Writing as an act of Colonization

Written from within a liberal ethos, in the style of ironic discourse, A Passage to India seems to acknowledge that what is defined as India by Colonial rule is an amorphous mass of land, people, culture, lumped together on the basis of its foreignness–it’s exoticity, a word in itself that suggests a relationship akin to that of spectator and spectacle, while pointedly demarcating perceived civilization from barbarity.

This creation (India) is acknowledged as “India — a hundred Indias– “, an original network of cultures and identities that reflect a legitimate system of knowledge that allows for an alternative world view. The structure of the novel, triadic in form, reflects the diversity of the assumed homogenous India and effectively undermines the politically constructed concept of India as understood under the British Raj. It is a straight refusal to see India as a “frieze” of glamour and spectacle.


Fig:  The Madras Club– highly popular with the Anglo-Indian population at the time, and also one of the many clubs in Colonial India with the “No Indians, No Dogs” signs outside.

The Truth for Modernists

In reading Erich Auerbach’s analysis of a passage from Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse, the Modernist attitude towards truth arises. This for me can be more simply described through a series of binaries.

Auerbach quickly notes that “inner processes” (529) dominate Woolf’s prose. This perhaps suggests that truth is not apparent, found in superficial observations, but resides in unseen, interior cogitations.

Woolf presents a mishmash of perspectives, seemingly from Mrs Ramsay, Mr Bankes, even Woolf herself. This recalls the painting which was shown in class, Woman with a Guitar by Georges Braque. As represented by Cubism, Woolf seems also to subscribe to the idea that truth is never a single perspective.

Statements made are indefinite, suggesting that truth is not clear-cut, nor fixed. Rather than finding answers, Woolf poses questions; questions themselves may be considered truth, without the need or the finality of answers. Also, feelings are prized over facts. Woolf suggests the reliability of feelings and personal thought, and throws suspicion upon hard, objective facts.

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.

Empire > Modernism?

Auerbach holds Modernism to be the solution for unity, for solving the problems of difference. He links the advent of Modernism with the important historical changes that happened from the end of the C18th to the beginning of the C19th.

Yet I think that an important implication here is that it suggests that the movement is a result of historical forces, not allowing for a more complex cause-and-effect relationship between the two.

This has significance in our consideration of imperialism, because when he mentions that ‘the crowding of mankind on a shrinking globe sharpened awareness of the differences in ways of life…’ (p.550), it fails to acknowledge the extent to which Modernism in art and literature (and elsewhere) might have contributed to and aided imperialism and colonisation, mostly importantly it the representation of ‘natives’.

Modernism grew out of Romanticism and Realism; it is thus influenced by these 2 modes and their tendency to allow exoticisation and claims to absolute truth (of the imperial powers, of course).

Auerbach’s claim that ‘The strata of societies and their different ways of life have become inextricably mingled. There are no longer even exotic peoples.’ (p.552) becomes a little disturbing — his praise of Modernism in this piece actually re-enacts imperial Western claims, along the lines of how ‘the whole world is discovered (itself a loaded word)’, ‘everyone is equal’ (equal for whom? Males? Whites? Europeans? Jews? Muslims?). In fact, now that I think of it, it sounds downright neo-colonialist as well!

Modernism and consciousness

The focus on the individual consciousness in Modernist texts marks a clear shift from the focus on the exterior social world of characters to the focus on interiority. The extract from To The Lighthouse in ‘The Brown Stocking’ focuses on the inner consiousness of characters rather than their external circumstances. In my opinion, while the novels that preceded the Modernist novels used the social world as a way of getting into the identity of characters, the Modernist novel uses external situations to frame the inner consciousness of characters. For example, we enter into Mrs. Ramsay’s head through the seemingly banal happenings taking place (i.e. The measuring of the stocking) and from there, we read about her preoccupations and thoughts. Therefore, we seem to inhabit the space of her mind, reading her thoughts and gaining a greater insight into her identity then if we were given physical and social descriptions of the character. In addition, the difficulty of getting through the Woolf’s writings is due largely in part to the shifts in focus in passages. For example, we are taken from the stockings to the charm of Lily’s eyes, to Jame’s fidgeting, to the furniture etc. However, this shifts in inner focus reflects the workings of the mind. We are never completely focused on an issue for an extended period of time and we are led on to dwell upon an idea from the preceeding idea. Therefore I feel that Modernism’s focus on consciousness does well to better reflect reality and its focus on interiority proves to be more real than if it preoccupied with the social world of characters.

