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.

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.

(M)Othering the Colonies

There are, in my opinion, 2 overarching criticisms in Stoler’s compelling essay – artificialness of the ‘realities’ pertaining to race and sex, and injustice of Eurocentric laws used to govern the colonized.


By artificial ‘reality’ I mean the discourses whereby one’s perception of identity is falsely constructed but yet accepted as truths. I stress the distinction between the dissemination of gendered and racist ‘knowledge’ from their internalization as ‘truths’. The latter is most abhorred by me, for I believe that the worst form of colonization is that in which you do not recognize. There are still, honestly, many women who firmly believe that they are to be subservient to men, despite showing attempts to remove the gendered boundary of domesticity. What results, ultimately, is an unchanging complicity which only works towards its proliferation. Indeed, I do not think that one needs to be a feminist and/or racist to agree with this opinion of mine.


The other issue raised by Stoler pertains to the power of the colonials at creating ‘laws’ based on the above-mentioned discourses. This seems most paradoxical to me because the so-called ‘laws’ are but “exclusionary politics” to reinforce its own virility and not about justice and equality whatsoever. This can be easily seen in how “sexual abuse of black women was not classified as rape” while white women required more “protection”. Not only is this double-standard utterly perverse as a thought, the fact that they actually became concretized as codes of life during the nineteenth century is simply appalling.

Note-taking for second half of Week 9

Today’s class discussion focused mainly on ideas about the enforcement of colonialism, in various ways and means:

1. We discussed the threat posed by children of mixed parentage to the ‘rule of colonial difference’,

2. the ways the colonial state manipulated laws to justify its actions, and

3. the position and portrayal of the reluctant coloniser.

The first part of the discussion looked at Stoler’s article, where we considered the treatment of metis children as illustrated by the Sieur Icard case. Here, we discussed the ways in which ‘whiteness’ becomes problematised by the existence of the metisse, which blurs the lines between ‘white’ and ‘native’. At the same time, we also considered how colonial law and lawmakers were still able to exert their power by enforcing arbitrary definitions of ‘whiteness’ (in both a demonstration and assertion of their superiority). For example, not only did the colonial court have the ‘last say’ in the legal treatment of the metisse, it also tried to control the situation by enforcing laws that ‘decided’ on the status of metis children as white or native.

We then moved on to think about the links between the Stoler article and Burmese Days. Here, we discussed how Flory could be seen as a metis figure himself, because of his birthmark, which makes him half ‘dark’. We then considered various ways of reading Orwell’s portrayal of the two Eurasian characters in the novel, and how this reflected his attitudes towards them. Firstly, his portrayal of them as lowly clerks, and his likening of them to dogs possibly reflected his low regard of them. (“The two Eurasians had sidled up to Flory and cornered him like a pair of dogs asking for a game.” Chapter 10)) At the same time, some of us felt that his portrayal of them was rather sympathetic, and read this in two ways. (“Elizabeth had, in fact, decided to snub the Eurasians. She did not know why Flory was allowing them to hold him in conversation. As she turned away to stroll back to the tennis court, she made a practice stroke in the air with her racquet, to remind Flory that the game was overdue. He saw it and followed her, rather reluctantly, for he did not like snubbing the wretched Francis, bore though he was.” (Chapter 10)). Firstly, this could be Orwell’s deliberate denunciation of the imperialist actions that resulted in the existence of these metis children, and another angle from which to criticise colonialism. Secondly, that Orwell himself did not know how to portray these figures, as they were too ‘sensitive’ an issue. Considering this led to a discussion on where we hear Orwell’s voice in the text, and whether or not Flory can be seen as Orwell’s mouthpiece. While we considered that Flory, as the reluctant colonialist, could be Orwell (as the narrator in Shooting an Elephant could have been), this brought up the question of why, if Flory represents Orwell, he dies in the novel. This led to a consideration of Orwell’s guilt in having taken part in the colonial enterprise, and Burmese Days as his way of coping with that guilt. Looking at Flory as a reluctant colonialist, we compared him with Fielding, and also discussed why Orwell creates all these unsympathetic characters in the text, which led to questions about whether Elizabeth could be the real protagonist in the text, and how all this affected conveying Orwell’s message to the reader.We then considered that perhaps Flory is not Orwell’s mouthpiece, and that Orwell’s voice is not heard in the text, but rather, Orwell chose to show a ‘reality’ of the colonial situation, leaving it up to the reader to read what meaning we chose into the text.

