language and mimicry

To speak a language is to take on a world, a culture. The Antilles Negro who wants to be white will be the whiter as he gains greater mastery of the cultural tool that language is. Rather more than a year ago in Lyon, I remember, in a lecture I had drawn a parallel between the Negro and European poetry, and a French acquaintance told me enthusiastically, ‘At the bottom you are a white man.’ The fact that I had been able to investigate so interesting a problem through the white man’s language gave me honorary citizenship” (38).

This extract to me really summarises what the article is all about. it is about the appropriation of a language that is foreign in an attempt to be something that one cannot (Liz explained this really well in her post). And what really troubles me is the fact that the Antilles Negroes still persist in wanting to speak French because they see it as “the key that can open doors which were still barred to his fifty years ago” (38). They wish to be seen as equals to their European counterparts but this cannot ever be achieved because no matter how good their French is, as it is only seen as a good imitation of an original. It is like a layman trying to sing Whitney Houston’s “I will always love you” in Singapore Idol. It will never ever be able to measure up to the original version and what will you get? lots of backlash from the judges about poor song choice and a possible boot from the show. Anecdote aside, the Antilles Negroes will always be “measured up to the culture” (39) and even if their “gift of eloquence… leaves any European breathless” (39), their ‘achievement’ will be met with praise laced with condescension, oh he was a “great black poet,” or here’s a “black man who handles the french language as no white man can” (39). Race always comes to the fore and it just seems to me to be another pat on the back on the colonizer’s part.

But this is not to mean that they should stop speaking French, because mimicry as suggested by Homi Bhabha could also disclose the ambivalence of colonial discourse and disrupt its authority in creating a kind of “double vision.” This double vision is the “inappropriate” repetition of partial presences of the colonial subject that subverts the “appropriate objects of a colonialist chain of command, authorized versions of otherness”(87).

Portrait and Identity Construction

As i read Portrait, the scene that was most intriguing was the Christmas dinner. When you thinks about Christmas dinner, you’d think that it would be a heartwarming, happy affair where people get together, feel thankful, bask in the christmas spirit and maybe enjoy some turkey and ham. But Stephen’s Christmas has got to be the most uncomfortable event ever. Dante gets in a row with Stephen’s dad and Mr Casey as she defends the Catholic Church’s role in destroying Parnell while the two men attack this institutionalized religion and its long-standing opposition to Irish republicanism. 

But Stephen recalled that in the past, Dante was a Parnell supporter as she “hit a gentleman on the head with her umbrella because he had taken off his hat when the band played God Save the Queen at the end” (37). So she is essentially anti-British but not anti-Catholic. But what perplexes me is how the two cannot be separated as the Church often supports and echoes the British position. I think if anything, this instance shows how institutionalized religion is so influential and how it is a net that inhibits the Irish to find their own unique identity. Thus Stephen finds it necessary to “fly by those nets” and the only way that he sees this happening is to exile himself. 

What is interesting for me as a modern reader is how Joyce feels that the Irish identity is fettered by British colonialism and his solution is to escape. But it just doesn’t seem possible (to me) to escape this colonial past. Shouldn’t this be an integral part of constructing identity? By embracing this post-colonial/diasporic condition? I mean, if his name, Stephen Daedalus is a borrowing of Greek Myth and Catholic tradition (St. Stephen), then why not accept the fact of British colonialism and its effects (whether bad or good) on his identity construction? Another issue that troubles me is how he intends to write about Ireland if he is in exile? One could claim that he would have better perspective but this distancing could also make him lose touch with reality.

finding merit in Woolf’s life

My first reaction to Growing was “gee… i’m glad he doesn’t write like his wife.” I think in many ways, Leonard Woolf led a fascinating life and the autobiographical mode in which he tells his story makes it more personal for us. But as Russell and Kaiquan have suggested, one has to question his motives in claiming this text as an autobiography. can we indeed take his word for it when he says,”I had entered Ceylon as an imperialist … The curious thing is that I was not really aware of this.” I think in some ways we can.

