Note-taking for week 13

In the first presentation, we attempted to define nationalism in general and determine which sort of nationalism it is which Stephen advocates. The presenters defined nationalism as “the assertion by members of a group of autonomy and self-government for the group’s solidarity and brotherhood in the homeland, and of its own history and culture, seeing it as a natural progression which follows colonialism and decolonization”. However, we see in Portrait that things are not as simple as that and the progression is never linear. Going back to the past before colonization is impossible because that heritage cannot be reclaimed, only perhaps as romanticized past. Going forward is what Stephen seems to think as ideal, by using the very tools of colonization like language to reassert one’s individuality and identity. Some critics argue that it is not possible to assert individuality using the language of the colonizers. However, in Homi Bhaba’s “Mimicry”, it is said that English is not owned by anyone and so its usage may be transformed by the colonized writer to write his own freedom into being.

 Initially, Stephen was shown to be colonized and indoctrinated by the coloniser’s values and discourse as he learns by rote and memorises things. This is shown by his quoting from different sources like his school textbooks and religious texts. He also quotes from Aristotle and Aquinas in a way which seems to suggest his lack of understanding according to the presenters and sometimes even quotes wrongly. This shows his discomfort with an imposed sort of learning and culture which erodes his own Irish heritage. However, later he breaks free by playing with the form of language especially in his diary entries in which he finally shifts from the 3rd person to the 1st person which emphasizes his individuality. He makes his own language and his own form of art to express himself and in doing so, expresses Irish identity.

 In the second presentation, the use of symbols and impressions reflects Stephen’s impressions of nationalism and Ireland. The politicians are “intangible phantoms” and patriotic propaganda is reduced to “hollow sounding” “voices”. Surrealism and symbolism makes it obvious that language is vague and ambiguous by nature, and writing in that way self-reflexively draws attention to that fact. By doing so, both the form and content shows imperial ambiguities and ambivalences which supports the assertion of the text being modernist. However, if modernism was supposed to be defined by empiricism (psychology of locke and Hume), then Joyce could be seen as anti-modernist because he destabilizes the notion that we may understand the essence of things and Truth by observation. If observation is unreliable, then the notion of a stable self is also problematized. Thus, modernism which places so much emphasis on the individual’s point of view becomes inadequate. Modernism is too vague to be defined as a single entity and cannot hold it own against realist literature. However, we need not see modernism as simply an offshoot of the enlightenment ideas of scientific positivism (empiricism/ Locke and Hume). There are other ways of defining modernism since it is a broader concept than that thus Joyce can still be a modernist writer even if he contradicts the precursors of modernism as a movement arising from the enlightenment.

Modernism- representation or symptom?

Here’s a quote that really got me thinking and from which i started working towards for my presentation tomorrow 🙂 :

“The experience of modernity is fostered by the rise of the modern city, and works of modernism do not so much convey this experience as they betray the strain of surviving it and detail their various strategies for doing so. Thus modernism might be regarded less as a representation of modernity and more as a symptom of it.” (Garry Leonard)

I’ve been thinking of how Modernism relates to Empire in our module and thought that perhaps Modernism seems opposed to the idea of Empire because it is supposed to be about validating individual subjectivity which goes against the grain of any colonizing discourse. However, if Modernism is just a symptom of Modernity, then by extension did Empire really cease because of this enlightened idea of Modernism or simply because of the conditions of modernity? When empire ceased, could it be that it is not because people suddenly realized the Truth but because of so many social forces which renders empire outmoded and forces it out because it just cannot coexist with the other elements. It is not freedom but no choice :p So what new mode of colonization have we come up with now? Capitalism?

According to a critic, the lack of money drives Stephen to be an artist because he has no other means to validate his position as a member of the middle class. Thus, at the downturn of the family’s fortunes, Simon Daedelus sends Stephen to be educated,  giving him all the necessary resources to develop his aesthetic theory. He seems more obsessed with articulating it than actually producing a work of art, perhaps a reflection of his anxiety?

Performing a Sahib

When reading Leonard Woolf’s growing, what stood out especially was the performance element of the sahib as a stock character which everyone is required to play in the same way against the backdrop of imperialism in order to qualify as a good fellow. Mundane things like a game of tennis followed by the routine conversation revolving around banal topics are given an almost religious, ritualistic aspect. This element of performance is seen in texts like Burmese days, Passage to India and Shooting the elephant but not as explicitly as in Growing.

