colonizes and usually destroys or, at least, fundamentally transforms:

“A person kills somebody and mourns the victim.  In more attenuated form, someone deliberately alters a form of life, and then regrets that things have not remained as they were prior to the intervention. At one more remove, people destroy their environment, and then they worship nature.  In any of its versions, imperialist nostalgia uses a pose of ‘innocent yearning’ both to capture people’s imaginations and to conceal its complicity with often brutal domination.” (Culture and Truth: The Remaking of Social Analysis. Boston: Beacon Press, 1989, pp. 69-70)

One specific example from tonight’s episode highlights this element central to the documentary. It illustrates Burn’s nostalgic portrait of innocence lost that he hopes to reassert, even regain with his magical visual composition.

It is the story of Margaret and Edward Gehrke, so called “park enthusiasts,” who take to traveling to all the national parks beginning in 1915.  First by train, but later and regularly by car as roads are constructed in the parks to allow increased access for visitors who travel by car, the Gehrkes serve Burns as an embodiment of the values of individual transformation (becoming good citizens) through a sacred visual and experiential national landscape.

But their ecstatic national park travels and Margaret’s notably nostalgic and melancholic lament for the vanishing purity and breathtaking sublimity of nature in their later years together gave way to her final disappointment when she traveled alone as a widow by train to their favorite national park only to be disappointed with the commercialism, litter and general chaos that increased access had made possible.

This is the irony that is lost on Margaret and her husband’s “imperialist” travels: their “innocent yearning” hid an imperialistic complicity with the gradual destruction of the “primitive” primordial, authentic conditions that made possible their experiential raptures.  The transformation of the landscape—building roads—to increase access by cars, which was their favorite mode of experiencing America’s exceptional, special status, was only the most recent form of “brutal” domination and indeed transformed the sublime into something grotesque.

(Think of travel and recreation as a form of surplus value/profit or exploitation of natural resources to be taken in to revivify the bourgeois national imagination?  Indeed, and this was an interesting point raised in the documentary about the early thinking of these “parks.”  They were thought of as “reservations.”  Ponder that for a moment…or two.)

So this is the problematic form of nature “worship” that I have witnessed in Burns’ current effort and why his story is so troubling.  The sacralization of these landscapes is similar to what Rosaldo goes on to explain in “Imperialist Nostalgia,” citing the work of anthropologist Allan Batteau’s study of Appalachia as a cultural construction, is a process that has also been referred to as mystification.  Just as indigenous peoples were being displaced and exterminated along the frontier during the late 1800s, according to Batteau, they were being deified as part of “nature” (71-72).

If I watch any more of the series I might have more to say including how Rosaldo’s discussion of the civilizing mission is central to this process.  I’m also thinking about Donna Haraway’s discussion of primatology, or how the relationship of science, capitalism, and “vision” might parallel, even intersect with Rosaldo’s.

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