Modernism: the new?

Simon Gikandi’s article, “Picasso, Africa and the Schemata of Difference” mentioned that “even when artists such as Picasson questioned colonial practices, they seemed to reproduce the colonist model of African societies; they questioned the practice but not the theory of colonialism. This structure- the questioning of practice and the aceptance of the theory- tends to be reproduced when we don’t interrogate the idea of Africa in modern art.” This passage particularly caught my eye as I felt that this aptly decribes the changing relations between countries with the advent of modernism. To me, I feel that modernism is not just about revelations in art and the literary forms but it also encompasses the change of political, economic and cultural forces in the world. in these sense, modernism not only gave rein to the freedom of space and time, but the world war which preceded it shattered a world view built on foundation of illusions. To me, the freedom of space and time in modernism enabled people to discover the world in new perspectives which were repressed. It can perhaps be suggested that the “new forms” being discovered in the world as a mirror to the establishment of “new forms” in literary works and art even though they are not really new.

With this in mind, it can also be suggested that just as the reading titled “Mimesis” suggested, modernism is not a new concept. Rather, it is an expansion of the old of which artists and writers try to pass of as a novelty. Yet, it is interesting to note that many consider it to be a breakthrough period because as all the three readings have shown, at least for me, that it is a circulatory system of power beneath all the fancy terms that are being endowed on it.

British Fragments: the Empire and the Modernist Perception

Levine’s illustration of the British empire and Modernism’s stress on perception (more specifically, fragmentation, that particular technique of representation) have me thinking about the cause-and-effect relationship between history and the literary movement’s trademarks.

After reading Levine’s chapter on “Ruling an Empire,” I’m starting to draw a few parallels between the strict stratification of the British empire (rather, specifically in relation to the colonies) and the general emphasis on the observer and the question of representation versus perception in modernist literature. Towards the end of the chapter, Levine makes comment on the worries over British subjects in colonies ‘going local’ and the colonial subjects being “counted, described, given classifications” (114). With this sort of rigidly structured, categorical mindset it is only logical that with decolonization would come a crisis of thought. Stemming from the shattering of the strict order that existed previously, this crisis led to emphasis on the act of observation over the thing that is observed, almost as an attempt to regain order through new forms and new ways of percieving.

As discussed in first lecture, Modernism highlights form, drawing attention to function and perception, and the importance of perception in finding a “truth.” In the aftermath of the Great War, the depressed economies, the devastation to the land and the effect of the war on the people presumably prompted the search for beauty and truth so pervasive in Modernist texts.

Crisis of representation: the model of modernist art and fiction

In “The Brown Stocking” Auerbach elaborates in detail the insignificance of exterior occurrences to interior processes as established in the narrative form of Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse. In the passage Auerbach quotes from the novel, Woolf presents a discrepancy between physical and subjective dimensions – characterizing Mrs Ramsay by a mode of multiplicity (performing various tasks enabling the exterior events without neglecting the more significant inner events represented by her thoughts, Woolf creates synchronic dimensions in a diachronic narrative, a “multipersonal representation of consciousness” that is evident also in the art of the modernist period. Monet’s “Water Garden and Japanese Footbridge”, for example, portrays a similar multiplicity of reality in that the emphasis on light and how it changes our emotions and perceptions is more significant than the external image itself. Rejecting the idea of one fixed reality, a characteristic of modern art is it prompts for an investigation of objective reality by means of subjective impressions received by various individuals and at various times. This multiplicity that characterizes the modernist crisis of representation seems to registers the breakdown of traditional certainties and the attempt to construct alternative meaning and order.

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?

