Notes and such for 12th November

In today’s class, the first presentation regarding Ireland and nationalism framed the subsequent presentations and discussions adequately. Michelle suggested in her presentation that Joyce’s work contrasted with the notion that nationalism is part of a natural progression following colonialism and decolonialisation. Joyce’s work instead presents nationalism as an assertion of individuality which is a culmination of various factors. The final slide of the 2nd presentation suggested a reading of Joyce as anti-modernist, if the term modernist is grounded in the philosophies of John Locke and David Hume (that took up some time). One of the points raised was how the history of modernity is longer than the time frame occupied by modernism, and it is necessary not to conflate modernism with modernity. Conflation came up again in the later discussions, this time concerning the figure of Daedalus and Stephen.


I proposed an explanation of the problematic quote based on the understanding that Hume and Locke are empiricists, a field of philosophy that suggests observations as the primary source of knowledge and hence the self, developed through knowledge, is constituted of observations.In Joyce however the observable cannot constitute the individual due to the indeterminacy of language that is used to record such observations. The example of the tundish was cited by Kin Yan(?). In that sense then, Joyce would be anti-modernist IF we defined the term according to the philosophies of the two philosophers.

I think conflation as a problem arose because of the nature of modernism and the text discussed today. One example used in class today was regarding the epiphany as used in Joyce’s work, part of Praseeda’s presentation. Stephen’s epiphanies contrast with Woolfian (Virginia) epiphanies, for example, in that instead of a unity of the self with the world around him, Stephen in fact becomes more distant. While observing the girl wading in the sea, he feels that she represents all women and acknowledges the sexual feelings that accompany his observation. At the same time he distances himself from the people who experience those feelings, privileging instead her association to Ireland. The distinction Stephen makes expresses a desire to move away from conflating perspectives, choosing instead to set himself apart as an artist exiled from the larger framework of society.

In another example, it was suggested that Stephen perhaps conflates the figure of Icarus and Daedalus, and tries to straddle the position of inventor – or the “brains”, and the user, – the “blonde”.

Links to other weeks and texts:

Conflation arises as a prominent issue in discussing modernism in other texts like Orwell’s “Shooting An Elephant”. In this text, it has been suggested in previous classes that there is a conflation of identities in the reluctant colonialist: on one hand he is required to perform his role as colonizer, but it conflicts with his individual beliefs and identity. The conflation of the two areas produces responses to colonialism that emphasise its complexities, rather than a valorization and exoticization of the colonial enterprise, or an outright disparaging of the process. To link this to modernist concerns, the problems with identity and nationalism point to the crisis of knowledge and representation.

Land-bush thing.

I had to transcribe an MOE interview some years ago for some money – times were hard; but that’s another story – and I got stuck on this phrase. The interview sounded slightly muffled thanks to the poor recording quality, and the interviewer was not the most articulate person, but for the most part it was manageable until the interviewer went all lexically-innovative and used this phrase: “land-bush thing”. So after repeating the audio segment for the 60th time, I finally figured out what it was – “language thing” (Don’t even get me started on how such informal phrasing made it into the interview. It was one of the NUS Sociology professors being interviewed what’s more). This sparked off furious conversations the next day with my friends, who were also doing transcriptions, along the lines of “the appalling state of English in Singapore”, “people talk like that how to work in MOE” and “liddat I oso can do interview already”.

Obviously there is some hierarchy of language and register being discussed in our conversations, as Fanon seems to suggest is present with the issue of languages. And certainly Singaporeans have some idea of what good English is like, more often than not tinged with the image of an European seated behind a desk shot at mid-length discussing the probability of rain over the next seven days. But do we take on a culture in speaking another language? I have friends who learn French (they’ll tell you I’m jealous about not understanding it hence I pretend to. Don’t believe them. Je comprend.), but I can tell for sure they aren’t French. And how is it that Fanon does not seem to take into account the power that the colonized can have in adapting the colonizers language? I suppose language and identity will always be debated points, but what Fanon’s article has prompted me to think is that they might be linked, but do not necessarily have to be viewed as reinforcing each other. People don’t become French by travelling to Alliance Francaise twice a week; nor do we become Chinese or Malay or Indian by speaking the respective languages. As for myself, as sure as I sit in my HDB flat, have served NS, and carry my pink IC, I know what I am.

I’m British.

Ego credo Joyce’s work est simpliciter atrox, bloody atrox.