Set in this unreality, it is no wonder the sahibs are able to divorce themselves from their natural and perhaps more humane selves which they have left behind in the real world England and become fully immersed into their roles as the colonizers where aggression and a propensity for violence and even odd behaviors are encouraged. When the protagonist’s dog displays  an uncharacteristic violence toward the native animals, its aggression elevates him in the eyes of the other sahibs and this suggests that a similar attitude from him towards the natives would be encouraged.  Indeed, the native may even be seen as below the rank of the sahib’s dog because when the sahib’s dog vomits on a native, it is treated as nothing offensive or out of the ordinary. 

The effect of living in the performative space is that when one is onstage, one is expected to play one’s role and sustain the illusion. In sustaining the illusion, it does not matter if one is required to play the villian because it is only after all a role which does nothing to change the notion of one’s true self. Thus, the sahibs both have the liberty/ and are compelled to do what they need to do in order to sustain the illusion of empire and that is performing over and over what it means to be a superior sahib in a self- reaffirming lie.

Women as a symbol for the Empire

In Burmese days, Flory and Dr Verswami referred directly to the British Empire as “an aged female patient” (37), worn and weary from the physical afflictions which she has to bear. This vision of the empire is comic and apt because the Empire does have many illnesses, albeit not of a physical but moral nature. One of such is the hypocrisy and double standard of morality in the sexual conduct of colonizers in the colonies where a male colonizer is allowed to have sexual relations with the native women whilst any hint of physical contact between a native man and a female colonizer would have resulted in an outcry of rape.

This is due to the colonial anxiety that power relations could be reversed and the figure of the vulnerable white woman who needs to be protected is a projection of this fear. Sexual relations between the white male colonizer and the native female can only exist to reinforce the existing power relations where the concubine is like the colony, to be exploited under the pretext of a degree of privilege enjoyed by the native subjects. 

The female colonizers who maintain their physical distance from the natives and refuse to adapt to the native culture, such as Mrs Lackersteen who refused to learn a word of  the language despite having been in the country for twenty years and Elizabeth who loathes contact with them are the means by which the essence of being a sahib is preserved. Whilst the white males may be forced to interact with the natives for commercial reasons, the women are kept pristine and sullied, just like the motherland that remains aloof and disconnected from the realities of empire. It is no wonder then that the women sicken physically and become yellow faced and thin when physically confronted with a climate which they are ill-suited to. The beauty of the English rose (colonial pretensions) rapidly wilts in the face of harsh reality in the colonies. Whilst the men experience moral decline, the women exhibit it physically thus the aged old woman is an apt metaphor for the afflicted empire.

Funny ineffectual kickback

I was very amused when I read the moment when Flory decided to get out of self-pity and do something productive such as shoot the dog that had been baying at him and preventing him from sleeping. All he got for that was a bruise, due to the kickback of the gun which was supposed to do violence upon the “pariah” dog but the violence rebounded on him and did little but to scare it. This rather exemplifies what the Europeans have been doing in Burma, some ineffectual attempts at robbing the natives blind under the guise of productivity and the spirit of enterprise. As a result, so many of them are drunk, and I suspect sleepless due to the guilt baying at them which they only respond to by more violence to the natives which results in something nastier thrown back at themselves. All the continuous efforts to hurl insults at the natives at the club reflects desperate attempts to be reaffirmed and justified of wrongdoings even as there is a call for greater suppression of the insolent natives.

It is also strange how the sahibs call the natives niggers, just like those whom they consider to be social outcasts back home despite them having moved to a different geographical location. Perhaps this goes to show the great irony of trying to bring enlightenment to the natives all the while striving to keep the progress of democracy back home away from them. The colonies seem to be an ideal paradise for those with outmoded thoughts to run to and remain tyrants and savages.

The demands of carrying a gun

Whilst I was reading the article by Chatterjee,  what struck me most was that Smith said that the natives “crave for a government by a person to whom they can render royal homage”.  Reflecting upon it, it seems almost as though the Indians, with their rigid caste system and rules which were thought to be not based on any “common code of morality” or “rational system of law”, would have been used to being ruled in a fashion much akin to colonial rule which greatly privileged the ruling classes to the disadvantage of others. There are some striking resemblances between the rule of colonial difference, in which race is a marker of superiority whilst in the caste system where one is simply born into a social class as one is born white or black.