On modernism

In general, the works that emerged out of the period reflect a radical breakaway from traditional methods of representation. There is no longer a fixed center, perspective or meaning to be found, let alone a proper solution or closure to the proposed issues, hence Auerbach’s suggestion that “there is often something confusing…hazy about them, something hostile to the reality which they represent” (p.551, “The Brown Stocking”). From Pablo Picasso to Virginia Woolf, the modernist artists seem intent to demonstrate an inherent sense of disorder and disunity in their works.
I find Gikandi’s interpretation of Picasso’s works and his use of the Black body to be particularly disturbing. ‘Picasso adopted African forms as a way of thinking through the limitations of the forms of representation favoured by the art academy, namely a sense of order, proportionality, and idealization. The African body formed the embodiment of disorder’ (P.462) In other words, underlying the great master’s artistic visions, were seemingly ethnocentric perspectives and a deeply ingrained European mentality that the Africans represent a state of being which was far from being rational or ideal. Their ‘otherness’ was being idenified and valorised in Picasso’s paintings as an antithesis to the Europeans’ understanding of themselves and the idea of civilization. In this sense, modernism operated as an high aesthetic art that continued to silence the African subjects, denying them their personal and authentic voice, and this further solidates their position and function as the ‘Other’ in the eyes of the Europeans.

The difficulty of explaining what the term “modernism” really meant struck me on a discussion with a friend about the subject. Suffice to say that I – fourth year literature major with all my intellectual ideas and pretensions – struggled to present a precise and coherent definition of what modernism ought to be.

It is not until several readings that I begin to suspect that perhaps the essence of modernism (with its many –isms) lies in its sheer complexity (form, perspectives, techniques, modernist attitudes towards subject matter). Erich Auerbach’s reading of To the Lighthouse exemplify the complexities of Virginia Woolf’s novel as he posit that in framing objective reality as an external realm, modernist writers like Woolf strive to plunge beyond the surface meanings to expose the multi-layered nature of and the intricate relationship, between language as a mirror and medium to our understanding of  life. But I may be going a few steps too far as the situation seems to entail a paradox – Woolf goes beyond the simple juxtaposition of objective reality against the fluidity and flux of human consciousness; but rather, her writing shows how our subjectivity in turn shape perception, and reveal the constructedness of reality (as opposed to the realist novels of the nineteenth century whereby the external shapes the inward).

In “Picasso, Africa and the Schemata of Difference”, Simon Gilkandi sheds a closer insight into the power relations between the West and the Other, as he exposes the deep hypocrisy by which modernist artists like Picasso (how about Gauguin and his Tahitian paintings?) subsume and objectify the Other into the modernist aesthetics and simultaneously disentangle themselves from the subservient and degraded position of the Other (treating the Other as art object rather than rightful human beings); in so doing, the Other become the aesthetic means to the high modernist ends. In a sense, Pablo Picasso did not paint the Africans out of a complete understanding and empathy with them, but the contrary, he painted them as he saw them and chose to objectify the Africans into his own nihilistic vision of art, politicizing his art against the conventions of western traditional mediums. Perhaps it is how the great painter himself betray the mentality of the white colonialist – in his eagerness to represent modernist art as he saw it, his paintings unwittingly unveil the deep-seated anxieties which mark the problematic power relations between the colonial white man and the Other.

Lee Wenting

Of Missionaries and Imperial Ideology


Some thoughts about the role of missionaries brought up in the Levine reading and how it echoes certain tenets of the Gikandi reading:

The complex role of missionaries – being critical of imperial practices and policies though not of imperial philosophy – seems to be characterised by push and pull forces, with the interaction of both forces ultimately reinforcing and maintaining imperial ideology. For all their anti-slavery protests and public outcry about colonial exploitation, the reality of their work point otherwise. One can look at their work as a sort of religious imperialism and even linguistic imperialism – giving converts Christian names, improving literacy. Their provision of health care and education can be seen as social imperialism, their building of mission schools spatial imperialism. Interestingly enough, the work of the missionaries don’t reflect the distance between colonists and colonials as mentioned by Levine (pg 110), but rather an association between the two groups. Once again, push and pull factors are at play here.

The fact of the matter is that their missionary work cannot be disassociated from imperial ideology. The promotion of imperial ideology by missionaries is subtle, invisible, and disguised as harmless, moral duty, echoing Gikandi’s mention of the unconscious influence of Africa being acknowledged yet denied visibility in Picasso’s works, all under the guise of primitivism. For Levine and Gikandi, the rendering invisible, the masking (pun not intended) to disguise, serve as push and pull factors that distance and associate, and yet ultimately sustain and buttress imperial ideology.

Russell 🙂

Modernism: Truths and Realities

Personally, I think people tend to enjoy residing in their comfort zone, allowing many things around them to go unquestioned. Hence, allowing those with power to take on a paternal-like role in deciding how life is to be led as they represented objectivity and the truth. This is where, I believe, the role and purpose of Modernism – as a movement, serves. That is, to challenge and, if I may put it, to ‘mess around’ with the ‘normal’ perception of how things are and should be.

