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.

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.

Language and identity as performance

Fanon’s discussion on language and its inherent power structures really got me thinking about how we use language today, and all the things we never think about. It’s a discussion we’ve had in class more than once, about the ‘postcolonial condition’ of speaking, writing and even thinking in the language of our colonisers. What the article really highlighted for me was the way in which language, something performed externally, was really part of the coloniseds internal knowledge structures. To speak in French would be to ‘think in French’, in French ways—in the ways of the coloniser. Yet, no matter how internalised this language of the coloniser becomes for the colonised, the French white man will never see the black French-speaking man as his equal, or even as someone similar to him. In this way, as much as we talk about how identity is performed, it’s too easy to forget that the performance of identity is one that requires ‘audience participation’—without the recognition of the identity one is performing, the performance becomes meaningless. A black man can speak flawless French, and ‘be’ more French than a white Frenchman, but ultimately, his skin colour makes him nothing but a “joke” (25), both to the white and black men.

The hope that language offers

Fanon’s article “The Negro and Language” mentions how white men have a tendency to ‘talk down’ to natives, citing the example of the priest who spoke pidgin-nigger to Achille. Fanon then asserts that white men “talking to Negroes in this way gets down to their level, it puts them at ease, it is an effort to make them understand us, it reassures them” (32).

Upon reading this, I was strongly reminded of what Ellis said to his servant in Burmese Days:

“Don’t talk like that, damn you – ‘I find it very difficult!’ Have you swallowed a dictionary? ‘Please, master, can’t keeping ice cool’ – that’s how you ought to talk. We shall have to sack this fellow if he gets to talk English too well. I can’t stick servants who talk English” (Orwell 26).

These few sentences perfectly encapsulate what Fanon is getting at; Ellis demonstrating exactly how the servant “ought to talk” reflects how the “European has a fixed concept of the Negro” (35) as linguistically inferior, and thus “nothing is more astonishing than to hear a black man express himself properly, for then in truth he is putting on the white world” (36). By speaking in proper English, the servant is demonstrating not just his mastery of the colonizer’s language, but also implies assimilation in the colonizer’s world (think about how the Negro ‘newcomer’ speaking only in French demonstrates “the extent of his assimilation” (36)). This is why Ellis says he will have to sack the servant if he speaks English too well, as that would break down the distinctions between colonizer and colonized, master and servant.

Speaking the colonizer’s language is therefore equivalent to taking on a world, a culture (Fanon 38). However, ‘talking down’ to the native is not merely about taking on a language that the colonized can understand. Rather, it is a means of reassuring the colonizer that he ‘talks down’ to the colonized because he KNOWS the limits of their comprehension, the impossibility of their understanding perfect English. It thus reinforces his superiority and justifies white rule. Knowledge is power, and the people who have the power to ‘know’ and to speak, are those who write history – think about Alfred Russel Wallace’s article, where he ‘knows’ the natives and thus has the power to write about them.

Therefore, “mastery of [the colonizer’s] language affords remarkable power” (Fanon 18) for the colonized, for it means the hope of being on the same level as the whites. However, in mastering and choosing to speak the colonizer’s language in his native land, the Negro newcomer is now seen as a “joke” (25) to his own people, an ‘Other’, as he is neither completely black nor white. It thus appears that mastery of the colonizer’s language is never a real solution, as not only does it compromise the Negro newcomer’s position among his people, he is never treated on equal grounds as the whites either. The issue of mastering the colonizer’s language is fraught with complexities. While it may not offer an infallible solution to raising the status of the colonized, seeming even like a delusion, it is perhaps all we have, and if we embrace it, we are in the very least offered the hope of reconciliation.

Shooting An Elephant: Chaos, Order & Violence

I think Shooting An Elephant very nicely illustrates the theme of Chaos, Order and Violence. Chaos wreaked by the “mad elephant” requires the police officer to “do something about it”, so as to restore order and prevent the elephant from causing anymore havoc to property and man.  However, it is ironic that the only way to subdue the chaos and instill order requires the employment of violence, which is then another kind of chaos or dis-order.

