esse quam videri: Fanon the modernist arguing for truth.

In reading Fanon’s article on “The Negro and Language”, I was particularly fascinated by the discussion on the use of pidgin to communicate with the Negro, the complete disregard and indeed dismissal of any possibility that the Negro may in fact be more than capable of understanding “adult” French, and not actually require a simpler form of language in order to communicate. Further, I loved Fanon’s argument that colonial discourse has been so internalised that one is unconscious about one’s condescension, and indeed as simplistic an argument as this seems, it is this kind of reflexivity that perhaps we need even now, in overcoming prejudice that undercuts even the most well-intended interactions.

Yet, Fanon’s most scathing criticism is not for the ignorant / condescending white man, but for the Westernised Negro, the native who upon returning can almost immediately be identified as “European” (hence, black skin, white masks). His greatest contention is not merely that colonialism has told the native figure he should be _____, or that he is _____, but that the native comes to believe this is true. And in believing in his inferiority, the native attempts to overcome it by being like the white man. Fanon argues this is in itself impossible, for even with a white mask, black skin is still black skin (one thinks of Michael Jackson but that is beside the point).

What Fanon stands for, at the end of the day, and what is reiterated throughout the book, then, is the concept of esse quam videri, or to BE, rather than appear to be. There is a desire for truthfulness in one’s identity that Fanon is calling out for. No shame in being “native”, only in pretending to be white when it is an impossibility. And briefly, then, Fanon fulfills the Modernist ideal of pursuing truth, and rejecting past “truths”.

The white man colonised.

Jackson’s careful consideration of both sides of colonialism in Ireland fascinated me in the same way Woolf’s entrapment within the structures of colonialism, and the disempowerment even of the European woman in colonialism presents an essential paradox of imperial rule. Traditionally I suppose the black-and-white thinker would see the imperialists as Europeans (or more generally Westerners) and the colonised as non-Europeans. Yet as KY pointed out in his blog post, the Irish were as much entrapped as colonised within the structure as they were c0ntributers to colonisation.

I found it also interesting that Jackson deliberately drew the parallels between Ireland and India, to break down the preconception that to be colonised one must be non-white. The Irish are an example that run counter to this assumption, and certainly the historical account of Irishmen on both sides of the fence serves to prove the paradox of imperialism.

Fundamentally, even among Europeans, like I mentioned in class discussion last week, the empire collapsed upon itself. Unable to sustain economically and certainly politically, there are in some ways no distinctions that can be drawn between Ireland’s experience coming into independence, and that of India. Within the imperial structure, maybe the lines drawn distinguishing East from West are not as clear as one would wish them to be.

To Convince Oneself: The Unconscious Discourse of the Lie in Woolf’s “Growing”

I found reading Woolf’s “Growing” both an exercise in amusement and one of irony. I was certainly entertained by his anecdotes, and found it refreshingly straightforward, much like Orwell’s account of life in Burma. At the same time I was amused / entertained, I was also (perhaps as product of this course) skeptical of his account, particularly what I considered his romanticisation of the native figure.

Surprisingly, he denies that he is “sentimentaliz[ing] or romanticiz[ing] them”, yet goes on to discuss how they are “nearer than we are to primitive man… [it] is not their primitiveness that really appeals to me. It is partly their earthiness, their strange mixture of tortuousness and directness, of cunning and stupidity, of cruelty and kindness…” I do not believe it is possible for Woolf, in his capacity as an outsider, to be able to objectively observe the native people without imagining them in an idealised frame of reference.

This is not really the issue. Said would vehemently disagree but in any case I think it’s natural that in the absence of more complete knowledge of anything, much less something as foreign and as contrary to the familiar as the “native figure”, one naturally employs one’s own frame of reference to understand something else.

What I take issue with is the defensiveness with which Woolf insists even in using a European frame of reference (alluding to a Hardy novel at that!), that he is not romanticising the native. It is as if the very idea that one should be romanticising the native figure is wrong and therefore as long as one says one is not, one isn’t. It is an unconscious lie he engages in, unconscious because of the very reflexivity with which he says “I’m not doing this” then proceeds to do it anyway. And in some ways it is an interesting indication of the meeting of the reality of the East with the discourse of the West. The two are incompatible to the European mind, one cannot admit to orientalising even if it is the most natural way of expressing what one sees and understands of a foreign world. What an artificial declaration this proves to be, since what Woolf really is doing, is romanticising the noble savage.

