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.

You can’t be anything but colonized

Of interest to me in Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man is a particular scene where Dedalus holds a conversation with Davin. Dedalus refuses to learn Irish (219), and is criticized for that. Davin implies that by refusing to accept the Irish language, he is somehow not “Irish” (219). At the same time, Davin also suggests that if Dedalus had stuck to supporting English, he would not be criticized either. Davin says, “One time I hear you talk against English literature. Now you talk against Irish informers” (219). It’s almost as if Davin is insisting Dedalus should choose a side, and be either pro-English or pro-Irish. I think Dedalus implies that by forcing him to choose reinforces the binary of colonizer and colonized as he insists of flying by those nets of “nationality, language, religion” (220).

What this highlights is I think something Fanon talks about in “The Negro and Language”, that the mindsets of the colonized has become entrapped in the discourse of the colonizer such that the colonized can only envision himself in respect to the colonizer. To be pro-English means to accept being colonized, to be pro-Irish appears equivalent to being anti-English, which is to reject being colonized. Either way, it appears that Davin can only see himself as an Irish in respect to the British. Whether by accepting colonization or rejecting colonization, he can only see himself as colonized. This becomes restricting as there is then no identity outside that of being colonized.

Caught between a rock and a hard place.

The Irish possessed an interesting position within the British empire. On one hand, they had been annexed by the British and had functioned as part of the empire for some time. On the other, they themselves were colonized by the British. Jackson argues that Ireland represented the problems and struggles of the colonial empire. This crisis of identity is evident in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man as Stephen Dedalus constantly thinks about the Irish, the Irish identity and their relation to the world. The colours green and maroon are associated with Dante and the Irish resistance leaders, reinforcing Dedalus’ need to reclaim his Irish identity.

While Jackson posits that the complexities of the relationship between the Irish and the British are most evident in the economy, in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man this complexity is manifested by through the language that Stephen Dedalus chooses to use. Here, we see language as a symbol and by extension, an agent for colonization. Stephen Dedalus wants to “forge in the smithy of his soul the uncreated conscience of his race”- he uses his art (language) in order to subvert the hegemony of the British and thus reclaim his Irish identity.

However, I am quite certain that the Irish would not consider their colonial counterparts in the other colonies (India, Africa, South East Asia etc) their equals. Perhaps the best evidence of this can be seen during the California Gold Rush in the USA, where despite being immigrants themselves, the Irish began resenting the other influx of immigrants (the Chinese, Latin Americans, Africans).

Portrait and Identity Construction

As i read Portrait, the scene that was most intriguing was the Christmas dinner. When you thinks about Christmas dinner, you’d think that it would be a heartwarming, happy affair where people get together, feel thankful, bask in the christmas spirit and maybe enjoy some turkey and ham. But Stephen’s Christmas has got to be the most uncomfortable event ever. Dante gets in a row with Stephen’s dad and Mr Casey as she defends the Catholic Church’s role in destroying Parnell while the two men attack this institutionalized religion and its long-standing opposition to Irish republicanism. 

But Stephen recalled that in the past, Dante was a Parnell supporter as she “hit a gentleman on the head with her umbrella because he had taken off his hat when the band played God Save the Queen at the end” (37). So she is essentially anti-British but not anti-Catholic. But what perplexes me is how the two cannot be separated as the Church often supports and echoes the British position. I think if anything, this instance shows how institutionalized religion is so influential and how it is a net that inhibits the Irish to find their own unique identity. Thus Stephen finds it necessary to “fly by those nets” and the only way that he sees this happening is to exile himself. 

What is interesting for me as a modern reader is how Joyce feels that the Irish identity is fettered by British colonialism and his solution is to escape. But it just doesn’t seem possible (to me) to escape this colonial past. Shouldn’t this be an integral part of constructing identity? By embracing this post-colonial/diasporic condition? I mean, if his name, Stephen Daedalus is a borrowing of Greek Myth and Catholic tradition (St. Stephen), then why not accept the fact of British colonialism and its effects (whether bad or good) on his identity construction? Another issue that troubles me is how he intends to write about Ireland if he is in exile? One could claim that he would have better perspective but this distancing could also make him lose touch with reality.

Performing the Identity

The fact that Leonard Woolf chooses to entitle his autobiography “Growing” amuses me for I do not really see signs of progression in this week’s reading but rather using a different form to articulate “old idea.” The authencity of his experiences is questionable but his autobiography also revisits the ambiguity of the representations which we have seen in the texts that we have talked about in class. One cannot help but notice that even though Woolf does not come close to the sorry figure of Flory, he does experience and portray the reluctance of having to live up to his reputation of being the imperial white man. With this in mind, while he is an enforcer of the imperialist system, I cannot help but wonder if he is a victim entrapped within the structure even with his complicity in it. This is similar to the discussions we have had of Elizabeth and Ma Hla May in which they are complicit in their entrapment. The question then to be asked is if we are also complicit in reproducing this system of entrapment when we choose to locate and revisit this continually in our readings of the texts?