Colonialism therefore functions to tame, civilize and order the natives with institutions that function precisely on this basis of violence, whether it is the threat (causing mental chaos to instill order) or its actual implementation; a perfect example as the police force. This compels me to recall Fanon’s assertion that “Colonialism is not a machine capable of thinking, a body endowed with reason. It is naked violence and only gives in when confronted with great violence.” (23) Violence thus appears to be ultimately inevitable.

The somewhat disturbing thing about Shooting An Elephant however, is the way in which it illustrates how everyone, both colonist and colonized, are complicit in this violence. The Burman crowd is described as “watch[ing] a conjurer about to perform a trick”, giving a “deep, low, happy sigh, as of people who see the theatre curtain go up at last… They were going to have their bit of fun after all”. After the elephant is dead, their opportunistic reaction is to “strip [the elephant’s] body almost to the bones”, embodying a kind of violence too. As for the narrator, despite his assertion that “imperialism was an evil thing” and his rationalizations for killing the elephant, it does not lessen the fact that he still committed a violent act after all, what more for the sake of his (white) reputation/identity. It seems to suggest that without the chaos caused by the elephant, it would not have warranted a reason for its death either. This, we can draw a parallel to the West’s justification of the use of violence to quell chaos and instill order in the native land.

Perhaps what Shooting An Elephant is trying to underscore then, is that although it does not deny the use of violence nor the complicity of both colonist and colonized in the cycle of violence, it highlights instead how neither colonist nor colonized are spared in the oppressive cycle of guilt that accompanies colonialism and violence.

Note-taking for Lord Jim (Wk 7): Overall Summary

Topic of Class

Week 7’s class focused mainly on the questioning of a singular perspective (whether of Marlow’s viewpoint in Lord Jim or Alfred Russel Wallace’s views in his scientific travel book The Malay Archipelago), highlighting how the methods employed (written and oral narrative or empirical evidence) resulted in an effect on the reader’s perception of an issue (Jim’s identity or the nature/characteristics of the Dyaks).

The first part of class centered on the uses and effects of narrative in Lord Jim.  The presentation first explored the employment of both the oral and written traditions to question the stability of Marlow’s role as storyteller and author. The presence of various narrators giving rise to multiple perspectives was then investigated, questioning the possibility of ever getting a true representation of Jim’s identity.

The second half of class was then devoted to the discussion of how Wallace’s text relates to Lord Jim and how both texts exemplify the crisis of knowledge and representation. The importance of being aware of Wallace’s employment of the empirical evidence methodology and its ability to shape results was underlined, but more pertinently, the issue of how science is employed to augment power was raised, and how it in turn justifies instances of colonialism seen even in Lord Jim.

 

Examples

The power to construct truth

“My information was fragmentary, but I’ve fitted the pieces together, and there is enough of them to make an intelligible picture.” (Conrad 262).

Just as Marlow has the power to fit pieces of information together and give us his account of Jim, Wallace has the power to designate and scribe his opinions of the characteristics of the Dyaks. Even in Wallace’s collecting of butterfly specimens, it involves a tedious process of selection, which points to the artifice of construction and how methodology can affect results. Here, we see how those in power are privileged to select and show us their version of truth, which thereby points us back to the questioning of the authority and reliability of a singular perspective and constructed “truth”.

The power of empirical evidence to inadvertently justify colonialism

Wallace asserts that the “limited number of [the Dyak woman’s] progeny” (70) is due to the “hard labour of the women, and the heavy weights they constantly carry” (70). He continues to state that with advancing civilization, better systems of agriculture and division of labour, “the women will have more household duties to attend to, and will then cease to labour in the field” (70).

Here, Wallace implies that with improving systems of agriculture and labour division, less physical labour for the Dyak women and increased attending to household duties would result in higher fertility for them, which instead validates (and exalts) the Victorian practice of relegating womenfolk to the domestic sphere and their role as caretakers of children. In making such a statement, he also highlights the sensibility of the “high class European example” (Wallace 71), and justifies colonialism to improve the natives’ way of life.