Red and Yellow, Black and White, all Cogs in the System of Colonialism.

One of the fascinating things I found in reading Burmese Days was the universality of depravity expressed through every character in the novel, regardless of race or background. Orwell has a curious way of breaking down the constructed barriers between native and colonial, as seen in both “Shooting an Elephant” and Burmese Days, and I found this particularly refreshing. It seems as if the underlying message he is trying to convey is always that at the end of the day, and at the conclusion of all discourse, men are fundamentally the same. Nowhere is this clearer than at two key points in the novel – the riot outside the club, and the events following Flory’s suicide.

During the riot, the tables are curiously turned on the Europeans, who in their panic realise firstly that they are, for all their big talk, in real danger from the locals. Secondly, they realise that even amongst themselves, they are equalised in the face of mortal threat. No degree of perceived superiority is sufficient when faced with life’s great equaliser: death.

Which brings us to the events following Flory’s suicide, which essentially indicate a kind of equalising death for all parties involved. U Po Kyin achieves his goal of club membership and a promotion, but promptly dies three days later, without ever having the chance to redeem himself for all his crimes. He is in this way doubly dead, for not only is it a physical death he dies, he dies without any hope of a better life. Dr. Veraswami’s reputation is utterly destroyed, and even Elizabeth dies a kind of death by marrying Mr. Macgregor, who would not in any event have been her first choice of husband.

Perhaps then the truest message of colonialism is, ironically, that all men, at some point in life (or death), are really equal. And it would take the realisation of their own mortality to really bring that about.

The Arbitrariness of Belonging

As I was reading Ann Stoler’s article “Sexual Affronts and Racial Frontiers: European Identities and the Cultural Politics of Exclusion in Colonial Southeast Asia”, I was struck particularly by the arbitrary designation of citizenship, based on “a belief in Christianity, fluency in spoken and written Dutch, and training in European morals and ideas” (538). All the more fascinating in the concept of citizenship and belonging is that it is not something that results from the mere presence of these characteristics, but more importantly, that it cannot be awarded unless the “candidate… neither identif[ied] nor retain[ed] inappropriate senses of belonging or longings for the milieu from which she or he came” (538).

The concept of belonging here is an interesting one, because it is not merely the acceptance and subscription to one culture, particularly the religious and moral system, but it necessitates in that acceptance, the rejection of another culture. According to these standards, one cannot be a citizen of one country and have any attachment to another. It’s also interesting because what was normal then, is still prescribed now. In thinking about changing to Singapore citizenship, I have only begun to go through the process not just of saying I agree with Singapore culture, but of saying I renunciate my British citizenship. One must choose. Or be chosen, as appears in the case of Indochinese applying for Dutch citizenship.

How one is chosen is dependent entirely on full identification with only one state. There is no room for the metis figure to be of both cultures, not unless he wants to be permanently branded as a wanderer, belonging to neither side since he cannot wholeheartedly choose, and by consequence reject, one culture.

On The Flip-Side: Colonist the Subaltern in “Shooting An Elephant”

I found reading “Shooting An Elephant” particularly refreshing in contrast with the rather intense, in-your-face kind of texts we’ve been dealing with in the past few weeks. Perhaps it was the darkness of Conrad’s fiction or the heavy-handedness of A Passage to India, but Orwell’s short story managed to encapsulate and tie together some key ideas about colonialism that have been bouncing around in my head over the last half of the sem.

One thing that struck me was the unspoken power of passive aggression against colonialism, embodied in the “petty” way in which the Burmese responded to the Europeans. The narrator makes it clear that these efforts are mere pinpricks, at least initially, but they do have an extraordinary effect of making him feel “imperialism was an evil thing and the sooner [he] chucked up [his] job and got out of it the better”. Often we preoccupy ourselves with a patronising sense of pity for the subaltern, the one whose voice is perpetually silenced. But the subaltern is not silent, he is active in his own way.

