Book review of Theweleit’s “Pocahontas” project

What is colonialism? Land grabbing, of course, and that, as Klaus Theweleit’s “Pocahontas” project has been carrying out with convincing arguments since 1999, ideally about the bodies of royal daughters: rape, first specifically, then politically. For the Freiburg cultural theorist, who made association an important instrument of knowledge, colonialism is much more than that: a way of life that can be found ubiquitously if you look closely enough. In every corner of our culture it makes secret continuities and psychological patterns arrest.

The “Pocahontas” final volume, which has now been published by Matthes & Seitz due to the bankruptcy of Theweleit publishing house Stroemfeld, is almost bursting with fascinating cultural theoretical considerations, for example on the ancient bronze casting with the lost form, on the shipbuilding of the Greeks, on the perspective revolution in of painting or to get the divine gaze from the sky by cartographers of the sixteenth century. As usual with this author, all of this comes together in the most beautiful pop sound and is accompanied by cleverly selected images that are again associated with what has been said.

Since the frequent reader Theweleit is not afraid to quote in detail from books and newspaper articles, his book project grows into a not so short story of almost everything. In contrast to the three previous volumes, this time it is hardly about the legitimizing relationships between politics and (victorious) mythology – in the modern version: literature – i.e. the blind spots in colonial historiography, but rather an analysis at maximum distance from the subject. In return, the author is more involved than before – and ultimately unhappy – with a voracious general thesis. But one after the other.

Technological advantage thanks to the “king of files”

The title “Why Cortés really won” already implies that for the author neither the new firepower of the conquerors nor the legend that the Aztecs saw gods in the Spanish conquistadors are sufficient explanations for the subjugation of the South American continent. Theweleit brings up two larger answer complexes, both taken from literature. On the one hand, there is the thesis that it was imported pet viruses that wiped out a large part of the indigenous population, while Europeans developed special immunities in thousands of years of domestic domestication.


Colonialism is a way of life: Klaus Theweleit in his study.
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Bild: Picture-Alliance

For Theweleit this is just the beginning. The second answer to the central question takes up most of the space in his book. It roughly coincides with the postulate of a technical a priori by the Berlin cultural scientist Friedrich Kittler and his school. Accordingly, the technological superiority of the Europeans in particular led to the subjugation and plundering of distant empires and cultures after 1600. This technological advantage is not only summarized here in great detail – a whole chapter is devoted to the new administrative mechanisms in Spain of the “king of files” Philip II – but also traced back a long way historically. Technological “leaps” in the Eurasian cultural area after the domestication of the horse around 4000 BC include metal smelting, shipbuilding, the Greek vowel alphabet, linear perspective (“geometry of space”), measuring the world in grid squares or modular work organization. The author asks the interesting question of whether there are faults when cultures that have not taken the long way to practice technology have to assert themselves in a globalized modern age in which the Eurasian standard applies worldwide.

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