Perceptions and Manipulations

I found Ann Stoler’s article on “Carnal Knowledge and Imperial Power” an interesting read, as most of the articles we have covered so far, focus on the male-centric colonial quest and do not examine in detail the role of both European and  native women in colonialism. But more than that, what really intrigued me was seeing the idea of PERCEPTIONS in play in this article.

1)  Previously, “concubinage was considered to stabilize political order and colonial health” (Stoler 48), but by the early twentieth century, “concubinage became the source of individual breakdown, racial degeneration, and political unrest” (Stoler 68).  Concubinage was thus denounced for undermining precisely what it was charged with fortifying decades earlier (Stoler 68). The practice of concubinage was no different from the past; the only thing that differed was the perception towards it, that it was now a  threat to (white) racial purity and political order.

2)  The white men’s preoccupation with their image reflected the importance of the natives’ perceptions of them. Therefore, they sought “to produce a colonial profile that highlighted the manliness, well-being and productivity of European men” (Stoler 65). As a result, this gave rise to efforts to ensure the image of white supremacy was upheld via eugenization and racial purity preserved by frowning upon miscegenation and concubinage.

Here, we see how perceptions play such a vital role in the colonial project. The white men’s obsession with presenting an image of racial superiority is attributed to having to make the natives perceive the whites as superior and thus justified in ruling them. In order to create and sustain such perceptions, actions have to be taken. Eugenization is really discrimination, but it is passed off and perceived as an action undertaken for the greater good of “safeguard[ing] European superiority” (Stoler 63). In the case of concubinage, the perception is manipulated in order to justify the action of banning it.

Thus, what is really reflected here is the insidiousness of colonialism through the power to manipulate perceptions in order to legitimate their actions.

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.

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’.

No one truth: a matter of perception in _A Passage to India_

I found, in my reading of A Passage to India, that (either to my benefit or detriment), my reading of the Introduction by Pankaj Mishra opened, if not created, a lens by which I viewed the novel not merely as a work of fiction but as a more personal musing over the complexities of India and the absence of “outlines and horizons” (Introduction: xviii) On a personal level, this perspective was both useful and indeed, important to have, given that as a result of realising Forster’s attempt “to indicate the human predicament in a universe which is not, so far, comprehensible to our minds” (Intro: xix), I was made all the more aware that things presented in the novel are, simply put, not what they seem.

Perception and the play on one’s subjective view then become vital to our appreciation of the text, especially in witnessing the interactions between the Indians and English. One could not, to my mind, read this text without recognising undercurrents of judgment throughout every encounter they have with one another. Each judgment, in turn, is never allowed to be accepted as “truth”, for one can only judge as far as one is personally capable, and to find one truth is then to oversimplify matters altogether. Forster’s skill at presenting multiple perspectives, while to some, confusing, was, to me, perfectly in line with the complex, overlapping relationships and issues present throughout the text.

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.

British Fragments: the Empire and the Modernist Perception

Levine’s illustration of the British empire and Modernism’s stress on perception (more specifically, fragmentation, that particular technique of representation) have me thinking about the cause-and-effect relationship between history and the literary movement’s trademarks.

After reading Levine’s chapter on “Ruling an Empire,” I’m starting to draw a few parallels between the strict stratification of the British empire (rather, specifically in relation to the colonies) and the general emphasis on the observer and the question of representation versus perception in modernist literature. Towards the end of the chapter, Levine makes comment on the worries over British subjects in colonies ‘going local’ and the colonial subjects being “counted, described, given classifications” (114). With this sort of rigidly structured, categorical mindset it is only logical that with decolonization would come a crisis of thought. Stemming from the shattering of the strict order that existed previously, this crisis led to emphasis on the act of observation over the thing that is observed, almost as an attempt to regain order through new forms and new ways of percieving.

As discussed in first lecture, Modernism highlights form, drawing attention to function and perception, and the importance of perception in finding a “truth.” In the aftermath of the Great War, the depressed economies, the devastation to the land and the effect of the war on the people presumably prompted the search for beauty and truth so pervasive in Modernist texts.

Modernism: Truths and Realities

Personally, I think people tend to enjoy residing in their comfort zone, allowing many things around them to go unquestioned. Hence, allowing those with power to take on a paternal-like role in deciding how life is to be led as they represented objectivity and the truth. This is where, I believe, the role and purpose of Modernism – as a movement, serves. That is, to challenge and, if I may put it, to ‘mess around’ with the ‘normal’ perception of how things are and should be.

To put it simply, I think Modernism definitely comes across as confusing and unfathomable to some, with its seemingly incongruous form – forms that illustrates that our thought process is actually illogical and inconsistent in reality whilst our consciousness – arbitrary. This, as Auerbach has discussed, demonstrates how individuals would assign meanings to their surrounding based on their experiences. In other words, a hundred individuals will likely assign a hundred different meanings to a single entity. I feel that this recognition is a salient trait that drives the movement of Modernism, making it distinctive. Paradoxically, the driving force of Modernism is also its bane, as it faces the irreconcilable issue of representing truth and reality. Given that we are all unique in our experiences and thinking, what then is reality and truth?

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?