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.

Note-taking for Burmese Days (Week 10) 2nd Half of Class

TOPIC + EXAMPLES

To recap, in the first half of class, Prof Koh showed us Michael Kimmel’s video which was centered around the premises that privilege is invisible to those who have it. Prof Koh opens the second half of class by showing us W.H Auden’s “Spain 1937” about the Spanish Civil War that the modernists were involved in and proving that only someone who did not own a gun could write something like that, supporting Kimmel’s statement that privilege is invisible to those who have it. In the second half of class, we discuss this invisibility of privilege, Stoler, power and feminism with regards to Burmese Days and Jessica’s blog entry.


1. Bringing masculine power to the female.

Stoler constructs binaries of how women are supposed to be revealed. No matter how women are portrayed, they are always subject to the male subjugation of power. Jessica sees the actions of Elizabeth and Ma Hla May as bringing masculine power back to the female, therefore empowering them. One notable instance in the novel where we see Elizabeth getting close to power is the hunting scene. Elizabeth welds power when she holds the gun, a symbol of masculine power, and ‘masters’  it when she almost scores a kill with her first shot, thereby utilizing the masculine power for her own purposes.

2. Women have so internalized their repressive roles that they do not realize it. Therefore, they can never escape the patriarchal hegemony and attain true power.

Peiyi agrees to a certain extent, she thinks that Elizabeth got exactly what she wanted as she ended up in a more advantageous and powerful position- but she is still subjugated by the masculine ideologies. Her role as a memsahib is only valid within the masculine colonial discourse. However, Yuying points out that Elizabeth does not care, which reinforces Stoler’s discourse that women have so internalized their repressive roles that they do not realize it.

3. Women can only construct their femininity within the patriarchal circle.

This also reinforces Stoler’s reading, where she states that women can only construct their femininity within the patriarchal circle through the institution of marriage. Hence, the colonial directory regulates women’s roles and functions. Elizabeth does not possess the reflexivity or empowerment to rise above the situation- she just reinforces what has been programmed in her. In a own way, she is  also a victim. She has already transgressed the space between the country of her birth in order to create another space for her to construct a new whole identity (through marriage), but this identity only reinforces the colonial ideals of power.

4. Are the strongest opponents to feminism women themselves?

Michael Kimmel’s “privilege is invisible to those who have it” is brought into play here. The female (Elizabeth) is able to make the patriarchal system work for her through the institution of marriage, therefore giving the female some sort of power. However, this female empowerment is not universal. In comparison, Ma Hla May has more constraints due to her status as a native concubine. However, Elizabeth does not care about the plight of Ma Hla May. Indeed, Ma Hla May is her competitor. There is no universal bond of sisterhood that ties them together. As such, once Elizabeth attains the masculine power that she wants, she further subjugates and oppresses Ma Hla May and the natives. Hence, feminism is privileged, and women are the strongest opponents to feminism themselves.

5. The connotations of feminism

Prof Koh asks the class how many of us actually consider ourselves feminists, and only three people raise their hands. Kelvin says that the term feminist has a negative connotation. The notion of feminism brings to mind the radical bra-burning and man-hating feminists of the past, which are undesirable in today’s context, where womens’ rights are already pretty much established. Mr Cheng points out that it is because of this radical actions that women suffrage is pioneered today. Perhaps because we are speaking from a privileged position in the twenty-first century, we are unable to comprehend or relate to the pioneer suffragettes. In that sense, as Prof Koh says, we are complacent because we feel the battle has already been won.

6. The role of marriage in society: the social contract vs the sexual contract

The function of marriage has popped up several times in the discussion. Stoler specifically talks about marriage and how this was important in the construction of a colonial society. Elizabeth sees marriage as protection and a means to attain power. Ma Hla May does not have access to marriage with Flory due to her status as a native. However, she does have value in her use of sex and her pseudo-spousal role as a colonial concubine. Here, Prof Koh introduces the ideology of Carol Pateman to us, who argues that the social contract is first bounded upon the sexual contract. The social contract is opposed to patriarchy and patriarchal right, but before one can be a father he needs to have sex first. Therefore the social contract is not founded upon patriarchy, but marriage- hence the sexual contract.

