PACIFIC POSTMODERN by ROB WILSONC.S. PEREZ Reviews
Pacific Postmodern by Rob Wilson
The Two Tourisms of the Pacific and the Submerged Racial Mountain
“An artist must be free to choose what he does, certainly, but he must also never be afraid to do what he might choose [...] If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn’t matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly too [...] If colored people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure doesn’t matter either. We build […] tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we stand [...] free within ourselves.”
--Langston Hughes, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain”
Rob Wilson, in the first chapter of his chapbook Pacific Postmodern [Tinfish, 2000], differentiates between what he the calls the “two post-modernisms” of Pacific writing. The first post-modernism is aligned with post-colonial “identity lyrics,” while the second post-modernism is aligned with “language-centered” experimentation. In this response, I argue that these “two post-modernisms” can be read, through Wilson’s own definition of touristic desire, as the “Two Tourisms of the Pacific.”
Wilson states that tourism “depends upon the globalization-of-the-local into a marketable image with lasting appeal, with enduring charm and mysterious claims to uniqueness” . In turn, he describes how “under-theorized” poets, who engage in “preserving, affirming, and expressing ‘the local’” , push
“poetic language towards voicing a more trenchantly situated, affiliated, or localized postmodernism. A kind of ‘local’ based poetry that wanted to align itself with forces and forms of imagined identity that were coming to be called ‘postcolonial’ [...] Such poetry becomes a means by which local/ethnic/indigenous identity [...] could protect themselves against homogenizing forces of the cultural industry.” [1-2]
Although Wilson notes the value of the “postcolonial” aesthetic, he implies that these poets contribute to the packaging and furthering of what I call the “first tourism”: a kind of travel magazine aesthetic in a duty-free paradise.
Wilson articulates his indictment of these poets as follows:
“We don’t need the marketing of ‘local’ (or local-seeming) writers whose metaphors of exotic remoteness and aesthetic charm are all too close, in language codes and protocols, to the packaging patterns of the tourist industry and the marketplace of semiotic and cultural kitsch. We don’t need more writers of place and ethnicity who seek to ‘add a tinge of cultural authenticity for marketing purposes’ and would simulate cultural specificity and the mongrel languages of place for the purposes of historical laundering and self-aggrandizement as lyric hero” .
It has become too bad for “local” poets but “local” writing is no longer good decolonization strategy. No longer good for what Langston Hughes, in “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” describes as “interpreting the beauty” (this “interpreting” too easily becomes a package for “marketing purposes”). It is no longer good to write lyric poems about grandfather net fishing or grandmother weaving baskets from coconut fronds because these poems might make too much tourists come.
To protect against the dangers of these “local” or “local-seeming” writers, Wilson argues for a “second postmodernism,” an aesthetic that allegedly resists the touristic gaze. My argument, however, is that this “second postmodernism” becomes a “second tourism” in that its aesthetic still functions within the desire of touristic packaging. The real danger is that the Pacific writer must choose between fulfilling the expectations of the colonial “first tourism” that is dependent upon “imperialist nostalgia,” or the expectations of a neo-colonial “second tourism” that is dependent upon “borderland fetishization.”
Here is Wilson’s “advertisement” for the “second tourism” of postmodernism:
COME TO HAWAI’I!!
“...a place where the 2 postmodernisms could mingle and meet in the mongrel-magical waters of the Experimental Pacific [...!] This magical, dirty, swirling, history-laden ocean is also a fluid and multiple space for Deleuzian ‘lines of flight’ and affirmative place-imaginings; expansive ‘Oceania’ visions and multiple contestations within the North/South transnational bind [...!]; sites wherein inflows and outflows can lead to mongrel innovation and push language beyond tired colonizing dynamics of white/other; sites wherein ‘the local’ as such is never merely defeated and passively absorbed by the ever-capitalizing world-system [...!]”
Come see the devious pacific poets who “activate the play of languages and heritages of representation as in some inter-textual and deconstructive abyss that implicitly calls into question any under-theorized, stable, or reified version of ‘identity’, ‘voice’, or ‘sovereignty’ of meaning, cultural self, nationhood and so on [!]” . Come see the “post-local” poets: deviant, distanced, estranged, irreverent, and anti-lyrical! Come see the pacific artist embrace heterroglossia! creolization! the carnivalesque!
Although Wilson critiques under-theorized, local or local seeming poets for an aesthetic that he believes depends upon a “marketable image,” he doesn’t seem to realize that, in his own celebration of the postmodern predicament in the pacific (a “contact zone” of “borderland consciousness”), he ALSO markets “a marketable image with lasting appeal, with enduring charm and mysterious claims to uniqueness.” Which is to say that Wilson’s acceptance and promotion of a “mongrel-magical” aesthetic is only different from the “first tourism” in content and form (e.g. it does not globalize the local), but it still maintains the imprisoning “structures of feeling” of the touristic gaze.
Both tourisms, both expectations, are a deterritorialization. If we reject the “local” as Wilson suggests, we allow ourselves to be forced off “local” semantic and prosodic territories. On the other hand, if we reject the aesthetic “reservation” of the “post-local,” we deny our post-colonial situation, and we lose the opportunity to create variable re-locations in the revisionist potential of dislocation.
Pacific writing must revision this predicament (we don’t need an outsider telling us what we need, etc): we must think outside of the touristic gaze. Both a “local” aesthetic and a “post-local” aesthetic can be valuable decolonization strategies, as evidenced by the history and politics of the “identity poets” and the “language-centered poets.” But no touristic expectation should determine our aesthetic freedom; we must displace the framed gazes of the “Two Tourisms of the Pacific” in order to navigate or de-navigate all possible semantic and prosodic territories. This will also us to know, “free within ourselves”, that conceiving all is possible, is in itself, a possibility.
Craig Perez, originally from the Pacific island of Guam, has lived in California since 1995. Currently, he is completing his MFA at the University of San Francisco. He is also an assistant fiction editor for Pleiades, and the poetry editor for Switchback Online. His work has appeared in Watchword, The Redlands Review, and Quercus. You can visit his blog at blindelephant.blogspot.com.