 

Connections with Other Topics from Other Weeks

Both the presentation on Lord Jim and the discussion of Wallace’s text led us to question the possibility of a true history when told only from a single person’s perspective. The idea of moving from a singular or fixed viewpoint to embracing a multiplicity of perspectives is one that has resonated throughout our module so far.

If we recall the readings in the second week, Gikandi’s article brought us to an understanding of how Picasso’s art plays with perspectives to complicate the meaning of things, just as Auerbach suggests how the consciousness of a range of characters in Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse also opens us to different readings of the “real” Mrs Ramsay. Similarly, in Forster’s A Passage to India and Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the varying perceptions of India and the various narratives in HOD (whether from the narrator to us, Marlow to the narrator, or from others to Marlow etc) respectively actually contribute to a more all-encompassing view. However, to be able to reach the real India/Truth is still ultimately impossible, just as the true identity of Jim remains “inscrutable” (Conrad 318) and an “insoluble mystery” (Conrad 234).

In looking at renowned biologist Alfred Russel Wallace’s scientific travel book containing his (skewed) opinions of natives that seem to only justify colonialism, we discussed the idea of power: Power, not just to inscribe characteristics onto a native people who could not speak for themselves then, but power to influence the masses, and power to pass on HIS opinions as truth. This power Fanon speaks of too, in the colonist solely and continually fabricating the image of the colonized, passing that image off as truth. We can perhaps better understand Achebe’s anger towards the classification of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as a great work of art, of the power of aesthetics and art to gloss over, play down and disguise racism, such that despite propagating such racist depictions, the novel still remains an influential piece particularly in British literature, widely-read and greatly-loved.

On representation, and art for art’s sake or just a pure heart of darkness?

Achebe contends that “the real question is the dehumanization of Africa and Africans which this age-long attitude has fostered and continues to foster in the world. And the question is whether a novel which celebrates this dehumanization, which depersonalizes a portion of the human race, can be called a great work of art. My answer is: No, it cannot.” (344)

What Achebe says (in italics) compels me to recall Fanon’s assertion that “It is the colonist who fabricated and continues to fabricate the colonized subject.” (2)

No doubt, that the West creates the image of Africa in opposition to itself is problematic and highly disturbing. Achebe is thus strongly against classifying Heart of Darkness as a great work of art, which would only perpetuate vulgar prejudices and insults towards Africa and Africans.

However, I think we should also be considering another question: Which is the lesser of two evils? Representation albeit in a negative, misguided light, or total non-representation, completely writing Africa and Africans out of history?

With representation comes the question of motive: what is Conrad’s motive for portraying Africans in such a light? To perpetuate the dehumanization of Africans (as opposed to the utmost civilization of the West), or simply adding his creative flair to existing stereotypes? On the other hand, non-representation seems to be even more problematic in that Africans aren’t even significant enough to be represented. There is probably no easy answer, as both misrepresentation and non-representation still signify a kind of violence committed towards Africa.

Achebe’s angst towards the vulgar portrayal of Africans is thus understandable. But should we still consider Heart Of Darkness as a great work of art? Well, in the modernist line of thought, as art for art’s sake, then perhaps Conrad’s novel does seem to achieve it with its enthralling and well-written narrative. But if we choose to think like Achebe, then “no easy optimism [is] possible” (Achebe 348) and we’ll only see the heart of darkness in people.

Note-taking on Presentation – Part One of Week 4

The main ideas that were discussed during the presentation evolves around the use of Fanon’s Manichean world view, of dividing the world neatly into two – the Colonizer and the Colonized. Fanon’s framework was used mainly as a platform to approach the relationships, use of violence in a colonial regime, as set in Passage to India. This is then followed by exploring Fanon’s discussion of a colonist’s quest for a real and authentic experience in their colony which Forster seems to have debunked in his novel.

