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.



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.

Of embracing fear and the crisis of representation

Embracing Fear

What strikes me about Levine’s “Ruling the Empire” and Gikandi’s “Picasso, Africa, and the Schemata of Difference” is the fear of natives and their possible influence on the West. Fear of the alleged savagery and lack of civilization of these “lesser peoples” (Levine 105) form part of the basis for the West’s civilizing missions. Even then, fears still exist: that of “contamination” (Levine 107) when colonizers marry colonized women.  This fear is similar to the “anxiety of African influence” (Gikandi 458); the need to play down any direct association between Picasso’s works and tribal objects.  The African is seen as the Other, everything the civilized West is not. To suggest an African influence on the West would then mean a threat to the civilized West and what it stands for. However, where fear becomes a reason to reject the African, Picasso then embraces it, producing his own version of the unmodern, presenting, representing, and re-presenting the African/ African culture’s influence on his art.

Crisis of Representation

The link between modernism and empire, of fear and actions to quell that fear, is exemplified in Levine’s article. When we speak of modernism and form, Picasso’s works playing on the idea of perspective and complicating the meaning of things compels me to recall Auerbach’s discussion of how different peoples’ consciousness in Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse gives different perceptions of the “real” Mrs Ramsay.

We are thus confronted with a crisis of representation, of having to deal with fear and re-presenting it in a different form.

Thoughts on Modernism

Just some thoughts on the nature of Modernist art and literature. The Gikandi reading really made me realise that when we think of Modernist art and literature, our reading of it is often subconsciously framed by the assumption that writers or artists who incorporate the Other/Orient/colonised in their work are sympathetic to them. For me at least, the presence or absence of the colonised in literature, and especially art, suggested that the writer/artist saw the colonised as people ‘worthy’ of being represented in their works. However, after reading the Gikandi reading, I realised that this was not necessarily true. Looking through the lecture notes on the nature of Modernist art and literature, one of the things I noticed was the fact that Modernism was largely concerned with the idea of ‘Form’ and different ways of looking and thinking. Considering that in line with the Gikandi reading, it struck me that ultimately, Modernism seemed to be less about the subject of representation and more about how that subject affected the writer or artist. So, despite the fact that Modernism as a movement had been catalysed by self-questioning in the wake of WWI, Modernists seem to me a rather ‘self-centred’ bunch. Despite Modernism’s interest in the Other, it was still for the ‘purpose’ of understanding the self—the representations of the Other in Modernism thus seem to continue the ‘exploitation’ of the Other, despite the movement’s concern with different perspectives and new ways of looking/thinking. Perhaps I approached “Modernism” from a certain (skewed?) starting point, which has led to this spiel—any thoughts?

On modernism

In general, the works that emerged out of the period reflect a radical breakaway from traditional methods of representation. There is no longer a fixed center, perspective or meaning to be found, let alone a proper solution or closure to the proposed issues, hence Auerbach’s suggestion that “there is often something confusing…hazy about them, something hostile to the reality which they represent” (p.551, “The Brown Stocking”). From Pablo Picasso to Virginia Woolf, the modernist artists seem intent to demonstrate an inherent sense of disorder and disunity in their works.
I find Gikandi’s interpretation of Picasso’s works and his use of the Black body to be particularly disturbing. ‘Picasso adopted African forms as a way of thinking through the limitations of the forms of representation favoured by the art academy, namely a sense of order, proportionality, and idealization. The African body formed the embodiment of disorder’ (P.462) In other words, underlying the great master’s artistic visions, were seemingly ethnocentric perspectives and a deeply ingrained European mentality that the Africans represent a state of being which was far from being rational or ideal. Their ‘otherness’ was being idenified and valorised in Picasso’s paintings as an antithesis to the Europeans’ understanding of themselves and the idea of civilization. In this sense, modernism operated as an high aesthetic art that continued to silence the African subjects, denying them their personal and authentic voice, and this further solidates their position and function as the ‘Other’ in the eyes of the Europeans.