CONNECTIONS WITH TOPICS FROM OTHER WEEKS

Perhaps the idea that struck me the most this week was Stoler’s argument that the construction of femininity is only valid within the patriarchal circle which is upheld by the sexual contract. This relates to Jing Xuan and Frederick’s presentation the previous week regarding power and Foucault, where power exists only when it is put into action. Feminine power can only exist within the context of masculine power, and can be only exercised when masculine power is exerted. Therefore it is not that the female is unable to break free from the male hegemony, but that feminism requires the presence of male oppression in order to exist. Without gender inequality, there would be no feminism or patriarchy to talk about in the first place. The sexual contract also reveals that one avenue of power available to women is sex, with or without the sanctity of marriage. However, sex and rape share a fine line, as Frederick mentioned in his presentation.

To conclude, Prof Koh brings up the example of the Law of Coverture in Singapore. If a man rapes his legal wife in Singapore, he is able to get away with it as under Singapore law, every woman is essentially male property and her legal rights are covered by the men. It is disturbing to note that the battle for equal female rights is still ongoing today. However, as Ambreen suggests, rather that just talking about gender inequality, we should take off the masks of privilege and concern ourselves with inequality in general.

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.

Notes on Burmese Days (Week 9, Part I)

TOPIC OF CLASS

In their presentation, Jingxuan and Frederick focused on the discourses of Power in Orwell’s Burmese Days and how these discourses reinforce each other insecuring the dominant ideology of the Imperial hegemony.

1. Jingxuan, in the first half of the presentation, explored the theoretical framework of power in Burmese Days by borrowing Michel Foucault’s definition, asserting that for our reading of the text, it is not useful to see power as a universal and all-encompassing force, but rather should be seen as something that only exists when put into action;  i.e.: when “certain actions modify others” (The Subject and Power).

Power, hence, becomes a dialectic in the text that exists in a kind of liminal space between the Coloniser and the colonised. Colonial power needs to beactivated by the colonised through actions that modify (hence reinforce) the actions of the Colonist (see Examples 1-3).

2. As power is understood as being born out of symbiosis, power loses agency when it is not constantly volleying back and forth within the hierarchy. Hence it can be activated and de-activated, and cannot by definition remain static (see Examples 4-5).

3. Foucault goes on to state that power comes from the prescribing of an identity on the individual who then has to behave within the boundaries of this identity in order to be accepted in society. If this identity is rejected by the individual, the power illicited from the reverence of others is lost.

4. Distribution of power in Burmese Days is not strictly based on racial discrimination as power is a by-product of a symbiotic process. Hence, individuals can gain power by adhering to the code of conduct established by the hegemony (see Example 6)

5. Frederick decided to narrow down the group’s discussion of power to the role of women in the text, using Urmila Seshagiri’s “Misogyny and Anti-Imperialism in George Orwell’s Burmese Days”.  He looks at the power that comes from sexual aggression in the form of the literal rape carried out by U PoKyin and the various sexual encounters throughout the text.

6. Sexual power is also seen as symbiotically formed, established by the aggression of the male and the bartering of sex by women (see Example 7).

7. Ma Hla May is the embodiment of Burma, just as Elizabeth Lackersteen is the embodiment of England. This framework already highlights the politics ofpower between the colony and the empire (see Example 8).

EXAMPLES

1. U Po Kyin embodies the inherent power in the figure of the Colonised in his ability to penetrate the European psyche: “No European cares anything about proofs. When a man has a black face, suspicion is proof. A few anonymous letters will work wonders. It is only aquestion of persisting; accuse, accuse, go on accusing – that is the way with Europeans” (Burmese Days 12).