To put it simply, I think Modernism definitely comes across as confusing and unfathomable to some, with its seemingly incongruous form – forms that illustrates that our thought process is actually illogical and inconsistent in reality whilst our consciousness – arbitrary. This, as Auerbach has discussed, demonstrates how individuals would assign meanings to their surrounding based on their experiences. In other words, a hundred individuals will likely assign a hundred different meanings to a single entity. I feel that this recognition is a salient trait that drives the movement of Modernism, making it distinctive. Paradoxically, the driving force of Modernism is also its bane, as it faces the irreconcilable issue of representing truth and reality. Given that we are all unique in our experiences and thinking, what then is reality and truth?

“Alice to the Lighthouse”

There is a book by Juliet Dusinberre called Alice to the Lighthouse that I find very interesting. She talks about the idea of the ‘irreverent generation’ that is first glimpsed in 19th century writing and then honed up by authors like Virginia Woolf. In my opinion, the ‘irreverent generation’ that is revealed during Modernism occurs mainly in the form of questioning authority; authority existing in the forms of God, culture, society, ideology, but most importantly, in convention. Modernist writers view convention as something distracting and inadequate, perhaps even destructive or false. They thus seek to explode (or at least question) existing ideas of art and the history of representation (in terms of form, plot, and other literary conventions).

Ezra Pound’s plea to “make it new” therefore rings true in the sense that Modernist writers appear to search for meaning beneath, and in spite of, everything that has come before in art, culture and any form of representation. Since Modernism is a post-war phenomenon, the fragmentation of the self and the multiplicity of identity arise from the disillusionment of WWI (questioning the cause of war à questioning the nation à questioning the self). This very idea of a doubting, struggling and suffering self can be seen in the writings of Woolf and Beckett. The bildungsroman of the 19th Century end in neat resolutions where “I married him” (Jane Eyre) suffices as a happy ending, yet in Modernism, writers signal to us that there is never an end to the search for identity, because of the fact that identity is never stable, and undergoes constant and painful metamorphosis. For a writer like Beckett, perhaps the end (and possibly the end of discomfort) starts only in death.

The British Empire- a problematic construct of self and identity

Whilst I was reading through the article by Levine and trying to see how this is related to the other reading on “The Brown Stocking”, it struck me that one common theme explored is the desire to define and pin down something precise, by a pre-existing structure, or method of ordering. Mrs Ramsey as the figure of the artist in “To the Lighthouse” is someone who brings order to her household and she is adamant that the doors remain shut whilst the windows remain open.  I read this as the desire to be able to gain access to what is outside whilst making sure that nothing from the outside actually comes in to disrupt the pre-existing order. This is in parallel with the British colonizers’ desire to gain access to the colonized whilst making sure that their own cultures(order) remains untainted.

Windows suggest that the one inside is able to view what happens outside but remain separate from it, taking on the subjective position of one in power. This is in line with what the British colonizers do, when they view themselves as the centre of the empire and look upon the colonized, calling them uncivilized savages. However, just as Mrs Ramsey discovers that she cannot stop her children and various members of the household from leaving all the doors open and bringing things in from the outside which contribute to the gradual disarray and disintegration of her household, the colonizers soon find that their attempts to maintain a stable sense of self despite interactions with the natives is futile. The old order falls apart and a new method of ordering is called for.

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 ☺

Thoughts on Modernism.

One of the most immediate associations attached to the word “modern” is arguably the Industrial Revolution of the late 1800s. While this is not necessarily the definitive be-all-and-end-all, it does connote many references that form the basis of what we know now to be the “modernism” movement – namely the idea of advancement and urban development, the growth of capitalism and commerce, and a cross-pollination of cultures caused by trade, and more importantly, by colonial conquest.

The colonizer to the colonized of can be paralleled to the forced subservience of Man to the perversion of machines. The process of large-scale reproduction and creation that characterizes Industrial Revolution, is ironically and very necessarily represented by conflict and dissolution in modernist writing. The modernist epiphany attempts to account for the validity and uniqueness of the self despite its assembly from various external influences, as do the use of intertextuality and stream-of-consciousness to highlight the limitations of “pure reason” and the discrepancy between sensory (or supposedly “real”) and psychological experiences. When applied to the literary sphere, this throws up a number of issues commonly addressed by “modernist” writers such as Joseph Conrad and F. Scott Fitzgerald, and artists such as Picasso – the most significant of these being the question of identity (both individual and collective), where one’s feelings of purpose and self-awareness are derived from his ability (or alternatively, reluctance) to adapt to the changing social, economic, and cultural climate brought about by the modernization process.