Connections with Other Topics from Other Weeks

As mentioned above, this week’s discussion continued the consideration of the figure of the reluctant coloniser that was also present in Passage to India and Shooting and Elephant. Furthermore, we also used the idea of rule of colonial difference brought up in the Chatterjee article to consider the place and portrayal of the metisse in Stoler’s article. We also considered how Orwell is quite different in style from previous writers in the module, as rather than giving a clear message the way Forster did in Passage to India, he leaves it rather open to the reader to make meaning of the text. Furthermore, unlike Conrad, women are not silenced in this text, (consider the fact that some of us consider Elizabeth the ‘real’ protagonist). Orwell presents a fairly different picture of colonialism compared to Forster and Conrad, for the focus of the novel is clearly the reluctant coloniser and the problems that come with that position.

Burmese Days- Early Dystopia, Death Eaters and Alienation

When reading Stoler’s article, I was immediately struck by her chapter on the European anxiety that the “wealth and cultivation” of “persons of mixed descent” were “rivaling those of many ‘full blooded’ Europeans” (Stoler 528). This view of inequality reminded me instantly of the Harry Potter books- after all, what is Voldemort undertaking but some neo-Nazi, anti-racial, imperialist quest to highlight the inferior nature of those that are not “pure blood”? We see this in Stoler’s mention of the public schools in the Indies, where eduation is biased in itself, and “only designed for a lower-class… mixed blood Europeans” (Stoler 530). Elizabeth’s character in Burmese Days offers us an appalling glance at people who are portrayed as “so horrible [she] can hardly look at them”. The “absolute savages” (129) that the Burmese represent to the Europeans is of course, another example of “colonial difference”- they absolutely do not deserve the same treatment/”priviledges” as their white superiors do simply because they are racially inferior. As Stoler highlights, being of “mixed race” is almost worse, because they are confusing the boundaries placed between the whites and the natives, a kind of “trespassing on terriory”.

In this vein, Orwell’s Burmese Days really contextualised for me (as Wen Ting mentioned in her presentation), his early influences of Dystopia (1984, Animal Farm)- imperialism, a way to supposedly bring “civilisation” and equality, simply does not work. I found the text depressing and disturbing, because none of the characters were redeeming or sympathetic in any way. Ellis is a perfect example of white fanaticism, a classic ‘Death Eater’ type, and we immediately see him in that inflexible stereotypical light, but the other characters do not compensate for this character. The idea that a group of whiskey-drinking, “smutty rhyme”-reciting (Orwell 27), cigar-smoking, and mistress-keeping British men gone to seed is supposed to be the “Kipling”-spirited saviors of Burma is appalling (even Kipling wanted SOME good to come of imperialism). There is no comfort in Orwell’s picture of “the solitude, the melancholy” of Burma that Elizabeth sees as “so futile, this meandering talk” (180).

The space of Burma becomes nothing but a space for the ‘adventures (or lack thereof) of the British’. Much like Achebe’s quibble with Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Burma becomes the place where English girls can go to find husbands in men who are made lonely and desperate by alienation; we can see this in Flory’s MUCH MISPLACED love for Elizabeth. It also becomes the space where men can find booze, opium, servants and sex. The way that the text ends suggests that there will be no solution or change in this situation- Elizabeth (arguably the most unattractive character in the text) takes her natural role as a “burra memsahib” (287), reluctant imperialist men like Flory are silenced, the doctor who has internalized racial prejudice suffers the consequences, and Ma Hla May stays a paid woman (just paid by somebody else).

Stoler and Orwell

I found Stoler’s discussion of the “interior frontier” very intriguing. To think of mixed blood offspring as such a threat politically, morally, and sexually raises a lot of questions about the colonial enterprise and the civilizing mission. When paired with Burmese Days modern readers are also able to get a sense of what living at that time in those places might have been like.

Orwell has been described by some as a realist in his works. I can see that. His style of writing is very different from Conrad’s. Where Conrad would use close-up imagery to let his readers feel the tone Orwell takes it step by step. He explains things in detail in a matter-of-fact manner. He is also not like Forster who had the ability to make sweeping movements in his descriptive passages. Orwell uses the surface as something smooth and slippery, like it could reflect us but not let us see into the depths of the picture. This is why I can feel frustration, like the sweltering heat he describes, build and latch onto the characters like the crowd did in Shooting and Elephant. The sense that imperialism has that kind of weight on a writer says a lot about society. In this way, what is important is the emotional truth of Orwell’s work.

I think this can compare to Stoler’s article. The metissage really had no outlet. They were not allowed to be fully European nor could they be a native in everyone’s eyes. I can see where this is especially true with women who married native men and their children. If political rights were divvied out through the father’s side, the children would not have the same rights as their mother and this could be a disadvantage in regards to future education, marriageability, and careers. However, if the children were given the same or similar rights to their mother this could be hard on the family in that it might undermine the father’s role in the home. The repressive nature in the latter years of the colonial period can be seen through both tough legislations and works of fiction.