He uses his understanding of difference to assert his power in manipulating the system he knows so well (albeit within the Imperial ideology), which in turnreinforces the status quo. The adage “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer” applies to the way in which U Po Kyin functions within the text. His ability to read and analyse people is what gives him the power to destroy his enemies internally.

2. Dr. Veraswami is aware of the underhanded threat U Po Kyin poses on his prestige (the be-all and end-all of the colonial subject’s identity): “My friend, in these matters prestige iss everything. It iss not that U Po Kyin will attack me openly; he will libel me and backbite me. And whether he issbelieved or not depends entirely upon my standing with Europeans”. The signifier “prestige” holds great value as it is a linguistic and physical manifestation of power in the Colonial framework and the knowledge of its power is what gives the various characters the feeling of having the upper-hand [another form of power].

3. Both U Po Kyin and Dr. Veraswami see gaining club membership would up their prestige in society, which in itself is their willing subscription into the Colonial framework of power, which in turn gains its power [prestige] from the reverence of the colonial subjects who regard a place in the club as a highly coveted honour.

4. Flory is able to deactivate his power as a Colonist by refusing to subscribe to the behavioral codes supporting the Colonial ideology (by not behaving asother white men in colonies do).  However, to what extent is he successful in separating himself from the hierarchy of the hegemony if he is permanently marked by his whiteness, which codes him almost unforgivingly and permanently in the text (vis-a-vis Ma Hla May).

5. Flory rejects his identity as Colonist and is in turn rejected by the Colonists for his “Bolshie” ideas (34).  This puts Flory in the position of the reluctant colonist as he struggles against the identity he is inextricably linked to (that of a non-native).

It is this inextricable tie Flory has to his identity as a European man that ultimately leads to his failure to struggle against the Colonial power structure, as he behaves like a Colonist in the end: his convictions in defending Dr. Veraswami are only secondary to his feelings of solidarity and fraternity towards the Englishmen.  Secondly, his love for Elizabeth Lackersteen is what kills him in the end, as his choosing of the white woman over his Burmese mistress highlights a kind of implicit acknowledgmentof the English code of conduct.

6. Although skin color is a marker for power in the colonial context, race becomes a performative element more than anything, as the native “finds himselfrewarded for performing according to the codes of the dominant power, whereas an Englishman who attempts ‘going native’ even incompletely finds himself ostracized and disoriented” (Waterman 95).

This implies the power gained by U Po Kyin is one that reinforces the Colonial power structure as it involves him acting within his boundaries, understanding the European psyche while remaining outside the European demarcation.  His whiteness becomes a promise of power to Ma Hla May who reacts to him because of this physical marker, which supplies the power he deactivated by conscious choice.

7.  As Seshagiri writes, “rape becomes an unquestioned privilege and by-products of masculine colonial ambivalence,” U Po Kyin’s rape of young girls being akey example of this literal form of sexual aggression (57).  Tom Lackersteen’s penchant for Burmese prostitutes, Maxwell and his Eurasian mistress, and of course, Flory and his prominent affair with Ma Hla May, all act as examples of a kind soft-rape, sexual aggression directed at women co-opted into the system by having to serve the role of companion-consort without the legitimate ideological marker of “wife”.

8.  Ma Hla May, like Burma, is servile and engages Flory in the Master/Slave dialect that parallels the Colonial ideology.  She is left in the end as Burma is in the wake of imperialism: “Look how he has ruined me! Look at these rags I am wearing!” (273).  Yet her predicament post-Flory seems almost intuitive of a post-colonial Burma: “her good looks are all but gone, and her clients pay her only four annas, and sometimes kick her and beat her… she regrets the good time when Flory was alive” (285).

9.  Similarly, Elizabeth Lackersteen embodies the mercenary attitude of the Colonial mission in her potential unions.  The figure of the burra memsahib fits her well as she rules with fear over those she does not (want to) understand, and has the greatest disdain for.

