Live from Belize with the Samaritans!!!

I can see Belize in water emerging from fountains around Syracuse campus; how its varied brilliance and pressure compare to the waves of the Caribbean Sea, considering whether its temperature would lead to coral bleaching, or its pH to fish species’ extinction. Without the use of a passport, I am always crossing borders, my mind boarding and deplaning from Philip Goldson airport with a pace that leaves me harried much of the time, and yet I keep returning through increasingly circuitous routes to a case study in the form of a nation that is my home country but no longer my home. Sometimes I am concerned that this national filter makes me less able to be a proper scholar since I am able to stare at anything long enough that my sight connects the object back to a country that I am trying to maintain central to my life, a country wherein I rarely felt like a suitable citizen.

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For me, objectivity is always out of reach (and I think for most too), but I think with an understanding of the futility of objectivity, comes the benefit of empathy and self-identification with potentially any exhibit under study. Identifying my own country’s difficulty with maintaining nationhood, I was disturbed by much of the history of the Samaritans in Jim Ridolfo’s Digital Samaritans. The way that the Samaritans have struggled since the late Ottoman period reflects much of the struggle occurring in global South countries like Belize where a people’s conditions and way of being are largely determined by more politically and economically powerful cultures and nations that view these relatively smaller communities as groups that must remold themselves at any given instant to suit whoever the current winning side is.

More immediately relevant to discussions of rhetoric and technology though, I see similarities between the Samaritans’ commoditization of their writing and contemporary commoditization of Caribbean wood crafts as means to literally stay alive. I can often be stupidly critical of the craftspeople of Belize in the way I discuss their lack of interests in producing actual art as opposed to easily packaged images from our country (carvings of toucans, the map of the country, jaguars and mayan temples). On those occasions, what I am readily able to forget due to my own privileged upbringing is how time and resources serve to limit these craftspeople’s ability to produce works that they would see as non-commoditized art. I wonder if like the Samaritans and their writing whether this practice had ever had a component disassociated from economic systems. Or are these carvings, like the Samaritan’s use of writing in the late Ottoman period, mostly viewed as “a means to feed starving families” (Ridolfo 25). In regards to both groups, I feel concerned about their ability to (re)establish intrinsic use value for these ritualized crafts after having used their for economic means. In the case of the contemporary Samaritans, how do they view the use of writing? What are the accepted mores regarding the sale of Samaritan writing to none Samaritans?

Ridolfo does not cite much general colonialist theory, but at one point it seems as if he almost offers up his take on the means by which indigenous communities are disempowered. Writing about the Samaritans’ manuscript removal, Ridolfo chalks it up to three stages “deceit and theft, coercion and consent, and writing for tourists” (Ridolfo 23). As a sequence, this could be substituted within other disempowered cultures to show colonizers dismantle people’s culture. In ‘deceit and theft’ the colonized are made to look foolish as a result of extending empathy and trust towards ‘the Other.’ With ‘coercion and consent’ they are further manipulated into believing that doing as another suggests would be to their best benefit. Finally, in ‘writing for tourists’ you have arrived at a point where the colonized are only able to utilize their culture for economic gain through near total reliance on the colonizer. What makes this final step even more unsettling is that in its total reliance on the colonizer, or in more contemporary contexts global North economies, the disempowered communites are working in a non-sustainable system. In the case of the Samaritans, “While the sale of Samaritan manuscripts and fragments fed Samaritans, the benefits of these manuscript sales were not long lasting, nor did they substantially change the Samaritan community’s economic situation in the decade to come.” (Ridolfo 34). In ‘writing for tourists,’ the Samaritans were able to eke out survival while the tourists viewed their difficult conditions as an opportunity to take of their culture for low low prices. Although Ridolfo manages to refrain from invoking anger in his tone towards the colonizers, I felt sad during much of this reading despite its fairly academic positionality for its reinforcement of a tired adage ‘history repeats itself.’ I’m ok with feeling sad about this. It makes me feel at home.

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