I tend to become very excited for various reasons when talking about Ireland. For one, they have leprechauns and the fey, we have… Well. We have the Merlion. They have the internationally-acclaimed Riverdance (how Irish it is exactly leaves much to be debated, but for purposes of argumentation, bear with me), we have Riverfest. And as a country not that much larger population-wise (6 million; Wiki) than Singapore, they have contributed great writers in almost every field of English literature: Beckett, Heaney, Shaw and of course our much beloved Joyce, this despite having been colonised (or oppressed, if you will) by the British since the 1600s with the Plantations of Ireland.

Or instead of “despite”, perhaps the operative word used should be closer to “because”? That these great writers wrote in English cannot simply be a coincidence (Beckett did write in French though), and language and communication for the Irish seems to be one of those prominent issues like the GST or ERP are for Singaporeans. I once interviewed an Irish couple for a project on the Merlion:

Me: “Describe the Merlion in one word.”

Husband: (thinks for a second) “Very grand.”

Wife: “ONE word.”

Husband: (laughs) “It’s a problem we Irish have. We speak too much.”

In Joyce’s work then, the use of language becomes not just a means of developing Daedalus’ consciousness, but each and every word used is itself a contest between Irish heritage and English oppression, especially so in light of how English, in becoming the dominant language, has gradually reduced the position of the Irish language. And following the Ulster Plantation in the 17th century, when the Irish were forced to live on the least fertile land, Irish as a language came to be recognised as that of the backward and lower-class, while English was the language of the more urban-minded. The discussion of the tundish with the dean is perhaps the best example of this “battle” of the languages.

Isn’t Irish-accented English the sexiest thing around, by the way? (Next to Ewan McGregor’s Scottish-English in Trainspotting)

Fierce Creatures!

I find Woolf’s protrayals of animals very “strange”, to use a word he seems to like. It is not just that he’s sentimental to an almost Disney-like level, but that he seems to portray more identification with the animals than with other people. Where his descriptions of people are so often laced with a wry cynicism, his descriptions of animals are straightforward and almost contain a sense of awe in them. Woolf sees the possibility of developing with them an “affection of a purity and simplicity which seems to [him] peculiarly satisfactory”, and in that I believe there exists Woolf’s take on the modern world: it is easier and more satisfying to develop kinship with animals without the petty politics and quest for control that was not only pervasive in the age of colonialism, but even til today.

So that’s where my post went; into the ether of cyberspace.

The anecdotal form , the casual tone and the wry humour align us closely with the narrator, even if he comes off as ambivalent about his position as a British subject amongst the natives, but it is precisely this ambivalence that leaves us with no other ground to stand on than with the narrator. I think this privileging of the narrator draws our attentions to the concept of the individual, and how reductive the colonial system can be. Far away from England and delegated to perform a thankless duty, the individual becomes a mere cog in the machinery, easily replaced. The narrator’s position and the self-condescending ending emphasize the inferiority of himself in the face of the larger scheme of imperialism. Orwell’s distaste for totalitarian regimes, while not as strong as compared to Animal Farm and 1984, still lingers.

So what is “the real nature of imperialism — the real motives for which despotic governments act”?? It is particularly cruel of Orwell to construct an extended analogy and not complete the link, especially since this story left me hanging while I sat atop the porcelain library.

A fortune-teller or oracle he certainly is: 70+ years on and still we’re having endless discussions about the shooting of the elephant.

Rainbows and butterflies

There was an article I read in National Geographic on Alfred Russell Wallace published in December 2008. It’s still available online at the National Geographic website. The article describes, amongst other things, how his letter to Darwin sparked Darwin into publishing On The Origin Of Species, a little of his personality, and his methods as a naturalist for commercial and scientific purposes. Just like Stein (or possibly the current of similarity flows the other way round), Wallace collected butterflies and other species of insects. Wallace also had to sell his collections to museums in England to fund his trips around South-east Asia.

Now that I’ve used up a hundred words rambling about Wallace in order to mask my inability to contribute a meaningful post, I would like to say that in reading Wallace’s records about the Dyaks and the region, it is obvious to us that there is that sense of wonder and excitement that exudes from his writing. Yes, Wallace does exoticise us regular folks in the East and we could read some form of colonialism implicit in his writing, but in his defence, is it not natural for people when they come across something that astounds and awes them to embellish accounts and/or come up with speculations? Conrad may have been influenced by Wallace’s descriptions of the region when writing Lord Jim, but excitement and exuberance are replaced with a nagging sense of foreboding in Conrad’s texts.

Darwin never consulted Wallace when he announced their discovery to the Linnean Society, and read his papers along with Wallace’s. Wallace was pleased and flattered, but still preferred enduring the wet weathers, fevers and hardships in the region rather than returning to receive academic praise. How cool is that?


