Binaries, Power and Imperialism

In Stoler’s discussion of the ways in which power is manifested and created in Empire, she identifies how the assertion of dominance is linked to ideas of gender binaries and sex. She identifies for us the different “roles” and images of figures in the colonial discourse; namely, the white colonial ruler bursting with “good health, virility and the ability to rule” (65), the white European woman who is either a symbol of purity with “delicate sensibilities” (55) or the European woman who is considered “immoral” for “provoking [native] desires” (60). In existence is also the figure of the impotent or reluctant colonizer, the male colonized who is rendered impotent by colonization, and the native woman who fulfills the roles of housekeeper, (expendable) companion and sexualized subject.

These binaries are posited by Stoler as a (sexualized) way in which inequality is created, made “sense” of, and perpetuated in Empire. Women exist as “ideals”, or a means to “keep men physically and psychologically fit for work” (50), yet what stands out most clearly is that the role of women (both native and white) is defined for them long before they participate in imperial interaction. In Orwell’s text, the character of Ma Hla May is portrayed as one prone to female jealousy (“Who is this woman?” 87), entirely dependent on his affection/support/money for existence, a pawn in “male” games, and in the eyes of Elizabeth, a kind of “barbaric” (128) mutation of sexuality.

However, I especially like the way that Orwell has constructed the character of Elizabeth to counter that of Stoler’s identification of binaries. She is not motherly or nuturing (despite her claim to “adore gardening”), hardly the figure of purity and solace that Flory sees, and her disgust of the “savages” (129) of Burma certainly places her well away from the figure of the European woman who is “too familiar with [her] servants” (Stoler 60). In fact, she is predatory in the way that she has come to Burma to land herself a husband, and even though she is toyed with by Verrall, she is very much the power opposite of Ma Hla May, which makes her almost masculine in this discourse. One could even say that Elizabeth is more of a white colonizer than Flory, who is not merely reluctant, but UNABLE to fulfill his role as powerful white colonizer (it is interesting to wonder if he would have shot the elephant).

Therefore, one could argue that Orwell’s construction of a character like Elizabeth is a version of “taking back” the power of the female, yet putting her in the discourse and fitting her into the role of the white male colonizer is problematic. We cannot ignore the fact that she is arguably the most vile character in the text (more so than U Po Kyin who is portrayed as the typical moustache-stroking, cat-holding villain in the text), and this exposes Stoler’s argument of the sexual subjection of women as a little bit inadequate, because a character like Elizabeth is able to harness the colonial discourse of power-making to her advantage. Of course, we can say that she has to enter into the realm of colonial “male-ness” to gain this power (thereby highlighting the helpless position of being a “female” woman), but constrasted against a character like Flory (in the most obvious way, he actually kills himself), she is successful in bringing power back.

Burmese Days- Early Dystopia, Death Eaters and Alienation

When reading Stoler’s article, I was immediately struck by her chapter on the European anxiety that the “wealth and cultivation” of “persons of mixed descent” were “rivaling those of many ‘full blooded’ Europeans” (Stoler 528). This view of inequality reminded me instantly of the Harry Potter books- after all, what is Voldemort undertaking but some neo-Nazi, anti-racial, imperialist quest to highlight the inferior nature of those that are not “pure blood”? We see this in Stoler’s mention of the public schools in the Indies, where eduation is biased in itself, and “only designed for a lower-class… mixed blood Europeans” (Stoler 530). Elizabeth’s character in Burmese Days offers us an appalling glance at people who are portrayed as “so horrible [she] can hardly look at them”. The “absolute savages” (129) that the Burmese represent to the Europeans is of course, another example of “colonial difference”- they absolutely do not deserve the same treatment/”priviledges” as their white superiors do simply because they are racially inferior. As Stoler highlights, being of “mixed race” is almost worse, because they are confusing the boundaries placed between the whites and the natives, a kind of “trespassing on terriory”.