As the presentation continued, Fanon’s dialectic view, when applied onto Passage to India, comes across as overly simplistic in its view of dividing the colonial world, in the novel, into colonists and colonized (made up of Hysterical masses and the intellectual). With this view in mind, it seems that Fanon saw that relationships in the colonial world can only be made and negotiated within the dialectic framework. However, a character like Aziz is a poses problems for the framework as he does not fit in perfectly into the category of colonized intellectual – one who idealizes and looks up to their colonizers and adopting their colonizer’s values and beliefs. Aziz, on the other hand, looks towards maintaining his traditions and religion of Islam.

Hence, the importance of understanding the issues in a colonial world dwells down to a matter of perspectives as  present in the novel. When we consider that it was those in power (the colonizers) who viewed their colonial world through ethnocentric lens – it becomes clearer why India seems unrecognizable to them. For instance, the orderly and rationality espoused by the West led them to view India’s civilisation as a muddle, a “confused multitude of things”. This inclination to neatly categorize the world leads them to overlook how complex, vast and diversified India really is (Das 81). Hence, missing the “real” India; the “hundred Indias” (Forster 13).

Therefore, despite the colonists’ questing, in search of the “real” India – India remains elusive to them. This is probably due to their own limited perspectives and inability to experience and see out of their own “British/colonist space” within India. This state is put forth by Fielding: “They(the colonists), had not the apparatus for judging” (Forster 248). Whatever the colonists (namely, Miss Quested and Mrs Moore) had experienced, is not the “real” India, even though what they experienced is not fake. To put it simply, they have encountered parts of India but they can never be said to have explored the actual India.

All in all, Fanon’s view of colonialisation seems to be too simplistic for many in class, but contextually as modern readers, it seems that our seasoned understanding of fluidity of categorization might have allowed us to see an issue with the binaries that Fanon’s view works on. This once again dwells on the importance of perspectives.

Fanon and the process of decolonization

Fanon argues that the colonists’ basis for colonizing foreign lands is the belief in the native’s ‘ “negation of values “. Because of the native’s lack of values, the colonist deems his own action reasonable and altruistic. It also gives him the right to continue to lord over the ‘immoral’ colonized. Such a line of reasoning also implies the colonist’s ‘divine right’ to rule over the colonized.  As the colonists becomes increasingly absorbed and bought over by this line of thinking, the barbaric nature of colonization is lost upon them.

But the natives are not spared from adopting this line of thinking themselves. The ultimate solution to achieving peace in the colony is to convince the natives that they are unable to run their countries themselves, and they would return to the Middle Ages once the colonists leave. Thus, Fanon insists that violence is at the core of de-colonization. Violence is perhaps the only way to break the belief that the colonized is inherently inferior to the colonist.

Unlike Fanon, I do not think that violence must take the form of colonized against colonist. Britain’s de-colonization in South East Asia can be a case in point. For Singapore’s case, violence against the colonist was not the key that brought about de-colonization. Instead, it was the violence of WWII inflicted upon Britain that convinced them to leave. The war torn Britain could no longer sustain their colonist position economically. Furthermore, her defeat to Japan in SEA demystified its superior colonist image.

Thus, while Fanon’s argument on the process of de-colonization is useful but it cannot be applied generically to all colonies.

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”.

On Violence in Passage to India

I’d admit that it was more than a little frustrating to read Fanon because of his rather extreme, over-generalized statements on the colonialists and the colonized. Was the colonized world really divided in two? Wouldn’t Fielding/ Mrs. Moore be an exception to that case? Is the ending really unambiguous, suggesting that reconciliation and equality between the colonialists and the colonized is (at least temporarily) impossible?

What intrigued me, however, was his idea of decolonization- a term I hardly come across. Fanon mentions repeatedly that the colonized have imbibed the violent disposition of the colonized and will continue to perpetuate their ways. The colonized is much more concerned about taking the place of the colonized than competing with them. My take is that decolonization, for Fanon, is not entirely possible. And here I am reminded of a moment in the book when Aziz and Huzoor talk about the flies on the ceiling (pg. 262):

‘Look at those flies on the ceiling. Why have you not drowned them?’

‘Huzoor, they return’

‘Like all evil things.’