CONNECTIONS WITH TOPICS FROM OTHER WEEKS

This presentation gave a fresh perspective to the politics of Colonial power.  In previous weeks, we had looked at the Colonial framework as a bureaucratic hierarchy that focused on the marginalisation of and subjugation of the native figure.  Orwell’s text read within Foucault’s theory allows us to see how the constantly shifting nature of power makes it possible for even the natives to have agency and a kind of voice (albeit weak) in the Colonial mission.  Our discussion regarding narratives and the mute or oppressed voice of the subaltern are re-evaluated with the ideas thrown up in this presentation.

In the colonies, the minority had control over the majority as power was almost literally grabbed out of the hands of the natives.  However, the fact remains that although the Colonial discourse was set by the British, it only succeeded and reached the extent it did because of he aid of natives, the emphasis being on the two-way power (Master/Slave) dialectic.  With the natives imbibing the Western formulation of power, the notion of heirarchy and white superiority is enforced without active pursual.  U Po Kyin’ success and Flory’s death suggests that natives are complicit in reinforcing power hierarchy, being dependent on the Colonist for this power.

Note-taking for Lord Jim (Wk 7): Overall Summary

Topic of Class

Week 7’s class focused mainly on the questioning of a singular perspective (whether of Marlow’s viewpoint in Lord Jim or Alfred Russel Wallace’s views in his scientific travel book The Malay Archipelago), highlighting how the methods employed (written and oral narrative or empirical evidence) resulted in an effect on the reader’s perception of an issue (Jim’s identity or the nature/characteristics of the Dyaks).

The first part of class centered on the uses and effects of narrative in Lord Jim.  The presentation first explored the employment of both the oral and written traditions to question the stability of Marlow’s role as storyteller and author. The presence of various narrators giving rise to multiple perspectives was then investigated, questioning the possibility of ever getting a true representation of Jim’s identity.

The second half of class was then devoted to the discussion of how Wallace’s text relates to Lord Jim and how both texts exemplify the crisis of knowledge and representation. The importance of being aware of Wallace’s employment of the empirical evidence methodology and its ability to shape results was underlined, but more pertinently, the issue of how science is employed to augment power was raised, and how it in turn justifies instances of colonialism seen even in Lord Jim.

 

Examples

The power to construct truth

“My information was fragmentary, but I’ve fitted the pieces together, and there is enough of them to make an intelligible picture.” (Conrad 262).

Just as Marlow has the power to fit pieces of information together and give us his account of Jim, Wallace has the power to designate and scribe his opinions of the characteristics of the Dyaks. Even in Wallace’s collecting of butterfly specimens, it involves a tedious process of selection, which points to the artifice of construction and how methodology can affect results. Here, we see how those in power are privileged to select and show us their version of truth, which thereby points us back to the questioning of the authority and reliability of a singular perspective and constructed “truth”.

The power of empirical evidence to inadvertently justify colonialism

Wallace asserts that the “limited number of [the Dyak woman’s] progeny” (70) is due to the “hard labour of the women, and the heavy weights they constantly carry” (70). He continues to state that with advancing civilization, better systems of agriculture and division of labour, “the women will have more household duties to attend to, and will then cease to labour in the field” (70).

Here, Wallace implies that with improving systems of agriculture and labour division, less physical labour for the Dyak women and increased attending to household duties would result in higher fertility for them, which instead validates (and exalts) the Victorian practice of relegating womenfolk to the domestic sphere and their role as caretakers of children. In making such a statement, he also highlights the sensibility of the “high class European example” (Wallace 71), and justifies colonialism to improve the natives’ way of life.

 

Connections with Other Topics from Other Weeks

Both the presentation on Lord Jim and the discussion of Wallace’s text led us to question the possibility of a true history when told only from a single person’s perspective. The idea of moving from a singular or fixed viewpoint to embracing a multiplicity of perspectives is one that has resonated throughout our module so far.