In this vein, Orwell’s Burmese Days really contextualised for me (as Wen Ting mentioned in her presentation), his early influences of Dystopia (1984, Animal Farm)- imperialism, a way to supposedly bring “civilisation” and equality, simply does not work. I found the text depressing and disturbing, because none of the characters were redeeming or sympathetic in any way. Ellis is a perfect example of white fanaticism, a classic ‘Death Eater’ type, and we immediately see him in that inflexible stereotypical light, but the other characters do not compensate for this character. The idea that a group of whiskey-drinking, “smutty rhyme”-reciting (Orwell 27), cigar-smoking, and mistress-keeping British men gone to seed is supposed to be the “Kipling”-spirited saviors of Burma is appalling (even Kipling wanted SOME good to come of imperialism). There is no comfort in Orwell’s picture of “the solitude, the melancholy” of Burma that Elizabeth sees as “so futile, this meandering talk” (180).

The space of Burma becomes nothing but a space for the ‘adventures (or lack thereof) of the British’. Much like Achebe’s quibble with Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Burma becomes the place where English girls can go to find husbands in men who are made lonely and desperate by alienation; we can see this in Flory’s MUCH MISPLACED love for Elizabeth. It also becomes the space where men can find booze, opium, servants and sex. The way that the text ends suggests that there will be no solution or change in this situation- Elizabeth (arguably the most unattractive character in the text) takes her natural role as a “burra memsahib” (287), reluctant imperialist men like Flory are silenced, the doctor who has internalized racial prejudice suffers the consequences, and Ma Hla May stays a paid woman (just paid by somebody else).

Lord Jim and Modernism

I’ve always had a kind of sketchy view on what “high Modernism” really means, but in reading Conrad’s Jim, I think I might be starting to understand the shift to Modernist aesthetics. What struck me most was the fact that Conrad seeks not only to debunk the idea of glorifying and romanticising sea stories, but also works to undermine the very essence of “heroism”. Modernism (to me) rejects the idea of a SIMPLE truth, and explores whether this “truth”/Truth can ever be knowable through not only action, but language as well.

In Jim, “facts” (25) are described as “something else besides, something invisible…” (25). Not only is truth made invisible to those who seek it, but Conrad personifies the seeking mind as “a creature” (26). This makes me think that Modernists do not DENY the existence of Truth, but that they define it as something fluid (maybe even alive like the case of the Marabar Caves) and ultimately undefinable. We actually see hints of this in 19th Century poetry by the likes of Keats and Shelley- Shelley’s poem, “To A Skylark” is an (self-proclaimed) attempt to pin down and define that which is ultimately undefinable.

Thus, Modernists believe that Truth is so elusive and difficult to conceive because it is something that is alive, and possibly constantly changing, and therefore always remaining out of reach. For Conrad, he portrays the inadequacy of the human mind to conceive the notion of “heroism” by exaggerating Jim’s ideas of it, of “saving people from sinking ships, cutting away masts in a hurricane, swimming through a surf with a line…” (7). High-flown notions are thus easily recognisable and exist to expose the artificiality of “questing for truth”, yet we are left with the question of: if what we know is false, where is truth?

Achebe’s Heart of Anger and the Ethics of Re-Appropriation

When I read Achebe’s essay, I was struck by his strong desire to make us (Westerners, colonizers, outsiders) view Africa as something other than commodity, colony and “the other” foreign land/culture. As a fan of Things Fall Apart,  I am interested in what fellow colonial/postcolonial writers have to say about each others’ works, but I felt that Achebe was much too exaggerated and emotional in his response to Conrad, especially considering the neccessity of colonial discourse as the only way in which to deal with colonialism.

Yes, I did have some uncomfortable encounters in read Heart – most disturbing was Marlow’s description of the Inferno that he witnessed, and a little after that:

     one of these creatures rose to his hands and knees, and west off on all-fours towards the river to drink. He lapped        out of his hand, then sat up in the sunlight, crossing his shins in front of him, and after a time let his woolly head fall on his breastbone. (64)

The depiction of the Africans as mere animals is probably exactly what Achebe is so incensed about- the “savage” pitted against the “refined” (341), making the latter look that much more civilised in the wake of so much “frenzy” (341).