Shannon Forbes wrote an article on equating performance with identity and in this piece of writing, she mentioned that an identity is re- constituted within a social structure with repeated performance of a particular role and responsibility. The repeated performance which constitutes an identity then gives rise to a social cohesion. To me, this social cohesion is bounded with the social contract in which each of us has to act out the responsibilities that are given to us. Identity then becomes a responsibility and this can be seen in Woolf who says that he has to maintain a facade among his own group for he has learned that to be different is to be condemned. Much has been said about the white man and his performance as the superior imperialist. In reading Woolf’s autobiography, I find myself thinking that the natives are also “guilty” of maintaining the binaries between the colonised and colonisers. Once they are emboldened by the knowledge that they are capable of reproducing the white man’s structure of power, colonialism is enacted by the natives on the natives. Colonialism then becomes a form of identity which materialises in different structures.

The world reacted with horror to the white man’s colonialism but initially thought that Japan’s participation in World War Two was an act of Asian bravery to the onslaught of the Europeans. Perhaps then, striped of all the focus on the white man’s superiority and natives’ inferiority, the matter boils to a fact that we live in a dog- eat- dog world. In Woolf’s words: “it is questionable whether in the end either will have the strength to eat the other.”

Note-taking for Lord Jim (Week 7) – Part I

Topic of Class

The presentation today was mainly concerned with the overarching theme of narrative (both the oral and written tradition) and how these narratives help shape the construction of identities in Lord Jim. The presenters explored the use of frame narratives, missing narratives and misappropriated narratives in order to highlight both the inadequacies and strengths of such an act of storytelling.

One of the biggest inadequacies was the way that the failure of language highlights the instability and subjectivity of narratives, particularly the oral ones. Because there is a sense that many oral stories are told can be altered according to the way audience response. (Said: “…a storyteller has the power to shape his material to match his audience’s response)

But the group also suggested that this was also a strength for the oral tradition, because it involves many more people than a writing process would, which in Said’s words, is essentially a “work of solitude”. The valorization arises from the fact that oral traditions are rooted in the idea of the Gemeinschaft (community) which places value on the plural and fluid multiplicity of perspectives. Hence, by putting these various perspectives together, Conrad not only manages to highlight the fact that having a singular coherent narrative is impossible, highly artificial and unconvincing, he also manages to effectively highlight the narrative gaps in the story, suggesting that indeed there are many multiple ways of approaching and understanding a part of the “Truth”, as opposed to one hard and fast method of doing so.

The group also discusses however the fact that oral narratives necessarily beg the complicity of the reader/listener. This is because in listening to the story, not only are the listeners made to become “keepers of Marlow’s story”, their participation in reproducing the story also therefore means that they have an ethical responsibility towards the text and future readers/listeners as well.

The group then explored the idea that the written tradition provides a foil to the unofficial oral tradition, in that a written narrative which is considered “official” is often left unquestioned as a unified objective understanding of the “Truth”. Through various explorations of underlying assumptions, the presenters hence pointed out to us the need to question the singularity of writing exercise and the way it blanks out and obliterates multiplicity. They suggest that the function of written narratives is not to provide plurality or a chorus of voices, rather, they are there to define, archive, remember and also confine. i.e. in trapping Jim in a static text, one can then look at him with retrospective glamour or nostalgia. However, there’s also the increasing awareness that the act of writing is also an act of appropriating, selecting and mediating, so that at any one point you can never really retrieve the essence of the moment anymore – i.e. “No live-entering”. Worse, the power of writing diminishes when one realizes that the final outcome is fixed and immutable and that ultimately, language sets you further away from the truth than it brings you closer.

Lastly, the presenters considered how the construction of Jim’s identity is done via the mediums of other characters like Marlow, Brierly, Brown and even Tam’Itamb. Also, even Jim’s construction of his ownself is highly problematic. He will not and has not forgotten the fact that he jumped ship but he lives in this narrative and fictionalised reality so that he can re-write the guilt and the past. So the juxtaposition of these narratives raises the increasing awareness that Jim’s glorified narratives are constantly undercut by his past narrative upon the Patna. As a result, Jim is always in a personal tug-of-war with himself. So, there is a sense that the Jim we know is the collection of various perspectives we have retrieved so far. Yet in our pretended belief that we are getting closer to who Jim is, there is also an increasing sense of estrangement from his character. This is especially so if we consider the open ending – an ellipsis. Here, the audience/readers can take away whatever they want from the ending and therefore construct Jim for the way they assumed him to be. Seeing how this is subjective, then can one then ever really know his character?