If we recall the readings in the second week, Gikandi’s article brought us to an understanding of how Picasso’s art plays with perspectives to complicate the meaning of things, just as Auerbach suggests how the consciousness of a range of characters in Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse also opens us to different readings of the “real” Mrs Ramsay. Similarly, in Forster’s A Passage to India and Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the varying perceptions of India and the various narratives in HOD (whether from the narrator to us, Marlow to the narrator, or from others to Marlow etc) respectively actually contribute to a more all-encompassing view. However, to be able to reach the real India/Truth is still ultimately impossible, just as the true identity of Jim remains “inscrutable” (Conrad 318) and an “insoluble mystery” (Conrad 234).

In looking at renowned biologist Alfred Russel Wallace’s scientific travel book containing his (skewed) opinions of natives that seem to only justify colonialism, we discussed the idea of power: Power, not just to inscribe characteristics onto a native people who could not speak for themselves then, but power to influence the masses, and power to pass on HIS opinions as truth. This power Fanon speaks of too, in the colonist solely and continually fabricating the image of the colonized, passing that image off as truth. We can perhaps better understand Achebe’s anger towards the classification of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as a great work of art, of the power of aesthetics and art to gloss over, play down and disguise racism, such that despite propagating such racist depictions, the novel still remains an influential piece particularly in British literature, widely-read and greatly-loved.

Lord Jim, Lord of Mystery

While reading Lord Jim, I realized how Marlow always remarks how he “cannot say he [has] ever seen [Jim] distinctly” (Conrad 169) and is “fated never to see him clearly” (Conrad 185). Jim is described as an “insoluble mystery” (Conrad 234) who “passes away under a cloud, inscrutable at heart” (Conrad 318). I thus found myself asking why the need for all this mystery and obscurity around the figure of Jim.

Perhaps, by making Jim out to be this enigmatic, ultimately unfathomable figure, it also elevates his status as “Lord”, a higher being we are never fully able to comprehend or know. The mystery surrounding Jim, and the inability to place/know him, is in direct contrast to the natives, who are easily identified/ labelled.

This is easily seen in Alfred Russel Wallace’s article, in the way in which he describes with such ease the “general character of the Dyaks” (Wallace 67) and comes to simple, stereotypical conclusions such as the “natives of tropical climates [having] few wants, and when these are supplied, are disinclined to work for superfluities without some strong incitement.” (Wallace 73). Here, Wallace’s power is in “knowing” the natives (regardless of its inaccuracy), the power to (in)scribe characteristics onto them, the power to write.

Knowledge is power, and conversely, the lack of knowledge renders one disadvantaged in the power balance. By positing the colonist as mysterious and unfathomable, in this case Lord Jim, it elevates his status as superior race, god-like and all-knowing, reinforcing the justification of colonization of the natives, who are in contrast, ignorant and easily “known”.

Silencing and the assertion of power

The Gikandi reading made me deeply aware of the fact that in fighting for a new kind of art that would rival their predecessors, Modernist artists necessarily have deny and subjugate another marginal group so as to assert some kind of individual power/strength. Despite the various meditations, to me, Picasso’s “avant-garde” technique is really just an extraction of what he chose to see and appropriate from the African artifacts. Not only is this really an arbitrary standard, more importantly it does not acknowledge or recognize the Africans who crafted those artifacts as “producers of culture” themselves (Gikandi 456).

By insisting that the African works have a “perceptual” rather than “conceptual” influence on his work, Picasso is necessarily exiling the African subject from the space, which he had appropriated for his own exercise of individuality, and I see this a refusal to give credit to the African “Other” as indicative of a deeper anxiety on Picasso’s part. I think Picasso’s methodology really highlights a deep-seated struggle for power and self-assertion: by exiling the African subject and reclaiming the African space for himself, he manages to maintain power and control over his appropriated “object/empire”. But perhaps what motivates such a self-congratulatory position is really the fear that if he should admit that African culture had a constitutive affect on his work, he would also necessarily admit that the artwork is not completely a product of his own personal artistic genius; and that the silenced African subject was actually more poignant/important than he had (arbitrarily) allowed it to be.