His experiences in Ceylon made him increasingly anti-imperialist, so he quit the service in 1911, married Virginia and he became a left-wing realist and one of the key players in the Labor Party. There is no doubting that his role in the British administration made him jaded and dispassionate towards the natives and we shouldn’t condone his exploitation of the native women through prostitution. But that being said, i do sense that he felt uneasy being a part of the system of imperialism:”strange and disconcerting. The backcloth … was imperialism” and how he felt a “twinge of doubt in [his] imperialist soul.” And i think that Woolf does suggest that a radical change is necessary and that the colonial government no matter how ‘good’ it is, is no replacement for self-government of the native people. And he took this 7 years of experience back with him and tried to use his writing to advocate world peace (International Government) and use his position as secretary of the Labor Party to better the conditions of the poor. I think that Woolf recognized his inability to fight the colonial system (like Orwell in Shooting an Elephant) and so he leaves and tries to influence social change in other ways (way better than to perpetuate the system and kill an innocent animal in my opinion). And i think that that is his own way of negotiating imperialism and dealing with the guilt that it brings. It might not be the perfect solution, but at least he tried and i think that that in itself is commendable.

Musings on Stoler’s article and The Sleeping Dictionary

Before reading Stoler’s article, I had a rough idea about how native women were portrayed as sensual and exotic and how the native men were portrayed as emasculated, needing the hyper masculine European male to come fertilize the land. What I didn’t know was the role that the European woman played in the colonial enterprise and how she enforced the binaries of colonized vs. colonizer. I think that it is problematic that the government promoted concubinage because marrying a European woman and raising a household was considered expensive and having a native bed-servant helped in “quick acclimatization” (49) and was seen as a stable “political order” that promoted “colonial health” (48). Yet on the other hand, the European woman is used to “put new demands on the white communities to tighten their ranks, clarify their boundaries and mark out their social space” (55). There seems to be a disparity in values; one that sanctions European men to sleep with native women while using the so-called catch that the European woman has “delicate sensibilities” that calls for “”segregationist standards” (55) that required the maintenance of racialized rule. And these rules are basically set in place to benefit the white man.
On a separate, rather random note, I watched The Sleeping Dictionary over the weekend and a lot of what was mentioned in Stoler’s article was actually alluded to in the film. We have the native girl, Selima that teaches the European colonizer, John the native language, the metis child that John “demands legal rights of” (49), the “racially intolerant, socially vicious” (56) Aggie that forces John to marry her daughter, Cecil and Neville who represents the ugly side of colonialism in the abuse of native women.
A poignant scene for me was when John asks Selima to spend the night with him to which she replies that in Iban, if a sleeping dictionary sleeps with her master 5 nights in succession, it implies that they are engaged and it is something that he wouldn’t want. Hollywood happy ending aside, I think that the film does deal with the double standards of concubinage and how it is the white man’s way of fulfilling his desires without the responsibility and complications of marriage weighing him down. If anything, the film as with Stoller’s article raises the issue of the disparage state of women, native and European alike. They seem to be merely pawns in the white man’s game of chess.

Metissage and the fear of contamination

Ann Stoler’s article was a very interesting read as it revealed the double standards that exist in trying to incorporate some metis into the European social contract while denying others because true French blood did not flow in their veins (517). It just seems ludicrous to me that this determination of French-ness is done through the evaluation of a child’s “physical features or race by a medico-legal expert.” So arbitrary factors like skin color, height, the hollow of the cheek etc. of a child, is compared to an ideal French type, and one person determines whether or not he or she is French enough? This doesn’t really make it any different from Alfred Russell Wallace’s scrutiny of the Dyaks and judging them based on a European standard. It is just shocking that scientific racism still exists in this way, even today. And Stoler rightly comes out to say that this urge to keep Manichean boundaries of ruler vs. ruled is really a reflection of a fear of contamination of the basal native milieu and I think that this is still very evident in popular fiction today.

This anxiety surfaces in the Twilight series. In Breaking Dawn, Bella carries Edward’s child, and because the child is a half-human, half-vampire, it is portrayed as uncontrollable (Bella has an unnatural accelerated pregnancy) and outlawed by the Volturi (which is kind of like the Vampire royalty that governs and polices) and the Volturi sets out to destroy the child. It is only when a 150-year-old human-vampire cross breed, Nahuel comes out and proves that his species is no threat to the secret existence of the vampires that the child is spared. I think that both Stoler’s article and Breaking Dawn both show the fundamental fear that the dominant culture have over this seemingly subversive intermixing of races that threaten their position of power. Thankfully, reality (for once) seems pretty hopeful as Singapore is becoming more open towards the idea of interracial marriages. Statistically speaking, the number is increasing. And because I am an eternal optimist, I would like to think that we are embracing difference, embracing the idea of a cosmopolitan Singapore and becoming a melting pot where different races and cultures meet.