Linking this to Shooting the elephant, it made me think of how when one wields power, just as the speaker wields a gun, often one would feel as though he is expected to use it simply because he has it.  Just as the Indians might expect the white Raj to behave a certain way due to their own experiences with their native Raj, the Burmese also compel the white officer to shoot the elephant. If the elephant is to be read as a symbol for the native, then perhaps the natives have a part to play in their oppression due to their expectations of one who wields the gun. Perhaps if the Indians were not so used to the injustices of the caste system, things would have been different?

The gaze that kills the butterfly

As I was reading Wallace’s article about his observations of the Dyaks, it struck me as very odd that he would include their moral characters as part of his observations of them. It seems almost as though he fails to realize that as the observer,  his interaction with the Dyaks might contribute somewhat to the way in which they react to him and thus what he says about them actually reflects a part of himself. If they were hostile, he was likely perceived to be a threat and if they were friendly, he was likely genial as well. In subjecting the Dyaks to comparisons based on a Eurocentric values, he is reducing them somewhat and not truely able to represent them. It is weird to think of a naturalist classifying all the fauna and insects along with the human inhabitants, as though they were all part of the savage landscape.

In doing so, he pins them down much like how the collector of butterfly specimens does in Lord Jim. Stein catches his rarest specimen in the moment of a native’s literal death and kills it so that he might keep it still enough to study and describe it. The native is silenced and ‘killed’ in the records that manages to decribe things about him such as the physical attributes but the true essence of life is lost and thus the descriptions are unable to capture the truth about the native.

Guilt and the production of discourse

In Lord Jim, the character Jim seems unable to admit that he made a decision to jump at the very last minute and does not take responsibility for his actions despite appearing to confess his crime to the narrator by telling his supposedly true version of the events.  Each time he appears to admit to his mistake, he actually subtly tries to downplay the responsibility which he must take for his actions by qualifying it saying ” I had jumped… It seems,” ‘I knew nothing about it till I looked up”.  And with each reference to his guilt, it shifts subtly further and further away from his fault to the fault of others as he goes on to say he was “driven to do a thing like that” and later starts to blame others for the “abhorrent opportunity”, even going as far as to accuse them saying “It was their doing as plainly as if they had reached up with a boat hook and pulled (him) over.” 

This is may be juxtaposed with his insisting that he is different from the men who have planned to jump ship from the very onset and ” there was nothing in common between him and these men.” Unlike those men who “made up” a story that “was not a lie” but “wasn’t truth all the same,” he tells the truth of events and attempts to confess to the narrator in the hope of some form of absolution.  However we soon see that with each supposed honest admission of jumping, he goes further and further away from the truth, which shows him to be making up stories about himself like the other men.

It is interesting to see that the narrator initially appears to align himself with Jim by repeatedly mentioning that he is “one of us” while telling another person’s story. Much talk is generated by this event and everyone seemed to be unable to stop talking about it. It seems strange that the narrator feels the need to talk to others about this event and try and gather information about the event to piece it together when he isn’t the main character and there is no apparent relationship between him and Jim. Perhaps, I would suggest that the narrator is somewhat like the ancient mariner who feels compelled to tell a story due to guilt and Jim’s story is very much his as well because what happened was significant enough ” to affect mankind’s conception of itself”.

Thus, just like Jim, the narrator is compelled to tell the story in a way which tries to distance himself from the events by a form of sublimation- making it into yet another form of discourse. However, when he tells the story, what he actually reveals, like Jim,  by the way in which he shapes his version of the events is his guilt and complicity in the unspeakable crime.  It is significant that Jim never actually manages to articulate the exact moment of his transgression thus his confession, like the narrator’s exists in the gap between discourse and the truth.

The empire- a hollow machine

Whilst reading the heart of darkness, i was amused to find that descriptions about the steam engine which Marlow is the captain of  greatly resembles that of  those which we may apply to the empire. The invention of the steam engine is (if i remember correctly) closely tied to the rise of capitalism and the colonial enterprise is itself a capitalistic venture in many ways.  Marlow himself is always concerned with work and productivity and strangely enough, it is ambiguous if his judgments of the agents of empire arises out of an outraged morality or rather the ineffectuality of the actions, albeit cruel in nature.

While on board the ship, dense fog surrounds it and Marlow is uncertain as to where it is heading, which parallels his confusion concerning to the supposedly savage cannibals who showed great restraint (by not dishonouring their contract and eating the people on board), which is in great contrast to the pilgrims who seemed only able to show a surface restraint. Thus, it is unclear what the empire’s civilising mission is supposed to accomplish and where it would lead both the ‘savages’ and pilgrims to, much akin to navigating in a fog of confusion. 