Of Missionaries and Imperial Ideology


Some thoughts about the role of missionaries brought up in the Levine reading and how it echoes certain tenets of the Gikandi reading:

The complex role of missionaries – being critical of imperial practices and policies though not of imperial philosophy – seems to be characterised by push and pull forces, with the interaction of both forces ultimately reinforcing and maintaining imperial ideology. For all their anti-slavery protests and public outcry about colonial exploitation, the reality of their work point otherwise. One can look at their work as a sort of religious imperialism and even linguistic imperialism – giving converts Christian names, improving literacy. Their provision of health care and education can be seen as social imperialism, their building of mission schools spatial imperialism. Interestingly enough, the work of the missionaries don’t reflect the distance between colonists and colonials as mentioned by Levine (pg 110), but rather an association between the two groups. Once again, push and pull factors are at play here.

The fact of the matter is that their missionary work cannot be disassociated from imperial ideology. The promotion of imperial ideology by missionaries is subtle, invisible, and disguised as harmless, moral duty, echoing Gikandi’s mention of the unconscious influence of Africa being acknowledged yet denied visibility in Picasso’s works, all under the guise of primitivism. For Levine and Gikandi, the rendering invisible, the masking (pun not intended) to disguise, serve as push and pull factors that distance and associate, and yet ultimately sustain and buttress imperial ideology.

Russell 🙂

Thoughts on Gikandi’s reading

The Gikandi reading was interesting as I for one have long regarded Picasso as the grandfather of modern art but now, I have my doubts. The first thing that came to my mind was the question of plagiarism. I mean, Picasso didn’t exactly credit the Africans for “borrowing” their pieces of cultural artifacts and instead, he as well as other scholars have shied away from acknowledging the African influence in the history of modernism. He defended himself by saying that Africa had a psychological effect on him but it was not a formal influence on modernism. But how does one differentiate a subconscious effect from a formal influence? I personally feel that there are many close similarities if not blatant imitations of African masks in Picasso’s work eg. the Grebo mask. As such, is Picasso guilty of plagiarism? If so, can he still be hailed as a great modern artist? I think that we as appreciators of art need to redefine our standards of what a great artist is. We are very much contributors to this cycle of exploitation if we fail to acknowledge the Africans’ art culture and their role in the history of modern art.
Also another question to ponder: are the Africans subalterns since the modernists have erased their existence from history? If so, can their voices ever be represented authentically using the English language given the many issues concerned with translation? Sorry this post has more questions than answers ☺

The ‘Hauntology’ of Modernism

Hi guys,

I found the Simon Gikandi’s essay ‘Picasso, Africa and the Schemata of Difference’ most interesting so I thought that I’d just do a posting on that article. I’ve not touched modernism for a pretty long time so Gikandi’s essay worked as a pretty good ‘flashback’ for me. What I really took away from this essay was the notion of the kind of conflicts present in modernist aesthetics (kind of mentioned in class, right?).

First, Picasso’s work exemplified how ‘high (western) art’ co-opted/ incorporated ‘low (tribal/ native) art’. As Gikandi argues, if I’m correct, Picasso did not merely use the idea of the primitive in a conceptual way, he also used it in a formal way.  Therefore, Africa contributed to the making of that very movement. Another tension thrown into the mix is the fact that modernists had to ‘set out to defy and deconstruct’ the very institutions of Western culture so that it could be enshrined within it. I’ve been thinking about what makes a module like this different from other modules dealing with the empire, like ’19th Century’ and ‘Asia and Victorians’. My guess is that such tensions and conflicts weren’t exactly present in the Victorian period and the modernist’s aim/ goal was to break free from the influence of those precursors (here we are reminded of T.S. Eliot’s Anxiety of Influence- Gikandi alludes to that but playfully refers to the ‘influence’ as African/ Others in page 458 ). Yet the modernist had to inevitably deal with (and operate within) a particular line of tradition; he could not entirely extricate himself from that web.