ramblings on “shooting an elephant”

“Shooting an Elephant” was an interesting read for me personally because I saw for the first time, an explicit recognition if not confession, of the white man’s fear and insecurities. For once we are exposed to the “normal by-products of imperialism” from the colonizer’s perspective. We see his unwillingness to partake in this endeavor; we see how the native crowd forces him into conformity and we see his disempowerment (as represented by the figure of the puppet, dummy, conventionalized figure of the sahib). I feel that our protagonist is a figure that is trapped in this liminal space. The Europeans define his identity as a police officer and fellow colonizer and the native people define him as this stereotypical oppressor, hurling insults and jeers at him. Thus he is pressured on both sides, leaving him with no space to go. He can’t be like Fielding because the natives will never befriend him nor can he be like Ronny because he doesn’t believe wholeheartedly in the cause.
So what is a man under so much pressure supposed to do? Be a hypocrite; shoot an elephant to prove his loyalty to the cause and to show the natives his power. But underlying his show of bravado is guilt and fear. Its like the act of shooting the elephant is a way to assuage his fears and insecurities, kind of like Jim and how he hopes that his quest for greatness will erase his past. So does this mean that Jim is “the way” that the white man has to follow? Such that the white man is trapped under this framework of western heroism (that really is a front for hiding one’s guilt and anxiety about the colonial enterprise) and has no choice but to continually perpetuate and reaffirm the system instead of dealing with the guilt head on. I think that sweeping this under the carpet definitely inflicts violence on the white man as he has to disavow this sense of guilt, sweeping it under the carpet.
Perhaps we should sympathize with the white man because in his disavowal of guilt, he becomes more unfeeling and dehumanized. Perhaps we could view the protagonist of “Shooting an Elephant” as a pitiful figure, a little cog in the machine whose sole importance to the colonial enterprise is precisely based on his ability to conceal emotions and to carry out assigned tasks (shoot the elephant and retain the peace) to ensure the smooth operations of the colonial system.

exoticism… can we ever escape it?

To add on to Russell’s observations about Conrad’s portrayal of natives, I do feel that it is difficult to escape this whole exoticization of the Orient and its people. One way of identifying oneself is in opposition to the other. So Conrad and Wallace define the native figure using the white, european male as the standard. thus the dyaks are described as shorter than europeans, their behavior favourable because they treat the europeans well etc. So in that sense, Wallace and Conrad are using their own ways of western knowledge to conceive the Other and construct the Other for us. And it is through these observations of their physical characteristics that meaning is later ascribe and judgement passed on their moral character and mental capacity. And it is through this process that myths such as that of the lazy native, the sensual native woman etc. come about and actually stick and these labels are hard to shrug off.

I mean, even in movies today, this exoticism of the native figure from long ago comes into play eg. Pirates of the Caribbean and its portrayal of Singapore as this dangerous, pirate-filled, opium-consuming place and how Sao feng is a brutal, cunning Chinese pirate (affirming Wallace’s observation that Chinese are untrustworthy) as well as in popular fiction like Amy Tan’s Joy Luck Club where Chinese-ness is defined by eating dumpling, single eyelids, playing mahjong and well, myths of Chang-e (how apt since mid autumn festival is right around the corner). In many ways, popular media is perpetuating this notion of the exotic East and the scary thing is that these movies and books later become the top grossing film or best seller at the bookstore. So we as consumers are complicit in this system. How often are we attracted to book covers featuring a sensual woman with a flower in her hair eg. Tash Aw’s Harmony Silk Factory? Well i for one stop to take a second look. So can we ever break free from this constraints of exoticism that is commodifying our asian culture and objectifying its people? I sure hope we do.

Symbolism in Lord Jim

As Yuxin has mentioned, the subtitle for Lord Jim is “A Romance” and i think in many ways, we see this romantic quality in Jim’s vivid imagination. Marlow describes Jim as a dreamer (much like Ishmael from Moby Dick) who is constantly obsessed with his heroic ambitions. And this quality makes him unsuitable to be a sailor. Marlow speaks for Western rationality as he believes that a sailor should be alert so that he can keep his ship afloat, to ride out the destructive elements of a storm.  Yet Stein has a very different view, a romanticised one, he believes that Jim should “in the destructive elements immerse” (164).

