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.

meaning and comprehension in Portrait

Reading A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, I really felt that this was by far the ‘most’ modernist text we’ve encountered in this module.  I found the book quite hard to fully comprehend, but at the same time strangely compelling. The first part of the novel really reminded me of Roald Dahl’s Boy (albeit a very fractured and hard-to-understand version). There is that same sense of a ‘little boy lost’, and the impressionistic, stream-of-consciousness style really emphasised that for me. What I found particularly interesting is the way Joyce seems to constantly use language as a way not of communicating (either between characters, or with the reader), but as ‘obstructing’ understanding. Whether it is his thoughts as a young boy first entering boarding school, during that painful Christmas dinner, or in his various journeys as he grows older, Joyce’s modernist style seems to make language a barrier that stands between us and true comprehension. As I was reading, I was constantly reminded of the whole signifier-signified dichotomy, because I could never be sure I was understanding what Joyce wanted to convey, fully or at all. Perhaps in a sense the text is Daedalus’ maze, and we’re to try and find our way out.

Fiction vs. autobiography

Like Russell and Peiyi, I was also struck by the rather ‘fictional’ feel of Leonard Woolf’s Autobiography. Not only does he make allusions to literary figures and fiction in general, the general tone, pace and structure of the writing seemed very Victorian-fiction to me. What particularly struck me was this sentence: “I set out for Jaffna with a Sinhalese servant, my dog, a wooden crate containing Voltaire, and an enormous tin-lined trunk containing clothes” (23).

If this were a piece of fiction that we were doing a close reading of, I think we’d all fixate on the choice of these things that accompanied him on his journey, and look for structural symbolisms and other, deeper meanings to them. Yet, I’m not sure if this speaks more to our ‘over-enhanced sense’ as literature students, or the blurred lines between fiction and autobiography. At the same time, it occurs to me that the most enjoyable autobiographical writings are those that read like fiction (here I can’t help but think of Roald Dahl’s Boy). I mean, that is precisely the reason I find Virginia Woolf so unreadable—’high Modernist’ writing that rejects the conventions of rigidly controlled linear-narratives propelled by events might be closer to ‘life as it was lived’, but it’s definitely hard to read, or it is for me at least.

Taking the consideration of fiction-vs-reality in another direction, can autobiography ever really capture ‘truth’, or recap events as they happened? To a certain extent, isn’t all writing re-creation, fiction? Personally, whenever I’ve read autobiographical works, I’ve always wondered how on Earth the authors remember tiny details—for example how could Leonard Woolf possibly remember what he brought with him on that journey, much less the details of what type of trunk his books were packed in?

Female sexuality in the colonies

What stood out most for me in the Stoler reading was the blatant double standards that colonialist men imposed upon the women, and in a very uni-directional way. What Stoler really highlighted in this chapter was the way women became, like the colonised, another passive ‘site’ upon which white men could designate meanings and place anxieties. Stoler talks about how women were thought to be too fragile, needing special places to live in, or jealous of the “dusky sirens” etc., and how white men saw the white women (whom they did not desire sexually) to be sexually attractive to the native men. For me, Stoler seemed to be drawing a parallel between the natives (men and women), and white women—ultimately, both groups were there to be viewed and interpreted (or misinterpreted) by the white men. The ‘truth’ of matters hardly played into colonialist decision-making or beliefs, but perceptions did.

It’s interesting to think about issues of white female sexuality in colonialism, mainly because we always think of the act of colonialism as being a very male-oriented sexual action. The ideas of penetration, staking a claim on virgin land and so on, seem to preoccupy a lot of thinking about colonialism even today, and although women are coming to be more present in colonial/postcolonial scholarship, we think less about female sexuality, especially white female sexuality.

Note-taking for second half of Week 9

Today’s class discussion focused mainly on ideas about the enforcement of colonialism, in various ways and means:

1. We discussed the threat posed by children of mixed parentage to the ‘rule of colonial difference’,

2. the ways the colonial state manipulated laws to justify its actions, and

3. the position and portrayal of the reluctant coloniser.

The first part of the discussion looked at Stoler’s article, where we considered the treatment of metis children as illustrated by the Sieur Icard case. Here, we discussed the ways in which ‘whiteness’ becomes problematised by the existence of the metisse, which blurs the lines between ‘white’ and ‘native’. At the same time, we also considered how colonial law and lawmakers were still able to exert their power by enforcing arbitrary definitions of ‘whiteness’ (in both a demonstration and assertion of their superiority). For example, not only did the colonial court have the ‘last say’ in the legal treatment of the metisse, it also tried to control the situation by enforcing laws that ‘decided’ on the status of metis children as white or native.

