Place, people, and property

History is a messy business, an exercise in imposing order on contradictory information, a series of provisional efforts to select signal from noise, and is best understood, as Steven Shapin wrote about the sciences, “as if it was produced by people with bodies; situated in time, space, culture, and society; and struggling for credibility and authority.” That said, the conceptual legacy of imperialism, with its underlying assumption that “we” can put the land and its bounty to better use than those who live there, seems particularly difficult to unlearn. Witness the contorted reasoning in this article on why the Elgin marbles have stories that can only be told at the British Museum and that returning them to Greece, where the Acropolis Museum is ready and waiting to tell the stories in their proper setting, “would only feed the beast of ideology and nationalist myth.”

In any case, Greece is currently better prepared to repatriate the marbles from the BM than the United States – or, rather, its indigenous peoples – are prepared to receive the effigy pipes from the Mound City cache, (from the North American Hopewell Tradition), but that’s another complex and sad story. I’m painfully aware there are more urgent matters than “who gets the marbles,” but the imperialist imagination, “floating above land, landscape, animals, place, and space, leaving such realities to the machinations of capitalistic calculations and the commodity chains of private property” (to borrow from Willie James Jennings on race in The Christian Imagination) has deep roots, long branches, and endlessly noxious effects.

Image from wikimedia commons

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