EG. Official written as unquestionable? Wallace’s reading was considered one of “best scientific travel books”. While you believe him because of the empirical evidence methodology that he utilises and because of his authority as an established biologist, there is a sense that as he describes what he observes, he ends up prescribing our constructed imagination of the dyaks, chinese and malay respectively. As a result, a strong racism is embedded in the narratives passed on as truth!

E.G. Ethical complicity: the man on the verandah “He paused again to wait for an encouraging remark, perhaps, but nobody spoke; only the host, as if reluctantly performing a duty, murmerd – “ You are so subtle, Marlow’” (Conrad, 256) So, the man on the verandah becomes complicit in listening and responding to the story that the narrator. Then, “He existed for me, and after all it only through me that he exists for you. I’ve led him out by the hand and I have paraded him before you” (Conrad 172) As a result, as listeners to this tale, we also implicitly become “keepers of Marlow’s story”

E.G. Writing as defining; as archiving; as remembering and as confining. “Wallace associates a Charaxes kadenii butterfly with a moment in time when a boy brought it to him. “ “And Stein similarly felt a huge sense of happiness in capturing his butterfly”(Conrad 161). Here, while being able to capture the immense overwhelming force and internalising it as fulfilling, the inherent fallacy then becomes evident when you realise that everything is still selected and mediated, and that it’s not just merely collection.

E.G.: Construction of Identity through others: Brierly saw himself in Jim and in a sense because he recognised his own ability to be cowardly and guilty, it’s as if all his attempts to stay together in one piece and to be honorable and ideal previously were pointless and futile. Hence he commits suicide (Wake 92-3) Brown as Doppelgaenger: “And there ran through the rough talk a vein of subtle reference to their common blood, an assumption of common experience, a sickening suggestion of common guilt, of secret knowledge that was like the bond of their minds and hearts” (Conrad 296) Tamb’itam echoes Jim’s thoughts: “’It is not safe for thy servant to go out amongst the people,’ said Tamb’itam…It was not safe for his servant to go out amongst his own people!” (312)

Connections with Other Topics from Other Weeks

The questioning of the reliability of narratives whether oral or written is not a new topic. We have done with Heart of Darkness and to a certain extent we even questioned the gaps of narrative in Passage to India when we no longer heard the narratives of Mrs. Moore, Adela and Aziz (at different points in the book). Today’s discussion really opened up this debate and extensively highlighted both the successes and failures of reading/writing. However, there is also the fact that because we are aware of the shortcomings, therefore there is the possibility that we are not disempowered by this lack of total knowledge; rather, we are empowered in the sense that we have access to a plurality of perspectives that puts us in a better position to understand and approach the heart of the matter. That being said, this is also nevertheless undercut by the fact that every subsequent story we tell will never allow use full access to the past already. (Think: No live-entering argument) So perhaps our sense of empowerment as a reader also depends highly on how aware we are of our shortcomings, assumptions and responsibilities as readers to a text.

“Alice to the Lighthouse”

There is a book by Juliet Dusinberre called Alice to the Lighthouse that I find very interesting. She talks about the idea of the ‘irreverent generation’ that is first glimpsed in 19th century writing and then honed up by authors like Virginia Woolf. In my opinion, the ‘irreverent generation’ that is revealed during Modernism occurs mainly in the form of questioning authority; authority existing in the forms of God, culture, society, ideology, but most importantly, in convention. Modernist writers view convention as something distracting and inadequate, perhaps even destructive or false. They thus seek to explode (or at least question) existing ideas of art and the history of representation (in terms of form, plot, and other literary conventions).

Ezra Pound’s plea to “make it new” therefore rings true in the sense that Modernist writers appear to search for meaning beneath, and in spite of, everything that has come before in art, culture and any form of representation. Since Modernism is a post-war phenomenon, the fragmentation of the self and the multiplicity of identity arise from the disillusionment of WWI (questioning the cause of war à questioning the nation à questioning the self). This very idea of a doubting, struggling and suffering self can be seen in the writings of Woolf and Beckett. The bildungsroman of the 19th Century end in neat resolutions where “I married him” (Jane Eyre) suffices as a happy ending, yet in Modernism, writers signal to us that there is never an end to the search for identity, because of the fact that identity is never stable, and undergoes constant and painful metamorphosis. For a writer like Beckett, perhaps the end (and possibly the end of discomfort) starts only in death.