Stephen’s Voice: The Irish in Me

By appropriating what is said in Black Skin, White Masks — It can  be generalized that those who are colonized, have “no culture, no civilisation, no ‘long historical past'” (34) and it is the master’s or colonizer’s language that “is the key that can opens doors” (38). Stephen Dedalus faces a similar dilemma that eventually got resolved towards the end. Understandably, the English language is an acquired tongue of Stephen but he has learned and found the value of a language that frees him from the entanglement from the nets of “nationality, language, religion” (210). These nets would have stopped his ‘flight’ above the Irish issue that is seen myopically by many of his peers who are unable to view themselves beyond the veneers of the present. As Stephen puts it, “Ireland is the old sow that eats its farrow” (210), basically-speaking, the current condition of his country has to do, way back in the long history of Ireland when Stephen accused the country of giving up its own language and took another (209), hence losing their culture and history (since language facilitates the creation of history).

As mentioned earlier on, the acquiring of a language used by colonists opens the world to the person. Similarly, it is no coincidence that Portrait is full of Latin — the language of the learned. Stephen, it seems, is ready to embark on a journey that is beckoning him, to become an artist with his arsenal of languages, to “forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race” (262) as he starts by finding his own voice as seen in the changes of the novel into the journal form – his own voice, towards the end .

Is the hierarchy of language everything?

There is a clear hierarchy of languages revealed in Fanon’s ‘Black Skin, White Masks’. When he tells of the Antilleans’ desire to learn French French (as if there was a definitive dialect), even as Senagalese try to speak like native Antilleans, the hierarchy becomes really stark and not a little funny. Sad, perhaps, but funny nonetheless.

But this hierarchy is not about the beauty of language alone, but more to do with power — what it connotes, with regards to one’s origins. This is why Germans or Russians who speak bad French, while maybe derided, still are given respect: it’s because their country, be it military might, culture, are respected. Not so for the Africans.

But where does that leave us? Language, as Fanon talks about, is alienating all around, for the colonised individual, whether he speaks French French or creole. Fanon himself seems to have no solution, for he ends the essay elliptically…

The hierarchy remains, today. The languages I would like to learn, in order, is this: French,  Spanish, Italian. Why not Malay, or Vietnamese? Not simply because the former are more exotic, or immediately useful in my Singaporean context, that’s for sure. And we assess people on their proficiency in English for sure: and why else does the British accent hold such awe for us?

But I want to suggest that in some ways, all isn’t as Fanon sees it — it’s not ALL about national or ethnic identity. If we see linguistic prowess as a skill, it should not be surprising that people are impressed by skilful users of language. And some skills are just naturally more sought after, even if they are not pragmatically useful; for example, piano-playing, ballet, archery, oh, and, golf? This hierarchy of desirability obtains from another mode of value-giving, I think. The first two might be considered artistic (thus ‘good’) and the latter, well, I honestly, don’t know!

On Fanon’s Black Skin White Masks

As I was reading Fanon’s article, what instantly sprang to mind was Hegel’s ‘master-slave’ dialectics. The black man has internalized what Chateerjee terms as the ‘rule of colonial difference’ and understands his own position in relation to white man and his authority and superiority. I agree with what Fanon has pointed out about the nature of language– the fact that in taking on a language, one is necessarily interpellated within a certain symbolic order, the community and even its culture, no matter how foreign a tongue it may be. However, I think Fanon posits more than one possibilities when it comes to the consequence of a Black man who attempts to assimilate into the French culture and language. He did recognize that acquiring the French tongue can ‘open doors’ for the native if he is able to use it as a tool. Knowing the language and using it to his advantages certainly allow him to be aware of his own conditions. What dejects Fanon perhaps, is the idea of a Black man who renounces his own origins, tongue and culture in order to take on the identity and culture of the French, wishing to be associated with the assumed qualities that come with the ‘whiteness’. This is a sign of self-denial, indicating that the Black man acknowledges at heart, that being civilized and being cultured means being (acting) like a white man.

