American Imperial Pastoral is the rare book written for an academic audience that can still appeal to a more general readership.
American Imperial Pastoral is the rare book written for an academic audience that can still appeal to a more general readership. Author Rebecca McKenna is definitely conducting significant research on US imperial rule in the Philippines, which is what academic historians care about. But her work references famous people with names like Roosevelt, MacArthur, Taft and Forbes, carries an ethnographic edge when discussing pagan renegades in the Philippine highlands and covers its subject through a lens emphasizing architecture and design, which are more accessible than more straight-forwardly political approaches. American Imperial Pastoral utilizes literary metaphors, cultural analysis and a careful balance of micro- and macro-level exploration to imbue its pages with enough energy to make the book fun to read.
American Imperial Pastoral posits and convincingly supports an important argument about the nature of US empire. Namely, McKenna claims that the US governing administration in the colony crafted the Philippine population into the sort of colonial subjects they desired. American Imperial Pastoral concentrates on the founding and construction of Baguio, a mountain resort town that would also function as the colony’s “summer capital,” in order to formulate this argument. McKenna elevates the cultural trope of the “pastoral” to serve as a spatial and political metaphor for the colonial administration’s style of governance. In other words, she argues that the process of making Baguio, from scratch, created meaning and form for US rule, and this meaning and form asserted vital components of US imperial domination, such as land enclosure, native subservience and the more world-historical processes of marketization and commodification. In making Baguio, the US regime in the Philippines also made a colony and colonial subjects.
Baguio, as a project and a place, demonstrates the paradoxes, promises and shortcomings of US imperial rule. It was designed by the great Progressive urban planner Daniel Burnham with the ideas of scientific social organization as a place where society could function ideally. It would feature leisure spaces to show off the natural beauty of the landscape and to allow colonial officials the means for recreation. Additionally, Baguio involved the recruitment of native labor, both for the process of constructing the city and for staffing its establishment. In the idealistic vision of the colonizers, such work would modernize and liberate the natives from the toil of subsistence agriculture. Baguio was also envisioned as a showcase of both US dominance and excellence—it featured a pristine golf course, palatial mansions, a military encampment and even the road to reach the site was hailed as an engineering marvel.
Juxtaposed to this positive vision of Baguio—the way it was seen by colonial officials—was the negative reality of the hill station for Philippine people. The land for Baguio was illegally seized from the natives, in a case that went all the way to the US Supreme Court. The road project was only possible because of nefarious labor “recruitment” practices and blatantly racist management of that labor. The extravagance of many of the mansions, the hyperbolical marketing of Baguio to attract tourists and the preponderant fortune invested in constructing the site were all viewed with skepticism as wasteful by many of the colony’s new subjects.
Even when she is crafting this complex argument, McKenna keeps American Imperial Pastoral’s prose engaging. The book illustrates convoluted Foucauldian elements of political theory, but it does so while telling easily relatable stories, describing the landscape of Baguio or putting forward accounts about well-known historical figures.
Through revealing the paradox at the heart of the colonial project, McKenna is able to say something new about US empire in general, particularly as practiced in the Philippines. More importantly, she elucidates a fundamental feature of the broader US-American ideal: the enthusiastic universalism many of us see as the core of our national identity is also predicated upon subtle techniques of violence and harmful, restrictive and un-recognized assumptions about the way societies should be organized. Ultimately, American Imperial Pastoral cuts to the quick of what it means to be a US-American and the implications of our national self-assertiveness for the rest of the world.