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.

Invention of the Other

Levine traces the development of British influence in India over the decades. What struck me the most is how the British treated India as a monogamous entity that is largely static. There were many cultural and religious practices across India, however the EIC (or the British government) often ignored or missed these differences. As a result, many policies such as the banning of suttees backfired.

The inability of the colonialist to react to a diverse India seems to suggest the colonialist’s own insecurities- it needs to invent an ‘other’ to define its own identity. Furthermore,  the ‘other’ must also be stable, in order for the colonialist to establish a secure identity for itself. It seems as though the colonialists were unable to establish for themselves an independent and stable identity, apart from the colony. In this sense, the perception of these colonies; and the constant comparison between self and the ‘other’ shaped the identity of the colonialist. In other words, they began to understand themselves vis-a-vis their own perceptions of their colonies.

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 🙂

The British Empire- a problematic construct of self and identity

Whilst I was reading through the article by Levine and trying to see how this is related to the other reading on “The Brown Stocking”, it struck me that one common theme explored is the desire to define and pin down something precise, by a pre-existing structure, or method of ordering. Mrs Ramsey as the figure of the artist in “To the Lighthouse” is someone who brings order to her household and she is adamant that the doors remain shut whilst the windows remain open.  I read this as the desire to be able to gain access to what is outside whilst making sure that nothing from the outside actually comes in to disrupt the pre-existing order. This is in parallel with the British colonizers’ desire to gain access to the colonized whilst making sure that their own cultures(order) remains untainted.

Windows suggest that the one inside is able to view what happens outside but remain separate from it, taking on the subjective position of one in power. This is in line with what the British colonizers do, when they view themselves as the centre of the empire and look upon the colonized, calling them uncivilized savages. However, just as Mrs Ramsey discovers that she cannot stop her children and various members of the household from leaving all the doors open and bringing things in from the outside which contribute to the gradual disarray and disintegration of her household, the colonizers soon find that their attempts to maintain a stable sense of self despite interactions with the natives is futile. The old order falls apart and a new method of ordering is called for.

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: Centre and Peripheries

The notion of the centre and the periphery in terms of the division of the British empire is an interesting way to look at a modernist text. The modernist text highlights the periphery aspects of a narrative, at a time when the peripheries of empire was acknowledged. In the excerpt from Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse, the centre of the narrative is the actual event occurring at the moment, the measuring of the stocking; and the thought processes which seem to take up more time without disrupting linear narrative is the periphery of the narrative. What is interesting is the fact that these peripheries, the perspective on the surrounding furniture, perspective of “them” and Mr Bankes’s perspective, serve to explain the “sadness” in Mrs. Ramsay. While the centre is obviously stated, it is only through the study of the peripheries that one can fully recognize this centre. Thus, while modernist texts seek to represent an obvious subject, it is done through a reassessment through different perspectives.

Similarly, in the British empire, by highlighting the peripheries, the unimportant actors of the empire, the natives, the British society is attempting to regain a fragmented identity as a result of amassing a large empire. Thus, by drawing attention to these “peripheric” characters, which would have otherwise been neglected, it was a means to calm the anxieties of a decaying identity, for in contrast to the “uncivilized natives”, the British still represented civility and culture.

Even though modernist writing seem to break away from traditional structures of narratives by representing different perspectives and peripheries instead of wholly focusing on linear narrative, it still retains elements of traditional narratives in terms of explaining a centre – in most cases the development of a character.

Suttee as Modernism

Levine gives a brief history of the British in India, but makes little mention of the locals and their exertions. Therefore when Levine mentions the local Indian reformers Ram Mohan Roy, and Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar (72), I am inclined to pay special attention to them, particularly Roy and his mission to outlaw suttee.

I would like to think of these Indian reformers as some form of modernists. Roy’s reform organization, the Brahmo Samaj, noticed that the traditional practice of suttee was outdated, if not redundant. They published a tract condemning suttee in both Bengali and English in 1818 that included “journalistic and literary accounts of women’s hideous screams of agony”, which, in my opinion, was a rather guerilla-like tactic to get the British’s attention. By publishing something that would generally be taboo to talk about at that point in time, it would serve to shock its audience, and therefore provoke new thoughts regarding the practice. This is similar to the way that advocates of modernism worked. This certainly proved to be a success, as suttee was eventually made illegal.

The repeal of suttee represents the dilemma of modernism. By outlawing suttee, one is effectively rejecting custom and creating a new alternative for the wives of the deceased. On the other hand, it also has the effect of reinforcing tradition, as Levine writes that the law “advertised the practice more widely, and also made it seem an act subversive of British rule”.