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Contemplation of Colonialism

Posted by Dirck on 11 May, 2016

I recently added a few pages on my site… wait!  Don’t rush over there!

As it happens, I’m making this entry because I know that people who habitually look in there are not necessarily people who habitually look in here, and because on one of the added pages in question, I only make a little bit of scandalized screeching and don’t feel I’ve quite had my screech out, yet.

Usually, my scandalized screeching as is induced by Italian pen makers is the result of an interaction of the cost of a pen and the need for remediation to actually function; I have this strange notion that a pen which costs $1000 should actually write well and when requested, a notion it seems high-end Italian pen makers are not entirely committed to.  This is not the case this time, at least not entirely– that element is present as well, but only as a trace by comparison to the main issue.

The pens in question are Delta’s “Indigenous Peoples” series, limited edition pens that have appeared not quite every year since 2003.  The thrust of this series is, if I can distill several different years’ advertising puffery, to celebrate “enduring,” “unchanging,” and “most authentic” cultures of the world, which is laudable if a little hard to satisfactorily define.  What gets me screeching is the specifics of how Delta has gone about this purported celebration.

Let me touch first on cultural appropriation.  These pens being meant to call to mind specific cultures, they have applied to them motifs drawn from those cultures.  This becomes problematic if, as I believe is the case, this is done without consultation with the culture in question.  It veers into objectionable if we see a big pile of money being made off those motifs without any of that money moving in the direction of the owning culture, especially when many of the cultures Delta has seen fit to celebrate thus have had rather rough handling.  This sort of thing lies in the direction of intellectual property theft, which I am not in favour of (speaking from a place of self-interest as a nearly-professional writer, but not only from that place).  There is not even the traditional unequal trade of the beads and knickknacks in exchange for left side of continent style which so many of these cultures have been treated to in the past.  Perhaps, as some individual artists have been told, they should be pleased to be getting exposure.

Now, the thing that really got me going is not this sufficiently-inflammatory realization of a pen-maker wringing money out of people in a more than commonly one-sided way.  No, what really set my teeth on edge was the numbers of the limited editions.  As you know, I’m no fan of artificially-rare pens, an opinion I expanded on some time ago, but it’s a common enough practice to stamp “X of XXXX” on the side of a pen to render it collectible and excuse a giant price-tag.  Delta had done that with these pens, and that’s all well and good, but in getting my research in hand I noticed that the size of each version’s run varied.  The number of each pen had meaning for each culture it “celebrated,” and that meaning was frequently deeply troubling.  Here’s a spread-sheet I made up for the page, of which you may for current purposes ignore the third, fourth and fifth columns:

If I were to stop here, I think most of you would see the point… but I’m still full of rant.  Some of those are innocuous enough, and the Maya one is actually a functional, reasonable way of celebrating an achievement of that culture.  There are at least three that are essentially direct affronts to the cultures involved.  But with that one exception for the Maya, the whole thing acts as an instant example of colonial thinking; your culture is defined in terms of what mainstream European culture thinks of as a significant interaction with mainstream European culture (and I will include the mainstream North American culture as, in essence, European).  There is no you in absence of us.  You are no more than a quantum wavicle, we are the observer who by the act of observation defines your state.  It’s frankly amazing that the number for the Maya isn’t 1521 or 1697, because then they would be reduced to a sideline of European history, too, which is apparently the done thing.

Have I shocked you?  I hope so.  It’s no more than a transmission of my own shock at realizing what Delta has done, a shock enhanced by the thought that it probably didn’t occur to anyone there that there was anything wrong with the way they were approaching this business.  It should be shocking.

As is ever the case, I have comments open on this entry, so you may join me in screeching or offer explanations that might moderate the shock.  If something turns uncivil, I will moderate it with great force; discussions of racism and colonialism can descend into poo-flinging all too easily, and I won’t have that in my parlor.

Today’s pen: Parker Duofold AF
Today’s ink: Jentle blue-black


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