We then moved on to think about the links between the Stoler article and Burmese Days. Here, we discussed how Flory could be seen as a metis figure himself, because of his birthmark, which makes him half ‘dark’. We then considered various ways of reading Orwell’s portrayal of the two Eurasian characters in the novel, and how this reflected his attitudes towards them. Firstly, his portrayal of them as lowly clerks, and his likening of them to dogs possibly reflected his low regard of them. (“The two Eurasians had sidled up to Flory and cornered him like a pair of dogs asking for a game.” Chapter 10)) At the same time, some of us felt that his portrayal of them was rather sympathetic, and read this in two ways. (“Elizabeth had, in fact, decided to snub the Eurasians. She did not know why Flory was allowing them to hold him in conversation. As she turned away to stroll back to the tennis court, she made a practice stroke in the air with her racquet, to remind Flory that the game was overdue. He saw it and followed her, rather reluctantly, for he did not like snubbing the wretched Francis, bore though he was.” (Chapter 10)). Firstly, this could be Orwell’s deliberate denunciation of the imperialist actions that resulted in the existence of these metis children, and another angle from which to criticise colonialism. Secondly, that Orwell himself did not know how to portray these figures, as they were too ‘sensitive’ an issue. Considering this led to a discussion on where we hear Orwell’s voice in the text, and whether or not Flory can be seen as Orwell’s mouthpiece. While we considered that Flory, as the reluctant colonialist, could be Orwell (as the narrator in Shooting an Elephant could have been), this brought up the question of why, if Flory represents Orwell, he dies in the novel. This led to a consideration of Orwell’s guilt in having taken part in the colonial enterprise, and Burmese Days as his way of coping with that guilt. Looking at Flory as a reluctant colonialist, we compared him with Fielding, and also discussed why Orwell creates all these unsympathetic characters in the text, which led to questions about whether Elizabeth could be the real protagonist in the text, and how all this affected conveying Orwell’s message to the reader.We then considered that perhaps Flory is not Orwell’s mouthpiece, and that Orwell’s voice is not heard in the text, but rather, Orwell chose to show a ‘reality’ of the colonial situation, leaving it up to the reader to read what meaning we chose into the text.

Connections with Other Topics from Other Weeks

As mentioned above, this week’s discussion continued the consideration of the figure of the reluctant coloniser that was also present in Passage to India and Shooting and Elephant. Furthermore, we also used the idea of rule of colonial difference brought up in the Chatterjee article to consider the place and portrayal of the metisse in Stoler’s article. We also considered how Orwell is quite different in style from previous writers in the module, as rather than giving a clear message the way Forster did in Passage to India, he leaves it rather open to the reader to make meaning of the text. Furthermore, unlike Conrad, women are not silenced in this text, (consider the fact that some of us consider Elizabeth the ‘real’ protagonist). Orwell presents a fairly different picture of colonialism compared to Forster and Conrad, for the focus of the novel is clearly the reluctant coloniser and the problems that come with that position.

Relationships in Burmese Days

What I found quite interesting about Burmese Days is that the novel seems rather fixated on relationships and marriages—it’s almost an Austen-esque storyline, except that it’s set in colonial Burma. Of course, in Burmese Days, women and relationships have much larger significances and symbolisms, instead of being more the ‘subject’ of the text. For me, the most ‘significant’ relationship is the one between Flory, Elizabeth and Ma Hla May. Reading the text, I felt this ‘triangle’ was one that was quite packed with underlying/deeper significances. Firstly, it’s sort of a metaphor for Flory being caught between Burma and England, with neither being a ‘good fit’, ending in his eventual suicide. Flory is sick of his life in Burma, but still, the experience has changed him so much that he wouldn’t be able to slip back into life back in England. Ultimately, this is the dilemma that defines him in the novel, and it is also what leads to his death.

Yet, his relationship with the two women is not as simple as just a love triangle—he doesn’t love Ma Hla May, and she doesn’t love him either, she just wants the status a relationship with him gives her. Somewhat similarly, Orwell portrays colonialism as  not always altruistic, but also highlights the native collaboration as something that enabled colonialism. Admittedly, this relationship is not exactly a perfect metaphor for the British colonial experience in Burma, but it does serve as a sort of distilled image of the more complicated colonialism that Orwell depicts in his novels.