Picasso’s method of dealing with these ‘ghosts’, as Gikandi’s use of the term ‘hauntology’ suggests they are, was to ‘invent his own version of the unmodern’, which thereby helped him to secure his status as a ‘modernist’. Rather messy, don’t you think. It’ll be very exciting to actually analyze Picasso’s work in-depth and specifically, to see for ourselves how he dealt with primitive art and African influence. Gikandi’s essay doesn’t cover very much on that, but it goes beyond talking about how the Other is misrepresented or under represented in modernist work. Instead, it tells us more about what their work says about the modernist’s psyche.

What then, is Truth?

It was challenging and unsettling for me to come face to face with the concept of creating, condescending to and, perhaps most critically, the act of representing the colonised figure, as Picasso does in his abstract work, taking the African body as a subject of art, rather than an autonomous individual capable in some way of presenting himself. I could see the two main points of Levine’s article clearly articulated in the example of Picasso in Gikandi’s article. Firstly, that the colonised is conceptualised within the dichotomy of the “superior” colonial figure (the West), as an outsider, or Other. And more importantly, that a fundamental show of colonial power lies in the representation, or speaking for, this Other.

Picasso’s abstract representation of the African as a work of art is a fundamental disempowering of the colonised figure because as he creates his own image of this figure, he prescribes a certain way of interpreting what this person stands for, as a symbol of his culture and more widely, of his people. The subsequent lack of “voice” given to the African figure to be represented as he really is, brings to the fore the fundamental question posited in Modernist thought – that of the interpretation of truth. Picasso’s representation, in abstraction, emphasises the subjectivity of perception and therefore unhinges the concept of an objective truth: “an African is really like this” (as opposed to how Picasso represents him). This to me, was the most unsettling outcome of reading these texts.

Modernism and Perception

Both Auerbach and Gikandi” raise the idea of perception, how modernist artists wished to use their works to provide a different (or many differing) perspective on issues (including art) by using unconventional forms and themes. There seems to be a focus on the “Other”, what is “Other” to the standards and values of conventional art and fiction. Thus, it could be understood why modernist writers might turn to the portrayal of “Other” races (i.e. non-white races) as a way of showing a different perspective on issues like colonialism.

However, there is the possibility of the “Other” being reduced to a tool, of being silenced by the artists even as he is represented in their works. As in Heart of Darkness, the “Other” is viewed through the eyes of the narrator or other characters (eg. Marlow), but never given a chance to speak for himself. Thus, it might be possible to argue that to modernist texts, it is not important to show what the “Other” is but how the “Other” is perceived by other characters. The focus is then not on changing the representation of the “Other”, but on changing the perception of perceiving. On that note, given the focus on multiple perspectives in the modernist texts, what then is the role of the author or artist? Does the author’s shaping of the text so it provides multiple perspectives undermine the modernist impulse towards multiple perspectives because it reinforces the perspective of the author, that there should be multiple perspectives?

Silencing and the assertion of power

The Gikandi reading made me deeply aware of the fact that in fighting for a new kind of art that would rival their predecessors, Modernist artists necessarily have deny and subjugate another marginal group so as to assert some kind of individual power/strength. Despite the various meditations, to me, Picasso’s “avant-garde” technique is really just an extraction of what he chose to see and appropriate from the African artifacts. Not only is this really an arbitrary standard, more importantly it does not acknowledge or recognize the Africans who crafted those artifacts as “producers of culture” themselves (Gikandi 456).

By insisting that the African works have a “perceptual” rather than “conceptual” influence on his work, Picasso is necessarily exiling the African subject from the space, which he had appropriated for his own exercise of individuality, and I see this a refusal to give credit to the African “Other” as indicative of a deeper anxiety on Picasso’s part. I think Picasso’s methodology really highlights a deep-seated struggle for power and self-assertion: by exiling the African subject and reclaiming the African space for himself, he manages to maintain power and control over his appropriated “object/empire”. But perhaps what motivates such a self-congratulatory position is really the fear that if he should admit that African culture had a constitutive affect on his work, he would also necessarily admit that the artwork is not completely a product of his own personal artistic genius; and that the silenced African subject was actually more poignant/important than he had (arbitrarily) allowed it to be.