Having read Heart Of Darkness before Lord Jim certainly made the latter more digestible, even though it seems highly unlikely that one man can go on talking for so long and have the undivided attention of the people around him. I’ve never had that privilege. What I do find believable in both works by Conrad is how the search for truth in its various forms (moral, ethical, reality, self-discovery for example) can never be separated from the circumstances that surround that quest. It’s as if Conrad is suggesting that truth can never be found in antiseptic, sterile, laboratory-style environments with people in white coats performing thought experiments ad nauseum, and instead a person needs to delve into the seedy, sordid, brutal and horrifying as a test for himself and to the beliefs that he adheres to. So the colonized landscape forms the perfect backdrop for this quest; Marlow and Jim, with their ideals and beliefs, set off in the respective stories for a little-known alien land and culture, to see how far their truths will take them. The modernists likewise with their art works, dreams and philosophies venture into an age they thought man had control over, but tough luck:

It’s a proverbial jungle out there.

The horror!

Heart of Darkness is like a travelogue gone mad, like the Discovery: Travel and Living channel meeting Chucky. I’m not entirely sure it’s racist, nor if it’s pro-colonial, but one thing I am sure of is that halfway through reading it I forgot about what makes it a part of modernist fiction. I think I’ve actually forgotten what Modernist literature is as well, muddled as I am with thoughts of colonialism from the previous book. Surely colonialism and racism do not make a modernist novel, nor do techniques like stream-of- consciousness. The one thing however I would say for sure that makes the story “modernist” is its depiction of a crisis of morality through a hostile environment where just about anything goes. Such a crisis perhaps trumps all the other three; it doesn’t matter what we know, how we see or who we think we are if all humanity has is a heart of darkness.

Da Vinci is Indian

We discussed plenty about Western cultures colonising the East, read about how the British in India acted with an air of superiority that more often than not lapsed into sheer racism and how even the sky itself denied this bonding between “native” and coloniser in “Passage To India”. So what happens when reality is thrown a crisis of knowledge and the “natives” start making a claim to art that we thought was originally European?

Da Vinci is Indian

Comic relief aside, the video (and the series “Goodness Gracious Me” for that matter) emphasises the impact of colonialism on ethnicity, culture and the everyday life in the modern world. It draws laughs, and then attention to our perceptions of India(colonized) and its relations to Britain(colonizer), without causing racial sentiments on either side of that gap to boil over. Fanon’s article seems to emphasize (overly, in my opinion), the need for blood, guts and gore to level the playing field between the colonialists and the natives. Granted, there probably is a very significant disparity in time between the end of colonialism and this BBC comedy series, but art and humour wound in places bullets can’t reach. Forster’s novel, while I’ll admit will never ever be one of my favorites, is to be appreciated for being unique in that it doesn’t exoticize the East; it doesn’t lapse into a romantic attitude of India and other British colonies that can simply be understood by “visiting”. It haunts readers because it reminds us that there are forces that have the potential to keep people apart no matter how much we try to bridge that gap, or how much we try to cruelly absorb another culture.

Forster’s novel may not be as humorous as the video (you guys absolutely HAVE to laugh at it; I shun the unappreciative), but both draw on colonialism and modernism to express deeper anxieties in mankind that cannot simply be smoothed over by shedding the blood of a generation or two of the “Other”.

The Marabar Caves

Or more specifically, the Marabar Caves and the television series “Lost”. The two share many similarities: an exotic location(the novel’s opening is like a panoramic scene from a movie), people who don’t really want to be where they are (Adela’s mind is on marriage, Aziz’s on breakfast, and everyone on the island wants to get off it), and a terrifying presence noone except the victim has seen or heard(an echo best symbolises the Caves, rustling trees the creature in “Lost”).

If a visit to the Marabar Caves is an attempt by the British members of the picnic party to access the “real” India, to glean some semblance of what an authentic India is, then the Caves’ ability to confuse and mislead even a native of the land highlights the impossibility of that task. Immediately, Modernist concerns of knowledge and representation echo in my head, as sure as the echo that plagues Adela. Truth with a “T” is substituted in the novel with the experience of a “real” India. That experience is at times awkward, at times terrifying and at times simply unrecognizable by the British, but it is present  in the strange nooks and crannies of the Marabar Caves.

As Adela is described running out frantically from the caves with cactus thorns pricking her and she melodramatically flings herself around, I cannot help but be reminded of those little trailers for “Lost” where some poor soul is running away through the bushes from the thing that ominously stirs the trees before killing them. Much like Truth for the Modernists, you know it’s there, you just don’t know what it looks like. It shakes the trees, lets out a growl or leaves an echo in your head. Many different forms, but you’ll never see the Thing itself.

Well, not until the next episode maybe.