Note-taking (Oct 22, Part 1)

This week in class, we began by looking at a short clip of Michael Kimmel giving a lecture on gender studies and it was interesting that we should start with it because he brought up the notion of how gender had always been presumed as a “woman’s problem” and how men do not think that it is about them and this one-sidedness is very political.  Another issue that he brought up was how race complicates the notion of gender and like gender, race is visible only to those are afflicted by it and thus he suggests that by extension privilege is invisible by those who have it. This is interesting because by conflating race with gender politics, he is drawing our attentions to the fact that these social constructs are merely instruments of upholding patriarchal power. Kimmel also discussed that he being a white middle class male, what right does he have to talk about gender and this brings forth the notion of responsibility and right. I think this can be related to Achebe’s article where he discusses his position in trying to redeem the image of Africa, and to a large extent Africans, that was portrayed in Heart of Darkness.

We then moved on to a more general discussion of gender. These were some of the points brought up:

–          Gender as a social construct vs. biological construct of sex and because of the fact that gender is a social construct, there are certain norms ascribed to it that emphasizes the performative aspect of gender.

–          Gender is tied to culture – different views of gender roles in different cultures.

–          Gender as part of a larger issue of identity politics.

–          Even though gender politics tend to highlight the plight of the oppressed women and men perceive that it does not involve them as Kimmel mentioned, both men and women are tied down by these constructions. E.g. boys are told to behave in a boyish manner: to play with toy cars instead of dolls, girls to sit properly etc.

–          This was discussed as a reflection of a kind of social order as a means of disciplining the masses and thereby highlighting the larger issue of the power structure of patriarchy.

–          However, there is also a tendency to bring gender politics into a text that is not necessarily gender biased or even aware of its gender biasness and it may seem forced at times.

–          In a way, this can be seen as an overcompensation for women: because of the long history of oppression done to women, there is a tendency to overcompensate for this long history by labeling every text that even has a tiniest hint of bias against women as misogynistic and oppressive. Here, it was highlighted that this is one of the pitfalls of abstract theorization.

–          However, even though at times it may be seen as an overcompensation, it is important that we do look at texts and apply these gendered readings to them as it is more dangerous to not allow the opportunity of theorizing.

–          Similarly, as Achebe pointed out in his article ‘An Image of Africa’, it would be more dangerous to simply see Heart of Darkness as a text about the degeneration of a European mind than to accuse Conrad of being a racist.

–          Gender, like all social constructs, is seen as a kind of marker, a means of establishing a form of typicality

–          The issue of stereotypes was raised by our guest speaker, and he established the fact that there is nothing wrong with stereotypes as it is a way of gaining access to something one does not know, however, it starts becoming dangerous when one solely relies one’s view of a gender/race/etc. on it and that enforcement of these stereotypes without clarification is dangerous.

–          Gender is a fluid/changing construct and at times most take it for granted that the social norms of gender are universal, when in fact they are not. An example given: the hijras in India who are considered the third sex and even though as a group, they do not have a place in the so-called universal social construction of gender, they are revered in India.

–          Our guest speaker also clarified the origins of the term ‘patriarchy’ in that it was not originally associated with men, but with power but because of the evolution of the power structure such that men were the dominant group in power for much of history, the term patriarchy eventually became associated with the rule of men.

–          It would be useful to look at Foucault’s theory of productive power as a means of analyzing gender politics.

This week’s presentation concentrated on gender oppression and modernism in Burmese Days. The crisis of gender in modernism was highlighted. The notion that modernism, classified as high art, was considered a male domain was discussed as  problematic and at times, this misogynistic view is seen in texts. It is interesting that in this module itself we are studying modernist works of male authors. Are we too partaking in the idea that modernism as high art is a male domain?

The presentation discussed gender oppression, but it concentrated largely on the oppression of women in the text and it seems that we, as readers, tend to fall into the trap of what Kimmel talked about, thinking that gender oppression is a women’s problem. Peiyi clarified the fact that men too are oppressed in Burmese Days by gender rules/stereotypes, especially Flory, who in the end dies because of the very fact that he was not able to subscribe to the prescribed notions of his gender and of his race. Moreover, even in Shooting an Elephant, we see that men are oppressed by the masculine imperialist ideology to behave in a certain way. The narrator in Shooting an Elephant has to actively participate in the upholding of said ideology by behaving in a manner fit for a colonialist, his actions are dictated by this ideology. It is because of this that he shoots the elephant even though he does not feel the need to but by doing it, he reinforces his role as a male imperialist in the colonial world. Similarly, in Burmese Days, Flory has to follow the rules of the pukka sahib.

The notion of women being active agents of empire was brought up, a point that Stoler’s article mentions. The way by which the European women treat the natives is seen as their own version of upholding the ideology of empire and by extension gender rules. There is distrust on the part of European women towards the natives and some of it stemming out from a belief that natives are highly sexualized figures and thereby posing a real threat to these women. Thus, by treating the natives in the way that they do, they are upholding the ideology of empire. However, Stoler’s article discusses how this perceived threat was a seed planted by imperialism as a means of using women as the basis of upholding the imperialist ideology.

Women are also seen as craving an access to the imperial project by reinforcing the notions of Englishness and otherness, however, this notion is contested on the grounds whether it is a conscious effort or not. This is seen in Burmese Days with Elizabeth constantly commenting on how ugly the Burmese are and by extension implying that they are ugly because of their very difference to the English. This can be related to the notion of the rule of colonial difference discussed by Chatterjee. Even when Adela in A Passage to India is relatively civil to the natives and shows an interest (albeit superficial) in seeing the “real India”, she is interested in the exoticness of India which seems to suggest that she is interested in the very different way that India contrasts to England and thereby simply reinforcing the notion of colonial difference. Moreover, with Elizabeth’s entrance in Burmese Days, she tries to impose Englishness by bringing up notions of morality and manliness, which eventually lead to the Flory’s demise.

In Heart of Darkness, we also see the role of women in the reinforcement of imperialist ideology and upholding the rule of colonial difference. This is seen in one of the few times in the text where the European woman is being mentioned and it is significant when a woman is mentioned in the text, she only serves to enforce the Englishness/European-ness vs otherness. In the text, the European is described as being the refined opposite of the Amazon with descriptions like “she had a mature capacity for fidelity, for belief, for suffering.” Thus, this relates to the point that Peiyi brought up in her presentation that women in the colonial context are seen as either a legalized entity or a disposable commodity. In this case, the European woman is both, because while she is a legalized entity, she is seen as a disposable commodity in the way she is being used to highlight otherness, she can be seen as a mere prop. Similarly, Adela can also be seen in the same light. After the fiasco of the trial, she appears to be discarded like a commodity because her use as an imperial ideological tool had ceased.