YET, the way in which Achebe glosses over the narrative voice in Conrad’s Heart is unfair. The narrator is narrating a story narrated to HIM by Marlow, and while Achebe views this as “set[ting] up layers of insulation”, I feel this gives Conrad’s image of Africa a kind of fluidity; we are still aware that multiple “eyes” and voices are behind Heart, and compelling as Conrad’s narrative is, we are still aware that interpretation is not always stable, or straightforward.

Additionally, Achebe’s point about the “other world” (338) effect of making the River Thames calm and placid in stark contrast to its “antithesis” the River Congo, while compelling, I feel is not the only interpretation of Conrad’s intention. When I was reading Heart, I felt the whole point of establishing this “kinship” between the two rivers was for Conrad to convey to us that darkness is not only present in Africa, but in the British colonizers as well; for what is the figure of Kurtz but one that gets consumed by the darkness- not of Africa, but of his own mind- as well? The darkness in Heart therefore does not come from Africa, but rather, from the British that have brought this darkness to Africa.  

Lastly, if we were to take a look at Fanon again; he mentions that it is essential for the colonizers and the colonized to enter the discourse of colonialism in order to deal with its history. The “kinship” that Conrad establishes between the colonizers and the colonized is thus a recognition of the neccessity to enter the colonial discourse (which does involve creating an “other”) in order to communicate as a colonial writer.

Of course, Achebe’s essay does bring up some interesting points about the ethics of re-appropriation. If Conrad’s Congo is merely a metaphysical space to depict the emotional depravity of “one petty European mind” (344), then Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon comes to mind. Does re-appropriation depend/matter strictly to the artist? If not, then what kinds of implications does re-appropriating African culture onto Western concerns (in these two cases, with vice and depravity) have? What does re-appropriation do to the original “appropriated” culture/material?

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.

Treatment of the Marabar Caves in Forster

Forster provides us with amazing descriptions of landscape in his novel. India is seen through various representations- the Himalayas, the Ganges, Chandrapore, holy spaces, and the Marabar caves. Yet, there is undeniable ambivalence when it comes to his depiction of the Marabar caves. For example, Forster calls ‘the visitor’ of the caves ‘uncertain whether he has had an interesting experience or a dull one or any experience at all’ (116), and while this might echo his own ambivalence towards India (or more specifically, British imperialist attitudes in India), it suggests that the caves are so overwhelming that it numbs and confuses the senses. Visitors simply will not be able to decide how they feel about the caves (perhaps as a holy space). The Marabar caves as a suggestion of elusiveness and mystery is an important motif in the novel- we are unclear about whether Adela’s experience is an ‘illusion’, reality, or simple misunderstanding. The caves are also a place of uncertainty, as even Aziz admits that he will never find the same place within the caves again; despite the fact that he is their official “guide”, he is also not spared by the ability of the caves to confuse and trick.


Forster links the cave to a ‘holy place’, as does Aziz, thereby accepting the mystery that surrounds it, but Adela and Ronny both express a need to put ideas and events into neat categories. Adela laments that ‘good, happy, small people. They do not exist, they were a dream’ (193), and Ronny expresses his frustration with the fact that the caves are ‘notoriously like one another’. Also, his suggestion that ‘in the future they were to be numbered in sequence with white paint’ (188) suggests that he possesses a strong desire to simplify what he cannot understand/identify, resulting in a loss of meaning.


The source and existence of the echo that Adela hears in the cave is also never resolved for us. Moran suggests that it is a reminder of the evil she has done (both towards violating the cave, and for falsely accusing Aziz). I think that the ambivalent space of the caves, along with the suggestion of violence (and perhaps crime?) wrecked against India by the British, is very effective as a motif in the novel.



“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.