The ‘Hauntology’ of Modernism

Hi guys,

I found the Simon Gikandi’s essay ‘Picasso, Africa and the Schemata of Difference’ most interesting so I thought that I’d just do a posting on that article. I’ve not touched modernism for a pretty long time so Gikandi’s essay worked as a pretty good ‘flashback’ for me. What I really took away from this essay was the notion of the kind of conflicts present in modernist aesthetics (kind of mentioned in class, right?).

First, Picasso’s work exemplified how ‘high (western) art’ co-opted/ incorporated ‘low (tribal/ native) art’. As Gikandi argues, if I’m correct, Picasso did not merely use the idea of the primitive in a conceptual way, he also used it in a formal way.  Therefore, Africa contributed to the making of that very movement. Another tension thrown into the mix is the fact that modernists had to ‘set out to defy and deconstruct’ the very institutions of Western culture so that it could be enshrined within it. I’ve been thinking about what makes a module like this different from other modules dealing with the empire, like ’19th Century’ and ‘Asia and Victorians’. My guess is that such tensions and conflicts weren’t exactly present in the Victorian period and the modernist’s aim/ goal was to break free from the influence of those precursors (here we are reminded of T.S. Eliot’s Anxiety of Influence- Gikandi alludes to that but playfully refers to the ‘influence’ as African/ Others in page 458 ). Yet the modernist had to inevitably deal with (and operate within) a particular line of tradition; he could not entirely extricate himself from that web.

Picasso’s method of dealing with these ‘ghosts’, as Gikandi’s use of the term ‘hauntology’ suggests they are, was to ‘invent his own version of the unmodern’, which thereby helped him to secure his status as a ‘modernist’. Rather messy, don’t you think. It’ll be very exciting to actually analyze Picasso’s work in-depth and specifically, to see for ourselves how he dealt with primitive art and African influence. Gikandi’s essay doesn’t cover very much on that, but it goes beyond talking about how the Other is misrepresented or under represented in modernist work. Instead, it tells us more about what their work says about the modernist’s psyche.

What then, is Truth?

It was challenging and unsettling for me to come face to face with the concept of creating, condescending to and, perhaps most critically, the act of representing the colonised figure, as Picasso does in his abstract work, taking the African body as a subject of art, rather than an autonomous individual capable in some way of presenting himself. I could see the two main points of Levine’s article clearly articulated in the example of Picasso in Gikandi’s article. Firstly, that the colonised is conceptualised within the dichotomy of the “superior” colonial figure (the West), as an outsider, or Other. And more importantly, that a fundamental show of colonial power lies in the representation, or speaking for, this Other.

Picasso’s abstract representation of the African as a work of art is a fundamental disempowering of the colonised figure because as he creates his own image of this figure, he prescribes a certain way of interpreting what this person stands for, as a symbol of his culture and more widely, of his people. The subsequent lack of “voice” given to the African figure to be represented as he really is, brings to the fore the fundamental question posited in Modernist thought – that of the interpretation of truth. Picasso’s representation, in abstraction, emphasises the subjectivity of perception and therefore unhinges the concept of an objective truth: “an African is really like this” (as opposed to how Picasso represents him). This to me, was the most unsettling outcome of reading these texts.

Modernism and Perception

Both Auerbach and Gikandi” raise the idea of perception, how modernist artists wished to use their works to provide a different (or many differing) perspective on issues (including art) by using unconventional forms and themes. There seems to be a focus on the “Other”, what is “Other” to the standards and values of conventional art and fiction. Thus, it could be understood why modernist writers might turn to the portrayal of “Other” races (i.e. non-white races) as a way of showing a different perspective on issues like colonialism.

However, there is the possibility of the “Other” being reduced to a tool, of being silenced by the artists even as he is represented in their works. As in Heart of Darkness, the “Other” is viewed through the eyes of the narrator or other characters (eg. Marlow), but never given a chance to speak for himself. Thus, it might be possible to argue that to modernist texts, it is not important to show what the “Other” is but how the “Other” is perceived by other characters. The focus is then not on changing the representation of the “Other”, but on changing the perception of perceiving. On that note, given the focus on multiple perspectives in the modernist texts, what then is the role of the author or artist? Does the author’s shaping of the text so it provides multiple perspectives undermine the modernist impulse towards multiple perspectives because it reinforces the perspective of the author, that there should be multiple perspectives?

