Thursday, March 27, 2014

on The Transformation

Spahr begins The Transformation with an analogy between the natural environment and human society in order to think about naming, categorization, and the ways language is used to construct explanations of natural and social phenomena. She writes: “Flora and fauna grow next to and around each other without names. Humans add the annotation. They catalogue the flora and fauna, divide them up, chart their connections and variations, eventually name them, and as they do this they read into them their own stories” (13). The relationships between colonizer and colonized, native and other, fill a complicated Hawaiian history, and this is evident in language drawn from natural surroundings. She uses the real and metaphorical example of the “huehue haole,” a term used for white outsiders, and explains the origins of the term: “What was called the maracuja, the passiflora, the passionflower, they called the huehue haole. Huehue is the name of a climber native to the islands. Haole is the word that is used to describe some of them in this story, people who arrive from somewhere else. In the world of plants it is also used to describe a particularly noxious and invasive species” (13-14). If so much of Hawaiian culture is articulated through the natural vegetation, environment, and landscapes, Spahr’s narrator understands that in order to tell her story she must also interpret it through the material and metaphorical natural phenomena in which she is now contextualized. She explains: “This is a story of the passiflora and the tree canopy. This is a story of three who moved to an island in the middle of the Pacific together” (14). The story must be told as a Hawaiian story, even while she is trying to come to terms with the complexity of that story—or more accurately the multiple stories that construct “Hawaii” and how her own stories now mingle with those.

The three who move to the island together are individually and collectively referred to as “they” as a way to get around gender identification, though it is made clear that the triad conforms to traditional heterosexual practices of sexual relations. Nonetheless, the gender-neutral pronoun “they” troubles the construct of the heterosexual domestic partnership, even if the narrator refuses to adopt queer terminology to signify “their” situation. The spatial and political inquiry moves between domestic and public space, and is enacted in the form of repeated phrasing and sentence constructions that write “around” meaning, pointing to the inadequacy of language to provide articulate explanations for the layered understandings of self in relation to other. The story that unfolds weaves natural phenomena with the struggle for personal understanding within a context of complex historical and cultural politics, as in the following example:

The minute they got off the plane they realized that the beauty of the island was its own radiant thing full of boths and that they had to begin with these boths. It was an island of both great environmental beauty and of great environmental destruction. And these boths fed each other in a complicated feedback loop . . . . When they looked around most of what they saw among the many things growing, flying, and crawling had been brought onto the island after the whaling ships arrived. It told a story of beauty and a story of mismanagement. It told a story of invasion and of acceptance as if it could tell both of these stories using the same vocabulary. (Spahr 27)

Central to telling the stories and making sense of them is the difficulty of language. How does one make sense of binary oppositions simultaneously? How can a place be beautiful and suffer such consequences of destruction? How can such beauty be so historically mismanaged? The narrator sees the paradox, and the sadness, of a place with such a complicated and layered identity, a place that has been exploited for so long by so many different groups, and its residents, both resistant and resigned, holding on to language, tradition, and stories that often point toward various, different origins. Although Spahr uses the word “both” an important part of her project is to undo the simplicity of binaries; there are never only two sides, but a history of complex issues that cannot be neatly separated. This is apparent in the history and evolution of language and the ways language is used in Hawaii, and Spahr’s attempts to find language to articulate her own questions and analysis. She writes:

despite the expansionist language and all its tools, all the laws and all the imperialism, all the economic dominance, all the military might, all the technologies, and all the entertainments, the language politics of the island remained endlessly complicated. The expansion did not happen overnight and one could point to how the local languages and the languages that were often created by the arrival of the expansionist language to someplace new, the pidgins and creoles, the burrowing languages, the negotiated languages, refused to go away as evidence of how the expansionist language might not be as good at expansion as one might think. (Spahr 95)

Language controls and refuses to give in to control. The history of the uses and mingling of languages in Hawaii reflect the complex cultural history of domination and resistance, of different groups moving in and out, assimilating and fighting back, at various turns. Spahr enacts this on the level of her own language through the use of repetition and listing; in the quote above, the types of languages listed represent the layers of complex history and culture that one must negotiate in order to make sense of the history of language in Hawaii. This list then repeats throughout the chapter, with occasional slight variation. The text does not simply narrate and explain a complex history of relations, but it instead tries to use the density of language in order to present experiences themselves dense in construction. In fact, she seems to ask, what kinds of vocabularies can account for the layers of stories and politics, for beauty and destruction? This anxiety runs through the text; Spahr is asking how language can be used to account for the histories of our relations to one another: colonizer and colonized, self and other. It asks how we can possibly recognize and identify ourselves when we are constantly moving through contexts and languages that are always already constructing and identifying us.

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