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.

Writing Orwell: Falling into Modern English

I read an essay by Orwell in high school that had a profound impact on the way I view the English language. Written about a decade after “Shooting an Elephant,” “Politics and the English Language” is Orwell’s tirade of sorts against “modern english”: a new stage of the language that, to him, was ruining it. He argues that “the tendency of modern prose is away from concreteness.” Citing overused metaphor, pretentious diction and meaningless words and phrases as things that have redirected modern prose, it’s interesting to note that he uses all of them in “Shooting an Elephant.”

Although he does slip in some Latin – in saecula saeculorum, in terrorem – and utilize extremely common descriptions of the Burmese, especially in the opening paragraphs, Orwell’s writing and his later critique on modern prose seem to highlight the crisis of knowledge that stems from Orwell’s situation in Burma. He is on the side of the Burmese in as much as he hates the colonial oppression, and yet he is very firmly one of these oppressors in how the Burmese react to him and his consequent dislike of them. In other words, having concrete prose would detract from this feeling of internal conflict: how clear can one’s conscience be as an ambivalent colonial authority?

In characterizing, Orwell’s “modern English” goes great lengths to highlight the Modernist problem of knowledge, foregoing clarity of prose to emphasize the lack of clarity in the mind.

Crisis of Knowledge in A Passage to India

Personally, I was struck by the enigmatic quality of A Passage to India, which seems to resonate with the crisis of knowledge characteristic of modernist works. Throughout the novel, we are presented with events that we struggle to comprehend, as well as occurrences that underscore characters’ inability to grasp knowledge. For instance, we read of the failure of naming the “green bird”—calling it “bee-eater” and “parrot” though it is neither of the two (78)—and of identifying the animal that crashed into the car—with characters speculating that it was either a goat, buffalo or hyena (81-82). In fact, it is suggested that “nothing in India is identifiable”, perhaps highlighting a crisis of knowledge that plagues both the characters and the readers of the novel.

This failure to identify emerges again through attempts at describing sound. Firstly, Mrs. Moore describes the sound of the train moving as “pomper, pomper, pomper” (126), yet this train was “half asleep, going nowhere in particular” (127). Secondly, Mrs. Moore describes the echo in the Marabar Caves as “entirely devoid of distinction […] ‘boum’ is the sound as far as the human alphabet can express it, or ‘bou-oum’, or ‘ou-boum’ – utterly dull” (137). Again, we notice the preoccupation with naming, with expressing with certainty and through language. The novel however critiques this, insisting that it is impossible for “the mind [to] take hold of such a country” (127).

Where does this crisis of knowledge leave us then? If we were to look at the relationship between Modernism and Empire, perhaps we could say that the desire to name and to know relates to power relations; it is those who can name and know that have the power. Modernism’s crisis of knowledge thus serves as a critique of Empire, suggesting that we need to re-examine our understanding of Empire, and calling for a re-awakening of what we know or think we know about Empire.