This conflicting perspectives could perhaps be used to think about the West and the East. The muslims on board the Patna could be seen as adopting Stein’s romanticised view as they are seeking to “follow their dream” (in Stein’s terms) by going for mecca. They could also be seen as synonymous with water and immersion for they “streamed aboard over the gangways…flowed down the yawning hatchways, filled the inner recesses of the ship-like water filling a cistern” (17).  Thus, the East seems to embody this sort of romantic image where one is immersing into the deep dangerous sea of the unknown as described by Stein.

The West however, conforms to Marlow’s idea of rising above the tumultous sea and this is seen in the image of the lighthouse. A lighthouse stands for the guiding light, a firm structure of stability in the everchanging sea. And this symbol is in line with the vision of the empire. Did they not come to the colonies to be a guiding light? to bring civilization to the savages? And another interesting symbol is the clock that Jim leaves behind before arriving in Patusan. The clock seems to represent Western notions of time and continuity. Perhaps the act of losing the clock could mean that Jim is leaving his past behind? And yet this clock imagery haunts him while he was struggling in the mud. He could only think about mending the clock. Perhaps this shows that Marlow cannot evade his past and he is perhaps missing Western civilization i.e. England, a place he can never return to.

canonicity and other thoughts

I really enjoyed reading the Chinua Achebe’s article this week as he really articulated his beliefs with so much conviction that I find myself being persuaded to adopt his view. Admittedly, Achebe seems rather passionate to the point of being offensive, calling Conrad out for being a flat-out racist (343) as well as one who is xenophobic (347), viewing Africa through jaundiced eyes. But I do think he got our attention and made us realize and acknowledge the fact that white racism against Africa is such a normal way of thinking that psychoanalysts and critics fail to comment on this. Instead, Conrad’s texts are still widely distributed and widely read around the world. This definitely raised a flag in my head about canon making and how canonicity is built around male, Eurocentric texts. This erases the voices of many subalterns: women, racial and ethnic minorities, queer studies etc and deny them a place in literary history. I think in many ways, this Eurocentric canonization of texts reinforces the idea that British literature is the standard and ‘new’ literatures like those from Africa are ‘lesser’ works. Like the Gikandi reading, it calls attention to this pressing need to review historical scholarship and readjust our definitions of what “the greatest novel” should be. I think it is heartening to know that postcolonial studies is coming to the fore and giving a voice to the subalterns, telling about the colonization experience from a colonized perspective, something that is lacking in Heart of Darkness.

I think Achebe is perfectly reasonable in wanting the West to “rid its mind of old prejudices and begin to look at Africa not through a haze of distortions and cheap mystifications” (348). He wants Africa not to be seen as a political, economic entity, not as beasts, not as an antithesis to England but as people. He wants them to have a Prospero moment, to acknowledge, “That thing of darkness I consider mine” and to accept that their “humanity is…like yours…Ugly.” Achebe I think is trying to show how we are not all that dissimilar and as fellow human beings, they have a right to be treated with respect. That isn’t too much to ask.

Geopolitics in “A Passage to India

“The Wretched of the Earth” reading gave me several insights. One of which is that violence is inflicted on the colonial subject through the use of space. “In colonial regions, the proximity and frequent, direct intervention by the police and the military ensure the colonized are kept under close scrutiny” (4). Thus not only is Foucault’s idea of surveillance utilized in that the colonizers constantly invade the native space but that the spaces in which the native and the colonizer inhabit are placed in stark contrast. The colonist forms enclaves “where the streets are clean and smooth”, a “belly permanently full of good things” (4) while the native quarters is a “disreputable place inhabited by disreputable people” (4).

We see this use of space playing out in “A Passage to India” as the club symbolizes a place for the British elites to play tennis, have bridge parties and foster an identity of English-ness. The Indians are prohibited from entering this space as Aziz demonstrates by watching only from the gate. Meanwhile, Aziz’s home is one where the heat permeates and where flies are aplenty so much so that Hassan is called to drive them away.