Power relations in Shooting an Elephant

Reading “Shooting an Elephant”, I think my responses to it were quite..’schizophrenic’ might be a good word. I was rather conflicted about how I felt, especially regarding the way power was portrayed. On one hand, it was quite a breath of fresh air to be reading a piece of writing where we see the coloniser from an entirely different point of view. The narrator himself admits that “every white man’s life in the East, was one long struggle not to be laughed at”—he is basically ‘powerless’ to the people’s demands, in that he must shoot the elephant or be humiliated. The subversion of the typical coloniser-colonised relationship is very interesting, because while other texts have shown us the ‘human’ side of colonialism, they’re still always untouchaby dignified and in control (think Passage to India). It’s almost as if there’s an invisible barrier that prevents that last ‘façade’ from being removed. Here, we’re shown this nervous policeman who hates his job because he knows just how tenuous the colonial control over the people is, which is really quite a different perspective from the way colonial power is shown in Passage to India.

Yet, on the other hand, I couldn’t help but be suspicious of the way colonial power was portrayed. It struck me as, well, too sympathetic to the colonisers. At this point, I’m probably veering into angry, chest-beating anti/post-colonial area, but still, I think it bears thinking about. I’m sure the narrator’s perspective is a valid one, and colonialism most likely didn’t have the all-powerful, absolute control it portrays in many colonial texts, but nonetheless, the fact is that the natives were evidently unhappy about colonial rule, a fact the colonisers were aware of. Furthermore, they were unable to manifest their anti-colonial feelings in any way other than passive aggressive jeering, tripping or betel juice-spitting. This to me reflected the utter  power that the coloniser wielded—and if the point is only alluded to at the beginning of the story, it is made quite unmistakable by the end. The narrator kills the elephant to avoid looking a fool, but British law makes it legal for him to do so, because a coolie had been killed, and the owner is helpless to do anything because “he was only an Indian”.

The coloniser-colonised power relations is quite completely complicated in this story—where does real power lie? In the hands of the colonised or the coloniser? I really have no idea.

Reading colonialists and their texts

What I found most interesting about the Wallace reading was not so much Wallace’s portrayals of the natives, but the way in which he presented his “observation[s]”. His writing in the chapter affects a sort of scientific, ‘factual’tone , with his cross-comparisons of Britain and Sarawak, and the way he sets forth clear causalities for many of the Dyaks’ attributes. To me, this pointed to a clear agenda within the text, despite the fact that Wallace says his are more casual, personal observations. The fact that he frequently drew straight comparisons between Britain and Sarawak intrigued me, because it seemed almost forced—not just defining the self as ‘not-Other’, but, more, defining the Other as definitively not-Self. Perhaps this was a manifestation of subconscious (or unconscious) ‘white guilt’? I doubt Wallace was overly plagued by a sense of white guilt, as his interest was more of a ‘biological’ nature, but still, I think the impulse to constantly remind the reader how unlike Britain Sarawak was does point to a neglected recognition of the moral grey-ness of colonialism.

On the other hand, I suppose we could also see Wallace’s constant references back and forth to be nothing more insidious as a reflection of the extent to which we approach new things (people, texts, etc) with preconceived notions. Which led me to think about how we read Conrad and other colonial writings—the stance of a ‘postcolonial’ reader has always troubled me, because of the (seemingly) inherent bias we have against the colonialists. Achebe’s article on Heart of Darkness is one good example of this. Yet, in that way, aren’t we reading the colonialists in the same, framed and restricted way that they ‘read’ the natives they encountered? I’m not sure how else we can read these texts—it seems hard to come up with a convincing reading sympathetic to the colonialists, and I’m not positing that we should (or I’m not sure whether I am or not). It’s kind of a scary thought, to me at least, that as much as we like to vilify the colonialists for their greedy condescending, we as readers seem to be reading from a position not much different from that of the colonialists ‘back in the day’.

Reading Conrad (gives me a headache!)

When I was reading Lord Jim, what really struck me most was, again, how ambiguous and un-concrete everything in the story felt. Perhaps it’s because of the large amount of time I spent thinking about ‘truth’ in Heart of Darkness, but when I read Lord Jim, the complexity of the novel and the way so much is left to the reader to judge, really brought this point home to me.

The fact that Conrad creates an explicit audience in the text makes it hard for me not to think about my responses to the text, and in that area, I found Lord Jim rather disturbing to read. Its close similarities with Heart of Darkness, combined with a setting that is much closer to home, made me continuously question my reading of the text, and, in particular, my responses to it. I found myself asking even more questions than perhaps Conrad had intended the reader to do. By the end of the story, I simply did not know what to make of everything—even Jim’s death struck me as rather anti-climatic, because I had become quite confused as to my feelings towards him as a character. Conrad seems to deliberately create an audience in the text (by positioning Marlow as a storyteller), to draw the reader in and destabilise the assumptions and norms we have. The more I read Conrad, the more I think he’s more postmodernist than modernist—I can easily imagine a David Lynch Heart of Darkness or Lord Jim movie.  Now that’s a scary thought.