In another section of the novel, the steam ship is described as hollow, very much like the characters who represent the colonial powers who are a ‘papier-mache mephistopheles'( two dimensional and without depth) or otherwise all appearances without substance like the company’s chief accountant.  Thus, the ’empire machine’ is always in danger of breaking down and in need of repair.

Chinua Achebe’s article on how the heart of darkness should not be included in the canon of literary works is quite extreme as when read in the context of a course which addresses racism and the effects of colonialism, it could provide us with a deeper insight into the depth of prejudice which permeates the novel on all levels.  However, i do agree that if this text were to read solely as a great work without addressing its flaws , it would not be fair.

Shooting oneself in the foot

Upon reading Shooting the elephant, it struck me that although a system or order may privilege some participants over others, in the end, everyone is nonetheless a subject. The police officer is able to enjoy a higher social status than the natives but is nonetheless trapped by the obligations associated by participating in the colonial enterprise by his role as a public servant. Imperialism is not merely guilty of taking unfair advantage of the natives but also guilty of causing the usually humane British subjects to descend into the same barbarity which they accuse the natives of.

In trying to justify colonial rule by saying that the natives are in need of a civilising influence, the empire has trapped the colonizers in the role not unlike that of the police officer in Orwell’s story, forcing them to act in certain ways. There is an unexpected power inversion here, where the European is expected to act like a Sahib even though he has decided to abandon his part in the colonial enterprise. It is his fear of them laughing at him which motivates his decision to kill  the elephant,  placing him in a subordinate position where he is forced to do violence to the elephant, which may be seen as symbolic of the natives.

The price of artificially trying to validate a regime of power or social order is that ultimately, it results in an uncanny backlash where the powerful look upon their constructed image of the powerless and see themselves reflected back- effectively shooting themselves in the foot.

The “real India”

In Philippa Levine’s “Britain in India”, India is shown to be significant to the British identity not only for economic reasons but more importantly how they see themselves as a Western power. Although it is often thought that the heart of empire exists where the colonizer’s homeland is, in this case the heart of the empire truly exists on the fringes and that is where the colonizers encounter the colonized.

The India which the British see when they are in Britain is not the “real India” as a character in Passage to India desires to see, but rather a projection of whom they would like to think themselves to be. India is more than a physical space but is more importantly an imagined space for the fiction of British superiority to be mapped upon. The notion of Western civilisation is itself a vulnerable and fragile construct, which may be shattered by a head on confrontation with reality. Perhaps this is why when characters from Britain come to India, they find themselves transformed from socially polite and reasonable beings into ‘brutish’ tyrants.

When the British come face to face with the Indian, the illusion of India and its subsequent ties to the British identity is broken and the British is left unable to cope with it except by reinforcing the broken illusion of colonizers’ superiority by creating a whole new artificial construct of social segregation. It is at the fringes of the empire, where the heart of the colonial enterprise may be exposed– an artificially enforced view of British superiority that often exists to exploit in the name of civilising the savage native.

The British Empire- a problematic construct of self and identity

Whilst I was reading through the article by Levine and trying to see how this is related to the other reading on “The Brown Stocking”, it struck me that one common theme explored is the desire to define and pin down something precise, by a pre-existing structure, or method of ordering. Mrs Ramsey as the figure of the artist in “To the Lighthouse” is someone who brings order to her household and she is adamant that the doors remain shut whilst the windows remain open.  I read this as the desire to be able to gain access to what is outside whilst making sure that nothing from the outside actually comes in to disrupt the pre-existing order. This is in parallel with the British colonizers’ desire to gain access to the colonized whilst making sure that their own cultures(order) remains untainted.

Windows suggest that the one inside is able to view what happens outside but remain separate from it, taking on the subjective position of one in power. This is in line with what the British colonizers do, when they view themselves as the centre of the empire and look upon the colonized, calling them uncivilized savages. However, just as Mrs Ramsey discovers that she cannot stop her children and various members of the household from leaving all the doors open and bringing things in from the outside which contribute to the gradual disarray and disintegration of her household, the colonizers soon find that their attempts to maintain a stable sense of self despite interactions with the natives is futile. The old order falls apart and a new method of ordering is called for.