Fanon suggests that this binaristic opposition of spaces breeds envy in the native and they want to overthrow the colonizers and take their place. The bridge party for example, is draped under the pretense that the British invited the ‘real’ Indians so as to bridge the gap but in between sips of their iced lemon tea, the British are sneering them, and this event only seeks to enforce the superiority of their race. This is also seen in the courthouse where commoners sit on the dust outside the court while Adela and her supporters were given seats on the platform signaling a position of authority (208). Thus the tensions between the races are not only evident through their physical interactions with one another but this is also manifested through the geographical landscape and the Forster’s use of space.

lecture summary part 2

1. Before the Industrial Revolution (IR), the feudal system ranked people hierarchically in the following order: monarch, aristocracy, clergy and lastly, peasants.
2. With the advent of the IR, this system evolved into a capitalist economy, introducing the burgeoning middle class.
3. The middle class demanded political power and asked for rights as a citizen subject i.e. the right to vote, free speech etc.
4. The ‘Social Contract’ was signed, allowing basic freedoms to the people while giving the middle/upper class most of the vote.
5. This resulted in a new emphasis on free trade and capitalist commerce as well as created a new consciousness of self over the collective i.e. individualism.
6. French Revolution: consisted of 3 estates namely the clergy, the nobility and the third estate that was predominantly middle class white men.
7. This third estate did not encompass women, people of other ethnicities and people of minority religions.
8. This resulted in much debate and contestation over who qualified as a citizen and whether those excluded from the definition of “men” were even considered humans with rights. The idea of a conditional equality.
9. Rousseau suggested that women and men exist in different spheres. Women should keep to the domestic, private sphere and fulfill their role as wife and mother. They were denied their place in the public sphere, being seen only as an extension of their husbands. As such, they had no right to vote, write political pamphlets or stand for office.
10. The Code Noir 1685 also deemed Negro slaves as a piece of furniture; property owned by landowners. The question thus arises about whether these ‘properties’ have rights.
11. The Haitian revolution showed slaves slaying their masters and claiming their rights as citizens.
12. The rise of the Black Consciousness also challenged the biological claim that Blacks displayed a lack of reason and thus did not qualify for the status of man and citizen. Negritude developed in the 1930s to foster a common black identity to counter French colonial racism.

Mrs Moore and the Marabar Caves

I think what really strikes me about Passage to India is how mysterious the Marabar Caves are and how they have exerted a sinister yet invisible force over Mrs Moore. Its shocking to me that a jovial character who bore good will to the natives can drastically transform into a detached and disagreeable person after having a sort of negative epiphany. I think that a great deal of this is attributed to the fact that all words including God’s Word is reduced to just an ‘ou-boum’ sound (139). Mrs Moore realizes that words that she valued such as ‘Let there be light’ and ‘it is finished’ (139) meant so little. She suddenly has no concrete universal truth to comfort herself and she is disenchanted; left in a state of uncertainty and flux. We think that she might search for new meaning in life by actively making meaning or deconstructing it, but instead, she seems to react in hopelessness to the situation, as if it dawned upon her that her efforts in extending kindness to the natives count for nothing and as a result, she stops trying. Perhaps this might resonate with absurdism and how Mrs Moore finds no meaning in life and stops striving and instead, she surrenders to the inevitability of things. Thus she becomes hollowed out, an empty shell of a person; one that is apathetic, detached and incapable of affection. Perhaps this suggests that Mrs Moore has been unknowingly poisoned by the Indian landscape i.e. the Marabar Caves and that her disagreeable behavior is a symptom of the Indian disease- she has become one of them. This is further supported with the fact that on her journey back home along the Suez, where “Asia weaken and those of Europe begin to be felt… Mrs. Moore was shaken off” (241). Her body is thus laid at rest in the Indian Ocean so she becomes part of India. She is also fondly remembered by Aziz and is worshipped like the goddess by the natives. This suggests that Mrs Moore has ‘gone native’ and is possibly punished for it.

Thoughts on Gikandi’s reading

The Gikandi reading was interesting as I for one have long regarded Picasso as the grandfather of modern art but now, I have my doubts. The first thing that came to my mind was the question of plagiarism. I mean, Picasso didn’t exactly credit the Africans for “borrowing” their pieces of cultural artifacts and instead, he as well as other scholars have shied away from acknowledging the African influence in the history of modernism. He defended himself by saying that Africa had a psychological effect on him but it was not a formal influence on modernism. But how does one differentiate a subconscious effect from a formal influence? I personally feel that there are many close similarities if not blatant imitations of African masks in Picasso’s work eg. the Grebo mask. As such, is Picasso guilty of plagiarism? If so, can he still be hailed as a great modern artist? I think that we as appreciators of art need to redefine our standards of what a great artist is. We are very much contributors to this cycle of exploitation if we fail to acknowledge the Africans’ art culture and their role in the history of modern art.
Also another question to ponder: are the Africans subalterns since the modernists have erased their existence from history? If so, can their voices ever be represented authentically using the English language given the many issues concerned with translation? Sorry this post has more questions than answers ☺