‘Positions’ of reading

Reading the Achebe reading, I couldn’t help but feel that he was taking a lot of Conrad’s racism too personally. Then, in the course of reading up for my presentation, I came across a reading by Nina Pelikan Straus, “The Exclusion of the Intended from Secret Sharing in Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness””. Straus talks about how women have been excluded both in and out of the text—how the women in the text are silenced and ‘protected’ from the ‘truth’.

One of the most interesting question Straus asks is whether the female reader can really ‘rely’ on her reading of the text, or if she would be stuck at questioning her responses to it as being coloured by the ‘trauma’ of male suppression in and out of the text.

For me, what was significant about reading these two readings in relation to each other was the fact that Straus seems much more self-aware about a reader’s ‘baggage’ in reading any text. Although I’m personally more pro-colonised, and less pro-feminist, I really felt that the Straus article gave me more insight into the text, and my position as a reader, than the Achebe reading. Although it seems like a self-evident point that every reader comes with his/her own baggage, what the Straus reading highlighted to me was that this shouldn’t just a fact to be taken for granted, but one to be questioned and considered as well. What kind of position am I as a reader taking, and how was that position shaped? Should I try to read from another position, or is it pointless to try, because even that is in itself shaped by other, more dominant trends?

Violences in Fanon

I found Fanon’s On Violence particularly striking and in fact, disturbing. Fanon writes of the colonized and colonists as two polarised and homogenous groups or masses, and expounds on the violence that both groups enact. When I was reading his descriptions on the actions of the white colonisers on the native colonised, a few points struck me. Firstly, that Fanon has no problem with discussing colonialism and decolonisation in terms of a clear-cut binary of wary colonizer and envious colonised, and secondly, that in his own discussion of the violence done upon the colonised by the colonizers, Fanon himself also enacts a sort of violence upon them.

Frankly, I was quite disturbed by the way Fanon reduced and simplified the experience(s) of colonialism and decolonisation in to clear cut black and white binaries. The wary ‘colonist’ and the envious ‘colonized, both strictly at odds with one another. Fanon seems to ignore that the experience of colonialism was different in each country—yes, it can be argued that being colonised was at the root an act of violence, and the natives were, in all cases, ‘invaded’ by the white men. Yet, Fanon dismisses the different ways people—both colonialists and colonised—thought about colonialism and being colonised, and the nuances in the colonial experience and process. Granted, Fanon was writing from his own perspective and experiences, but I feel that his simplification of the issue not only makes a meaningful discussion of colonialism difficult, but is also in itself an act of violence on the colonised, and also the colonisers.

Fanon’s description of the colonized really disturbed me, especially the way he ‘condensed’ the various individuals who were colonised into a single figure—“the colonized subject”, a single, unremarkable “him”. This struck me most as the ‘violence’ in the text, not the actions of the colonizers.

Power relations in A Passage to India

What struck me most when I started reading A Passage to India were the complex power relations that underpinned most of the text. Everyone in the text is in relatively more or less power than everyone else, whether it is between the two broad camps of ‘natives’ and ‘English’, or within the two groups. The relationship between Major Callendar and Aziz, and Aziz and Dr. Panna Lal is just one example of this: Callendar resents Aziz’s superior skills, and expects Aziz to come immediately when “summoned” (p.48), not even considering that he may be otherwise occupied in his free time. In the same way, Aziz thinks about his quarrel with Panna Lal in terms of whether or not Panna Lal is a person of importance, and whether it was “wise to have quarrelled even with him” (p.54). There seems to be at all times an unspoken but constantly-referenced hierarchy that governs all relationships that is present but only in a rather unobtrusive way—it is a default lens through which all interactions are viewed.

All this later changes with Adela’s accusation of Aziz—the underlying power relations burst to the forefront, with the clear—and symbolic—split between the British and the Indians, in which power rests clearly with the British. The fact that Aziz is arrested simply based on Adela’s accusation and later set free based on her admission of her mistake illustrates this quite clearly, as do the closing lines of the novel.

For me, this was all complicated by the issue of which side I as a reader stand on: Forster is clearly sympathetic to the Indians, which for me added a whole new complicated dimension to the issue of power relations in the novel. If the author is so clearly on one side of the issue, is it the British or the Indians who are really disempowered in the novel?

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?