Note-taking for 1st-half of class on 8/10/09

1. The first part of the presentation focuses on memory and history. Wenting began by framing for us the link between imperialism and Modernism, which was that the modernists’ attention to history was what enabled them to explore the British Empire and the political and social events of that period. Examples: Changing conditions of history such as WWI, The Great Depression.

Thus it was with this awareness of historicity that art sought to grapple with the crises of modernity (I won’t go into them here) by experimenting with time. Thus modernist literature was very concerned with memory and history. Next, Wenting suggested that the narrator of Shooting An Elephant can largely be considered synonymous with Orwell himself. The presentation proceeded upon that premise.

2. Wenting talked about memory and history in modernist literature by drawing our attention to the fragmentation of narrative in SAE and the works of Proust. The championing of fragments as being more accurate ‘truths’ or ‘true memory’ is how official grand narratives of empire were challenged – Orwell taps into his own memory for fragments which he places into his work; Wenting (citing Quinones, Mapping Literary Modernism) suggests that like Proust, Orwell is not merely liberating the individual memory/truth, he is justifying the role of literature in contributing to a more complete, ‘truer’ history because singular (unique) fragments of the individual now has a place in the grand narratives.

Wenting went on to talk about self-reflexivity in modernism and SAE, as well as the silencing/repressing of anti-colonial sentiments in the latter, and suggested that these allow us go beyond seeing the short story as an apologist text that in fact highlights the culpability of the natives, as one might get from a preliminary reading. Through the mentioned, and the irony, rhetoric and laughter they permit, the autobiographical relevance of SAE becomes unimportant, because what we have is a very authentic representation of ‘the schizophrenic self at odds with the colonial system’.

3. The second part of the presentation focused on identity and performativity, and the symbolism of the two. Charmaine’s presentation hinges a lot the narrator of SAE as a ‘representative of British institution and legislation in the colony’. She explores the idea of Orwell as the reluctant colonizer who resigns himself to ambiguity of identity when he participates in the maintenance of empire despite his own belief that imperialism was unacceptable.

Quoting “I was stuck between my hatred of the empire I served and my rage against the evil-spirited beasts who tried to make my job impossible” SAE, Charmaine talked about how identity is shown to be not only ambiguous – caught between opposing forces, identity becomes ‘an arbitrary and quite narrow holding action’ which is only about pretending to be in control of itself. It is interesting that here we have ‘fragments’ that do not permit coalescing into clearer ‘truths’.

4. This led into performativity, where Charmaine talked about the parallels between colonizer and colonized with that of actor and audience – the former plays a role the latter expects him to. As a colonizer, Orwell/narrator is compelled to behave as a colonizer would – identity influences the act(ion). But at the same time because he is compelled do act a certain way, the issue of whether he chose to act is thrown up.

The epiphany (it is fitting, I think, to use Joyce’s term here) the narrator/Orwell has at the end of SAE thus reveals his own acute awareness of his need to perform – and of course, also his real ambivalence to his assigned/occupied part under imperialism. The act of self-reflexive modernist writing, where theatrical language is used is what permits is intro/retrospection.

5. The class had quite a few questions, which I feel can be summed up as a consideration as to how much culpability colonials ought to assume for their role serving the ends of empire. Yuxin started by asking why it was that Charmaine saw that identity produced performance (see point 4), instead of the other way round. Daniel then suggested that it was a chicken-or-egg conundrum. When someone brought up that identity is by no means fixed, since it is continually being reconstructed and examined when it is written/represented, it was suggested that Orwell/the narrator’s reluctance to be a colonizer was itself an act, for self-exculpation.

The issue of blame and responsibility continued, when Ritchell and Peiyi brought up the sympathy they felt for the colonialist, who (even if they do not have Orwell’s self-awareness) were also oppressed, by imperialist ideology and the pressures of their circumstances. The issue became paradoxically simpler and more complex, when we talked about whether one could be anti-imperialist if one was racist, for we came down to the impossibility of being ‘at one’ with the (racial) Other. Given that the Other is by definition not the self, does it suggest that we are all already racist? And by extension, does it mean that imperialism can be explored separately as an issue simply about power, thereby implying that racism both preceded and was incidental to imperialism?

One thought on “Note-taking for 1st-half of class on 8/10/09

  1. Good, Kaiquan, but you missed including some textual examples, which would have helped exemplify your points. Also, it would have been better if you could have synthesized the material; for example, showing how these themes inter-related with one another.