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.

Modernism: Centre and Peripheries

The notion of the centre and the periphery in terms of the division of the British empire is an interesting way to look at a modernist text. The modernist text highlights the periphery aspects of a narrative, at a time when the peripheries of empire was acknowledged. In the excerpt from Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse, the centre of the narrative is the actual event occurring at the moment, the measuring of the stocking; and the thought processes which seem to take up more time without disrupting linear narrative is the periphery of the narrative. What is interesting is the fact that these peripheries, the perspective on the surrounding furniture, perspective of “them” and Mr Bankes’s perspective, serve to explain the “sadness” in Mrs. Ramsay. While the centre is obviously stated, it is only through the study of the peripheries that one can fully recognize this centre. Thus, while modernist texts seek to represent an obvious subject, it is done through a reassessment through different perspectives.

Similarly, in the British empire, by highlighting the peripheries, the unimportant actors of the empire, the natives, the British society is attempting to regain a fragmented identity as a result of amassing a large empire. Thus, by drawing attention to these “peripheric” characters, which would have otherwise been neglected, it was a means to calm the anxieties of a decaying identity, for in contrast to the “uncivilized natives”, the British still represented civility and culture.

Even though modernist writing seem to break away from traditional structures of narratives by representing different perspectives and peripheries instead of wholly focusing on linear narrative, it still retains elements of traditional narratives in terms of explaining a centre – in most cases the development of a character.

Suttee as Modernism

Levine gives a brief history of the British in India, but makes little mention of the locals and their exertions. Therefore when Levine mentions the local Indian reformers Ram Mohan Roy, and Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar (72), I am inclined to pay special attention to them, particularly Roy and his mission to outlaw suttee.

I would like to think of these Indian reformers as some form of modernists. Roy’s reform organization, the Brahmo Samaj, noticed that the traditional practice of suttee was outdated, if not redundant. They published a tract condemning suttee in both Bengali and English in 1818 that included “journalistic and literary accounts of women’s hideous screams of agony”, which, in my opinion, was a rather guerilla-like tactic to get the British’s attention. By publishing something that would generally be taboo to talk about at that point in time, it would serve to shock its audience, and therefore provoke new thoughts regarding the practice. This is similar to the way that advocates of modernism worked. This certainly proved to be a success, as suttee was eventually made illegal.

The repeal of suttee represents the dilemma of modernism. By outlawing suttee, one is effectively rejecting custom and creating a new alternative for the wives of the deceased. On the other hand, it also has the effect of reinforcing tradition, as Levine writes that the law “advertised the practice more widely, and also made it seem an act subversive of British rule”.

General thoughts on Modernism

Upon reading through the suggested literature for this week, Gikandi’s essay on the role of Africa in Picasso’s oeuvre seems to best embody the relationship between Modernism and Empire the module seems to call into question. In tracing the birth of Modernism back to a localized incident in the African context, Gikandi highlights the fact that in the legitimate and recognized realm of contemporary culture, the non-European, non-white elements are relegated to the peripheries by default.

The ‘other’ is given a voice through the vehicle of Modernism, but only momentarily, and that too, for the purpose of defining the ‘self’ by what it is not. The ‘other’ is stripped off any individual identity independent of one that has no correlation to the mainstream European ‘self’, hence any power delegated to African culture is one contained within the parameters of the white gaze as objects defining and supporting the pre-established principles and identity of European aesthetics.

An image congruent to this would be that of postive and negative space in aesthetics, wherby white and black can stand for either/or, despite the fact they are chromatically binary opposites.


Fig 1: Spaces between Moth (donald mackay, www.spacesbetween.ca)

The use of equal amounts of positive and negative space in a composition is what classically defines visual art as ‘good’, and with Modernism being a reactionary movement celebrating the upheaval of the classical, this formulaic nature of aesthetics is re-evaluated in literal terms in the aesthetic works themselves, yet with respect to the influences and foundations of the form itself, it ironically reverts back to the concept of defining what it is by what it is not–and what it can never admit to being influenced by.