A meditation on antonyms and etymological activism

Douglas Cole, on the discourse of salvage ethnography:

. . . The insights into the significance of collecting and exhibitions and the motivations and world views that stood behind them are an important contribution to our understanding of European, American, and Canadian societies that spent such effort to collect and display such objects from the Northwest Coast and hundreds of other cultures.

On the other hand, postmodernist and cultural studies sometimes suffer from their own problems. They appear as part of post-Marxist, post-Marcuse discourse, which is itself a product of a particular ideological and historical condition. Words like “hierarchies,” “elites,” “trophies,” and, especially, “capitalism,” “colonialism,” and “hegemony” characterize the writing. While intensely relativist, the concern remains Eurocentric. Offering valuable insights into the motivations of Western collectors and curators, they offer virtually none into the Native side of the collecting encounter.

That is seen only in reverse, largely through the ambiguous freight carried by the frequent use of the word “appropriation,” itself an expression of the view from the European side. Significantly, it has no antonym. The Natives whose objects were appropriated remain anonymous, even disregarded. We learn much about Western constructions, but little about any of those who were separated from the objects appropriated by Westerners.

Cole, Douglas. “Preface to the Reprint.” Captured Heritage: The Scramble for Northwest Coast Artifacts. Vancouver: UBC Press, 1995. xxi.

I believe that an antonym may emerge in response to examination of the meanings of such terms. Practicing active language pushes against the sleazy glut of drive-through thinking. Go for slow thought instead, with bitters, micro-brewed. Etymological activism exposing the fiction of words. Story as story is likely to be true.

Maybe the antonym is not so much a word as an antonymous mode that responds to etymological rigour. Slippage in meaning shows in the way “salvage” is upheld to mean rescue and preservation. The supposed virtues of such activities cover up the theft involved, marking sites of heritage as a kind of cultural scenic fringe in a landscape otherwise produced in the local mind as if no people were ever there before the West arrived, a Shakespearean healing green world–empty, vital, untouched, vulnerable. The call of the wild calling out to be saved, forever positioning who we’ve made us as we who are chosen for the mission. Moral, decent, hearty, evolved, conscious, destined.


But what of stealing back–called stealing. Who robs the museum at night with his band of thieves and a calfskin bag, the entire calf, poor legs and arms tied over the shoulder in a permanent sad beauty, marking a white and brown heterotopia to fascinate your discomfort, the sharp crisis of a crying babe among righteous plundered violence on a cheap random road across a dry ditch somewhere in suburban Los Angeles.

The point is not whether you are who you say you are, or if you ever remember yourself, or if there is a compass for you, or the right way to love, or fuck, or remember, or mother, or battle, or interpret your dreams. The point is now the edges of objects cutting the air as they pile on the floor, the tangled irreverence for lusty weapons and masks all got from glass cases, and their status as sabotaged salvage. The anarchy laughs like a spirited horse at the scramble for paperwork authorizing pursuit, holding dusty issues of ownership behind a blue-jacketed ass while the other hand pens Jones Johnson Smith. 

Help yourself, boys. Stolen, stolen, stolen for a giveaway. Disseminate. Disorient. Scatter, cast, sow, confuse. Engender, incite, arouse. Put a problem in the desert wind and then listen to the laughter coming from everywhere in this peopled place.

*With thanks to a story from my mama.

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