The roles played in Empire

As I was reading Fanon’s article, I realized that the colonial enterprise only worked as well as it did was because both sides (colonized and colonizer) acknowledged their respective roles and performed them accordingly, especially when it comes to upholding the rules of language. It is only through the modernist writings that we have encountered during this module that we can see the cracks in empire as a result of either side being reluctant to play this role. In Fanon’s article, he mentions that “But we can already state that to talk pidgin-nigger is to express this thought: ‘You’d better keep your place.'” (84) Thus, there is a conscious effort to talk down to the natives as a result of the need to uphold these performative colonial roles and the  natives have to respond according to how they are expected to respond. It is when they refuse to respond as such, or even try to speak like the colonizer that there is trouble.

Moreover, the paradox of wanting to speak like the colonizer/the white man is the fact that while the colonized are described as uncivilized because of their inability to grasp the language of the colonizer, when they finally are able to grasp the language and perhaps can even speak the language better than the colonizers themselves, they are told to stay in their place, as seen in the example in Burmese Days that Charlene pointed out below.

Also as a sidenote, the point that Fanon made about “the Europeans [having] a fixed concept of the Negro and there is nothing more exasperating than to be asked: ‘How long have you been in France? You speak French so well'” (35) is still quite prevalent in today’s society in terms of how Europeans have a fixed concept of the Other, i.e people from Asia etc. I personally encountered this when I was on exchange in Glasgow last year. I had a consultation with one of my history professors regarding my essay and she commented on how my mastery of the English language was excellent in my essay and how  she was so astonished because I probably spoke Mandarin where I came from. Of course, it was awkward that I had to clarify that firstly, I did not speak Mandarin at all and secondly that English was the official language used in Singapore. But the point is that even after all these years, the European fixed concept of the Other still holds true. Moreover, the fact that she assumed that I could speak Mandarin reminds me of how the colonizers used to disregard the different cultures, and by extension languages, that existed in Africa and instead assumed that everyone spoke the same language as a means of  dehumanizing the Africans further by resisting to acknowledge the multi-farious and complex nature of their culture. But ultimately, it is obvious that language played a significant role in keeping both the colonized and colonizer in their respective places.

language and mimicry

To speak a language is to take on a world, a culture. The Antilles Negro who wants to be white will be the whiter as he gains greater mastery of the cultural tool that language is. Rather more than a year ago in Lyon, I remember, in a lecture I had drawn a parallel between the Negro and European poetry, and a French acquaintance told me enthusiastically, ‘At the bottom you are a white man.’ The fact that I had been able to investigate so interesting a problem through the white man’s language gave me honorary citizenship” (38).

This extract to me really summarises what the article is all about. it is about the appropriation of a language that is foreign in an attempt to be something that one cannot (Liz explained this really well in her post). And what really troubles me is the fact that the Antilles Negroes still persist in wanting to speak French because they see it as “the key that can open doors which were still barred to his fifty years ago” (38). They wish to be seen as equals to their European counterparts but this cannot ever be achieved because no matter how good their French is, as it is only seen as a good imitation of an original. It is like a layman trying to sing Whitney Houston’s “I will always love you” in Singapore Idol. It will never ever be able to measure up to the original version and what will you get? lots of backlash from the judges about poor song choice and a possible boot from the show. Anecdote aside, the Antilles Negroes will always be “measured up to the culture” (39) and even if their “gift of eloquence… leaves any European breathless” (39), their ‘achievement’ will be met with praise laced with condescension, oh he was a “great black poet,” or here’s a “black man who handles the french language as no white man can” (39). Race always comes to the fore and it just seems to me to be another pat on the back on the colonizer’s part.

But this is not to mean that they should stop speaking French, because mimicry as suggested by Homi Bhabha could also disclose the ambivalence of colonial discourse and disrupt its authority in creating a kind of “double vision.” This double vision is the “inappropriate” repetition of partial presences of the colonial subject that subverts the “appropriate objects of a colonialist chain of command, authorized versions of otherness”(87).