Friday, November 7, 2014

Notes on Bacchilega, “Legendary Hawai’i and the Politics of Place”



The next step in my research was to look over Bacchilega’s Legendary Hawai'i and the Politics of Place: Tradition, Translation and Tourism (2007) as part of a reading list I put together. It was not quite the book I was expecting (in retrospect, I thought I read somewhere that it engaged more with film and television). This is not at all a criticism of the book, mind you—only an admission upfront that I probably won’t have as much to say about it as the other Hawai'i tourism-related books I’m looking at this days. The book is of great use to scholars thinking about the preservation and protestation of folklore construction, particularly among historically oppressed groups and other issues involving colonial/postcolonial contexts.

That said, there is still much of value in the ideas here as I think through my own project. Legendary Hawai'i focuses specifically on how the islands’ rich history of tradition and heritage was revisited and reimagined by the mainland in the immediate wake of the 1898 annexation by the United States. This fascination with Hawaiian lore, the author writes, “delegitimize[d] Hawaiian narratives and traditions and at the same time constructs them as representative of Hawaiian ‘culture’” (6).  The goal then was to superficially pay tribute to Hawai'i’s history and legends as part of a larger fascination with the islands which annexation sparked at the turn of the century—but in a way which also distorted, belittled and re-mystified them as perhaps little more than old superstitions at odds with America’s emergent sense of modernity (we also maybe hear echoes hear of Shoat and Stam’s notion of condescending racism—a canonical idea I wish I would have foregrounded in the Disney book more and will hopefully do here). 

All of this centrals around the useful notion of “Legendary Hawai'i” which refers not to Hawai'i’s own self-representation of its traditions per se but to “a space constructed for non-Hawaiians (and especially Americans) to experience, via Hawaiian legends, a Hawai'i that is exotic and primitive while beautiful and welcoming” (5). In this regard, there is an affinity with my project (though the timelines don’t match as I’m looking at the time period between the 1930s and 1970s) in so far as I’m also thinking as much about the construction of the islands in the Mainland Imaginary as with the islands themselves—though the latter is certainly sometimes complicit in the formation of the former.

Legendary Hawai'i—and not simply Hawai'i’s natural features—is the antecedent and supplement of the “hula girl,” the backdrop against which her performance is loosely placed and justified as “culture” even when it is commodified “entertainment for sale. (18)

Likewise, the author is also careful throughout the book to note the ways in which the local population has reappropriated some aspects of this “legendary Hawai'i” as a means to complicate the simple distinction between colonizer and colonized.

Some other takeaways concern the importance of tourism in the construction of this legendary Hawai'i at an earlier point in time than I has assumed previously, and the importance of this Hawaii as a visual construction. These become, as the book smartly reminds us, another form of translation as Hawai'i is mediated through both photographic and tourist discourses—both of which are complicit in the post-annexation colonialist agendas. I’ve been trying hard to remind myself that music was such an important part of the islands' appeal early on that I may have neglected the early ubiquity of its visual power as well. 

The very images of Hawai'i’s natural beauty—this “landscape vision” (32)—becomes equated with its folkloric tradition—wherein both serve a mutually reaffirming role that romanticizes the islands and its people (who are curiously absent from such representations) as reassuringly pre-modern. This visual construction of the islands pre-dates the ubiquity of cinema by the mid-20th Century and stretches back to the still photography of late 19th century to a far greater extent than I realized (it’s also a reminder to not overlook other media besides radio and film in the early construction of Hawai'i as a premiere tourist destination—but this then raises another variation on the big question which has dogged me during the initial phases of this project: where to even begin tracking, in this case, Hawai'i’s presence in US print media during the 1930s?).

Also, finally, I wonder what intersection there might be between this idea of “legendary Hawai'i” from the turn of the century with later representations of Hawaiian history such as Hawaii (1966) and The Hawaiians (1970), as well as the Tiki pastiche of stuff like The Brady Brunch (1971), along with other theatrical, non-theatrical and televisual accounts of the islands’ history that emerges in the wake of WWII and then later discussions of statehood?

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