Invention

by Annie Heckman

As I was reading Clare E. Harris’s work The Museum on the Roof of the World: Art, Politics, and the Representation of Tibet, I noticed the term invention re-emerging in our texts. Wondering whether it would fall somewhere in our analysis of linguistic polarizations, or how and why it’s being used in different texts from our course, I started to reflect on its use in our earlier readings. The most memorable example for me, and most thoroughly explained within the text, was in Toni Huber’s use of the term in describing the re-invention of holy sites. Interestingly a quick search of Lopez’s Prisoners of Shangri-La shows that ‘invention’ shows up in two main ways: as a way of describing an inventive-ness which westerners are assuming Tibetan artists do not have, and secondly, as a way of saying that Europeans make things up about Tibet.

When Clare Harris introduces ‘invention’, she does so in proposing the invention of contemporary art in Tibet, citing Hobsbawn & Ranger’s The Invention of Tradition. She introduces their work by noting that  “…a seemingly timeless facet of culture often originates in an exercise in selecting from the past, in capitalizing on precedent and remodeling it for novel purposes in the present. An invented tradition is therefore not to be taken as somehow false but rather as part of a process whereby culture is reproduced and revived through innovation.” While these introductions are used to frame the upcoming chapter about Tibetan contemporary art, they also come directly after a chapter that immerses us in the space of the Lhasa museum complex. I could not help wondering: What prevents us from applying this rationale to the workings of the state apparatus in turning Lhasa into a theme park? And what inspires us to frame histories in different ways? So much of Harris’s clarity and persuasiveness in portraying the Lhasa complex comes from her skilled selection of the language of propaganda, which applies notions of national unity to a time before nations. It would be possible to look at this type of language as an inventive move, re-inventing the history of Tibet. How does the term invention figure into our mapping of fact and fiction this semester?

In some cases our use of the term invention is valorized, actually pointing to one of the best things. In my family it’s common to come up with a quick idea of an invention and consider the royalties that would come from it, just like buying a lottery ticket. And on the other hand, sometimes when we say invention, it really just means lying. The phrase ‘pure invention’ captures some of this irony. There are other words that serve this dual purpose of scientific innovation and lying, like ‘concoction’. The idea is somewhat more elaborate than a lie, actually: the creator of an invented or concocted fiction really worked out the details or made up an intricate falsehood.

The other day I was describing a card game to a friend who had never encountered it before, an old favorite, B.S. The entire deck is dealt out, and you need to get rid of as many cards as possible, with the winner being the first person with an empty hand. You put your cards in the center, face-down, and state what they are: 3 Jacks, 2 Kings, and so forth. No one can see your cards unless someone really suspects that you’re lying; if they want to take the chance, they can call B.S. and force you to turn the cards over. At that point, you either told the truth, and the person who called you out has to take the deck, or you’re caught in a lie, and take the whole deck. In a sporting way, the game includes a teaching moment: there’s something at stake for lying.

Just as there is something accusatory in the sport of B.S., the idea of “invented tradition” is quote loaded. Going over the source cited in the introduction to Tibetan contemporary art, where the quote gives a rather pleasant or innovative turn on the phrase, I found more reference to empire and the effects of invented tradition in British colonial presence. In Hobsbawn & Ranger’s text, the analysis spans different moments in the British Empire, including exclusionary practices enacted through invented traditions in colonial Africa and India, with traditions invented by and for the colonizers and colonized. Considering how we use different language in discourse on Tibet, and with recent events in Toronto and the protests surrounding the extension of the museological consolidation of Tibetan identity in the theatrical production of “Glorious Tibet”, I found myself wondering how the burden of direct language takes shape in protest, where the word “lie” will show up quite frequently.

Another way I think of the word ‘invention’ is that there’s some issue, like the ketchup won’t come out of the bottle, and you find some simple turn to fix it. The idea of a change emergent from a problem, creativity brought on by circumstances and a wish to make things simpler, quicker, easier, or more humane.

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