Sunday, October 2, 2011

Theory Adventures: Civility and Colonialism

I know there should be more of substance but right now I'm catching up on theory I didn't get to read. I'm currently reading Homi Bhabha's Location of Culture, wherein he talks about mimicry and hybridity. 

And this line caught my eye:
... at the same time as the questions of cultural difference emerged in the colonial text, discourses of civility were defining the doubling moment of the emergence of Western modernity. Thus, the political and theoretical genealogy of modernity lies not only in the origins of the idea of civility, but in this history of the colonial moment. (46)
Note that the concept of "cultural difference" is different from "diversity"--cultural difference refers to the sense that many philosophers and theorists have that apart from their subject position in the West, there is an Other space, against which they compare their own civilizations to. It's very much tied to how we construct identity by contrasting ourselves to something different from ourselves. 

The reason why this line in particular caught my eye is because there is a sentiment I see every so often in steampunk conversations, usually by some well-meaning white person, waxing poetic about how the Victorian era was so refined, so polite and well-mannered, and part of the draw of steampunk is to bring those good manners back. 

Because let's face it, the Victorians as a civilization were terribly ill-mannered. I would consider stomping yourselves all over other people's homes and taking their resources, forcing them to surrender their crops so they can buy it back from you at high prices, and finding excuses to launch an attack because they wouldn't let you sell your stuff on their shores by encouraging the use of poison to be very, very bad manners. 

When I took an etiquette class, I was taught that etiquette's more than just knowing how to use the right kind of spoon... it's about making the people around you comfortable. And therefore, if someone next to you isn't Using the Right Spoon, it's not really a faux pas. Those are things we can overlook. 

And there is a lot to recommend of a way of life that encourages poise, graciousness, and wonderful clothing, a culture that encourages articulation and reading, as well as enterprise. But let's not forget that often, the price of this graciousness is that someone else must be uncouth so you have a yardstick for measurement, someone else must do all the labourious work so you can focus on your reading and writing.

Understanding where we get this idealization of Victoriana from, and understanding what we elide so we can believe in those ideals, is really important. We got many of our ideals of modernity, civility, and prosperity on the back of colonialism, land appropriation, cultural genocide. 

Yes, be well-mannered! But remember, good manners should be more than just your individual gracefulness and more than how you perform it. We need to think about what we mean by good manners, and who that serves, and why. We need to think about where we learn about good manners from, and from who, and what we do with this knowledge. 


  1. "A gift of more value than beauty, is charm, which in a measure is another word for sympathy, or the power to put yourself in the place of others; to be interested in whatever interests them, so as to be pleasing to them, if possible, but not to occupy your thoughts in futilely wondering what they think about you.

    "Would you know the secret of popularity? It is unconsciousness of self, altruistic interest, and inward kindliness, outwardly expressed in good manners."

    --Emily Post; emphasis mine

  2. "...the Victorians as a civilization were terribly ill-mannered."

    And the Understatement of the Year Award goes to...