Note-taking part II for October 8th: Shooting an Elephant and Chatterjee discussion

Topic of class

The focus of the discussion was on Chatterjee’s “rule of colonial difference.” Defined as the use of the difference between colonists and the colonized to rule, the “rule of colonial difference” centers many times on race as the essential difference. In other words, though the colonized can become more civilized, they will never be as civilized as the colonists. The problems of the civilizing mission and problems of representing the East were discussed, with reference to the Orientalist/Anglicist debate and the mediation and selection of what goes back home for display. Chatterjee’s study of the “subaltern” was brought up, and the view of “a sack of potatoes” unable to represent itself is later discussed in the light of the language problem. Towards the end of class, the links of the civilizing mission to modernity is highlighted, showing the roots of the civilizing mission in the social contract and subsequent “enlightened vision.” Additionally, the topic of modernity/Modernism also drew the discussion to Orwell and his realism: though his realism makes people think he’s not a Modernist writer, his affiliations with the left and their opposition to high art makes him use realism to convey a political message. This could be seen as a critique of modernity through a critique of colonialism. Links to other texts were also discussed, but will be elaborated upon in the final section of this summary.


  • The first example given for Chatterjee’s “rule of colonial difference” was the Ilbert Bill Affair (Chatterjee 20).  The Ilbert Bill allowed Indian judges to preside over British cases at the district level. The bill was strongly opposed by British plantation owners who thought that and Indian judge would not overlook mistreatment of Indian workers. That the whites “should have no business in this country” if there was one set of laws for black and white highlights the irrational inherent contradiction in the civilizing mission: “in point of fact, black is not white” (21). In other words, the civilizing mission could not ever civilize the other as much as the civilized already are.
  • With regards to the problem of language and translation, Chatterjee’s example of Grant’s play was cited: the colonist is able to represent the colonized however they wish, but the inverse caused an uproar. The translation of the play led to an outcry from indigo planters, and the trial dealt with Long’s libel of the planters, completely dismissing the “native” author of the play as “unworthy” (22-24).
  • The Orientalist/Anglicist debate was used as an example to show the difference in representations of the East. Said’s “Orientalism” states that the East is projected, created and maintained by the West; the predecessors of Said’s Orientalism were the first translators of the history and literature of the Orient. Anglicists, on the other hand, were of the belief that the Western literary canon was greater than the Eastern, as illustrated by Lord Macauley’s Education bill in 1823.
  • Gikandi and the use of African children as decoration in the house was used as an example to show the impact of the selection of aspects of representation that were sent back to the West. Representations of the East through art (paintings of blonde Chinese women were given as an example in class) either of those who had or had not had any interaction with the East led to interesting (read: limited) views and subsequent representations of life in the colonies.

Links to Other Topics from Other Weeks

  • Links were drawn between the “rule of colonial difference,” Orwell in Shooting an Elephant and Fielding from A Passage to India. InElephant” Orwell is characterized as the reluctant colonial who nonetheless succumbs to the “rule of colonial difference.” Silence is imposed on him as an intellectual by their obligation to authority.  In comparison to Orwell, Fielding is not quite the reluctant colonial in that he had merely been in India longer. The portrait of the reluctant imperialist was said to be a common trope in colonial literature. Additional links to Passage are seen in Ronny’s statement that “here is different” when Adele asks him why he is different and the Indian judge presiding over Aziz’s trial and the assumption of sympathy that would lie with a fellow Indian as perceived by the others.
  • Another link was drawn to Wallace’s descriptions of the Dayak and Orwell’s account of the Burmese, emphasizing the problem of representation.

One thought on “Note-taking part II for October 8th: Shooting an Elephant and Chatterjee discussion

  1. Excellent summary Ambreen. Point of clarification: the “sack of potatoes” idea actually comes from Marx who then influenced Gramsci who then influenced Chatterjee. The idea is that the subaltern constitutes the Lumpenproletariat–they are like a sack of potatoes; they cannot represent themselves, they must be represented.

    Also, it would have been good if you could have expanded on the idea of Orwell’s critique of modernity and how this relates to Modernism.

    Otherwise excellent job.