Our “Imperial Eyes”



“Andean silletero carrying a European across the Cordillera on his back. But for the rain, the passenger would probably have been depicted reading a book, the recommended way to pass the time while riding this way.”  -Mary Louise Pratt

In her 1983 travel book, Salvador, Joan Didion “aggressively and lucidly sought to abdicate the authority of the seeing-man”  writes Mary Louise Pratt in Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation. Instead, she embodied it. Pratt writes, “the New York Times, the Washington Post, USA Today, and People magazine hailed Salvador for the very thing it rejects: vividness, truthfulness, perceptiveness, accuracy, all the mastery of the seeing-man.”

Have we, like Didion, unwittingly reproduced (to quote Pratt) the dynamics of possession and innocence” in analyzing our experience in Uganda? Have we tried “to secure [our] innocence in the same moment as [we] assert European hegemony,” as Pratt accuses travel writers of doing?

We fit Pratt’s assessment of most travel writing in that in Bloganda, we often attempt to understand Uganda “within radically asymmetrical relations of power.” Our perception of Uganda is always distorted through a privileged, alien lens. That we live here for two years and learn the local language may bestow an undeserved and embellished credibility as “embedded/grassroots” bloggers which only serves to further distort the version of Uganda we convey.

When We Write Like 19th-Century English Explorers

In our “First Week at School” post, we describe Victoria’s walk to school: “her walk plateaus and she is given a view of the valley below, where she can recognize the familiar white buildings of the [Primary Teachers’ College], or on misty days, at least the silhouette of the tall trees from the PTC campus crowning the silver morning.” In a recent document Matthew wrote for the Peace Corps Volunteer who will replace him, he described the view from our backyard as “a peaceful panorama of papyrus swamp and the green hills surrounding the valley. Mists come after dark and dissipate in the morning sun.”

Pratt calls this “The Monarch of All I Survey” theme of imperial stylistics. Specifically, promontory descriptions (like Victoria’s) have been used in various ways from 1860-1980 to serve imperial ends. In Lake Regions of Central Africa (1860), English explorer Richard Burton describes his “discovery” (which Pratt defines as “asking the local inhabitants if they knew of any big lakes, etc. in the area, then hiring them to take you there, whereupon with their guidance and support, you proceeded to discover what they already knew”) of Lake Tanganyika:

Nothing, in sooth, could be more picturesque than this first view of the Tanganyika Lake, as it lay in the lap of the mountains, basking in the gorgeous tropical sunshine…the background in front is a high and broken wall of steel-coloured mountain, here flecked and capped with pearly mist…

157 years after Burton, Bloganda shows that mist is still an essential element in maintaining the “mist-eriousness” of Africa. Both Burton and we estheticize the landscape. “The sight is seen as a painting and the description is ordered in terms of background, foreground, symmetries between foam-flecked water and mist-flecked hills […] The esthetic pleasure of the sight singlehandedly constitutes the value and significance of the journey.” Similarly, our waxing poetic is an end in itself. Uganda/Africa is a valorized, beautiful object, worthy of western consumption and intervention regardless of the presence or absence of actual Ugandans/Africans.

“If the scene is a painting,” Pratt writes, “then Burton is both the viewer there to judge and appreciate it, and the verbal painter who produces it for others. From the painting analogy it also follows that what Burton sees is all there is, and that the landscape was intended to be viewed from where he has emerged upon it […] The viewer-painting relation also implies that Burton has the power if not to possess, at least to evaluate this scene.” The same idea rings true replacing “Burton” with “Bloganda” in the excerpt above.

“A Dead End Relieved to Discover Itself As Such”

Pratt’s primary criticism of Italian essayist Alberto Moravia and Anglo-American novelist Paul Theroux writing in the 1970s is that they are unable or refuse to acknowledge the limits to their authority. By the 1980s, Pratt argues, Didion has pushed so hard against Moravia and Theroux in asserting ignorance (and therefore innocence) that she inadvertently paves a new, much more subversive road to imperialism. In Salvador, “Didion in fact identifies her subject matter as inaccessible to her western and female self…readers are spared any effort to imagine or comprehend its workings…to quote the book’s opening arrival scene, ‘in which no ground is solid, no depth of field reliable, no perception so definite that it might not dissolve in its reverse. The only logic is that of acquiescence’ ([Pratt’s] italics).” Like Didion, we have tried to project the same fallibility since our first post. Our only goal as aspiring servants of Uganda has been to adapt to the community’s reality and needs, to acquiesce to host country culture as a form of ablution.

When we return to the U.S., we may be welcomed like Didion, “as a discoverer returned from a Source” (Pratt). Joan Didion and all New Journalists shaped Bloganda with their insistence that there is no such thing as objective reality for journalists to report. In highlighting subjectivity and language to assert our awareness and innocence, have we somehow asserted dominance over our subject matter?

Didion’s “‘logic of acquiescence’ leads as ever to a dead end relieved to discover itself as such,” Pratt concludes. Confused, saddened, impotent, or scared would all be better words than relieved to describe our coming face-to-face with the moral quagmire of travel writing in a post-colonial, low-income country. Our only hope for relief comes, ironically, in that we don’t feel “relieved” at all. We feel guilty we came, and we feel guilty about what we have done, so we are trying to assuage our guilt with writing. However, as the Anti-Oppression Network states, a good ally acts not “out of guilt but rather out of responsibility.” This is something we are still working on. “We came, we saw, we blogged” sounds very much like “We came, we saw, we conquered.” As aspiring allies of Ugandans, how responsible are we, and all travel writers, for conveying Uganda and Ugandans in a way which is fair and just, and who is responsible for holding writers like us accountable for our words?

5 thoughts on “Our “Imperial Eyes”

  1. Whoa! Great and lofty questions to ask but one need not dwell on them. Hold these questions lightly. It is easy to feel guilty about one’s priviledge (or even to wonder “what is previledge?”) and we can tie ourselves up in knots. My personal thought is that your experience in Uganda isn’t so much about what you did or how you affected others but how has Uganda changed you? You are both incredibly gifted and talented and sensitive people. I bet that your continued (and harder) work will be what you do with this experience that is now part of you when your return to the U.S. Can’t wait to see; veni, vidi, vici!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I totally agree with Paul Briggs comments. One can not realize when you enter another’s environment how they will respond to you or how they will share with you. You came to Uganda for an experience and in that time frame you learned, you shared and you wrote to try to explain to the outside world what was happening and how you perceived it. How you “have been changed” is the important link to it all . Now the hard part comes with discerning where you will be led next and somehow in that process your experiences in Uganda will lead you to a new adventure and a new future. I surmise you will do well and will find challenges as well as success in whatever you do. Peace and happiness to you both.


  3. There just aren’t many people in the world who are interested in holding people like you accountable for your words. The bad news is that you are yourselves responsible for the whole enterprise. But that’s also the good news in your case, because both of you are thoughtful, willing to admit mistakes, willing to search for answers, and admittedly imperfect. That’s writing, right? Thought, effort, and reflection. Over and over.

    I think you’re right to try to shed the guilt you mention. I know that that’s a difficult process, but ultimately, guilt becomes reductive because it has an inherent focus on the self rather than the other. I’m certainly not going to tell you guys how to be selfless – you have more of that quality than anyone else I’ve ever met – but I just mean to say that guilt feels like a force that might hold you back. And you guys are going to do some good things in the world, and I don’t want you to be held back from that. We are all, as you say, “responsible.” And you guys are a couple of the few who aren’t shirking that responsibility.

    And now I will return to my ivory tower from which I can very comfortably say all these things to you. Love you guys.

    Liked by 1 person

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