The roles played in Empire

As I was reading Fanon’s article, I realized that the colonial enterprise only worked as well as it did was because both sides (colonized and colonizer) acknowledged their respective roles and performed them accordingly, especially when it comes to upholding the rules of language. It is only through the modernist writings that we have encountered during this module that we can see the cracks in empire as a result of either side being reluctant to play this role. In Fanon’s article, he mentions that “But we can already state that to talk pidgin-nigger is to express this thought: ‘You’d better keep your place.'” (84) Thus, there is a conscious effort to talk down to the natives as a result of the need to uphold these performative colonial roles and the  natives have to respond according to how they are expected to respond. It is when they refuse to respond as such, or even try to speak like the colonizer that there is trouble.

Moreover, the paradox of wanting to speak like the colonizer/the white man is the fact that while the colonized are described as uncivilized because of their inability to grasp the language of the colonizer, when they finally are able to grasp the language and perhaps can even speak the language better than the colonizers themselves, they are told to stay in their place, as seen in the example in Burmese Days that Charlene pointed out below.

Also as a sidenote, the point that Fanon made about “the Europeans [having] a fixed concept of the Negro and there is nothing more exasperating than to be asked: ‘How long have you been in France? You speak French so well'” (35) is still quite prevalent in today’s society in terms of how Europeans have a fixed concept of the Other, i.e people from Asia etc. I personally encountered this when I was on exchange in Glasgow last year. I had a consultation with one of my history professors regarding my essay and she commented on how my mastery of the English language was excellent in my essay and how  she was so astonished because I probably spoke Mandarin where I came from. Of course, it was awkward that I had to clarify that firstly, I did not speak Mandarin at all and secondly that English was the official language used in Singapore. But the point is that even after all these years, the European fixed concept of the Other still holds true. Moreover, the fact that she assumed that I could speak Mandarin reminds me of how the colonizers used to disregard the different cultures, and by extension languages, that existed in Africa and instead assumed that everyone spoke the same language as a means of  dehumanizing the Africans further by resisting to acknowledge the multi-farious and complex nature of their culture. But ultimately, it is obvious that language played a significant role in keeping both the colonized and colonizer in their respective places.

The Legitimacy of Language

Conrad, as a modern writer, explores the role of language through Lord Jim as he had done in Heart of Darkness.  His focus, like most modern writers, is on the ability of language to evade and alter the truth in the process of its disclosure.  Conrad’s emphasis on the constant quest for meaning, and elusiveness of ultimate truth are inherently modernist concerns, despite the geopolitics of Lord Jim and its reactionary anti-imperialist undertones.  Marlow’s narrative is couched in ambiguity.  The language of facts and the domain of the artistic narrative intersect as their boundaries are permeable by the inherently deceptive nature of both: “There shall be no message, unless such as each of us can interpret for himself from the language of facts, that are so often more enigmatic than the craftiest arrangement of words” (Lord Jim, 256).

For Conrad, the structure of language implicitly validates the social order, which demarcates the limitations of creative thought by playing with the framing and documenting of memory and perception.  Language, when viewed as a means of documentation, is an act intended to be objective but one that cannot help but be subjective, owing to its deeply flawed structure .  The language of facts is something that is completely arbitrary as we see when reading Wallace’s The Malay Archipelago as a legitimate scientific article based on the theories of (and dedicated to) Charles Darwin.  Truth and accepted reality become the one and the same under this line of thought, which is one of the unfortunate by-products of using language as a means of documenting experience.

In Lord Jim, this is dramatized in Marlow’s growing belief that the idea of social cohesion is an illusion and that communal solidarity is not indomitable–and  is, as all things believed to be stable, vulnerable to the individual.