In fact, what was most fascinating about the story was the narrator’s epiphany of an alternative side of reality nearing the end of the story: the white man is in his own way, trapped, and perhaps, one might venture to suggest, silenced too. I could not help chuckling to myself reading about how he realises he was “only an absurd puppet pushed to and fro by the will of those yellow faces behind… when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys…”

Perhaps this is the most disconcerting truth about colonialism is not what it does to the “natives”, but the unperceived, certainly unexpected effect it has on the colonist. Something worth musing over, certainly.

Women (what women?) in _Lord Jim_.

One of the things that struck me in reading Lord Jim was the absence of women in the text. With the exception of Jewel, there are no significant women mentioned at all. Following the adventure narrative, which has traditionally privileged the male explorer anyway, this is not surprising I suppose. That being said, I’m interested in looking at Jewel. I think she is symbolic of Jim’s potential for acceptance in spite of what he has done, and yet the flipside of that symbolism is that in her importance to him and his to her, his abandonment of her represents his greatest failure. It’s almost as if his earlier abandonments following the jump off the Patna, are forgivable, or if not, at least understandable, but this abandonment is as damnable as his jump.

When he keeps quitting his jobs the moment the Patna incident is mentioned, we understand he is afraid and in some way even though it’s irresponsible, we can find some reason to excuse his fears or weakness. But when he abandons Jewel, it’s as if events have come a full circle and he is repeating events from the ship. The parallels are interesting – the passengers onboard are dependent on him for their lives, for safe passage. Likewise, Jewel now defines herself, and is protected, by Jim. When he abandons her by going before Doramin, he is doing almost the same thing, except possibly even worse given that he, in his “responsibility” for Dain Waris’s death, does this intentionally, knowing the consequences of his action, knowing he is devastating her.

The woman in the text, as represented by Jewel, is most pathetic because she is at his mercy, she could beg him to stay but he won’t. The man is empowered, even if his use of that power is arguably self-centred. It would be interesting to develop the gender argument further, although given the limits now I can’t.

The Voiceless Savage.

In Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, I was most struck by his allusion to the concept of a “voice”, a kind of tool for empowerment. To Conrad, the ability to speak and more importantly, to be understood is affirmation of one’s place and power. This is why Marlow describes his impression of Kurtz as being primarily one of “voice… of all his gifts the one that stood out pre-eminently, that carried with it a sense of real presence, was his ability to talk, his words – the gift of expression” (107). Kurtz is most powerful to Marlow as far as he is able (and certainly at this point in the novel merely imagined) to communicate. By contrast, Conrad reduces the native to a series of grunts, and in his article “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness”, Achebe makes this point most strongly: “It is clearly not part of Conrad’s purpose to confer language on the “rudimentary souls” of Africa.” (341) 

If the means to communicate is of such importance in according status to characters in Conrad’s novel, then by extension the inability to communicate (as portrayed in the “savages”) is ultimately demeaning to their position in relation to the Western “adventurers”. Conrad then does not merely participate in effectively silencing the native voice since only speakers of English receive any measure of merit in the plot, he is an active promulgator of such a message. The native is thus a victim of the silencing of his own voice since he is unable to communicate in a way that Conrad believes is necessary for any measure of status to be accorded to him. He will always be inferior to the Western narrator because he is excluded from being heard.

The Fallacy of a “Simple Truth”

Initially I struggled with reading Fanon’s chapter “On Violence” because of his insistence on engaging with binaries – good versus evil, colonist versus colonized subject. To my mind this seemed merely simplistic and over-generalised his entire argument. However, that being said, Fanon’s exposition on the nature and result of decolonisation was fascinating precisely because in generalising the colonized subject’s automatic and, indeed, necessary response to colonialism, he formulated an essentially simple and powerful argument for violence in the process of decolonisation. 

