Abandoning binaries, embracing perspectives

While I was thinking about the divisions between colonists/colonized or West/East, it struck me how humans have this need for easy categorizations. Fanon says “It is the colonist who fabricated… the colonized subject” (2). The image of the colonized is created in opposition to the colonist. “The ruling species is first and foremost the outsider from elsewhere, different from the indigenous population, ‘the others’” (Fanon 5), establishing the difference in race, status, and other attributes between the colonist and the colonized. We are all too familiar with classifying Indians/East as rural, primitive, uncivilized, and superstitious, in comparison to the English/West as cultured, educated and rational. It is precisely such binary modes of thinking that creates a static, stereotyped image, which I think Forster tries not to fall into in A Passage To India.

Godbole is a fine example of a character that doesn’t fall into neat categories. “His whole appearance suggested harmony, as if he had reconciled the products of East and West” (65). If we look at the significant Marabar Caves, it is viewed by the English as a “muddle”, dangerous and disorienting. What the English see as a chaotic muddle, however, the Indians view as a beautiful, spiritual mystery. Just as “good and evil are different, as their names imply… they are both of them aspects of [the] Lord” (167), once again suggesting it is a matter of perspective. I think Forster propounds adopting an unconventional approach to reading the novel and reading people: learning to embrace different perspectives, realizing there is no one truth, just as India can be “a hundred Indias” (13). Only when we are open to other perspectives, will we be able to get a more all-encompassing view of the Truth, or the ‘real’ India.

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.

Thoughts on Modernism

Just some thoughts on the nature of Modernist art and literature. The Gikandi reading really made me realise that when we think of Modernist art and literature, our reading of it is often subconsciously framed by the assumption that writers or artists who incorporate the Other/Orient/colonised in their work are sympathetic to them. For me at least, the presence or absence of the colonised in literature, and especially art, suggested that the writer/artist saw the colonised as people ‘worthy’ of being represented in their works. However, after reading the Gikandi reading, I realised that this was not necessarily true. Looking through the lecture notes on the nature of Modernist art and literature, one of the things I noticed was the fact that Modernism was largely concerned with the idea of ‘Form’ and different ways of looking and thinking. Considering that in line with the Gikandi reading, it struck me that ultimately, Modernism seemed to be less about the subject of representation and more about how that subject affected the writer or artist. So, despite the fact that Modernism as a movement had been catalysed by self-questioning in the wake of WWI, Modernists seem to me a rather ‘self-centred’ bunch. Despite Modernism’s interest in the Other, it was still for the ‘purpose’ of understanding the self—the representations of the Other in Modernism thus seem to continue the ‘exploitation’ of the Other, despite the movement’s concern with different perspectives and new ways of looking/thinking. Perhaps I approached “Modernism” from a certain (skewed?) starting point, which has led to this spiel—any thoughts?

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.