Hassan then related how the kitchen-boy killed one snake by cutting it into two and creating two snakes in its place instead. Imagine if you tried cutting the two snakes up again. A never-ending infernal cycle! In my own opinion, however, the ending of the novel isn’t as straightforward as it seems even though the ‘hundred voices’ oppose the friendship between Fielding and Aziz. It’s interesting to note that the last mention of Fielding names him as ‘the other’ and that his question of ‘Why can’t we be friends now?’ is (I argue) really left open-ended because we don’t get to read about Aziz’s response. Before that, Aziz’s interaction with Fielding is both intimate and hostile with him riding against Fielding furiously and then ‘half kissing him’.

The Discourse of Violence

I thought of blogging about this because it is related to my part in the presentation tomorrow, but since we have limited time to give our parts, here are some more interesting points I picked up when reading Fanon that I won’t cover in my presentation.

Fanon talks a lot about the undeniable violence wrecked on the colonised by the coloniser, and about how this violence is not limited to specific cases, but is something that is universal and “can break out anywhere” (Fanon 42). What I found most interesting is the discourse that both the coloniser and the colonised enter into in the act of imperialism. Because both parties participate in this colonial discourse, only the colonier can understand the language/meaning in the violence of the colonised (and vice versa); this is due to the fact that the colonier has also wrecked the same violence on the colonised, and will therefore recognise the similar retaliation. In Forster, despite the fact that the characters simply cannot come to any complete understanding of each other, there still exists the common recognition of violence (specifically, imperial violence) between the coloniser and the colonised.

Thus, the idea of the British Quest in India is one that is fraught with the kind of violence that Fanon identifies. Forster uses various metaphors, motifs and analogies that capture the action-reaction cycle (referred to by Fanon as “extraordinary reciprocal homogeneity” 46) of imperialism. Thus, we are forced to wonder if reciprocal violence is indeed a necessary evil in the discourse of imperialism and postcolonism. The “intuitive” (33) understanding by the colonised identified by Fanon certainly reiterates this- if the colonised know nothing but violence in the act of imperialism, they will undoubtedly think that violence is the only way of responding to it. If we think of imperialism as a unique language, then the only means of communication will therefore be using the same language.

Lastly, Fanon observes that even with independence, the colonised have regained “moral reparation and… dignity” (40), and that the only way to seek solace in their unwitting participation in the colonial discourse, they have to engage in violence to purify their history and achieve equality with their colonisers. Therefore, ironically, to cancel and forget colonial violence, the colonised have to acknowledge and even enter into that which they are trying to triumph over in order for it to vanish from the history books.

The Crisis of (Post-Colonial) Identity

Decolonization, as Frantz Fanon suggests, is but replacing the (former) colonists with a new generation of previously-colonized elites. Not only do these new leaders “tend to forget the very purpose of the struggle [to] defeat […] colonialism” (13), they are ironically the ones who perpetuate those atrocities that were suffered by their forefathers. In more concrete terms, this means that those supposedly decolonized nations are still maintaining the “status quo” – with the “symbols of society such as the police force, bulge calls in the barracks, military parades” (16) firmly intact – while “instill[ing] in the exploited a mood of submission and inhibition which considerably eases the task of the agents of law and order” (3-4). Put simply, the one thing that has changed is that violence is now committed on the ‘blacks’ by the ‘blacks’ (paraphrasing Fanon; 15).

 

This, to me, urgently questions the rather aggrandized ideal of modernity: have we really become more liberal, equal and fraternal (borrowing from the French), or are the past and present rulers merely engaging in a “narcissistic monologue” (11) albeit different ‘nationalities’? I believe we have passed the point where we only want our leaders to ‘look’ like us superficially; we demand that they re-utilize the merits ‘our’ people earned through their colonial history for our people’s sake, instead of solely maintaining the legacy of that economic ‘superstructure’.

 

But this is as difficult as attaining any ideals are. We can surely see the character Aziz portray an insistence on preserving his culture while succumbing to the control of the Civil Surgeon. My issue is: why is he called “imprudent” for it by his fellow countrymen? Isn’t this very scene showing us the effect of “the colonist who fabricated and continues to fabricate the colonized subject” (2)?