Violence, by virtue of its forceful nature, is the status quo for both establishment and destruction of colonies. The ironic, self-defeating reality of the common language of violence for both enforcer of and rebel against colonialism, is that all parties involved suffer. For all Fanon’s argument against the cruelty of the colonist which has entrapped the colonized subject even in independence, even he comes to admit the interdependence of both on one another. The colonist still needs the (ex) colony as a market for his goods, the colonized subject finds his country slipping back into regression with the withdrawal of colonial infrastructure. True “independence”, on either party’s part is then, in more ways than one, a sheer fallacy. Violence is from the very outset of colonisation, self-defeating since it only begins a cycle to establish power and assert an independence that, even if achievable in some small way initially, falls apart in the long run under the weight of its own expectations for “something better”.

 It is thus clear that Fanon’s initial argument pitting colonist against colonized subject and then uniting them with the common thread of violence still leaves us unsatisfied precisely because it is, in its simplicity, insufficient to explain the complexity of the human condition as reflected in the exercise of power through violence, whatever the intention: to enslave or to free.

General thoughts on EN4880B Lecture 3

Presentation (Hinduism in A Passage to India) 

–          Hinduism as complex, amorphous, representing relativity, very much in the same way India itself as a culture is complex and difficult to understand. Tolerance is then very important and valorised in the novel since not only is one objective truth impossible to obtain, but while each person / idea may be different, it is still part of a whole culture and therefore should not be othered.

–          Echoes in the cave: the echo always being only a semblance of reality and therefore considered evil. They are also a force beyond the control of man and have the capacity to work either for or against us, as indicated in the “dual-potential” of echoes in the novel.

–          See the pursuit of truth as the chasing after echoes in an attempt to get to the “real” truth – so is this actually possible or will we always find ourselves going in circles to discover something that cannot be found since the echoes in their persistence will always distract us from finding that one truth?

–          But then we ask ourselves, is the discovery of the truth as important as the process by which we attempt to discover the truth? Believe that to be closer to discovering the truth, to engage with the echoes and still not reach a conclusion is still valuable and worthwhile. 

Lecture (A Crisis of Political Economy)

–          discussing the relationship between Modernism and Modernity: important to bear in mind the context of changing political relations and freedom as parallel to the expansion of human thought and pursuit of the truth

–          just as man is entering modernity (through industrialisation and political liberalism), his pursuit of truth and understanding happens alongside this progress. Intellectual progress (modernism) then is part of a much bigger social (economic and political) change.

–          Yet the logical flaws in modernism as being confused with Westernisation (only the people of the West as “advanced peoples” are privileged to be Modernists) show up when we recognise the bias against foreigners and slaves

–          Modernity & modernism also gendered: only accessible to the men in society? Women considered inferior in intellect and social standing, much less economically and politically and therefore excluded from thoughts of modernity and modernism.

–          Thus at the end of the day we have the white male who stands a head above everyone else on all counts: social, political and economic progress (modernity) and intellectual pursuit (embodied in the concept of Modernism)

p.s: I apologise this is so late, I forgot to click on the publish button in my rush ):

No one truth: a matter of perception in _A Passage to India_

I found, in my reading of A Passage to India, that (either to my benefit or detriment), my reading of the Introduction by Pankaj Mishra opened, if not created, a lens by which I viewed the novel not merely as a work of fiction but as a more personal musing over the complexities of India and the absence of “outlines and horizons” (Introduction: xviii) On a personal level, this perspective was both useful and indeed, important to have, given that as a result of realising Forster’s attempt “to indicate the human predicament in a universe which is not, so far, comprehensible to our minds” (Intro: xix), I was made all the more aware that things presented in the novel are, simply put, not what they seem.

Perception and the play on one’s subjective view then become vital to our appreciation of the text, especially in witnessing the interactions between the Indians and English. One could not, to my mind, read this text without recognising undercurrents of judgment throughout every encounter they have with one another. Each judgment, in turn, is never allowed to be accepted as “truth”, for one can only judge as far as one is personally capable, and to find one truth is then to oversimplify matters altogether. Forster’s skill at presenting multiple perspectives, while to some, confusing, was, to me, perfectly in line with the complex, overlapping relationships and issues present throughout the text.

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.